During creation at Zinc Arts, Andy Higgs, composer for the final section of Artificial Things, has set up his own studio next to the dancers to start creating the music. He has written a blog about the experience.
Fuelled by coffee and Kit Kats, for the last 3 days I have been happily cooped up in a tiny piano room at the back of Zinc Arts Centre working on musical material for Artificial Things. I am one of 3 composers working on the piece, and I have been given the task of providing the general ambience and sound world of section 3.
Over the last 72 hours I have learnt a great deal as a composer, and it dawned on me fairly soon that working within the field of contemporary dance is not at all like other collaborations a composer might have. For a start, it is quite advisable to leave my ‘composer’s brain’ at home before I go to work. Modern dance is often a world not of bars and counts, but of feeling, atmosphere and gesture. As the composer it is your job to pick up on clues from the choreographer and dancers about the mood they wish to convey and try to create a collage of sounds that bears some resemblance to what they are imagining. The early days consist of lots of reassuring, ‘sure thing! I can do that no worries!’ without actually knowing what on earth is expected of you. But slowly, through trial and error, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ piles grow bigger, and you begin to make progress.
I find it is very easy to spill over into too much sentimentality, partly because of my musical education being inextricably linked to Broadway shows and movies. Whether I like it or not, this is a primary unconscious influence in the way I tend to think about music and visuals, so I try to be aware of this. Also, muscle memory gives my fingers the tendency to fall into jazz chords (7ths, 9ths, and 13ths), so for Artificial Things I have consciously picked single notes out and played around with sustain and reverb effects to add some interest to isolated pitches.
Too much music very quickly overwhelms the piece, so it is important to check ideas on a fairly decent sound system in a large space as it will reveal unpleasant or harsh sounds that need to be dropped from the mix, far more than listening on a pair of headphones will. This can be quite a nerve-wracking moment, as it is also the first time your music gets a public airing, but once it has been ‘got out in the open’, everything does seem to possess a new identity. One can liken the process to growing a plant from a seed. The seed is extremely vulnerable and needs a good deal of care and attention, but once the plant is firmly established it will actually benefit from your hacking bits off! The beauty of an original score is that, with any luck, you can offer a sense of intimacy and connection with the choreographic work that a track on a CD cannot always bring. This is a terrific experience for a composer at any stage in their career and I am very grateful for the opportunity.