1 May 2015

Work-in-Progress Sketches - Blog Two

Work during April saw me continuing with my installation piece: a commission for the house which explores the interaction of three composers - Handel, Bach and Scarlatti - whose 330th anniversaries are all celebrated this year. You can read more about the beginnings of this project in Part I of this series (posted directly below this blog).

This month’s entry follows directly on and discusses one strand of my material: that based upon the music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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When planning each of the layers, my criteria were simple: I wanted the music – while avoiding pastiche, or stylistic impersonation – to somehow embody the essence of each composer and to set out a logic derived from their music; but also to allow myself the opportunity to develop material freely and in my own voice.

In the case of Scarlatti, I selected as my starting point a passage from a work I knew well (the K175  sonata – often played quite idiomatically on guitar). There were a few bars, shown here, which I’d always been fond of, featuring some typically Scarlattian scrunches and discords. As is often pointed out, many of the dissonances and modal inferences in his music seem to derive from guitar open string figuration – and I think that could be said of these bars.

I started wondering whether I could pick apart this small section of music a little more and use it as the basis for the entire layer – not through a simple use of variation, or motivic development, but through its treatment as a complete sound source that is magnified, prolonged and extended, enabling Scarlatti to resonate in his own harmonic world.

One way to achieve such prolongation was simply through time-stretching. Taking a recording of these few bars of K175 (played by guitar, where the open-string figuration mentioned previously allows particular pitches to resonate with clarity, in an almost bell-like way), I slowed the extract down by a considerable amount – almost twenty times its original length.
Although the effect was striking, particularly in bringing to the foreground frequencies and inner lines previously obscured, the outcome was quite a coarse one, and the ear drawn more to be process (of time-stretching) than to the new sounds it had revealed.

So, my next step was to reverse (play backwards) the extract, which went some way to rectifying this problem. The open string sonorities – my cornerstone reference to Scarlatti’s style – were still clear, and the modal and harmonic language still present, albeit in a fractured form. Yet now, the functions and harmonic role of each chord were much less laboured and self-conscious (an adverse effect, I felt, of its slow-motion treatment). As a result, the listener may perhaps be more inclined to listen to each sound on its own terms, rather than as part of an overt process of time manipulation.

Excerpt: Reversal of Scarlatti 

Having settled upon this segment of musical material (now around 1 minute, 20 seconds long), I started the next step of the compositional process.

Importantly, I wanted this to be an an acoustic, not an electronic, piece; in this way I could interact with and sculpt material in a much more tangible and visceral way as I 'orchestrated', allowing me to start making compositional choices that reflect my own language, whilst still staying true to the concept and original material.

Spectrogram of Scarlatti reversal
My first step was to analyse the Scarlatti recording spectrally (some of these results are shown on the left). [Nb Spectrograms show visually each frequency present in material, as it passes through time – and the strength/amplitude of these pitches.]

My intention was that this would be a warts-and-all representation of the time-stretched material. Not only do layers of the Scarlatti become apparent that were previously hidden, but glitches and imperfections in the time-stretching process bring about other sonorities and distortions, adding a certain amount of grit and bite to the music: something which appealed to me.

The next step, guided by the spectrograms, was to painstakingly (see below) notate each of these strands: each frequency, its duration and its amplitude.
Moving from spectrogram to instrumental realisation...
Composer Vs Spectrogram

Working in 15 second segments, I set about 'orchestrating' the music (a painstaking process I’m currently still battling with!). And with specific players in mind – an ensemble of six instruments – I’m having to be as creative as possible in order to accommodate as many layers and as much detail as I can. (So awkward double stops, and spread chords galore…)

Here’s a little glimpse of the first thirty seconds for my chosen ensemble (Flute, Accordion, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass)
Click here to enlarge

Click here to enlarge

Once this process is finished, and all 80 seconds or so fully transcribed for the instruments, the next step will be to finalise how this material is developed and expanded. (And this will be my subject next time…!)

