site-specific composition

site-specific composition

Interview with Stephen Montague

backgroundPosted by hansroels.be Aug 06, 2018 15:12
Stephen Montague is an American composer, living in the UK since 1974, who has made music for a long list of internationally acclaimed orchestras and festivals. Although he is more known for his compositions for 'conventional' instruments and media, he has also regularly worked outside the concert hall and produced so-called 'large-scale works'. Concertos for an orchestra of automobiles or music theatre works in a Scottish castle are the result of his search to expand the realm of music beyond artistic institutions. Having worked together with John Cage to realize versions of Musicircus, he has continued to direct and conduct realizations of this work throughout Europe.

HR: The most recent large-scale piece that you have made is “A Brew Dog Howls”, made for a Scottish craft brewery.

SM: Scotland, unlike the rest of Britain, still has some money for the arts, though it's getting smaller. In 2014 the Aberdeen Sound Festival commissioned a group of artists, poets, actors and musicians to do a number of very interesting projects by going into communities around the greater Aberdeen area and work with local artisans to produce a one-off event for the festival. A cheese factory, for example, worked on a cheese, food and poetry project. Other small craft specialists worked not only with poets but with artists, actors, and musicians. My assignment was the BrewDog Brewery, a small, craft brewery in the village of Ellon, about an hour and a half north of Aberdeen. BrewDog recently became famous in Britain and now internationally for its extremely strong beer and clever advertising. I was their composer-in-residence for two weeks working with the special brewery fraternity – all men, lots of hops, and many empty glasses.

Each of the Sound Festival artists employed on the scheme was to devise a unique project that embraced not only the local artisans but also engaged their local communities. As the finale of the 2014 Sound Festival the organizers hired a coach to take an audience from Aberdeen on an afternoon/evening tour around each one of these locations to sample the local fare and be entertained by the completed festival project. BrewDog and I were the last stop no doubt because it was a brewery and what better way to end the tour. Working on this project for two weeks was an alcoholic’s dream- work all day, drink all night. And all special craft beers!

My new work was called A Brew Dog Howls. And for it I harnessed most of the brewery’s facilities. Scotland doesn’t enforce the same health and safety standards England imposes so I could actually have the whole audience walking through the maze of vats, kegs and pipes in the working brewery. It was no doubt dangerous but certainly wonderful and exciting. I also found that one of the brew masters played bagpipes! How perfect was that! I added percussion when one of the brewers built an amazing percussion tree using various pieces of scrap metal, tubing, pipes and cans culled from brewery stock and the junk yard. The poet Isobel Dixon was on the team and created a special poem using the colourful names of BrewDog beers like “Coco Psyho”. I also hired two professional musicians for the performance just in case. The audience was a beer bottle chorus charged with creating rich harmonic drones by blowing across the bottle tops after each sip of beer.
A Brew Dog Howls 2014, BrewDog Brewery, Ellon, Scotland

The festival coach arrived at the brewery in the early evening. I rehearsed them to coordinate their drinking style with their blowing technique- they were better at drinking. The event began with Isobel’s poem delivered by an impressive Scotsman. Twelve brewers played the percussion tree with great panache, the professionals kept the momentum sharp and focused, the audience beer bottle drone worked elegantly, and the bag piper appeared dramatically weaving through the vats at the finale. The BrewDog Brewery came to life as never before. It was exciting, dramatic and fun.

Sadly however it somehow felt like it came and went too quickly and with barely a trace. After two weeks of methodical preparation it was suddenly gone like the wind. Ellon is an isolated community and certainly nothing like this had happened there before. The audience seemed to enjoy it thoroughly but only in the moment. As soon as it was over they were back in the bar drinking as though nothing had just happened. I was surprised too that BrewDog who have done some amazing advertising campaigns like driving an army tank through the village streets of Scotland took no notice of what had just happened on their own brewery floor. Few photos, a little documentation. And Hans, you are the first person to ever ask me about this event since it was done in 2014. I had nearly forgotten all about it. There were bigger and better fish to fry coming up.

HR: What makes your large scale works different from your other compositions?

SM: If I tell you that the last big commission I did was a 40 minute orchestral work for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, there is quite a difference between men in tights and women on point in a major London venue than what I do with an orchestra of automobiles at Brands Hatch race track. One of the things which I think has been difficult for me as a composer is that nobody really knows what to call me because I can write proper orchestral music for the Royal Ballet, but I also do crazy works for motorcycles, automobiles, music circuses, breweries and various projects like that. My favourite quote is what Henry Cowelll said about himself that he wanted “…to live in the whole world of music, not just in one corner”. And that would be my philosophy too. I like being able to do everything/anything. I’m interested in lots of different things. It is fun to both do a work for motorcycles but also a large orchestral work for the Royal Ballet. I thoroughly enjoy doing both.

