Performance-composition, sand-boxing etc.


Meeples and Mus-its

Just been thinking about meeples which are little playing counters in the shape of people used in various "European" style games.
In some musical cultures a particular instrument becomes fused with a particular kind of music, sometimes only producing that music and nothing else. This concept could become an interesting compositional tool. Playing with the idea of the musical equivalent of a meeple - well a good name for such a primative two-dimentional virtual musician/music/instrument might be a "Mus-it" (nice utilitarian ring to it). Extending the concept immediately creates questions: What happens when one mus-it encounters another. Does one devour another, do they become superimposed, or do some elements of one mus-it´s musical identity form potentials that another might incorporate.

Meanders From “Man and his Symbols” edited by Carl Jung. “Part 3: The Process of Individuation.” by M.-L von Franz.

Thus our dream life creates a meandering pattern in which individual strands or tendencies become visible, then vanish, then return again. If one watches this pattern over a long period of time, one can observe a sort of hidden regulating or directing tendency at work, creating a slow, imperceptible process of psychic growth – the process of individuation.” (2)

The meander occurs visually in many cultural forms. The maze or labyrinth, recursive decorative patterns etc. It remains recognisable in spite of disparate cultural contexts. If we apply the meander to music, the dissolution of the simple theme within the complexity of the whole (essentially the reverse of M.-L von Franz’s psychological description above) then what do we have? The Baroque fugue, the Highland pibroch, the vast interlocking complexity of an Indonesian gamelan; all these musical forms seem irretrievably locked within the significance of there own musical cultures. However, if we could retro-engineer each of these meandering forms back to their atavistic source - a source with an overwhelming desire to meander independent of culture - then, I feel, we might have reached the sort of primal musical state that I am interested in exploring and, ultimately, as a composer, communicating.

“Event Clusters” the “Dry Way” and Feedback loops


Reading Jeff Pressing’s essay “Improvisation: methods and models” I found his concept of “event clusters” struck a chord with my own experiences as an improviser.

The first part of this model describes the process of improvisation. It begins with the observation that any improvisation may be partitioned into a sequence of non-overlapping sections. By non-overlapping it is simply meant that sounds are assigned to only one section, not that sounds themselves do not overlap. Let each of these sections contain a number of and be called an event cluster Ei. Then the improvisation I is simply an ordered union of all these event clusters. Formally,

I = {E1,E2 . . . En}”

Pressing, Jeff: Improvisation: methods and models from Sloboda, John A. (ed.):
Generative Processes in Music pps.152-3.

Of course the passage immediately begs the question “where is the partitioning line for each event cluster?” as well as sounds, on-going improvisatory themes and tactics do overlap from arbitrary section to section creating crossfadings of ideas within a musical improvisation. However, with some reservations, Pressing’s model is not a bad place to start.
The next step is to subvert the model and try to create an improvisation that operates with as few event clusters as possible. That gets me a nearer to the kind of reductive-input improv that I seem to be experiencing in my own head and which also reminds me of some isolated examples of generative improvisation I have found in various musical cultures. Examples that contrast markedly with most improvisational situations I have taken part in and listened to. These seem to exist in a constant state of external fertilisation, with ideas played out by the musician(s) until the next input sends the improv in a new direction (this description of improvisation seems to be totally in line with Pressing’s model).
“Generative Improvisation”, I nearly slipped that one in unnoticed. In contrast with the “External fertilisation” model I have just described, a “Reductive input” improvisation resists the temptation to consciously reach out and grab new material from external sources, instead relying on a constant reshuffling and potential synthesis of its own limited motific elements. The concept is similar to two methods found in alchemy, the “Humid Way” and the “Dry Way”
The “Humid Way” is the more usual method where various substances are, little-by-little, added to the alembic, the crucible heated gently, the results noted. “The Dry Way”, on the other hand:
“…requires the crucible to be heated mercilessly, and no more dew, no green plants can be fed to the matter within.”
The latter (Dry Way - C.R.) is a much more rapid process that will yield tremendous results if it succeeds, but which is extremely hazardous because of the greater temperatures to which it subjects the matter in the sealed vessel.”

Godwin, Joscelyn: Harmonies of Heaven and Earth p.98.

Mysticism aside, creating a sealed microcosm where motific elements are fed back on themselves, to interact and synthesise compound motifs, seems to be the ideal model to study the possibility of emergentism(6) in the context of a musical dialogue. “Generative improvisation” is a useful umbrella term that I would prefer to use when describing these musical “Dry Way” processes, both internally and externally.

External and Internal Generative Improv

“…some isolated examples of generative improvisation I have found in various musical cultures.”

What cultures?

How do these examples remind me of the kind of: “…reductive-input improve” that I seem to be experiencing in my own head?”

The shifting phase-iterative generative improvisations that I heard from various field recordings came, for the most part, from Papua New Guinea, Central Africa, the Philippine highlands and the Indian cultures of Mexico. In addition, a fiddle solo from the Inuit of Baffin Island and a double bagpipe solo from Dalmatia, Croatia. What they shared with the internal examples “in my own head” was their constant reshuffling of a limited gamut of elements. From these elements, more complex phrases seemed to be in a constant state of synthesis and dissolution, polarisation and depolarisation.
The music in my own head seems to differ from all but one of these examples (it is from Mexico) in that both the pitches and the tempo seem to be in a constant state of flux. This is perhaps not surprising, when I have attempted to externalise these internal generative improvs on various musical instruments, often the most elusive elements to realise are these variable contours of pitch and tempo.
Also, for the most part, the field examples are monophonic and are played on a single instrument. By contrast, the music in my head seems to change from timbre to timbre. What is more, these timbres often extend themselves, by added resonance, into harmonic forms which gradually bud-off into supporting parts.
The field recordings have a homeostatic quality about them. The beginning, middle and end sections tend to resemble one another. My own generative improvisations seem to diverge from the initial template, through the gradual accumulation of variation described above, also from inevitable contamination from the outside world, also from lapses in my own concentration which create schisms and abrupt changes of direction in the improvisation’s course so that, by the end of a lengthy improvisation, I find it difficult or even impossible to remember and recreate the elemental conditions that I began with.



A performance of “Reading” can be found at:



1 cardinal melodic instrumentalist. (Kornette*)


1 fixed heterophonic instrumentalist. (bass recorder)
1 mutable heterophonic instrumentalist. (selection of instruments encountered along
the score)


1 two tone non-pitched percussion instrumentalist. (bamboo slit drum)


1 real-time composer.

* suggested instrumentation.

The Score

A long roll of paper which the musicians travel along. The roll can be on the floor, or on the wall and extend for at least 15 meters. At the end of the roll is a mounted board arranged that the audience can clearly see the symbols on it.

Double five line chromatic stave (black) with three continuous ledger lines (red) marked above, in between, and below the two chromatic staves.



red____________________________________________________________ C

black ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Bb
red____________________________________________________________ C

Notes written on the lines form a whole tone scale. If the red ledger lines are C then the above tones follow. However the transposition of the clef is left to tthe discression of the cardinal melodic instrumentalist.
The spaces between the lines on the stave should be wide enough to alow for microtonal inflection.

i.e. from the lower line moving up to the upper line, the interval spacing would read as follows:

Intervals from C to D

---------whole tone------------------------------------------D-----------------------
three quarter tone Dq
half tone C#
quarter tone C+

Notes on the stave are written in dot-dash proportional notation.

. short
_ normal

________ long etc.

general pauses are expressed as / one breath // two breaths etc.
The two pitched percussion part is written below the stave.

dynamic marks, if used, are written conventionally.

Above the stave are symbols that relate to the playing of the two heterophonic instrumentalists. The symbols are as follows:

% create an interlocking part with the subject.

$ create a part which implies or shadows the subject following the subjects pitch
or with harmomelodic variation.
= create, as closely as possible, a mirror image with the subject.
O a circle around a note or group of notes of the subject means play as a drone.
* play an interruptive musical gesture
+ stop playing.

On the mounted board are symbols written for the audience to participate. These are:
CLAP, STAMP, WHISPER, and /, (a pitch gradient for singing).


The composer begins by briefly demonstrating the function of the symbols on the board to the audience. A short rehearsal is necessary. With one hand the composer points to each symbol (a conductor’s baton is a good idea), eliciting an appropriate response from the audience. The response’s amplitude is modified by the composer’s other hand.

The composer then walks to the beginning of the score and begins to write.

Either the composer has a head start of 1-2 minutes or the first fragment of the score is already written.

The instrumentalists then begin playing, walking along the score as they do so. If the score is on the floor, then the cardinal melodic instrumentalist and the percussionist walk along the score on the same side as the composer (reading the score right-way up). The two heterophonic instrumentalists walk along the score the other side from the composer (reading the score upside down).

Along the path of the score are several stationary instruments: melodic and percussive. The mutable heterophonic instrumentalist plays these instruments relating the symbols above the score to the cardinal melodic instrumentalist or the percussionist depending on the nature of the instrument encountered.
These stationary instruments are played for as long as the musician can clearly see the section of the score that the other musicians are playing. When this becomes different the mutable heterophonic instrumentalist walks on to the next instrument.