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You can hear Edwin talk more about his music - and principal commission for the Museum - on Sunday 24th May, 2-3pm at Handel House.

23 March 2015

Work-in-Progress Sketches - Blog One (Introduction)

First things first, I can’t believe I’m writing an entry for March already; 2015 really has been rolling on with a vengeance!

There have been so many exciting and varied projects over the past few months at Handel House including a whole host of education workshops, which have seen us going into schools for the first time this year, to continue with and develop some ever-expanding class compositions.

I hope to share some of these activities with you in due course. But, as for now, I’d like to talk about some of the nitty-gritty of the composition side of the residency, with a few sketches and ideas from a work-in-progress to be aired later on in the year.
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image source: http://betsydevine.com/blog
Perhaps I should have paid more attention in music history lectures at university. But I’m always pleased to hit upon a new and quirky fact about George Frideric I didn’t know before. The most recent revelation was that Handel, Domenico Scarlatti and JS Bach all entered this world in the same year of 1685.  

Now – as in all museums the folk here at Handel House love a good old anniversary year to get our teeth into: and 330 years since the birth of these three figures seems like a pretty good excuse to me for some celebration.

image source: http://playlistasartform.com
In this spirit, I’d been thinking over the past few weeks of a way I might respond to this strange interaction of musical personalities in my own writing.

Around the same time, I’d also been mulling over the possibility of creating an installation piece as part of my residency; perhaps a way for those visiting the museum only fleetingly, or by chance, to encounter some of my work and musical responses to the house over the year.

At some point these ideas fused in my mind and I’ve consequently spent the last few weeks beginning on a new work for the museum, whose first steps I’d like to share with you below…

The central idea of the piece is a simple one: three distinct strands of material one for each composer interact in a prescribed space (a room in Handel House, to be confirmed...). Each sound source will be played through a different set of speakers, spread around the room, allowing visitors to move around, and focus in and out of different layers of material, adjusting their perspective accordingly.

image source: The New York Review of Books, Levine 1979
Each strand consists of pre-recorded acoustic material, which I’m now in the process of creating. Although these three layers will take one of the three composers as their initial starting point, the music heard is all originally composed, and  whilst retaining glimpses and shadows of their subject matter  are still in keeping with my own compositional approach and language.

With visitors coming and going all day at the museum, my intention is to develop a piece which will play continuously throughout opening hours. With this in mind and so as to avoid over-saturation for those moving around the house a little more slowly (not to mention the volunteers who are in the house throughout the day!)  each strand will take as its basis a canvas of silence, with each utterance emerging and subsiding back into this continuum.

[A possible opening to the work - to be explored next time...]
Whilst instrumental material within layers will be strictly composed and notated, the live order of each of these events will be fluid, and determined by chance upon playback. This approach will remain consistent across the three strata and so, when combined, will give rise to a constantly-shifting array of material: prolonged periods of silence, singular activity, multiple and saturated densities, and everything in between.

I look forward to sharing these ideas with you in a little more detail in next month's blog post - explaining my compositional processes, and sharing a few sketches!
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You can hear Edwin talk more about his music - and principal commission for the Museum - on Sunday 24th May, 2-3pm at Handel House. Booking opens on Monday 30th March

21 January 2015

BLOCK4@Handel House

It was a real privilege to kick off the New Year at Handel House by making music with some good pals of mine - the talented recorder quartet, BLOCK4, who joined us on 1st January for a concert of Handel, Blecharz, Battiferri, Merula, and a few pieces of Hillier…

Thanks so much to all those who were able to join us that day. And fear not those who were absent - perhaps you were still recovering from the previous evening’s festivities! - you can catch up on some of the concert’s music on the links below.

BLOCK4’s programme took us on a journey through centuries of recorder repertoire - from Merula in the early 1600s to Hillier in... well… 2015 I guess (if only by a few hours...), with all pieces, in their many diverse forms, united through a central fugal or canonic idea.

