Return to Looe Island

Back in 1995, I spent several exhilarating and highly creative months living on Looe (or St. George’s) Island and in Looe itself, where I composed Island Symphony (the story is told here). I also wrote ‘Les Origines humaines’ during the same period.

Island Symphony was written at the request of Babs and Evelyn (Attie) Atkins, who owned the island at that time. They invited me to live in Smuggler’s Cottage while I created the piece. They wanted a proper Symphony, with an orchestra, but this could never be played on the island (not enough room!) so I made the work using orchestral samples, mixed with synthesised and recorded sounds. I also used the internet to gather sounds (this was before the World Wide Web!). It was a bit like gathering virtual driftwood.

Revisiting the island today has therefore been quite an emotional experience, filled with memories of the place and the late sisters who were its spirit. I am delighted to report that the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, in the persons of John and Claire Ross, have done a brilliant job of making the island into exactly what Babs and Attie wanted: a nature reserve.

Here are some of the photos I took during today’s visit:

East Looe Quayside
The island from the boat
Disembarkation
View up the path from the beach
View back across to Hannafore and Looe
Smuggler’s Cottage

John was kind enough to show me inside my old dwelling. It was very damp when I lived there. They’ve now had to take up the floor completely and are trying to make it habitable once more.

John Ross

These next three photos show the location of Babs’ grave and memorial stone. Despite the sadness, it is good to know she is at rest on her beloved island.

View up to the door of the old craft centre, now a private dwelling.
Island House, also privately owned.

After all this time, I have still never seen inside the house!

The new craft centre, next to the generator shed.

To my great surprise, they are still selling CDs of Island Symphony! A snip at £5.

Island Symphony!
Claire, with a bottle of island apple juice.

Moon raker returning to pick us up.

Farewell, Looe Island…until the next time.

After such an enjoyable but emotional trip, there was only one place to go for lunch: the Salutation Inn. Also full of memories: Dick Butters sat at the bar; the long games of chess with Peter Warden…

Reflecting on the whole experience, I would like to return one day and make another Island Symphony. This one would eschew the orchestra and concentrate instead on field recordings. The use of the internet would change too: it would become the location of the piece. The new Island Symphony would be an ever-evolving web installation, a site that is always there and can be visited at any time, just like the island itself.

In the meantime, here is the Virtual Tour I made back in 1996.

 

 

Aural Diversity

deerears

Most music is made and reproduced on the assumption that all listeners hear in the same way. Psychologists generally write about aural perception as though it is a single standardised thing. Acousticians normally design the sonic environment using uniform measures. Musicologists typically discuss music at it is meant to be heard, not as it actually is heard.

The reality, of course, is that almost all people hear differently from one another. BS ISO 226:2003 is the standard for otological normality and is taken to be the hearing of an 18-25 year old. After this age, presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) usually sets in, at rates that vary from person to person. On top of this comes a range of other potential losses, from noise-induced hearing loss to sensorineural disorders, from genetic problems to losses caused by trauma or medication. In other words, every single person is likely to have at least some hearing loss after the age of 25 and very many people have significant hearing difficulties. I am  willing to bet that a substantial number of 18-25 year olds also have hearing problems!

Given this state of affairs, it is surprising that more is not spoken about aural diversity. In an era when diversity is such a hot topic in so many aspects of society and life in general, why is aural diversity so neglected? My friend Professor John Levack Drever has written about it quite a lot, but otherwise there seems to be a dearth of discussion of the subject. There is plenty on disability, of course, which is great, but for those who would not classify as disabled but nevertheless are aurally diverse: not so much. This affects musicians as much as anyone else. I am aware of many musicians and composers (myself included) who struggle with their hearing, but who nevertheless continue to make music that sounds as it should to “normal” ears. Perhaps it is time that we started to reflect more honestly on our own limitations and present these in our music?

I certainly find myself at a compositional crossroads. If I continue to create normal music, I will have to revert to writing dots on paper because I can no longer hear digital sound accurately enough. At least my aural imagination is intact. If, on the other hand, I want my music to reflect my own experiences, then I have to start engaging with my aural limitations by introducing into my sound world those elements that I actually hear (including such disturbing things as diplacusis and tinnitus). How to do this yet still create beautiful music is a real challenge.

