About ‘Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride’

I’ve been calling myself a ‘composer’ for about twenty years now, starting from when I went back to music college as a trumpet player but got sidetracked into writing music instead of playing it. On my website you’ll find early pieces like ‘Rate-limiting Step’ for cello & harp, or ‘Studies of Nucleate Boiling in Thin Liquid Layers (Part 1)’ for chamber ensemble. This is what people usually think of when I say I’m a ‘composer’: someone who writes contemporary score-based music for classically trained instrumentalists to play.

Yes, I’ve done a lot of that: but over the years it’s come to seem less and less interesting to me. For a number of years now, I’ve been working in a way which is much more akin to devised theatre, or even performance art. For a start, I hardly ever write the music down now, or if I do, it’s just fragments, starting points. By convention, a contemporary classical composer is expected to put everything in the score: the written score is the piece of music. You could post it off to an ensemble anywhere from Albuquerque to Zhytomyr, turn up a week later, and boom, there’s the piece being played.

Or at least, that’s the theory. But, take the very first work in my catalog, ‘The Knowing of Things Together’. It’s ‘scored’ for didjeridu, three flutes, three trombones, conga drums & two wine bottles (red). Already, there’s a problem: that’s not a standard ensemble! So, actually, no-one is ever going to play this piece, apart from the people I was working with back then. So, really, the music is what the musicians and I actually did on that occasion, rather than anything I might write down.

Fast forward. The piece that’s about to come to fruition, ‘Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride’, started life as a dream. This happens to me a lot: I’m a musician, after all, and I have dreams where I hear a piece of music. Quite often when I wake up I can remember at least some of it: I rush to write it down or even just sing it into my phone before it goes.

The piece I heard on this occasion – it was the morning of the 3 June 2012 – seemed to be for… a rock band? Plus a section of orchestral French horns?!?

Made some notes, forgot about it. Couple of days later, aimlessly surfing around as you do, I stumbled upon this 1972 public information film about East Kilbride. Suddenly a whole chunk of memory descended upon me. I remembered the two different times in my life when I lived in East Kilbride, particularly a period in the eary 80s where I was busy dropping out of an ill-advised science degree at university, listening to a lot of Hawkwind, and teaching myself to play guitar. Suddenly, the dream made sense: I knew what I was listening to, I knew what it was all about.

And the Ted Edwards stuff? A misdirection, perhaps. Edward ‘Teddy’ Edwards is a fictional alter ego of mine. He’s the person I would have liked to have been if I’d been born forty years earlier: he’s Raymond Scott, he’s Daphne Oram, he’s my dad’s golfing buddy who owned a radio shop, he’s Erik Satie. Or maybe he’s a complete unknown: he’s Ziggy Elman, he’s the guy who first came up with the npn-pnp astable multivibrator circuit, he’s some guy who’s into birdwatching.

He’s a useful vehicle: someone I can have in my show, someone who might have been in East Kilbride in 1972, might have played in a rock band, might have had a day job as a chemist at the National Engineering Laboratory. Someone who might, after all, be a composer.

Kind of.

 

Electronics nostalgia

Very happy today. Been working on some electronics for the show. For me as a creator, this is a big part of what Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride is about: exploring my nostalgia for teenage evenings spent with a soldering iron, a cup of coffee, and a Hawkwind album.

Some pics below: trying to get my SN76477 prototyping station back up and running.

01 sn76477 overview 02 sn76477 board good 03 sn76477 front panel ok

Horn-a-Tron

Some of the publicity put out for the show has perhaps been unintentionally slightly misleading! I did have a dream of having a French horn section in the show, but that dream has been realised through… technical means :)

Instead of live players, I’ve invented the ‘Horn-a-Tron’. This is a Pd patch which plays back midi horn sounds alongside video clips of sixteen horn players – with thanks to Steve Park for the horn vids. I’m not going to put up a clip of this working just yet, spoil the effect. But here’s the patch:

Pd 'Horn-a-Tron' patch

Why Scotland, Why Strathclyde Uni?

