Being a New Voice 2018 – realising the potential

In June 2018 I was privileged to be selected as one of Sound and Music’s ‘New Voices 2018’, a group of fifteen composers and sound artists selected from across the UK to participate in an 18-month long programme of support for artists working in sound and music, supported by Arts Council England, the PRS Foundation (PRSF) the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust (RVWT). So what does it mean to be a New Voice 2018?

New Voices 2018

The scheme provides a small bursary for each participant, along with generous support from a whole team from Sound and Music to help us each realise our individual artistic potential. This comprises an individual Creative Project Leader, who oversees the practical and financial side of things, and other members of Sound and Music team who collectively have extensive knowhow and expertise in digital platforms, funding applications and audience development.

As well as this support network, each artist is offered a personal coach with whom to explore some of the psychological issues to think about in order to realise ambitious dreams, and with whom the final member of the team – a mentor – is selected. Being able to select a mentor is a very exciting prospect for me: to have a mentor for an extended period of time, and anyone – a composer, a director, a curator, a choreographer, an artist – can be selected for this role, anyone who will be able to expand horizons, give support and guidance in developing and promoting my individual work.

Next week I will have my first working session with my own Creative Project Leader, Samara Jancovich and with my coach Richard Whitelaw. I have been thinking carefully about who my mentor might be, what area of expertise they might have, and how I can best use this opportunity. There is great potential, but also a sense of responsibility to live up to high expectations and to create something that will make its mark in some way, speaking with a ‘New Voice’.

So far I have mapped my own plan of action, centring my focus on the development of a new work for clarinettist and live electronics Scintilla. This work has the potential to expand out, to grow in different directions, depending on how things go, where doors open or close, and on the other individuals taking part and their own creative energy, drive and ideas.

Scintilla photo montage reh July 2018
James Dooley, Jack McNeill and Liz Johnson rehearsing at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

I have started working with clarinettist Jack McNeill and digital artist James Dooley at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to develop a rich and complex soundworld that will be presented as a staged performance. The work could expand into an ambitious community project/dance work/opera/film or all of these and more. As yet nothing is fixed for the final outcome; but these possibilities are making me feel very excited.

The original starting point of Scintilla comes from an extended poem Crag Inspector by David Hart. This poem explores the relationship between a man and his environment, in this case a poet struggling to make sense of his existence (and his art) on a wild and remote island. The poem explores memory, dreams and nightmares; landscape, seascape, wild flora and fauna; other humans and their existence on the island past and present. There is an other-worldliness to the poetry. It goes deep inside the conflict and joy of finding one’s artistic voice, seeking it out, losing it, and finding it in unexpected ways.

The other aspect of being a New Voice 2018 is the amazing group of artists I now find myself part of. We met each other for the first time in June, and each individual spoke briefly about their own work: their hopes, their frustrations and struggles, and their dreams. It was inspirational.

It occurred to me that this group has not only enormous potential as individual artists creating fascinating work, but also as a group in itself, New Voices 2018 may have other kinds of collective possibilities.

We are a very diverse group, with a very diverse set of audiences. Maybe, over time, we can connect up the pockets of activity and interest we have each generated, to encourage a more engaged relationship with people generally?

Raising the profile of contemporary sound art and music as something relevant and important to modern day people, whatever their background, would be a great legacy for us to leave, and for the New Voices of the future to build on. The potential is huge.



Writing words, tools for composing

IMG_1266I write words as part of my composing process. Some one asked me recently how the two disciplines of writing and composing combine in my practise, so I’ve had a go at listing what goes on in my notebook…

  1. An initial spark for an idea.

I write down any inspiration or a thought about a new idea so that the first moment of a new piece is captured – so that I don’t forget it, primarily, and also so that I can track back to that very first moment when I am further on in the piece and might need to return to the original stimulus (which can sometimes get forgotten or lost in the mix).

2. Verbalising a problem.

If I get stuck and feel I don’t know what I should do next, I write to help determine what the next step should be. I write down what it is I have done so far, and what I perceive the problem to be. Then through this process of examining what is there, usually the next step emerges. This process is extremely helpful. At the beginning, I will be feeling confused, frustrated and at a loss as to what I should do. Through writing the situation down, the wall I have hit tends to disappear, just evaporate, focussing on thinking about what one thing I can do next to move forward. If I can’t find anything specific I encourage myself to take some time to relax, rest and move away from the problem for a little while. Sometimes a whole list of things emerges, which can be a bit overwhelming. When that happens, I look at the list and decide which of these things should be done first, and aim to do that.

