Wednesday, October 30, 2013

whEn RoSalInd mAde heR sTory intO a hOuSe...

I met Rosalind at a songwriting workshop I held at the Paekākāriki Railway Station. 

She was one of those people who professed to not being particularly musical, but like the other students on the course, she was open to a new experience. Together we supported one another, told stories, laughed, played and created songs. 

Rosalind had a flair for rhythm and tone in her writing and ended up with a journeying spoken word piece that incorporated the rhythm of the rail with the musings of a wombat. We gathered together with the others and recorded her song Full Steam Ahead. The instruments included the side of a train, gravel, a plastic bucket, and the metal side of a building. The players are Rosalind, Te Ahu, Drew, Chris and Nic. Here is an excerpt of that recording from the day...

Rosalind was keen to continue exploring the telling of story through song and sound, and I was keen to continue working with her as I have long had an interest in working with people to create stories and song using sound (particularly of objects and buildings). 

We met regularly and did various writing and sound exercises. One exercise was to write about a specific childhood memory about a sister. Mine was about a visit to a farm I did with my two sisters Kim and Bron, and how Bronny and I wanted to test a hole in the side of a hill for bees, so we gave a stick to Kim and asked her to have a prod...suffice to say there were no bees or injury but I'm sure Kim has a bit to say about that now!

Rosalind's writing centered around a memory of her sister playing the piano. I love the visual detail Rosalind brings to her writing (she is a visual artist and architect).

This small poem transformed into a sound piece in an interesting way - but first here is the initial reading...

Once we had the recording, we chopped the wave into pieces and Rosalind chose a colour for each one, so now they looked like this...

At this point I admit, I reached the usual impasse as to what to do next. Enter that uncomfortable moment when you feel blocked, tired, unimaginative, and unsure what to do next - and that's the facilitator! But I have learned to trust in these instances, and once again to return to whatever is happening in the present.

What was happening in the present for me was that I had recently become fascinated by, and an avid reader of architecture. This began with discovering Louis Kahn through watching the documentary My Architect: A Son's Journey...

the New York by Gehry...

 It moved onto Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright,

It continued with Dancing House by Gehry....

And the first female architect to catch my eye - Zaha Hadid...

Rosalind is an architect and all I really wanted to talk about was architecture. Go where the heart is racing towards I say...

So I said to Rosalind "let's create a house from your sound files". I asked her to look at the coloured 'bricks' and to construct a house using them. Here's what she came up with...

As Rosalind is visually oriented, it provided a way that the poem sound excerpts could be arranged without us knowing what they were. The house, I remember, has over-hanging eves, and the bottom level is colour co-ordinated so will provide an aural repetitive loop of some sort.

We then decided to cut to an internal view of the house, and Rosalind created sky-light frames (volume) and a staircase (panning).

To finish, we returned to the exterior view and added a keyboard accompaniment - a synth pad sound already in the software called Floating Embers. Rosalind chose the keys and played throughout the piece. This she coloured in a beige colour to create the ground for the house.

To separate the voices, we added an effect to one of the house levels. The effect was a delay that also acted as a pitch shifted - interesting because the poem talks about Celia as a small girl. Rosalind chose the effect merely by sight.

With the words rearranged and the volume and panning automated, and with added keyboard - here was the result.

What was amazing to us was that without knowing it, we had referenced content of the poem through constructing skylights and stairs - as both of these are mentioned in the poem - the automation brings out those specifics too.

Rosalind also found the poem and resulting sound work refreshing and full of light - much like a well designed house. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

unDer the islaNds are stArs

Several months have passed and my erratic 'working', sound-making life has continued its tributaries in many directions...

a performance at The Wine Cellar in Auckland; 

an installation at The Wellington Railway Station in collaboration with Erica and Struan from Tape-Art New Zealand where we created a visual/aural fantasy-world labyrinth for people to walk through;  

a songwriting camp (The Great Songwriting Slumber Party) with fellow songwriter Holly-Jane Ewens of Rosy Tin Teacaddy - where 22 kids ate,slept, and breathed songwriting;

So I get to now and am dragging my head back into the Muriel project...only I know from experience that no such effort is required. Yes, it seems that does one reconnect with the writings of someone who was writing 70 years ago on the other side of the world? quote Muriel herself - "O for God's sake / they are connected / underneath..."