Concerto for piano, brass, percussion and 8 motorcycles. Piano soloist James Toesland, World Superbike Champion


HR: Has your practice as a conductor been informative for your large-scale works? It is a special experience to conduct somewhere outside or in a brewery.

SM: Conducting outside can be fun in the sense of more adventurous and probably more problematic than conducting an orchestra in a controlled environment. They both present very different and certainly challenging issues. Outside of course it’s often just plain weather and the zero acoustics of an open space. It takes a different kind of preparation, and rehearsal technique which is always tricky. If you do a Musicircus with over 100 performers in a space inside or outside which is large and cavernous, employing the ‘right’ amount of performers for the space and acoustics is not an easy call. You want to have enough performers, so that their sound resonates but not too many so it becomes congested. That’s a real challenge to get it right and it takes a lot of practice and experience to make it work well in large spaces.

HR: If you do this kind of concerts outside the concert hall, you have to rethink the whole concert ritual, you have to redesign it.

SM: Absolutely. It is a very different experience but at another level it is like an inside concert- it needs to have a beginning, middle and an end so to say. It needs to be long enough and not too long. It has many of the issues that you have in the concert hall but on a larger, usually more difficult scale. When you are in a concert hall you know what will work and what won’t work- the orchestra or ensemble fits on stage, etc. When you are on a windy hill the issues can be much more catastrophic- the music blows away! All these things are very different inside and outside but the final effect is that you want to have the audience really enjoy it and get something from it. It is a big challenge but it is much more fun when it works well to do something outside a normal concert setting.

(This interview happened via Skype in October 2017 and was revised through email correspondence with the composer.)





Interview with Carolyn Chen

backgroundPosted by hansroels.be Apr 10, 2018 12:33
Carolyn Chen is a composer living in the USA. Since 2004 she has composed and performed her 'music for people' works on locations outside the concert hall. In February 2018 she was in Belgium for a presentation at the Sound & Participation symposium, organized by Q-O2, Ictus ensemble and the School of Arts Ghent. This is the interview that we had in Ghent.

HR: In your work Human Windchimes performers wear clothes of recycled materials. These clothes are instruments, accentuating the movement of the performers. What place do you need to perform this work?

CC: I hadn't thought what place I would need. The performance opportunity came up and I adapted to whatever space I had. There were performances in a school building and also a loft. In the end I was very glad for the experience of doing Human Windchimes on a sidewalk. This version was so much better because of the liveness of the environment. There was so much to respond to. Even the fact that the performers were being ignored for the most part was valuable to me, because somehow they were more authentic as a part of nature: they were just a part of the world. There was so much more to look at – suddenly the sidewalk was so much more alive to me than it would have been. I was really grateful for that experience. I think most other performances happened at a museum, library or some kind of art space but I like the street because it’s an unplanned meeting. People can just arrive without even knowing beforehand that something is going to happen.

HR: Is it the liveness of the world that attracts you in making music for places outside the concert hall?

CC: Yes, somehow it reminds me of the miraculousness of the world at large, how full of opportunity it is. This is hard to notice on a constant basis because you would never get anywhere, never get anything done. It is like a surprise party (laughs): you see a space with the idea that something might happen, you can surprise people with something they weren't looking for; and the event will be spacious enough so that they can also move through it and get on with their lives.

HR: How different is composing, preparing and rehearsing a piece outside the concert hall, compared to one for a concert hall performance?

CC: For example, if a group says that they are interested in performing Human Windchimes, I feel like there is a lot of trust that I can bestow on them without having met them. A text score for an unconventional space is a different kind of communication, usually there is a lot more openness. Maybe that is not necessarily true, you could have a text score that is very specific. It is just not asking for a traditional musical interpretation of time and stuff. A text score is designed to spark the imagination, this is what you hope as a composer. Maybe you can leave a little bit more unsaid with greater optimism that somebody will take it as a freedom rather than an abnegation of responsibility. A text score asks more of the person interpreting it, it requires more.


HR: Is this an openness or a specific way of listening to the world?

