Music and/as Process
‘Process’ is a word that could be used to describe many aspects of music: compositional technique, the unfolding of performance, the way that music interacts with society, the way that listeners engage with pieces, amongst many others. But what do these definitions hold in common with each other? What can ‘process’ narratives add to the understanding of music as a whole? And particularly, how can ‘process’ be understood as an on-going facet of music, its performance and reception?
We, Richard Glover and Lauren Redhead, are interested enough in these questions to want to organise some events in which answers can be teased out – since we don’t have them yet (information about the events is at the end of this post). As an initial exercise in understanding what process might mean we have interviewed each other, the only rule being that we could only ask each other three questions. Since we are both practitioners, the discussion inevitably focused on the intersections of the idea of ‘process’ with our own work. Below are the results, which we hope might stimulate discussion in this area:
Richard Glover: What interests you about the notion of music and process enough for you to want to organise an event surrounding it?
Lauren Redhead: The thing that interests me most about the idea of process in music, the idea that we’re talking about anyway, is that it is an ‘external’ thing. It is both a part of the music, something that is or can be composed, and also a consequence of music too. Something that has influenced my own work a great deal is the idea that music making and composition are social practices, not just because humans have to interact with each other in order to perform in ensembles, but because making art at all has an important interrelationship with society at large. That means that there is always a kind of semiotic process going on, whether the composer believes they are composing this, or wants to acknowledge this, or not. But in certain kinds of music this is also foregrounded—some composers try to draw attention to this in the experiential dimension of their music, or maybe they don’t actively try but the kind of music they compose makes it clear that a kind of process is going on. I think that’s really interesting, but something that isn’t often discussed in itself. It can be a different way to think about music, composition, and the history of music as a whole. So even though I don’t yet know what will come out of the event, I’m excited because I think it will be important.
RG: Does all music not involve the notion of process?
LR: It does, of course, by the definition I have given above. But not all music involves this active engagement with process. Perhaps one reason is compositional control: some composers might want to hang onto the idea of being the absolute author and arbiter of their music and feel unwilling to engage with the idea that such a large part of it might be, in fact, nebulous. It’s also possible to start to talk about different types of process: perhaps ones that hold more in common with compositional technique. But I think that those might restrict the debate because they assume that the process is over when the piece is composed and I don’t agree with that.
RG: How does process inform your work?
LR: The kinds of processes I most often look at are socio-semiotic ones: specifically ‘how is meaning created in, around, and about artworks?’ In my work I want to try to mimic these, not so I can be the ‘author’ of new meanings but so I can study the potential meanings that are created. In a way it is all to do with complicated systems of reference; I set up groups of ideas of stimuli, which are of course experienced concurrently as a result of the temporal dimension of music, but it’s up to the perceiver to make sense of them. And as human beings we do try to make sense of things that are presented together even if we feel it is incongruent. For me, it is that ‘making sense’ process that is important. It holds a lot in common with taking about quotation, reference, allusion, and repetition because all of those things involve perceivers attaching changing meanings to the same objects over time in order to make sense of them. That is the kind of process I am most interested in.
Lauren Redhead, lines that have been drawn on photographs of sculpture, performed by Will Baldry
LR [to RG]: What role does process play in your music, and at what point did this become clear to you?
RG: For me, process plays a central role in how I conceive of a new idea, which is then usually realised by someone else once I give them a set of instructions. The process is (up until now) always linked to harmony, which is entirely how I have thought about my own work: harmonic process, and how that can best be experienced. I’m fascinated by processes which return back on themselves, so that you can audibly hear something working itself out, often very gradually, and how it logically transforms either back to its original state, or somewhere different. By using the word ‘logically’, I mean something that makes sense to me, something that would seem perfectly rational; like much of Tom Johnson’s music, for that matter. I first became aware of conceiving of my ideas in this way when I realised that it was the harmonic process which is what I really wanted listeners to be able to experience, rather than anything else I was superimposing on top of them. Exposing the core of my ideas, which turned out to be harmonic process.
Tom Johnson, Rational Melody No. 3, performed by Interensemble E-Trio
Richard Glover, Logical Harmonies, performed by Sebastian Berweck
LR: Is process something that you are aware of in other musics? Do other composers’ processes influence you at all?
RG: The way certain other composers’ music operates certainly has some kind of impact on my own modes of working. I align with the strong sense of closure in various minimalist-related procedures, and specifically pitch patterns found in sustained tone pieces by, for instance, Alvin Lucier, Peter Adriaansz and Phill Niblock. Being able to see, or hear, process occurring in music (and other arts) is often very inspiring for me!
Phill Niblock, Five More String Quartets
LR: A ‘process’ view of music seems to offer different explanations of pieces to a ‘developmental’ view of music. What do you think about understanding process in music better might offer to scholarship in music as a whole?
RG: Whilst I wouldn’t want to necessarily state an opposition between ‘process’ and ‘development’ (they are not at all separate ideas) I think understanding the reasons behind the way people who create music specifically using process is imperative. Those reasons will likely vary enormously from artist to artist, and may have rich cultural underlying pretexts worth investigating; additionally, or alternatively, the experience of the process may bring the nature of how we experience that process to the fore, and prompts many avenues for further work in how we, as perceptual beings, can experience, and even enjoy such musics. And hopefully there will be lots of other ways of approaching the discussion of process in music which I’ve never thought of!
Tom Johnson, An Hour for Piano (Extract), performed by R. Andrew Lee
Music and/as Process Sandpit
8th December 2012
University of Huddersfield/University of Surrey
These two concurrent days in Huddersfield and Surrey aim to bring together practitioners and researchers to discuss music that ‘performs’ process. They will highlight the different types of process that are undertaken in and by creative work and situate process in music as different from compositional technique; a facet of the performance, experience, and the temporal dimension of music. The days will also attempt to discuss and document some of the different ways that composers and performers approach and discuss process in practice.The intention is for the outcomes of the days to inform the direction of a larger event on the same topic which will take place in June 2013 at the University of Huddersfield.
Richard Glover is a Research Fellow in composition at the University of Huddersfield. He writes on experimental approaches to music making, and in particular sustained tone music. He has chapters in both a forthcoming publication on the music of Phill Niblock, and the Ashgate companion to minimalism. He is currently working on publications with Bryn Harrison exploring the temporal experience in experimental musics, alongside broader perceptual issues in sustained tone music. His music is performed internationally and will be released on albums with both the Sheffield lable ‘another timbre’ and the University of Huddersfield CeReNeM label.
Lauren Redhead is a composer from the North of England. Her work has been recognised internationally and performed by, amongst others, BL!NDMAN, Ian Pace, Rhodri Davies, the Nieuw Ensemble, Trio Atem, Philip Thomas and Edges ensemble, and rarescale. Her opera, green angel, was premiered in January 2011 with the support of the Arts Council of England, and she has been commissioned by Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Yorkshire Forward, and Making Music. Lauren is also a performer of British experimental music for the organ and has premiered works by many composers including Chris Newman, Caroline Lucas, and Nick Williams, a performer with the experimental vocal group Vocal Contructivists, and a musicologist writing on the aesthetics of contemporary music.