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!