‘Islands’: Dragging Our Heads Back
The latest draft of the Throat of These Hours radio play, now with a rigorous reader, was hard and slow. I had to reduce – drop storylines, drop characters, drop themes, drop dialogue – and distill. Reduce and distill again. Sometimes I lost Muriel Rukeyser. Sometimes I lost the story. Sometimes I lost heart. Often I had to drag my head back to the play, most easily through listening to one of Christine White’s draft compositions, for part of The Speed of Darkness and for Then. What a blessing they’ve been. What a blessing Chris has been. Re-reading her Muriel Rukeyser posts – all listed below – also helped me in this re-working time. And the other day, I read in Chris’ blog that she too had to drag her head back to the project, to compose the music for Islands.
And then I went to a workshop where Jane Campion spoke about John Keats and negative capability. And began to understand that Muriel Rukeyser’s negative capability inspires my visceral response to her work, that negative capability in Chris’ compositions reinforces and extends that viscerality. To complete the radio and stage plays I will have to make friends with negative capability.
This post is an interview with Chris, to go with her first sketch for Islands, here to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Muriel’s birth. On the day itself, on our islands and with you, we’ll both have Muriel in our hearts – Chris walking her dog Tai, rehearsing for a gig and teaching and I filming a woman about her experience of serial violation: rape; the insertion of vaginal mesh; and within unhelpful institutions. – Marian Evans
Islands composition (mp3, click on link)
Marian Evans: I love the way you’ve documented your composition process for Throat of These Hours. At the beginning, you responded to the ‘confronting nature and honesty’ of Muriel’s poems. What did you find particularly confronting and honest?
Christine White: I was given a collection of poems and to be honest, the first line ‘Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis’ (The Speed of Darkness) grabbed my attention right away. Yes, nowadays people can talk about penises, cunts and fucking on all manner of forums – enough for them to cease to be confronting and to become rather boring instead. However, when written in the medium of the poem, in such a succinct way and as an opening line…well, I’m beginning to understand how brave it is to do something like that in an artwork. Of course one needs honesty to accompany a statement like that or else you won’t get away with it….you won’t be believed or believable and the statement will lose its power.
The other aspect of Muriel which I found confronting and honest was her commitment to activism. She travelled great distances to protest (as in the lone action of sitting outside the door of prison gates in South Korea in protest of the incarceration of poet Kim Chi-Ha). She visited the miners of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster. These actions were confronting to me because Muriel didn’t just make comment from afar. She placed herself in the situations or as close to them as she could.
What effects, if any, have the confrontation and the honesty and the activism had on your work for the project, or generally?
Muriel has struck a chord with me, mainly because of her commitment to go to straight to the sites of activism as part of her work.
The Hawk’s Nest miners incident in particular took my interest, possibly because in New Zealand we have recently had a mining disaster (Pike River Mine) where 29 miners were killed. This brought it closer to home – particularly the knowledge that as an artist, if you really want to delve deeper into a work or to make a comprehensive work about something, you need to be there. You need to experience as much of it with all of your senses in order for powerful honesty to come forth.
I can’t see directly how the activism has affected my work on the project, other than that I am aware of the lengths Muriel has gone to in deepening herself in a work, and therefore, I am encouraged to do the same.
It’s interesting though, as I haven’t been a politically active person in my life. I find conflict and opposition confronting enough and, I guess, my world views have developed in such a way that I have tended to place more emphasis on the path of a person’s individual life rather than the societal context they are in. Sure, these things are influenced by societal trends, influences, rights and abuses and this is the level where people are active in facilitating change, but this is an area I am still trying to reconcile in my life.
I am also allergic to, and have a complete knee-jerk reaction to some things which I think keep me away from activism. One is group-think (having had to unlearn group-think from childhood), and the other is a certain form of verbal-disagreement, which usually surfaces as sarcasm, cynicism and negative complaint – which to me just adds up to mouthing off.
Have your responses to Muriel’s work changed over time? Have other elements of her life and work also become important to you?
