Strange Blooms (2013)

Contemporary Dance //
Electronics (Processed Harpsichord) // 28 mins
Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh // [Commissioned by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company]

Programme Note

Strange Blooms was a collaboration with choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, and was a fascinating and very enjoyable experience that started back in April 2013.

At our first meeting, Shobana explained that she was very interested in the concept of the ‘remix’. She knew that I had been exploring the form of the remix over many years, and wanted us to work on a project that was focused on remixing a work from the baroque era. She was thinking of theme based on plants, their inner formal structures (which seemed to connect to the formality of baroque music) and how plants cross-polinate – which brought in the idea of remixing.

When we were listening to various Baroque repertoire, Shobana remembered that as a student at Edinburgh University, she had a flat-mate who was a Harpsichord maker and he often played a Chaconne by Louis Couperin (uncle of Francois) called La Complaignante. We found a recording and I was stunned by the simple beauty and yearning of the piece, and agreed that it would be an ideal musical seed for this new work.

It soon became clear however, that my music would be more of an electroacoustic composition than a remix, as we wanted to create a musical world that went deep into the inner workings and life of plants and far from the sound of the harpsichord. So the remix concept is taken to a point of extremity, and the original work of music is barely recognisable, becoming an extended ‘sound source’ for electro-acoustic composition.

After further discussions and research Shobana arrived at the title, Strange Blooms and a clearer themes emerged: ideas of plant growth and plant evolution; exploring how plants often evolve in very different and seemingly exotic ways; ultimately creating an imaginary world of Strange Blooms, which is perhaps a metaphor for continuing evolution and mixing of different cultures and peoples that we find in many modern cities. Also, Shobana brought many references to our first creative meetings, including stop-frame films and mathematical diagrams of plant growth, as well as historical descriptions and photographs of ‘exotic’ plants. All this fed into composing the music.

The first stage of the process was to make a recording of the Chaconne, and in May I spent a day recording brilliant harpsichordist Jane Chapman perform the Chaconne on a period harpsichord, at various tempi, with different settings on the harpsichord, and with period tuning (mean scale) and modern, equal temperament. Then the composition process began in the studio using a wide range of electroacoustic and remix techniques to create new music ideas from the original material. By using the Couperin as the only sound source, I was very restricted: the harmony of La Complaignante  barely modulates beyond the tonic key, stays just within a four octave range,  and of course the harpsichord itself has quite a narrow timbral and dynamic range.

Particularly challenging  was the restriction of Louis Couperin’s early diatonic harmony, and many of my early sketches didn’t feel like my own music at all; in fact, taken out of context from the yearning melody of the original, much of Couperin’s harmony loses it’s original impact. This led me to pay particular attention to tuning, and play with the different micro tunings used in Baroque music. I made subtle re-tunings to give the harmonies extra nuances and to create new harmonic inter-attractions and magnetisms (inspired by the way that seedlings learn and search for the sun, or climbers are drawn to supports).

Other important approaches were:

– To vertically layer harmonies, often with dynamic movement so that shadows and light moves across the sound.

– To the stretch the spiky harpsichord tones to more wistful, singing lines.

– To freeze small grains of the sound – in particular the more earthy timbres of the harpsichord – in order to create much more muscular and physical sounds, representing the strength and persistence of root growth.

– To race quickly through molecules of sound, creating an agitated growth-type movement.

The original version of the chaconne is finally revealed in the fourth chapter of the composition, as a metaphor for the act of blooming, after a period of growth, survival, discovery…

© Gabriel Prokofiev, 2013

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