Sharing the Studio to Create “Lepidoptera”
Collaboration and notation
In 2012, I had been experimenting with framing electroacoustic collaboration in terms of play, using several types of games as examples. 1[1. See the author’s article “Musicians at Play: Collaboration between performers and composers in the creation of mixed electroacoustic music,” in eContact! 15.2 — TES 2012: 6th Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium (May 2013).] This communication is another iteration of that continuing interest in the connection between play and creativity, and it has influenced my interactions and creation with other musicians, notably in a collaboration with Monty Adkins that led to the work Lepidoptera (2014–15).
In 2011, I met Monty Adkins when he came to play at the AKOUSMA Festival in Montréal. He took an interest in my instruments and wanted to see them, and I felt he really connected with their physicality and had an unusual knowledge about consorts of Renaissance instruments. He subsequently sent me some of his music and I interviewed him the next year in 2012 for a paper on collaboration and notation. In that interview he said:
Over the past year or so, I’ve quite clearly thought about the fact that I don’t see myself as producing just a normal kind of mixed music piece. Right from the outset, I’ve felt very clear about the nature of the project, and there are essentially two musical projects that run hand in hand. There’s the one that will be produced and released on the CD, and then there is almost like a deconstruction of that which will be performed live. So when we’re performing, the fixed version that you have on the CD is never what you will hear in concert, and you are constantly hearing the same kind of musical material, always remixed and redeveloped in a different way. I suppose that’s where the score and knowing the person actually comes to the fore, and working with them quite closely because there is always that element of the performance being a duo between the instrumentalist and the live electronics… That’s why I think it’s important for me to know the performer quite well and not just see them as a performer of the piece, but they become a proper collaborator in that every time the piece is performed, they are integral to the creation of that piece at that time. (Adkins 2012)
He was speaking about a collaboration with clarinetist Heather Roche, and what he described felt very much like the kind of “game” I enjoyed playing with the composers I have collaborated with.
At the time, I was in rehearsal for Bird on a Wire II: Flocking Patterns, a CD featuring the results of collaborations with eight composers on new works for recorder and 8-channel electronics. I had also just started my doctorate in composition, researching “Composing for Specific Performers: Collaboration in the creation of electroacoustic music.” I was flirting with the notion of the “idiomatic performer”, which I used to describe those with an idiosyncratic practice and sound. I later gave up the adjective, since I felt that all performers, and people really, are to a certain extent idiomatic, and now feel more kinship with the tailoring term “bespoke”, which Monty had used at another point in our interview:
I suppose that the more you write a kind of bespoke piece for a performer, the more you’re gearing it, or wanting to gear it towards the things that they can do that no one else can do, because that’s their particular trademark. (Adkins 2012)
Here I would like to discuss the collaboration that followed my initial connections with Monty. One of the most important things I picked up on during that interview was the composer’s assertion that he was a studio composer, which was something I really connected to in my own music-writing practice. The title, “Sharing the Studio,” is based on wanting to inhabit the kind of space that Monty described:
No matter how much I get involved in working live, and no matter how much I use instruments, I’m still at heart, I wouldn’t say an acousmatic composer, but very definitely a studio-based composer. For me those studio versions are almost like the idealized version. It’s like any relationship: there’s the idealized version and then the everyday is never quite perfect but you make compromises and in actual fact it’s those compromises that actually make it, in the end, far richer. And if it were always the idealized version it would become quite sterile. So, I have that idealized version and then all the iterations and performances are variations on that. But they’re not subservient variations, I actually see them as creative alternatives that define the work as much as the idealized version. (Adkins 2012)
Programme Note for “Lepidoptera”
Lepidoptera is a cycle of five works for recorder and electronics I composed with Mathew Adkins in 2014–15. The project was conceived during my residency in the summer of 2014 at the studios of the Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM) at the University of Huddersfield.
The consort of recorders we used belongs together. They have a broad sound with strong upper partials; there are intimate, almost inexplicable sonic and physical connections between the different instruments. This inspired similar connections and interactions between the recorder(s) and the electronics. In Saturniid, the recorder rides the crest of an acousmatic wave, sometimes submerged within the mix, at other points rising momentarily above it. Ephemeroptera delicately counterpoints the solo recorder and its fixed environment. Zygoptera and Anisoptera have an algorithmic mobile that creates a stream of sound files that are fed into the larger tributary of sound processing shaped by multiple envelopes and parameter changes. Lepidoptera combines and morphs these different approaches. The works are families of relationships, with no two performances ever the same, as they are reconfigured and retuned anew for each iteration. The works can be played independently but are intended as part of a single cycle of works.
The titles refer to families of butterflies and moths. The nature and character of the recorder is similar, with its varying tonal colours, and its transformations from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. All sounds in the electronics are derived from recorders between the C-bass and the G-alto in a consort built by Adriana Breukink, based on instruments by the Schnitzers from the turn of the 16th century.
Phase 1: Basset Recorder in Huddersfield
A chronological account of the different phases and ways that Monty and I shared the studio in the creation of Lepidoptera will serve to illustrate the collaborative process at the heart of the larger cycle of works we created together.
