The first creative development for a performance adaptation to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has just finished at Metro Arts. Director David Fenton, and performers Brian Lucas and Scott Wings and myself were the team. My role as composer was to support the exploration, discovery and development of staged improvisations – performance responses to the poetry.
As such I decided to improvise alongside the performers as they worked, rather than pre-compose and curate extant pieces into the rehearsal-room play. I’d already made some stuff before the team had met, so had experimented with approaches and had some works in reserve.
I wanted to keep the palette acoustic, so my principal instrument was my Hofner Congress Archtop. This was augmented by a Boss RC-3 loop station, an ipad with garage band, and an ipod with assorted drones and pre-prepared compositions, and audio atmospheres. A Rode NT-USB was my in-room mic, and the guitar was amplified by a Schertler instrument mic. I worked with the mixing desk and speakers that were in the basement where we rehearsed. This is rough and ready. I had other stuff I wanted to play with but couldn’t get it working.
This may sound a bit technical, but it was far-from it. Using a sort of guesswork and my very limited know-how, this was cardboard and sticky-tape composition. I played this variety of sound sources simultaneously and independently, mainly because I don’t own the right gear, but it also meant that nothing was nailed down compositionally, apposite, given the artistic experimentation in the room. This was about exploring approach and creating fragments which would contribute to, but not necessarily comprise a finished performance.
Thinking I’d like to use only percussion that might be available to a wandering poet, on a whim I grabbed some old cutlery before I left home and strung them up on the ironing board that served as my work desk for the week. The spoon performed a perfect ‘D’, in tune with a cello drone, and I took that as a positive omen. This cutlery came to punctuate the improvisations of the performers, or appear at certain gestures.
As the performers worked, I might create a series of looped volume-swells, push a pre-recorded drone under it from the i-pod, and play live over the top. To this I might add another guitar part or three.
Later, at the request of the performers or director, I might retreat to a back room in the basement and record a section of text. The room was not sound proof, and we worked quickly and noisily: grabbing a level and capturing voices in a near-enough is good-enough kind of way to it could feed immediately back into the evolving work. In doing so, movement could be freed from script in hand and spoken word could form part of the soundscape. Sometimes I would process this long-form sound or remix it live in response to improvisations.
Towards the end we worked in shorter grabs with multiple voices on the same piece of text, which I would mix and play across melodic or percussive loops, both live and pre-recorded. Around thirty pieces of performance were made in the week, some rough and visited only once, others slightly more refined and mindful of the emerging gestures, motifs and relationships in the work.
At times the director would call for one segment to run onto another, which is where the ‘whatever works’ approach fell down a bit, because sections were not dealt with discretely, and performances and compositions were not always named. Though I’d kept notes I was confused, but kept going, providing a live soundtrack despite not working from script or fully grasping what was coming next.
Sometimes this meant that discoveries made once in improvisations were temporarily lost – you can’t fake an accidental juxtaposition. At other times a mistake meant implied a new and useful superimposition of sound, text and image.
At the end of the week of creative development, the director had captured much of it on low-resolution video, and will work to shape and adapt the material. Much of the audio will be on these rough drafts and can be re-created if necessary. I sorted and compiled the audio of spoken word, musical experiments, and compositions created during and prior to this week’s work, and gave them to the director. with any luck we’ll be able to keep working on it.