spirit voices and violins

February 2, 2012

I’m currently working on a new piece for the wonderful violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved.  It’s a double challenge for me.  First, the piece will combine the live violin-playing with electro-acoustic sound: this is territory which I’ve only peeked into a few times: there’s a great deal to explore, which is exciting, and also a lot of technical stuff to learn in order to make it happen.

Second, the piece is going to involve improvisation from Peter.  This might seem like making things easier for me as a composer – essentially, handing over the job to someone else.  But the point is that I really want to investigate ways of integrating elements of improvisation into the piece, so that it feels like a real collaboration, and so that it would be very hard to say exactly where my ‘idea’ ends and Peter’s interpretation and performance of it takes over (very much like conventionally notated music in this respect).

I’ve been finding it really difficult.  Interesting, though, as it’s made me realised just how used I am to fine-tuning and fixing all the details until everything feels ‘right’.   I still want everything in the new piece to feel ‘right’, so the challenge is to find a way to do this while allowing for more flexibility in how it can be realised.

Obviously, with this kind of piece it’s essential to work with the violinist throughout the composing process, not just at the end of it.  So we’ve planned two workshop/rehearsals, a few weeks apart and well ahead of the first performance, when we can try things out.  Unlike a normal rehearsal, for which a composer tries to present something that’s polished and ready to go, I am going to show Peter all kinds of ideas and sketches include several which really might not work at all.  The first of these workshops is coming up in a few days, so that’s what I’m preparing for at the moment.

One thing has helped me a lot, which is a kind of ‘scenario’.  Both the electro-acoustic and the improvisatory elements are interesting challenges for me, but may not seem innately all that exciting to anyone else, and I felt it would be important to give them a role, a character.  It was from looking through Peter’s website, a mine of ideas and information, that I discovered something fascinating about the Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi, for whom Bartók wrote his two fantastic violin and piano sonatas.  Apparently, she used to hold séances and communicate with the spirits of the dead –  Schumann especially.  It occurred to me that, in performance, the electro-acoustic aspect is not unlike the mysterious voices of spirits, emanating from nowhere, without physical body.  And also that the medium is necessarily engaged in a kind of dialogue which has to be improvisatory.

So, even if I keep nothing else after our first workshop, I think I have a title – Ouija.

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