When I arrived in Huddersfield in April 2014 to work in the CeReNeM studio, I did not have the whole consort of Breukink recorders with me. I only had the small Basset in F. I played some of its indigenous sounds for Monty, especially the ones I felt it shares with the other members of its family, and we agreed this was a good path to follow.
Recording, Editing and Processing the Source Materials
I then set about identifying and recording the following:
- Multiphonics on certain fingerings;
- Overtone tendencies;
- Key Clicks;
- Using the instrument’s joints in unusual ways;
- Windway whistles.
From the entire collection of recordings I made, I selected the most effective examples of my approach to performing on the instrument and those sounds I felt were the most idiomatic, and created eight soundfiles (totalling approximately 17 minutes) that I shared with Monty.
Monty processed what I had sent him and sent me back 85 samples arranged in 20 families (totalling about an hour and 42 minutes) for further processing. He also sent 11 stems that could be understood as the first draft of a 10-minute piece. This material suggested to me approaches to familiarizing myself with, choosing and using the 85 samples and also provided a way of interacting with what was already quite a developed, through-composed sound world.
In Huddersfield, I had been building an environment in Ableton Live where samples from predetermined collections would be randomly chosen, passed through a number of randomly chosen yet hand-drawn gain envelopes and then sent towards a number of sometimes modulating effects. I was using this environment (or patch) in a number of different works at the time. In the sketches to use with Monty, I made a structure whose form would stay the same, but whose length could be time-stretched. Monty and I were both interested in how this changed our perception of that form, and the strategies we had to adopt thereafter to make each of the three lengths that we chose (four, six and ten minutes) work. We decided to pursue this as an environment I could improvise with.
I also wanted to share tools, so I asked Monty to point me towards processing ideas that I could exploit effectively. He mentioned certain Reaktor patches that I proceeded to investigate and integrate in real time into a piece based on the basset recordings, working with my sound at the mixing and processing desk rather than at the instrument. My thought was that eventually I would replace those recordings with live sound in a second step. This eventually became the Lepidoptera movement, which I will talk some more about a little below.
I also wanted to find a way to interact with the more fixed, through-composed sound world that Monty had sent me. I decided to use it as the basis for a kind of score, in the sense that Monty describes here (again from the initial 2012 interview):
There will be some points at which I will be saying, “How do I notate this sound that you’ve created?” That’s the kind of initial point. Once I’ve done that, I will then probably put together a draft sketch of the score and then ask quite bluntly, “Is this enough for you to be able to work with? Do you need any other kind of information? Do you need any other cues on here, referencing some of the audio? What do you actually need?” And then go back from there. And normally, it’s a kind of 2 or 3-way iterative process, and it becomes much more important for the performer than it does for me as the composer to have the score as this kind of authoritative, analytical document. For me it is that cue sheet to perform the piece, and I’m interested in the performer being able to have the information they need without necessarily being glued to the score all the time. (Adkins 2012)
I started to think about what I really needed in terms of instructions. So I began improvising, recording and editing together a counterpoint to Monty, and then described the techniques to myself as simply as possible using the locators function in Live. It was a minimal mnemonic device that allowed me to reproduce what I considered to be “the work”.
At the end of the residency in Huddersfield three months later, we had two almost-finished works, the “not-Terri piece,” which became Lepidoptera and the “not-Monty piece,” which became Ephemeroptera. We referred to them in that way tongue in cheek, because this both exaggerated and subverted the ego-gratification of authorship in a pleasing way. We also had a plan to build a more large-scale work around these two pieces. Piece titles and the form in general — for both the multi-part work (also called Lepidoptera), and the album on which the work would later be recorded, Lépidoptères — emerged from this residency, as did the next stages of the project, which involved the creation of an idealized, album version of each of these two pieces as well as modulating, adaptive live versions.
Phase 2: Consort in Montréal
The next phase of our collaboration took place in late January 2015 in Montréal, when we premiered Lepidoptera and Ephemeroptera in concert at the Université de Montréal’s Ultrasons Festival and recorded the idealized, album versions with Will Howie at McGill University.
Scoring for “Lepidoptera”
In order to be able to play the pieces in real time, I needed to notate and practise them. The notation for effective performance required cues to remind me of what I could be sure I would remember. At the time, I was teaching the Acousmographe to students and realized it could be an effective tool for the notation of cues in Lepidoptera. I had created what we called a “Frankenstein” version of the work by editing together a sonic score from the samples I had recorded. I wanted to give myself information about the shape and spectrum of the sound as well as a simple physical instruction (fingering and techniques) that would determine the most important aspects of my sound. This mockup allowed me to tune the live processing to those particular aspects, knowing that I could reproduce them in time using this score.
I had been experimenting with videoscores since 2013, the year before the Huddersfield phase, when I made videoscores for my work Malý velký svet (Small Big World) for piano and electronics. The three pianists who premiered it helped me discover how to use the temporality of video for cueing between media and performer.
I can practise using the Lepidoptera videoscore (Fig. 2, Video 1), as the sound output is a recording of the output of the patch, thus similar to what might happen with the full patch open. I mute this sound when I use the videoscore within the patch.