It is a good day when one realises that all of the activities of the day/year...all sights seen...all sounds heard....conversations had...they are all informing of what is to come next.

So my next 'task' was to compose a third song for the play 'Throat of These Hours' by Marian Evans - a play and now radio-play about two women who work in a radio station, and which centers on the works and life of Muriel Rukeyser .

I don't know if it is a lazy position to take, but when I am at a loss as to what to do next, I inevitably come back to those things that have happened, been observed/experienced...those things which have stood out in my mind and activated that sense of rush in the gut...

I felt stuck coming into this third song - am I anticipating my style based on what I have done? Am I anticipating the effects of Muriel's writing on me? Do I really know what I am doing? (the answer to this most definitely seemed to be 'No').

First approach - the poem. That's easy to say. But. Reading a poem takes quite a bit of skill. I can tell you that with a certain amount of confidence now that I have a poet as my love interest. I am very fortunate in that Hinemoana is not only a fantastic writer of poems - she is also a musician and vocalist with an astute 'ear' for sound and composition. She has told people many times that she vicariously studied sound art at the same time I did, but I can tell you she already had a love and understanding of sound in her bones.

This is very handy for me :) because she understands the world of sound, and the world of words - and can do a little cross-translating for me when required. It has also meant that over the years I have been to a great many more poetry readings than I would have, and slowly but surely, am expanding the poetry-listening muscle...and it is indeed a takes a certain fortitude to immerse oneself in a world that can be so intricate, dense, and at times mysterious - and one needs to bring all of oneself because...then it is gone. Every word has been chosen specifically to maximise effect and meaning, often with conservation of word use at the core.

I also love that Hinemoana has largely delved into and written poetry that has sound at its core - a place where meaning and narrative are secondary to the sounds of words. This approach is a good companion to the world of sound composition because it requires the listener/reader to bring more of themselves to a piece instead of having it do all the work for them.

So in coming to some of the poems of Muriel Rukeyser, I have at times needed to go through a reverse process. In looking at Islands, it is quite accessible and easy to understand. It seems quite straightforward. 

Islands by Muriel Rukeyser

O for God’s sake
they are connected

They look at each other
across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile

Some are cliffs
The Bathers think
islands are separate like them

Connectedness. Tick. Yes. An obvious meaning. What could I bring to this poem? How could I meet with it? I often hold a desire (of which I am not proud) to be an 'original' - to bring something utterly unique to a work - something that will set me apart...and here I am faced with a piece which has connectedness as its theme. Using islands as a metaphor.

Next step - walk the dog.

Tai is a border-collie/huntaway (read that as - bundle of energy, slightly crazy, strong-willed eye dog). Hinemoana and I have had him for nearly 2 years and after a particularly hairy first year, life with him is settling into a routine which includes at least one, sometimes two walks a day. We are fortunate in that we live on the Kāpiti Coast (About 40 mins north of Wellington, New Zealand).

One of my favourite walks is along a beach which is connected to a large inland area of parks and walks. It has a stream which runs out to sea, farmland, railway tracks where an old tram takes visitors for rides, and an area whee model plane enthusiasts fly their aircraft. I have been to a wedding in the area that was serenaded by the high pitch whines of planes taking to the skies. The park is called Queen Elizabeth Park. Sometimes Hinemoana and I both take Tai there...

The Kāpiti Coast is magnificent. You can view the coastal hills as they descend towards the sea - separated only by what is known as the Coastal Highway - a thin piece of road that follows the curve of the coastline. On a stormy day, it can be quite exhilarating and a bit scary driving with wild ocean breaking against the barriers. One of the hills looks to me like the face of a man staring upwards to the sky. 

One of Tai's favourite activities is chasing tennis balls along the beach. 

Looking out from the coast, one can see Kāpiti Island - an island that fascinates me both for its physical shape and its history. To me it sits in the water like a crocodile, and, depending on the day, can be stark in its contrast from the surrounding sea/sky, or soft around the edges and misty. Sometimes it all but disappears.

