January is already well established, so it seems like a good time to take stock of 2018. While there were some proud musical successes, there were many more instances of pulling my hair out in front of my computer screen. If asked to name one defining phrase to sum up 2018…It’s “writer’s block”.
Or more specifically, composer’s block. I like to think that it afflicts even the most prolific of my peers from time to time.
Last year, it was a common occurrence for me to find myself with only an hour or so of solid composing time per day. This often came at the end of a work day, after dinner (it’s impossible for me to function on any higher level while hungry), just when I was hoping to fling myself into bed and not think any creative thoughts for the next eight hours. As a young 20-something with no dependents, I can only imagine what juggling work, study, creativity and caring for a family must be like. Does it only get worse from here?*
Rather than quake at the thought of another year spent forcing myself to write mediocre minutes, I am attempting to develop a process to ward off writer’s block. While this particular method may not work well for everyone, I’ve discovered that following a few quick physical and mental steps tends to re-frame whichever task I’m hoping to achieve and renew my focus. At least for ten minutes or so, which is often enough to leave you feeling like you’ve at least achieved something productive with your time.
So, what is the best way to overcome writer’s block in the short-term (while working towards better planning, focus, and motivation in the long-term)?
For me, it starts with backing away from the laptop (or the manuscript, or the instrument), closing my eyes, and taking some deep, yoga-like breaths. Often when composing, my brain becomes so saturated with the tiny section of sound I am working on that it becomes hard to hear where it fits into the work's overall structure. I liken this to smelling coffee in between testing different perfumes; reset your senses, so that when you’re ready to come at the work again, you can appraise it objectively.
LISTEN - DON’T LOOK
In her Treatise on Writing Acousmatic Music on Fixed Media, Annette Vande Gorne makes an important point:
“The audio result...may even be the opposite of what the eye sees on the mixing board.” While she is talking about analogue tape techniques here, the same rings true for the computer screen. Stop looking. Close your eyes, and ask yourself, "does this sound as good as it looks?" Vande Gorne drives the point home with,“focus on the loudspeakers, immersed in the sound rather than paying attention to gesture or the computer screen...Mix in interrelation with sound, not its visualisation!"
I often find when I cut out my sight, I can hear which phrases need more time to breathe. I now make a habit of listening to the whole work before making changes, perhaps writing down notes on paper as it progresses. Again, this gives me the ability to re-contextualise that small niggly section, and see what the work needs done holistically.
GO BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
Sometimes it's worth pulling yourself out of the sound bog and doing away with that sense altogether. Before I start a piece, I tend to write or draw some sort of mind map which helps me to focus on the theme or feel I want. Returning to this planning stage in the middle of a piece seems to work just as well. For one person, this might involve pictures: illustrating texture, a scene you want to evoke next, etc. For me, writing down the feel, timbre and texture I'm aiming for in words seems to work best. I've been known to write down lists of onomatopoeias and adjectives and call this 'planning' - but hey, whatever works. When I'm once again ready to listen back to my work-in-progress, attempting to draw the existing and future structure gives perspective, and often clarity.
KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP
This doesn’t necessarily mean walking away completely. If now is just not the right time for you to compose, there are numerous other associated activities which deserve your time and effort.
*If you want to read more about the increased obstacles to creativity and income that female composers with families face, there are plenty of detailed resources which have been released in the past couple of years; you can start with my article here).
On the verge of creating the first work involving a traditional Western instrument in 3 years, I find myself reflecting on one of the most successful instrument+tape collaborations I’ve ever come across - Transient Landscapes by Leah Barclay.
The album involves collaborations with numerous instrumentalists from around the world, pairing their performance with beautifully pure soundscapes from their local area, collected and composed by Barclay.
Barclay’s ability to process abstract and natural sounds and make them meld seamlessly into instrumental music is extraordinary. Her fascination with waterways is very clear from all her works, but especially in this album dedicated to the rivers of the world, and the people and animals that depend on them. Everglades (2012) is over too quickly. Plucked guitar harmonises with gentle water splashes, picked up via hydraphone. It’s hard to pick a favourite out of the collection, but this may be mine. Han River, a much longer work based on the Korean waterway of the same name, uses snatches of voice, drums, bells to reflect how waterways not only inspire raw existence, but culture and community. The 15-minute work oscillates between meditative and energetic, even using snatches of voice as another layer of texture and meaning, but always the essence of the water bursts through.