The difficulty with the work I have been doing in response to Muriel’s work is that I have had times when I have delved deeply into her work and life, and other times where I have felt strangely distant from it. This is due to the fact that I am self-employed as an artist/teacher and so constantly juggling projects and trying to maintain income and sanity – the quintessential artistic life that Muriel herself lived and wrote about! (Though she did it much harder – I’m certain!).
I feel extremely privileged that I was invited by you to be involved in the project. I, who as a farm girl who grew up in the Waikato region of New Zealand in the 1970’s, was invited to explore the life and work of a remarkable woman who lived on the other side of the world in the 1940’s.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, and came out as lesbian (with much difficulty) in my 20s and 30s – though I was fortunate enough to live in a time of relative freedom and equality through the ground-breaking efforts of both the women’s and gay movements in Aotearoa, New Zealand. However, for much of my life, I have been more interested in male histories, stories and influences. I have been afraid of both the women’s and gay movements, and, in terms of my area of interest (music and composition), have tended to adopt male role models. Such a contradiction!
The irony and universal humour of the arrival of this project wasn’t lost on me. And yet, Muriel was fascinating to me – following the beat of her own drum. I love that she learnt to fly, that she was interested in the sciences, that she had to evaluate what being a Jew meant to her. While she was an activist, there was something about the tone of her work that drew me in.
I loved that she would integrate her experiences into her work and that she had an assemblage-type approach to her work overall. Nothing was in isolation, but rather, they were all part of a large body, a whole being that was free to be interpreted and reinterpreted. Knowing this has given me great freedom in working with her words – as I know that she fully supported the musicality of word-sound, of breaking and re-constituting across media. This suits the explorations I have made with looping words, breaking them through the use of glitch – all of these methods have only strengthened her words and their impact on me, not weakened them.
These aspects of her world-view have been with me a lot over the year, even at times when I have been distracted from the exact work – it has been so lovely that you and I can remind each other of the spirit of Muriel, and acknowledge the presence of that spirit in our lives and in whatever has been transpiring.
There were also parts of The Life of Poetry that helped you early on. Can you remember what they were?
I think the main thing I took from that book, was the sense that Muriel wasn’t constrained by poetry as being merely words on a page for a specific time. She seemed to have a sense of freedom – of not being bound to a specific form, and there was a possibility of the form, sequence and rhythm changing or altering – of words latching onto other words, revisiting, breaking apart, recontextualising – of developing new rhythms and flow…I am certainly not quoting the book here and am only working off an internalised memory or interpretation.
But from the portions of the book I quoted in my blog, and my sense about Muriel now (without that book in front of me), it seemed that she wanted her work (not just one portion), to be alive, to be malleable, to have the qualities of a physical entity which was something akin to a sci-fi being, or a thing of nature that would have chemical, physical reactions and would change form, morph – alter its appearance somehow.
She was interested in relationship, and the connections her work would make with people, the conversations that would be generated, and the complete arc of her life’s work – a sense of the organic whole rather than an isolated piece.
All of these aspects are helpful to me when translating Muriel to music form – the rhythm, flow, relationship to others, the part-ness and one-ness.
In relation to the radio play, I have a vision of the old tape recording days where, in the end, the pieces of tape all fall out of the machine, cascading out like a waterfall. The words are jumbled, re-ordered, and sing out in a cacophony – Muriel’s lifetime of words spewing out of a jammed up machine and fluttering around the room, flooding it in sound.
When you started work on the poems, do you remember how you first responded? How does your response fit with your reference to two extracts from William Packard’s interview with Muriel (The Craft of Poetry Interviews from The New York Quarterly 1974)?
People ask me why I don’t rhyme and I find it impossible to answer. Because I rhyme, and go beyond rhyme. The return once is not enough for me. I will carry a phrase through. Or a sound, that may not be at the end of the lines, but I try to carry any sound that is important in the poem so that it comes back many times. I find returns very romantic things. I love the coming back at different times of all things, including sounds, including words.
The phrase in a different position is new, as has been pointed out by many poets. But I think I use this as other poets use rhyme. It’s a time-binding thing, a physical binding, a musical binding, like the recurrence of the heartbeat and the breathing and all the involuntary motions as well. But in a poem I care very much about the physical reinforcement, the structure in recurrence.
