On the value of performing your own work

by Caitlin, 25 September 2015

It’s been a rather manic few weeks here for Crossing Dartmoor as we hurtled towards the third performance of the piece in London – this time for Bastard Assignments: Fresh & Clean in the Thames Tunnel Shaft in Rotherhithe on Thursday 17 September.

With no piano in the venue and Simon unavailable to sing, I created a new arrangement for mezzo-soprano and guitar for this performance, yielding to suggestions that I should have a go at singing it myself, and working with guitarist Ashley Blasse. I also developed a new ‘path’ through the material to cater for a shorter timeslot and an audience who I knew would be open to the more unusual elements of the work.

This was a great chance to test out the flexibility of the piece, and I ended up setting aside three of the existing four sung pieces (two songs and the text score ‘Windsong’ which uses a folksong) and focusing instead on the text scores and audiovisual media.

This Rotherhithe performance has really cemented the place of the new content I created for the theatrical production in the work. Both the video elements and the text score ‘Drawing Out’ (amplified drawing of a Dartmoor scene via contact mic) worked extremely well, with the latter in particular receiving a very enthusiastic response this time round. For this performance, I allotted it a longer duration, we were able to pump more volume thanks to Ashley’s provision of a larger amp than we’d had before, and I gave it a more prominent position in the path – first up, combined with both a video and a field recording. I think all of these worked in its favour and allowed it to shine.

Performing the piece myself has been a very valuable exercise too. While I’m no rival for Simon in the singing stakes, doing it myself made concrete some things that as a composer I could only imagine. Those long gaps in the vocal part are a bit abstract until you find yourself on stage with nothing to do in them, and I felt a strong need to find something that would make me feel relevant in these gaps.

To do this, and to smooth transitions between pieces, I found myself drawing on some of the elements Omar developed for the theatrical production. Watching the videos and messing about with maps – but the theatrical approach also leaked into how I considered the relationship between videos, field recordings and live performance.

My original concept had been that the videos and field recordings would be presented as performed pieces within the work – no overlap, they would appear in sequence in much the same way as if an oboist had stepped forward to play a solo in the middle of the performance. I may still try this out, but for this show I wanted to experiment a little with layering up sounds and playing around with how that layering affected the perception of duration. I started to look for points where crossfading between videos and fading field recordings in or out would make some sort of dramatic sense, even though I wasn’t thinking of this as a staged production at all.

Of course, the sacrifice for performer-side knowledge like this is the eternal problem of the performing composer: you lose the experience of being an audience member, which provides a different type of information. But I’m glad I did it because the experience has provided yet more useful information for the development of the piece, and particularly for staging the piece, even in a formal recital context.