A couple of interesting connections between the show and the University of Strathclyde. The first is – and I didn’t spot this till the other day – it’s actually mentioned in the original movie. At around 16 minutes, during the segment where Bruce and Mark visit the National Engineering Laboratory, there’s this exchange:

NEL Employee: We’ve got about three hundred and forty engineering graduates and scientific workers here, so we can tackle all sorts of engineering problems.
Bruce: Is there any basic research?
NEL Employee: Well at the moment it’s about twenty percent, I suppose, it used to be more but we’re now tackling industrial problems. We have close links with Strathclyde which is one of business leading technical universities.

The other connection is of course Dr Steven Ford, who, as well as being one of my bassists, is going to be doing the live chemistry. Steve’s day job is as a Research Fellow at Strathclyde’s Cancer Research UK Formulation Unit. For the show, he’s having fun trying to mock up some outdated (and dangerous!) liquid handling practices, as well as making some interesting chemical smells. As someone who nearly became a scientist myself – I started a BSc at Edinburgh – I’m delighted to be able to get this kind of work into the project.

(In fact, I almost went to Strathclyde myself… I remember going to their open day, and a lot of my friends ended up studying there. And of course, many, many years after that came the Invention Ensemble, which arose out of Strathclyde’s wonderful BA in Applied Music course… )

Update on ‘Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride’

Exactly a month to go now to ‘Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride’, my Cryptic Nights show at the CCA. Today I met with Steve Ford, who, as well as playing bass is going to be doing the live audio chemistry. Here’s an example of the kind of thing we won’t be doing:
Preparation of SO3

Somehow that one never got through the risk assessment :)

Quartz Composer video sampler for WSWEK

Here’s a screenshot of something I’ve been working on today for ‘Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride’:

wswek-samp01

Regular readers of this blog (ahem) will recall that this all started with a piece of music I heard in a dream, for a double rock band plus a big squad of french horns. Well, the double rock band is doable, but the french horns were going to be impractical for the gig.

So, I’m building a sort of video sampler. There will be video clips of each of the four chords the horns play, with four different variations of each chord. Midi notes will then be used to trigger a clip of the correct chord. This would have been easy to do using Jitter in Max… so I had to do it the hard way and try to build it in Quartz Composer!

I’m getting there, ish. The visual tools in QC are amazing, but the program structuring and logic is kind of Turing-machine basic. Like, to combine four numbers I had to use a combination of three OR gates, and to build a toggle switch it’s a counter then take the count modulo 2. And it’s crashy and buggy, and the documentation is rudimentary. And I’m going to have to edit the video super carefully, if the clips aren’t exactly 2400ms long then my programming will break.

But… it might just work.

First rehearsal for ‘Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride’

We’ve just had the first rehearsal for ‘Why Scotland, Why East Kilbride’, which is a new piece I’m putting together for Cryptic Nights, 4 & 5 July of this year. This piece is a fantasy: an reimagination of my own East Kilbride childhood, as expressed through the medium of my alter ego Edward ‘Teddy’ Edwards, unsung hero of early British electronica.

The musical starting point for this piece was a dream I had, where I heard a fragment of music for what seemed to be a double rock band plus an orchestral horn section. Tonight was the first jam session with the band I’ve put together. This is made up of people who don’t really do this sort of thing! I’ve got two ex students of mine, Aimée Laws and Nikki Donaldson (from Edinburgh College and the Conservatoire respectively) on drums and keyboards. My second drummer is legendary percussionst/composer Steve Forman, a colleague of mine from the Conservatoire, while on bass I’ve got Steve Ford, who I’m also collaborating with on a sci-art sonifiation project. Rounding out tonights lineup was Bill Whitmer, aka williwaw, a great ukulele player, whose solo improvisations to film loops is part of my inspiration for this project.

I played guitar for tonight, although in the final thing I thing I’ll probably be swapping between elecronic noise-makers and a video sampler, which I’m going to use to represent the horn players. So, we had four chords and… we jammed.

Interesting. When I was a teenager, the idea that one day I would play rhythm guitar in a space rock band seemed like some sort of unattainable dream. Now it seems all I need to do is book a rehearsal room and go for it. Musically, it’s a ridiculously easy thing to do. However, I do now have some work to do to structure the whole show: in the end, 25 minutes of semi-inept rock jamming just sounds like, er, 25 minutes of semi-inept rock jamming!

I have some ideas. I’ve tried putting the recording of our best jam together with the video, and it’s got something going for it. Not going to make that public for now, would spoil the surprise…