Music as Sound

This was the research paper I wrote for my masters, again about music in the theatre, looking at music through the lens of a physical sound phenomenon.

Music as Sound: Applying ideas of schizophonia and soundscaping to music for the narrative theatre

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This piece proved a complicated one to fit together, as the composition process involved reconciling disparate and contrasting elements that were to be played concurrently. Having looked at the other pieces I had written this year I noticed a tendency to move to ternary-style or recapitulative structures. In order to challenge myself and learn through varying the structural frameworks of my music, I set about writing a piece in which one musical idea or state moved to another one, and ultimately allowing the piece to finish without returning to earlier material. I decided to take this idea of ‘binarism’ and extend it into other areas of the work, aiming to fill the piece with as many pairs and dualities as I could. I divided the ensemble into two independent groups (a woodwind group and a struck/plucked group) and wrote the parts separately. I wanted to use mobiles or looping motifs in a free-time space, and after trying out the sound in workshop decided that I wanted to use it as an accompaniment pattern. I used this accompaniment for the ‘B’ group (the Piano, Harp and Vibraphone), giving them a continuum from very free-sounding mobiles to an extended rhythmic component. I mapped out the piece in minute-long blocks, and gave each succeeding section longer mobiles until by the penultimate section each mobile’ became instead a longer part in canon, before a full extended ‘mobile’ that had a pulse and lasted for the entire section. I like this trajectory because it gave the piece a direction and a clearly structured process, but the problem of notating a gradual transition from a free space into a metered one was a significant one as the piece developed.

[one_third][box type=”shadow”] Short (3-4 note) Mobiles[/box][box type=”shadow”] Medium Mobiles[/box][/one_third]

[one_third][box type=”shadow”] Short (5-6 note) Mobiles[/box][box type=”shadow”] Long Mobiles[/box][/one_third]

[one_third_last][box type=”shadow”] Full chain in canon[/box][box type=”shadow”] Full chain in unison, with extension[/box][/one_third_last]

The map of each section in the ‘B’ (struck and plucked instrument) group

Because I was using such simple structures and logic in the construction of the piece, I wanted to use a simple scheme for the direction of the harmony. In keeping with the binary idea, I wanted to transition very slowly from one large chord to another chord (outlining the notes rather than simultaneously sounding the full chord). I discovered a method of building chords by which an increasing or decreasing interval is added to the chord (starting from a tonal centre). This method can produce two basic chords: a very open chord in which the largest intervals are placed next to the central note and the chromatically decreasing intervals placed above and below these notes until a limit is reached, and a ‘closed’ chord in which the smallest intervals (starting with a semitone) closest to the centre. I chose to base the chord around a central D, and to use the interval of an octave as the limit for the B group, and a sixth for the A group. I also chose that the percussion group would start with an ‘open’ chord and converge towards a ‘closed’ one, and that the winds would do the reverse. This meant that each group would be operating in a different register: the winds starting in the ‘centre’ and moving to the extremes, and the percussion starting in the extremes before moving to the centre and filling the space vacated by the winds.



This piece included two very different concepts of ‘time’ with the relatively metered and synchronised parts of the winds and the free, unmetered and unsynchronised parts of the piano, harp, and vibraphone. The wind parts were essentially a series of variations on alternating motifs, but the rhythmic component of the mobiles was rather more complex. I wanted to find a way of mirroring the way that I had built the harmonic structure, constructing chords from ‘first principles’, as it were, and after a great deal of experimentation I found that by taking increasing durations (at semiquaver increments up to the limit of a semibreve). This resulted in a simple acceleration and deceleration and was very uninteresting rhythmically, but when superimposed on itself there were phasing patterns which resulted in an engaging rhythm.


I then worked out what rhythmic components I would need for the sections of my piece, starting with a number of very short extractions from the rhythmic chain, finishing with a complete statement as a rhythmic canon. I used different methods to get the various lengths of mobile, including taking short extracts, and compiling them from every 4th (or 3rd or 6th) note in the sequence. I then layered the mobiles in the space, allocating pitches (from the chords I constructed) to the generated rhythm.