With Leah’s innate ability to conjure a certain landscape, using both sounds drawn and inspired by place, it is hard not to feel a pull to create something in a similar vein. A few days ago, my artist neighbour said, “residencies are places where you can make mistakes freely.” While I’m hoping it won’t be a mistake, I picked up my flute this morning and began to experiment with random notes, recording everything and noting which accidental phrases resonated. I’ve recorded flute clicks, my laptop keyboard, bird call, and when everything cools down a little bit in the early evening, I’ll gather some field recordings on the short strip of beach on the Shoalhaven river. Armed with these tools, I plan to make a work which reflects Bundanon, the Shoalhaven river, and the many different faces it presents to its human visitors.
As I write this post, a light rain waters the bright green grass outside my artist studio. I can hear faint grunts and rustlings from the wombat who lives in the artist complex; he has come out of hiding to chew on the grass outside my door. I attempted to record him earlier, but as I approached him with my hand-held recorder, he gave me an extremely human glare before trundling off to a safer spot over on the other side of the plaza.
Having the space and time to enjoy these small encounters, to explore the relatively uncharted bush, to allow ideas (good and bad) to float over to you like a lazy current in the nearby river, is a privilege. I have been allotted two weeks in the idyllic Bundanon Trust Artist in Residence complex, to turn my time to whatever creative pursuits I deem necessary. There is no deadline, no expectation of producing a new masterpiece. Just time to create, reflect, and then hopefully create some more.
After just under 72 hours here, I feel like I have been more focused, more inspired and more driven to create and think than I have in all of the past year. Having a period of time uninterrupted by studies, employment, or even the pressure to catch up with friends and family is rare for artists, who often rely on secondary employments(s) to get by. This is my first artistic residency, and I am already gobsmacked by the difference it has made to my creative mindset.
I've knocked over life and work admin, attended to some much needed planning for composer collective lost+sound, started a new radiophonic work and begun thinking about three others. I've made a dent in my thesis reading list, and have even found the time to do some writing. I've been lost in the bush, had a stand-off with some very muscular marsupials, and found peace at one of the Shoalhaven river's hidden beaches for an hour or so.
If this is Day 3, I can't wait to see how I feel on Day 14.
3 miniatures for headphones (2018) is a triptych composed for a specific non-ideal listening space. In this instance, the work was installed around a concert space, for audience members to listen to as they desired during the concert interval. Before writing these short, one-minute acousmatic works, I knew the following of the eventual listening space:
3 miniatures were thus created to work within these decidedly non-ideal parameters. Certain acousmatic explorations, such as extremely soft dynamic levels, had to be discarded due to their likelihood of being undetectable. What I term “obnoxious” use of other techniques such as extreme spatialization, strident frequencies and rapid switches between textural states, prioritized.
For obvious reasons, the work would need to be experienced through high-quality, close-backed headphones. Thus, the listening becomes an intimate, individual experience.
A short, sharp structure was chosen to capture the audience’s fleeting attention. Each miniature is complementary, yet autonomous; the listener is free to listen to one or three before re-joining their companions.
To take the challenge of the non-ideal listening space further, the 3 miniatures were burned onto a cheap CD. To hear the works, the audience member was instructed to put on the provided headphones and press play on an unassuming, mid-2000s CD player. The method of delivery imparted a subtle crackle, settling like a layer over the existing sound. Interestingly, rather than masking the sonic detail, this added a new layer of depth which threw each sound object into stark relief. The noise layer also added the missing link between the works, filling what would otherwise be dead silence between each track.
Miniature 1, in particular, was composed to demonstrate extremes of stereo panning. The sound objects are often edged with high frequency content, and very immediate in the foreground - both qualities which allow the material to be better heard in non-ideal listening situations. The fast and urgent feel of the work is exacerbated by sharp cuts between different textures, and heavy use of a manual cut-and-paste technique. This technique in particular is exploited to create everything from smooth, linear volume ramps to disjointed call-and-response passages between the listener’s ears. Recordings of various wooden toys have been used in their raw and processed states to create the contrasting textures within the work.
The next two pieces show a steady increase in the amount of pitched content, with miniature 2 the next step in the progression. With a more meditative feel, this work features many instances of emergence and disappearance. A shifting, ringing background fades in and out of the listener’s focus, while sustained textural lines burst into existence and gradually dissipate. Subtler panning and reverb greatly increase the sense of depth, opening up the narrow sounding space established by miniature 1. The fore-and background sound objects commune with each other in a version of the call-and-response technique heard in miniature 1.
Miniature 3 is the only piece to feature traditional musical instruments: piano and voice. Both are distorted, warped, to give this final movement a jumpy and dream-like quality. The miniature combines traits from its predecessors. There are many instances of the cut-and-paste technique, at different distances from the listener in the sounding space. A recurring piano tone weaves in and out, taking on different textural forms. The piece builds on the sense of depth established in miniature 2, and adds an eerie sense of “the uncanny valley” via its mobile, floating voices.