As much as my work is with sound, my initial readings are often sight first and more from the cerebral trying-to-understand-aspect. Whilst I wouldn’t consider myself an academic, I love knowledge, the feeling of acquiring knowledge or learning and, therefore, of trying to understand. So my initial approach to a work is very much from a left brain space, trying to ‘make sense of it’, find meaning etc etc…
This is my default position so I sometimes need to train myself out of this thinking. When I first read, it is silently. I tend to be more cerebral initially and more introvert, so I tend to take the words inward rather than speak them straight outward. Of course speaking them and hearing them as sounds adds immeasurably to the receiving of a work, but it is still not the first route I take.
In terms of the poems I have worked on initially, it has been an interesting journey for me. Particularly with Then and Islands, on paper the poems look really straightforward – basic even. So, I could have easily moved onward from them without experiencing them at a deeper level.
I must confess, I read them, and thought, well, they are simple, there’s not much to see here. How can I translate them in a way that is satisfying to me? Knowing the larger scale of Muriel’s life – her interest in cross-pollinating different areas of thought, her interest in the mechanisms of flight – these somehow kept me hanging in with what seemed like simpleton words. I wish I could say I understood the layering of these poems on the reading of them, but it was actually reading some of the background works and interviews, including the excerpt above, that helped me to feel free to experience her work in a new way.
I haven’t worked very often with other people’s lyrics, and certainly not on this scale, but there is a sense that a poem’s integrity needs to be retained and it needs to be interpreted in a clear way that honours the words, the order of the words, and the perceived meanings of the words. On reading the above passage, I gained a freer sense of what Muriel’s work meant to her in a broader context.
I could relate to her sense of the musicality of words – in music a theme can morph, expand, veer off and return. Muriel had an understanding of the fluidity of words and sound. I felt that she had an understanding of sound as distinct from meaning. It also meant for me that she would maybe relish the idea of sound play and recontextualisation – it’s hard to explain, but that the words are no longer just words, no longer in one dimension but could take their place as musical beings in flight.
This informed the way I worked with the poems, as I could stretch the words, layer them on top of each other, make them disappear and reappear…and in the act of doing this – of breathing the work through the medium I relate to – I found a life to the words that I otherwise couldn’t see on a white page.
When I’m writing my own lyrics I feel I can be less careful with them. It’s quite daunting working with someone else’s words, especially if you feel they are fixed in their intention. My lyric writing has changed in recent years – I feel less sure of what-I-want-to-say or wanting-to-say-anything-at-all, and so my approach is to compose music and lyric quickly in a collage-type way. The songs have been more like sketches in some instances, or at least the meanings of them have been less clear even to me.
In your latest blog, you wrote about your relationship with writer and musician Hinemoana Baker and how Hinemoana has investigated and written poetry where ‘meaning and narrative are secondary to the sounds of words’ and how, ‘because she understands the world of sound, and the world of words’ she can sometimes cross-translate for you. Has that been helpful in making your response to Muriel Rukeyser’s poems?
As already mentioned, the poems I have worked with predominantly present as more narrative with emphasis placed on meaning. Although this is in contrast to ‘sound poetry’, it has helped me to use the medium of sound to reveal another layer to the work.
Through being with Hinemoana I have gained more of an understanding that poetry can be a trinket, a message (like a fortune cookie), a mantra, or a puzzle. It can, aside from the surface layer of the message, evoke a mysterious world created by the combining of consonants and vowels and tones. It is our first instinct, often, to want to know what a poem means and if the meaning appears obvious, sometimes we can forgo the journey of sitting with the poem further and allowing it to seep more into the core of our being.
I was tempted on first reading of these poems, to do just that – take them at face value – which, had I done so, would have resulted in an equally accessible musical translation…a simple folk song or ditty. Whilst these can be powerful, I don’t think it would have added to the poem or my investigation of it in this instance…and I would feel that I have merely translated, rather than explored.
