Inside the Machine Concert Part 3

What if? The Hansel & Gretel Tale

On the 28th April 2016 I put on a concert which featured a mixture of some of my favourite open-scored, chance-based, and quasi-composed/quasi-improvised pieces to both celebrate and summarise the three years I spent studying my Bachelor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Unlike the last two pieces I’ve written about, this piece does not revolve around language. Instead What if? The Hansel & Gretel Tale focuses on a different perception to the classic tale. Like all the pieces in this concert, this one was again composed for a task for university. The task: to compose a piece for a group called Splinter Cell, who were mainly a free improvisation ensemble. Therefore, I did not want to be too constrictive in the instructions. I was also at the stage where I wanted to try something new. For once, I wanted to compose a piece that didn’t involve dice (gasp), or numbers. I can’t write coherent plots for toffee so, inspired by a program I was currently watching (Once Upon a Time), I decided to take a well known tale, and put a small twist in it:

What if Hansel and Gretel were exaggerating the tale? What if the ‘Witch’ was really an average old lady minding her business, when her home falls apart because two children took it upon themselves to eat it? Of course she would have been cross; her home had been eaten!!

In discussing this with my then piano teacher Dr Sam Bailey, he went over to his shelf and passed a book: The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Betteheim (Penguin Books, 1991). In this book I found some amazing quotes about childhood and fairy tales, and how we learn and project our understandings of the world onto stories. These quotes were then put into the score, adding another, unanticipated layer.

As I have mentioned in another blog written for my university, using music to evoke emotions is not something that comes easy to me. Therefore, instead of dictating pitch and harmony, I went for a more generalised instructions. You could almost think of the score as a storyboard one would use to compose the full piece.

For example, as the children engorged themselves on the poor woman’s house they grew fatter, and fatter, and so the score reflected that.

The way I developed the score and the cartoonish descriptors of sounds I wanted the performers to produce, was strongly influenced by love of sound effects in cartoons like Tom & Jerry or Looney Tunes. Their use of audio to add to the visual elements made my tiny child mind boggle with excitement.

I believe it is necessary for us creatives to challenge ourselves every now and then. You don’t have to go running off a cliff, but you can dangle a foot over the edge. For me, using sounds to create an intended story and metaphor is one for me. Hence why I stayed with a well known fairy-tale, instead of something less well known and deeper such as a philosophical stand point (sort of). I had never tried before to create music that reflected a story. Previous pieces were methodical, statistical, experimenting with an idea. This time it was to experiment with how far I could challenge myself. My biggest part of this endeavour was could I create a piece where my sonic intentions and meanings be translated and interpreted by the audience and performers with little deviation? The answer remains a riddle, and I invite you dear listener to tell me whether that is indeed the case, or whether I was wildly wrong and missed it by a mile. Whatever the result, I hope you enjoy the recording.



I’ve contemplated for a long time whether to share this score with the world, and I’ve decided it would be unfair on you if I made you read all of this without seeing what it was I was talking about. Therefore, here is the score.

The next entry in this series will talk about it takes all sorts. 

– Jason Hodgson (9th October 2018)

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Inside the Machine Concert Part 2

A Throne of Games

On the 28th April 2016 I put on a concert which featured a mixture of some of my favourite open-scored, chance-based, and quasi-composed/quasi-improvised pieces to both celebrate and summarise the three years I spent studying my Bachelor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University.

The second entry in this series focuses on an award winning piece A Throne of Games. In two parts, this spoken-word sound-poem explores the fickle nature of language (not unlike that of Language is a Fictitious Fact). However, instead of allowing the performers to create their own content, I meticulously selected the sounds and words I would use in both of the forms.

If you are a fan of the show, or even the books, you might have already guessed that this piece is inspired by the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, which spawned the HBO television series, A Game of Thrones. In fact, this piece takes text selected directly from the first book in the series of the same name. However, it is only in the second form, and if you are already aware of the series that this becomes apparent.