CC: Maybe it is a willingness to seize agency and creative opportunity as you see it. This kind of imagination is not asked for in classical music and it is not necessarily a traditional part of the training. It was not part of my training, and I feel like I had a very classical music education. If you ask this willingness and imagination from people that are not used to this, it can make them feel uncomfortable; but if people like doing this, then it can be more fulfilling then having everything written out. If you play Beethoven your whole life for years and years, of course you find freedom in it and ways to interpret it. Over the amount of time that you take with this music, you are looking through different layers and making the piece for yourself. For most contemporary instrumental music that kind of time and attention is not part of the infrastructure. You don't have that many performances, sometimes not even a second performance. There is a lot of attention and funding for premières and commissions and after that it is over. People learn scores quickly and are able to put them together in a convincing way on very little rehearsing time. I have respect for this kind of training but it is a different kind of training.

HR: Imagine an ensemble would be interested in performing your Human Windchimes or Supermarket Music. Which performance qualities would you expected from them?

CC: A lot of these pieces have been performed by people who were not musically trained. I think the main requirement is a willingness to invest your mind, the fullness of your personality and your attention. In performances of Human Windchimes two out of five performers were not from music. One of them was the most confrontational one. She was the most active and brought so much personality to the part. She was really in full character. It is mainly willingness, I think anyone can do these things, there is a category of things that don't need traditional music training.

HR: Is it possible to share such a living and ephemeral performance outside the concert hall with people that were not present at the performance, without making an artificial, consumable reproduction?

CC: The room, the space, the mindset of the people that you can feel in a room, the different listening and attention modes of the audience, this whole situation is so vital to the contingency of what is going on. You lose the sense of contingency if the performance is on a recording because you can't play it again. It is a problem, improvisers talk about this problem too. Such a live performance is hard to share but you have to do something.

HR: Would it help to revalue the score and consider it as a call to (musical) action?

CC: I have come to understand the value of both documentation and scoring more since I started doing these live performances outside the concert hall. There is a part of me that believes that the live moment of the performance is the most important thing, that is what you do it for. I don't think that having good documentation is a prime motivator, but I have come to realize how valuable documentation is to these things ever happening again or to anybody understanding that something has happened. Such a performance does disappear so easily. If I don't have good documentation, it is like it never happened, which is OK for me personally, but I guess, in terms of surviving and trying to get support to do the next thing, it is really helpful to have the best documentation possible. I didn't always pay attention to this, I didn't want to believe that the quality of the footage is that important. But actually, it matters so much to the immediate credibility that people give to something, because we are so used to judging things visually. In the beginning I had a lot of pieces that were in the dark with a lot of silence, and those were my first videos on YouTube. My mom saw them all, she was being so supportive and she said, I've watched all of your videos from beginning to end. But how come in your music you can't hear anything and you can't see anything? (laughs) Why is it just all dark and silent for the whole time? (laughs) This is not totally true: there are flashes of light and moments where something happens make the waiting matter. But it is hard to communicate the quality of the silence on a flat screen when there is nobody else around.

HR: If I look at your texts, videos and scores, I find a sense of animism in your works, the idea that everything lives. You talk a lot about classic music ideas like polyphony and you place these ideas in very different contexts. Do you recognize yourself in this idea that everything is living and that you can bring everything to life.

CC Yes, it is true, I do think about it in that way. I don't think I ever crystallized it so clearly. It is looking for the secret life in things and looking for a way to illuminate what is there already, what its own nature is, that I can't necessarily see from the outside or at first glance. Polyphony or counterpoint is something that I think about a lot. It is the training and it is impossible to step away from it. You can think about things in time, how they align together and often it ends up being spatial relationships. I have a piece for corpse position permutation: there is a person watching a body, there are flashes of light and they change position. The diagrams for this piece are like species counterpoint studies: there is a first (voice), you have a second, they move this way, and you think about who is watching whom, how much tension is there in that dynamic, how do you release the tension. It is really a traditional phrase structure, just in a different language, it is translated in a different medium.

HR: In this way you can compose with almost any material: everything is taking place and developing in time.

CC: Yes, you are trying to feel the harmony and the nature of the relationship between things.

HR: You also play the guqin in outdoor places, for example in a duo with Amble Skuse. Private music – music for the performer – exists in experimental music, for example in Tom Johnson's music. But you also refer to the Chinese tradition of outdoor performances.

CC: Playing the guqin, getting into the aesthetics of it and the idea of merging with nature, have been very valuable for me. The idea of a private music isn't that incompatible with my personality, I am an introverted person anyway. But to know there is a historical tradition of this legitimizes it. It is not entirely private, if I am playing on a sidewalk, it is opening the window. We want to do it in a non-confrontational way, the music is not that loud. People stopped sometimes, took a pause to listen for a few minutes and then kept walking. Or they just kept sitting next to us, because it is possible to co-exist without interfering with each other. I also like the idea that you can listen without full intention. This can be a valid way of listening, you can listen with distracted attention and there might still be a value in that, without the analytical ear, where you are kind of mentally scoring everything as it happens, so that you can organise its proportions and time from beginning to end. There is a lot of music from these traditions that is valuable to me: I could listen…. catch a piece of it … and have it matter.



