The Process of Collaboration

Rhona Clarke (composer) interviewed by Nicola LeFanu (composer, teacher, director)

NLF: When did you first collaborate on a joint work with Marie?
RC: In 2009, I had received a commission from the ConTempo Quartet and The Contemporary Music Centre to write a string quartet. The music was composed first and then Marie made a slideshow. She mixed images from drawings and photographs which were projected on a large screen with the live performance. We encountered several problems, in that I had composed an aleatoric section in the music, which was a disaster when it came to the timing of the slideshow – I was told never to do that again!

NLF: I would like to ask you more about that piece, but before that, just to think about collaboration in general: in what way had you collaborated previously with musicians, with writers, with other artists; I’m interested in where collaboration itself came from.

RC: In musical composition there is always collaboration. Unlike visual artists who may simply make their work and show it, composers must work with other people from the outset. Even with electronic music, if it is for the purpose of performance, there has to be consultation with whomsoever is producing the concert, with the organizers, the venue and so on; but especially with musicians – acoustic music has to be written with a performer or performers in mind. And because of that there are always very practical questions in writing music, such as: is it possible to play these notes – will this musician be able to hear the other musicians as they play – such fundamental considerations are always present. You also asked about writers: I have set poems by living writers and in that case have had discussions with them; it is not that they would have had an input into the musical composition, but I would have talked with them about their work.

NLF: Yes, and when you took part in that Austrian project where fourteen composers wrote a work for the fourteen stations of the cross, was there a collaborative element to that or not?

RC: Not really. We were asked individually to select one of the images that had been painted for a Cathedral in Zagreb, I must have been one of the first to respond, it seemed I had a wide choice from all the images. These were semi-abstract works and I did base the decision on the image itself rather than what it represented – although the representation had some effect on the resulting music; certainly the tone and mood related in some way to the representation of the sixth station of the cross.

NLF: I would agree with you that collaboration is at the heart of what a composer does anyway, but nevertheless there is also an autonomy to a composer, where, however much you might have worked with a performer before they first perform the piece, there is a sense in which you are alone with your aural imagination as you make the piece.
And now when we come to the work with Marie, it seems to me there is a step change, where the work is truly born from two people, and so… we go back three/four years where you began that kind of working?

RC: Em… yes. In 2011 we made what we would consider to be our first truly collaborative work. This was a short film based on the Burren, a rocky area of

landscape in Co. Clare. Our project comprised moving image and music. We had a lot of discussion before even embarking on the initial working stages. It was truly collaborative and nothing was finished on either part until the whole thing was finished. Although filming in the Burren took just two days, all this material was edited, you know, seriously edited, and the visual sequence done in tandem with the the sound material.

NLF: How did you make the sound material?

RC: We had decided together that the sounds would be based on percussion and I took sound samples with Richard O’Donnell, the principal percussion player with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra. There were two sessions during which he opened the wonderland that is all the percussion section of the symphony orchestra. We took sound samples of many instruments and I asked him to do some very specific things, such as to bow crotales, or bow a xylophone – I knew what kind of sounds I was looking for even before taking the sounds samples.

NLF: Was that from looking at the images: images of stone, images of metal, or was it that when you first discussed the film (before the filming) you had the ‘sound’ ideas/aural ideas?

RC: Well… both. I had discussed with Marie possible ideas and possible sounds, even before filming or the taking of sound-samples. Then in looking at some of the images, I would have known that I needed metallic sounds, etc.

NLF: I think it is fascinating that the genesis of the idea was clearly collaborative, that together you were imagining visual images and imagining aural images, and then each seeking, within your own craft, your own skill, to make those separate things and then bring them together.

RC: This is true, and much argument ensued (Nicola laughs!) as to what was working and what wasn’t, so even though we are autonomous as visual artist and as composer, we do not refrain from making criticism, one of the other’s ideas.

NLF: That’s essential isn’t it? Composers tend to be very self-critical, so then it follows that in a collaborative work you are each going to be self-critical and critical of the other. But then that’s like sharpening something, fining it down.

RC: It makes for better collaboration that we can do this – make criticism of the other’s work, without giving offense – or at least short-lived offense!

NLF: So, given that the filming took place within two days, and similarly with the sounds, how long did the process of creating and editing take?

RC: It took about three months in total. A lot of ‘play’ with the sound, a lot of ‘play’ with the images, and…. intuitive interaction on both our parts. It wasn’t a worked-out- on-paper process, it was, very definitely, ‘play’, and we both loved that aspect.

NLF: And that’s where the creativity can really flourish?

RC: Yes, and I think this method of ‘play’ has informed other work as well.

NLF: Let’s enlarge on that. You say it gave a greater sense of freedom. When you next wrote a purely acoustic piece, no visual element, there was a new freedom as a result of the collaborative work?

R.C. That is true. You spoke earlier of the restriction in working with someone in a collaborative way but in the exhibition where this film entitled Relic was first shown (Exhibition title: Between the Lines), I made three sound installations; each contained a short work of about two minutes. The sound pieces were accessed via headphones placed on plinths. The enormous freedom I had working on these came firstly from the fact that the sound was not imposed on anybody. Exhibition visitors could elect to put on headphones and listen to the work, if they didn’t like it they could remove the headphones immediately. I think maybe, in my own personality there is a sense of over- responsibility to the audience, inhibiting creativity – so here it did not matter that somebody didn’t like the work; nobody was sitting in the middle of a concert hall unable to escape; also the works were very short, which brings another kind of liberation. Working on these installations allowed me to improvise with the sounds I had – once again these were percussion sounds manipulated electronically. The first is based mostly on shaking sounds, the second on wooden sounds and the third on bongo drums. The freedom of this working has carried over and is now evident, I think, in my purely acoustic works.

