site-specific composition

site-specific composition

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...