If the instrumentalists are in danger of catching up with the composer, the composer may resort to multiple repeat marks. Conversely if the composer draws ahead excessively, s/he may wait for the instrumentalists to catch up a little and hum, whistle or play along on one of the stationary instruments.

End game

When the composer reaches the end of the score, s/he moves over to the mounted board and starts to conduct the audience. When, the instrumentalists finish the score, they join in with the audience. The composer then ends the piece in an appropriate manner.


Performing “Reading” was an informative though rather disturbing experience. I had imagined a performance situation that would have creative interactive feedback loops between the composer and the performers. In practice, the time lag between the composed and performed material was, for me, a distraction. I found myself shutting out the performed music and only, rarely, paused to listen. When I did, I was only too aware of the performers’ relentless march (a little like a musical combine harvester) and the precariousness of my position as constant provider of new material (a little like a musical rotary cultivator). After the piece was finished I realised that I had only a very shady recollection of the performance and I was genuinely surprised at some of the music I heard during the video playback. Perhaps, with practice, I would have become used to this way of working, overcoming its performance, paradoxes in time. However, I feel some of the underlying faults of the performance mechanics insurmountable - the time lag, the inexcusable waste of paper. With this in mind, I am presently designing a new system of real-time composition, the “Sandbox”.

Readingand the Sandbox

To begin with, I thought a good place to start designing this new system would be to create a new set of composition mechanics that would allow me to recreate a performance of “Reading” though in a (hopefully) much improved context. From this point I could then develop the design in order to create music that would be less utilitarian and two dimensional.

Here is what I came up with:-

(fig 1) the sandbox array


 (a) Chromatic-line. 

 (b) Root-stone. 

(c) Diatonic-stones. 

(d) Harmonic-stones. 

(e) Medial-stones.

Hands-on Tutorial

We will now try to emulate a performance of “Reading” using the Sandbox instead of the 30 or so metres of score-paper I used in its previous performance.

First of all, the biggest change. You will have probably noted there is no chromatic 13-line stave in the sandbox. Instead the Sandbox allows the composer to work in a less metric, more contour oriented manner. This was a conscious choice on my part to create a system that was more sympathetic to my own internal music.

Now, let’s start making some music. We have, at our disposal, an ensemble of musicians that have thoroughly digested the mechanics of the Sandbox system and await your notational instructions. To begin with, we shall focus on the root stone (b), and its relationship to the chromatic line (a).

Chromatic movement.

First, touch the root stone with the index finger of your left hand. Instantly the melodic instrumentalist plays the note middle C (the default root tone of the system). Take your finger from the stone and the note ceases. You will have noticed that the oblique lighting of the Sandbox makes it easy for the players to see if your finger is touching its surface or not.
(fig 2)
touching the root stone.

  Touch the stone again and, again, we hear middle C. Now, without taking your finger off the sandbox move it diagonally upwards and to the right of the root stone i.e. a little along the chromatic line (a).

 (fig 3) 
moving upwards along the chromatic line.

The melodic instrumentalist changes from middle C to C sharp. Move back to the stone and then gradually left and downwards along the chromatic line. The melodic instrumentalist returns to middle C and then downwards to B.

 (fig 4) 
moving downwards along the chromatic line.

Now touch the diatonic stone (c) diagonally upwards from the root stone, along the chromatic line. The melodic instrumentalist plays E above middle C. That is because the diatonic stones are set a major third above and below the root stone. 

(fig 5) 
touching the upper diatonic stone.

Touch the lower diatonic stone and the melodic instrumentalist plays Ab below middle C. Now move your finger diagonally below the stone, along the chromatic line. The note changes to G, chromatic movement works in the same way as it did for the root stone. 

 (fig 6) moving downwards from the lower diatonic stone.

Moving your finger back to the lower diatonic changes the tone back to Ab then, as you move away from the stone, A natural. Your finger continues its path up the chromatic line until it encounters a medial (e) stone and the tone changes to Bb.

(fig 7) 
encountering a medial stone.

The medial stones indicate tones to be played at the mid-point between diatonic stones and the root stone (also between the harmonic stones (d) and the root stone).

Enharmonic movement

Placing your finger back on the root stone, move it slowly vertically upwards; the melodic instrumentalist creates a slow microtonal glissando that follows the movement of your finger.

(fig 8) 
enharmonic upwards glissando

With your finger touching the stone but slightly above it, the tone is slightly higher than middle C, rather less than a quartertone. Touching the sand at progressively higher points above the stone, creates discrete pitches along the gradient defined by the glissando. Repeating the process vertically downwards from the stone creates a descending gradient.
The same rule applies to the two diatonic stones, the two harmonic stones and the four medial stones.
(fig 9) 
enharmonic downwards glissando from lower diatonic stone

Harmonic stones

Diagonally upwards and to the left of the root stone is the upper harmonic stone or “overtone” diagonally downwards and to the right is the lower harmonic stone or “undertone”. The default setting for these stones is a perfect fifth above and below the root stone. Touch the overtone and the melodic instrumentalist plays G above middle C. Moving vertically upwards and downwards from the stone, creates the same enharmonic gradients described earlier. Moving diagonally downwards towards the root stone creates a gradient that meets the medial stone at precisely E quarter flat, a neutral third at the midpoint between the root stone and the overtone.

(fig 10)
 enharmonic downwards glissando from overtone to medial stone

Metabolé on the sandbox

“Metabole” (Ancient Greek for “change”), is the modal equivalent of modulation in tonality. You will have probably realised that if you follow the chromatic line upwards past the upper diatonic stone, you will have reached the highest chromatic tone possible of F above middle C. Similarly, if you follow the chromatic line downwards past the lower diatonic stone, you reach the lowest chromatic tone of G below middle C. All-in-all the range of the chromatic line is a minor 6th. To extend the range of the sound box, we can use the metabole mechanic.

Touch the “overtone” with your middle finger and the melodic instrumentalist plays G. Now, while still holding your finger on the overtone, touch the root stone with your thumb (if you have done this right, then the G is still being sustained), then drag your middle finger down to your thumb on the root stone (again, the G should continue being played).

(fig 11) 
using metabole on the sand box.

Move upwards along the chromatic line and the G becomes G# then A at the medial stone, all the way up to C above middle C. Metabole downwards works in the same way but on the “undertone”. To disengage the metabole option, simply touch the overtone or undertone normally.

Now you know enough to create or re-create the melodic line for “Reading” but what about the other parts. Let’s look at the percussive instrumentalist’s part.

Using the percussion tiles

Nothing could be simpler. Touch the left tile with the thumb of your right hand. The “percussive instrumentalist” plays a beat on the lower tongue of the slit drum. Touch the right and the higher tongue is beaten. Now, with the right hand, you can create a two-tone percussion part while creating the melodic line with your right hand.

(fig 12) 
using the percussion tiles

The Heterophony trays

Before we learn about the heterophony trays, we will introduce two “counters” into the sandbox array. One is for the fixed heterophonist (Red), the other for the mutable heterophonist (yellow) 

(fig 13) 
two counters

 Now we are going to activate one of the heterophonists. Drop the red counter into the tray marked: “$”. Now draw a melodic line with your right hand: the melodic instrumentalist realises the line as before but, this time, the fixed heterophonist also plays along, creating a part “…which implies or shadows the subject, following the subject’s pitch or with harmomelodic variation.” As in the original score, the fixed heterophonist´s performance is fixed on one instrument.

(fig 14) the red counter is in the $ tray

The next step is to drop the yellow button into another tray. Let’s see, if you drop it into the “%” tray, then the mutable heterophonist will “create an interlocking part with the subject.” If you drop it into the “=” tray, then the mutable heterophonist will play “… as closely as possible, a mirror image of the subject”, you could, if you wished, drop the yellow counter into the “$” tray along with the red counter and the heterophonists would perform separately, following the same instructions. However you have opted to drop the yellow counter into the tray marked “*”. Let’s see what happens.
You trace the melody with your left hand and create a percussion part with your right. The melodic and percussive instrumentalists play, the fixed heterophonist joins in and the mutable heterophonist selects an instrument from an impressive collection and … plays nothing. Releasing the percussive instrumentalist, you move your right hand over to the “*” tray and tap the yellow counter. The mutable heterophonist responds with an appropriately “…interruptive musical gesture” and the music continues.

(fig 15 )
touching the yellow counter in the * tray

Creating a drone

 Move the red counter from the “$” tray and place it next to the lower diatonic. Tap it, the fixed heterophonist plays a drone on Ab. Tap the counter again, the, drone stops.

(fig 16)
 the red counter next to the lower diatonic

 Creating a drone loop

Move the red counter onto any open space on the sandbox. Flip the counter over, on the reverse side is the mark of an “O”. Now create a short melodic phrase of about 3 or 4 notes long and touch the red counter. The fixed heterophonist now plays the melodic phrase as a repeating loop. Touch the counter again and the loop stops.

 (fig 17) 
the flipped red counter

Creating an ensemble loop
Finally, we have to introduce one last counter, a green one with a plane side and an “O” side, which we can place on the right hand side of the sandbox. To create a loop on all instruments, flip the green counter over to its “O” side and create a short melodic phrase. The whole ensemble now plays the phrase as a repeating loop. Touch the counter and the loop stops.