The island is Ngāti Raukawa land, having been inhabited by an infamous Māori chief Te Rauparaha. It is now conservation land and a sanctuary for native birds, with the North End being maintained and occupied by descendants of the local iwi (tribe).

Unless you are high atop Paekākāriki Hill and looking across to the island or in an airplane flying over, you won't notice the three islands in front of Kāpiti. They are hidden from ordinary view, even though the distance from shoreline to the island is only 5kms. The islands were used as camouflage for the local iwi who lived there during war times.

So there I was, walking the beach, wondering how I would connect with Muriel's poem, and translate it to music. The island view helps I'm sure - but not while I am at this stage, embarking on a mental exercise. I guess it will only be later when I am actually with the music and physically engaged in it, that the energy presence of Kāpiti Island will make itself felt.

There comes a time when no amount of walking and thinking can actually replace sitting down and turning up to the empty yet-to-be-written-piece.

I knew I just had to sit down and try - imagining the piece wasn't going to write it. I had an imagined first line - in Scott Walker style, like a burst of operatic monologue - OhforGod'ssake!

This was most certainly the first approach I would take for certain, but this over-rehearsed line in my mind disappeared as soon as I started to engage in the music.

There was one other thing that was to inform the process of writing this song and that was a wee movie I went to called Gravity. Amazing film. Soundtrack by Steven Price.

For some reason this film resonated with me in terms of connectedness without being really sure how. I had a feeling of vast. alive. cosmic. isolation. for sure. but also. connected to others. to dreams. to memories. even if only. in 2-bit. morse code. stars. tectonic plates. all nimbus. fingers. reaching.

sound. texture of sound. background. foreground. the opening music so startling. 

confronting. radio waves. trying for communication. sound waves from 50 years ago. fly through space. echoes. debris. sounds cutting/splicing. reaching. underneath. 

we. are. all. made. of. stars. we. burst. and. fade. we. are. all. connected. underneath.

and so came the sound palette. glitch. broken-up speech. suspension of sound. foreground. background. pulse. a vocal that goes underground. that echoes. that moves. and disappears to the other side. that disappears from view.

i listen back to the very early demo of the piece i have started for Islands on iTunes. When it is finished, iTunes shuffles to the song Isolation by John Lennon - another New Yorker writing 40 years later...

People say we got it made don't they know we're so afraid
we're afraid to be alone, everybody got to have a home...

We're afraid of everyone, afraid of the sun

The Sun will never disappear
but the world may not have many years

Thursday, June 6, 2013

DiArY oF a faiLeD MusiCian - PaRt OnE i thiNk...

Bloody friggen hell! Someone's gotta say that's not the case actually - just I've gotta say it...

Just listened to Kathryn Ryan's interview with Martin Crowe about his journey through professional sports (being one of New Zealand's greatest batters) and through illness (having recently been treated for cancer)...a remarkable interview in that he has connected the emotional pressure and isolation of his drive to succeed in cricket, to the onset of his disease and his need to treat his whole being - to overcome the divide between mind and heart.

You can listen to it here

I could relate to a lot in this interview except for the fact that I haven't reached any great pinnacle by the world's standards and certainly not any that resided in the grandeur of my mind. I am, basically a failed musician.

You don't need to feel sorry for me - though sometimes I feel sorry for myself - i chose to some degree this path knowing that i would either make the big time (acclaim and financial success along the way) or i would be destitute and struggling - ok - aside from the fact that i live in a comparatively wealthy country i am struggling...but it is nothing compared to the years i have struggled with the drive to 'succeed' to 'make it' to achieve...and sometimes maybe because i haven't attained that the curse of it lingers.

Unlike Martin, I haven't come out the other end of a successful career having to face the cost of the driven mind...i am in danger of continuing to propagate that thinking - maybe this move, this change in approach will do it.

I have been somewhat stopped in my tracks though by an illness - a major eczema outbreak - not life threatening by any stretch - but i know well enough it is my body on some level saying - enough enough of this stress you are giving yourself.