3. Celebrating an achievement.

When things have gone well I like to document my feelings. This can be very reassuring when I hit the next sticky patch. I like to reread my notebooks occasionally, and finding an entry celebrating a high reminds me that there is a cycle: of hard work, not knowing, seeking solutions, more hard work and eventually some reward. Sometimes the rewards are unexpected, and often they come a very long time (…decades!) after the initial work was done.

4. Speaking the truth to myself.

When I am really struggling emotionally I write down what I am thinking and feeling physically. Tuning in to my body in detail and noting how it is reacting has been a helpful thing to do, to honour and express what is going on physically. This is a more recent way of using writing that I have developed, inspired by listening to Tara Brach’s talks on RAIN – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture. It is very personal and helps me to dig deeper down into myself. It helps me acknowledge what is there and helps me understand myself in a different way. It has helped to unlock things. It has helped me to give uncomfortable feelings a voice.

5. Noting something cool.

If I read, see, hear, learn about some amazing thing I like to write it down, either just a title or name, which is enough, or my thoughts about it as well. Sometimes I write in detail so I can relive the experience more vividly in the future. Sometimes I might find a new word or phrase to incorporate into my work somehow. I like to copy out significant bits (lines, paragraphs) from books I read. When I revisit them I have often forgotten all about it and am delighted to rediscover them.

6. Creating poetic texts.

Sometimes I find it useful to work words into a poem form. The poems are not necessarily very sophisticated, but for some reason it helps me to do this, I find it entertaining. And occasionally a good idea comes out of it that will either become a poem or a song or something else. No pressure.

7. Seeking the reflected image.

Since 1999 I have deliberately sought out reflections of my intended goal, rather than diving straight for it. This is inspired by the approach of Italo Calvino in his fascinating book about writing: Six Memos for the Next Millennium. One of the ways of seeking out reflections as a composer is to use another form of creating, e.g. writing, drawing, movement, colour, daydreaming. All of which I savour.

So what happens to all these words? Sometimes I share them when talking about the gestation and creation of a piece of music, sometimes I keep my words private. 

I find it reassuring to have my notebooks as a catalogue of the ups and downs of being a composer. Especially as every time I start a new big project I wonder how I ever created anything before.


What am I? Composer? Comuser?

I don’t like the word composer. Recently I’ve been using the world ‘COMUSER’ as a more inspiring and appropriate word to describe what I do – it seems more open, and more interactive than the traditional term. It links with the words ‘muse’ and ‘music’, a co-muser – someone who muses, musically, in a co-operative or in a communicative way with others.

‘Composer’ seems to imply an impression of more didactic and definitive outcomes. Playfulness and imagination are not at the forefront of the word. I remember when I started composing full time that I felt unsure about using this word to describe what I was doing. It took some guts to tell people I was ‘a composer’.

Lots of people I have met also seem to have a problem with the word ‘composer’ – it has a lot loaded onto it on one hand, but very little is known about it on the other. No-one really seems to know what it means, unless they have done it themselves – and not many have.

People seem frightened of the idea of composing, or being called a composer. I often ask people I meet if they compose. They usually laugh, as if it is a strange thing to ask, for someone ‘normal’ to do. I have met musicians who will not use the term in reference to themselves, even though they compose their own music. They ‘write their own stuff’, but they do not ‘compose’. A group of GCSE music students would only admit to ‘making stuff up’ – they could not equate their own musical creativity with ‘composing’.

Do poets and artists, writers, sculptors, dancers and other creators have the same problems with the words that describe their craft?

Two of the common myths about composers are that the music descends from on high, from somewhere ‘else’, and that once written down the ‘score’ takes on some hallowed state, not to be tampered with. In my experience this is not how things happen. The music is built up from nothing, it forms itself in layers through experimentation and play. The writing down is part of the making process, and the score should be treated as a prototype, not necessarily the finished article.

When I am working with solo performers in the creation of new works we are constantly tailoring the fit. Also I like my pieces to have several manifestations, to rework an idea in different ways, to reinvent things. And I like the idea of the musicians feeling free to adjust things to suit their own style, taking more liberties, making decisions.

I have started incorporating elements of improvisation into several works, encouraging the performer to ‘co-muse’ with me. This expands the nature of the finished music in different ways. The player can choose to play things that I could never write down, or the things that are unique to their technique – accessing sounds that otherwise might not be heard.

Just to clarify, the kind of improvisation I am talking about has nothing to do with jazz. I know nothing about jazz, and do not know anything about jazz improvisation. But I do know about the joy of finding freedom through making sounds in an improvisatory way. There is much more to be said about this… and about the reactions of classically trained musicians to being asked to make music in this way.

For now, though, I’d like to present this new word to the world and see if it helps encourage more individuals to make their own music, to compose – and to comuse.