In early 2014, I took a call from Crash Ensemble’s Artistic Director and cellist Kate Ellis. She was enquiring as to whether or not I would be interested in writing a piece, for a subsection of the group, for a performance in The Dock, a cultural arts centre in Carrick-on-Shannon. The Dock is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2015 and Crash Ensemble had been invited to perform during their anniversary year. They were keen to commission a composer for the event, but the proposal involved slightly more than just a standard composition. They wanted a piece that could be performed by the group, but could also form part of an installation in their gallery space, following on/prior to the performance. Anyone familiar with my work will know that I have created quite a number of installations, from interactive sculptural pieces using 3 double pendulums to solar activated bells. After some discussion, I proposed a piece for a quartet of violin, viola, cello and double bass and video ballet. I felt, with some interesting staging, I could create an engaging piece that could exist as both an installation and a performance piece.
To give a little background to the work, I first met with Siobhan O'Malley and Laura Mahon from The Dock over the Easter weekend of April 2014. On this occasion, I was presenting my piece 'untitled (after Dan Flavin)' for 8 computer-controlled lights and soundtrack, in association with Crash Ensemble, at the Phase One Festival, an annual event in Carrick-on-Shannon, which showcases electronic music artists from Ireland and abroad. It was clear from this first meeting that the collaboration with The Dock was going to be a very exciting one and that the installation aspect of the piece had the potential to be a much bigger entity than I had previously envisaged.
Through my teaching, I knew a young Irish ballet dancer called Jamie Haughton. He had just graduated from a degree in modern ballet from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (based in Glasgow). Jamie and I met in August of 2014 and, over two days, shot raw footage for the video, which would form the visual element of this piece. To create the background for the dance piece, I set up a black box space and lit this from the four corners and above using LED tubes. I was then able to sequence the lights turning on and off, creating an ever-evolving fall of light on Jamie.
One of the amazing things about dancers is their incredible ability to remember complex patterns of movement after just one or two repetitions. With this in mind, I would give Jamie a vague set of instructions, such as move from this corner to that. Jamie would then devise a movement and then repeat this over and over while I filmed it from different angles. Due to the low light levels and ever shifting lighting, beautiful shadows and blurring effects in camera would occur. Once we felt we had exhausted a gesture, we would move into something new.
Musically, as with many of my pieces, I started out with little fragments of ideas and a general sense of what I wanted to achieve with the piece. In some cases, these fragments went on to become main elements within the piece, while in others they merely acted as a launch pad to new musical terrain. Some of my inspiration came from an interesting evening spent recording the pianist Fiachra Garvey, shortly after I began work on the quartet. One of the pieces Fiachra recorded was the 3rd Movement from the ‘Concorde Sonata’ (1919), subtitled ‘The Alcotts’ by the American composer Charles Ives (1874 – 1954). I must admit I wasn’t particularly familiar with Ives as a composer and, prior to that evening, I had not heard a performance of ‘The Alcotts’ or any of the other movements from the ‘Concorde Sonata’. The very nature of recording meant that I got to hear the movement, in its entirety, quite a few times that evening, in a very sensitive and engaging performance by Fiachra. I was transfixed by the piece and struck by its beauty and the complexity of the harmonic writing. The following day, I purchased a recording of the piece and downloaded a copy of the score in order to study it. There’s a moment, early in the piece (a small two-bar phrase), that floated out and wrapped itself around my ears and I found myself constantly humming it. This fragment of material led me to the idea of transforming it, as a means of generating material for my own piece. It was harmonically rich and rhythmically interesting and, in a sense, followed on from Ives’ compositional practice, where he would use known hymns and folk tunes in his music.
So the composition process began. I wrote a simple maxmsp patch that would playback the short snippet of material, which I could then chop up, and reorder in lots of different ways. I played with this while recording the output ‘til I felt I had created some interesting results. I then listened back to this material and selected moments that held my interest. I notated these, while also smoothing some of the irregularity out, baring in mind the instruments I was writing for and their capabilities. These fragments of material then served as the material from which my piece grew. It was at this point that the idea of basing the piece around data glitches came to the fore. The material would mimic small fragments, played from a damaged CD, with the laser skipping over sections and irregularly looping portions. Material is often repeated and frequently with unusual looping points. Material reoccurs, but is presented with slight variation- be it shuffled about, a change to the looping points or with added or subtracted material from elsewhere.
Once the musical component of the piece was completed, I set about cutting the video to fit with the audio. I followed the same principle – that of a VHS video stuck on pause. Small segments of video loop over the audio, shifting scenes from one section to the next, as if the video has suddenly skipped ahead several minutes. The video also follows the compositional process, scenes loop but with small variation and the return of musical material is not necessarily mirrored in the visual part.
The work is included in a concert tour Crash has been giving around the country, titled ‘Born in the 80’s’. In reference to both the tour title and VHS-like elements of the video, I decided to present the installation on multiple CRT Televisions. Included in the gallery are two other of my pieces, ‘(sighing): oh…but we were monsters’ for 4-Channel tape and 2 resonating snare drums and ‘Breathe’ for 12 DC motors, propellers, plastic bags and arduino.
PAUSE was written for Crash Ensemble and commissioned by The Dock with funds generously provided by the Arts Council of Ireland.
‘The Past Presence’ runs from 18th September – 21st November 2015 at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon. Open Monday-Saturday 10am – 5pm, entry is free.
http://www.thedock.ie/exhibitions/the-past-presence. Also being represented in the gallery are Mary Garry, Karl Burke and Aideen Barry.
Crash Ensemble will give the premiere performance of PAUSE for violin, viola, cello, double bass and video ballet on 31st October 2015 in The Dock with a second performance taking place in the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on 5th November.
Violin - Aoife Ni Bhriain, Viola - Nathan Sherman, Cello - Kate Ellis, Double Bass - Malachy Robinson, Dancer - Jamie Haughton
Recording- Jonathan Nangle with assistance from Jonathan Pearson.
Mastered by Les Keye at Arad Studios.