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.

 

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.