I have just finished reading this book - among many others pointing me towards health - and it so clearly laid out the physical way that stress impacts on the body and on the immune system.

It also proposed that a lot of women with a particular type of symptoms have a link with their experience of needing to be good enough in a father's eyes, or of having a conflicted relationship with a father. That certainly has been my experience - actually mainly a lack of relationship with mine - certainly not without effort on my part and some on his (though he is from a generation where openness is awkward i guess).

I am currently well enough to look at this stuff - i'm not sure how i will - but i i'm tired of talking about playing music and making music in a way that feels less like making a contribution to the planet and more like some unfinished business about 'making a name for myself' and building a career.

Unfortunately, the music industry is built on being successful - as probably most industries are - I haven't talked with many musos about this but i get the feeling that many get to a point in their lives where they need to deal with what they thought they might be and what it turns out they are - some seem to resign to it, some maybe opt out, some get bitter...i don't know - it's complicated and easy for musicians who write their own music especially to take it personal when they don't get more than 100 hits on a song posted on youtube. I've never been cool or hip, or happening in the time and in some ways i still haven't found my voice, the way to express my music - that may still be yet to come.

But i just wanted to out myself to at least myself that i don't want to hamstrung by a background voice that is concerned about whether i'm about to hit the big time or be relevant or be somebody on the music scene...

And i don't want the fact that i'm a 'failed' artist lure me into that mental trap any longer...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

ScOtt WaLkEr meet MuRieL RukEyseR

This will definitely need to be a series when looking at possible musical influences on the Muriel compositional process, but for now I want to focus on what was simultaneously greeting me at the same time as the Muriel project - and that was Scott Walker's album Bish Bosch.

Wow! First - that's all I can say about this album. After hearing a review of it by Nick Bollinger of Radio New Zealand National whilst driving home from teaching, I knew I had to have it.

Let's just say from the outset, that it is not an easy album to enter into - it is a listening challenge for sure, and one that needs to be revisited several times. Don't expect to make any sense out of what the album is saying unless you want to do a heap of research - and even then don't expect to have full grasp of it - maybe its not meant to be graspable.

Don't expect it to be a comfortable first listening experience - prepare to be intrigued, horrified, made uncomfortable - apart from the beautiful final track, it is a listening experience that can be harrowing and demands your full attention. 

The sound palette in this album offering is vast, visceral and evocative. This trailer will give you an insight into the tones, textures and variations on the album but it wouldn't be sufficient to just listen to these sound bites alone.


I've never been good at describing music in a critical way - so here is an excerpt from The Guardian (from a rare interview with Scott Walker):

"On the surface, there couldn't have been a more unlikely transformation – imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen. Yet in a way it was all of a piece. His latest album, Bish Bosch, is only his third in 17 years, all of them elaborate, epic and inaccessible. It is a post-apocalyptic opera of sorts, with blasts of rams' horn, dog barks, scraping swords, machetes. The music nods at Gregorian chant, doffs its cap to Shostakovich, gives a thumbs up to industrial metal, and is uniquely Scott Walker. The lyrics reference sexual disease, brown dwarf stars, court jesters and dictators, all delivered in a strangulated baritone, as if Walker's testicles were being squeezed. At times there's a terrible beauty to his poetry ("Earth's hoary/fontanelle/weeps softly/for a/thumb thrust") while at others there's a bloodthirstiness that could be straight out of Jacobean tragedy ("I've severed my reeking gonads, fed them to your shrunken face"). It's brilliant and bonkers. The opposite of a guilty pleasure: a guilty torture". 

So apart from the intuitive synchronistic appearance of this in tandem with Muriel, what can I see as linkages that lead me to want to reference my discovery of Walker with my discovery of Muriel.

