Thoughts on musical experiences, my own works, and who knows what else.
Mark and Barry from Radiophrenia have been perennial presences in my composing life. I have never met these two, but every year I submit my latest works to their Radiophrenia Festival call-out, by humble email. I have come to really value these small interactions, the hints of friendly humour that I’ve caught from their replies, as well as the offerings of the Festival itself. Naturally, I was overjoyed when the pair asked me whether I would write an original work for the 2020 Festival in March (and again in August, when their delayed funding had been received)! This commission was a sign of hope that 2020 would not be a creative waste for me. Teaching others to compose and enjoy electroacoustic music was a joy, but I wasn’t doing much of my own writing. The Radiophrenia deadline was a few months away, floating like a lighthouse beam across the hazy future of August, September, and most of October. Plenty of time to think up a groundbreaking work!
After carefully mapping out the work, selecting my field recordings to work with and composing an excellent, light-hearted story to shape the music around…I began the work once, twice, and then a third time. Each time, up to ten minutes of music was scrapped as I loaded up the same field recordings anew, and tried to take them in a different direction. Another day of work, and only 20 seconds of new music to show for it. Why was this so hard?
It wasn’t a motivational problem. I’d spent the better half of a year teaching my students methods to deal with creative block, exercises they can do with any field recording to get their minds flowing. I think rather than a lack of inspiration, what I felt was pressure - a need to get this right for the people who had been generous enough to believe in me. This was for money, after all.
Another source of frustration came from the fact that my normal approach to composition wasn’t enough for me this time around. I had just finished teaching a course which taught students multiple ways to approach composing with sound - including techniques which I wouldn’t normally adopt in my practice. But when you get to know a concept or practice well enough to teach it, it stands to reason that you begin to appreciate it. Things I never thought I would be interested in within my own music, like organised tonality, chord progressions and melodies (if you’ve heard my work before, you’d understand how a musician can somehow avoid these things).
But now I knew too much; could see how things like sampling, pitch, harmony could apply to my work and enhance it. I couldn’t adopt the same approaches without feeling like I was missing out on my full potential; but as the deadline rushed forward, I didn’t have the time I needed to adequately experiment with my newfound voice. I was stuck in limbo! Not content to remain the same, but too green to pull something totally rhythmic and tonal. Finally, I found my footing by sampling an old recording of a tubular bell, using this to construct a melody which reflected the resonance of my ambient field recordings. A foot hold! I clawed my way through the work, becoming surer of my steps as I was able to form a structure, walk away, come back later and fill it out.
I turned in that piece last Friday - 10 minutes shorter than anticipated, but complete. I was at least proud of what I’d done, but I knew it was a first step toward a new, evolved voice. Now, I’m excited for what it signifies: growth! But I need time to figure out what that looks like, and sounds like. I think I need a few months to experiment with my new sensibilities, and hopefully I will know when it’s time to start something in earnest; when I can confidently embrace the new.
If you’d like to hear the product of these struggles, and tune in to the ALWAYS amazing Radiophrenia Festival, you can find out more here!
I’m happy to say that my beloved duo of The Shimmering Haze and Scrapes and Sighs have gained THREE more outings via various online avenues.
Following on from Jesse Austin-Stewart’s Multiple Monophonies installation (Massey University, Feb 2020), composer and contributor David Currie has housed binaural recordings of all the included works on this funky new website called Multi Mono. Check it out: https://multimono.space
PAIRING WITH PEZALOOM
LaTrobe Regional Art Gallery in Victoria, Aus, have created an awesome online project which pairs musical works with select visual artworks from the Gallery collection. I was lucky enough to have Scrapes and Sighs paired with the still, melancholy photography project of artist Pezaloom. It is an interesting visual accompaniment to my work which truly gives it a new interpretation. You can check it out here: https://latroberegionalgallery.com/project/alexis-weaver-pezaloom/
ACMC 2020 LISTENING ROOMS
Both The Shimmering Haze and Scrapes and Sighs have been selected to feature in the ACMC2020 Conference via their online “Listening Rooms,” taking place online at 8am July 6th and 9th. This is a wonderful breakfast hour of new music from composers around the world and I can’t wait to start every morning next week by listening to exciting new electronic works. More info here: www.acmc2020.com
ARS ELECTRONICA FORUM WALLIS FESTIVAL 2020
Finally, both works have been given Highly Commended mentions in the Art Electronica Forum Wallis 2020 Music Festival Acousmatic call-out (try saying that three times fast). While neither work will be programmed in the live festival, you can still catch them as part of the official YouTube video compilation, with more information released soon.
