Yesterday we started a new topic in our postgrad composition seminar at Bath Spa, focusing on design. This has started me thinking about some aspects of my working methods and practice more widely. Matt Sergeant opened up some really amazing ideas about the nature of design and how we might apply it to what we do as composers, and I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that what I am doing most of the time is designing. We talked in particular about the relationship between conceptualising, designing and realising, although as a group I think we are all considering those terms still.

My take on this at the moment is that, for me, this is a three-stage process. I would say I spend up to about 10% of my time conceptualising (sometimes far less), but a good 80-90% of the time designing, and then whatever is left (sorry, the maths isn’t very clear now, but….something like up to 20%) realising. I need to outline what I mean by these terms though. I’ll leave the design stage last though.

The conceptualising stage for me is generally quite quick, often stemming from an idea taken from another discipline, and tends to be some kind of statement about what the piece does in its basic form. Sometimes this is a little sketchy, such as (from checking some recent notes) ‘A piece about transactions perhaps’ or ‘ a piece with incredibly difficult and contradictory rules and instructions presented live to players in a times slideshow, perhaps with parallel slides’. It might also take the form of a title (sometimes in search of a piece). Some recent ones, which might end up as pieces, are if something cannot go on forever, it will stop, or some transactions are simple and easy to mediate. Generally I’ll expand this into a clearer idea, and of course refine it later if I do begin turning it into a piece. But these are the kinds of things that pop up when lying awake, walking the dog, driving the car etc. and have the potential to turn into a piece. I have quite a few of these that never really get past that stage.

The realising stage is the last thing I do and operates differently depending on the piece. It is, essentially, the point where I make the score in some form. This can be a simple matter of copying up the results of the design stage which tends to be the case with just text pieces. With hybrid scores also including other material (stave notation, video, audio etc) this can also involve more active manipulation of material, essentially realising ideas in a form that I can give to players. So for example that might involve making a load of modules with specific sounds based on the template for these created in the design stage. So it is a mix between copy editing and formatting a document, and creating material. I tend not to add anything to the concept or design at this stage though, unless, in rare situations, it suggests other things to consider.

The middle stage is I think where I do most of the work, and it is this that I am now considering as the design stage. During this stage, I try to take the concept or overall idea for the piece and turn it into something more applied that can be realised as a score, and ultimately a performed piece. It normally takes most of the time, as it’s here I’m mostly working out the details. The sense of applying a principle is also really important, thinking through lots of different ways it could be articulated, most of which don’t tend to work. In practice this tends to result in pages of bullet pointed lists, diagrams, and reflections. These often refer to source materials (e.g. quotes from things I’ve read), or are just me working through an idea sequentially, sometimes mocking up performance instructions in different ways. I tend to do very little generating of sounds and sonic material at this stage, and it mostly focuses on types, such as using particular categories of samples or objects, types of harmonic materials, or spoken texts. Really specifying these comes later. This is, for me, very much about designing. I feel like I am making a plan which is both the piece and the potential for the piece. It is about setting parameters for the piece to work within, so often focuses on relationships between things (people, sounds, materials, concepts) rather than specifically the things themselves. Having said that, I probably have some sense of what those things might be, if only implicitly, but leave them open for much of this stage.

I think the slightly ambiguous area is the transition from design to realising. Making the piece in its final form kind of straddles these two phases, but is neither in one nor the other completely. So I might develop some more concrete material in the design phase in order to fix the principles, perhaps through some kind of score template. But equally I might have finalised the design and then go looking for the materials I need (such as finding samples, or ‘composing’ material). It really depends on the pieces: as suggested above, some text pieces are generally open with regards to the resources so there is very little material generation as such. Others have a lot, such as the piece I made for Wien Modern, which involved a lot of score material, as well as samples, artificial voices, recordings, and a long audio track. I often find that the piece might mutate a little in this transition as the development of material alters some of the plan.

The last couple of days have been very useful in this respect. I’ve been getting a little stuck over the past few months, and I think this comes somewhat out of my working method. Since about 2000 I’ve kept notebooks. Initially, when working on #[unassigned] this was just a space to sketch out each version, so was in many ways a proxy for a manuscript pad. At the end of that project, in November 2011 in fact (I just checked – it was 26.11.11), my notebook changed considerably in its use. It moved more towards thinking through concepts and designs and less about realising a piece. Initially there are a few pages with sketches of gestural material, but these disappear quote quickly and become replaced by the kinds of things described above. This coincides with the move to a more process-oriented approach, no doubt resulting from the research John Lely and I completed in Word Events. Since then, this has been how I work. I spend a lot of time planning/designing, and relatively little making/realising. The terms are slippery, but could be characterised by less of a reliance on experimenting with sounds on instruments and objects, and less scoring of material in temporal notation (e.g. staves in time). At the points where I miss this – I really like making scores with notes on staves and messing around with sound production – I tend to move more towards making those kinds of pieces. But I think overall this is a question of keeping a working method fresh, understanding what it is I am doing, and trying to find the most appropriate way to work on any given project.

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