I am always the first one to admit that the written word is not my forte, in particular the ability to manipulate the written language to my whims. So, I needed a way that could counteract this. The answer was simple:

At this point in my studies, I had only recently discovered my love for using sequences and aleatory (chance) to generate material for a composition, but I was bored with applying it purely to the sound elements of music. Applying it to the text elements of a piece would open up more opportunities. After much consideration of other sequences such as Pi, e, and Fibonacci, I concluded that  Prime Numbers would prove more useful. This provided a gradual, steady rise in the digits (like page numbers), but was random enough to the naked eye, and (even to a point in mathematics), to avoid predictability. Though there was no  fear of predictability from an audience perspective as I had no desire to use it to determine pitch.

Certainly for me, even before I had discovered the world of experimental music, music is not all about sound. For example, in choral pieces the text can be just as important as the musical aspect. In Operas the staging, costume, props, backdrops, acting etc. are just as important to fully portray what the music is trying to say or do, or even a particular interpretation of the music. To an audience how the piece is performed and the other visual aspects are just as important. The latter was something I was already thinking about, but I wouldn’t start exploring this element specifically until my final year. For this project I wanted to solve the problem of how I could select text.

Another element I wanted to eliminate was any implied, implicit, or inherent emotive aspects within the final text.

Being on the autistic spectrum (Asperger’s Syndrome), this is yet another hurdle to overcome. Thankfully, my compositions tend to eliminate any inherent emotive notions, and instead explore the wacky, weird, and wonderfully unique take I have on life and the sound world.

This does not mean that I believe emotions are not important. Nor does it mean that I think that they don’t have a place within the Arts. Quite the contrary. Instead I believe that, for the majority of occasions,  the emotional aspects of a piece should be open to interpretation for either the audience, or the performers to decide or discover on their own. I feel that any prescribed notion of emotive elements on my behalf would be counter-productive. I have discussed this in a little more detail on the Canterbury Christchurch School of Music and Performing Arts blog.

At this stage I now have a sequence, but no method or source material.

Source material was relatively straight forward: Books! It had to be a large one meaning that I could gather enough material from it. At the time I had just started reading the second book of George R R Martin’s series (A Clash of Kings), which is pretty large. However, I didn’t want to spoil the plot for myself. Ton the other hand I had finished the first book, and it was just as big.

Now I have a sequence, source material, but no method.

The method had to be random enough that the text would produce nonsense, but use little enough of the book that I couldn’t fall under copyright infringement. Ultimately, much less than even 1% of the book was used. However, even at this point I’m still not certain whether I breach any copyright laws. This is why whenever I talk about the piece I make no attempt to hide the source material, and why the rest of the pieces in the larger series A Work of Fiction (which remains to be seen at this moment in time), will be shared free of charge. In short, the processes I used are available for others to use, the end result (the composition) is mine but free to the public to use, and the source material remains with George R R Martin.

Eventually I decided to use the page numbers as a key, and only select text from the Prime numbered pages. I then chose to use the corresponding words to that of the number of the place of the prime number in the sequence.

I promise you that is the best way I could think of to describe it in words. I have racked my brain for a few years now trying to figure out a way to coherently represent what my methodology was in words. Like I said, language is a fickle thing.

Let me try with numbers:

In a sequence that ascends through all the primes available to me by the number of pages in the book, 2 is the 1st Prime. Therefore I went to page 2, and selected word 1. This produced the word ‘had’. Page 3 is the 2nd prime. This produced the word ‘reflected’. Then again with page 5 and word 3, ‘did’. Therefore by using this method I had generated the words; ‘had’, ‘reflected’, and ‘did’.  By doing this I had removed the context from the words. This process went on until I reached the last prime numbered page in the book.

Along the way I discovered that if I read them in a row, my brain tricked me into thinking that there was meaning in the phrase, even when I knew there wasn’t one. Try it: ‘had reflected did rustle’. (What exactly did this ‘rustle’ reflect??)