…And with that, I am officially sick of these pieces! It’s really time for me to create some new music.
As for everyone else, it has been a bloody weird year so far. I am lucky not to rely on my music to make my money (though it’s depressing as well, in a way) - and my normal workload has increased, if anything. As a result this has been a quiet time, featuring little composition work. I feel a bit lost, without the certainty of deadlines and haven’t yet figured out how to motivate myself to create music without it. While there has been no new creation, there has been much up-cycling of older works:
Paranoia in the Bush now appears on the New Weird Australia compilation. The first release from the NW team in 5 years, this is a double release of 26 tracks from a diverse and intriguing range of home-grown artists. It’s available on Bandcamp for whatever price you wish to pay! https://newweirdaustralia.bandcamp.com/album/new-weird-australia-solitary-wave-in
Scrapes and Sighs is now featured as part of LRG Online, LaTrobe Regional Gallery’s new digital gallery, as a companion soundtrack to photography series Long after love left by Pezaloom. LRG have provided a wonderful explanation of why these works are paired. It was so interesting to hear someone else’s take on the work and how it speaks to them. https://latroberegionalgallery.com/project/alexis-weaver-pezaloom/
I also performed an improvised soundscape as part of the Hibernation Lo-Fi festival. Hibernation is perhaps the most creative and valuable event to come out of this quarantine, and celebrates musical experimentation and failure in real-time! I very much enjoyed this foray into a live soundscape ambience. You can watch the result on the Hibernation web page, alongside many other amazing live streams. https://www.hibernationfestival.com/live-stream-experiments?fbclid=IwAR29mgnUwBzQVnn4me2Q-LDQby0yeKgw41X2-batGoP7Sj9-ypB-EYsoTjk
A belated Happy New Year. What a tough start it has been for a lot of people - my family included, after two evacuations from the South Coast and some tense periods of waiting to see if fire claimed homes or beautiful creative spaces such as Bundanon Trust.
I still was able to find some joy and focus in January, by heading over to New Zealand for what I termed a two-week "sabbatical" - which was really just enjoying a cool new country while furiously writing my thesis and also visiting my friend, composer Jesse Austin-Stewart in Wellington. Jesse asked me to create a 12-monophonic-channel work for his installation at Massey University, Multiple Monophonies (which was a great success by all accounts). You can listen to the final product, Scrapes and Sighs, in stereo version (loudspeaker or headphone mix) here.
In other very exciting news, I submitted my Masters thesis for examination. Now begins a 6-week long wait for feedback, and then possibly a few more weeks of editing. It has been a 24-month journey to this point with many trials along the way, but I am very proud of what I have produced in my research and music. I'll be sharing a link to my finalised research on this website when it has finished cooking. In the meantime, you can head over to my other page to listen to my portfolio works!
ANTI-MATTER ALBUM LAUNCH
On December 1st, my amazing Masters supervisor Benjamin Carey is launching his new album, Anti-Matter (released by Hospital Hill) at 107 Redfern. I will be presenting two (2!!) fixed media acousmatic works at the launch, peppered in between live sets from Nicholas Meredith (whose work under the Kcin moniker is incredible. Do yourself a favour and rock out to extremely fresh, grungy drum and electronics tracks) and Ben. As Ben said to me during a recent meet-up, it’s not often that you get to hear fixed media electroacoustic works outside of an academic context, especially on the same platform as performed works. For once, I am feeling ready to present my work to the world with one almost completely done (an arduous 12 minute work I’ve been slaving over since May 2018), and…one I haven’t written yet.
In two weeks, I am hoping to devise a whole presentable work. I am currently gathering sounds, tossing up themes and structures, with the hope that next week I will be able to launch myself into the composing. The work will be presented slap bang in the middle of both live sets, so I want to create something which acts as a sonic palate-cleanser - something which allows people to re-set and ready themselves for the synth mayhem to come. Stay tuned for updates!
