Saturday, 26 March 2022
This is a project between Scott Mc Laughlin (composer), Shelley James (glass artist), where the complex structures of glass and sound are revealed, magnified, and interlaced in performance by interpreting them as dynamic graphic scores. Initial development was with cellist Seth Woods, and more recently with bassist Dominic Lash. By shining focussed light through complex glass structures, we reveal the grain and cording of the glass, amplified by light refraction, producing beautiful caustics on both surrounding walls and on sandblasted glass 'scores'. The glass rotates very slowly to allow a dynamic shifting of patterns, which is then interpreted by the performer as a quasi-graphic score. One approach to this interpretation is to consider the spectral splitting of sound as analogous to the caustic/refractive splitting of the light through the glass. Seth's performance refracts the cello string by splitting the spectrum of the sound, revealing its own inner partials and structures as a reflection of the visual.
Our current phase of the project is carry out some formal investigations on the behaviours of our existing glass, and formalise the musical mappings, towards designing and making some new bespoke glasswork for this project that explicitly affords musical structures. This phase is supported by an award from The Exchange.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, 23 December 2016
Hundred Years Gallery, Hoxton, London, 4/12/16Mira Benjamin (vln), Dom Lash (bass), Scott Mc Laughlin (feedback guitar)
For this gig I came up with some new ways to think about the scoring. After the Leeds and Huddersfield workshops in November I had a complete re-think of how to approach guiding the players' interpretation, and sonifying the moving structures of light.
As a way of providing some measure of unity to the available pitch-space, all three of us tuned to scordaturas based on natural harmonics of the bass E string, and all the pieces use only open strings or natural harmonics: I only played on the final piece, all the other pieces are vln/bass.
The compositional strategy began with an idea that I took from the Huddersfield sessions, to focus the players on a single point on the screen, and interpret the light that flows across that point. This places helpful limits on what the players have to take in, and allows some interesting fuzzy mappings to be made. It's also not as one-dimensional as the description sounds since the players can see what is approaching their reading 'point', but the nature of the rotating glass shapes means that movement is not always linear, with approaching shapes often folding back on themselves unpredictably. This provides a greater measure of nuance and performativity than simply reading a changing dark/light state.
The first piece took its starting point from John Lely's The Harmonics of Real Strings; a piece which exposes harmonics sequentially as the finger very slowly moves along the string. In my piece, both players begin at arbitrary harmonics on their D-string (though tuned to 7th partial of low E) and use the light score to guide them to move between harmonics on that string. The simple poles of the mapping are that bright light should pull them towards a strong and pure harmonic tone, while darkness should be string noise with minimal specific pitch. Of course there are a huge range of possible shades and textures that pass across the score, as equally as there are a wonderful range of sounds between the pure and the noisy. I was especially interested in the metastable states that arose when the light edged towards a pure brightness but never quite arrived, constantly skirting fringes of light and prisming that come out in sound as multiphonics or strong overtones shadowing the harmonic. The players were also instructed to choose freely how far or fast they would traverse the string, sometimes going back on themselves to get back to a strong harmonic. The overall piece lasted three revolutions (c.7min/rev.) of the glass, each one on a different string.
The second and third pieces were more free-form. Piece-2 was very minimal, with both players sustaining a single harmonic, and altering that with gentle changes in response only to the variation of a certain shape on a rotating disc of light: see the poster image here for the 'spikes' that arise from bubbles on the glass surface. Piece-3 was a ’toccata’ of sorts. A constant pulse is maintained between the players, with pitch being similar between them in bright sections, and more strongly differentiated in darker areas. The players also freely changed timbre and dynamic in response to variation of light/shape/texture.
For the final piece I joined in on feedback guitar; using a 'sustainiac' to achieve very quiet feedback and vary the feedback tones on the string. In this piece we took a drone approach on open G#-strings, varying between 'dark' muffled tones, and brighter tones where many higher partials could emerge as well as more complex harmonies. The final section brought me back to shoegaze roots (obliquely) with intense double-stopped drones on E-G# strings.
2-minute excerpt from the final piece at Hundred Years Gallery.
Sounds-Between Symposium, University of Surrey, 7/12/16Scott Mc Laughlin (prepared cello)
For performance, it was just myself with a prepared cello. I took the same approaches as we had used in the Hundred Years Gallery. I placed a small dot on the screen to orient myself, and applied different rulesets to each performance that mapped the properties of the visuals onto playing techniques and properties of the instrument or musical materials.
Next:For 2017 we have some plans for a large-scale version in Leeds with CAVE, using multiple glass scores and musicians in a large space, and exploring difference and repetition across the multiples. Watch this space!
