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25 September 2007

Precise Ambiguities

MODART07 and the creative process

The Song Company Image: The Song Company  

With the MODART07 workshops now completed, the six participants are currently finalising the scores of their new works. The Song Company will premiere the six works at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music this Saturday 29 September. We asked Chris Williams, one of the participants, to blog about his compositional process, along with his experience of working with The Song Company and artistic director Roland Peelman during the series of workshops.

I have a confession: I have never blogged before. While having been aware of the trend for a while and indulging in the occasional reading, when I was asked to write about my MODART07 experiences for the resonate group blog, I had a sudden panic – how do I do it? I guess what I’m trying to say is ‘it’s my first time, so be gentle’.

The process of collaboration between musicians and composers is a very special one. As well as dragging us composers (sometimes kicking and screaming) from our ivory towers, it allows musicians to question and come to terms with the infinities beyond that which can be notated. Along with 6 other emerging composers, I have been lucky enough to spend the last week working with the amazing singers of The Song Company and their artistic director, Roland Peelman, as part of the MODART07 composer development project run by The Song Company and the Australian Music Centre.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Music and text have a timeless relationship, which has consequently been exploited for as long as we have had language, so stepping up to the plate for something like this is daunting. With such a limited amount of experience setting text to music, I hope it’s not too presumptuous to think I have an interesting point of view as the novice trying to find his way, all the time trying to observe the processes around him. In writing a vocal work, I have always begun with, and taken guide from the text (I’ve used the poems of Harold Pinter as the setting for my MODART07 piece). I might take days, or weeks, to consider every nuance of meaning, every line as a phrase and also every individual word in isolation. This is crucial to developing musical material that is honest to the text and developing its musical form. Every time I write text-based music – regardless of how long it takes to come to terms with the text, and no matter how well I think I understand the shades of meaning – I am invariably surprised when a certain musical gesture highlights a new depth to the text. When this occurs, it is one of the most exciting moments in the composition process.

There are both important similarities and striking differences between writing text and music. With text, we can consider meaning in real terms not just in the abstract. With music, however, one cannot say that a single note has meaning by itself, nor can a harmonised phrase evoke a static and predictable image. There is, however, as a result of these differences, a synergy that exists between music and text. While a poet might consider the implications of every individual word, workshopping with The Song Company has proved that the workings of music are every bit as subtle and fine. I’ve realised that even a single quaver, like a language of its own, possesses both denotation and implication. There is nothing imprecise about musical composition, and these workshops have reinforced a notion in which I have often taken pride (be it true or otherwise!): if we seem to talk about music in vague terms it is not because the music is imprecise but because our language lacks the precision of musical expression.

Workshopping is not for the faint hearted. As an emerging composer, I am riddled with insecurity and uncertainty every time I walk into a first rehearsal of my music. This is not to say it isn’t the most exciting time for a composer. Invariably, while you prepare for the worst, it never comes (or at least it hasn’t yet!), and the most rewarding part of the process comes when a productive dialogue is established between composer and performer. Workshopping is both inspiring and frustrating, but a skill unto itself. It is, however, a necessary part of learning about composition. You need to be able to bend, not break, and be able to maintain your creative vision against other pressures. It is important that this does not mean holding unwaveringly to every note, but assessing every piece of advice for its worth and intent. The significance of a single note can be immeasurable, but that same note in a different context can actually be malleable without affecting the overall intent beyond improving the flow of the work. Being able to balance all of these issues (and think on your feet!) are necessary for a productive workshop.

The MODART07 workshops have given me the opportunity to re-evaluate my creative process. As such, I found Brad Gill’s resonate feature article about his own creative process particularly inspiring. It interested me not only because I have had Brad as a teacher, but also because my process is quite different. I spent a lot of time considering the issues raised, and I really appreciated his clarity and ability to express abstract ideas with such intelligent and articulate discussion. That being said, I don’t agree with all of his assertions. Brad mentioned Billy Joel’s notion that ‘genuine artists don’t ask why they do what they do’, and while he confessed to being a fan, he disagreed. Without falling into a solipsistic dilemma, I think there has to be some truth to this statement and was particularly interested to hear Harold Pinter discuss his method for writing. Pinter often begins with a single image or a single line, and has no idea how it fits in to the dramatic whole. The compulsion to write is the compulsion to find the truth in this image or line and to solve it dramatically. I feel the same way about music. I write because I need to, and even if I am sometimes uncertain where a work will end, I am never searching in the dark for a light switch. I’m trying to find the truth to a musical gesture or to solve it musically. There is no uncertainty when this is found, and technique can be more important than the inspiration found in seeking this truth.