T-MINUS 3 MONTHS
In about a week, I will be 3 months away from sending my thesis off to the rabid (not really) examiners and putting my trust in my ahem, diligent efforts of the last 2 years. At this point, I feel like I finally have time to take stock of all I have learnt and start to ponder on what happens next. While I would like to continue in academia eventually, I am looking forward to taking a “gap year” of sorts after 19 years of education.
My identity has always revolved around my academic successes, so I am looking forward to exploring how I go in the “real world” as an employee and a composer. There are collaborations that I have had to put aside and even new technologies and skill sets that I haven’t had time to master (in case prioritising that impacted on my studies). It seems ironic that I’ve had to pop a rain check on learning things…for the sake of my formal learning!
PURE COMPOSING TIME
The next few months will be about sharpening up my Masters portfolio, revisiting 2018 works and composing 2 final pieces. While two will be presented at Ben’s album launch, the final will hopefully be performed at the beginning of 2020.
Rather than complete one of the many works which still need editing, mixing or FINISHING, I am taking on a new project: composing for tape and live snare drum. For the last few years I have largely been interested in acousmatic and radiophonic music, and exploring how these genres can be made more accessible and portable through small diffusion technologies and embracing non-ideal listening spaces (want to know more about that? Wait until November).
Now, I’m writing for monophonic loudspeaker and snare, which I hope will interact like two live performers do. You don’t often hear about audience members grumbling that they weren’t seated in the “sweet spot” at an acoustic gig. Rather than having a performer play amongst stereo or large diffusion sound, the mono speaker might act a little more like another solo player. Hopefully, this results in each audience member receiving a unique listening perspective regardless of where they are seated, and mitigates the risk of everyone bar one or two listeners missing out on the full stereophonic effect that the composer intended.
Many exciting thoughts and concepts to test out here! However, this piece came with many more challenges than my optimistic mind could have comprehended.
After four years of not writing for live instruments, it feels a little as if my brain has been rewired. When I think of the music I want to bring into reality, I see sound waves and track segments as building blocks of a larger texture, rather than notes running across a stave. This realisation came with a bit of dismay; it was going to be a long journey back to the world of written scores. While I am getting re-acquainted with notated rhythms bit by bit, it does feel like learning a long-forgotten language.
One of the great attractions of fixed media electroacoustic composition is control. While every aspect of my music was easily turned into the finished product by moving blocks of audio around a DAW workspace, I no longer have the immediate aural confirmation anymore. For this reason, workshopping the new work with a live performer and hearing my ideas turned into sound has been crucial for me. This middle step has helped to bridge the gap between my understanding of sound and a performers’ knowledge of the written score.
While that may sound promising, do not be fooled: a great work of art, this is not yet. The long-forgotten uncertainties which come from instrumental composition have been stirred up again, and old insecurities about my place in music have returned. This piece is not ‘good’ just yet. I am constantly temped to compose a whole new electroacoustic work, then delete bits that can be substituted with the snare drum.
But this is lazy, and not a good way to integrate two very different sound sources to make a cohesive whole.
The benefits of having a patient, compassionate workshopper cannot be extolled enough. My percussionist has not only put up with my percussion-writing inexperience, but has painstakingly improvised off half-baked sound-bites, gone through the notations for different timbral effects within the same technique, and listened to my tape draft, making wise suggestions for what he might do to respond to the existing material.
I have had to admit that this work is not my creation alone, but a collaboration, a compromise between what I want and what can be achieved and is pleasurable to perform. New music is increasingly collaborative, and the crucial role that performers play in the development of works is becoming apparent. The fact that I collaborate, take on ideas from my performer, does not make this work any less mine, but extends that authorship to my performer as well. And that is how it should be.
I think I am beginning to enjoy this relinquishing of control. Rather than taking away from what I bring to the work, we each bring our individual musical experiences and pool them to make a much more valuable musical thing.
Watch this space, there are many more challenges and successes (I hope!) to come.
It has been a long time since I’ve checked in to write a reflection (or even look at my website!). The final weeks of the university semester involved marking approximately 140 assignments, finishing up tutoring, and preparing for a micro-festival at work. In between all that, my research and my music got put on hold for at least a good month. Yikes!
I made a conscious decision to put my personal music aside during this time, and focus on completing my immediate obligations well. I decided that I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it, or even THINK about what I was putting off, until after I’d met all my deadlines. And honestly, it worked quite well! It’s okay to take a break from your overall goals, even with a faraway deadline starting to loom. I’ve come through the other side, gained some peripheral experience and a newfound drive and inspiration to complete my projects.