With the continual parts written I then turned to the wind instruments. Although I wanted to use the same harmonic rules as I did before (albeit reversed) I settled on different rhythm and structure. Rather than the free-space world I placed extended motifs into a more metered space, using a theme-and-variation structure, but in a dual format: one (fragmented) theme stated, then a second unrelated theme (also fragmented) also stated, with alternating variations moving further away from the original material through the course of the piece. Due to the closeness of the notes in the opening chord the first theme was an alternating semitone interval, which gave me inspiration to use this idea as a very slow trill-effect in the later variations. It also suggested close intervals between the instruments to get a slight beating effect, and so I decided that the wind parts needed to be tightly synchronised with each other, but not (at least at the start) with the other instruments. I also explored gentle arpeggios up and down the pitch set as it widened as part of the variation. The woodwind move from a distinct foreground role into one of accompaniment, with the other instruments doing the reverse. Reconciling the different roles and rhythmic domains of the instrumental groups was the main difficulty of this piece, especially due to the fact that many of the elements moved along a continuum. I experimented with a number of different ways of notating my desired effect, as different systems would give greater clarity to different parts. The final notation is one which is clear for as many parts as possible, relying on the cueing of a conductor to ensure togetherness (as far as ‘togetherness’ is required in the piece, see performance notes at the start of the score).The constantly shifting textures and time-relations create a resonant, blurred movement from the non-resonant sounds of the percussive instruments, over which the woodwind layer melodies independently, creating a sense of freedom and spaciousness which was difficult to notate but satisfying to hear.

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When faced with the combination of violin and piano to write a duet for I began by exploring the various modes of composition that have been used for this well-established combination. I knew that for this piece I wanted to write something that was more tonal, and so I looked at idiomatic works for this combination that were slightly older. As stylistic models, I wasn’t drawn to the virtuosity of pieces like the Beethoven sonatas, or the style of writing used in works like The Lark Ascending (Vaughan-Williams) and Méditation from Thaïs (Massinet) was too emotionally serene and musically passive for the work I wanted to write. I was drawn instead to the energy and rhythm of the ‘hot’ jazz players such as Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. I was also drawn to the flamboyant virtuosity of these performances, as well as the playfulness of older virtuosic violin pieces (such as Paganini and Vivaldi). Drawing from this array of styles my aim was to write a piece which grabbed the listener and moved them forward at a rapid pace, and which took a core of material and played around with it in a transparent but engaging manner.

With this in mind I composed a short jazz-style chart. It was 16 bars notated in a conventional melody/chords presentation, able to stand alone as a jazz chart but intended to be the underlying material for the work. It draws on the qualities of the hot-jazz that was its inspiration in its tonality and its rhythmic qualities.


Rather than simply using the chart in a traditional jazz manner (a ‘theme and variations’ on the original chart) I chose to use it as a slowly unfolding structure. For this I took each bar of the original and extended it until the material was exhausted, using simple methods of iteration and variation to build extended strings out of the material in each bar. Consequently each section of the finished work stays in one chord, with sections being marked by a slow progression through the chords of the original. Although the piece was not minimalist the long chains of repeated but varied motifs, coupled with the very slow harmonic movement, gave it some of the qualities of minimalism. I aimed to keep the energy high for as long as I could. In the end I changed the overall feel during the second half of the original chart, giving the piano an extended solo in a more lyrical style in a major key, before the violin re-enters and drags the piece into a partial recapitulation.

I drew many rhythmical ideas from the original style, including walking bass and an off-beat accompaniment pattern, but the most important element in this piece was the syncopation. Although the repeated modules can be seen as a kind of hyper-rhythm, with extended compound beats placed against a simple quadruple pulse, I saw them as a changing layer of syncopation that interacted strongly with the pulse, but would appear unpredictable. This unpredictability was a key aim in the composition of both the violin and the piano parts, but I always had a sense of the underlying pulse. This tension between simple syncopation and complex cross-rhythms gives the relatively simple ingredients for this piece a level of excitement and ambiguity which helps the momentum.

By using the chart in such an extended manner, the piece has a very slow moving harmonic progression, as the ear forgets the role that a chord has in the harmony (due to the apparent moments of stasis, evocative of minimalism) but is reminded at cadence points. Although it is composed using strongly diatonic harmony the slow rate of cadence means that the ear forgets this diatonicism at moments. Keeping the same chord for as long as possible was a difficult harmonic challenge, but the jazz inspired harmonic palette, with interior chromatic movement and ‘added’ notes, gave me a particular set of tools with which to extend the short idea into a longer section, and I was able to compose it simply as it unfolded rather than putting it together from a jigsaw of fragments.

The title, QdHCdF, comes from the acronym for the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the group in which  Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt played.

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Sung by Chloe Schaaf, with a text by Dan Eltringham.

This piece operates within a restricted field of pitch and structure. The song is structured using palindromes and uses a simple 5-note pitch set, which is transposed later in the piece.