I thought I might tell you in this blog a little bit more about my two pieces performed that evening:

The first, Arcos, I composed for the quartet a year and a bit ago now, for a project at the Royal College of Music (where we all study or studied). When planning the programme, we thought Arcos might fit well with the fugal theme running through the concert. Although in no sense a strict fugue (or even, if we’re honest, a very unstrict fugue), Arcos’ principal concern is one of closely wrought lines, which intersect and interact, weaving in and out of a fairly fixed and regulated framework (as a broad concept at least, not too far away from the musical form of the evening’s other offerings).

Arcos takes its inspiration from a painting of the same name by British artist William Tillyer. You can see both Tillyer’s work [on the left], as well as an extract from the piece - played here by the marvellous BLOCK4.

Entr’acte Fragment for electronics - my first work composed especially for performance in Handel House -  I created as a bridging work in the programme: something which would connect up the works adjacent to it, and take the audience on a sonic journey from the present day, back to more traditional recorder territory. Consequently, all sounds heard are sampled directly from recordings made by BLOCK4 of my Arcos (the preceding piece) and Merula’s 17-century Canzona (which followed directly on).

As you’ll hear in the below audio, Entr’acte Fragment  is something of a melting pot, where different strands of material coalesce and fuse together, until eventually bubbling over, leaving behind only a fragment of broken melody (a melody which turns out to be the opening phrase of Merula’s work, which begins straightaway).

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I hope you’ll check out some of these recordings -  and please do have a look at BLOCK4’s website here: http://www.block4.co.uk Well worth a visit!

If you missed the quartet this time round, fear not - they’ll be back at Handel House, I’m sure of that!

17 December 2014

Composing Water Music

So it's been an exciting start to the job here at Handel House, with all sorts of visitors - of all ages and sizes - coming in for our education workshops over the past few months. These have been lots of fun to plan and to lead, and I wanted to share with you some of the things we've been working on, as well as some of the fab music the children have created...

Topics so far have ranged from concerti grossi, to ornamentation (Year 2s drawing wavy lines with crayons - and me trying to stop them accidentally graffitiing the ancient floorboards...Shh) , writing our own coronation anthems, and exploring the subject of Handel's Water Music. Typically, these sessions take the form of practical and creative group work, often ending in us composing our own piece/s, inspired by Handel's music - as is the case with the sound clips below.

The below recording comes from Year 5 from Ronald Ross Primary School in Southfields, who joined us recently and created their own three-minute pieces of Water Music. Having listened to Handel's composition (music written to be performed and heard on water), the children worked at creating their own class pieces about water, using only their voices and body percussion as instruments.

Hope you'll have a listen to the impressive results. 

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Dividing my life between composition and education, I'm always looking for ways to join up my two practices. Normally this takes the form of composition feeding into my education work - encouraging others to create, develop and record their own musical ideas. However, after editing the above recordings last week, it was so nice to find the converse happening. I felt spurred on by the children's work to create my own short piece of electronic Water Music. And so decided to give it a whirl too... All material here is sampled from the Ronald Ross classes' imaginative soundscapes - so we'll be sharing the credit.

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Next up, I'l be back in at Handel House on 1st Jan, when the awesome BLOCK4 recorder quartet will be playing my piece 'Arcos'. More information (and tickets) here: http://www.handelhouse.org/whats-on/concerts-and-events/master-and-apprentice  Hope to see you there!

25 November 2014

'Goodbye, my eyes may shut as I remember how to fly'

my eyes may shut 
as I remember how to fly

These were my last words at Handel House. How?
It was the last musical phrase, of my last commission for them, and it was premièred as the last piece in the last programme of my eyemusic festival.

It was brought to life with poise and poignancy by Tessa Marchington (founder and director of Music in Offices) and Ziazan (Bel Canto specialist).

I'm utterly grateful for their dedication and hard-work, and honoured that they arranged the programme so that opera travelled through time and ended in the present with myself, and some excellent composers including Anna Meredith and James Macmillan.

