I am interested in new music and new aesthetics.
Composing for Organ and Electronics: Martin Iddon
*The next stop on my Organ and Electronics touris fast approaching: Canterbury Christ Church University on the 7th March (yes - Friday!). More details are here. Tickets are £5/£3 and free for CCCU students and staff of music and performing arts.
Here, one of the featured artists at the last date in Leicester, Martin Iddon reflects on writing for the combination in a short interview:*
Lauren Redhead: How did you approach writing for the combination of organ and electronics?
Martin Iddon: In a sense, no differently from how I’d approach writing for any other combination of instruments, by trying to look at some first principles for the instrument and thinking about what it does, regardless of what I might already think about the instrument. I don’t think that’s a terribly unusual process for a composer, I should say! Though I always hope there’ll be something particular about my own going back to first principles with an instrument that helps it be precisely the sort of thing—for good or ill—that only I would want to do with it. I did already know before starting, mind you, that the piece was going to form part of the cycle of pieces (largely, though not exclusively, solo instrumental pieces) I’m working on, which develop from my earlier vocal quintet, hamadryads. Like that piece, and all the others in the cycle, the pitch material for Balanos—which is the title of the organ and electronics piece I wrote for this project—is derived from a particular reading of Josquin’s Nymphes des bois. Another sort of first principle is present almost by default as far as the electronic element is concerned, in that my own abilities in that regard are extremely limited! As such, the electronic part of the piece comprises a simple polyphonic structure made up of sine waves, mapping a related reading of the Josquin material. Those sine waves are exclusively glissandi, in opposition to the fixed pitches of the organ, an instrument that’s only capable of glissandi under very particular circumstances…!
Lauren Redhead: What were your associations with the organ before and now after writing the piece?
Martin Iddon: I grew up singing in a church choir, so heard the organ on a very regular basis, and already knew a pretty large portion of the organ repertoire before leaving school. In fact, I probably knew that sort of repertoire better and in more detail than I did the classical canon. I also played the organ—after a fashion—for a couple of years: because I needed to have Grade 5 on a keyboard instrument in order to get on to my undergraduate Music programme, and because I much preferred (and prefer) the sound of instruments like the organ, harpsichord, or virginals to the piano, I learned the organ to a pretty low level in order to go to university. It wouldn’t surprise me if my organ teacher had explained to the examiner my sole reason for taking the exam was to get into my chosen university and promised him I’d never abuse his instrument with my rotten playing if he’d let me pass… I don’t think writing the piece has changed any of those associations of repertoires and childhood, but it did mean that writing for it presented particular challenges in avoiding evocations of the already familiar which, here at least, ended up being the same thing as making sure the piece I wrote sounded like me.
Lauren Redhead: What role does the organ play in your piece in terms of producing the sound/pitch/relating to a tradition (for example)? What is its role as an instrument?
Martin Iddon: Part of this is, I think, implicit in the idea that it seemed that, in order to make the piece sound like me, it had not to sound too much like Buxtehude, or Vierne, or Messiaen, or Boëllmann, or whoever, but it did still have to sound like organ music. It’s for that reason that the organ part of Balanos is a monody: only one pitch sounds at any one time; one organ pitch is always sounding. I suppose this is a part of trying to think about what’s actually available for the instrument to do, but which may not be obvious because of the history of writing for the instrument, even though the more modern tradition of the monophonic synthesizer might be suggested here (especially given the lo-fi nature of the tape part). The idea of the organ as a monophonic instrument seems, I suppose, antithetical to that whole tradition—and the commonplace that the organ is the “king of instruments”—especially in the context of a piece which is extremely quiet throughout. It’s a very lovely monophonic instrument all the same…
Martin Iddon is a composer and musicologist. He studied composition and musicology at the Universities of Durham and Cambridge, and also studied composition privately with Steve Martland, Chaya Czernowin, and Steven Kazuo Takasugi. His music has been performed across Europe, North America, and Australasia, by, amongst others, Ensemble SurPlus, Ensemble Modelo62, ekmeles, the Kairos Quartett, Trio Atem, loadbang, Distractfold, Eva Zöllner, Catherine Laws, Lauren Redhead, and Rei Nakamura. His books New Music at Darmstadt and John Cage and David Tudor are both published by Cambridge University Press.
Martin’s works are published by Composers’ Edition.
The month of March is fast approaching. Here are my March event dates…
Organ and Electronics Concert at Canterbury Christ Church University
This is the third date of my tour, co-produced by Sound and Music. This will be a very special concert as it will be presented installation-style; an hour of continuous music and sound.
More details here and tickets are available here.