Two things helped me to delve deeper – one was the learnings I have had from Hinemoana’s approach to poetry, and the other was Muriel’s own fascination with sound and with the deconstruction / reconstruction of words and meaning. She was totally up for having her work be malleable and water-like, and to regenerate in different form.
These then freed me up to approach the work of exploring the poems differently and gave me permission to allow, not necessarily new meaning or undiscovered meaning, but an unfolding of layers. You know how when intellectually you get something, and then one day you really GET IT in a different part of your being.
Chris and Hinemoana in New York
In your blog about composing for Islands you record your questions to yourself: ‘Am I anticipating my style based on what I’ve done?’ ‘Am I anticipating the effects of Muriel’s writing on me?’ What does this mean?
It is important to me not to anticipate too much – I don’t want to assume that I am going to feel the same way about this poem as I did about the last – or that it will have the same affect on me and therefore, that I will produce a similar response. I want my response to be as fresh as possible and to allow for the unknown aspect to enter.
I think, having worked with two poems previously (Then and The Speed of Darkness), I was concerned that I would feel familiar with the work, the process, the outcome. Yes of course, there will be a similarity as the composition comes from the person of Muriel mixed with the person of me – and we are both finite beings with a ‘voice’ and ‘style’ that is particular to us, but I didn’t want to make an assumption because that may cause me to miss the ‘unseen’ ‘magical’ aspect of what could result.
And in the approach to Islands, I really felt that I was going headlong into a preconceived outcome – maybe a result of fatigue, or laziness, or a mass-production-type approach – and that wasn’t going to honour Muriel or myself, or what could eventuate.
This concern actually nearly paralysed me, and there was much procrastination (an important creative act sometimes I think if one learns not to panic), dilly-dallying, and beach-walks, combined with intellectually trying to formulate an approach (not a great place to start!).
What actually helped me out of this a great deal, was the added knowledge that I was composing for Throat of These Hours. This was fantastic because based on the themes and settings of the play, I had earlier drafted a palette of materials that would suit the play. From memory the key ones were the voice (expression), water (fluidity and environmental issues), and electricity (radio, static waves, communication). The previous two song interpretations had concentrated on voice mainly and to a smaller extent water and electric guitar.
So there was a further aspect in the palette, I hadn’t explored in depth, and that was the use of electronic sound (glitch, static) – and this wonderfully gave me the freshness I needed to elude anticipation.
If I approach a work completely knowing what I am about then I may miss the opportunity to allow something in that will give the poem a different tone or layer. I would prefer to get out of the way even just a little bit and to trust that to feel blind a bit and to explore a bit will unearth something unpredicted and more true to the work.
Can you summarise your musical influences for this project? Where does John Psathas fit?
I have always referred to whatever is currently interesting to me musically when composing something new and I tend to believe wholeheartedly in the collision – that whatever has captured me in the present is a necessary in-road to a new work. It’s like THIS style, person or band will be relevant in this new situation and will become a third collaborator.
When I started the Throat of These Hours project, top of mind was the composer Scott Walker. Formerly of The Walker Brothers fame, in recent years he’s released three solo albums of songs which are cinematic, visceral and intense! Scott Walker approaches his arrangements from the starting point of the lyric and treats every instrument as a voice that supports the lyric of the piece. His approach to his work gave me a more open sense of how poetry can be interpreted in music. He has a very classical / operatic voice and layers a rich tapestry of sounds over it.
Another composer who I think may be creeping into view for this project is Laurie Anderson which is fantastic! She is also from New York and combines poetic / political / storytelling voice with layers of unique and interesting sound. She is an inventor of instruments and creator of sound art. She uses the spoken voice in her performance and I’m sure Muriel would have loved her play on words, her use of simple ideas, repetitions and the political nature of her work.
The other recent influence was the soundtrack of the Gravity movie composed by Steven Price. The spaciousness, connectedness, bigness, and isolation conveyed by this soundtrack was fantastic and just what I needed when moving into the composition for Islands.
