Aftermath Programme Notes

Here are the cover and programme notes for my choral work from last year.

aftermathcoverv2

Aftermath explores aspects of the aftermath of sexual assault, from the personal to the official in a variety of musical styles in six movements.

Naiveté Stripped is about fear related to an incident that has just occurred, and isn’t fully realised. Musically it is influenced by Portishead. The choral arrangement explores the space between the use of the flexibility of vocal timbre as substitute instrument and writing specifically for voices.

Desiring Invisibility explores the use of modulation with modes, and uses natural word rhythms.

Realising Vulnerability builds up a sentence phrase by phrase, and incorporates strategically placed finger snaps as interruptions.

Echoes of Fear is about fear related to something that happened in the past. It builds up repeated layers as might happen with a looper, and emphasises the recurring themes in the mind, in a similar way to the line of text that states “Things go round and round in my head like the sounds a looper’s fed”.

World Cloud is a prototype data sonification of texts related to sexual assault, taking its name from “Word Cloud”, a representation of text by frequent words that characterise the text, shown in a cluster with different font sizes for different frequency levels.  For each section, the top 30 word frequencies were determined for a specific set of texts and converted to audio frequencies for the vocal range of bass low G to soprano high F#. Each vocal part is allocated an unoverlapping range of a minor sixth, and words are performed in frequency order, with each range sung simultaneously, and parts starting in order of first appearance in the text. Durations are a minimum of a quaver (usually the bass part), and other parts are scaled to approximately match the duration of the word list. The first text is a collection of resources on sexual assault.  The second is a set of letters, all but one of which were downloaded from an internet search for “letter to my rapist”.  (Rape survivors are often encouraged to write a letter to their rapist as part of their process of recovery.) The third section consists of Australian legal text related to sexual assault. The fourth takes all texts together. The coda just takes the most frequent six words across the entire text corpus. The vocal parts are supported by starting notes commencing each section, played by flute, clarinet and piano. Additional notes at strategic locations occur at starts of bars.

Hope is about overcoming fear and regaining power. The text is inspired by the victim statement from the People v. Turner case publicised on Buzzfeed.

 

Movements 1, 4 and 6 of Aftermath were originally performed as a unit of songs in popular styles under the title Songs of Fear at the RMIT Occasional Choral Society Occasional Choral Competition Concert 2016. Aftermath was originally performed as movements 2, 3 and 5 at the same concert.

The final movement, Hope, I make available for free download, with the intention that it be sung in support of victims of sexual assault, and also in solidarity with others who are marginalised, such as those from minority genders and sexual orientations.

 

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Is this my last choral work?

My recently completed works, Songs of Fear and Aftermath were performed by ROCS on Saturday. It completes an evolution of choral writing on my part. Initially most of my choral writing was quite separate from my songwriting, with a small overlap being my non-song a cappella things, and the odd silly song (Lucky Person, arranged for choir and concert band, 2001). If I consider the 3-year intervals of the Choral Composition Competition and its predecessor, I moved from setting a contemporary poet in 2004 (Pomes, now Antipomes), to the IP mess that occurred following Pomes leading me to set long-dead poets in 2007 (Daffodils, Who’s in the Next Room?), to setting a poet friend’s poetry in 2010, since I prefer working with contemporary text where possible (Rocks), and dabbling with setting my own very short text (The Dream), to an extended composition on my own very short text in 2013 (Moments), to this year’s long work set to a substantial text of my own that is partly an evolution of my songwriting.

This work brings together various threads of my art. Songwriting is there in Naiveté Stripped and Echoes of Fear. A small amount of beautiful a cappella is there in the movement Realising Vulnerability. I’m famous for rounds, and Echoes of Fear was written for one singer with a looper originally, and therefore effectively builds up like a round. Realising Vulnerability also continues an idea I started exploring with Moments, which is the building of a phrase over multiple iterations. They are a modern and more serious take on the “cumulative song” idea (eg. Twelve Days of Christmas).

Naiveté Stripped also explores the use of vocal flexibility as substitute for instruments, with the use of “dn” for piano or acoustic guitar substitute, and “wom” and “daw” for more sustained, possibly synthetic instruments. I’ve been exploring a cappella arrangements of songs originally written with instrumental accompaniment for the last five years, with the infamous “dn” syllable first appearing in my 2012 arrangement of Still Alive.

Desiring Invisibility musically continues my work from Missa Prima, in which the rhythms are very much driven by the text, leading to varying meters throughout the verses. Like many of my works, it is modal, but I extended myself more, by incorporating modulation to “related modes” in the verses.

World Cloud draws on my research in information retrieval and computational linguistics and puts it into a field I have intended to dabble in for years, which is data sonification. It isn’t quite a true data sonification, as I made a few aesthetic decisions that weren’t completely determined algorithmically, but it’s very close. My previous pieces to be influenced by information retrieval were Plummet (2000), which used the search results of the query “plummet” from a corpus of literary works as its text, and Shazam (2011), a catch with surface text about music information retrieval.