From breeches...  (La Nozze di Figaro, Mozart)

...to Greek tragedy (L'Orfeo, Monteverdi)

Three ingenious artists turned up on the day and exhibited their work : 

Maya Ramsay took wall-rubbings from Jimi Hendrix's flat, and used manuscript paper so that the woodchip paper created lines which looked like music notation.

'Jimi's Walls'

Marie Wennersten, producer for Swedish Radio flew in and installed tiny speakers in Handel's Bedroom so visitors could faintly hear his dreams.

Then there was Karen Lear, of Karen Lear Flowers and Queen Lear Fashions. 

Karen demonstrated how she had styled Ziazan's costume changes which transported the audience from one era of opera to another, with the addition of just one garment.

And that was just one concert! 
I'd also like to thank the following people... 

Thanks to Sarah Angliss, for her concert of inventions and mastery. It's be a long time since I've had the impulse to listen again to a whole concert immediately after it's finished, but Sarah's programme was so rich, virtuosic and moving, I know there's more to hear with each listen.

I'm so thrilled to be working with Crewdson and Jodie Cartman on folkloric wearable technology – we featured the Sonic-Bonnet, which will be paired with Crewdson's Odd-Box for the Nest Collective this week.

In the second eyemusic concert, Jessica Hynes wowed audiences with her interpretation of Hendrix – she even added her own beautiful lyrics as a tribute to him. Calum Gourlay wrote exquisite arrangements of Duke Ellington's work for bass and lever harp. Bijan Moosavi brought his original songs, in Farsi.

Thank you, Jess, Calum, Bijan, for your inspirational skills and perspectives.

This concert was featured in the EFG London Jazz Festival, as was my eyemusic concert with Oren Marshall. So, thanks are due to Serious, and to Maija Handover of SoundUK for spreading the word.

I particularly enjoyed interpreting historical and modern Augenmusik with Oren. We improvised a response to 'Jimi's Walls', the artwork by Maya Ramsay. Calum Gourlay has suggested an approach of tracing the wall-rubbings to become notation completely, which I'll encourage him to try with Maya next.

I also wrote an interpretation of an Ancient Egyptian manuscript, where music for a sacred singer seems to be notated with a colour-chart.

Perhaps this is a good place to end my blog (the last blog of my last series, of my last year, yadda yadda)....
It seems apt to end this post with the earliest version of eyemusic I could find as I began it with my most recent piece.

It leaves me to thank the Handel House Museum for commissioning and hosting it, along with my residency. Also to thank the teams who helped with film (Andy, Laurie, Phoenix); and radio (Dr Ed Baxter and Francisco Castilla of Resonance FM, Claire Mattison of LSO Soundhub).

Joel Garthwaite, of Bright Ivy, I am indebted to your management skills.

Ms Charmichael, I am so grateful for the surprise-party you generously hosted for our guests.

Mum, thank you for your help and patience assembling the 'House Music' scores and souvenirs.
Special thanks to mum's familiar, who assisted when the printer malfunctioned.

Keep in touch. I'll be at www.cevanne.com
with more residencies, concerts, and eyemusic.

You can order a signed (and paw-printed) copy of 'House Music', if you like...

19 November 2014

House Music, eyemusic – my last commission

As my two-year residency at Handel House draws to a close I look forward to the première of my final commission for soprano and harpsichord – 'House Music'.

It works with the Renaissance principle of Augenmusik – where art was often used to illuminate notated music – and develops it so the relationship is thoroughly structural.

The song is structured by windows cut through the paper, which are assembled to follow the facade of Handel House, in Brook Street, London. Players are to perform what they see on the page before them, including the material revealed beneath by the windows. 

The libretto marks the progress of a career, or life, across four movements – beginning as an outsider looking in to the establishment; then claiming the safer space within; and finally settling upstairs to sleep, and dream of legacy.

I've been so drawn to the concept of eye music, my entire concert series has centred around the theme of 'seeing sound', featuring leading lights in music and film such as Jessica Hynes, Oren Marshall, Sarah Angliss, Crewdson, and Calum Gourlay.