(fig 18)
the flipped green counter

A prototype model ripe for expansion

These, instructions should enable anyone interested in creating a performance very similar to the one I did with “Reading”. I imagine a mounted camera over the sandbox array connected to a video monitor or series of monitors (one for the audience to watch, for example). One element of the original performance that the sandbox will not allow is the final audience participation section but, there again; I could possibly invent more counters for the audience. However, I doubt if I will ever reproduce a performance of “Reading” in this form.
Using “Reading” as a starting point to create an alternative real-time composition system was, I think, a good idea but does nothing to correct what I feel to be the basic flaw of the piece, i.e. its rather two dimentional utilitarian character. To me, the sand box seems to beg development and, rather than waste time in recreating something that I am not really satisfied with, I think I will expand the array’s mechanics to fit the more expansive music that I envisage. Then, I will call up the musicians and arrange the rehearsals. For more developments … watch this space!!!


Swimmers” was commissioned by the 2010 “Reindeer 700” video-arts festival at Eiðar Arts Centre. It took the form of a passive installation/sound-sculpture and an active “comprov (guided improvisation) performance that used the installation as an interactive environment. The installation was built in an empty indoor swimming pool.

The sound-sculpture element of “Swimmers” is centred around several suinkinkutsas. A suikinkutsu is a type of Japanese garden ornament and music device. It consists of an upside down buried pot with a hole at the top. Water drips through the hole at the top onto a small pool of water inside of the pot, creating a pleasantly ethereal splashing sound that rings inside of the pot similar to a bell or a koto board zither. It is usually built next to a traditional Japanese stone basin called  chozubachi which is used for washing hands in as part of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
The swimming pool had five water outlets to allow it to be filled quickly so I decided to build five suinkinkutsas, borrowing five large flowerpots from a local garden centre. I attached faucets too each outlet so that I would be able to control the amount of water flow to each of the suinkinkutsas. Unfortunately one of the faucets was destroyed on the initial test run when the build up of water pressure proved to be too much. With a limited and dwindling budget for materials, I decided to make a double suinkinkutsa out of two of the flowerpots and have the water flowing from the four remaining outlets.

(fig.i) suikinkutsu diagram.

String and “Swimmers”
People that were involved in the Reindeer 700 festival were forever asking me what I was up to in the swimming-pool and seemed to be genuinely interested in work in progress. However they all seemed to expect some kind of accompanying video to be projected on the wall above the installation, something I had absolutely no intention of doing. This did make me start to think in more visual terms though and I, first of all, thought of giving the installation the look of a video by stretching transparent plastic over the pool. Then it would be as if you were watching the installation through some kind of screen. I could then attach fairy lights to lower surface of the plastic to heighten the effect. If I used enough lights, I could dispense with any other lighting altogether.
In a way, I am glad that the plastic proved to be prohibitively expensive for me to use. I have doubts that the low volume of the static installation and generally low volumes of the performance would have penetrated the plastic enough. As it was, I decided to create, what I thought would be a similar effect, by haphazardly weaving a latticework of string over the pool. This took up a lot of string but, by the time I had used up two spools, the effect was beginning to look like something. However something was still definitely missing; the work needed a theme that would link the various elements, both sonic and visual, together.
I was thinking of calling the work “Bathers” but one day, when idly musing on the title, an alternative, “Swimmers” came into my head. “Swimmers” is a word which intermittently crops up in my notebook. It always accompanies a doodle of a vaguely humanoid looking squid-like creature with a pointed elongated head and four curling limbs or tentacles; apart from this, they are featureless. Accompanying the doodles, are fragments of cryptic text such as: “We found the swimmer on the beach near the sand dunes. The body was a uniform grey like a shark”, another one: “The arms covered with the bodies of flies – tingling sensation when touched.” I never seem to have given myself a clear picture of what swimmers are and, maybe it is for that reason that they continue to find their way into my notebook. “Swimmers” became the title of the work and simultaneously provided it with thematic continuity. I cut small Swimmer figures out of black paper, scattering them along the floor of the pool and hanging them from the overhead strings (see fig.ii).

I decided to disguise the suinkinkutsas as swimmers as well. It meant that I could dispense with the ugly plastic catchment bowls which were needed to create resonant ponds of water under the flower pots. Instead I made the ponds from polythene, bolstered with large stones underneath. When constructing these larger swimmers, I initially imagined them made from the dirty black sand found throughout Iceland. When talking to Eiðar Art Centre’s caretaker Ásmundur Þórhallsson, though, I realised that the water in the pool was recycled and, rather than spoil the water and possibly the whole recycling mechanism, I decided to make the swimmers out of pebbles instead. I piled the pebbles up round the polythene ponds and soon the suinkinkutsas were the elongated heads of the swimmers which I then extended downwards into trailing, spiralling limbs (fig.ii).
I then wove a net of string between the two large swimmers at the base of the pool and the string latticework that covered the pool’s “surface”. These would form webs for me to hang the two written sections of “Swimmers”, the “Dynamicals”. Finally I stretched red fairy lights around these webs and another set in a spiral in the upper section of the pool (fig.ii).

  fig (ii) Various “Swimmers” and latticework of strings.

In the “Swimmers” performance I wished to create a work that would fluidly shift from states of guided improvisation to relatively fixed areas which used comparatively conventional notation (albeit in a rather unconventional form). These fixed areas were in the form of motific flow charts that I had built up through a series of my own generative improvisations (see chapter 4 of commentary) . I called these charts “Dynamicals” borrowing the term from the “Dynamical systems” studied in Complexity Theory (scores of both “Dynamicals” are included in this “Swimmers” folder). In “Swimmers” the Dynamical scores were cut up and suspended within the string latticework (see fig.iii).

fig.(iii) suspended “Dynamical”.

Another fixed structure I used in “Swimmers” was a version of the “Sandbox” I had designed earlier in the year. In this incarnation, the sandbox has six stones laying in two parallel rows on a bed of sand. The left-hand stones indicated low, middle and high pitches for one musician (playing a clarinet played without the mouthpiece, like a cornetto). The right-hand stones indicated low, middle and high pitches for the other musician (playing a quena flute from South America). The tones where left to the discretion of the two performers.

fig.(iv) sandbox diagram. 


In the performance I was the guiding “Sand-man”; when I touched the stones, the musicians played corresponding tones on their instruments, high middle and low. When I made patterns in the sand, the musicians followed with corresponding gestural contours. To complete the picture, I sang a third line.

A new, improved Sandbox

I had been working on the concept of the Sandbox, off and on, for over a year. In the “comprov” piece, “Swimmers” it had been stripped down to a far simpler version than the original concept. This was the first time that I worked with the Sandbox as a live music-creating tool and during rehearsals and the performance it became apparent that novel ways of using the sandbox would spontaneously suggest themselves on the spot. Since these innovations were not included in the pre-determined rule-set, it then became a question whether the performers would interpret these novel forms correctly or whether my movements/singing would trigger performance responses quite different from the ones I had foreseen.
I had been arranging to meet members of S.L.Á.T.U.R. (Association of aggressive composers from around Reykjavik) to test-run the Sandbox in a new configuration and one of the main things I wanted to explore was this ambiguity in conveying performance information - its possible encouragement of musical emergence.
In keeping with its playful seaside connotations, the new Sandbox array’s various upgrades and expansions were made from seashells, seaweed, pebbles (and sand). The central section was now partially submerged and renamed the “Rock-pool”.
Finally the Easter holidays came around and I had a couple of days in April to travel to Reykjavik and work with S.L.Á.T.U.R.
The New Reykjavik array is really a simplified version of the Original prototype. It’s most radical departure from the previous two models is introduction of water into the central “rock-pool”. This was to allow me to create expressive performance “drawings” which, if I had drawn directly onto the sand, might have obliterated or confused the array’s structural details.

Improved Sandbox   

1. - Rock-pool
2. - Rock-pool governor
3. - Bone-yard
4. - Bone-yard governor
5. - Dynamical governor
6. – Arena

A – Root stone
B - Chromatic Line
C - Diatonic stones: I - upper, II - lower
D - Harmonic stones: I - overtone, II - undertone
E - Boundary lines
F - Medial stones
G - Spare stones for “stacking”
H - Heterophony shells
B - Bone keys (stones in Reykjavik)
J – Frame

Found objects
Practically all the elements of the Sandbox were found objects (the exception was a set of Chinese chess pieces that I used for counters). I arrived in Reykjavik with an old window frame and some plastic sheeting I had found the day before, in a hedge, flapping in the wind. A trip to the beach at Seltjanes provided me with rocks, shells, various kinds of seaweeds and a rather rancid old sheep’s horn ...Oh, and also a large bucket full of grey-black sand. The sandbox was then assembled in the S.L.Á.T.U.R. H.Q. in downtown Reykjavik.

I introduced the various elements of the sandbox one by one with a series of cumulative tutorials to avoid bombarding the players with a bewildering amount of performance instructions in one go.