The starting point for this piece was the instrumentation. I already knew the voice that I would be writing for, and I decided that I wanted to accompany it in a slightly different way. Rather than the traditional way of supporting the voice, that is, with a wide frequency range providing a foundation, I wanted to instead use the idea of complexity of tone as a supporting structure. Chloe’s voice has a very rich and complex timbre, so I structured the ensemble with the voice as one extreme and a very pure tone at the other. My original plan for instrumentation was to use either a glass-harp or bowed vibraphone, but this later proved impractical, and I opted for the slightly richer sound of the viola for the second instrument. As a halfway point between the simplicity of tone of the second part and the rich complexity of the sung voice I wanted to use a violin as the first instrument. This was a fairly clear choice and stayed in place throughout the development process despite the changes in the second part.  The resultant ensemble – Voice and string duo – had a pleasing unity, especially with each part using the same register. This highlighted the subtle differences in tone rather than simple pitch difference between parts, and encouraged me to explore a particular palette of sound.

In devising the harmonic direction for the work I chose a limited pitch set of five pitch classes. Although there was not an algorithm in its derivation, I wanted a set that contained as many different intervals as possible, so the final set contained a semitone, tone, minor third, major third, fourth, tri-tone, minor seventh.

vox box

Although the plan was to use them without transformation I later chose to transpose the set up a fourth (a notional subdominant, despite the lack of tonality) to give a more complex array of notes. As the piece moved towards the centre, and the climax, I alternated between transpositions with increasing frequency, even using them simultaneously in a couple of moments. Individual instrumental lines were simply written using this ‘scale’, often using the natural contours of the spoken text as inspiration.

At the outset our group discussed the way in which we wanted to approach the collaboration and the subject of our work. We decided that we would take responsibility for our areas of ‘speciality’ but that we would all have input at the start. We discussed the themes and subject we wished to explore, and the sound-world that we wanted to create. We then worked independently, Dan drafting out the text and myself sketching out the first minute or so of music. We then came together to feedback and see how the piece was going to evolve.  I had decided during the planning stage that I wanted to use a strict palindromic form, with small retrogrades building into a larger section, that would then unwind itself back to the beginning (or the end). Dan’s poem fitted well with this structure, using three ‘narrative voices’ at different intervals on the page to bring ideas in and out of focus. The general layout of the three voices delineated sections, and there was a symmetry which was serendipitous to the work.

In using a strict palindromic form I tried to fill the piece with as many mirrorings and reflections as would fit. In addition to the large overall form (in which the second half is the reversed identical to the first) I made some of the individual sections palindromic also, and even within these included partial mirroring and reflections. To take the introduction/inhale as an example: the section starts with simple sustained notes in a layering sequence which progresses for a few bars before reversing back through one or two bars, before changing the sequence. This goes forward until the end of bar eight, when it pivots and regresses back through the material. It does not return completely to the start, however, but transitions to a new section three bars early, at which point the voice enters. This oscillation continues through the various sections of the piece, never fully resolving or returning completely to the start. This keeps the tension and ambiguity of the work without becoming noticeable, making the slow-moving total structure feel more important when it finally resolves in the last bar. This second half is an exact mirroring of the first, although the requirements of the text (the number of syllables in the second half of the poem was slightly higher than the first) mean that the rhythms of the vocal line are occasionally altered. This dividing process (such as turning a minim into two crotchets) keeps the piece interesting without introducing completely new material, and gives rise to some interesting effects, such as the fast-paced bar 83, and the spreading out of syllables in bars 104–110. Because of this way of interpreting the text through reflections and mirroring I was able to compose a tightly structured composition in a free and interpretative way.

Dan chose to include a particular line from a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, “the sun on falling waters”, and I thought at some length about how to approach this quote from a musical perspective. I decided to set it with a similar piece of found musical material, but was unable to find something that had the right resonance. While doing some research I discovered that Hopkins had ‘dabbled’ in composition as a young man, and was able to find one of his few works in an academic journal*. I took a short selection of that composition (a simple melodic line inspired by plainchant) and used that in both direct quotation and in transformation. Aside from a passing-note the quote fitted well with my pitch-set and with the imagery of the line.

vox box 2

In constructing and composing this work I experienced a number of serendipitous moments which allowed the piece to move forward and become a work with a great sense of singularity. Despite the limited musical materials I chose to work with a number of lucky coincidences and resonances in the text, extra materials, results of word setting, and instrumentation choices meant that the work avoided becoming a static image. Rather, it seemed an inexorably unfolding tableau because each unexpected element added something new to the piece, advancing it forward. Although the overall effect is quite free and spacious it was a tightly controlled writing process, with elements balanced against each other in what was (for me) an ultimately satisfying manner.