Notating site-specific music

backgroundPosted by hansroels.be Dec 15, 2017 13:57
Recently Min Oh published the book Score by Score on notation in music, dance and visual arts. One chapter contains an interview with me on the role of notation in my artistic practice. The following blog is a reflection on how I try to notate and fix my site-specific music compositions.

Since I have been working outside the concert hall, the main scores of my compositions have gradually developed into texts scores (words describing sounds or actions). Using a text score gives the performers the necessary freedom and flexibility to deal with a living environment, full of unexpected events. Words are further away from the conventional music notation and I hope that this distance helps the performer to find a personal, musical way to interact with the concert environment. It is not easy to find a balance in a text score between giving enough freedom to performers, on the one hand, and presenting musical material, on the other, that is concrete and tangible enough to start performing a music composition.

One solution that I found to ensure that a score is both (musically) challenging enough for the performers and has enough information about the dependence of the music on the concert environment, is the addition of 'documentations' to my text scores. I spontaneously starting using this practice in Plain (second half 2016) and next, it got mixed up with my artistic research practice. The documentations are not necessary to perform my compositions; the main (text) score provides enough ('abstract') information for the musicians to realize a performance. The documentations contain detailed information on specific performances, the concert site and the interactions with this site. I also describe the rehearsal, exploration and creative process, add links to audio and video recordings, and present an evaluation of the performance. You can find examples of score documentations of Plain, Music Street and Hearizon on my website. Together the main score and documentation form a unity. Together they give the performer just enough information – I hope – to create a personal view on the musical performance and the context (environment). Next, the performer can start imagining a new performance on another location.

Score documentation of my composition Plain

Working outside the concert hall has also sharpened my attention for the rehearsal process. In each composition and each environment the listening and performing requirements may be different. Moreover, other material conditions may limit the possible interactions, for example, the performers may walk around and not see or even hear the other performers. Working outside the concert hall forces me to spend more time and attention on learning how to interact with the environment (and how to play together in environments, very different from the enclosed concert hall). The addition of a documentation to the text score has given me a format to communicate about this rehearsal process. The documentations of Plain, Music Street and Hearizon contain descriptions of rehearsals, its preparation and used (temporary) scores. For example, for the first rehearsal of Plain I made a simple graphical score, because this created a basic working structure to start performing and discovering sounds at the site; in this case, a library reading room. In the end — at the concert performance— this graphical score wasn't necessary any more and several performers did not use it. The text score and additional documentation give me the opportunity to distinguish between more and less important scores: some scores in the documentation are tools to make a specific rehearsal as productive as possible, while the (main) text score tries to express the core ideas of a composition.

In the past months a new development related to scores, occurred in my composition practice. My recent compositions were not performed yet in public but were tried out together with performers such as percussionist Ruben Orio. Reflecting on these try-outs I realise that I create scores that mix the text score and documentation format by adding exercises (for the performers) to the main text score. Exercises (on listening and making sound) have been part of experimental scores, such as Pauline Oliveros's Sonic Meditations (1974) or Charlie Sdraulig's Category (2013-14). Especially when interaction with the environment is involved, exercises offer a powerful combination of being both open and practice-oriented. It invites musicians to explore musical ideas, leading them into a certain direction without being too directive.

Let me explain the qualities of exercises by using a recent composition. In Faraway (working title) I explore a setup with 'distant' instruments: mostly electronic instruments played at the spot where the performer is standing but sounding at a large distance from the performer. The sound production unit – for example a wireless speaker – is placed at an intriguing location for the performer, for example in the branches of a tree in the garden. In Faraway a setup with multiple 'distant' instruments and (usual, acoustic) 'nearby' instruments is created to interact with the environment across rooms, walls and doors. I want Faraway to be a polyphonic work, in which layers of performed and non-performed (environmental) sounds are continuously present. Initially, I had described this polyphony too detailed and directive. In the try-outs this turned out to seriously limit the interaction possibilities of the performer. Moreover, my detailed description of the polyphony only worked in a sound environment with specific characteristics. In the end, I only mentioned polyphony in an open way in the text score and added a page with 'possible exercises in preparation of a performance' of the text score. For example, the last exercise reads:

“Split your mind. Connect one distant location (and the distant instrument) with an (imagined) feeling, atmosphere, action, situation or living being. The other distant or nearby locations may follow a different – perhaps musical – logic. Next, stick to these connections during your whole performance. Some examples of connections: [1] Imagine a child is playing in a room in one of your distant locations, she alternates between playing piano and making a drawing on the floor. (...) ”

By using exercises as a notation form (about a composition) I can invite the performer to focus the performance without giving a narrow, unique solution that the performer is obliged to follow. Moreover, the exercises guide the performer to actively explore the composition and its dependency on the (changing) environment.