Tutorial 1 – The Rock-pool.
In the centre of the Rock-pool is a partially submerged stone called the “Root stone.” The Root stone is the central pitch/sound of the Rock-pool system. When touched by the “Sandman” (composer/conductor) the players choose a pitch/sound (not necessarily that of the other players) and create that pitch/sound in a way sonically equivalent to the tactile suggestion projected by the manner in which the Sandman touches the stone (is it stroked? Hit? Is sand allowed to trickle on to it? etc.) This “tactile projection” is one of the central mechanics of the sandbox and works within all of its elements.
The Rock-pool is bisected by the chromatic line (made in this case from some kind of creeping beach plant). All melodic movement suggested by the Sandman on the chromatic line occurs in discrete nodes along its length. Melodic movement away from the chromatic line is in the form of enharmonic contours which are emphasised by the sensuous swirling eddies created in the surface of the water
Along the chromatic line are various pitch nodes. The most important of these are the Diatonic stones. The upper diatonic stone is roughly a minor 3rd above the root stone, the lower, a minor 3rd below. Stacking a stone on top, shifts the pitch of the diatonic stone a semitone away from the root stone. So: One stone – minor 3rd, 2 stones – major 3rd, three stones – perfect 4th etc.
The Medial stones give pitches roughly equidistant between the Root stone and the Diatonic stones.
The boundary lines and frame corners modify their neighbouring stones a minor 2nd.

Put all of this together and you get the following pitch relationships along the chromatic line in the diagram above.

In the default position of one stone per diatonic you could create a 9 note chromatic scale by:-
(1) touching the frame of the bottom right corner, (2) touching the lower Diatonic Stone, (3) touching the water surface over the Diatonic Stone’s boundary/chromatic line node, (4) the Root Stone’s boundary/chromatic line node, (5) the root stone itself ...and onwards and upwards to the frame at the top left hand corner. Straight off you probably see the difference between a smooth keyboards chromatic scale and the changing micro topography that accompanies any kind of movement on the Rock-pool.
I have referred to pitch in demonstrating the chromatic line but any graded sound could be activated using the same system (phonemic vowel shapes for instance).
The last element of the Rock-pool we shall visit are the two Harmonic Stones: the Overtone in the top left-hand corner and the Undertone in the bottom left. These work in a similar way to the Diatonic stones except that one stone means a 5th above or below the Root Stone (on the Overtone and Undertone respectively). Stacking a stone above, increases the overtones to an octave.
Modifying the Overtones by touching their enclosing boundary lines or frame corners lowers or heightens their pitch by approximately a major 2nd (not a minor second as with the Diatonic Stones).
As I mentioned earlier, enharmonic movement is achieved by “drawing on the water surface away from the various stones and chromatic lines. Again, these movements can be greatly influenced in the manner and expression of the drawing.

So ends the first tutorial and if you are thinking that already there seems to be a mind boggling amount of information to digest in the comfortable armchair of your rational, problem solving thoughts - let alone when you would try to play along with the instructions at a hectic real-time tempo – well, you are absolutely on the right track ...more about this later.

Tutorial 2 – The Bone-Yard
Much simpler, this one. Five bones or long flat stones are arranged to make a very simple keyboard-like array. The spacing of the bones gives a rough idea of the spacing of the pitches/sounds implied when the Sandman touches the keys. The bones can be moved or stroked during play creating vibrato or portamento effects as desired or rearranging the pitch spacing during play. In general the Bone-Yard implies a much rougher, less defined sound-world than the Rock-Pool.

Tutorial 3 – The Dynamicals
Dynamicals are prearranged musical fragments displayed as a matrix of heterarchical relationships (see fig.5). The Dynamicals are arranged visually onto a flow chart (more accurately a data-flow diagram). The notation represents a simplified unidirectional version of the rock-Pool array, with the central line representing the Root Stone.
Some fragments may be repeated, others not. Pathways between the fragments may be one-way, two-way, or non-existent. When a player comes to a dead end (i.e. the rest at the bottom of the dynamical) the dynamical can begin again at any fragment. Players play the dynamicals freely, at their own pace.
On the first day of rehearsals, all players were given the same homogenous dynamical. On the second day, each player received their own heterogeneous dynamical. In both cases the players were encouraged to adapt the fragments to the idiosyncratic demands of their instruments and their own particular motor patterns.

Tutorial 4 – Shell Governors and Totems
Each player is given a totem (in the Reykjavik rehearsals I used Chinese chess pieces). The Sandbox sends out various streams of information and how this information is translated ( who plays what and how) is determined by the placement of the totems in relation to the zones of the sandbox, in particular the Shell Governors.

    Each Shell governor filters information in relation to a particular zone of the sandbox . The top right hand governor filters information from the Rock-Pool, the bottom right, Dynamicals and the left hand governor, the Boneyard. Placing totems within or around the governor changes the nature or filtering of that information.

(1) Totem or totems within the shell play information directly from the particular sandbox source ( e.g. Placed in the shell of the Rock-Pool governor, the totem directs its owner to interpret the Sandman’s movements within the Rock-Pool as sonic output).
(2) Totem or totems shadow the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell.
(3) Totem or totems interlock with the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell.
(4) Totem or totems create an upward Harmomelodic shadow of the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell.
(5) Totem or totems create an interlock, above the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell.
(6) Totem or totems create a downward Harmomelodic shadow of the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell.
(7) Totem or totems create an interlock, below the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell.
(8) Totem or totems create a retarded shadow of the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell.
(5) Totem or totems create a retarded interlock with the sonic output from player or players (choose one) whose totems are placed within the shell. It took me a long time to figure out a possible realisation of this last filter but if the interlocking player chooses a particular note or notes that a signifying player produces and the plays that note as an echo with accompanying decorative tones then I think that might work.

Placing of the totems may also be done in a far more direct way e.g. Placing a totem on one of the stones within the Rock-Pool implies a drone on that particular stone’s pitch.
Another way of filtering or creating new material from the Sandbox array is by using the “Grow-shell.” This piece of Sandbox hardware takes the form of a large whelk shell. When placed next to a particular Shell governor or isolated totem, the action implied is for the players involved within the Grow-Shell’s influence to develop their current Sand-box activity independently of the Sandman’s actions (although, hopefully in full awareness of other activities sonically occurring simultaneously within the Sandbox session).

Tutorial 0 – “Erratics”

The Sandbox is not a perfect information array. One of the considerations I made when designing it, was to create a plastic medium that would allow on-the-spot modifications to be made to the Sandman/Player information stream; the creation of “Erratics”, musical directions that the players have to interpret without prior information. As I hinted earlier, correct interpretation of these erratic new performance instructions is not necessarily of paramount importance for a good Sandbox performance. Rather, the interpretation/misinterpretation of unforeseen events within the array creates the possibility of opening new pathways of musical emergence. Again, I was aware of designing a “comprov” array that would be flexible enough to follow the possibly radical changes of musical direction that I feel could be created within a Sandbox session.
Looking at other “comprov” directors and their systems I am often struck by the fixed nature of some of these arrays. Barry Guy’s wonderfully illustrated scores, for example, work as a succession of fields with the director assuming the role of sedentary farmer; able to move his flock of improvisers freely from field to field (modifying hand gestures can operate as a kind of guiding sheep-dog within the context of each field) but at a loss if the flock breaks out of the system of fields altogether. In the Sandbox I wished to develop the sort of social contract that exists between a nomadic herdsman and his/her flock. Not least, the nomad’s ability to forage and survive in a variety of terrains. Objectives, even long-term goals can be made by the nomad, but these are invariably altered by shifting circumstances of a transitory existence. Crucially, the nomadic herdsman is forced to follow the flock through winter and summer pastures, making camp in familiar and unfamiliar surroundings. By keeping the Sandbox’s informational streams adaptively flexible I hope to create the same nomadic social contract between the Sandman and the participating players.

Complexity Meltdown
I was surprised at the speed in which the S.L.Á.T.U.R. musicians were able to digest and reflexively interpret the Sandbox’s rule-set. Even so, there really is a lot of performance information to absorb (especially in the Rock-pool) and reacting real-time to the Sandbox’s information streaming inevitably creates screw-ups in the performance. Once again though we find ourselves in the realm of “Erratics”; errors in the system which when coupled with the Sandbox’s informational feedback loops, have the potential of telescoping into complex emergent forms.
At a basic (pretty obvious) level Slow gestures given by the Sand-man are more-or-less correctly interpreted by the players. Speeding up the tempo increases the player’s deviation from the signals. Studying the video tapes of the rehearsal, I can see how I sometimes intentionally slowed down the informational stream in order to let the players “catch up” with what I was trying to convey - and, for me, one of the charms of the system is this amateur dabbling in the field of cognitive psychology that using the Sandbox invariably lead into. I might draw a pattern of successive pitches in the Rock-pool and maybe a player would interpret one or more of the pitches wrongly, but if I repeated the pattern, I could begin to feel the player’s reflexive dilemma, “I was wrong so now I will correct the pitch”/“If I correct the pitch I violate the integrity of the repetition.” Speeding up the information again and the rules became blurry and transitional the responses more subjective, idiosyncratic.
Another interesting facet of the system we played around with was how fast was it possible to pick up the Sandbox’s rule-set without any prior information. Áki Ásgeirsson missed the first day of the Sandbox rehearsals and incurred the penalty of ignorance of all rules. After one session we asked him what he had managed to find out through inductive playing-along. He had figured out a surprisingly large proportion of the rule-set. This led us to another idea that I would like to pursue the next time I set up the Sandbox Array. What happens when the Sand-man has no prior knowledge of the workings of the Sandbox while all the players are completely familiar with it.
“What happens when I touch that stone? Move that counter here? Splash in the water? Make snaking trails in the sand? Build a house out of dirt?”