In the meantime, I can envisage a series of musical events that celebrate aural diversity. Surely there are composers and musicians out there (including those with normal hearing!) who would wish to make music that reflects on or addresses itself to a range of hearing types? Perhaps this opens up a new possibility of bespoke music that is more than just the result of users fiddling with EQ and is intrinsically designed for the individual listener’s hearing abilities.

The Winds are complete

After five days in the studio, and quite a lot of advance preparation on the boat, the winds for Movement 1 have been completed. Each wind comprises a collection of sound files which add up to its character. The sounds include natural/environmental recordings, instrumental and synthetic timbres. All of them are treated in some way, at the very least embedding directionality as described in previous posts, but in some cases spectrally treated and processed.

The bass clarinettist behaves like a kind of weather vane in the performance. He will face a given wind and play from a menu (yet to be composed) of material in response to the sounds that emanate from that direction. When he tires of a particular wind, he will turn to face another direction.

Meanwhile, the computer will trigger anything between one and the maximum number of sound files available in a given wind folder. The triggering will occur randomly within a 30 second window. Since some of the sound files last more than a minute, it is likely that the ‘tail’ of one wind will still be playing when a new one is faced. This should add richness to the musical experience.

The material in the wind folders is unified according to the timbral map given in a previous post, i.e. by shape, timbres, pitch centre (where appropriate), gesture, envelope, etc. Even so, there is a lot of diversity. It will be a blowy and slightly chaotic piece, just like the experience of standing on Kelston Round Hill!

The Movement will begin with the North West wind, which consists entirely of unpitched sounds from the computer and from the bass clarinet, who makes various air noises and clicks. After that, the shape of the composition is determined on the fly by the performers  (Roger Heaton and myself, in this case).

Timbral Map

Planning of Movement 1 continues by trying to map the hill timbrally. I have devised the table below, showing how the various winds are translated into timbres for clarinet and the loudspeaker orchestra. Some of the latter sounds are electronic, some natural recordings, some instrumental samples. Pretty soon now the real work of actually making the sounds will begin!

bassclarinet

Wind: N
Pitch: A
Character: compressing – stretching
Time delimited? yes
Phrase 1: Compressing: discontinuous and erratic.
Phrase 2: Stretching out: globally uniform
Semantics: First there is a feeling of compression (as if we strongly pressed on an obstacle) then the barrier is suddenly overcome, suppressing all resistance and releasing the power. It is a sudden change from localized energy to scattered energy.
Timbres: Aeolian sounds, wind and brass instruments, plus electronic compression
Bass Clarinet: rapid staccatissimo, then tenuto

Wind: NE
Pitch: E
Character: moving forward, propulsion
Time delimited? yes
Phrase 1: first phase is quite a sustained fulcrum: a prolonged or homogeneous sound or slow iteration, globally uniform
Phrase 2: a brief acceleration of intensity, pitch, or any other morphological trait
Phrase 3: a typical resonance or silence
Semantics: We feel the application of a force to a steady state, resulting in an accelerated movement. Projection from a starting point.
Timbres: bowed tam-tam, bowed gamelan, bowed vibes, piano clusters, drone sound, resonance is spatial
Bass Clarinet: sustain – acceleration – resonance

Wind: E
Pitch: B
Character: waves, braking
Time delimited? no
Phrase 1: slow repetition of an increasing then decreasing sound motif. The shape of the profile can concern different morphological criteria (mass, dynamics, grain, etc.)
Semantics: Each cycle conveys the feeling of being pushed forward, and then driven back until the end. We get the impression that we are stagnating through this unit although we feel motion within each cycle.
Timbres: wind in trees, granular synthesis, additive/subtractive synthesis, filtering
Bass Clarinet: rhythmic articulations, vibrato

Wind: SE
Pitch: F
Character: divergent, chaotic
Time delimited? no
Phrases: ad lib.
Semantics: No description required. The title is self-explanatory.
Timbres: birdsong, natural rustling, strings
Bass Clarinet: multiphonics, microtones, extended techniques, slap tongue

Wind: S
Pitch: C
Character: endless trajectory, heaviness, in suspension
Time delimited? no
Phrase 1: a linear and usually slow evolution of a sound parameter
Semantics: The process must be oriented in a direction (for example, upwards or downwards) and however, it seems to never finish. The sound phenomenon must be long enough to be perceived as a process and not an ephemeral event.
Timbres: spectral processing, time stretching, Shepard tone, distant aeroplane
Bass Clarinet: circular breathing, glissando, crescendo