I thought you might find it interesting to see the work-in-progress of my composition, as eyemusic is not necessarily a typical structure... 

I began by cutting the structure into plain manuscript paper, and writing by hand, so I was always aware of my perimeters. This is the first messy sketch.

I could always rely on feline aid and instruction. Each time, she knew which piece of paper was required next, and promptly sat on it.

She even helped me type the music into Sibelius – though her writing for soprano voice was rather ambitious.

I printed the first draft for rehearsal with Ziazan and Tessa at Handel House. 

I cut the windows with a craft knife, and bound the A4 pages with tape. 

I had some edits to make in the score, both creative, and to do with alignment, so I made more drafts for the performers, who kindly gave their feedback, and allowed me to listen to rehearsals.

Then it was time to set it up for printing and cutting with machines (and my mum).

I re-drew the windows with a more 'Georgian shape'. 

I've been numbering and dating these copies, so they are available to buy as souvenirs after the concerts.

Needless to say, this commission took much effort, and discipline, from everyone involved – for which I am so grateful. I've enjoyed creating a strict framework for myself to use, and in doing so making myself accountable for every musical decision, every note.

If you'd like to hear it, I'm afraid the première has been sold-out for weeks, but it will be filmed, so I'll share the footage on www.cevanne.com as soon as I can.

I'm honoured that Ziazan & Tessa Marchington have programmed 'The Fat Lady Has Sung' around my composition. Audiences are looking forward to a time-travelling trip through Bel Canto opera, from pre-Handel to just last month. As it's my last party, everyone's encouraged to dress in their interpretation of 'retro-futurist' fashion, to complement the themes of the concert, and indeed 'House Music' itself.

What will I wear? Why, something Crewdson, Jodie Cartman and I 'threw together' especially for the eyemusic concert with Sarah Angliss : the Sonic Bonnet.

(in fact, much like with House Music, this wearable tech is also a project which required a lot of effort and innovation to pioneer a new technique, but I'll save that for another blog, when I announce my next residency in 2015...)

Sonic Bonnet photo credit Joel Garthwaite, Bright Ivy
Ziazan photo credit Phoenix (in the concert poster)

1 October 2014

Edwin Hillier - newly appointed Composer-in-Residence Apprentice at Handel House Museum

I’m absolutely thrilled to be starting this month as Composer-in-Residence Apprentice at Handel House Museum, and really excited about all the projects I’m going to be involved with and leading over the next year.

My role kicked off in earnest this week, with a meeting with the newly established Handel House Talent artists - it was great to discuss projects with them for the coming months, and I’m hoping there’ll be plenty of time for us to collaborate and exchange creative ideas during our respective residencies. So watch this space…! (You can read more about these fabulous people here - http://www.handelhouse.org/about-us/handel-house-talent )

As this is my very first blog, I thought I’d share a little about myself, and the kind of music I’ve been writing recently. I’m a London-based composer, and have just completed my Masters at the Royal College of Music (where this month I’ve started doctoral studies alongside my work at Handel House). In terms of the pieces I’ve been composing, the last few years have been quite varied, including a fully-staged chamber opera, (http://boulezian.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/hogarths-stages-five-short-operas-royal.html) numerous smaller-scale chamber and vocal pieces, a work recorded by the London Sinfonietta, soon to be released online by NMC (http://www.nmcrec.co.uk/next-wave/edwin-hillier - keep your eyes peeled for an impending shameless plug!), as well as an upcoming performance by Lore Lixenberg at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

I’m now greatly looking forward to getting started on a few new pieces, some of which are to be performed at Handel House  (the first being a premiere with the awesome BLOCK4 recorder quartet [http://www.block4.co.uk/] who play for us on 1st January).

The next few weeks see me busily working away at Handel House, in the role’s other main activity - leading creative workshops with school children (of a variety of ages!) on the music of Handel. I’m loving planning these at the moment, trying to make the compositional process tangible and immediate for them, and introducing them to some of the stunning music which was written in this building.

I’m looking forward to sharing some of these experiences with you soon!