I now had my material to work with, and although I chose to leave them in the order they appeared, I decided that I wanted to play with this fake meaning. One of my Grandmothers then introduced me to the idea of trying to use Shakespeare’s famous iambic pentameter. Unfortunately, I was unable to fit the words perfectly within the meter. Therefore, it became more of a guide.

To further play with the fake meanings within the text,  I read it out loud so I could feel where I needed to separate lines to trick the listener into finding  meaning where there was none.

Before I move onto the next step I want to point something out: I had no idea, no outline, nor a plan of what my end result was going to be. Instead I found a problem, looked for ways around it, and saw where it took me. Though there was a lot of work involved throughout each step, I let the results of each step guide me to the next.

I am a big advocate of using play as a compositional tool. Even if I know what the end piece needs to be (for a commission as an example), I believe that if you attempt to force the piece, you can overcompensate, overthink, and where once you could create something wonderful, you instead create something ‘because you had to’. This in turn can lead to a half-hearted composition which you cannot enjoy. You should never not enjoy your compositions. That’s not to say that the process can’t be tedious (like when I have to throw my dice hundreds of times), but I make an active attempt to write pieces of which I enjoy at least one element.  Of course this is not 100% successful. Nevertheless, it is something I strive for.

One way I do this is by playing with ideas, letting them tell me what they want to do. And if they don’t fit the purpose, no problem! Just put them away for another day. You’ll thank yourself later when you really are stuck for ideas.

My problem now was that it was a great nonsense poem, but I didn’t feel that it was musical enough. The question now was how could I make it musical without writing a tune? Whilst I could have created a melody for the text, this would have defeated the purpose of the piece, as this composition was for my technical portfolio in my second year of study, meaning that I had to follow some guidelines and link the piece to a technique outside of my own, which is a common practice when studying composition. I am honest, this is quite difficult for me as at this time in my practice I tended not to research specific methods and techniques before I began a composition. I tend to work more on my gut-instinct. Researching for a piece is something I am learning how to do more and more as I get further into my studies, though it is still a weak area for me.

As it so happened, there was an area of composition that we had learned about, that, on closer inspection, was akin to what I was doing more or less by gut-instinct: Oulipo.

In short, without going into too much detail, Oulipo is style of poetry pioneered by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lyonnais in 1960, which uses mathematics to generate text. Sound familiar? You can read more about Oulipo in a journal article The beginning of Oulipo? An attempt to rediscover a movement by James Kurt in 2015, which unfortunately for my work, came out after my piece was submitted.

Fascinating as this was, this still didn’t solve my problem. It wasn’t until my personal tutor at the time, Lauren Redhead, asked me to consider the possibility of extending the sounds, and adding dynamics, to make it more of a score, rather than just a poem, that the solution was apparent.

I vaguely remember a lecture in which Redhead  introduced the class to a piece by Alistair Zaldua called Solo Speaking. I was struck by how he could differentiate between ‘e’, ‘ee’, ‘eh’ and other more complex variations. The score itself, on the other hand, whilst written clearly, was not quite in the format I wished to use. Zaldua had created symbols with a list of instructions for each individual sound that needed to be produced. My aim, on the other hand, was to compose a score for someone of no to little experience at performing pieces such as A Throne of Games, was able to pick up, and to have ‘a stab at it’. I wanted to lay out the score in such a way as to not scare away the uninitiated (i.e. me a couple of years prior). Unfortunately I can’t find a clip online.

I spent the next few days playing around with how each individual word could be changed. Picked my favourites, and tried to think of the best to present them. The results of this can be seen in the score in Form 2, and the instructions. Along the way I discover one process of the words that I wanted to exaggerate further. I had experimented with removing the vowels from words, and found that it produce a loose vocalised rhythm. I separated some of the consonants, keeping them within the original sentence/paragraph layout. Some of the extended sounds in Form 2 were also used. My favourite of which is the one on ‘K’ where the performer is to extend the sound, elongating it, which in turn creates something similar to white noise. I also spaced out some of consonants, further variating the rhythm.

The reason I chose to use the rhythm form as Form 1, is simply because I wished to leave an element of mystery around the text. Form 2 then reveals the words, but not the meaning.