Part of that came from attending the Australasian Computer Music Conference at Monash University last week, organised by Lindsay Vickery. This was combined with the TENOR Conference, organised by Cat Hope. Seeing academics present in both fields was an unexpected treat for me, usually so mired in my non-notational sounds; being reminded of the various ways in which we record music and prompt others to interpret made me think about how I communicate my music. Is there space for my practice to grow? I love thinking about sound in terms of texture – maybe I should start producing interpretive scores to go along with my work?
Anyway. I also presented on my thesis topic – embracing Small Diffusion and composing for the Non-Ideal Listening Situation. I’ve incorporated some new concepts into my research lately, and it was lovely to hear peoples’ genuine interest and feedback on my work for the last two years, and even comment on and grow the ideas I’d put forward. Stay tuned for more in-depth explanations soon!
So after arriving back in Sydney, one week before semester starts, I have some goals which I want to share publicly (if only to make me answer to them when demotivation hits):
It’s quite daunting, trying to pick up everything from where you left off. It’s much easier picking up one thing at a time, than trying to get everything off the ground at once (unless you’re deadlifting, I guess). My first step is to get back into a mindset where I know what I’ve achieved, what I must do, and creating simple steps to get there. That’s why I started with this reflection; to take stock of where I am, and put my future goals within the framework of my past/present.
This article was original published in ADSR Zine, April 2019 edition.
Last year, I travelled interstate to an art gallery. I was excited to hear some stereo works of mine diffused alongside a collection of other electroacoustic pieces. This installation-style octophonic diffusion would take place in one of the gallery’s front rooms. The works ran on a three-hour loop that listeners could dip in and out of as they desired.
Alone at first, I sat on a padded bench placed in the centre of a cool, white room. Arranged at regular intervals around the walls were eight high-quality speakers. A small black screen announced the title of the current piece in bright white capital letters. Just enough visual information to contextualise the listening experience.
When your ears are primed to listen in a 360-degree field, you become hyper-aware not only of the incredibly designed sound bursting in the air around you, but of:
In the quiet moments, the hum of the air conditioning moved into the foreground of my awareness. I realised I could differentiate between ambient sounds designed to be perceived as far away in the music, and the dull roadwork noise which bled into the room from the street. As a staunch headphone supporter, I was unused to the subtle sense of distance between myself and the sound source, located approximately 2 metres away in every direction. I left after two hours of impressive electroacoustic diffusion, having come at just the wrong time to hear my own work.
Every reasonable effort had been made to minimise disturbance to the listener; in effect, to make this an ideal listening space. These seemingly small factors were enough to periodically pull me back from complete immersion in the music, even though in other situations, I will happily listen to the unedited, imperfect cityscape with my eyes closed and a smile on my face.
So why did this experience give me a case of the slight irks?
Was I being overly fussy? Most likely. But in a world where smartphones, online dissemination and solo listening is increasingly common, I think my inability to focus on designed sound within the world’s larger, permanent cacophony is not rare. This listening environment insisted, “You cannot hear anything but the composed music!” while infiltrating the same space as those outside world sounds. I don’t believe that the key to creating an ideal listening space (which is subjective anyway) is to hide music further and further away from the world, but to embrace and prepare for the non-ideal listening space. Not ignoring the world around us, but working with it to enhance the musical experience you give your listener. Music for buses? Sure. Compose it in a way that works with the percussion of the bus doors, the bubbling of conversations, but also accounts for the peaceful silence of an empty bus ride. Maybe people will be less likely to crank the volume up too high, trying to drown out the world. But that is a whole other article.
Composing for the non-ideal listening space extends not only to the content, but the dissemination method.Composing for headphones has been successfully explored by many, using spatial and recording techniques to evoke a realistic image of the listener within a certain space. Composers can also subvert this reality, placing the sounding space within the listener. Bernhard Leitner’s 2003 album Kopfräume gives the goose bump-inducing effect of drums rolling joyously around the interior of one’s skull. This use of in-head acoustic imaging demonstrates that the ideal listening space can be, literally, all in your head.
