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Friday, August 23, 2013

Working in Small Forms


Miniature. Study. Etude. Novella.  Haiku.

Across media, these forms share certain characteristics.  Brevity.  Succinctness. Focus.  A willingness to experiment.  An intensity of utterance. 
I feel drawn to these small forms.  I would often rather listen to a short chamber work than a large orchestral piece.  Contemplating a small, beautifully crafted object can be more satisfying than trying to take in a huge expanse of art.  A short poem can capture an essential truth that may get lost in an epic novel.

The reasons why artists work in small forms are probably as varied as the works themselves.  Perhaps it is a necessity of time or space.  Perhaps it is a preference for minutiae over expanse.  Maybe it is the singular focus required when working on something small.

I have at times chosen to work in small forms because my time was fragmented and sustaining a large-scale work seemed beyond me.  But more often it is the essential nature of small forms that appeals to me.  When your parameters are limited, you need to focus on what is important.  There is a particular challenge in working with constrained material as well – discovering the potential of limited means.   At the moment I am working on a series of video ‘miniatures’ - short works of sound and image that are no more than 3 and a half minutes long.  I am really enjoying the immediacy of working in this way – I can create a new work in a couple of days as opposed to a couple of weeks or months.  And the immediacy for me is also in the fact that I can hear and see the finished works as soon as they are complete – I don’t need to wait months or years to hear the works realised by performers.  Each small work poses new technical challenges and they are very much learning pieces for me, not having worked in this way before – composing the sound and image together. 

There is a long history of making small-scale studies or maquettes or etudes or samplers or miniatures, often as a preliminary or preparatory work for a more extended piece. The embroidered ‘Sampler’ is kind of test piece or demonstration or embroidery skill, a ‘small form’ that many girls and young women were expected to master in the 18th and 19th centuries, and earlier.  We have an example of incredibly fine Victorian embroidery in the form of a small, embroidered pillowcase, made by a Miss Aitken in 1851.  I am amazed at the tiny neat stitches that make my eyes ache – a rather lovely miniature demonstrating technical skill – as well as an edifying religious message! 
As a student of piano, I also remember playing many studies or etudes which were intended to develop certain technical skills but which were also often beautiful pieces in their own right. 

I like this idea or experimenting, trying things out, learning new techniques, refining ideas – with the possibility of using what is discovered in a later and possibly larger work.   But also allowing that the ‘miniatures’ or sketches have aesthetic value in them selves - whether or not they are stepping stones does not detract from their intrinsic worth or appeal.

And small forms offer the listener / reader / viewer a glimpse of something, another world. They don’t have to stay long but the experience can be as intense and the memory as long lasting.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sound and Space

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For much of this year I’ve been composing music that is traditionally notated  – I write the notes on paper and the musicians bring the notes to life in the performance.  Working this way means there is a certain distance between me and the music – I can have a reasonable idea what the music will sound like (thanks to my music notation software) but the music doesn’t really live until it is played or sung by real living people in a real acoustic space.   So it has been great to shift into the world of digital sounds (and images) for the pieces I have been working on over the last couple of months, where I can create sound worlds that are immediately realizable in a virtual acoustic space. 

I dabbled with electronic music many years ago as an undergraduate student but it wasn’t until I was doing my Masters degree in Glasgow that I had access to a digital sound studio where I could really start to explore and manipulate recorded sound.  One of my first electroacoustic (to be heard through speakers) pieces was largely built of recordings of me walking up and down stairs and unlocking, opening and closing my front door.  This wouldn’t seem to be particularly inspiring source material but once in the studio I became completely absorbed in the process of dissecting and reassembling the sounds to create my own imaginary sonic space.  Something quite magical happens when you record a space – when you listen to it later, your imagination recreates that space purely through sonic information.  I can listen to a recording of a reverberant stairwell in Glasgow while I am sitting in my study in Melbourne and feel transported back to that very particular space.  (I've written about this in more detail in a paper, 'Imagining Space Through Sound'.) There is a whole sonic subculture that deals with ‘Acoustic Ecology’ – capturing and preserving acoustic environments and creating sound scapes from these recordings.  I’ve certainly created a collection of sound works that fit into this category – I made a series of soundscapes during an Artist Residency at Bundanon (NSW) where I recorded the soundscape of Cicadas at different times of the day and a the unfolding sounds of a heavy downpour of rain.  Environmental sounds often have their own shape and structure over time, requiring little ‘composing’ of the sounds after the event.  This approach to creating a recorded soundscape is more about capturing a particular time and place. 

In other works I have enjoyed using various recorded sounds to create my own imaginary sonic space, editing and digitally manipulating sounds and combining different sonic elements to ‘compose’ a new sonic environment.  In my music theatre work ‘An Opera of Clouds’ I created a series of soundscapes that weave around the live performance elements and spoken texts of the work, taking the audience to quite a different imaginary space and creating a rich web of suggested meanings.  Most recently I have been working on a soundscape ‘accompaniment’ to a three part vocal work.  The text for the work is a Scottish Haiku that delicately captures the particular qualities of sound and light of a Scottish spring.  Having lived in Scotland for a few years, I just happened to have some lovely recordings that worked well as a sound bed for the vocal piece, evoking something of the qualities of the text and hopefully creating new layers of meaning in the work.

Sound is such a powerful way to evoke memory and create associations between what is seen and what is heard.  Combining sound and image can result in an amazing alchemy whereby the sound and the image are both transformed and enhanced.  I’ve just started working on a series of video miniatures (for want of a better description) that combine images and sounds with the intention of creating moments in time in which we can just contemplate simple elements or ideas.  There is no narrative, no ‘take home message’, just something open to the viewer/listener’s interpretation.  The first of these, ‘Remembering Water’ combines simple layered loops of video (water in a Scottish burn, with water the colour of tea) and a layered 3-part canon of a recorded viola solo from an earlier work.  The elements are simple but I am really pleased with how they work together.