Another thing I’m famous for is catch writing, and a small number of choristers also know of my tendency to put phrases into a part that won’t be heard by the audience, but make sense to the singers of the part. I first did this in Water Songs (2011). You’re Like Water, has the melody line sing “There’s no way I can make you stay”, while the tenors sing “There’s no way I’d stay”.  Drowning, in the original SAT song cycle version, has the main melody sing “I’m drowning in an ocean of you”, while the tenors sing “I’m drowning you”. Likewise, this work has hidden messages for those who know how to look and listen.

Related to the idea of different messages being sung by different parts, is the way I constructed Desiring Invisibility in particular. I was somewhat influenced by Theodor Kipen’s game, in which those who chose male characters for the game were oblivious of the rest of the game. But it is also like a duet between two characters in an opera or musical, in which they are both expressing their own thoughts and oblivious of the other character’s. Partly due to the needs of the work, and partly a nod to the varied and ambiguous genders of modern choir tenor sections, the tenor line swaps gender here and there, in terms of which character it joins.

I have been quite driven by this work since January last year, and after completing the conducting of the entire concert repertoire in the dress rehearsal in front of the judging panel on Thursday, and knowing that the programme notes were done, I felt a sense of relief, that my work has been done. It’s out there; it’s been heard. I have no great desire to write more choral works after this, although this doesn’t mean I won’t. But I feel as though the work I was meant to write has been written. Due to the difficulty of the subject matter, it was a miracle it could be performed at all. (New composition milestone: making a singer throw up during rehearsal). It may be that only certain movements will be performed more than once. I can see Hope having a life of its own, being sung in support of the traumatised and marginalised in society. I will continue to perform Echoes of Fear occasionally on looper during gigs, and probably Naiveté Stripped when I do a gig at a keyboard, as that is how that song started. Then maybe one day someone will write a paper on the work.

A word of warning to those who believe they know what the text is referring to. It cannot be taken completely literally, as, like with my songwriting, text tends to have a life of its own, going in unexpected directions. The emotions are as true as I can write them though.

Choral Composition Competition Concert

I know I’m terrible at letting people know about things, but I have a concert tomorrow night that I think is worth telling people about.

My choir ROCS will be performing works submitted to the ROCS Occasional Choral Composition Competition. I’m conducting the concert, as well as doing a little singing and keyboard playing.
This amazing collection of music that we are performing covers a wide range of emotions from humour to joy to grief to anxiety. My own work broaches the difficult topic of the aftermath of sexual assault. Composer peers have said very positive things about it: “very effective with confronting text”, “powerful”, “intense”. It’s not for the faint-hearted though, so there will be opportunities for people to leave for the pieces they prefer to avoid, and they will be called back for the remainder of the concert.

This concert may well be the only chance to hear these works. It would be a terrible shame to miss it.

When: Saturday 15th October 7pm
Where: Green Brain Room, RMIT City Campus, Swanston Street, Melbourne
How much: $20/15
https://www.facebook.com/events/341136126226173/

Influences

After hearing Lisa Gerrard talk last month, I’ve been thinking a bit about the people who have influenced my music. I’m not unique in saying that everything in my life influences me to some extent, so it is often hard to pin down.  But then at critical moments, such as when you have a chance to hear someone speak, or when someone dies, it becomes crystal clear what their contribution has been to your growth as a musician and artist. Here are some of my such moments.

My mum, while not musically skilled herself, loved music and always had music playing while I was growing up. I would sing along to various records for children, and then later, middle of the road popular music. My parents encouraged me to buy a recorder as my first instrument.  They bought me a book on how to play it, and I proceeded to teach myself to read music and play the recorder.

My first music teacher Mrs Willis taught me the piano and music theory. She stopped me from tapping my foot while playing by doing a caricature of a blues musician with fag hanging out of their mouth.  I was very anti-smoking, so was sufficiently horrified to stop tapping my foot.

My brief attendance of Baptist Sunday school led to a sudden understanding of vocal harmony lines, as I heard one of the Sunday school teachers singing a descant a third above the melody line for the song “I am redeemed”.  I joined in, and became aware of harmonising forever after that.

My brother was not so much a musical influence, but an enabler, by including me in his garage band, going halves on buying our first electric piano, giving me my first multi-tracker and synthesizer. My partner has also been an enabler in that respect, by buying me my Ensoniq TS-10, which became an important part of my sound for my first two albums.

Some artists that influenced my sound early on included Eurhythmics (for showing me how to do pop music without guitars), Ginger Baker of Cream (how to do a drum part), Enya (broadening possibilities for my music), DeadcanDance (showing me that it is possible to have both songs and pieces on an album), an obscure UK band called The In Ovo who demonstrated the kind of thing I wanted to do with world pop. Before all that I absorbed a lot about song craft from bands like the Beatles, and a passion for variety in my music from Queen.

Later music teachers have included my singing teacher Elizabeth van Rompaey, who took me from knowing nothing about my voice to knowing how to sing well.  Also importantly, she taught me that you work at your singing technique (and song interpretation) “all your life”. It’s not really a case of getting the technique and you’re finished.

For performance, in addition to Elizabeth, I learnt much about tuning from Ian Harrison, who conducted the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic choir during my first year of singing in that choir. I continue to learn about tuning in practice, with some specific memories from Sarah Chan, and also from much stairwell singing with my duet partner Din.