John Psathas is an internationally renowned New Zealand composer whose work I was introduced to in 2004 by Steve Garden (the co-producer of my album Pirouette). I find it very difficult to describe the affect of John’s music on me and that may now be because I am very fortunate to know him personally and so I have a certain self-consciousness as a listener, but I will try. Firstly what struck me was the intense energy of John’s work – he utilises the orchestra like a rock band and my spirit soars when engulfed in a live performance of his work. His pieces can be grand and engaging, and also intimate and, quite frankly beautiful. He manages to infuse his music with a strong sense of energy – whether it is energy bursting forth, or energy gently held in suspension. I could go on struggling to find descriptors….
John is a professor at Victoria University so I came to know him also in the capacity of lecturer and supervisor. I am so grateful to have met him – his dedication to his craft inspires me to be the best I can be with mine. Though he is a million miles from me in terms of technical expertise, his love of music and his engagement with it makes it so easy and exciting to talk with him about it. He is certainly one of my favourite people to talk about music with. He has a generosity in listening that is difficult to find nowadays – if he is listening to a piece of music, he gives his total being to it. He is then able to articulate what the music is doing, and maybe what it needs to do. Conversations with him are like manna to me.
I don’t wish to take advantage of his expertise unnecessarily, but if I have needed guidance, he has generously given it – and this is hugely valuable to me because he is able to decipher where the work is needed in the realisation of a piece of music. This has been invaluable to me in working with Muriel’s poems. When I feel I have reached the limits of my understanding about what I am doing, John is able to articulate what he hears is happening with the piece. It gently encourages me to dig deeper than I otherwise may do.
We also talk movies, family, philosophy, and generally shoot the breeze and you can’t ask much more than that!
Chris in performance (Annie McMullen photographer)
When you focused on Voice, Water, Radio Signal/Electricity, because they fitted with the themes of the stage play, how did this work?
Voice was an obvious one for me as it was informed by the title of the play (Throat of These Hours) and by some of the content / themes – two women in conversation trying to reconnect, explain themselves and express themselves. I wanted to use a full range of vocal sounds however in order to cover the many nuances of self expression and have touched on these in the demo for The Speed of Darkness. Possibilities for vocal soundings which reflect the story include throat clearing, gargling, sighing, speaking, muttering, and breath.
Water as an environmental issue was a recurring theme in the stage play. There is also an emergency kit which is referred to in the play and as the play is set in a radio studio, there would obviously be glasses of water present so it seemed fitting to include water in the palette of sound possibilities. As a metaphor, water also represents fluidity and is a substance that can appear in a number of forms (liquid, air, ice), so it can also be a character that adapts or changes form – something which the protagonists have chosen to do or have had to do. It is nice to have a natural element in the play too.
The fluidity of water also provides a good companion to Muriel’s work and her view of the fluid possibilities of words and ideas. This translates easily with the energy, rhythms and flow of water.
Water is also one of our key sustainers of life, and is intimately connected with the human mouth so, once again, a good fit. We are transformed and transforming in our interactions with the stuff of life.
Electricity is also intertwined with water use and availability, and with the play being set in a radio station a nice loop of interlocking pieces (water, humans, electricity) is created. It makes sense to include the electrical motif in the sound palette. As a sound generator, electricity isn’t always as controllable and predictable as playing an instrument. The use of feedback allows for this untamed energy to have a place in the play. To me, electricity is about impulse, energy, sparks and connections, and we have strong electrical components within our bodies (as with water), so once again, these sound components reflect basic elements that are present both in our internal and external worlds.
The story of Meredith and Tina in the stage play Throat of These Hours, is very much a story about finding equilibrium in nature and in oneself and ones relationships. I am very keen for the music to reflect this, and also to reflect Muriel’s forward-thinking about the presence of her work in the world.
All of life is affected by interactions and change, and it is only through allowing these interactions that freshness continues in the work. I am sure Muriel would want aliveness in this way and so at times I am wondering how to create conditions in the music that both represent Muriel’s words, and also allow the words to be freed in some way to create anew themselves.
I am hopeful that incorporating the looper, or some kind of effects-generating software and electronic instruments of some sort, will allow this recreation to occur in the play. Hopefully I can work more towards that at some point as for now I have been creating fixed pieces for the poems. I think, and am hopeful, that Muriel would love to hear her poems self-generate new word combinations and poems within poems!