Saturday, 5 November 2016
This month we held two performance workshops as the closing events of this funded phase of the project. Shelley came up to Yorkshire on October 26–27 for a public concert and workshop with improvisers at the Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds, and a closed workshop with singers from HOOT in Huddersfield; a charity working with music and wellbeing for adults with mental health issues. Both of these sessions allowed us to develop performance ideas that we had explored a little with Ben and Harley in the studio in Leeds in September, and led to much new insight and understanding about how these scores could work for performers. In both cases also we found ourselves wanting more time to properly nuance the installation and interpretations, but each certainly provided a good platform for further research.
This was arranged through LIME (Leeds Improvised Music and Experimentation) by Harley Johnson as support for free-improvisation trio The Custodians of the Realm. The plan was to have an hour-long workshop at the start with local improvisers to develop possible readings of the score, then to have some performances that would explore these. Unfortunately we ended-up being quite pressed for time as we only had an hour to prepare the space and set up the glass and light. This meant that we didn’t really have time to get the optimum projection for the light to find the best score images; it could have been better. That said, I have to credit the players for stepping up fearlessly and getting into the challenge.
|Photo Michael Coldwell|
We were joined by four improvisers, most of whom hadn’t played together before; clarinet, guitar, two double-bass, and myself [Scott] on cello. I tried to apply the workshop structure from our previous studio session here — to initially constrain the musicians’ ways of improvising by limiting them to playing timbral/dynamic variations on a single pitch, or limiting pitch choice to just three pitches — but it didn’t work as well in this situation so we soon moved on to more free responses. I think this is because there was an audience present. The subsequent improvised responses worked well, and the players were happy to discuss after how they were reading the scores. Time constraints meant that the workshop turned into a performance, but because we were discussing between performances it wasn’t really a gig and wasn’t quite a workshop, which was not ideal; or at least it felt like it may have been confusing for an audience. I was also unhappy with trying to direct the workshop aspects, and play at the same time, I need to work on that.
That said, the audience seemed to really enjoy it. We had many positive comments after about the music itself, and about how rare it is to have a chance to see the process being discussed live. The music was – as many improvisation sessions are – a mix of self-conscious exploration and moments of real beauty when players came together and were fluidly interacting between themselves and the score.
|Photo Michael Coldwell|
As a first attempt for the project of working with a group of players, and in workshopping the scores in a live environment, this was a somewhat trial-by-fire affair, but we learned a lot from it. Here's a brief excerpt: most of the musicians are out of shot.
HOOT - Huddersfield: 27th October daytime workshop
The following day we had a morning workshop with HOOT, a creative arts organisation in Huddersfield who work with adults with mental health issues. We had about 17 people in the workshop, which was maybe slightly too big but it worked well, and the HOOT people were very comfortable working together so it made the workshop run smoother. We were hampered a little again by limited setup time, but this was not as problematic as the night before, and in the end it made sense for us to work with just one glass piece so the limited time had less of an impact.
Part of the impetus for this workshop was that HOOT’s cross-arts practice made them open to trying new things, and they’re all very used to group singing, which made that the natural approach for the day. Ultimately, one of the big discoveries of the day was that the voice is an especially good medium for this project, due to the flexibility of timbres it can produce (more on this later), and to its being in some ways more intuitive and democratic/open.
The HOOT group were made up of specialists from many different art-forms, including music, dance, and visual-arts. Their visual-art lead had brought some drawing materials should the possibility for sketching arise, and we agreed that this would be an excellent way to start the session. After some much needed vocal warmup exercises (which also helped to stretch the possibilities of vocal timbre) we decided the best way ‘into’ the light-scores would be ask everyone to draw parts of the score: we also stopped the turntable so that the score was static, easier to draw. This was a very interesting exercise because it loosened people up, and got them thinking visually to engage with the projected image before trying to map the forms sonically.
We then tried another exercise in mapping the image to voice sounds. We opened this exercise by considering what ‘light’ and ‘dark’ might sound like in the voice, and looked for ways to stretch the vocal timbre and explore many possible sounds. We then moved on to vocalising some of the drawings. To make it easier for the group we did this by ‘conducting’ a path across the drawing using a laser pointer. This exercise worked very well in creating a group-response to the piece that clearly articulated light, dark, and many points between. The crossings from light to dark were variously sudden or gradual, and covered many textures, all of which were appropriately vocalised. An interesting outcome of this was that the group had a ‘sound’ — or a response — for ‘white’, or the paper background. We considered how this might map to the actual light scores where the gradation between light and dark was not as simple, and where non-light might mean silence.