The concert is in the CCCU Chapel (Anselm Building) at 6.30pm and is free for students and staff of Music and Performing Arts at Christ Church.
Organ and Electronics Concert in London
This is the fourth date of my tour, co-produced by Sound and Music. This is also the only London date!
More details available here and tickets are here.
The concert begins at 4.30pm, and the pre-concert talk at 4.00pm.
Automatronic Spring Weekend in London
Organ and Electronics Talk and Workshop
A talk and workshop discussing electronics and the organ in composition and performance.
“Composers and organists Huw Morgan, Michael Bonavenure and Lauren Redhead present Automatronic, a new collective exploring electronics and the organ in composition and performance. Hear about their approaches to, and interpretations of, new and experimental works, and of writing new music for each other. If you are a keen composer or just interested in what they have to say, stay after the talk for a chance to take part in a workshop with Lauren introducing experimental sounds and techniques in organ composition.
Sunley Pavilion at Royal Festival Hall.
Please note, this free event requires a ticket. Please book your free ticket online, by phone or in person (no fees apply).”
More details here
Automatronic perform at All Saints, Blackheath
A concert of music for organ and electronics performed by all three automatronic members: Huw Morgan, Michael Bonaventure and Lauren Redhead.
4.30pm, All Saints Church, Blackheath, London, SE3 0TY (free entry)
Digital Score Project Concert
The Digital Score project comes to a close with an evening of events including a a documentary film on Jonathan Harvey: “Towards and Beyond: A Portrait of Jonathan Harvey” (A documentary by Barrie Gavin UK, 2011), a keynote talk by Johnathan Cross, and a concert beginning at 7.30pm.
I will be performing a piece for voice, live electronics and live score written by Marcello Messina.
More details here.
We can now announce our second keynote speaker: Dr Nicholas McKay. We’re extremely pleased to be able to welcome Dr McKay to the conference in May, esepecially as his work in the field of music analysis reveals aspects of process in unexpected places.
Dr McKay’s talk will be entitled:
Who are the audience for contemporary music?
It’s been a while since I’ve managed to write a blog post that has come just from thoughts about music and isn’t prompted by a particular event. In a way, this post is also prompted by recent events that I’ve been involved in, but it also contains more general musings. I’ve also summarised comments that some people have made to me, so if you recognise yourself here then I hope you are not offended by this, and that you don’t feel misrepresented.
Who are the audience for contemporary music? This is an important question at a time when contemporary art is more and more frequently asked to justify its value and its worthiness of subsidies and grants received. Many commentators would have us believe that there is little or no audience for contemporary music. Recent events and media linked to Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise such as the BBC4 Programme The Sound and the Fury and another recent radio 4 programme (that I won’t name as it has generated enough discussion already) have parroted the argument that the majority of the music of the 20th century is unpalatable to audiences and that contemporary music has been “saved” by the more commercial end of minimalism. I’ll not dwell on this argument here: it’s so poorly constructed and obviously fallacious that I imagine readers of this blog can deconstruct it for themselves.* I recently spoke at an event at the University of Manchester exploring the effect of this revisionist history on the way we teach, research and programme contemporary music, and my contribution to that may eventually also become a blog post.
What I’d like to do here, however, is explore who the audience actually are. I’d also like to do this in a specific way related to the “audience discourse” around contemporary music. The “audience discourse” has these features:
• the audience is either very small or non-existent
• where they do exist the audience are academics or other, similar, people whose backgrounds and tastes cannot be representative of a general public
• even these people are very old and may die soon
• because of their nonexistence, socially unacceptable tastes and/or imminent death, this audience is not worth consideration and a new audience must be sought.
This argument undermines and discounts the opinions of people who can be found listening to contemporary music in favour of those who never will be.
Of course, audience development is an important area—not only for financial reasons. But the assumption that audience development means swaying every single member of the public who is not already there to attend your concerts is ridiculous. This is something that one would not hear in any other area of music. An example: I am not a member of the audience for Puccini operas. I never will be. The thing that would sway me to attend a Puccini opera would be: if the opera were not by Puccini. I also know that I am not the only person to hold this opinion, yet even collectively with those other people an argument is not made to abandon all future Puccini performances as “the audience” do not like it. Why? Some other people still do. Some people who haven’t yet heard it may yet like it. The general public are not the audience.