I have an almost exclusive interest in composing stereophonic and monophonic works for what I term “small spaces.” That is, stereo or mono works which are diffused over monitors or through headphones to create intimate, immersive experiences for individuals. This term can also encompass the size or feel of a listening space; whether that is the passenger seat of a car, a train, a tiny office or a bedroom. The worlds which can be conjured between two speakers (or indeed, headphones) is an endless source of curiosity for myself as a composer. While often seen as a stepping-stone to mixing for surround or other large diffusion methods, I truly believe that these spaces can be treated as effective end-points for acousmatic works, that creatively challenge the composer to conjure a universe between two ‘walls.’
While music can bring people together, arguably like nothing else, it can also be a profoundly intimate and personal experience. Music gifts people the ability to escape reality and immerse themselves in another world. As a sound artist, headphones are a way to extend that ability to more listening spaces, both non-ideal and easily accessible. My new work, Paranoia in the Bush, was composed on and for headphones, using field recordings drawn from the Bundanon Homestead in the Shoalhaven. The work features the sounds of vast green fields, a humming forest, the playful splash of river water; however, these are all transferred to inside the cranial cavity, creating a strong sense of introspection that cannot be translated to speakers or shared with others in the moment. I’m hoping that rather than use headphones to isolate, I am simply bringing awareness to the gallery space within.
Alexis’ work can be heard as part of lost+sound’s pop+up ii event, taking place on May 25that ARCHIES in Jubilee Park, Sydney.
It is universally acknowledged that every human who has ever needed to save something digitally…Will eventually realise that they shouldn’t have put off backing up everything.
My big I’m-An-Idiot moment came while on my residency at Bundanon Trust, when my (admittedly cheap) hard drive decided that it was going to elope with all my most important project files and never come back. It also invited along my entire sound bank (six years’ worth of field recordings, processed sounds with no discernible source and some very nice synth recordings from MESS).
Sounds can be re-recorded. The real heartbreak was realising that I had never exported a recent copy of a work I’d spent all of 2018 on but not yet finished, and a 5-minute work that I’d finished that morning.
As with all elopements, it ruffled feathers. A teary visit to the IT shop. More tears once it became obvious my hard drive probably wouldn’t return from its honeymoon. More tears upon learning that advanced data recovery options were likely to cost hundreds, if not eventually thousands.
Determined that this hard lesson would be learnt, I got to work.
SALVAGE WHAT YOU CAN
I made a list of all the things I had potentially lost, and all the things that had been haphazardly backed up via cloud storage, other hard drives, or even preserved through streaming services. After scouring every corner of my digital history, it came down to losing a few years’ worth of photos, my historical project files (oh well, I was never going to get around to re-working them anyway) and the two live projects. For the most part, my portfolio was unharmed. Phew.
LEARN FROM BEING AN DIGITAL IDIOT
That same afternoon, I purchased another two (admittedly also cheap) hard drives and additional cloud storage, then uploaded absolutely everything I still had to all three. If I back up each after every session (a matter of seconds), I have three identical copies of my current data, two physical. A clunky solution, but also convenient in some ways; I can leave the house with one, or no hard drives, and know that I have everything I need so long as I consolidate the other as soon as I get home. If one fails, the other is there. If both fail, I have the cloud. If I have slow Wi-Fi, my current work is still backed up.
WRITE YOUR DAMN COMPOSITION NOTES
I write this post approximately a month after The Elopement, on the verge of finishing the second rendition of the 5-minute work I lost. Approaching this task, I was devoid of the emotional energy to do so. However, once I began, I realised that the copious reflections, diagrams and even brainstorms I made on good old-fashioned paper allowed me to recreate the ambience, structure and even sound content of the work. Dare I say it…Easily.
Not only is the act of writing meditative and grounding, but these days you’re probably less likely to lose your work due to water or fire than you are to a hard drive failure. Write often, write badly, and then be surprised at how much it can jog your memory about your own composing process.
ENJOY THE SMUG SENSATION OF SECURITY
I am almost ready to pop this piece out into the world now. While I’m kicking my former self, this has been a necessary learning curve. I’ve consolidated my back-up process, I’ve created a work that has been doubly-considered and is probably better for it. Paranoia in the Bush is a work which celebrates the uneasy sensation of being watched while bushwalking in deep wilderness.
I like to think that my hard drive and my lost data are out there somewhere, holding hands and watching my personal growth fondly.
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).