You’ve been experimenting with a style of performance where songs, stories and parts of songs are interweaved. Has it hampered you that although Muriel’s poems are fixed I haven’t finished either play, so there’s no certainty for you to weave with beyond the poems themselves?
This is a nice question to follow on from the previous. The short answer is no I don’t feel hampered. I think the main reason for this is that through my time in writing/performing and composing, I have come to a point more and more where I wish to allow a ‘gap’ for a type of synchronicity or unknown to occur.
This thinking was fostered at the extreme end of the continuum by American avant-garde composer John Cage, who often created pieces using chance operations. He collaborated with choreographer (and life partner) Merce Cunningham and one of their main innovative approaches was the concept that although the music and dance would occur in the same space and time, they would be created independently of each other.
I have taken this approach often when creating music for another medium (theatre, film) as I believe that when combining two such elements, there should be a space where the audience person or perceiver can add their own thought processes to the perception of the work – and it is this which completes the work. If the combined work is tied down so-to-speak, then the creators possibly will have covered off any possible ambiguity i.e. ‘we need to be clear here that this piece of music is supporting the dialogue in this way…’
Certainly in the composing process, unless I have a clear direction given, I prefer not to try and mould what I do for the overall play.
Of course – this can create possible challenges, and there have been some instances where I have written from instinct and then found myself asking questions that probably only you could answer. Like the fact that Then and Speed of Darkness are two quite different pieces with different voices – ‘would Meredith create them both?’ I found myself asking at one point….. ‘well Chris, you just did,’ was my reply.
I am hopeful that if I follow my instincts and the direction the work seems to take me, then I will generate enough possibility that can be refined if need be as your end of the work takes shape. And we both tend to see our work in a fresh way with each new discussion or draft version which is nice.
I think it must be difficult to write compositions that match a character’s own arc within a play. Tina’s a rusty composer/singer at the beginning of the stage play (when she sings the Speed of Darkness excerpt) and far more confident and accomplished at the end when she sings Then. What are your thoughts about this?
Yes, as stated in the previous question, this did come up and I dealt with it mainly through knowing that if I was able to write in these different voices, then it was possible for Tina to do the same. I wasn’t conscious of the arc when writing the songs, but we did definitely have that discussion afterwards as I started thinking ‘hang on, Tina’s character seems quite rustic and earthy – would she write something as dense as Then?’
I wouldn’t have described Tina as rusty versus accomplished but rather raw versus intricate – or something like that….and maybe with Tina’s increasing contemplation of the way her life has gone, she would become more introspective. I think fragile was how John described Then, and I can see that because, as a work still in development and me recording it very early on in its development, it does sound delicate or fragile because I’m reaching in the newness of it. I like that stage of a composition – but maybe it will be more settled and simultaneously have a confidence and delicateness about it. I would love to hear another singer do it – as it is in the higher register of my voice where I may not be as strong.
Again though, I think I need to respond to the poems however they present, and not worry about whether Tina is at the beginning of her character arc or the end. It would suffice for me to know that both of these possibilities exist within the one person and can be called on at any time. Muriel encapsulated over the course of her body of work the use of different form and style, and also traversed a number of themes and emotions from delicacy to rage.
Chris in performance (Annie McMullen photographer)
I find my own voice to be in the middle of the two songs I have written, I would love to hear a really raw voice sing Speed of Darkness and a confident classical-type voice sing Then and maybe Islands – I guess that is where the personality of Tina’s voice will be interesting to uncover in relation to the songs – in the finding of whoever it is that sings them and how they sing them.
As a composer, your work seems to highlight your own body, as a participant and as an instrument. You played with the ‘throat’ for the excerpt from The Speed of Darkness, and wrote about it like this:
The throat – the sounds of the throat can be many and varied…and can communicate a variety of emotions – the feeling of constriction, of not being able to speak/communicate – throat clearing, trying to make a way through obstacles.