After a tea and biscuit break we moved on to working with the light score itself. We found the earlier strategy of following a point had worked well so we continued with this. To make it work with the revolving light score we instead put some points (blu-tak…) on the projection wall and the groups responded to the forms that crossed or interacted with those points. We also split the singers up into three groups, each with their own point on the wall. All of this worked very well, and as the workshop progressed the singers found some more nuanced ways of responding to the scores, but also suffered a little from the fatigue of singing lots of long sounds: I think this the nuanced interpretation really requires more time, perhaps a full-day workshop. I [Scott] was particularly happy with an analogy between focused light caustics and highly filtered vocal sound; using the tongue or mouth-shape to filter the sound energy and focus it in one specific spectral area, making it strongly ‘nasal’ or similar. Several people were making this work well, it might be something I explore more fully in the future, possibly with specialist singers.
Overall, this was a very exciting session with excellent learning outcomes. The structure was good, the second-half was rushed a little because we spent a lot of time initially working with voice (which was valuable in itself), but I’d like to spend more time on consideration of mapping the drawn forms and vocal forms. The drawing session was certainly productive here, we’ll do this again and look to expand the range of ‘mark-making’ on paper as an analogy to extending the voice.
It was hard to get to a nuanced interpretation of the glass score, but this just needed more time. Following fixed point (or moving pointer on still image – initial experiment) worked very well, is this analogous to using small projection space (sandblasted glass etc). Splitting into groups worked well, allows them to find their own space in the work, but still making it a ‘group’ performance where they support each other and reach consensus about how to proceed as a group.
The knowledge exchange in the HOOT session especially was useful. We learned a lot from their multi-disciplinary approach, and they found our project interesting because it allowed them to take overlapping approaches with different disciplines and expertises.
|Photo Michael Coldwell|
Conclusions and Next Steps:
Two very productive sessions, as much for the weak-points they exposed as for the successes they generated. As mentioned at the start of this post, both of these sessions had timing issues, both in terms of setup time (we need more…) and development/rehearsal time (we need more…). We resolve to plan better for installation: planning more time to setup and allow our work time to settle into the space. In both of these cases we rushed setting up and didn’t manage to find the optimal projection, and didn’t have time to setup several glass objects; we got one that worked and had to stick with that. As mentioned in previous blogs, this never changes, we always need at least 90mins to set up the light.
This funded phase of the project is now over, so we take a moment to thank TCCE for their support in creating this opportunity, it has really helped us to move the project forward, and has impacts on that spill into our respective solo practices. Of course we will continue the project because we love it and because we keep learning new things and finding new approaches. Our next steps are some concerts in December (see below) where we work with more experienced players, and using that experience then to formulate the next phase of the project towards appropriate funding streams. We will be looking for longer periods of work within a space (possibly some residency work?) so that we can fully embed in a space and optimise how the light will work with the space and the objects, and we will look for longer rehearsal periods with the musicians so that they too can become embedded in the work, and find their own responses that are nuanced and fluid.
Sunday Dec. 4th 4:00–6:00 (doors 3.30) at the Hundred Years Gallery in London, with Mira Benjamin (violin), Dominic Lash (bass), and Scott (feedback guitar & cello). I’ve worked a lot with both Mira and Dom before, and Dom has played solo versions of the glass scores on two previous occasions (HCMF and Circus Gallery). This should allow us to develop several nuanced readings reasonably quickly.
Dec 7th 5.15–6.15 at the PATS Building, University of Surrey (Guildford), performers TBC. Presented as part of the Sounds Between festival, ‘A one-day festival exploring interdisciplinary encounters in music composition’. This performance came out of our presentation in the AHRC Network Music Composition as Interdisciplinary Practice. Free entry but booking advised (see link above).
Wednesday, 5 October 2016
This session took place in the School of Music at the University of Leeds on September 20th. The glass we had made in Frome was annealed and ready for use, so we were eager to examine the new pieces properly under light, and to work with some musicians on possible interpretations. We also invited photographer Michael Coldwell to capture images of the projections, and videographer Angela Guyton to create a short video (see below) about the project from our interaction with the musicians.
The opening part of the day was our now familiar process of setting up. This fascinates me [Scott] every time we do it because there’s no formula, it always takes an hour of subtle repositioning of glass, light, and screens before we start to settle on usable images. While we definitely get a better feel for it each time, it never gets quicker or easier. It’s definitely less frustrating than previous sessions since we’ve accepted this, so it now feels like a gentle ritual of greeting the material, getting to know it afresh each time: a ‘dance of agency’ as Andrew Pickering would have it.
