At the Borders of Music, Art and Text

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

Crossing boundaries (continued)

  1. Constructing public situations
  2. Constructing private situations

Constructing private situations

Two pieces from this project explore the private side of performance: the experience of the performer learning a new piece of music, taking a composition from the page to a performance. Stemming from my fascination with the quirky texts in some of Erik Satie’s piano works, especially his late ‘humoristic’ pieces, I published some early ideas regarding a score-based context for learning music in 2012:

The score is a private space I create for me and the performer. It’s not merely a set of instructions, it’s a place, just as a piece often seems to be a person… A score produced without care from a notation programme is like inviting your performer into a beige room – it’s so neutral it has no personality. Handwritten scores can be like walking into an Arabian Nights harem.(fn38)

At the time of writing that post, I was principally concerned with issues of score design – selection of fonts, use of whitespace, provision of performance notes. My work this year – and particularly in consideration of the incorporation of amateur activity into my practice – has developed these ideas to provide contextual elements which are intended to provide more information and create an emotional connection to the piece in the mind of the performer. To furnish that ‘room’ with detail and help them gain insight into the composition during the learning/rehearsal phase.

While researching Drowning Songs, I discovered a catalogue of names of Merchant Service seamen ‘drowned in circumstances other than wreck’. What struck me very forcefully was the sheer quantity of men drowned in a single year – 1,036 – and how many of them died either in the course of their daily work or doing other commonplace things – coming back from shore drunk, bathing in the sea. Most of them also included the tale of their death summarised into a single sentence, the tiny stories highlighting the poignancy of the many men whose listing simply said ‘Drowned’ or – even more affectingly – in a list of those without specific stories, ‘ditto’. Reading these names and sad tales greatly affected how I felt about the piece and my approach to it and I wanted to convey this level of emotion to the choir.

I had already planned a performance note indicating that the names were those of real people who had drowned, but I felt that this only conveyed intellectual understanding and I wanted to generate a more visceral comprehension in my performers. My solution was to include some of these ‘drowning tales’ as handwritten text (so as not to be confused with the typeset score itself) at the bottom of the pages of the score.

The inclusion of the drowning tales proved to be a very successful strategy, as confirmed in discussion with some of the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir singers after the performance at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. Soprano soloist Angela Hicks said,

it made me more aware […] It gave it more depth, I think, especially under the boat. But what I found was that I felt a bit selfish, keeping all that information to myself and I kind of wanted to put it out into the piece so that people listening could also hear(fn39)

Tenor Lewis Raines also talked about the first encounters with the score and the effect it had on the singers:

Jefferson Carter – Washed overboard by heavy sea during a gale. I mean, what an unlucky guy! I mean, how unlucky is that? And that’s the thing, we were reading it through and actually it was one of those things that came up in rehearsals – and this is completely true – was, and people actually went “oh wow. We’ve actually got the name and actually what happened to him” and then you just think, “oh shit! How unlucky is that?” You know? And how poignant is that? […] at the beginning of the rehearsal, we started actually reading every page – we weren’t reading the notes, we were reading the, George Dixon – what happened to him?(fn40)

As additional contextual information, I also included a facsimile of the artwork I had developed during the composition process as the cover of the piece. I had intended this to help the singers understand the effect I was aiming for with the opening of the piece, but it seems that – unlike the stories – this was not particularly effective.

In Crossing Dartmoor, the contextual data begins to cross the boundary between private learning/rehearsal and public performance in a more overt way. Private to the performers are an assortment of photographs taken by me on Dartmoor, a copy of the Ordnance Survey map of the moor and wisps of wool from Dartmoor sheep found on location, all chosen to evoke some understanding or memory of the varied landscapes of the area – from the vibrant desolation of the moorland to the quiet activity of the populated areas. Crossing the divide to contextualise the piece for both performers and audience is the inclusion of field recordings as ‘songs’ within the cycle. It is up to the performers to choose whether to include these in the performance or to keep them as private materials.

Continue reading: Future directions


38. Caitlin Rowley, ‘Notation: A room of one’s own’, published 9 March 2012, <> (accessed 17 May 2014).

39. Interview with Angela Hicks at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, 23 May 2014. See Appendix 6 for a transcription of the interview.

40. Interview with Lewis Raines at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, 23 May 2014. See Appendix 6 for an edited transcription of the interview.