Even the act of sighing and iterations of the breath can give signals as to the state of mind of the communicator – the body in the act of communicating, or trying to…
You refer in one post, Water, water, water, to your body as a (maybe polluted?) river in relation to one of the Throat of These Hours themes. And in another, (unDer the islaNds are stArs, with some stunning images of Kapiti Island) you write about your body in movement in a particular landscape, on the Kapiti Coast and in relationship with Hinemoana and Tai. Is this how you understand yourself as a composer, that it’s a ‘whole body’ thing, which sometimes highlights one part more than the other?
As the throat is a central theme in the play, and seemed to be a theme in Muriel’s own writings, I thought it is an obvious instrument. Its use in the presentation recording isn’t as subtle as it could be in the context of the whole play.
Chris White (Annie McMullen photographer)
It is interesting that you have mentioned all those references to the body as I have in general considered myself more cognitive in my approach over the years, but it is quite possible that this has been slowly changing with a growing awareness of my relationship to the physical.
I was quite physically active when I was young – I played a lot of sports – and enjoy a certain amount of co-ordination – let’s face it, it can be quite a physical pursuit hauling a guitar around onstage with a band! For all that, it has always been the temptation for me to consider ‘composing’ as an intellectual pursuit. Fortunately, I have the physical means to thrash ideas around when sitting staring at a computer seems futile.
I can’t really imagine performing only and negating the composing experience, which feels more like the essential component for me in bringing me to myself and out of myself. However, I think it is in performing (on a good day) that I express more in my whole body as it requires full attention and presence.
I have been keen to compose more for other performers as my composing tends to get bound together with my own ‘voice’ and limitations as a performer. I am thinking (and hoping) that it would bring different results and look forward to opportunities to do this and to find ways to do this. Throat of These Hours was obstensibly one of these instances, but as the singer in the play wasn’t fixed, I have gone down the route a little bit again of using my voice as the instrument and, therefore, composing in the realms of my voice.
I have found it refreshing writing with someone else’s words as it adds a dimension I wouldn’t otherwise have. It can be a little nerve-wracking, but also exciting at the same time. Muriel’s generosity of spirit as shown in her writings, and the generosity of her son Bill, have enabled me to feel more at ease with translating her work into music.
I know from what you’ve written that you’re familiar with ‘mystery’. And I wondered about the role of ‘mystery’ for you when I read what you wrote about breath and the afterlife–
In terms of sound design (in The Sixth Sense), the breath was used in layers – many many layers…human breath, animal breath – sometimes pitch shifted and slowed down – always running almost as if in the subconscious of the film – creating an undercurrent signal of the afterlife.
What’s mystery for you? Are you familiar with its role in negative capability? Does negative capability make sense to you and do you have it in mind as you investigate possibilities?
Mystery allows for an ‘other’ – and in a collaboration such as with you and with the writings of Muriel it seems to be an even more important component.
It allows me to be part of something greater over which I don’t have complete control. This something is a combination of the thoughts and feelings of Muriel which have been captured in a specific time and place, the thoughts and feelings of you and her characters from a particular time and place, and from my thoughts and feelings from my time and place. This something will also include the thoughts and feelings of the actors and the audience from their times and places.
The mystery is that these will all intertwine in similar and different ways in the context of peoples’ lives in ways that won’t be known completely by any of us.
Negative capability is a new term for me and I only seem to understand it when I’m staring at some writing about it but yes I identify with it on a level.
I guess one thing I am mindful of is the fine line between mystery and being laziness…how do I know if I have selected these words or notes because they will work in the realms of mystery, or because I am not taking the time to delve to find a better series of words or notes. This is a conversation I would do well to have with John Psathas – he appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from me in that he diligently goes through all possibilities before selecting what he considers is the best one.
One could argue Scott Walker is the same in his work and yet I would like to believe that mystery works for all compositional approaches and in all stages of the work. The key is having the flexibility to recognise when mystery arrives.
Is there a conflict between controlling the message and allowing mystery I sometimes wonder.