A video of the Reykjavík Sandbox tutorials can be found here:-

The Ventriloquist

 While recovering from a bout of pneumonia in 2010, I found myself listening time and time again to a Steven Feld’s recording , “Bells and Winter Festivals of Greek Macedonia”. One track in particular (track 7: Festival Parade at Kali Vrissi) has an almost intoxicating, translucent quality about it with continually shifting strata of bagpipes bells and drums. Feld’s skilful recording techniques emphasises the spatio-sonic relationships of the composite elements within the parade. While going through my notebooks I found a page dating from this time where I had tried to break down the cyclic bagpipe melody into a series of micro-cycles with various accompanying rhythms (which never seem to properly match the melody), see fig(1). Above this are some graphically drawn musical events to which I have added the verbal explanation: “multipolar dynamical array showing gravitational pull and mutual independence (interdependence)”. Above this are some heavily stylised drawings of animals and a shaman-like character which are influenced by some printouts I had of Lapp drum designs from 16th and 17th century Sweden and Finland - part of my reading material at the time and largely responsible for my music theatre piece, “Ode to a Reindeer”. By these I have written the words “The Ventriloquist” (I seem to remember looking at and admiring the painting of the same name by Paul Klee in a book about Outsider Art [Colin Rhodes]). I have to say that around the time when I wrote/drew this page, I was pretty much out of it physically and mentally and remember most of my recovery period through a thick fog (smelling faintly of menthol). Perhaps this is the reason why I am attracted to this and other pages of the notebook I wrote during this period. If I were right-handed I might almost say that my left-hand had scrawled across the page with a life of its own, leaving behind traces of something recognisably mine yet with an undeniable sense of otherness as well. The identification of otherness and its part in my (and other people’s) compositions will be discussed in more detail later on this blog. For now what is significant is the use of this particular page of my notebook as a focal point or series of focal points for the piece, the two most obvious being “The Ventriloquist” as the title and the idea that, at one point in the piece, the wonderful celebration of chaos found in the recording of the “Festival Parade at Kali Vrissi” would be encountered in one form or another.
Sitting at my laptop, writing this essay after the event, a definite danger is for me to post-rationalise my compositional decisions, emphasising and deemphasising them in relation to a finished product. Predicting this, I decided to keep a journal of “The Ventriloquist” while I was composing it so that, when I got around to writing about the piece, I would be able to recall my day-to-day, bar-to-bar compositional concerns as they occurred to me in chronological order. Strumming on the fiddle and rediscovering pages of my note-books happened early on in the compositional process, but it was not very long before I became stuck with a problem that had been bugging me for some time, in what form should I physically write the score.
When talking about a possible chamber piece to be performed in Reykjavik, Ilan Volkov suggested that I could either conventionally write a work or, perhaps use the “Sandbox” array to create a semi-improvised work. Pretty soon after this I had a dream of performing a piece with Ilan conducting an ensemble to the right of the stage and me using the “Sandbox” on the left with musicians, playing along with the other ensemble (during the performance I distinctly dreamed that I rolled a metal ball across the stage and Ilan caught it, stopping the piece). I told Ilan about the idea of writing a piece to be played in this manner and he thought it would be worth doing. This left me staring at a blank piece of paper, wondering how to create a score that, rather than reflect a duality of bipolar systems running parallel to one another, would instead create the impression of the written and comprovised material cohesively playing together as an integrated whole. To do so I would have to invent or adapt a symbolic notation system that would be sympathetic to the duality of the piece; a sensitive matter, I have become increasingly suspicious of the connection between symbolic feedback and its effects on compositional creativity.
A principal objective of my doctoral research to intentionally marginalise the role of symbolic extension in composition. Diagrammatic systems, first used as a mnemonic aid to musical performance, run a real risk of instigating separate paradigms of notational concerns that can then effect change on a musical level counterintuitive to intuitive musicality. Early examples of this problem can be found as far back as ancient Greek music where the strings of the lyre (the principal instrument of Greek musical theory) were set at seven. The Greek modal system required the existence of the octave however and this, for a time, necessitated the omission of one of the steps of the heptatonic mode until this theoretical compromise was finally found to be too unacceptable and the use of a 13 stringed lyre permitted (5). Another example, perhaps more significant to Western Art Music was the finite notational extremities of the medieval staff. Composers writing exclusively in parallel harmony could find their bass lines with literally nowhere to go as they reached the lowest staff line. If the melody continued downwards then the bass line was forced to repeat the lowest possible written note creating oblique harmony until the melodic line rose again, a harmonic revolution that would not have occurred in this way without written notation (since the modal pitches were only fixed on the page and not in aural reality, if a piece went to low for parallel singing it could always be transposed upwards to a more comfortable “key” (6)). Allowing for the probable widespread use of drones at the time, the musical template of oblique harmony almost certainly pre-existed in the ears of medieval monks, nevertheless I believe this particular change in early harmonic practice can trace its source to a notational rather than an intuitive, musical development. Turning to the 20th century and modernism, there are no shortage of formalistic schools where “Glass-Bead-Game” diagrammatic systems were utilised by composers to generate musical works. However composers using comparatively intuitive methods to write their music were certainly not immune to the influences of symbolic extension.
"The most interesting aspect for me, composing exclusively with patterns, is that there is not one organizational procedure more advantageous than another, perhaps because no one pattern ever takes precedence over the others. The compositional concentration is solely on which pattern should be reiterated and for how long ..."  [Morton Feldman]
The earliest of Morton Feldman‘s “pattern pieces” is thought to be his opera “Neither”. What is relevant to the point I am making here is the relationship between Feldman’s reiteration of patterns and there bass-level visual relationship to the written page. The changing of patterns and textures in “Neither” always coincide with a turn of the page of the score leaving anybody studying it with the suspicion that the changes of patterns were decided on by extra-musical methods. This example illustrates the two-way relationship between what the composer writes onto the page and what the page reflects back up to the composer. How the act of reading and re-reading this primarily visual data can effect change on deliberate and visceral levels.
Looking at some of the sketches Stravinsky made for “Le Sacre du Printemps” I was struck by the overwhelming sense of continuous potential that these wet-paint images convey. In this unfinished form, Stravinsky’s writings give the impression of a constantly renewing or renewable creative resource, a construction forever locked within the process of being constructed (shades of the Pompidou Centre). For this reason, after a certain amount of experimentation, I decided on a similarly sketchy calligraphy which would constantly reflect the “wet-paint” nature intrinsic to the piece that I wanted to write, back into myself, creating a visual feedback loop that would compliment and cross-pollinate the aurally/tactilely produced source material of the piece.
Getting my head around the dualistic sound-world I envisioned and how it should be notated was also a problem at the outset. I eventually decided to begin by writing primarily for the “conventionally” conducted ensemble with only the sketchiest of indications of how or when the “Sandbox” was to appear. That meant sifting the “Sandbox” out of some of the intentionally thick textures I wished to create, leaving a sparser score - blank spaces that would give the “Sandbox” places to go, clarities to cloud. What was the nature of this purely aural inspiration though? And how did strumming on a fiddle help/shape/change the character of this inspiration?
Hearing the Ghost Band
The aural snapshot I had of the “Festival Parade at Kali Vrissi” immediately gave some kind of a structural impetus to “The Ventriloquist”. I knew the piece would eventually encounter the parade, however how it would get there or what would happen after it arrived I really had no idea. Another aural snapshot I had was a textural one; a mechanical sound of a complex construction moving but with loose bearings or joints – rusty hinges - a creaking gate being blown by the wind with a large Meccano chicken badly soldered onto it – something to scare the birds away. This helped me to envision the sort of instruments I wanted to create the sound-world for the piece: A prepared harp, baby piano, melodica, double bass played with a baton, a percussion array based on a large drum flat on the floor with sand-paper attached to it and some handy serrated metal sheet close by - really a world of slightly broken sounding instruments, what was salvaged from an orchestral container, blown off a freighter during a fierce hurricane and washed up on a beach.
The two principal instruments? The plucked fiddles? As I wrote earlier, their central role to the piece results from the time I spent improvising a musical language on an unplugged electric violin played with a pencil instead of a bow (bows get in the way if you have to notate things fast). Working or trying to work outside of conventional musical idioms has, somewhat paradoxically, led me to ask questions about what actually constitutes an idiomatic musical system. How is good and bad music acknowledge by the aficionados of a particular idiom and can artificial idioms (created by a single composer independently of cultural feedback) be constructed with internal syntaxes that allow an asemiotic or asemic appreciation by the listener comparable to those achieved by naturally idiomatic (created by individuals within an environment of cultural feedback) music. In the naturally formed idiomatic model, musical intuition can be seen as an aggregation of fixed cultural precepts. To create an artificial model, an imaginary musical culture, the composer has to produce a matrix of fictitious cultural precepts expressed and developed within a musical work or a series of musical works (here I am consciously thinking of the later works of Donatoni from 1974 to his death in 2000). Be it idiomatic or non-idiomatic (post idiomatic?) it seems to me that an appropriate course of action is to retrace the steps of both kinds of music to the fork in the road where they branched off. The topography of this rendezvous point must consist of two components: the musician/composer and some kind of medium acting as a catalyst. If that catalyst is a mathematical formula or a piece of graph paper then, for the purposes of the present study, I am not interested, but any medium capable of creating sonic output has a kind of musical potential similar to the turbulent effects produced by placing some kind of large obstacle into a shallow river; engaging with it obstructs and creates musical eddies which propagate new directions and methods of musical flow, feed-back systems are produced between the medium and the musician and, before you know it, a fledgling musical idiom (natural or artificial – at this stage the terms are immaterial) is produced. 
For me, nowhere is this concept more concrete than in the myriad kinds of music found in the island of New Guinea. Here the disparate forms of instrumental music are often separate, one might say almost indifferent to one another. Rather than shape the instruments to fit the music, here the instruments seem to have formed their own idiosyncratic musics around themselves. When played together, often an overwhelming impression of superimposed musical forms placed one on top of another with no real sense of integration is produced.
When I started strumming the fiddle, both the instrument and the way I was playing it seemed to pull me into a reductive dialogue with a continually developing musical substrate. Again the feeling of being in contact with an independent or, at least semi-independent “otherness” was overwhelming. Thinking of the relationship between myself and the instrument reminded me of the action-reward cycles of behaviour observed in B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber (also known as the Skinner box) experiments.