Another really interesting point that Brad raised stems from Chinese author Xingjian Gao’s quote: ‘Literature is a luxury that is only possible after issues of survival are resolved’. I like this quote because it sums up a conviction that, for me, must be true of art, but allows me to question it further. If art was only created when other issues of survival are resolved then how can we accept that a significant and stunning work like Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps was created when these fundamental issues could not be met?

While I don’t wish to answer these issues with any kind of certainty, I’d like to allow the opportunity to consider these important issues. My interest in Harold Pinter stems from his ability to question without offering definitive answers. There is an ambiguity in what he writes, and it is this ambiguity that allows for subjective truth to be considered. My music offers no answers, but I hope it offers something worth considering – shades of meaning and ambiguity that do justice to the text I have chosen.

Further Links

MODART07 (www.amcoz.com.au/projects/modart/modart2007.htm)
Gill, B., 2007. ‘Questions Questions…’ resonate magazine (www.resonatemagazine.com.au/article.php?id=5)
The Song Company (www.songcompany.com.au)
The Australian Music Centre (www.amcoz.com.au)

Chris Williams is Production Coordinator at the Australian Music Centre and studying composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He is one of the six emerging composers to participate in MODART07.


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Precise Ambiguities

The Song Company recently caught up with participants Alex Pozniak and Claire Nash to hear about their experiences of the MODART workshops. You can read the interviews here:


Yes...No but Seriously...

And so I come to post this note following Modart07, a few months down the track in December. I am now in the Netherlands, settling in to a new project, a new line of thought, an expedition into another realm of unchartered territory. From here, wondering with anticipation where my new piece will take me, I can look back to my recent interaction with the Song Company and shed light on my experience, reflecting on where that piece took me.

Every voice is like no other voice in the world. The voice reflects the personality and individuality of each singer. No standard rules about what does and does not work for the voice apply, give or take a few obvious things such as the approximate range and register of each type of singer. Some things work for some people and some things do not.

One thing that is for certain is that the voice is not an instrument but a part of someone's body. When writing for the voice it is more about the person you are writing for and the capabilities of that individual. That is why collaboration with singers is essential in developing the work.

It is exhilarating on meeting singers for the first finding what their capabilities are. These experiences are always full of colour and life. I have learnt recently, when working with performers and in particular singers that it is important to have at least a couple of workshops. I like to leave a little openness in the score so that I may tailor the piece to fit the group, a little like tailoring a new suit to fit an individual. I find this an exciting way of working because you are always surprised and the performance is always alive and I nearly always discover something new.

There are a number of issues that must be considered when writing for voice. Inevitably one must consider whether or not to use words. Through history and tradition the voice travels hand in hand with communication through words . With the right words, the music writes itself. There are many glorious and beautiful poems and prose from all ages which may be used by composers as a vehicle for their music.

You may think that because there are so many options that it is easy to find a suitable text. From my experience I find it one of the hardest things in the world for the following reasons. By using text by a famous writer you are immediately placing yourself in line with their philosophy and assuming a place in line with their canon. This imposes a responsibility to understand the context of the writer and text. The meaning of every single syllable must be stewed over to the nth degree.

It is hard to find words that express exactly what you are yourself feeling and wanting to communicate. There are so many different types of writers expressing as many different points of view. As I get older I find this becomes easier, having that much more experience I can embrace the sentiments of other writers to express my personal thoughts and emotions.

It is special finding a piece of poetry or prose that speaks to you directly. When it does you can immediately hear the music. It is inherent in the words.It is necessary to really search for that text and keep searching until it happens.You can never force a text to be the right one.

Another option is to write your own text. Many composers are also talented writers and write their own lyrics. As long as the quality of the words matches the quality of the music there is no questioning this possibility.

One thing that was really brought home to me in collaborating with the Song Company is the amazingly versatile palette of colours available to the voice, which if used carefully can create stunning results; living colours.

One thing that I was particularly interested in was exploring the singers' approach to tuning. The voice is not tuned to a standard equally tempered scale as standard instruments such as the piano and guitar. One would expect it to be easy to simply change the tuning system. I believe this to be possible but only if the singers have many spare hours at there disposal to learn this new system by heart.

It was interesting to see the creative process in action and observe the development of each of the pieces over the course of the weeks. It is quite an unusual experience to sit through an open rehearsal involving the development of other composers works.

Each composer has a very individual style and approach, which is sometimes clarifying and perhaps sometimes an obstruction for the working process. It is one thing to understand the composer's point of view and another to work out how to perform a piece in its best possible light. Having said this, it was an excellent educative opportunity with a memorable final performance and new friends all around.

Thank you to the Song Company for inviting us in to the working process on such an intimate level.

MODART08 broadcast

MODART08 works were broadcast last Saturday night on Julian Day's New Music Up Late Program on ABC Classic FM.

You can listen to the pieces online here.