29 October 2014
Ricketson at work: the fragile and the secret
'Being analytical about my own music is tricky. If I used adjectives, I'd say fragile, exotic, otherwordly. I think I'm melodic, but my melodies are pretty bent, often microtonal. I can be quite lyrical and romantic, others might say grotesque, perhaps.'
Damien Ricketson squirms slightly when asked to analyse his own music. But ask him to talk about the underlying ideas for some of his current and recent major works, and the composer embarks on an eloquent and thoughtful explanation.
Ricketson's work often has an overarching, conceptual starting point. The projects come together over a long gestation period involving reading, researching, listening, note-making and, over time, experimenting with accumulated ideas and fragments of music and sound. This is true of Fractured Again, a major 2010 work involving three performers from Ensemble Offspring, electronic music, glass installation and multimedia, as well as the forthcoming, still-to-be-completed music-dance project The Secret Noise. Work on The Secret Noise started almost three years ago, and typically involved indulging in a 'research binge'.
'The conceptual idea is a kind of gathering point for pulling together diverse musical sources, diverse processes, diverse materials and references. Quite often the thing that I aspire to in music is the coexistence of disparate elements. Without wanting to sound too esoteric, I love the startling clashes that can occur when different musical logics rub up against one another. I've often sought ways of bringing quite different types of musical approaches, quite different kinds of sounds together in one place, and usually there is some kind of conceptual link to justify why they were brought together', Ricketson explains.
'So, in Fractured Again I went and researched the history of glass in music - it led me down all kinds of paths, mainly to the glass harmonica, but the point more generally is that I often go on these little research binges that allow me to draw together all kinds of different things to start building some kind of cohesion out of disparate elements. '
With Fractured Again, glass was embraced as a sound source - the glass harmonica, glass panels, tuned wine glasses - but also as quotations from the repertoire written for the glass harmonica. On a more abstract level, Ricketson used glass as a metaphor that influenced his compositional technique - the 'fracturing' of the work's title could also refer to taking an existing piece of music, breaking it into small pieces and reassembling it, like a mosaic.
For his forthcoming work The Secret Noise for Ensemble Offspring - a group co-directed by Ricketson together with percussionist Claire Edwardes - the composer has again immersed himself in research. This time he was looking for music and music-making that were, for various reasons, not meant for everyone.
'I got interested in forms of music-making that may not be available for general public consumption. I grouped this kind of music into five themes: legally extinguished music, some forms of ceremonial music, music for closed cliques, music with double or hidden meanings, and personalised music.'
'There are ceremonial types of music that are withheld from certain groups in the community - for example some forms of Aboriginal music, instruments such as the bullroarer are not intended for uninitiated men, or not intended for women full stop. I also got interested in the Western chamber music tradition, which has a history of being exclusive - even today there is living-room music, you get some of the best performers in the world involved in little performances in people's private spaces. Or, if you go back to a composer like Haydn, some of his were pieces written for the exclusive pleasure of the Esterházy family...'
An intriguing mixture of musical genres, but this alone was not what Ricketson was after:
'In relation to the chamber music tradition, I was more broadly interested in the whole formation of cliques, how social groups use music as identity-commodities to exclude other people. Think of teenagers and rock bands - it's fascinating how relationships work: if you don't know the music, you're out of the circle. I started research without a particular intent, I was just curious - I often enjoy music that is not necessarily screaming at me to be heard - and then one thing just lead to another, and I found out about more examples of music practices that are withheld. Another example is the practice of hiding messages in music, Satanic messages, say. Or a work by Shostakovich - does it have a double meaning, a hidden irony or secondary meaning?'
While much of this research has led to creative responses that have found their way into The Secret Noise, not all have yielded results. This happened with one of the paths Ricketson tried to follow:
'I was interested in the increasing culture of the headphone, the iPhone generation and the experience of music becoming more private than social. If you think of music - whether in a concert hall, club, church hall, or teenagers in a garage band - it has typically been a very social activity, bringing people together. However, I always find it amazing, going home on the train, to see a hundred people sealed from each other, all in their private music worlds. Add to this the growth of personalised radio stations, algorithms that choose your playlist according to your behaviours, and we are all gradually leading our lives to private soundtracks.'
This social observation led to an experiment involving Ensemble Offspring's musicians wearing headphones, each with different instructions.
'It wasn't working, I totally ditched the idea and it turned into another piece which doesn't have headphones. I guess the point that I'm trying to make is that even if my starting points are conceptual, once they get digested through my own typical compositional processes, and when I really let sound take over and go where it needs to go, it all distances itself quite fast from these sources. At the end of the day the research is just searching for inspiration. When you get excited by some area, it gives you rationale which is the path to action.'
The Secret Noise has a strong physical side to it, with two dancers and an actor working together with three musicians. 'Actually four', Ricketson remembers. 'I'll end up playing some electronics and turntable.'
Various layers of The Secret Noise, and the
collaboration with dancers, have been tested in a creative
workshop funded through an Australia Council grant. Workshops are
something that many composers secretly dread. However, with a
project like The Secret Noise, a chance to test ideas in
practice is essential.
'Ensemble Offspring has done a few cross-artform collaborations in the past, and I have been quite taken by how, in the context of theatre and dance, they create [new works] in situ: you give a block of time, you work through improvisation, and it all comes together from there. I really like that way of working as opposed to the typical composer model, me being with a computer screen in the bedroom and handing some paper over in rehearsal. In workshops you can try things out, and find out if they work or not. The headphone example is a good one. We worked for hours with development, I tried to tweak it but I wasn't happy. It had to go.'