Skinner Box”.

During the experiments a laboratory animal (usually a rat or a dove) typically had/has to complete a series of movements (combinations of lights etc.) to receive rewards. Habitual behaviour is modified by the repetitive reward response into new behavioural paradigms. In my musical model the musical instrument does much the same thing to my habitual motor patterns as the Skinner box did to the laboratory animals, recalibrating them as they shifted to the reward response system of...? Well possibly,
...what psychologist Mihany Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow” of being o absorbed in something you do well that you scarcely notice the passage of time.”(8)
Here Csikszentmihalyi is writing about abstract qualities of happiness. Translating the statement into the context of the composer: (possibly) the reward of discovering a simplistic yet labyrinthine musical language with the potential of sustained and unpredictable development. At this stage in the game, maybe that’s as good as it gets.
Extending the fictional idiom further to the context of the ensemble as a whole, I had been musing over the flamenco aesthetic ideal of duende (lit. “elf”), where all participating elements of a performance achieve an unspoken interactive summit of perfection that is only acknowledged by the unspecified yet universal consent of performer and audience. Can duende exist in the context of a post-idiomatic musical event? Breaking the concept of duende down, perhaps what we are really looking at is an aesthetic term for musical emergence, the whole creating something far greater than the mere sum of its parts (towering termite nests from a colony of tiny insects, the complex interdependent ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef from coral polyps). Cornelius Cardew writing about his experiences with the AMM ensemble:
With the new equipment we began to explore the range of small sounds made available by using contact microphones on all kinds of materials -glass, metal, wood, etc. -and a variety of gadgets from drumsticks to battery-operated cocktail mixers. At the same time the percussionist was expanding in the direction of pitched instruments such as xylophone and concertina, and the saxophonist began to double on violin and flute as well as a stringed instrument of his own design. In addition, two cellos were wired to the new equipment and the guitarist was developing a predilection for coffee tins and cans of all kinds. This proliferation of sound sources in such a confined space produced a situation where it was often impossible to tell who was producing which sounds -or rather which portions of the single roomfilling deluge of sound. In this phase the playing changed: as individuals we were absorbed into a composite activity in which solo-playing and any kind of virtuosity were relatively insignificant. (My emphasis) "(9)
Also James Fulkerson writing about Morton Feldman:
At a point early in his career, Morton Feldman settled on composing a music which was characterized by very soft sounds (Instructions were often: Dynamics are very low or Dynamics are exceptionally low, but audible.) Almost always, he demanded: Each sound with a minimum of attack.
What do these indications about dynamics and how a note is drawn into life really indicate? Unquestionably, they indicate an attitude to performance, to making sound, from which many other musical details follow. Attempting to play with a minimum of attack means that there will not be aggression in this music, fundamentally, it is a fragile, tenuous sound world in which exactly which instrument is playing a sound is often ambiguous. Is the instrument playing a muted trombone or an alto flute, a soprano or violin? (My emphasis)"(10)
Both passages would seem to suggest a similar aesthetic ideal, the sacrifice of the individual personality (whether literally as performers or metaphorically as instruments) for the greater homogeneity of the ensemble. Again the totality is perceived as being greater than the sum of its parts, a possible translation of the idiomatic concept of duende into a post-idiomatic context. Again thinking of the music of New-Guinea and some field examples I have of large scale “superimposed” musical events (often recordings of rituals), a tangible quality of musical heterogeneity phasing or blurring into a perceived homogeneity and then sliding (clarifying) back to heterogeneity seems apparent. The aural experience was a polar dialogue that I wanted to explore within “The Ventriloquist” and, along with the aural snapshots described above, provided me with a strategy of intent for the ensemble writing.
Along with some other pieces I have written during the present study, “The Ventriloquist” uses the concept of inductive stigmergy to generate organic ensemble dynamics (both artificially and naturally).
Stigmergy is a mechanism of indirect coordination between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity."(11)
To imagine writing a piece using inductive stigmergy as a compositional mechanic, it is best to imagine an ensemble playing without music, instead each element of the ensemble responds dynamically with the other elements (the sort of situation which exists within an improv ensemble). Within the ensemble certain fictions may develop: members may have worked out stereotypical question and answer phrases beforehand, others may induce these phrases by their repetition within the piece etc. Discreet tutti events become problematical. Unison entries can be achieved but only through a vehicle of anticipation again created within the piece or as a fictionalised rehearsed nodal point.
In “The Ventriloquist” inductive stigmergy exists naturally within the Sandbox part of the ensemble and artificially within the conventional part. The degrees of natural and artificial stigmergy, however, vary within the conventional writing due to various notational filters that I employed, chiefly “fog-notation” and “phase-notation”. Both forms of notation allow the performers a limited amount of aleatoric freedom: “fog-notation” creates ambiguities of notational clarity which are translated into uncertainties and insecurities by the performers, “phase-notation” gives a starting and ending condition within the context of an iterative phrase, the performer then phases the starting phrase into the ending phrase over a certain amount of time or repetitions.
So far I have spoken (at some length) of some of the inspirational ideas that led me to begin writing “The Ventriloquist”. Thanks to my compositional log-book I am now in a position to relay the compositional process itself. However, before I do this I feel must return to the subject of “otherness” and contrast two invocative methodologies.

Mechanisms of otherness
fig. (3) “Example of Method Ringing”.