NLF: So, for example you had a new orchestral work in Horizons this year – 2014? How did you feel that your composing of that work was different as a result of, by then, three or four years of collaborative work with Marie?

RC: Well it was interesting that the new work ‘ SHIFT’ was performed alongside a previous orchestral work from 2006. I feel that there was an enormous ‘shift’ in my attitude and hence in what resulted. Working with the percussion sounds electronically for the earlier projects had changed something…. I wanted to explore this in an acoustic piece. Percussion was given an important role within the new orchestral work. I think I was bolder in using ideas… very strong ideas, sometimes very forceful and very loud passages in relation both to the percussion section and full orchestra. There was also the desire to use extreme contrast, especially dynamically, between extreme loud and soft sounds.

NLF: There was obviously a liberation in your musical language, though perhaps not so much in your language as in the way you approach composing.

RC: Yes. There are a number of factors which coincide here. One is liberation resulting from a return to using electro-acoustic processes; the other is getting older, which brings its own liberation – you care less about what people think of you, and in this case, of your ideas.

NLF: Is there a difference in the timescale of the acoustic works after working on the installations? It seems to me that the way we look at a visual image is rather different to the way we listen to an aural image. You can take in an image whole, even if it is in a film and temporal, whereas music – we take it in in a different way – it has a different effect on our memory.

RC: Music and Literature demand specific time – at least with a novel you can decide to read one chapter…

NLF: Yes, and you can also flip back and forth which you can’t do with a piece of music.

RC: No. A piece of music demands our attention for the duration of the performance and there is an awareness on my part, as a composer, that people give this amount of time – of their life, to listening to what I have written. There is a feeling of responsibility towards the listener.

NLF: Maybe working with the installations has been a liberation from that point of view, that you feel that a person who is also looking at a visual image…. that there is going to be a different reception for your work.

RC: I Think so. People who would never listen to contemporary art music or experimental music are now accustomed to hearing this in the context of film for instance.

NLF: So, without realising that they are listening to new music, they are sitting and enjoying it, and also walking about and enjoying it. Going back to Relic, that then led to a number of other collaborations – not so much that piece, but the success of that collaboration being such a fruitful thing for you. Tell me a bit about the evolution of working collaboratively since then.

RC: Well, it took such a long time to get started; we had been talking about collaboration for about two decades! Having done so, the process hasn’t really stopped. We worked on a short piece called Lines & Spaces. This is a single take – the opening and closing of a venetian blind with the light coming through. It’s very short, just three and a half minutes and the sound going with it is very spare. It has been shown numerous times including at the international film festival, Cinesonika, which happened to be in Derry last year.

NLF: Would you say that the work is equally at home in an art gallery or a concert hall context?

RC: I think it was first shown at the Contemporary Music Centre, so that was a music audience. It seems to be equally at home in a visual art and a music context, and one of the things which we have said about our collaboration (after the initial work with the string quartet which was really concert hall work) is that we are keen to make work where the visual and the music element are equally important – it is not music for film and not visual for music.

NLF: So… ‘Relic’ and then ‘Lines & Spaces’…. What since then?

RC: Well there were the sound installations of course, and recently a video called The Small Hours. There are two projects on the go at present. Marie and I are working towards a new piece for her solo exhibition at Solstice Arts Centre in Navan in October… we have a definite idea for this based on a painting by Magritte. Currently there is the joint exhibition for Draíocht Art Centre, involving drawings, a video by

Marie, sound installations by myself and photographic documentation of the sound sourcing. The video will show a metronome on one monitor, and on the other, Marie making improvised drawings to various metronome pulses. There is no music as such for this video work. A number of the sound installations relate to the metronome, but besides that there is something more subtle going on in the collaboration here, the element of line in the drawing is also an important aspect of the sound. It’s all really about line – the line in music influencing the line in drawing and vice versa. Also in this case, Marie has taken my notion of improvising musically using the metronome pulse to ‘dictate’ a suite of drawings.

NLF: Is this purely electro-acoustic or are you recording a line on a live instrument?

RC: Mostly electro-acoustic. In one instance I recorded some tongue-clicks directly onto the piece called ‘Stiletto’, but even this is manipulated somewhat. There is also a kind of transparency to both the drawings and sound works; the drawings are made with charcoal and pencil, with some limited use of colour and this is also an aspect of the sound installations, where the type of ‘colour’ or sound quality, in each short piece, is restricted.

NLF: Now that the collaborative work has matured and become something that you are both very comfortable with, have you since explored what happened right at the beginning, which was a live concert work with live performers and a visual element. It seems that lately it has been a collaboration where you have worked electro-acoustically and I wonder if you are considering using live performers again?

RC: Well, we did receive a joint commission this year from Concorde for a live performance with a visual element. We decided together that this would be for accordion. At first we had the notion of something based on tango rhythms and images, something very fast and energetic – and then we did the opposite! (Nicola laughs). Still for accordion, we produced a slow-moving piece, The Small Hours . Of course the timing aspect is always difficult with live performance. In rehearsal, there was a minute and a half of music to go when the video finished, so Dermot Dunne, the performer – and he is wonderful! – took the issue on board and had cues written into his score; this way he could know where the music should be in relation to the visual, and on the day of the performance, it worked perfectly!

NLF: Do you think there is a problem for a listener in a concert: are they so inclined to watch the visual element that they are not listening attentively to the music or do you think they are very happy with the fusion of the two?

RC: I think that whether conscious of it or not, they are taking both in, especially in this work; because the two elements (music and visual) are each pared down – we were wary of having too much going on. This is something we learned when working on Relic, we also learned that it’s a mistake for one element to imitate the other. This is a temptation best avoided, for example a sudden move in the visual does not have to be mirrored in the music.