The Secret Noise involves purpose-built instruments remotely related to bullroarers. Why build your own instruments?
'I was interested in the bullroarer, but I was very hung up on this idea that it's not my instrument, it's not ethically okay for me to even make these instruments, certainly not to present them and play them as my own work. I was quite taken by the idea that owning a sound is about creating a timbre from scratch, you have to find your instrument, or make it yourself. So I started making my own whirly instruments - they're actually not like bullroarers at all, not acoustically similar - and some of them were just awful, but I've ended up with two instruments that I'm really pleased with, including one called the "humming cup" which I made by dismembering a kid's toy.'
Ricketson has long had an approach to composing that is close to 'research and development', involving a considerable amount of note-taking.
'I keep reams of notes, notebooks, more written word than musical - it's a stream of ideas. I often feel I don't have a particular method, instead I'm constantly trying different approaches. One is that I look for quotations - I'm not joking when I say I've ripped off everyone from Led Zeppelin and 'Stairway to Heaven' to the Beatles and Pink Floyd in this work. This is just to give me snippets of material which I then begin to screw up, slow down, write backwards, break into pieces, morph spectrally and generally orchestrate for unusual instruments and techniques. I could doodle at a keyboard or push around rows of numbers to generate initial notes and rhythms, but I prefer the challenge of manipulating existing material and playing with the symbolic associations that come with choice of repertoire and the type of distortions applied to it.
Works like Fractured Again and The Secret Noise have been conceived for and developed with Ensemble Offspring, and for another performing group to perform them as a whole would be near-impossible (some extracts of both projects are available as self-standing chamber works). In fact, Ensemble Offspring has been responsible for presenting the majority of Ricketson's new works and projects.
'I made a conscious decision, a decade ago, to throw my energies into composing for Ensemble Offspring, to develop that relationship with "your own band", a particular group, as opposed to the typical classical model of writing lots of pieces and sending them around, and then maybe you get performed. If I have a regret it's probably about giving up the violin, and I've realised that my involvement with Offspring is, in a way, something compensatory: I want to be engaged and have an ongoing and direct relationship to the apparatus that brings the music to life. Sometimes I wonder if it was the right strategy to take - it has also ended up being about a lot of administration and of course I've ended up pursuing a much larger cause on behalf of many composers. But I very much wanted to be involved with a band - you know, there are others that pursue this, the Philip Glass Ensemble, for instance. Perhaps after these concerts are over I'll be keen for some fresh collaborators.'
The Secret Noise, of course, is written very much for the artists of Offspring.
'It's good and in a way it's bad - if I lost Bree [van Reyk], for example, I'd need to find someone who is an accordion-and-drumkit-playing, dancing percussionist. With a few theatrical productions under their belt, Ensemble Offspring is very much used to being a multi-tasking group. The musicians in The Secret Noise have to navigate everything from some incredibly demanding technical work through to wild improvisation, as well as playing multiple instruments and being choreographed to some degree.'
And how much control does Ricketson maintain over his work?
'There is a lot of negotiable material - not all though, some bits I'm quite fastidious about - those tend to be the bits that are more meticulously scored. But there are some sections that are much freer, which will be created in slightly more improvised, fluid, collaborative fashion.'
The Secret Noise is not yet finished, but one thing that is certain is that, in addition to the live performances, there will be other incarnations.
'In addition to the show-length live production, there is also a vinyl EP, and a CD, and all of these are different. They are related, there are similar sounds, similar materials, similar underlying ideas, but the recordings are not traditionally scored but created in a studio environment, collecting lots of slabs of audio and arranging them, so they have different kinds of listening aesthetics. The live performance is a visual spectacle, more dramatic, it moves more quickly, while the CD is a single track almost 45 minutes long - very spacious, more ambient, obviously a studio piece.'
In tune with the underlying ideas of The Secret Noise, the live performance will offer a private, exclusive experience to its audience, where a performer works in close proximity to a single audience member and creates music and movement out of interaction with them.
'What form it will take, will depend on the artist - Claire might ask you to colour in a drawing and make a performance with handbells, while Bree may ask you to sign a card and feed it into a music box for you to hear your name as a melody, and if it is one of the dancers, it may be a more physical kind of interaction.'
Doesn't it disturb the composer to have so many open-ended elements, including the unpredictable reaction of audience members, as part of his project?
'One of the reasons that we embarked on this is that I'm quite fascinated by the idea of an open, multifaceted type of music. If you look at many smaller pieces that I've done over the last few years, a lot of them are indeterminate or open-form in some way: open instrumentation, or mobile form, or involving elements that mean no two interpretations will ever be the same,' Ricketson says.
'There is that side of me that is always fascinated in things with a multifaceted existence and in trying to unleash the creativity of the performance. It is a deeper engagement, being able to look at a work from different perspectives. The indeterminacy in this case is how the audience engages, and whether they actually engage beyond a live experience. You can come to a live concert and say, "wow that's surreal and strange" and leave it at that. Or you might say "that was surreal and strange and I'd like to know more about what that was about", get one of the CDs, and hear some of the same ideas but have a different experience.' Or even log in to an associated website including a virtual 'secret chamber' where there is the option of contributing a creative response.
© Australian Music Centre (2014) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and Editor (Communications & Resonate) at the Australian Music Centre.
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