In this article composer Ian Power makes the important point that many audience members for contemporary music are also involved in its creation. This is not insignificant; it doesn’t mean that contemporary music is only for its creators but it does mean that audiences for contemporary music are often more heavily invested in it. This isn’t the full picture, though. If we accept the postmodern/neoliberal picture that everyone is now a content-creator, if not as a composer or performer then as a critic, then we also tend towards a model in which performing the function of “audience” is a reciprocal transaction amongst practitioners: you attend my concert and I’ll attend yours. Neither of us need listen to the music. This can already be seen in a number of small projects which bypass traditional sources of funding in favour of “kick-starter” campaigns which seem enterprising enough but in reality result in artists asking other artists for money; the wealthy “audience” who in theory might “kick-start” the project excluded from the conversation entirely. Of course, this is not the model suggested by Power, he’s writing about a community. But it’s very easy for community to be mistaken for obligation by others.
I’m in a position where I can confirm that “the audience” do exist, however. Beyond anecdotal evidence of sold-out and near-sold-out concerts, I have met some of them. I know that I have met members of “the audience” as this is a way that it seems some people have come to identify themselves. Quite a number of people I’ve spoken to recently at concerts have told me, “I’m the audience”, or, even worse: “I’m just the audience”. There is both a positive and a negative to be read into this. Yes, identifying as “the audience” has shades of the postmodern construction of consuming as creating identity, but also this shows how a relationship with contemporary music is an important part of identity for more people that just its creators. But this also demonstrates that many of these people feel isolated: a single interested party in a sea of composers and performers, someone who isn’t considered to exist or to be important by the very people who make the music they are listening to.
These audience members are not isolated individuals, of course. Many of them had very similar conversations with me at the same concerts; if only they could have met each other! What this speaks to is that the audience, the real audience, the actual people, are buying into the “audience discourse” as much as those who denigrate contemporary music do. Maybe we would do better to listen to some of these actual people. Here are a selection of things that people have recently said to me (anonymous, and paraphrased):
I heard you play the organ in another concert and so I thought I would like to hear one of your compositions as well
I like to listen to a wide range of music and always come to something that’s new and that I’ve not hear before if I can
I really enjoy this [concert series]. Even though I don’t always like everything I hear I keep coming back because there might be something that interests me
Other [more ‘traditional’] events don’t really seem to represent me; I like to try different things
What these types of statements don’t tally with is the mainstream promotion of contemporary music which swings between hysteria and apology: “This concert will change your life!” Or “You will hate this new commission, but don’t worry, we diluted it with Mozart”. Promotion of contemporary music has also often focused on historical lineage or importance (cf. the constant references to In Vain by Haas as a “masterpiece” last year), or on links between the past and the present. After my conversations with “the audience” it seems that what they might actually like is a bit of credit: they are able to make choices about music for themselves and are not shifting in their seats, ready to vote with their feet as soon as they have heard one dissonance too many or one piece not deemed important enough. They are interested in new experiences, preferably in an environment where someone is not waiting on the door as they leave asking them to fill in a questionnaire stating when they will be coming back. A further adjective that cannot be applied to many of the people I spoke to (although one which will apply to all of us at some point in our lives) is “greying”. I dislike this in particular because, first, it implies that simply listening to the music will add years to your life and, second, as a complaint it offers little to a constructive debate about audience development. In particular many institutions cite audiences aged 35+ as a target group, precisely because of their financial means. Perhaps the “greying” nature of the audience speaks somewhat to the success of this advertising policy.
What I’m advocating, then, is a shift in the way we think about, speak about and engage with audiences. Perhaps marketing of contemporary music might more usefully and successfully focus on what the music has to offer and not its historical status or life-changing abilities. Perhaps those obsessed with statistics, figures, data, would do better to turn up to the events themselves and speak to the people there (without a feedback form in their hands). It is surely more productive if the conversation about listening to contemporary music begins with the people who are already there.
Composers and performers are also well placed to meet, have dialogue with, and get to know audiences. For organisations to act on that information that means approaching “the audience” in a non-homogeneous way. If being a part of “the audience” for contemporary is experienced as part of identity then it is also a multifaceted and highly personal experience. It involves being able to personally speak to musicians as well as watching them speak in pre-concert talks. It involves a personal and personalised experience rather than a corporate one. It involves an amount of trust in listeners, accepting that their reasons for seeking out certain experiences might not tick a box in a feedback form or even be quantifiable at all. And surely it involves an abandonment of rhetoric which links attendance at contemporary music event with poor taste, social isolation, premature ageing and ultimately death. I would much rather listen to even Puccini than to music with those side effects.
- If you would like to read a serious and scholarly assessment of this argument as it has appeared in academic literature, try J.P.E. Harper-Scott’s book on Walton, Franklin Cox’s review of Taruskin or Ian Pace’s blog on the same topic. If you’d like to read a review of that programme, try Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s.