One of the elements I spent a while on was to play with the spacing, and in turn; pacing. In the instructions I explained that “a semicolon ( ; ) is a shorter gap than a full stop ( . ), but longer than a comma ( , ). Spaces are also gaps, yet vary in length.”

I have already selected my material for the next piece in the collection. Interestingly, if you apply the process to a Mills & Boons book, or at least the one I purchased from a  local charity shop, the text reads as if it were a basic car manual, whereas Artemis Fowl, comes out a bit more like a Mills & Boons. I can’t wait to see what the sound world will be for these materials.

I have been fortunate enough to have A Throne of Games performed multiple times. Unfortunately the performance during the competition is lost. The first time it was performed was when I was a member of the Canterbury Christchurch Contemporary Ensemble. The second was a Solo that I recorded using the university facilities, and the latest (as of August 2017) is a performance my Grandmother Jane CoomberSewell, (the same that mentioned iambic pentameter), and another Award Winning Composer (same festival, but in 2016) Hannah Firmin performed during the Inside the Machine Concert. Below is that playlist.

The next entry in this series will focus on What If? A Hansel & Gretel Tale.

– Jason Hodgson (5th August 2017)

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Inside the Machine Concert Part 1

Language is a Fictious Fact

On the 28th April 2016 I put on concert which featured a mixture of some of my favourite open-scored, chance-based, and quasi-composed/quasi-improvised pieces to both celebrate and summarise the three years I spent studying my Bachelor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University.

In this series of blog posts I will talk about the processes, the influences, and the reasons, behind each composition that featured in the concert. There may also be links to scores and recordings of the pieces. (This will be on a case by case basis).

Boringly, I’ve decided to write the posts in the order the pieces appeared in the concert. Therefore, the first one up is my 3D Graphic Score Language is a Fictitious Fact.

Composed in the first year of my degree, this piece was my first introduction to the concept of graphic-notation. For one of our first compositions, we were challenged to create a graphic-score, and me being inept with anything that requires precision with my hands, decided that drawing, or painting, were out of the question. So for some strange reason I decided that paper-machaeing a box was the way to go. But with what? I’m not quite sure what exactly led up to the start of the idea, (I will try at least to piece together some of the facts in this post, but some are still fuzzy), nonetheless the first decision of the concept was one that I believe many English scholars will cringe at; ripping up an Oxford English Dictionary. Why? Like I said, I’m not always sure why or where exactly the finite details come from. I’m sure that there are reasons that led up to the moments, but I can’t pin-point all of them down. Therefore, as I write this post, I can only examine what I do know. If anyone who reads this in the future can prove with indisputable evidence the reasons that led up to the seed of this concept (particularly the ripping up an OED), if I’m still alive, I would very much like to read it. However, if not… well all I can say is well done.

Anyway, I digress….

Have you ever noticed that when you say a word so many times it ceases to have meaning? Go on… try it now…. choose any word and say it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over – you get the idea- until it just becomes a noise that you are making, which feels almost detached from you body. The meaning of the word is temporarily lost or mutated. See! it’s a strange thing…. OK, now, what about the fact that there are hundreds of words that sound the same, or have same or at least similar spellings but have completely different meanings? It is strange, the difference between ‘read’ and ‘read’ are up to the context of the sentence as a whole… but I bet you don’t know which order I put them in… I mean it’s 50/50 …. but still…. all these factors of language , I concluded, was because language, its rules and conditions, are completely made up over time. (Well I could only speak of English as my French, Spanish, Korean etc. are awful). What is it they say? – ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’! Except, of course, in 923 cases (according to the elves at QI): silly me.

Over the course of a few weeks (3 I believe), I collected words from various places and resources that I either thought sounded interesting or unusual, or ones that I thought looked bizarre when written down (like ‘bizarre ‘for instance).