"Bish Bosch is best enjoyed as an act of intense pop meta-fiction, a work, rather than a set of tunes. Walker's orchestrations are cinematographic; punk and metal incursions swap with melodic passages and austere arrangements. The space between the instruments, and Walker's voice, is often eloquent in itself. He toys with language, references and unconventional instrumentation. Given time and application, his lyrical riddles offer a series of rabbit holes down which to disappear, tongue-tied". 


of Rukeyser...
"For Rukeyser, formal poetry offered a dynamic means of connecting diverse emotions and ideas through images and sound patterns into an organic unity that resists static closure: a 'gathering-together of elements so that they move together'(LP19); free verse gave her an equally fertile ground for developing connections". (pg 17 - essay by Meg Schoerke - Forever Broken and Made": Muriel Rukeyser's Theory of Form - from the book How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet - The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser - edited by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman).

of Walker...
"It amuses me that he calls his new material "songs" when they are so unsingable. Doesn't he think of himself as a composer? 'I think of myself as a songwriter, but I agree they are maybe not traditional songs. I know what people mean, but what else can you call them?'" 

Pitchfork: The weird thing is that I still situate you in pop music. 
SW: Well yes, because I'm not so in with the prescriptive avant-garde agenda. I can do that sort of thing, but I feel that I'm still interested enough in song structure. When I look at a lyric on the page, the lyric is alive to me, looking like soldiers in a field. I can move it around, and it's very black-and-white. There is nuance and subtlety in some of the things we've done, but what I'm trying to do is get that very hard, upfront sound, especially on this album. If you read Kafka, for instance, he's very much like that. Everything is punching, there's not a lot of nuance. I think that that relates a little bit to what you were saying, because popular music is a bit like that. 
Pitchfork: But do you still feel a part of that?
SW: Not much most of the time, because people keep reminding me I'm about a million miles away from it. Every time I bring an album it's like I'm bringing in the plague, once again. I don't actually know what category it all falls into, but I've stopped worrying about it. 

Both Rukeyser and Walker play with form - referencing traditional forms but playing with them and at the same time extending them out as far as possible. Scott's Bish Bosch album is part of a trilogy of albums (including Tilt and The Drift) and which spans over 17 years.

You can hear the contrast when you keep in mind Walkers pop origins - as Rukeyser I'm sure would agree, we are a long evolving, fluid and ever-changing work and she wanted this to be discovered I think both within a single work, a collection of works (book) and over the whole span of her life in all areas of writing/activism/teaching and parenting.

 "Rukeyser saw in Gibb's Phase Rule an analogy for poetry, for she emphasised that poetry also depends on the relationships - the delicate equilibrium - between its parts; equally, she could envison the parts as changing phase". (pg 28 - essay by Meg Schoerke - Forever Broken and Made": Muriel Rukeyser's Theory of Form - from the book How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet - The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser - edited by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman).

Walker too, would look for relationships between parts. His writing is completely based around the lyric poetry, and from there chooses the sounds which will relate with the word characters - so it is useful for me to think about this way of working given that the poems and words of Muriel are my starting point.

Pitchfork: Then there's all the other material-- this exotic and unusual instrumentation-- which I think of as a theatrical response to the lyrics.

SW: I think "theater" is a very good word for it, because the lyrics call for that. The way we approach musicians calls for that as well, because we use the same guys, more or less. They're very good at receiving description and then being able to do it. They're great actor players in that sense. I think of the string section that way too. When we're in there, I always say, "Look, you're a character and you have to be individual." So even the strings have that kind of role, they're just not anonymous things. 

Pitchfork: I thought the strings in The Drift were like giant swarms of bees or Lancaster bombers coming over the coast. I never really thought of them as people with violins.

SW: The thing I'm always saying is that these aren't arrangements. They're just things, once again, relating to the lyric. What's the noise that relates to that line, or that word? What is the relation? That's what I spent a lot of time on.


of Rukeyser...
"When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems,
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will still be making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music".

from A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, W.W. Norton & Co. (1995)

of Walker...
Pitchfork: Well, in a dark world there's no darkness.

SW: Or no silence in a silent world. 

Pitchfork: I wondered if these insults were a reflection of all of the insults that have been directed at you over the years.

SW: [laughs] Well, it's been pretty rough at times, but not quite that bad. [On the song "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)"], it was just an idea, because he is a comedian. It's just the idea that he is being heckled by silence. He's being pestered and made to feel guilty. Silence of course is where everything originates from.