*Connell, Kevin O. “The Second Muse of Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Musical Times 148, no. 1901 (2007): 49–62.

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…out of silence…

This piece was written in response to the choreography of Joseph Toonga. We wanted to create something that had a sense of space and of flexibility. Not meditative in mood but having that same quality of freedom and reflection. This piece was written in a very organic way, with ideas developed at the keyboard and then extended and combined freely. There were essentially three musical ideas for the piece: a ‘textured’ and ‘inflected’ silence, an energetic syncopated motif, and the opening-out of a cluster chord (B,C,D).

Giving Space Motif 1



I wanted to maintain a consistency between the three ideas, so there are similarities in the tonal content, and the rhythms have similarities in their relationship to syncopation. The first main theme came from the various permutations of the three-note set, shifting them around to create memorable musical motifs and then shifting them in pitch and repeating them in real and tonal sequence. This theme did not need to feel busy, and so I wanted to avoid anything which had a very long extended musical line or too much rhythmic or harmonic complexity. Rather, I wanted to reflect and refract more fragmented ideas, with space and silence between them, without obvious system or framework. The second theme was faster and more energetic, as I found in rehearsal that although the more reflective material worked, it started losing energy after a while, and so I felt that a shift in momentum was needed. This came in the form of a syncopated 8-note motif made from four pitches (but still outlining the same pan-tonality of the first theme) which is ‘stuttered’ into a full thematic line. By this I mean that rather than stating the theme and then varying it the motif starts with two notes before starting again, getting through a bit more of the motif, then starting again and again until the whole motif is outlined:


I then developed the resulting line in a similar piecemeal manner, using these ‘stutters’ as a way of creating syncopation and increasing the energy. Tonally, I used many of the methods I used on the first theme on this second theme, taking fragments of it and transposing them, and using chords based on the motifs of the first theme. After an early workshop with the player I found that some of this section was technically tricky, and started moving towards monotony, so I rewrote a few bars here and there using new sounds and effects, such as drumming on the soundboard, tapping fingers, low glissandi and nail scrapes. These were organically placed at moments of the piece in collaboration with the player, and with no underlying structure or rationale.

When devising the piece with the choreographer we discussed a quality of intimacy that we both wanted. He already had his dancers organised, and knowing that there were only two of them, and both female, gave us a sense of the nature of the dance and therefore the nature of the music. Although this suggested a solo or small ensemble, the actual instrumentation changed a number of times during the composition process. The ideas were originally sketched for violin duo, then arranged for violin and harp, before it settled on being a harp solo. This required some rewriting to make the piece better suited for the harp, but gave me a great palette to work with, and it had an important physical presence onstage. In the end the dance piece became a trio for two dancers and harp, as the harp’s presence on stage became integrated into the staging, and the intimacy and quietness of the overall performance seemed to work well. Because of this intimacy it was possible to give the dancers and the player a higher level of flexibility in their performance, and so the piece was written with a number of cues and rest-points to give the dancers time to express their movement without having to keep chasing the music. Similarly, the harpist took cues from the dancers, who would occasionally pause on a movement to allow the music to properly align with the dance. Writing this freedom and flexibility was always a part of the composition of the piece, but it worked well with the notions of pausing, resting and starting again that were built into the two main themes.

The final element of the piece to come together was the opening and closing bars. There was originally a traditional introduction to the piece, but we decided to replace this with a more atmospheric effect. The quiet, slow glissandi up and down created an atmosphere just on the edge of hearing, and on the edge of music and sound. In performance we decided that the dancers would be in place before the audience entered, with a visual and aural silence. Added to this were tiny movements from the dancers, microscopic hints of what was to follow, and a quieter version of the glissando effect from the beginning of the piece. When the audience was ready the first bar of the written music started imperceptibly and the dancing started to emerge. The end of the piece had a related effect, whereby the music decayed back into silence. In this case the dancing was highly energetic, and the noises of the dancer became part of the music as the energetic, syncopated tonality of the harp part ended. The final section of the piece was made up of a weighted silence, shaded by the noises of the dancer, and punctuated by quickly fading harp harmonics. These were not timed, although in rehearsal cues were decided on based on the dancing, and operated in a free unsynchronised space. I found three pairs of pitches which were echoed out by the harpist as individual notes, before the final ringing out of the full motif. This synchronised with the penultimate moments of the choreography, and the dance was completed in the silence in which it had begun.

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From the outset I wanted this work to have a mechanical quality, mirroring the hardness and mechanical nature of the instruments used. In addition to using the pianos and percussion in a mechanical way I wanted to explore the resonance and post-strike- shaping of their non-sustained sounds.