A few days prior to the start of the project, my step-grandmother had introduced me to a book called Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth. This book, (which I would recommend to anyone), takes you on a journey behind the origins and connections between words in the English language. His other book Horologicon which explores some of the lost words was also on my reading list. Consequently, some of the words from these books featured in the creation of the piece. During this part of the process, you could also spot me scribbling down words throughout the day as I heard these fascinating words. It was when I had collected nearly 200 words that I decided I had enough to work with.

So, what else goes better with a piece about this fictional thing we call ‘language, if not the condition that makes learning that fictional language more difficult and convoluted than it already is – Dyslexia! It just so happens that I have a few friends with Dyslexia. And because they’re my friends, I decided to give them the worst possible thing that only Satan himself could have thought up for them: a spelling test.

I gave each of my friends either a ‘hide-and-spell’ or ‘listen-and-spell’ spelling test for all of the words I collected. I popped this into a spreadsheet (I love those), and then combined or chose my favourite spellings that I felt looked the most unusual.

The next step was bit trickier. How could I represent these words as made-up? Well this is where I needed to do some research:

Going back to the lecture notes, I discovered a link to a PDF of John Cages Notations, a collection of various styles and composers open and graphically notated scores. Flicking through, I was interested by the text of various scores and descriptions, and how they were displayed, but the most fascinating ones were those where the words were almost drawn. One particular example is that of Malcolm Goldstein’s Illuminations from Fantastic Gardens (example below):

I like how I could sound the words out using the score, but if someone else had the score, they could have a completely different idea of how to sound out the sounds. This inspired me to do the same, or similar. But instead of transcribing direct musical sounds (like crescendos) onto the score, I wanted to allow for a wider scope of interpretation. So in keeping with the 3D element, I chose to make the score almost like a diorama, by hanging smaller boxes inside the larger box with the words drawn onto them. Thus allowing for each performer to have a different view of the piece, and further widening the scope of interpretation.

On reflection, though not a conscious thought at the time, the words hanging in space, spinning and moving with the slightest puff of air, are of great relevance. Symbolising how words (and language) changes and flows with all the elements such as the space their used in, or how they mutate over time. Think about words that Shakespeare came up with which were considered improper, and you can start to see how laughable the idea of language being a fixed, and so tightly ruled item, really is. Now, whenever someone tells me I’m using ‘improper’ english…. it does arouse my suspicions as to whether their current understanding of the rules are flawed or not. Sometimes, when writing anything with the written word, you really do need to negotiate what rules you follow, and which ones you tweak… just a little… in order fulfil the requirements of the task.

After all this I added one more element to the piece:

If you’ve ever gotten work back from school with misspelt words, or if you’ve ever used a piece of software on a computer that automatically detects the spelling, you may have noticed that the ‘incorrect’ spellings are underlined in read. However, sometimes the computer doesn’t notice because the word may be spelt correctly, but be a completely different spelling. Did you notice that when referring to the colour ‘red’ I typed in ‘read’? If you did… please help me proof-read my essays. If not… you are not alone. This is a prime example of where a computer wouldn’t notice this spelling. Now it is fair to say that sometimes words and sentences can be underlined in blue or green by the software because it’s a grammatical error, but for the purposes of this piece (and post), let’s focus on the spelling. Long story shot, it didn’t notice it.

So how did I use this element in my piece you ask? Simply, I underlined any correct spellings as incorrect.

Now my piece was complete. I had successfully mangled the english language. The only thing left was to hear an interpretation of this score. I wouldn’t hear an interpretation however, until roughly a year later as part of a rehearsal for the Canterbury Scratch Orchestra, and sadly I can’t remember whether I recorded this rehearsal or not. Fortunately, there is a recording that exists of both the babble before the piece, and of the version of the piece performed during this concert:

I would love to be able to share this particular score with the world. However, due to the nature of the score, it is currently carefully wrapped up in black-sacks in my attic. So the best I can do, is give you a PDF of the photographs I presented to the examiners.

The next post in this series will focus on the piece that won me the Canterbury Festival Composition Competition in 2015 A Throne of Games (you could probably guess at least one piece of material that inspired the piece).

– Jason Hodgson (31st January 2017)

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