What he does believe is that harmony is heightened when you have to work for it. Beauty is best appreciated buried in the grotesque. And yes, he says, there is a pessimism to his work, but the chinks of life offer hope. "That's why I'm so puzzled when people say it's all dark, dark, dark, whereas I think there's a lot of beauty in it. Obvious beauty." And in the end, he says, that's what his music is about – the search for meaning and purpose in the wreckage. "I'm not a religious man, but it's a longing." For what? "For who knows. For existence itself. True existence. It's a longing for a calling. It's just a feeling that it might be there." Can we all find this purpose? "Oh yes, I believe so. We just need to find enough silence and stillness to experience it."


of Rukeyser...
"She was a person who put her body and her writing alike on the line when, for example, as president of PEN American Centre, she stood vigil outside the prison cell of South Korean poet Kim Chi Ha, and when she travelled to Hanoi in 1972 to protest the American war against Vietnam". (pg xv - introduction - from the book How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet - The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser - edited by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman).

"She was a leader among poets in addressing experiences specific to the female body (menstruation, lactation, childbirth), in challenging sexist and heterosexist assumptions, and in writing erotic love poems - including love poems addressed to women". (pg xvii - Introduction - from the book How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet - The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser - edited by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman)

"She wrote of accepting her sexuality and the parts of ourselves we ordinarily despise or flush away". (pg 9 - essay by Jane Cooper - And Everything a Witness of the Buried Life: Muriel Rukeyser's Theory of Form - from the book How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet - The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser - edited by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman) 

of Walker...
"No more / dragging this wormy anus / 'round on shag piles from / Persia to Thrace / I've severed / my reeking gonads / fed them to your / shrunken face" (lyric from the song
SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) from the album Bish Bosch)

"Like its immediate predecessors, Bish Bosch retains a focus on feeling, even if the sensations it sketches aren't processed enough to resemble anything on the conventional palette of emotions....
 ...Sonically, some of the major traits of The Drift reappear – monstrous, clunking lopes interspersed with patches of giddying, squealing glissandi and murderous percussion – but are executed with even more dreadful panache this time around. There are abbatoirial electronics, touches of discomforting gated reverb from the Martin Hannett catalogue, and interjections of balefully clinical guitar, and that's before the bravura dabs of audio absurdism: farts, tuneless Brechtian choruses, and, on the concluding 'The Day the "Conducator" Died' (an 'Xmas Song' commemorating the execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu), the opening bars of 'Jingle Bells'". 

here is some good hints of some of the above from Scott Walker himself...




Sunday, March 17, 2013

"I will bE sTiLL maKing" - MuriEL RuKyeSer

 Muriel Rukeyser was an activist, poet, Jewish woman who lived in New York and wrote during the 1930s. This year is the centenary of her birth and a year in which Marian Evans, a New Zealand writer, activist, film-maker, is writing a play based on some of Muriel's poems. 


                                                                                                               photo by Marian Evans

I have written 2 songs, one from a stanza in the poem The Speed of Darkness and one is a response to the complete poem ThenFor previous background on my foray into the play and the links of the plays themes with events in my personal life, check my first blog here.

It was an honour and delight to meet Anne Herzog, Janet Kaufman (editors of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser), Elisabeth Daumer, Chelsea and De Ce Rouseau via Skype at the Muriel Rukeyser Symposium at Eastern Michegan University. We had a discussion which included questions based on initial response to the songs. This was a good starting place for me to outline here what has informed the songs thus far.

In response to the song excerpt from The Speed of Darkness, I was asked about the inclusion of gargling,throat-clearing sounds at the beginning of the piece. 

I have been thinking about what the sound palette for the play could be - given that it has a small cast of four women and is set largely in a radio studio. Marian gave me plenty of material to help with my decision-making - the scripts in progress, an interview with Muriel Rukeyser, a film about rivers and river pollution issues in New Zealand (a theme of the play) and many of Muriel's writings.

She also gave me permission to think as broadly as I wanted - to not feel limited by the play as it currently is - but to allow the poems to speak musically to me in any form I wished. This was a great gift, and has allowed me the freedom to explore in any direction I wish. I have, however, thus far, felt the need to focus on the sound elements that feel obvious (given the thematic content of the poems and the play).