Wind: SW
Pitch: G
Character: spinning, stationary, obsessive
Time delimited? no
Phrase 1: a parameter (pitch, timbre) is driven by a quick cyclic repetition along with a thrust in each cycle, or with a quick and possibly varied repetition of a pulsed element.
Semantics: We feel constrained by a mechanical process in which we cannot seem to act. We have the feeling of an object spinning on itself or in space.
Timbres: mechanical sounds, throbbing, music box, piano
Bass Clarinet: Double/triple tonguing

Wind: W
Pitch: D
Character: floating, falling, fading away
Time delimited? no
Phrase 1: a sound parameter (pitch, dynamic, etc) floats and then falls away.
Semantics: We feel sustained for a considerable period of time before drifting away, either falling or fading.
Timbres: decay instruments (prepared piano, harp, celesta, vibraphone, gong, etc.) that decay at wrong or unusual rates, or have pitch shift
Bass Clarinet: glissandi, decrescendi

Wind: NW
Pitch: always unpitched
Character: suspending-questioning, wanting to start
Time delimited? no
Phrase 1: ad lib.
Phrase 2: ad lib.
Phrase 3: ad lib.
Semantics: no description necessary
Timbres: unpitched percussion, acoustic effects, wind sounds
Bass Clarinet: Breath sounds, key clicks, etc.

 

An invitation to contribute to the Kelston Roundhill Symphony!

Movement 4 of the Kelston Roundhill Symphony is to be called “People and Buildings”. People can upload sounds to a website, like some kind of aural patchwork quilt. Any sounds may be used, but obviously it would be good to link them to themes of the symphony and the round hill. I will then put together a piece using these sounds, to create what will hopefully be a vigorous and rousing end to the symphony. During the composition process, people can comment and make suggestions via the message board on the site.

If you wish to take part, please do make a contribution here http://andrewhugill.com/kelston-four/

The Old Barn

Here are some pictures of the venue for the Kelston Roundhill Symphony. The Old Barn is about half way up the side of the hill. It’s a lovely space inside, with a good acoustic. The rafters offer opportunities for suspending loudspeakers (tweeters mainly). There is a kitchen and toilet facilities that are not shown in these pictures. It should be a great and intimate location for the performance.

Bass Clarinet as a weather vane

 

Given the description of the ‘winds’ blowing in the last post, I have been giving more thought to spatialisation. The Old Barn is a T shape, as shown in the (badly drawn) picture below:

barn

To give a clear sense of directionality, there will be eight principal loudspeakers located roughly in the positions of the points of the compass, as indicated. Strewn about or hanging from the rafters, will be a ‘forest’ of smaller speakers. Sound will travel through this forest using stereo panning. The four channels SW, W, NW, N will be panned hard left and S, SE, E, NE will be panned hard right. So, to make a journey from N to S will involve panning across from left to right, whereas S to N will be right to left. The complete formula is as follows:

N -> S = left to right
NE -> SW = right to left
E -> W = right to left
SE -> NW = right to left
S -> N = right to left
SW -> NE = left to right
W -> E = left to right
NW -> SE = left to right

In the midst of all this directionality stands the bass clarinet. He will have the instrument on a sling, saxophone style, so that he can turn to face whichever wind is blowing. He will then play off a menu of material for that wind. There will be eight stands, each with a single sheet of music, for this purpose. I suppose the bass clarinet behaves like a weather vane!

I hope the overall effect of all this will be to make it abundantly clear to the audience (who are scattered through the space) which wind is blowing at any given moment. Of course the musical fun will come from the content itself, the interaction with the soloist, and the choreography of the winds as they cross and interact with one another.

 

About Wind

compass

The idea of Movement 1 is to mimic the way the wind blows through the Clump, the circular wood that tops Kelston Round Hill. We will be recording the “rustle of spring”: the sounds of wind in leaves, birdsong, even passing aeroplanes or human conversation. There will also be a wind instrument: the clarinet.

