A Throne of Games
On the 28th April 2016 I put on a concert which featured a mixture of some of my favourite open-scored, chance-based, and quasi-composed/quasi-improvised pieces to both celebrate and summarise the three years I spent studying my Bachelor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University.
The second entry in this series focuses on an award winning piece A Throne of Games. In two parts, this spoken-word sound-poem explores the fickle nature of language (not unlike that of Language is a Fictitious Fact). However, instead of allowing the performers to create their own content, I meticulously selected the sounds and words I would use in both of the forms.
If you are a fan of the show, or even the books, you might have already guessed that this piece is inspired by the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, which spawned the HBO television series, A Game of Thrones. In fact, this piece takes text selected directly from the first book in the series of the same name. However, it is only in the second form, and if you are already aware of the series that this becomes apparent.
I am always the first one to admit that the written word is not my forte, in particular the ability to manipulate the written language to my whims. So, I needed a way that could counteract this. The answer was simple:
At this point in my studies, I had only recently discovered my love for using sequences and aleatory (chance) to generate material for a composition, but I was bored with applying it purely to the sound elements of music. Applying it to the text elements of a piece would open up more opportunities. After much consideration of other sequences such as Pi, e, and Fibonacci, I concluded that Prime Numbers would prove more useful. This provided a gradual, steady rise in the digits (like page numbers), but was random enough to the naked eye, and (even to a point in mathematics), to avoid predictability. Though there was no fear of predictability from an audience perspective as I had no desire to use it to determine pitch.
Certainly for me, even before I had discovered the world of experimental music, music is not all about sound. For example, in choral pieces the text can be just as important as the musical aspect. In Operas the staging, costume, props, backdrops, acting etc. are just as important to fully portray what the music is trying to say or do, or even a particular interpretation of the music. To an audience how the piece is performed and the other visual aspects are just as important. The latter was something I was already thinking about, but I wouldn’t start exploring this element specifically until my final year. For this project I wanted to solve the problem of how I could select text.
Another element I wanted to eliminate was any implied, implicit, or inherent emotive aspects within the final text.
Being on the autistic spectrum (Asperger’s Syndrome), this is yet another hurdle to overcome. Thankfully, my compositions tend to eliminate any inherent emotive notions, and instead explore the wacky, weird, and wonderfully unique take I have on life and the sound world.
This does not mean that I believe emotions are not important. Nor does it mean that I think that they don’t have a place within the Arts. Quite the contrary. Instead I believe that, for the majority of occasions, the emotional aspects of a piece should be open to interpretation for either the audience, or the performers to decide or discover on their own. I feel that any prescribed notion of emotive elements on my behalf would be counter-productive. I have discussed this in a little more detail on the Canterbury Christchurch School of Music and Performing Arts blog.
At this stage I now have a sequence, but no method or source material.
Source material was relatively straight forward: Books! It had to be a large one meaning that I could gather enough material from it. At the time I had just started reading the second book of George R R Martin’s series (A Clash of Kings), which is pretty large. However, I didn’t want to spoil the plot for myself. Ton the other hand I had finished the first book, and it was just as big.
Now I have a sequence, source material, but no method.
The method had to be random enough that the text would produce nonsense, but use little enough of the book that I couldn’t fall under copyright infringement. Ultimately, much less than even 1% of the book was used. However, even at this point I’m still not certain whether I breach any copyright laws. This is why whenever I talk about the piece I make no attempt to hide the source material, and why the rest of the pieces in the larger series A Work of Fiction (which remains to be seen at this moment in time), will be shared free of charge. In short, the processes I used are available for others to use, the end result (the composition) is mine but free to the public to use, and the source material remains with George R R Martin.
Eventually I decided to use the page numbers as a key, and only select text from the Prime numbered pages. I then chose to use the corresponding words to that of the number of the place of the prime number in the sequence.
I promise you that is the best way I could think of to describe it in words. I have racked my brain for a few years now trying to figure out a way to coherently represent what my methodology was in words. Like I said, language is a fickle thing.
Let me try with numbers:
In a sequence that ascends through all the primes available to me by the number of pages in the book, 2 is the 1st Prime. Therefore I went to page 2, and selected word 1. This produced the word ‘had’. Page 3 is the 2nd prime. This produced the word ‘reflected’. Then again with page 5 and word 3, ‘did’. Therefore by using this method I had generated the words; ‘had’, ‘reflected’, and ‘did’. By doing this I had removed the context from the words. This process went on until I reached the last prime numbered page in the book.
Along the way I discovered that if I read them in a row, my brain tricked me into thinking that there was meaning in the phrase, even when I knew there wasn’t one. Try it: ‘had reflected did rustle’. (What exactly did this ‘rustle’ reflect??)
I now had my material to work with, and although I chose to leave them in the order they appeared, I decided that I wanted to play with this fake meaning. One of my Grandmothers then introduced me to the idea of trying to use Shakespeare’s famous iambic pentameter. Unfortunately, I was unable to fit the words perfectly within the meter. Therefore, it became more of a guide.
