Violin and architecture composition premieres in Aldeburgh

-Posted on 09.06.2017

PhD composition student Freya Waley-Cohen discusses her new project, which brings together music and architecture, and opens on Saturday 10 June at the Aldeburgh Festival


Permutations is an interactive artwork and a synthesis of architecture and music: a project that I’ve been working on over the last few years as part of my PhD here at the Academy as well as on an Open Space Residency at Snape Maltings. I’m incredibly excited that it will be premiere at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, 10–16 June.

It consists of a new piece of music written by me and performed and recorded by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen – my sister – in an architectural setting designed by Finbarr O’Dempsey and Andrew Skulina. We have developed the music and its setting simultaneously, working closely together so that each could act as a muse for the other.

The process of writing Permutations was an unusual one. Inspired by Finbarr and Andrew’s habit of anthropomorphising the buildings and structures they designed, I thought of my musical material as a set of characters. I developed several different musical characters but wrote them both for six-part violin consort, and for solo violin. From the beginning, it has been a process of constantly rewriting, reinventing, and transforming these characters in many different ways while maintaining an individual personality for each.

During this three-year Open Space Residency, Finbarr, Andrew, Tamsin and I have been working together to create the music and an architectural setting which, when installed, together become one artwork. The architectural intervention is a set of six chambers which spatially distribute the six recorded violin parts in Permutations, but which also give the listener the opportunity to change the acoustic properties and level of isolation for each part. Handing a certain level of artistic and creative power over to the listener was the guiding force in the creation of the artwork.

The architectural setting is interactive and changeable, the audience encouraged to play the space like an instrument. Each chamber is lined entirely with openable doors that allow the listener to adjust the acoustic environment and therefore the thresholds between each violin part. Opening and closing doors, along with the audience’s movement through the space, forms an intrinsic part of the performance.

It is designed to be structurally autonomous, and will be constructed out of a robust system of prefabricated parts so that it can be erected and dismantled with ease in order to enable it to tour multiple venues.

Tamsin started playing the violin when she was three. She also happens to be three years older than me, so listening to her play the violin was etched into the soundscape of my world from the beginning. Knowing her playing intimately was key to the way I wanted to hear music for six recorded Tamsins. Many of the characters I created in Permutations grew out of my love for her unique sound: from dark, fiery dance-like moments, to delicate pizzicato sections, to the singing melodies that appear shortly after the opening chordal passage.

When I first started talking about Permutations with Finbarr and Andrew, we discussed ideas of counterpoint in music and how they can be reflected in architecture in terms of space and rhythm. Listening to some of the great feats of counterpoint, I began examining Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in some detail. I noticed that the intervals between the notes in the fugal subject are a palindrome.

One of the notes that can be seen jotted on Finbarr and Andrew’s first sketch of Permutations is ‘repetition: sublime’, a reference to Edmund Burke’s ‘On the Sublime and Beautiful’, in which Burke writes about repeating visual elements creating an imaginary infinite space and evoking a sense of the sublime: ‘Another source of the sublime is infinity [...]. Whenever we repeat any idea frequently, the mind, by a sort of mechanism, repeats it long after the first cause has ceased to operate.’

The reflection of these ideas in Beethoven’s powerful fugal subject led me to play with the palindrome, changing the intervals while keeping the pattern constant: for example, changing the pivotal interval, while keeping the outside intervals constant, or exchanging major intervals for minor intervals. I enjoyed the way the patterns sounded somehow both familiar and unexpected, and so I began to use them for my sketches, sometimes sticking strictly to the notes in the palindromes and sometimes improvising around them or moving freely from one to another.

There are two moments within Permutations in which the linear nature of the musical structure is interrupted by the parts splintering off into six simultaneous solos, each in their own tempos. These solo parts are the solo versions of six of the musical characters from within Permutations. Each of these was written so as to inhabit a different sonic space from the others, whether in terms of pitch and range, timbre, or dynamic changes. For this reason, it is possible to let your ears explore different lines individually, even while noticing their various interactions with one another. Alternatively, you can listen to the sound as a whole here, and even find order in the moments of narrative stasis and chaos.

Permutations and the solo version Unveil are also available on a newly released Signum Classics CD.



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