This piece of music is an early demo for a theatrical production about two dogs at a pound. This piece of writing is about the kinds of compositional thinking I engage with when I’m in the initial stages of conceptualising music for performance. Concrete and Wire is featured on MakingWaves‘s December playlist ‘Guitar Waves‘. Listen there or scroll down to play here.
The show, by dogspoon was to be bittersweet and funny and my initial instincts were around the congruence of the howl of a harmonica, the gliss of a bottlenecked string and the mournful blue wail of a lonely dog. Before my involvement as composer had officially begun, my imagination was off the leash. I wanted to think with my hands, and respond musically to the project, to explore what was possible, rather than what was probable, in the period before anything has to be nailed down.
In musical terms I was thinking of Nick Drake’s Black Eyed Dog (1974) Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s partnership (1950-80) as well as Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold was the Ground (1927) an iconic recording which (as well as being shot into deep space on Voyager’s Golden Record) was a key inspiration for Ry Cooder’s iconic Paris Texas score. You can’t apply slide to a soundtrack without an awareness of the pervasive influence of that work in the popular imagination. I figure it’s OK to evoke those tropes but not emulate them, so before I play a note I go on a musical treasure hunt, springboarded by my initial ideas, which are then shifted and shored up by what I find.
I collected my musical research and a set of reference works in a Spotify playlist as I dreamt up the music: a third place to shape conversations around the role of music in the emerging theatre work.
As the show was going to be newly invented, with a period of creative development likely to result in significant change to the initial ideas that formed its basis, I figured music might have a role to play in rounding out its world, as well as fulfilling the initial brief: performing its more workaday functions of oiling the hinges between sections of performance, underscoring for emotional effect and pointing to invisible environments beyond the visible stage. Inexpertly played slide guitar can result in compositions sounding dark and slow so I needed to make sure these early drafts didn’t lean too much in that direction.
As a side note, a visit to a real dog pound revealed that music plays a real life role in the care of the animals. It’s just the radio playing, but when I ask the attendant why the sound is there, she says that it calms them. When the station shifts to some 1970’s breakup song, though, the combined emotional effect of all those unhomed dogs listening to the sad ballad had quite powerful effect on me. Subsequent research reveals there’s a number of composers who create and release music for the purpose of dog wellness, especially when incarcerated, but I’m straying a little from my main point.
Concrete & Wire is a piece of slide guitar playing in the key of E. It’s got a plaintive, falling feel to it, involving hammering on the slide at the 7th fret, which pulls a harmonic ‘break’ into the figure, then slides down, like a howl. I recorded it live into an ipad, with no set tempo and whacked a reverb on it that I liked. I followed this with another ‘straighter’ version in which the implied chords were double tracked & fingerpicked, but this wasn’t as evocative.
Titling the track is also part of the process. it should be called something, even if it’s just an initial offer. The words of the title should be balanced so they draw from the world of the potential piece: framing the music without dictating any one reading. You’ll see from the playlist the track still has its filename or working title which I used to distinguish it from other drafts while it was under construction.\
Wondering if this piece could perhaps combine live performance and pre-recorded sound, as an experiment I asked Tom Oliver, one of the actors who was going to be in the show to improvise a vocal over it, suggesting that it be somewhere in-between singing and howling. He sent back an mp3 of his improvisation, which I added to the solo guitar, and that is what you hear in Concrete & Wire.
I didn’t end up composing the music for the show, so this litter of demos (Collected on Soundcloud as ‘Unhounded’) stands as the beginning of a conversation between unfinished score and unbegun performance.