Recording and Mixing “Lépidoptères”
In Montréal we had a very limited time to record and mix the 42-minute album, containing all five Lepidoptera movements. To make it possible, we made idealized fixed versions of the computer output before the recording session, and then I played three or four whole takes with that idealized version on headphones. We subsequently edited together an idealized (or at least convincing) counterpoint.
In performance, I improvise within limited parameters in each of the five parts, sometimes with fixed fingerings or techniques, other times formally. Only in the first movement, Zygoptera, which I am currently performing using an idealized fixed version of the four-minute piece from Huddersfield, do I not have any predetermined agenda. In the other parts, what I play is a combination of the visual cues of the score and my memory of past iterations. I try to notate those things I feel worthy of keeping in mind from one performance to another.
We chose the computer and recorder takes together and then mixed them together in my studio in the three days following the recording. Everything took place in a restricted time frame, which allowed us to make all decisions together in the studio.
Dominique Bassal mastered the album, as it was to be released on empreintes DIGITALes, and I appreciated the opportunity to come listen to the master in his studio. The live track was heavily compressed and pushed back into the texture to create a much more acousmatic æsthetic than the original mix. My initial resistance to this dissolved when I underlined for myself the dual nature of the work, both in that idealized, mediated form and its live, unpredictable counterpart.
Phase 3: Live on Tour
A year after we recorded the album in Montréal, I started working on a master patch for the five parts of Lepidoptera, which would allow either Monty or me to control the electronics during live performances of the works.
Adapting the Instrument
What I ended up with was a patch score I could look at from quite a great distance, which entailed a certain amount of memory work from me as the instrumental performer. There is a fascinating connection between what was written but is now seen at a distance and what happens when I sometimes ignore that and move spontaneously in the moment, knowing what’s coming. I wanted to watch enough of what the computer was doing — taking cues and foreshadowing — but also have the space to react in the moment. It made sense to look at the tool that I had been using until then instead of translating the whole into some other notation software or tool. 2[2. Since the works are so personal and intended to be performed by Monty and myself, the issue of exportability of the score and notation is not a pressing issue for us.] I didn’t want to be touching the computer while I played, so all the parts — and their “live” bits — were automated.
Because I wanted to have more detail in the notation of my performance score than the Ableton Live interface could offer, I turned to making videoscores. I made myself a videoscore for every part, using different information depending on the nature of the piece. This video can be sent to another screen if I want to perform remotely from the computer, and I start all processes for the piece with one keystroke and then I don’t touch it again unless I want to make an adjustment, which does happen regularly.
It ended up being sensible that I have the computer near me (instead of in front of the composer) when Monty and I rehearsed and performed because it allowed him to focus his attention on the mixing console and on the sound in the space. This was a new experience for me, because in my previous collaborations with electroacoustic composers, I worked with a computer performer, Juan Parra Cancino. I believe it was Juan who made me aware of many issues and solutions in the consolidation of various approaches and tools to create and ensure a smooth and efficient workspace within a single performance. When I had made the master patch, I didn’t know who would be playing it, but then, when we decided it would be me, I began tailoring it to my needs.
When we got into the performance space, Monty would adapt the sound for the space, helping me set reverb levels, and mixing the live recorder and computer sound as we played. Though we never overtly spoke about it, I can assume he was not interested in reading a score as he did this, or perhaps that the considerations that might make him adjust the tuning of the space do not require it.
On that tour, we played the five-part work three times in its entirety and on three other occasions we played only two pieces from it. We chose which parts to play more or less spontaneously once we had played in the space. As the performances went on, I too began playing more and more from memory, and often altering what I knew to be my own instructions. The last time we played the entire work was in Manchester, together with a piece I wrote in collaboration with Robert Normandeau, La Huppe, and a preview of a new work I would write with Hildegard Westerkamp, subsequently named Beads of Time Sounding. And so, Lepidoptera is now integrated in the context of a larger performance, and thus perhaps I will make a newer, simpler version of the score for myself.
There is no doubt in my mind that sharing the space and tools of the studio in the creation of Lepidoptera was for me a new kind of collaboration, or co-creation with another composer. This was underpinned by an unspoken understanding that the studio liquifies the borders between, on the one hand, composing and performing, and on the other, what is fixed and spontaneous. I return briefly to my core framework and philosophy of collaboration, the Vygotskian Zone of Proximal Development (Hron 2012), which posits that in sharing with and learning from peers we increase our own potential, the electroacoustic studio breaks down the rules imposed by a game where composer and performer are separate entities. In this undefined space of unstructured and spontaneous activities, it becomes a challenge and invitation to create scores that can support and elicit freedom, and at the same time reach towards the virtuosity that comes with practice and repetition.
Adkins, Monty. Personal Interview. 17 May 2012.
Hron, Terri. “Musicians at Play: Collaboration between performers and composers in the creation of mixed electroacoustic music.” eContact! 15.2 — TES 2012: 6th Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium / 6e Symposium électroacoustique de Toronto (May 2013). https://econtact.ca/15_2/hron_collaboration.html