Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Album leaves

I’d like to think of a performance as an album of stories, poems and images that we browse through, encountering a whole new imaginary world with every new piece played. The album then is an invitation to the listener to draw on his or her imagination to make sense of the music heard. 

Listeners to popular music do this intuitively. They express how the music effects them through dancing to, and singing along with, songs of their favourite artists and bands. The dancing and singing can literally be seen as a bodily expression of the memories and imagined worlds conjured up by the music. John Lennon actively invites his listeners to engage in such a process:

 Imagine all the people,
Living life in peace.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you will join us
And the world will live as one.

The metaphor of a performance as an album of stories, poetry and images is an invitation to listen creatively. As a form of active listening in which the listener imagines worlds and ideas that are original and meaningful to him or her, creative listening can be transformative. The creative listener doesn’t necessarily have to be able to express the outcomes of his listening clearly, it may also entail a deep-felt experience. If the listener wishes to express the ideas and feelings conjured up by the music, he or she may do so in music, poetry or drawings. My own composition A Different World started out in this way as a response to Bach’s Two-Part Invention no 9. 

Can a performer in any way help audiences to listen creatively? I believe so. The performer can explicitly invite the listener to do so, but also create a context that triggers the listener’s imagination. Rather than a set-up that juxtaposes the performer and passive listener, listeners may gather around the performer in a venue full of poetry and paintings. A performer could even invite the listener to turn the pages of an album of stories, poems and images whilst listening to the music and ask the listener to contribute his or her own album leaves.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Last week I visited the exhibition by Elizabeth Blackadder at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. Her Japanese still life paintings, in which she spaces out objects and plays with repetition of form, provided a whole new perspective on the idea of composition. Blackadders’ Japanese paintings stand out because their composition is unusual, freed from Western conventions. What light does this shed on musical composition?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms, composition is the activity of composition and the result of that activity. As such it describes a process of construction, a creative putting together, a working out and carrying through of an initial conception or inspiration. Composition thus is a conscious process in which material is placed in relation to other material. What’s more, as it is a conscious process it is done with a pre-conceived idea in mind. Composition is not something done by musical composers only – painters, photographers and writers compose their material as well.

When we view a painting – say a Japanese still life by Blackadder – the way our eyes move through the painting is not predetermined. We may look at it from a distance to get a general impression, then step forward to look at some details. Detail is appreciated as part of the whole. In a musical composition, however, the listener doesn’t get the benefit of viewing the whole before hearing the detail. The musical journey takes the first-time listener into the unknown. What is heard can only be interpreted in terms of what has been heard before – not in relation to what is still to come.

Blackadder’s paintings point at another thing as well. In conventional still lifes all spaces seem to have a purpose. Blackadders’ still lifes celebrate the spaces-in-between as she explores how the components of her still lifes relate to each other. Painters and draughtman call this negative space. The musical equivalent would be silence. John Cage famously celebrated silence in his 4’33. Silences are not empty space, they may be filled with environmental sounds like in John Cage’s work, they may also be spaces in which what has gone lingers and what is to come is anticipated. In the same way as Blackadder’s spaces-in-between are an integral part of her still lifes, so silences should be an integral part of musical compositions. I, for one, am a composer who makes far too little use of the expressive qualities of silence.

So what does this mean for composers – of music? In addition to thinking about our musical material, the sequence in which we present it is important. New material will be interpreted only in terms of what has come before. The way in which we space material is important as well. A new idea emerging from a dense texture may be hidden from hearing, the same material following a silence will make much greater impact. In the Berceuse from his Escenas Romanticas, for example, Granados makes powerful use of the spaces-in-between by letting passages die away completely before starting the next passage quietly. This all sounds so simple, but how often do we actually consciously compose?

Links to blogs with own compositions:
Repetition (horn trio)
Unfolding (piano)
A different world (piano)
Silver (flute)
The home of the whale (choir)
Ebb and flow (piano)
The horncall (choir)
Charr Bothy (piano)

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Songs of the earth

Ever since I came across Gustav’s Mahler’s orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) I felt I had to do something with it. Taking inspiration from Chinese verse, Mahler associates the earth with seasonal transformations, death and re-birth. A drinking song of earth’s despair versus youth and beauty. Since it was written in 1908, Das Lied von der Erde has been the starting point for work by other artists. The Scottish Clarinet Quartet, for example, used the title for a collaboration with photographer Terry Williams and composers Stephen Davismoon, David Fennessy, Sadie Harrison and Anna Meredith that resulted in four audiovisual images of the Isle of Skye. Das Lied von der Erde has inspired me as well. I’ll use the title for a project in which I express my connections with my local natural environment – the earth, one could say – in musical compositions.

My compositions Silver and A Different World both stem from my frequent rambles in the woodlands and along the fields around my Scottish home. Fleeting moments, telling encounters, and atmospheric hues have etched themselves in my mind. The rhythm of my feet heightens my attention and opens up my imagination. Creative writing helps me to identify how I may express these experiences in music.

Artist Reiko Goto writes that creativity is a process of changing our place, our culture, and its ecological context, resonating with Ai Wei Wei’s understanding of creativity as a transformative process. Working on Silver and A Different World I noticed that while originally local woodland inspired my compositions, my compositions eventually made me see these surroundings in new ways. Whereas Mahler used the words of Chinese thinkers a thousand years ago to express his feelings in Das Lied von der Erde, I express my own experiences in songs-without-words. One could even argue that my Songs of the Earth project is a form of artist-led inquiry, in which, as Mendelssohn said, the music can express feelings and understandings that may be difficult to capture in words.

Over the next few months I intend to continue expressing my connections to the natural surroundings of my home in music compositions. I am aware that I’m not the first artist to do so. The work of other artists may indeed be a body of work to compare and contrast my own experiences with, in turn helping me to develop my own approach.

Links to all blogs on the Songs Of The Earth project:
Social listening
Album leaves
A different world

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A different world

Heavy snow has glued branches and twigs to an archway that forms the entrance to a fairytale world. This is a memory that opens up a new chapter every time I reach the edge of the forest. The archway connects two worlds – one being left behind when the other one is entered. The houses and streets where people dash off to work and school become but a distant memory when I observe the white bark of the birches peeling off and the moist  knots glistening in the sun. A blackbird rustles leaves on the woodland floor in search for insects. A wren hops busily between low twigs. Though it may still be a few weeks before this winter’s first snow falls, the edge of the woodlands has remained an entrance to a different world.

Below an extract from the composition A Different World.


Copyright text, music and image Petra Vergunst