To further play with the fake meanings within the text, I read it out loud so I could feel where I needed to separate lines to trick the listener into finding meaning where there was none.
Before I move onto the next step I want to point something out: I had no idea, no outline, nor a plan of what my end result was going to be. Instead I found a problem, looked for ways around it, and saw where it took me. Though there was a lot of work involved throughout each step, I let the results of each step guide me to the next.
I am a big advocate of using play as a compositional tool. Even if I know what the end piece needs to be (for a commission as an example), I believe that if you attempt to force the piece, you can overcompensate, overthink, and where once you could create something wonderful, you instead create something ‘because you had to’. This in turn can lead to a half-hearted composition which you cannot enjoy. You should never not enjoy your compositions. That’s not to say that the process can’t be tedious (like when I have to throw my dice hundreds of times), but I make an active attempt to write pieces of which I enjoy at least one element. Of course this is not 100% successful. Nevertheless, it is something I strive for.
One way I do this is by playing with ideas, letting them tell me what they want to do. And if they don’t fit the purpose, no problem! Just put them away for another day. You’ll thank yourself later when you really are stuck for ideas.
My problem now was that it was a great nonsense poem, but I didn’t feel that it was musical enough. The question now was how could I make it musical without writing a tune? Whilst I could have created a melody for the text, this would have defeated the purpose of the piece, as this composition was for my technical portfolio in my second year of study, meaning that I had to follow some guidelines and link the piece to a technique outside of my own, which is a common practice when studying composition. I am honest, this is quite difficult for me as at this time in my practice I tended not to research specific methods and techniques before I began a composition. I tend to work more on my gut-instinct. Researching for a piece is something I am learning how to do more and more as I get further into my studies, though it is still a weak area for me.
As it so happened, there was an area of composition that we had learned about, that, on closer inspection, was akin to what I was doing more or less by gut-instinct: Oulipo.
In short, without going into too much detail, Oulipo is style of poetry pioneered by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lyonnais in 1960, which uses mathematics to generate text. Sound familiar? You can read more about Oulipo in a journal article The beginning of Oulipo? An attempt to rediscover a movement by James Kurt in 2015, which unfortunately for my work, came out after my piece was submitted.
Fascinating as this was, this still didn’t solve my problem. It wasn’t until my personal tutor at the time, Lauren Redhead, asked me to consider the possibility of extending the sounds, and adding dynamics, to make it more of a score, rather than just a poem, that the solution was apparent.
I vaguely remember a lecture in which Redhead introduced the class to a piece by Alistair Zaldua called Solo Speaking. I was struck by how he could differentiate between ‘e’, ‘ee’, ‘eh’ and other more complex variations. The score itself, on the other hand, whilst written clearly, was not quite in the format I wished to use. Zaldua had created symbols with a list of instructions for each individual sound that needed to be produced. My aim, on the other hand, was to compose a score for someone of no to little experience at performing pieces such as A Throne of Games, was able to pick up, and to have ‘a stab at it’. I wanted to lay out the score in such a way as to not scare away the uninitiated (i.e. me a couple of years prior). Unfortunately I can’t find a clip online.
I spent the next few days playing around with how each individual word could be changed. Picked my favourites, and tried to think of the best to present them. The results of this can be seen in the score in Form 2, and the instructions. Along the way I discover one process of the words that I wanted to exaggerate further. I had experimented with removing the vowels from words, and found that it produce a loose vocalised rhythm. I separated some of the consonants, keeping them within the original sentence/paragraph layout. Some of the extended sounds in Form 2 were also used. My favourite of which is the one on ‘K’ where the performer is to extend the sound, elongating it, which in turn creates something similar to white noise. I also spaced out some of consonants, further variating the rhythm.
The reason I chose to use the rhythm form as Form 1, is simply because I wished to leave an element of mystery around the text. Form 2 then reveals the words, but not the meaning.
One of the elements I spent a while on was to play with the spacing, and in turn; pacing. In the instructions I explained that “a semicolon ( ; ) is a shorter gap than a full stop ( . ), but longer than a comma ( , ). Spaces are also gaps, yet vary in length.”
I have already selected my material for the next piece in the collection. Interestingly, if you apply the process to a Mills & Boons book, or at least the one I purchased from a local charity shop, the text reads as if it were a basic car manual, whereas Artemis Fowl, comes out a bit more like a Mills & Boons. I can’t wait to see what the sound world will be for these materials.
I have been fortunate enough to have A Throne of Games performed multiple times. Unfortunately the performance during the competition is lost. The first time it was performed was when I was a member of the Canterbury Christchurch Contemporary Ensemble. The second was a Solo that I recorded using the university facilities, and the latest (as of August 2017) is a performance my Grandmother Jane CoomberSewell, (the same that mentioned iambic pentameter), and another Award Winning Composer (same festival, but in 2016) Hannah Firmin performed during the Inside the Machine Concert. Below is that playlist.
The next entry in this series will focus on What If? A Hansel & Gretel Tale.
– Jason Hodgson (5th August 2017)
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This post has been proofread by Jane CoomberSewell of CoomberSewell Enterprises.