Six bells, six pitches. Follow the blue line and the first pitch follows a predictable linear course among the neighbouring pitches. The red line, at first sight seems to have some comparatively unpredictable properties; however the routes of both lines and those of the other pitches are derived from two simple algorithms and once the method ringing pattern “Plain Bob Minor” is set in motion it will (on six bells and if played correctly) run through 72 changes before it begins the cycle again.
The aesthetic attraction of method ringing and the creation of the automaton are one and the same. The calls (common calls are known as “Bobs” and “Singles”) run through their courses of shifting permutations with a mathematical freedom independent of any human intervention. Once instigated they exist in a world separate from conventional human thought – rather, a state of algorithmic “otherness”.
During the 60s the composer Donatoni attempted to reconcile European serialism with Cage’s notions and practice of freeing the self from intentionality. After a period of experimental vigour, Donatoni entered a self-destructive phase, composing primarily with automatic procedures. Michael Gorodecki writes:
It is with Puppenspiel 2 (1966),however, that the last and most important part of Donatoni’s negative phase begins. Fifteen years later the composer noted that “Automatic procedures had already been activated in Puppenspiel 2,” and these procedures, called “codes” by Donatoni, came to be at the very heart of his technique. In principal they derive from serial and post-serial operations of inversion, retrograde, transposition, diminution, rotation, permutation, etc. But they are taken by Donatoni far beyond an all governing pre-compositional matrix through a constant process of mutation and transformation. Furthermore until Duo per Bruno (1975), the code, once set off, fixed into a rigid mechanism which lost all contact with the subjective act which initiated it.”
[Gorodecki, Michael (1993): “Whose Pulling the Strings. Michael Gorodecki introduces the music of Franco Donatoni.”]
The pursuit of this “egoless” music led Donatoni into a mental state of intense depression. He felt that his compositional output was worthless and, early in the 70s, ceased writing music altogether. After a hiatus of about a year, Donatoni resumed composing, however his subsequent works utilised a different compositional approach. The automatic procedures were still there but now they found themselves juxtaposed and superimposed onto one another in an almost capricious manner, by an intervening guiding intellect.
Quickly he accumulated a vast technique of microstructural control which would give rise to an overall freedom- a freedom derived directly from the kind of organic structural sense he had obsorbed from Bartok, but which had been for so long submerged.”
Later in the same article Gorodecki even goes so far as to assign different neural centres to the dual aspects of Donatoni’s compositional processes.
But at the same time what crucially refreshed every work was Donatoni’s recovery of the sense of the quality of music: a reconciliation with the intuitive part of the brain, which could allow him to shape the qualitative side of music into an abundant profusion of sustainable wholes, just as the overall effect of a cloudburst is made up of millions of droplets. Granted Donatoni deliberately reflects to acknowledge the connective pathways between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. But that would be to cloud the precise dualistic understanding that is at his compositional theory and practice.”
Gorodecki argues that maintaining this duality is crucial to Donatoni’s aesthetical world-view.
Moreover any kind of admittance of an overall encompassing unity would either be to acknowledge Cages Buddhistic world-view on earth – for Donatoni it is only a symbol of Nirvana; or (2) “to identify oneself with one’s own qualitative being. And that would be a return to thinking in the subjective, expressive first person, i.e. romantic ... Le style c’est moi one can no longer say ...”
The article attracted my attention because it indicates parallels between Donatoni’s compositional theory and practice and some of the compositional conclusions I have made during the present study. Gorodecki basically defines Donatoni’s duality as “analytic” (left hemisphere) generative functions and “intuitive” (right hemisphere) organisational functions. I see dualities in my own work but I prefer to see these in terms of “reflexive” (back brain) generative functions and “deliberative” (frontal lobe) organisational functions both functions operate intuitively (essentially non-verbally). Recent neural research renders both models over simplistic and underlines that a lot of our preconceptions of music and its relationship to brain-centres (which part decodes musical syntax, which part improvises etc.) are currently in the process of being radically redefined, proving that any neurological musical models should really be based on the vigorous findings of qualified neuro-scientists, and not the amateur speculations of composers.
Bearing this in mind I can go on to address first the obvious similarities of the two compositional systems. Both rely on a generative pool of sustainable musical material, this material is then organised micro-structurally and macro-structurally using deliberative though intuitive processes. In fact here Donatoni would seem to be the more radical composer standing the conventional notion of composition (a small amount of intuitive inspirational material, arranged into a full-scale work by analytic methods) on its head. The real clincher that tells me that we follow a similar course is supplied by Gorodecki later on in the article.
That world for Donatoni is often seen as an elaborate playhouse in which on event will coincidentally trigger off another: the sight of a shop window of cakes, for instance, may make you miss the traffic-light change which may then cause you to meet someone you know near the shop whom you would otherwise have missed...etc., etc. ... Donatoni reflects this in his method of discovery and elaboration of new figures which appear by chance from the results of automatic growth.”

That familiar feeling of a butterfly flapping its wings over my manuscript paper and causing radical unseen results. However the nature of our generative and generated material is profoundly different. For me, the music stems from limited event cluster improvisations, either on actual instruments (including tapping and humming) or improvised internally. Because these generative improvisations belong to my own reflexive knee-jerk persona, they remain indelibly linked to everything that essentially I am, paradoxically this precludes any romantic notion of the composer’s super-ego since the generative procedures do not belong, in any way, to an intellectual higher plateaux. Donatoni might have liked to refer to his mathematical codes and filters as “giochi per i bambini”, nevertheless capricious mathematical or diagrammatic gaming can run a very real risk of intellectual elitism; take this chess problem for instance. 

fig.(4) “Fairy chess problem”
This type of chess problem is a “two mover” (white checkmates in two moves). In addition it is a fairy-chess problem since several pieces have been modified from their conventional moves: The upside-down queens are “grasshoppers” which have to jump a piece and land on the next square in order to move or capture (along queen’s lines). The sideways knights are “nightriderhoppers” that, in order to move or capture, must jump over a piece a knights move away and then land on a square a further night’s move in the same direction. The rules of the conventional game have also been altered to give two versions of the same problem. The first rule uses “Andernach-chess” where a piece that captures changes colour. The second uses “Circe couscous” where a captured piece is reborn on its starting place but on the enemies lines.
In the first game the white nightriderhopper moves to f7 threatening to create checkmate from the white grasshopper at e4 by moving it to b4. Black then responds in three ways, capturing the grasshopper at e4 with 3 different pieces. White then checkmates with an answering move to b4 again with 3 different pieces. When the rules shift to Circe couscous, the initial attack changes to nightriderhopper to d1, again, implying the same checkmate from the grasshopper at e4. Black counters in exactly the same three ways as the first example. This forces white to checkmate with the same three pieces on the same square as in the first example, however the checkmates answer black’s moves in a different order, a cyclic response. These are the only possible solutions to the problem.
For the chess-problem enthusiast, examples such as this are considered to hold great aesthetic beauty and the kind of mental gymnastics needed to create them require a great amount of frontal lobe prowess, chess problem-composers of this calibre are revered as masters of an intensely acetic field - intellectual elitism expressed egotistically in a diagrammatic language which owes its roots to chess but is now only tenuously linked to the parent game (ring any bells) . Donatoni was, of course not in the business of creating mathematically closed musical problems, rather he generated dynamically open musical arrays with inherent potentials of highly developmental manipulative pliability. Rendered mathematically, these arrays seem to me to share a lot of similarities with cellular automata; in fact a Donatoni like compositional process could be described in the form of a sequential realisation of a cellular automaton with shifting rule sets operating from sequence to sequence - take “Conway’s Game of life” as a starting point.
The universe of the Game of Life is an infinite two-dimensional orthogonal grid of square cells, each of which is in one of two possible states, alive or dead. Every cell interacts with its eight neighbours, which are the cells that are horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent. At each step in time, the following transitions occur:
  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if caused by under-population.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overcrowding.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.
The initial pattern constitutes the seed of the system. The first generation is created by applying the above rules simultaneously to every cell in the seed—births and deaths occur simultaneously, and the discrete moment at which this happens is sometimes called a tick (in other words, each generation is a pure function of the preceding one). The rules continue to be applied repeatedly to create further generations.(19)
Then we begin....
  • Create an 18 by 18 board squared board.
  • Create 4 sustainable colonies of cells.
  • (click) Make two of the colonies white and two black.
  • (click) Add the rule: If a cell has exactly 3 neighbours then a cell is stacked vertically on top of it.
  • (click) Add the rule: Any dead cell with exactly 3 neighbours of mixed colours becomes a live red cell.
  • (click) Add the rule: Any stack of cells whose sum exceeds that of its surrounding orthogonal cells explodes onto those surrounding cells (a cell on each and any remaining cells stay on the original)
  • (click) Reduce the board to 8 by 8 by removing outer rows.
  • (click) Allow movement on the board to become steroidal.
  • (click) Add the rule: any stack within range of cell (or stack topped by a cell) of another colour along a diagonal or orthogonal line, topples over onto and possibly over that cell. If a choice exists no action occurs.
  • (click) Add the rule that any colony of cells not attached to a red cell, dies.
  • (click) Add the rule that the central cell of an exploding stack becomes a hole incapable of supporting a live cell.
  • (click) Add the rule that: if a cell will die on the next click it may migrate to a surviving configuration diagonally or orthogonally at a distance equal to the amount of cells (including itself) along that line. If the surviving configuration does not exist or if a choice exists no action occurs....etc., etc.
For a lot of people (myself included), cellular automata hold an immense fascination, creating bewildering evolving arrays from simplistic generative rules. The geometrical information they convey can be translated and equally applied to ecosystems, economic growth, effects of forest fires and, yes, musical micro-motific development. However cellular automatons are, by their very nature, profoundly autonomous constructions. They can be applied to any diagrammatically reducible phenomenon but their universality means that their generative properties are never specific to any one particular phenomenon; and that is the problem I find with Donatoni’s generative musical codes. In their utilisation, he was creating a radical new musical vocabulary but the diagrammatic universality of these processes only relate to music when it is thought of as a lattice-based, geometric art-form, an illusionary standpoint, one that has evolved alongside western musical notation as an organisational system that allows composers to create and manipulate complex musical structures. Remove this illusionary percept and Donatoni’s diagrammatic generative processes become, at their core, arbitrary in nature, in short amusical. My own system of improvisatory event-cluster exploration may possibly result in some bizarre sounding music (that is for the listener to decide) but, in the words of one great American president, “The buck stops here”, I take musical responsibility for the generative as well as the organisational aspects of my work since, at every stage of production, it has been shaped by my own individual, idiosyncratic musicality. 