This is link to the provisional score of Faraway.



Website with info on site-specific music performances

backgroundPosted by hansroels.be Nov 28, 2017 12:14
Recently I have been making a website which presents a collection of music (composers, compositions) and ensembles working outside the concert hall. I will also add a list of useful background texts and books. This is the link to this page.

The topicality of site-specific composition

backgroundPosted by hansroels.be May 31, 2016 09:12
Since the 20th century contemporary classical music and site-specific sound art are deeply related to each other and I am convinced that in the future the influence of site-specific arts on music will grow. Some themes common to both, are well-known: for example the attention for popular and non-western culture or the fascination for silence, noise and (environmental) sound. But in this post I want to focus on three other themes which also disclose parallels between site-specific and contemporary music: the many-sided character of sound perception, its multi-sensorial nature and the artists' call for sustainable, local solutions to global social and ecological problems.


The many-sided nature of environmental sound is much more than just the spatialization of sounds. For example, on a market place, there is not just one central sound (on a stage) but many sources. People listen from changing positions to different things and they do so by integrating their own ideas, habits, feelings and history. At the same time these people have the experience that they are sharing a space – the market – and they are part of a common soundscape. The raise of portable technologies has added a digital, virtual dimension to this many-sided character: in a market place people use their mobile phone or search on the internet with a smartphone or tablet. They partly move in a virtual world which is connected to the common market place.

In our daily world the experience of sound is also multi-sensorial. Together with visual and tactile experiences it forms a holistic experience at one specific location. For example, hearing the wind blow is usually coupled to feeling it in your face or seeing trees and objects move. The different simultaneous sensorial experiences create a complex and diverse array of unified experiences of which the auditory experience is only one part. Music and sound are not isolated, independent experiences.

In the past decades an increasing number of composers and performers became fascinated by this many-sided and multi-sensorial character of the sound experience. Within the (isolated) concert hall, technology has been used to recreate this experience. In contemporary classical music the number of productions and compositions which not only involve multimedia (video, sensors,…) but also produce sound and image from many perspectives (as in the work of Michael Beil) continues to raise. Site-specific arts have a major trump card in this respect: they do not need to reconstruct the many-sidedness and multi-sensoriality with a lot of technological devices, it is often an inextricable part of a specific outside location. Moreover, the artist can focus on the interaction of the new digital worlds and the real, local place, in contrast with the concert hall in which the isolated, technological, virtual world is often placed in the foreground.

A next theme is sustainability. In recent years more artists began to tackle questions such as: “How can my art help to realize a more sustainable and equitable world? How can I enforce the local power of people and not of international economic and political institutions?” This convergence of artistic and societal concerns is noticeable in festivals such as (im)Possible Futures in Vooruit (2015, Belgium), the international conference Culture(s) in sustainable futures (2015) or the recent term sustainable art. Art critics use this term to describe artistic practices operating in harmony with principles of ecology, social justice, non-violence and grassroots democracy. Already in the seventies site-specific composers such as David Dunn stressed the local elements in their outdoor performances, and the work of Chester Schultz shows that site-specific music can develop into sustainable art. In the intersection between site-specific and sustainable art it is necessary to mention community music, a concept that stresses and fosters the social and relational aspects of performing music for all people. Community music encompasses a wide array of practices, some with a long history. But in the past decades the attention for community music has grown, specifically in the English-speaking countries such as the UK or Australia. In some site-specific music projects (a.e. Kathy Kennedy or Het Geluid van Hasselt en Genk with compositions of Wim Henderickx) both listeners and amateur musicians participate, which blurs the borders between site-specific and community music.

The previous three themes and relations indicate that a movement 'outwards' is likely to appear in contemporary music because it is outside the concert hall that these relevant and topical themes can be fully exploited. I also think that in contemporary classical music there is a complex and fundamental contradiction between the music and the expressed ideas on the one hand, and the closed, isolated hall with its related social rituals (between audience and performers, audience and composer) in which it is caught. I hope that moving performances to other locations, in a dialogue with the surroundings, breathes new life to contemporary classical and experimental music...