The Ouija project

It was the first workshop with Peter Sheppard Skaerved on Tuesday (Valentine’s Day, as it happened), and as you’ll have guessed from my earlier post, I was quite nervous about it.  In fact, it turned out to be a wonderful day, full of laughter and discovery.

There were three of us – Peter, me and Mark Doffman from Oxford University, who is interested in observing and studying the creative process in an interactive project like this one.   I started with the sketches which I felt were least risky.  Very quickly, Mark and I saw and heard not only how wonderfully Peter played them, but also how enthusiastic he was, and how quick and keen he was to get to the heart of the idea, and to inhabit it from the inside.  This was absolutely ideal, for any piece, but especially for a piece like this, of course.  So gradually I started bringing out sketches where I experimented with different ways of influencing and the player and setting up the ‘idea’, the ‘scenario’, without necessarily writing out every note and rhythm.  It really was fascinating hearing these various different skeletons come to life.

Peter is a wonderful performer of Paganini, and also of unaccompanied Bach, so I decided to take their unaccompanied violin music as starting points for two of the movements.  The piece falls into several movements – about five, it looks like – and each one takes a different approach to the question of how I as composer can shape the improvisation: what to specify, and what to leave open.   I’m now hugely encouraged about the piece, and looking forward tremendously to the next workshop in March.

spirit voices and violins

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.

Vanessa and Virginia

This is a play based on Susan Sellers’ novel about the artist Vanessa Bell and her fascinating, complex, extraordinary relationship with her novelist sister Virginia Woolf.  This beautiful adaptation by Elizabeth Wright for two actors, and involving a moving backdrop based on Bell’s paintings is being produced by Moving Stories, and I’m writing the music.  We’ve now started working on it, and the process is rather different from how I usually write.  When I arrived after two weeks of rehearsals the actors and director had already done much wonderful work building up character history, body language, quirks of movement and so on,  and the first few scenes were up and running.

I watched the scenes, and then asked them to run them again immediately, while I improvised on the piano, responding instinctively to the atmosphere, pace and direction of the scene.  This means losing oneself in it and not trying to retain conscious control of what one is doing.  Which is all very well, but it means that at the end, it’s often very hard to remember exactly what it was that you played, especially the bits where it really took off and flew.  The solution was to video the sessions, and then play back and write up the bits which I want to use.  Of course, from there, there’s a process of editing and fine-tuning which is more like how I normally compose.  But the main part – responding to actors speaking and moving all around me, and just playing – and has been very refreshing for me.

The play opens in Aix en Provence in September, and then tours various theatres in the UK and also Krakow til September 2011.