  “Composer’s notes"

During the course of this essay, I have described the inspirational impetus that led to me to write “The Ventriloquist”, mentioned the thematic snapshots that created structural strategies and orchestration, discussed the visual aspects of the score and their effects on compositional practice and investigated the nature of otherness in musical composition. Now it is time to pull these stings together and commentate on the step-by-step composition of the piece and how the concepts outlined above were applied to “The Ventriloquist” in a real-time context.
Initial improvisations on an unplugged electric violin plucked/strummed as mandolin – centred around 3 tones: d’’¼#, d’ and f’’# - d’’¼# prominent tone, often repeated – recurring patterns mapped out on composition notes(see first 3 and ¼ lines of fig.(5a)). Each composition session begins by warming-up with these patterns, becoming a compositional matrix with motific templates forming nodes with shifting connecting vectors – often new patterns derived from these initial templates.
Listening to Afghan rebâb playing by Ustad Mohammad Omar(20) struck by the authoritive attacks on each phrase – decide it would make an effective opening for the piece and designate a snap pizzicatos to the second violin, alternating with phrases from 3-note matrix described above. Also decide that 2 violins should become the core instruments of the piece, plucked with plectrums for extra volume and played in mndolin position to reflect my own musical “journey
Also sound of bells jangling together from recording of : “Festival Parade at Kali Vrissi” leads me emulate effect on violin –not written in composition notes – first appears in score on page -one-, middle of second system on first and second violins.
Considering the relationship of first and second violins, I imagine father-son or big brother and little brother musicians with a repertoire handed down from first to second violin. Idiomatic patterns exist but memory of these stereotypical phrases require mnemonic cues from the first violin. Strongly influenced by east European zurna folk shawm duos.
Continued improvisatory sessions create an irregular iterative field, I attempt to notate a typical example of this in the section marked “piu mosso” in fig(5a). Also pondering on the relationship of other ensemble instruments to principal violins - decide that they have no prior knowledge of the violin music and, instead, grasp at melodic/rhythmic material as it occurs.
Begin writing score proper. Firstly nature of dynamics – again, influenced by Feld’s method of field recordings, imagine dynamic focussing as if a microphone is walking among the players picking up specific details while simultaneously blurring others. End of first phrase, second violin repeats first violin’s repeating d’s but slower and overlapping. Decide that will also be echoed by the contra-bass as a first tentative way of joining-in. Other instruments join-in by responding to the second violins conspicuous snap pizz.s. Stigmergic chains are produced.
Repetition of material gives a chance of the accompanying instruments to develop their responses to more of an interlocking. I repeat a motif on the violin and the bass-drum contra-bass and harp form a hocket. The violins now move into the “jangling” texture which has the effect of breaking-up the hocket (page -one- middle of second system). At this time I am not sure of the nature of percussion and some of the initial percussion instruments I envisioned are, later reduced and simplified.
Two problems now occur to me: first, how to leave room for the sand-box in the written score. I imagine the sand-box beginning to join in around page -two-. At the end of first phrase on that page I decide to let the first ensemble wait for the sand-box ensemble to finish what they are playing, then cue the next event. Second problem is that I cannot find a way to introduce the irregular iterative material. Also what does the second violin do while the first plays it? I find it fits in better on a d’/d’’¼# pivot and bring in the irregular material that way. Micro-gestural cues lead to responses on the second violin, simultaneously extending the harmonic role of the snap-pizz. tone. Mimesis occurs on the contra-bass and harp. Again the concept of interlock becomes a contextual variant: if the music fixes itself into a repetitive “groove”, then the interlock becomes measured and geometric. If that groove breaks up and becomes irregular, then motific cues create answering responses with variable reaction times between the calls and responses – further ambiguities occur if a second “call” occurs while the second instrument performs a set response – perhaps the second instrument will begin to play its own repetitive phrase to bring the first instrument back into a uni-temporal state of correspondence.
Using the note a’ on the violin G-string leads me to start improvising further harmonic relationships on the lower two strings, also three string circular progressions. These are notated on the 6th and beginning of the seventh line of fig(5a). I also find a way of bringing in the original erratic material by repeating the f’’¼# crotchets on the 6th line of fig(5a) and then jumping off into the irregular patterns. In the score on page three the repeated notes of the first violin are caught and imitated by the other instruments. When the erratic material occurs the other instruments lose the flow and, instead begin laying the swaying “jangling” texture using a gamut of pitches between themselves that, again I worked out on the violin by playing different kinds of sweeping arpeggios and then imagining their realisation on the various instruments.
Now I feel the aural snapshot I envisaged of the “Festival Parade at Kali Vrissi” is near to its realisation in the score. There is a far richer vertical relationship between the instruments - still I am unsure how to lead the snapshot in. My ensemble is also too percussive for the snapshot and I feel the need to bring in some more legato “snapshot-specific” instruments that would also lead some of the existing instruments into their legato roles (violins and the contra-bass) – oboes and trombone to the back of the stage. The chromatic baby-piano is also beginning to annoy me with its monochromatic sound and I decide that the pianist should double on melodica.
I begin thinking of the piece after the snapshot and begin irregular scalar improvisations on the upper two string of the violin (one of these improvisations is notated in fig(5b) using a “dot-dash” durational notation on a 5-ine chromatic score, it lasts the whole page). Also a more regular scalar improvisation starts to take hold in a mode that seems to have little to do with the other material in the piece. I imagine using it as a CODA and, for the first time, the piece’s ending occurs to me (the repetitive figure is notated at the beginning of line 8 in fig(5b).
Returning to the page of my notebook described at the beginning of the essay fig(1) I imagine a realisation of the graphic material marked “multipolar array...” but using a reiteration of the original improvised material at the head of fig(5a). A stable array of homophonic relationships is built up between the instruments of the written ensemble how this table ensemble will become the translucent iridescent array I am not sure, but I can imagine it breaking up into the jangling bells section and becoming more drum-like and assertive also, re-gathering itself together.
For a couple of days I am uncertain how to go on. I begin to imagine the texture in a different way by blurring the individual parts and imagining the whole of the snapshot to be something out of focus, this I map out in a macro-structural form at the bottom of fig(5a). The notation on page -five- of the score reflects this way of thinking and relies heavily on both “phase” and “fog” notation. Before writing the snapshot melody, I played through the badly remembered melodic material from fig.(1) and created the simple “dynamical” on the left of lines 7 and 8 in fig.(5a). I then wrote two realisations of the melody onto the score: one for the violins, one for the oboes. Both operate independently except when they play the final section of the cyclic melody when they meet up and play in unison.
I also notice the rhythmic line over the cyclic melody that I wrote in the notebook (fig(1)) – again I play this through several times, tapping my fingers on the desk and imagine its role as an “in-focus” rhythm that drags the instruments not engaged in the cyclic melody out of their “out-of-focus” state and into an intermeshing (albeit loose) relationship with the melody.
By now several things have happened with the instrumentation: the percussion array has reduced itself to a set-up based around a marching bass-drum lying on the floor (this was heavily influenced by some sessions of the Contemporary Music Ensemble that I taught in the University of Glasgow where we used the surface of the drum to amplify some of the sound sources in the piece “Stones” by Christian Wolff). In “The Ventriloquist” two pieces of sand-paper are taped to the drum-head also a serrated piece of metal sheet and a zither with a tin on it that rub against the strings and emulate the sound of the jangling bells – again, a modèle réduit of the real sonic event. The trombone has jelled into a heterophonic partnership with the contra-bass while the oboes do the same with the violins.
A growing awareness that I have been ignoring the relationship between the “sand-box” and “written” ensembles. The textures of the written ensemble have become too opaque allowing little space in which “sand-box” can contribute - the idea that the scalar passage I have been working on should now create sparser textures to enable a more egalitarian contribution from both ensembles.
It is now that the piece has reached a sort of maturity and, from this point onwards, writes itself. All the material is now derived from the scalar improvisation on fig(5b) the other parts either attempt to play along with it, or echo the textures of the blurred “snapshot” textures.
Textures remain sparse until page eight where a feeling of rhythmic unity is emphasised by my instruction to the conductor to clap at the beginning of every bar. The texture is held together with heterophonic methods that have built themselves up during the course of the pitch and are now so internalised that I write each part extremely quickly. Each part is written out horizontally with vertical relationships developed with each melodic “wash”. I decide to conclude the texture abruptly with the violins and contrabass overshooting – again sporadic textures.
All that remains is the final CODA I had envisioned earlier when writing the piece. I use the harmonic figures that I wrote down in fig.(5a) (lines 6 and 7) as a bridge. In my mind is a membrane leading this piece to another possible piece - to let this new piece begin before stopping it after introducing the listener to its new flow. That is what the cyclical CODA represents, a new piece with its own rule-set that creates a final border for “The Ventriloquist”. The percussionist “plays-along” roughly but with no pauses keeping a spacio-temporal relationship with other element of the written ensemble while remaining outside, a separate aspect of the musical whole - something that has exited throughout the piece but shown here with a new clarity – again I find I am influenced by the superimposed musics of New Guinea. Another thing that has shadowed the piece throughout is how vertical relations meet-up and go about their separate ways – how tightening one element of the ensemble allows the simultaneous relaxation of another restraint. Also, a piece came into being here that I had no idea how to write and, by focusing on and internalising a few snapshots and intentional goals, the piece was able to enter into an autonomous state whose unwritten rule-set I could respond to rapidly and intuitively.
I end the CODA with a repetitive “fade out” on the written ensemble - there is little or no information on how the “Sandbox” should react to this – no mention of me rolling a ball to Ilan Volkov and his catching of the ball signalling the end of the piece. I shall just have to see how things develop in rehearsal.

A recording of "The Ventriloquist" can be found here:

Sandbox, New directions