Wednesday, 5 October 2016

First soundings

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.

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!

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

fragile creation

Shelley and I [Scott] had a two-day workshop in Frome with glassmaker Sonja Klinger to make our new glass pieces. We’re writing this several weeks after the event – so rather than a ‘fresh first-impressions’, it’s more of a reflection with hindsight.

The plan for these two days in Frome was to create some new glass piece, designed specifically for this project to afford specific musical mappings. Scott and Shelley were joined by Sila (Shelley’s intern) for two days in Sonja's workshop; and Rex Lawson joined us briefly to see how his pianola rolls would transfer to glass.

We had taken a motif from a Bach fugue (no.2 in C minor) and sandblasted it onto the surface of a glass 'embryo'; a basic glass jar shape. This embryo would have more molten glass added to it so that the sandblasted dots would trap air bubbles under the glass. The images below show the initial embryo, and a subsequent stage where it has just been dipped in hot glass. 

In preparation for this, Sonja had prepared some embryos back in July. Shelley had done the painstaking work of transferring the patterns from the pianola roll onto glass. This involved scanning and adjusting the chosen designs from the rolls, cutting and re-cutting the holes to etch the pattern into glass, then sandblasting and cleaning the glass.

As we arrived in Sonja’s workshop, she showed us the embryos which had been slowly warming up all morning: they warm up because if glass goes straight from room temperature to kiln temperature (over 1000°C) it would shatter. The plan for the session was to take the various embryos, coat them in layers of molten glass (by ‘encapsulating’; dipping into a cauldron of molten glass), and spin them out into flat plates. In this way the etched patterns around the jar-shaped embryo would become a circular pattern on a flat plate, captured beneath a layer of clear class that would trap bubbles where the etched holes were.

Shelley had not done this for nearly two years because it is so expensive. However, for this project it was perfect, because the process of heating glass in a cauldron or ‘pot’ creates the most an extraordinary ‘grain’ in the final object that is only visible with projected or reflected light. This grant made it possible to create work using this technique that suited our goals so well.

The scented autumn day finally arrived. Shelley was was extremely nervous about how this might go. The whole process is almost impossibly precarious, and made even more so by the thin-ness of the glass we required. Shelley describes how she has ‘seen so many hours of hopeful effort crack or fold or fall from the end of a blowing iron’.

And, as it happened, it did almost all go horribly wrong, by Shelley’s original standards at least.
The first plate came out fine. The simple, symmetrical pattern of the etched triplets spun out to create a series of looping curves on the plate. Although clumsy and thick and deeply dipped in the centre, it was at least in one piece; and round!

We tried a second plate, this time in black glass. Rather than using black glass itself, the black is applied as a layer onto clear class. The molten surface of the clear embryo (after dipping in clear glass) is rolled in grains of black glass, which themselves melt and flow into a layer. This particular granularity interacts with light in a wonderful way, revealing a texture that is invisible to the naked eye. The image below (by Michael Coldwell) was captured at our September session in Leeds working with improvising musicians.

After these initial successes, our luck began to run out. The first embryo of Tuesday morning had a complex encapsulated pattern which threw the material off-centre to make a hopelessly ridged and wobbly pancake. In the final heating, the edge of the glass caught the rim of the glory hole to create yet another strange bump. However, under strong light these imperfections have real charm.

The next embryo cracked and fell into the pot of molten glass. Lost. Dear Sonja was so upset that her kind face burned red and her solid assistant Keki stepped in to rake out the bubbly mess.

We started again –  this time to make a plate.

In the next attempt the embryo collapsed but stayed on the iron. Rather than try to retrieve the shape, I asked that we simply let it be, a random looping stone form with my hard-won fugue pattern veering around inside. We decided to stop trying for formal precision and just play. Scott took this opportunity to do some glassworking, to try and pull the glass into a shape that would respond well to the light. The glass shape was quite dense, with the hot glass ‘gather’ loose, rolling and looping like treacle on a spoon, but it was possible to pull the surface to form some gentle twists, creating a beautiful and subtle ‘rabbit’ form.

For the final embryo we opted for a bubble with twists. Now that he’d had a chance to get used to the feel of pulling the soft glass with pliers, he had some specific ideas to try. Scott seemed totally focused, pressing and pulling the material as it slowly came to rest. Sonja blew a bubble (a hollow form which responds more easily to pulling) and added ‘prunts’ (handles) for Scott to experiment with twisting and pressing. The end result was a slightly curved bubble with several twisting ‘knobbles’ on the surface. The twists are barely visible in the glass itself, but create stunning caustics in light (image Michael Coldwell).

Shelley’s intern, Sila also made a piece for herself with patient coaching from Sonja. She has a rare gift for form and edge and we look forward to seeing where she will go.

It was wonderful to get back to the house that evening and test out the new pieces in light.

Reflecting on the whole day, we see this as the event where the project took on a life its own, related-to but distinct-from each of our personal practices. Shelley has described this way of working together as being a ‘level of vulnerability and support that was both new and extremely rewarding. Quite a revelation for me.’ Scott also found that after years of discussing and the ideal, and working together in less than ideal circumstances (brought about by distance, time, and trying to mould the project’s essence around our existing practices and works) this activity of making new glass specifically for the project gives it an independence that has both a supportive force for both of us as artists, and it gives the project a ‘release’, unmooring it from many previous concerns. For Scott especially, the act of pulling and shaping the glass gave him a connection to the project’s materiality that re-oriented his thinking about the musical possibilities. For both of us, this new independence allowed us to relax some of our more discipline-specific concerns about the project. For Shelley especially, the precision and rigour of her usual practice had to be suspended as we experimented with forms. None of the pieces we made in this session will be artworks in themselves, but they all offer something to the project that we couldn’t achieve by using Shelley’s other pieces. Scott’s discipline-specific concerns were destabilised (positively!) later when we brought the finished pieces to Leeds to get some musicians trying them out. More on this in the next blog post.