At the Borders of Music, Art and Text

Exploring an interdisciplinary approach to composition
A research project by Caitlin Rowley

Exploring Boundaries (continued)

  1. Openness and fear
  2. Experimenting with constraints

Experimenting with constraints

Crossing Dartmoor, a large-scale song cycle for tenor and piano, presented here as a work in progress, represents a significant change of direction. At my supervisor, Sam Hayden’s suggestion, I committed to each piece of the cycle addressing just one idea and to experimenting with techniques for limiting my compositional choices.

Through this work, I have identified four principal areas of constraint:

Crossing Dartmoor has principally used material and procedural constraints:

My experiences with chance have confirmed James Pritchett’s statement in The Music of John Cage that ‘chance effectively blocks the exercise of one’s accumulated knowledge and prejudices.’(fn16) Chance raises possibilities which I would not have chosen, and by transplanting a level of decision-making to a less emotional plane, it allows me to focus on the craft of composing and gain a view of a composition as a whole, instead of obsessing about tiny details.

For example, using dice in ‘1979’ and ‘2010’ negated the questions ‘which note should be repeated?’ and ‘how many times should it be repeated?’, along with the open-ended question of what the upper limit for repetition should be. Instead the questions became more about craft: ‘how do I use these repetitions convincingly? Are they better fast or slow? Even or irregular? What about dynamics?’, much more useful and interesting questions for keeping the composition moving forward.

Having started to see benefits from working with limitations in Crossing Dartmoor, I was given an opportunity to test a theory that these techniques were helping me to write faster, more confidently and producing strong, coherent work. I was asked to produce some fragments of music for my CoLab project, based on four short texts written by the project’s singers, to be sung the next day. While the project’s leader, Jessica Walker, was not asking for complete pieces, I set myself a challenge: using these techniques, could I produce four songs with piano accompaniments in the space of a single evening – and without working all night to achieve it?

So the limitations set were:
Time: From 5pm until noon the next day
Conceptual: I would set no more than two short phrases per song, with the rest of the text to be spoken over a piano accompaniment which would give context to the sung moments.
Material: Pitch material would be chosen from pitches generated by a cipher on each author’s first name.

Once the constraints were in place, ‘I worked intuitively but found that the work proceeded very quickly as there were so few decisions to make’(fn17), and I was able to deliver Vignettes of Home, not only complete but also typeset, to the singers by the deadline.

Material and conceptual constraints were used in composing the piano variations More or Less, created in collaboration with pianist Alexandra Kremakova. The concept was to create two sets of interleaving variations, like zooming in and out of a map, showing more or less detail, progressing to opposite extremes of simplicity and complexity. This structure predetermined what needed to be written and allowed me to concentrate on my focus for the collaboration, to improve my understanding of pianistic writing. The theme was based around the intervals of a perfect fifth, tritone and octave, intervals identified in conversation with Alex as being favourites for both of us.

Finding that the piece felt a little dull harmonically, I returned to this intervallic limitation to create a cycle of fifths inserted between the variations like a palate- cleanser. This cycle moves independently of the the variations, but moves closer and closer to the original tonal centre, E-flat, tying the increasingly stylistically varied variations together harmonically.

More or Less cycle of fifths

Figure 2: Cycle of fifths in More or Less

In some ways, Two Fish was the control to the limitations experiment. The second song, ‘Sargus’, was composed using material constraints, but the first song, ‘Adonis’ was begun using my old process. I had no limitations set up, only a text, an overall duration and a vague idea about the voice being the fish, while the piano would be the fish’s predators.

‘Sargus’ was written quickly and I developed an idea of this fish as a villain from Victorian melodrama, which affected stylistic decisions, especially in the central section. Progress on ‘Adonis’, however, was very slow and unsatisfactory and eventually I had reassess my approach to complete the piece.

In the light of the successful work on ‘Sargus’ (and Vignettes of Home), I decided I needed to commit to a structure – just the text was not enough. I committed more fully to my initial idea of fish and predators, abandoned my attempts to make the vocal line more lyrical and focused instead on the more successful recitative-influenced sections. Looking to ‘Sargus’ for a unifying element, I realised I could cast the Adonis in the role of a sweet and innocent melodrama heroine. This made sense of the existing pianistic flourishes from the original sketch and also of the recitative elements, which, considering a pious heroine, were recast as a loose interpretation of church chant.

With parameters in place, ‘Adonis’ quickly developed a personality and came to a swift and happy conclusion. Ultimately, it seemed that my old habits (which I had considered a safety-net for this project) created problems – it was the new experiments that rescued the piece.

While using limitations in my work has, overall, been extremely beneficial, I still experience moments of indecision. In the context of such a moment, my teacher Paul Newland suggested a liberating way of thinking about decisions: if you are unable to decide, then the possibilities must be equally valid, in which case it does not matter which one you choose, so just pick one and do it. If the result is unsatisfactory, try a different one. This represents an entirely different way of thinking about music from my former concern about ‘getting it right’, one which feels simultaneously more interesting and less stressful. The concept has been reinforced by my experience on two practical days organised by the Composition Department at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance – one with director Lou Stein,(fn18) the other to create an opera in a day.(fn19) In both projects, I observed that eventually there came a point when thinking and discussion was no longer progressing the task at hand, only choosing something and trying it out created fresh ideas and developed the concept.

I have been delighted to find that, contrary to my expectations, I have not needed to sacrifice my own soundworld when working with limiting techniques. Instead, I have been able to adapt the material to use it in ways which are compatible with my musical thought. John Cage’s composition of Apartment House 1776 shows how he mapped his own personal preference over randomly generated material:

In his first version of the pieces, he simply subtracted notes from the originals [forty-four choral pieces by William Billings]. For each measure, he used chance to answer the question of how many of the four voices would remain. The results of this process did not suit him: “When I got to a piano and tried them out, they were miserable. No good at all. Not worth the paper they were written on. It was because the question was superficial.” He then changed his method by adding silence as a possible answer to his question (in the first version, at least one voice always remained). The results were still “not good.” Finally he changed the question itself. He counted the number of notes in a given voice of the piece, and then used chance to select from these… Each of the four lines thus became a series of extended single tones and silences. This was the version that Cage settled upon.(fn20)

At present, I am not particularly interested in the idea of completely process-driven material, so rather than take Cage’s approach of adjusting the process, instead I have chosen to apply the material generated quite loosely. For example, when using the Ordnance Survey map of Dartmoor to generate the material of ‘Entropy Stones’ from Crossing Dartmoor, I chose not to transcribe a very dense section on the piano part’s treble stave, and ended up using only about a third of the mapped material as I felt that to use everything would have resulted in a piece that was far longer than would balance with my chosen text. Instead, I started from the beginning of the map material, working intuitively to place the vocal line (generated from a path on the map) and ending the piano part at a point which felt musically satisfying.

Likewise, when working with ciphers, I approach the cipher as a pitch set from which to pick and choose, rather than use the notes in order. For ‘Entropy Stones’, I transcribed the map’s pitch material as ‘white notes’, then mapped cipher pitch sets over the top to assign accidentals. I used two different ciphers (by Honegger and Michael Haydn) on the title to provide some harmonic variation. This approach allows me to combine the benefits of working with constraints with intuitive aspects of my established process.

Continue reading: Blurring boundaries: 1. Amateur activity/Professional practice


16. James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 76.

17. Caitlin Rowley, ‘One evening, four songs’, 5 March 2014 < journal/2014/03/05/one-evening-four-songs/> (accessed 11 June 2014).

18. 30 April 2014.

19. 8 May 2014.

20 Pritchett, Music of John Cage, 3.