The main musical feature will be gusts of wind blowing in different directions. This will be achieved by using the four cardinal points of the compass (North, South, East, West) and the four ordinal points that bisect these (North-East etc.) These are called ‘winds’ in compass jargon.

In the Mediterranean, they give names to the winds that blow from each of these points. Each wind has its own character (e.g. the sirocco). English history is much less orderly in its categorisation of winds. There are folk names, such as: ‘dryth’, for a dry northerly; ‘piner’, for a north-easterly, ‘custard’ for an easterly, the delightful ‘cow-quaker’ for a southerly May storm, ‘sea turn’ for a westerly coming off the sea, and ‘cat’s nose’ for a cool north-westerly. A sou’wester is also both a garment and a wind. But these names often come from regions other than the West Country. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder catalogued the winds, as follows: Septentrio (N), Caecias (NE) which he replaced with Aquilo (NNE), Subsolanus (E), Vulturnus (SE), Auster (S), Africus (SW), Favonius (W), Corus (NW). It’s possible that high-born Romans living in Bath would have known these names. But this is really insufficient justification to allow for the winds in the Symphony to be so named. So, names will not feature.

Nevertheless, each wind does have a different character, as everybody knows. These characters affect not just the wind direction and its associated weather fronts, but also the general ‘feel’ and atmosphere for as long as that wind prevails.

Movement 1 will therefore group its sound libraries by wind characteristics. Where there is pitched material, the notes of the Aeolian mode will prevail (Aeolus was the Classical god of wind). The winds will blow across the forest of loudspeakers spread around the Barn. This will be achieved by panning across 4 stereo channels, which will then be output to clusters of speakers as appropriate. The live clarinet will stand in the centre, responding to the winds as they blow. Each gust will contain pre-recorded clarinet sounds, natural sounds and a collection of especially composed sounds evocative of the given wind. These may be represented as follows:

Wind Pitch (Aeolian) Character
N A compressing – stretching
NE E moving forward, propulsion
E B waves, braking
SE F divergent, chaotic
S C endless trajectory, heaviness, in suspension
SW G spinning, stationary, obsessive
W D floating, falling, fading away
NW Always unpitched suspending-questioning, wanting to start

The character is evoked using Temporal Semantic Units (TSU) identified by the Laboratoire Musique et Informatique de Marseille. They give the following types:

Morphological characteristics:

  1. duration, which can be time delimited or not)
  2. reiteration (with cycles or not);
  3. number of phases (one or more) and
  4. sound matter (continuous or discontinuous sound).

Kinetic characteristics:

  1. acceleration type (positive or negative)
  2. temporal progression (fast or slow).

Semantic characteristics

  1. process direction (one or more sound parameters moving in the same direction),
  2. movement (motion effects)
  3. sound energy (constant or retained).

There are detailed descriptions of each character, as follows (some from LMIM, some by myself):

Compressing – stretching

Morphological description: Time delimited unit with two contrasting phrases. During the “compressing” phase, the sound matter is discontinuous and erratic. The “stretch out” phase is a globally uniform segment.

Semantic description: First there is a feeling of compression (as if we strongly pressed on an obstacle) then the barrier is suddenly overcome, suppressing all resistance and releasing the power. It is a sudden change from localised energy to scattered energy.

Moving forward, propulsion

 Morphological description: Time delimited unit with three phases. The first phase is quite a sustained fulcrum: a prolonged or homogeneous sound or slow iteration, globally uniform. The following phase is a brief acceleration of intensity, pitch, or any other morphological trait. The third phase is a typical resonance or silence.

Semantic description: We feel the application of a force to a steady state, resulting in an accelerated movement. Projection from a starting point.

Waves, braking

Morphological description: One phase unit, non time delimited, made up of the slow repetition of an increasing then decreasing sound motif. The shape of the profile can concern different morphological criteria (mass, dynamics, grain, etc.)

Semantic description: Each cycle conveys the feeling of being pushed forward, and then driven back until the end. We get the impression that we are stagnating through this unit although we feel motion within each cycle.

Divergent, chaotic

No specific description. The title says it all.

Endless trajectory, heaviness, in suspension

Morphological description: One phase unit, non time delimited, with a linear and usually slow evolution of a sound parameter.

Semantic description: The process must be oriented in a direction (for example, upwards or downwards) and however, it seems to never finish. The sound phenomenon must be long enough to be perceived as a process and not an ephemeral event.