Cover Image

So here is the initial sound palette:

1. Voice - the title of the play gives it away - Throat of These Hours - and Muriel's question in the context of her poem - "Who will be the throat of these hours?". The play explores two women who, for various reasons have struggled with their art-making...Meredith has long since given up on writing poetry, and Tina is trying to discover her own voice through following the writings of Muriel and setting them to music.

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...

As this 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.

I think now of the film The Sixth Sense, and in watching a documentary about the film. In terms of sound design, 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.

2. Water - another theme to the play - water pollution. Two ways of incorporating this into the palette so far - the obvious one of water sounds, hence the gargling at the beginning of The Speed of Darkness excerpt. I also thought of the character of water in my approach to the composition of Then. Water flows, splashes, agglomerates, creates channels, and falls. With this energy in mind, I created parts in Then which built on each other using a loop station. 

Boss RC-300 Loop Station yaszik images

 The loop station enables me to create harmonies, to create and change chords and to reintroduce parts that have been sung earlier in the piece. I was also able to reverse sung parts and it was heartening to read of Muriel's love of music and of the sound and meter of words being important, so I think she would've enjoyed this play with structure and looping (repetition) and re-sounding of her lines. As she says here:

"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". (from The Craft of Poetry Interviews from The New York Quarterly 1974. William Packard - Editor)

"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". (from The Craft of Poetry Interviews from The New York Quarterly 1974. William Packard - Editor)

Again, reading this after having been working on the composition of Then was very affirming. The connection Muriel has with energy and flow and her view of words being almost as physical entities gave extra power to musical possibilities - especially when considering the musicality as reflecting the environment, and in particular, the energy of the river. 

3. Radio signal / electricity - another possible addition to the palette is that of electrical sound. Given that the play is set in a radio station and my current readings regarding the make up of the body, and the relationship between electricity and water in regards to hydro-electric dams, this seems to be a great fit.

Great for me also as playing with feedback tones can be both unpredictable and very evocative in tones. Here is a short sketch example of play with feedback (and also what probably was an unbalanced teapot).

There is more immersing of the work and ideas of Muriel Rukeyser to be done, as well as working alongside Marian in the development of the play. I will address the musical influences thus far in another blog to come soon.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Water, water, water

Headman Mark Franco
Winneman Wintu, North America

"It's almost like if you want to put a tourniquet on your arm, that's what you're doing with these dams, you're putting tourniquet on your arm, and then your fingers die - and you wonder why your finger's died. It died because you cut off the flow of blood. Water is like the blood in our body...the water is the blood of Mother Earth. You cannot do these things to it." - from Water Whisperers / Tangaroa (WickCandle Film -

Mike O'Donnell
Sculptor, Potter

"Ohinemuri was called a designated sludge canal once. It was so tragic that everything got dumped in it - all the mining stuff, cyanide waste, the community dumped its' waste. It dumped its' sewerage. That was the attitude you know - this attitude we have inherited. On Sundays they would stop the mine and they would all go to church. And then on Mondays they would open the mine back up - and the old people would see thousands of mullet and fish swimming with their heads out of the water 'cause they couldn't swim in Ohinemuri any more. It was deoxygenated from the cyanide. And I remember Uncle Tiki Rakana just saying it just made us wonder about their spirituality. They go to church on Sunday, and then they destroyed the water of Mother Earth, of Papatuanuku - they destroy it on Monday." - from Water Whisperers / Tangaroa (WickCandle Film -

I am lucky enough to be involved in a composition project with film-maker/playwright Marian Evans (, in which the poems of Muriel Rukeyser are  to be set to music. These will be  performed in the context of a play which explores the dynamics of three women in Aotearoa/New Zealand and examines issues of water conservation, health, and the experiences of creative women in finding/expressing their own voice.

Rukeyser (1913-1980) was a poet, feminist, bisexual, activist, Jewish woman from New York. I'm not very good at describing writing but her poems have stood out to me because of their confronting nature and honesty, particularly for the era she was writing in. I am inspired by her activism and also feel a closeness because of my visit to New York last year - it is a place that gets under the skin for sure.