For writing sheet music that reflects popular music’s syncopated rhythms I credit Kirby Shaw, who I had the chance to meet last year. His choral jazz arrangements taught me a lot.

I continue to learn more about music.  Currently I’m picking up a few useful tips via some interviews on The Music Prosperity Summit.  Maybe they’ll be useful for you too.  There’s a time limit on them though, so check them quickly.

 

Money for Nothing or Nothing for Something

A friend of mine recently blogged about preferring to give away her music, and not supporting current copyright laws, as it favours record companies over artists.  She gets lots of performances of her compositions worldwide as a result.  That’s great, and everyone has a right to make their own decisions about their intellectual property.  My personal view is different.

For quite a few centuries of Western history, there have been people employed as artists and musicians.  For the majority of that time they were employed by nobility to compose and perform.  Painters and sculptors were commissioned to paint portraits, create sculptures and so on.  The money wasn’t great, but it was possible to live on the income of an artist.   Later artists had to support themselves as best they could.  I’d like to highlight a couple of examples.

Bach is known to have neglected the duties of his day job in order to complete his great works.  Imagine what additional wonderful works we could have had if he didn’t need to balance his composition time with other duties.  The balance between composition and other duties is far worse for modern composers, some of whom I dearly wish had more composition time in their lives.

Mozart died fairly young as a pauper, with intermittent support from patrons and commissions during his short life.  Imagine what he could have produced in a longer life.

Schubert supported himself with teaching (and from what I recall, his heart wasn’t really in it).  He was already prolific and accomplished.  What else would he have produced?

There is a movement amongst musicians to establish a “musical middle class”, and I support this trend.  This refers to musicians who are not top of the charts or amateurs being able to earn a decent living, sufficient to have a home, vehicle/transport and raise a child.  Usually this involves having a combination of income sources from gigs, album sales, sheet music sales, merchandise, downloads, sync licensing and teaching.  My own music income has come from the following in descending order:

* music lessons

* sheet music sales
* album sales

* gigs
* live performance returns

* singing competition prizes

* downloads

* busking

* streaming income
If I were more active, then gigs, busking and conducting/teaching would probably be a larger portion of that.
A new trend that is worthwhile is what I would call the micro-patron, made possible via the internet on such sites as Patreon.  Historically a patron would support an artist completely.  Now, we have a system where many people can support an artist a little bit, allowing the artist to continue to provide new content for general consumption.
I’ve written about streaming income before.  I was amused at dafuq’s recent article on living on your spotify income.  It reminds me of those poverty awareness campaigns where you try to live on $2 a day.
Other ways I’ve known artists to survive and still be artists is through the dole.  I recall artist acquaintances referring to it as “government arts grants”.  It is certainly the easiest type of grant to get, particularly given the huge reduction in government spending on the arts in recent years.
Some people say that artists need to suffer in order to produce great work.  The “starving artist” is a much stated cliché.  While I agree that suffering can be inspiring, the suffering doesn’t need to be of a financial nature.  In my case it is more to do with my inner life, and I’m sure that’s the case for other artists who use their suffering as input to their artistic expression.
For now I’m not giving up my day job  (which has its own intellectual rewards), but I’m also not giving up the dream of earning enough from my artistic endeavours to cover my costs and labour.

Streaming Income

I was thinking about how most music discovery is via streaming services rather than radio these days, and how that compares for the indie musician.  For commercial radio or television, the royalties to composers is in the hundreds of dollars, but this is usually broadcast to a mass audience.  The streaming situation is different in that people can choose which tracks to listen to and the audience is one person.

Current streaming services pay copyright owners up to 2 cents per play, with many sites paying a tiny fraction of a cent.  The lower end of these rates is definitely too low, and the upper end is a rate that I consider to be reasonable.  If you imagine the purchase of a typical track for a dollar, if it is a favourite, it will be listened to hundreds of times, whereas a track that was purchased but not really liked may only get a couple of plays.  The majority of tracks would be somewhere between those extremes, so maybe at 100 plays, making it 1c per play.  So any pricing scheme that is at about 1c per play is fair.  This is only a rough estimate, but I think it’s a reasonable one.

Striking While the Iron’s Hot

I’ve often scribbled down ideas for songs, compositions and other creations, only to leave them languishing for years, possibly never to be finished.  About seven years ago I decided that I would try to actually finish the things that I started when inspiration strikes, since I wanted to capture the experiences behind the inspiration before they disappeared.  The result was many of the songs on my current album On the Rocks, as well as many other creations.

Having recently come back from Japan, I was full of memories and feelings that I wanted to process through song, text and imagery.  I have gone some way towards that goal, but find that I’m about to travel again without having finished processing my Japan memories.  I have a tight deadline, as my next trip, while it is only to Sydney, will again overwhelm me due to the intense experience that is being part of an intervarsity choral festival.  I don’t want to lose the Japan experience from my mind so soon.

On the other hand, if there is a creation that has been stalled, I can easily start it again when a matching mood hits me.  The meanings and stories may change but the mood remains the same.  Let’s see what happens when I return from my next trip.