I have certainly experienced mystery many times in my composition work – a particular instrument beckons use without clarity as to why, a series of words that seem out of place – and yet when the process is finished, all comes into clear view. One example was when I was composing for an assignment at university – I initially set out to try and record a song with no backing instruments – only the use of found sounds. The sounds I used consisted mainly of a guided tour I had recorded (lots of footsteps in big rooms) plus some street scenes (cross signals etc). In the middle of the process my dear grandmother died at the age of 93. I was very close to her and found one archive recording of me interviewing her about her life. I decided to put elements of this into the piece. The excerpts I ended up using were of her talking about having had polio which had affected one of her legs so she had a limp most of her life. This blended well in the end with the footstep recordings and the song which was called Dancing Slow.
I don’t think you can conjure the mystery – the best you can do is be open and to work with anything that is happening rather than trying to fight against it. For example – I feel tired today so my singing is of a certain energy – use that energy, or choose not to record voice that day…I have forgotten a piece of equipment – what will replace it? Each scenario will add to the final composition in a positive way if they are allowed to co-exist with the ‘original’ idea you thought you had.
The final part of the mystery is the part that is completely out of our hands, and that is when a work is received and interpreted by someone else. One person’s perception may be different to another’s, and also may be different at a different time or with different surrounding circumstances.
Your output and collaborations are so varied. What attracts you to so many and varied collaborations? How do they feed into your work? (I couldn’t do it, don’t have enough flexibility and patience, would lose my centre.)
It’s quite possible I do lose my centre!! I think what happens is I get inspired by various aspects of sound and music-making and so want to incorporate them into what I do – or at least explore how a particular aspect of work would look/feel/sound like if produced through the funnel that is me.
It helps me to feel fresh and revitalised and gives an element of difference that (I hope) facilitates a slight difference in my approach to the composition. The downside I guess is that my development as a musician or composer could get diluted so my learning curve is a lot slower. For now I relish the variety though.
I remember having a dilemma years ago of wondering whether I considered myself a performer, a composer, or a musician. I felt the need to focus and so decided I needed to know which aspect of my playing / singing was the most important. I concluded that my main interest was in composition – the generating and expressing of musical or philosophical ideas. Ten years ago, I wrote a ten year vision statement and it began with ‘I am a composer’…it continued on to say that I would have a variety of projects that I could choose – be it film, albums, musical theatre etc. So I’m happy to look back ten years on and see that I have done that (though not with the income I had in mind!)
When I moved from Auckland to Wellington, I remember telling my friends that the move would give me a chance to make music in a different way. I had no idea how I would do this (nor even really believed on a level that I would), but as it turned out studying Sonic Arts Composition at Victoria University opened up a massive new world of sound and composition to me.
I also became aware a few years ago that I have tended to work individualistically and that collaborating would be good for me. It would take me out of myself and would force / enable me to be open to other ways of working, help me to create in a new way, to learn to work with difference, and to feel more that I was contributing in the world rather than being in an isolated bubble. I have tended to shy away from groups and while this can be ok, I recognise the need to be part of community, or at least something bigger in the world that isn’t just revolving around me. So I’m grateful again that I have had opportunities for collaboration come my way – certainly with my students who teach me a massive amount – with fellow sound artists Chris Black and Jason Wright, with Tape Art New Zealand, with Hinemoana, with Tim Bray Productions, and with you and Muriel Rukeyser.
Collaborating with Muriel has a particular specialness for me – I certainly hadn’t factored in the possibility of collaborating with someone from the other side of the world, who lived in another time, whose life was so different to my own, and whose words and work remain for me to explore and experience.
So thank you Marian for the introduction, and thank you Muriel for continuing to inhabit the earth, ‘still making’ in the lives of people everywhere.
Chris’ MOLLY PLANET RAW FOOD – RAW SOUND [discoveries and experiments] blog – the Muriel Rukeyser posts
Water, water, water
“I will bE sTiLL maKing” – MuriEL RuKyeSer
ScOtt WaLkEr meet MuRieL RukEyseR
unDer the islaNds are stArs
Chris’ compositions for The Speed of Darkness (video embedded in post); & for Then (ditto).
All photographs by Christine White, except where otherwise attributed.
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