The musical material for the various sections of this piece was methodically derived from a single extended rhythmic and melodic motif:


This motif was used for two contrasting sections by applying successive layers of simple procedure. The first section (which then became the last section) took the motif and looped it, but I developed an algorithm whereby it would repeat a set number of times, every second or third note would be removed, and this new shorter version would repeat a different set number of times. The ratios of repetition were derived either from the Fibonacci sequence or from consecutive primes. Each piano part was processed with different ratios of looping and reduction, and the entries of the players offset (in the style of a canon or fugue) to achieve a rhythmic coming-together effect. The result of this first stage of transformation was two continuous threads of music, doubled at the tri-tone, having a rather consistent or unengaging tonal quality and a static register. The next step of the process was to diverge the left and right hands in each part, so I used the change of direction in the basic motif (whether intervals stepped up or down) as a guide for the transformation. This was the final process which I used:

  1. Notate the direction of every interval (u=up, d=down)
  • uudu uduu udud udud uddd udud uddu uudu uudu uudu uuud dddd ddu
  1. Group these 51 notes in fours and ‘average’ each group
  • u u ud ud d ud ud u u u d d
  1. Divide the number of notes in each piano part by the number of direction changes. After set amount of notes (not beats) transpose the melodic line from that point forward. U= right hand up by a minor third, D= left hand down by a minor third.  UD= right hand and left hand move a minor third each. The right hand always moves up, the left hand down.
  • 505 notes in piano 1 – change every 42 notes
  • 471 in piano 2 – change every 37 notes

This process gave the full musical material of this section. I drew attention to the looping material by placing percussive beats on the first note of a repetition, which resulted in a slowly increasing frequency of pulses until they were locked in together in a crotchet pulse. The final step involved going through all parts to make the mechanically manufactured music playable by human players, a process which involved simplifying some syncopations, fitting material into more appropriate time signatures, and enhancing the dynamic contrast of the changing registers.

For the first section I applied an alternate set of processes to the same material. The basic concept was to take the motif and slow it down until it becomes unrecognisable. This was ornamented with a set of procedurally generated inventions on the motif: one inverse-retrograde statement of the theme, and a set of note-pairs derived in a grid system. I wanted the repeated-note tremolo effect, which proved hard to sustain on piano, so I bolstered this effect by doubling the tremolo pattern on temple blocks, and the pitch material was doubled on bowed vibraphone, and later soft mallet pulses towards the climax of the section.

The middle section came from a different idea. I took the idea of stacked fifths and of resonance to build a movement that included large open chords. I explored the idea of duplication: having the pianos act as resonators for the percussion, and having the percussionists ‘stop’ strings with their hands, although this section was later cut.

After a relatively quick initial composition process this piece went through a number of major restructurings and edits. A major part of this process was the removal of excess material: the piece originally had an introduction and coda with an arcing motif, but I felt they got in the way of the momentum of the work. Although they added a nice symmetry to the work (hinting at other motifs and being an almost exact copy of each other) making the ideas express themselves clearly in the instrumentation was difficult, and I believed that they were giving ‘misleading’ information to the audience. The two large sections were left uncut, but their positions reversed to give the piece a more conventional contour (starting with a dramatic but quiet unison and building to a climax at the end). A nice by-product of this was that although the theme is present in the beginning of the piece, it is not until two-thirds through that it gets stated in full. The middle section was trimmed, as I chose to remove an element (the modification of resonance inside the pianos by the percussionists) because it felt disruptive. Instead, I transformed the middle section with the application of a simple ternary form, with the open stacked fifths positioned against a percussion solo that used the resonance of the piano pedals to allow the sound to bloom. Overall I felt that my reversioning process was a matter of streamlining, removing material which didn’t quite have the desired effect, or that got in the way of the material and the dramatic momentum of the two original sections.

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One Legged Waltz

Written in the last year of school, One-Legged Waltz is a quirky two minute work that aims to surprise. I wrote it to be fun and bouncy, inspired by Eastern European Cafe Music, and certainly not to be danced to!


Out of Silence

This work began as a contemporary dance score, and went through several iterations before settling in its current form. This version of the work is substantially different from its original dance form, but keeps the sense of lightness and of kinetic energy that the dance gave it. The work should be performed with a sense of space and resonance, tentatively emerging from silence, before returning to silence at the end.



Sacred Mass for SATB choir and organ accompaniment.

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Towards a Theatrical Musicology

This is the shorter article based on my thesis.

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