At the Borders of Music, Art and Text

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

Blurring boundaries

  1. Amateur activity/Professional practice
  2. Music as art

Amateur activity/Professional practice

While Richard Long defines himself as a sculptor, much of the gallery work he exhibits is not sculpture. This use of what I am calling ‘amateur’ skills – in the sense that ‘the work he displays uses media and formats (photography, mapping, graphics, text) which are not his primary area of training (sculpture)’(fn21) – for me is one of the most exciting aspects of his work and considering the implications for amateur practice within my composition has had far-reaching results on the direction my work has taken in the latter half of this year. In the context of Long’s use of photography and text, I considered what skills I have that I could consider amateur strands to my professional practice. I consider myself to be primarily a composer of notated music, so artmaking, performing (voice/flute/ piano/tenor viol), video (filming/editing), recorded audio and electronic/ electroacoustic music all fall under this ‘amateur’ designation for me. Developing my thinking about art and music, I wanted to consider how visual elements could be an integral part of a musical work, not merely an add-on or behind- the-scenes element of the composition process. I used this concept for a piece to explore working with my amateur skills in a series of short video pieces titled HearSee. To prevent myself from becoming too involved in the tiny details of this new-to-me format, I embraced a ‘lo-fi’ aesthetic, in keeping with the limited equipment I had to hand as well as my inexperience, and committed to not remaking earlier pieces to ‘clean them up’ as my technique improved. The roughness and variations then track my progress through experimenting with the medium of video and the concept of the piece. For example, ‘Drop 1’ is significantly longer than the other two pieces, the sound elements more ‘composed’. ‘Drop 2’ displays subtle stripes across the video footage, the result of editing this piece entirely within Final Cut Express rather than starting in iMovie as I had done in 1. 2 also uses only the camera’s sound as it gave a clearer recording than the stereo Tascam recorder/iPhone combination used in 1 and 3. Separating sound from image, I found that I paid more attention to both elements than when they were combined, and this experiment is now affecting how I am thinking about the future incorporation of video into Crossing Dartmoor. My creation of sample videos without sound(22) has confirmed my sense of a video piece that could be considered music. Reinforcing this idea, Seth Kim-Cohen states:

‘If we strip away every characteristic of music, we find that, before it ceases to be music, it can afford the loss of every characteristic but one… “Sound is an irreducible given of music,” writes the musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, “Even in the marginal cases in which it is absent, it is nonetheless present by allusion”’.(fn23)

This idea will be explored further in the next section. Manifesto, an incomplete experiment in working with recorded audio, improvisation and electroacoustic music, has combined amateurism with compositional constraints. Using Max/MSP, a programme with a famously steep learning curve, and with only five weeks to the project’s completion, I was curious to see what I could achieve, starting from a point of no experience (although many years’ experience with programming structures). Each piece starts with a recording of vocal or body sounds (improvised and recorded by me) and explores a single idea through a Max patch. Setting time limits, as with HearSee, to ensure progress through the work, I allotted a day or two (according to time available) to the development of each patch and creation of a recorded final improvisation using the patch. I set a maximum of ten improvisation recordings to be made per patch, after which I would need to choose one to embody that piece.(fn24) With some guidance from Sam Hayden, and making liberal use of sample patches and working examples from the programme’s help files, I constructed three patches which explored

  1. Delays, using a clapped rhythm
  2. Granular synthesis, using quiet sounds produced with the lips, tongue and breath
  3. Pitch processes (detection, transposition and ring modulation), using sung tones.

Aside from starting to learn Max/MSP, Manifesto has been useful as a means to explore concepts which I have been thinking about in my music this year. For example,

In the light of the development of my work over the past two years, I am finding working on Manifesto to be a constructive way of considering what my aims are for my composition at the present time. I plan to use all these recordings inside another, more sophisticated Max patch to create a single piece which will combine elements of all these ideas.

Continue reading: Blurring boundaries: 2. Music as art »


21. Caitlin Rowley, ‘Adventures in amateurism’, 14 April 2014 < journal/2014/04/14/adventures-in-amateurism/> (accessed 15 June 2014).

22. See Appendix 4 for these sample videos.

23. Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009, 15.

24. The final selected improvisation recordings and Max patches are included with this project as Appendix 5.