As the projections started to come together, photographer Mick Coldwell arrived to make take some shots. The conditions of the piece make it especially tricky to shoot, since the caustics have a huge dynamic range from subtle shadow through to blinding glare. Mick has perfected techniques to capture the beautiful detail of the images and not lose either the luminescence or the ombra.
While we had done much productive work with musicians Dom Lash and Seth Woods before, we decided for this session to see what would happen if we brought in some players who were completely fresh to the project, and without leading them with too much explanation of what we might want sonically. The intention here was also to allow ourselves a re-imagining of the soundworld to inform our next performance with Dom and other musicians. This fresh start was especially interesting for me (Scott) since I was slowly beginning to relax my idea of what this project should sound like. Previous performances had been driven conceptually by the analogy between spectral splitting of light (caustics) and spectral splitting of sound, which is central to my own composition research. This resulted in pieces not too dissimilar (sonically at least) from my other compositions of recent years. The spectral analogy still stands, but for this session I only generally described the structural aspects of the images that we felt were musically important, without providing much guidance how they should be mapped in performance.
|Ben and Harley|
The two musicians were Harley Johnson (piano), and Ben Palmer (clarinet), both are wonderfully open-minded; happy to jump-in and try different approaches, and to actively reflect on these choices after each take. We had a very productive hour of trials and discussions, with each player taking turns to play for 4–5 minutes with different images, before moving onto some group improvisations. Scott also joined in for a version with Harley and himself playing piano together (see below).
It was very interesting to watch the different approaches of the two players, both solo and as a group. Harley is an experienced improviser and tended to use the image as a springboard for improvisation. His initial solo readings worked through a variety of approaches (different textures and piano material) in a block-like structure that managed to retain a connection to the visual while changing the mapping every couple of minutes: each individual block felt ‘right’ (some more than others of course) but there was always a period of adjustment each time the approach changed. Ben’s background is in notated music (with some idiomatic improvisation), and this was clear from his preference to ‘read’ the image directly. Ben’s different performances varied between minimal approaches where a single pitch or multiphonic was altered along with the slow rotation of the image, and more varied approaches where several musical objects were tested. Ben also had a preference for isolating specific aspects or sections of the image as ‘score’, where Harley preferred treating it holistically. It was especially fascinating to watch both players test and discard ideas that seemed like overly literal mappings, searching for the sweet spot of interpretations that are rich enough to have a life of their own — being more than just imitations in a another medium — but not so rich as to have no discernible relation but the purely metaphorical — where the visual and sounding are mediated by an arbitrary meaning that only has relevance personal to the player.
One result of this session for me was that for future performances we should use both ‘section’ scores and full image score. A ‘section’ score is where we put a small glass plate near the projection to isolate a small section of the whole. The plate is sandblasted to ‘frost’ it, allowing it to hold the image and be visible from both sides. The ‘section’ score allows us to isolate specific figures or textures from the whole to act as score, so there is less varied information for the musician to have to decide between, and they can focus their interpretation more.
Later in the session with did some duets and a trio. The players were now more familiar with the material, and what would work for them as techniques, but still the group improvisations tended to add a second ‘attractor’ that reduced the influence of the score somewhat. The two players discussed how were working with/against each other as well as the score, reacting to and colouring each other’s interpretations: in the long run there will emerge an ebb and flow to this that should most likely begin to favour the score more as they play together more and know each other better. For the final piece of the session I wanted to try out a specific idea that had occurred to me, to play the piano spectrally by repeating a single low pitch while Harley sat by the piano strings and used his fingertips on the strings to isolate harmonics. This formed a spectral basis that all three of us could improvise around, while still led by the score. I added upper pitches that balanced or contrasted with Harley’s harmonics (and additional sounds), while Ben added other spectral pitches and multiphonics, again in contrast or complement as the image suggested. This is an interesting approach that might merit more research, but it also revealed for me — now that I had moved on from my strict relation of this piece to my other works — that inherent difficulties of working with such a complex visual, further convincing me of the need to reduce the scope of the visual to facilitate interpretation.
Angie's video captures some of this discussion wonderfully, and frames it with our our observations.
Angie's video captures some of this discussion wonderfully, and frames it with our our observations.
It was also very pleasing for me to see Shelley engage directly with the musicians and ask them to try different approaches. The new independence of the project has perhaps given her permission to have more ownership of the music, in the same way that my working with glass allowed me to take more direct control of the glass objects. Next step is to get Shelley an instrument!