Spinning, stationary, obsessive

Morphological description: One phase unit, non time delimited, in which a parameter (pitch, timbre) is driven by a quick cyclic repetition along with a thrust in each cycle, or with a quick and possibly varied repetition of a pulsed element.

Semantic description: We feel constrained by a mechanical process in which we cannot seem to act. We have the feeling of an object spinning on itself or in space.

Floating, falling, fading away

Morphological description: One phase unit, non time delimited, in which a sound parameter (pitch, dynamic, etc) floats and then falls away.

Semantic description: We feel sustained for a considerable period of time before drifting away, either falling or fading.

Suspending-questioning, wanting to start

No description required. The title is self-explanatory.

Kelston Roundhill Symphony

kelstonKelston Records have commissioned me to compose a symphony for Kelston Roundhill. This is a beautiful location outside Bath, pictured above. Full details can be seen on the Kelston Roundhill website.

Kelston Records have a mission to produce “ecology and environment themed music”. They publish “live gig recordings of highly gifted and original musicians for people who are moved by themes of community, place, landscape and the environment.” Their first CD was ‘Three Cane Whale‘ recorded live at The Old Barn.

The Old Barn is a fabulous small venue, about half way up the side of the hill. There’s a nice picture here. The interior is T-shaped and has stone walls and timbered rafters.

Here is the outline of the proposed Symphony as it currently stands. This will doubtless evolve further over time, but the basic framework will remain the same. It will be an electroacoustic Symphony, but with some live elements, including: clarinet, voice, early instruments and live coding. It will also involve quite a lot of collaborative work with musicians, composers, programmers and all the contributors to the final Movement.

Kelston Round Hill Symphony

Andrew Hugill

The aim is to create a musical work that maps Kelston Round Hill in four ways: as a physical object; its history; its spirit; its people and buildings. The composition will be a four movement Symphony, as follows:

Movement 1: Kelston Round Hill as a physical object

This soundscape composition will use location recordings, specially composed materials and instrumental responses. These last will feature clarinettist Roger Heaton (Professor of Music at Bath Spa University). The performance will use a forest of loudspeakers to reproduce the spatial aspects of the hill. Gusts of ‘wind’ will blow across the auditorium, carrying musical materials as they do so. The aim is to reflect the circularity of the panorama, so the overall theme of this movement will be circularity.

Movement 2: The history of Kelston Round Hill

This will build an evocative audio history of the hill, using early instruments such as bone flute and hurdy-gurdy played by Matthew Spring (BSU). Three poems by Jon Hamp will evoke the past of the Roundhill, first in neolithic times, then during the renaissance, and finally present-day. These words will be sung by Sara Stowe. Musically, the gradual formation and elaboration of a drone and a modal melody will be the main component. The final poem will also be accompanied by a live coding element, performed on Thor Magnusson’s ‘Threnoscope‘.

Movement 3: The spirit of Kelston Round Hill

This will be a contemplative movement concentrating on awareness and widening horizons of the individual. As well as evoking the act of contemplation, it will provide a soundtrack for individual meditation, by drawing people into an intimate world of whispered sounds and very quiet sonic events. The Old Barn will be recorded on a hot day, creaking and cracking as its timbers move. These small sounds will also trigger small musical events.

Movement 4: People and buildings of Kelston Round Hill

This is a collaborative composition. Over a period of time, people will be invited to contribute material, either via the web or in person at the barn. The material may be spoken, sung or recorded. Orchestral instrumentalists will also be invited to take part, working to a score provided by Hugill. Once the contributory phase is over, Hugill will develop the material in conjunction with all those who wish to be involved in the composition. This will be done through an online studio. It is expected that the result will be busy, lively, and packed with personal meanings that will surprise and delight audiences.

Composer’s Blog: the first post

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I am starting a blog to document my work as a composer. This will complement my official website.

The blog will describe my compositional processes, from ‘high-level’ conceptual and inspirational insights, through to ‘low-level’ technical descriptions and accounts of creative decision-making.

It will initially give an account of the developing Kelston Roundhill Symphony and various other current musical projects.

I work with all kinds of musical media, from traditional instruments to digital sound, so the blog reflects this diversity. I hope it will be of general interest to a wide range of people.