 As part of the research for this project, Marian lent me the documentary Water Whisperers / Tangaroa, which looks at the stories of various river systems in New Zealand, and what has been done by various communities to improve their local ecology. It's a very uplifting doco - beautifully shot, with great interviews.

The documentary was powerful for me on a few levels - particularly in the use of metaphor of the body to the river. The river system is like our bodies a North American Indian explains - and damming it is like creating tourniquets which deaden the system further down. This idea is also echoed by Maori. We are now so used to thinking about the land in terms of the body as a way to give us an in-road for relating to how important care for the land / waters are.

I was struck by the reverse of this more so - hearing the story of how the Ohinemuri was basically a dumping ground for sewerage and toxic waste and needed for a system of regeneration to be established, brought home to me the change that has occured for me in regards to how I view my health and own body.

Before my body exploded with major eczema for the second time in my adult life, I remember a specific occasion driving through Mana, in a hurry, and having a vague knowing in my mind that I wasn't happy with how I was eating, with how I was living...eating on the run a lot, eating a lot (some things don't change!), eating quickly thrown together pastas or stir fries where the veges were practically unrecogniseable. I have never been a good cook but one thing in my favour is that I've never shied away from preparing food for myself - even if I was the only one to sit down to a meal. But the nature of how I was eating - on the run...drinking lots of tea and coffee, snacking whatever was at hand - it just didn't feel right but I didn't know what to do about it. I felt overweight and even though my weight has never really worried me, I knew that I could be feeling better, more energetic - but didn't know what to do about it. I was like the Ohinemuri - dumping toxins in at a rate of knots and holding a ton of stress.

So - when you want something, and you don't know how to go about it, something is bound to change...and even though my intention wasn't conscious enough that I was making a plan to do things differently - it was strong enough that eventually my body took over and said Enough already...and in came the a flood.

It was one of the most uncomfortable years health-wise I have had (preceded by vertigo)...but the timing of it and of some random searching on the internet at the same time led very quickly to my discovery of juicing - giving digestive system a break and flushing out acidic residue and oxygenating the blood...much like the community of Ohinemuri were to do.

Watching the doco brought home to me the amount of revolution that has occured in the area I am most able to control - my body. It certainly isn't perfect (I still reach for the foods I've grown up eating and get 'the taste' for when stressed or if they are conveniently available) but the most important thing is my intention has completely changed and I can pretty much say that something within me has made a switch and I am on a new path.

 Watching the doco - hearing the stories, science and reasoning behind the logical, common-sense approach to maintenance of an ecological system through management and cleansing - really brought home to me how important it has been for me to do this for my body at this stage of my life.

And it turned out the answer was so simple - fruit and veges, fruit and veges as much as possible - in quantities i could barely comprehend when back in the mindset that the vege was the wee side thing you had to the 'main meal'...

anyways....given that I used to be quite the evangelist back in the day when I was small, I have no interest in trying to convert people to anything (though as anyone will attest, when one is in the throes of a life-changing discovery or event that is often all they want to talk about). I am a bit allergic to really putting the word out there nowadays and yet I think over time I will find a way to do this that feels right for me.

It is amazing too that change is contagious, and when people want the best for themselves, and they see changes in people they love - well - that is true gospel testimony, and people always want to go toward light when they see it and when they looking in the backs of their minds. So it astounded me when people close to me decided to try some of this on just from what they have seen me go through.

It isn't over for me - the true test will be in the long term as my eczema is currently controlled by some pretty heavy duty drugs - so when I come off them, and when I can finally clean up on eliminating toxic foods - that will be when I can declare true healing. The skin being the largest organ in the body - it is hard to heal but not impossible - just takes a while.

The other amazing thing from this doco - oh yes back to the doco - is the link with the path my music-making has been taking.

I have been experimenting with a style of performance in which a sound-making environment is created and from that songs, stories, parts of songs are interweaved.

You can read more about the background to it here.

The interesting thing about the mind map is that there is a specific reference to environment and tributaries - echoing the patterning of neural-pathways, the patterning of nerves, of rivers - the relationship of body to land to waves of sound.