NINA WHITEMAN - 27.05.2019
(SD) Hi Nina - thanks for joining me today for a chat. We’re thrilled to have commissioned you to create a
piece for our upcoming mini-series SPACE / SENSE, and really excited to see and hear the results. But lets’s
start by talking more broadly about your musicianship in general. You’re equally active as both composer
and performer, and your performance activity is split into more conventional classical application and
improvisation involving new experimental music speciality. How do you find the balance and how do these
varying aspects of your musicianship relate to one another?
(NW) Hi Shaun. I'm delighted to be working with you and the Vonnegut Collective on this new piece.
Thank you very much for approaching me!
It's really exciting to be involved in new and experimental music as both a singer and composer. As the singer
in Trio Atem, I am fortunate enough to perform many brilliant compositions that really push the possibilities
of my voice, and also raise questions concerning how chamber musicians interact and respond to each other.
This latter area is of great interest to me, alongside the principle of giving performers creative agency. As a
singer, I absolutely love to be involved in the creative process, and it's great when that process continues
into the actual performance of the piece. I think my work as a singer in these contexts, and also as an
improviser is really key to my creative work as a composer. I hope that my compositions allow performers
to be expressive and involved because I know that feels good!
(SD) So you're taking what you enjoy most about the experience of performing, and applying that to how you want
performers to feel when performing your music?
(NW) Yes, that's certainly a dimension of my compositional approach.
(SD) Your scores for these pieces are wonderfully crafted with bags of character - I would highly recommend for anyone interested to check them out. I’m interested in the tension between the encouragement of this creative agency that you mention, and the intricacy of detail that you apply to sometimes strict notations / technical instructions that usually require a new music speciality, and that REALLY keep players on their toes! What is it that influences you to take this approach, rather than, say, a more open approach?
(NW) Wow, thank you! I think you're right to point out that tension. To me, that tension generates a real intensity in performance. The little flute piece in one breath I wrote for Kathryn Williams ('Thread', 2017) has exactly this kind of idea. The performer quite freely navigates maze notation with their fingers, but at the same time must adhere rigidly to a click track that instructs them how to use their breath/articulation. It's definitely about intensity and focus, and often a special kind of virtuosity because I'm lucky enough to work with such inspiring musicians.
I think one of the things that stops me from taking a completely open approach is that the sounds themselves - their timbral qualities and detailing - are so important to me and central to my work.
(SD) To me it seems that the tension surely creates a tension in performance, one whereby the performer is so busy adhering to the notational and technical intricacies that the freedom of the moment-to-moment decision making becomes a really interesting disturbance which could cause some confusion/disorientation. Is this something you've found when working with performers? And also, on the timbral application, how much of this is explored alone / with players?
(NW) Well in a number of recent pieces I'm deliberately trying to create
this sense of disorientation. I've been quite preoccupied with this idea in
my series of pieces drawing on thinking around mazes and labyrinths.
Normally in music, being lost is an undesirable state for a performer, and
means they're doing something 'wrong'. But if you turn this on its head,
and encourage that sense of disorientation, I'm interested in the creative
outcomes. In 'House of Mazes' this was a key area of exploration. For
example, in the second maze performers have to visualise a 3D space and
the flute player has to try to 'find' the cello player. In this piece, the idea of
lostness is very much with the performers, whereas in 'TOMB', I try to give
the audience an insight into this lost experience in the way that I combine
video, maze-like scoring, and fixed media electronics cued in real-time.
In terms of developing timbral ideas, I do really like to work closely with
performers. For the piece you've commissioned - 'overcast' - I've spent time
working with Gary Farr on the trumpet material, and this collaboration has
impacted greatly on the music I've written.
(SD) I really love the idea of one player trying to 'find' another, and in the case of the flute and 'cello in 'House of Mazes' what interests me is the switch from the isolation and individualism of the navigations to a moment whereby the flutist has this ordeal of trying to continue such a navigation but listen carefully to the activity of a 'master' of sorts (the 'cello) that they're being strung along by. There all of a sudden becomes a very apparent connection between players.
(NW) Yes, and for me this is a new sort of connection in a chamber music context.
"Normally in music, being lost is an undesirable state for a performer, and means they're doing something 'wrong'.
But if you turn this on its head, and encourage that sense of disorientation, I'm interested in the creative outcomes."
(SD) The piece that ultimately prompted us to approach you for this project was ‘TOMB’, for alto flute, electronics and video, which you mentioned earlier and was recently premiered by Gavin Osborn and yourself at the Martin Harris Centre in Manchester. I was totally absorbed by this immersive, mesmeric journey through a beautiful mysterious location, and it totally struck a chord with our focus on location for this project. What can you tell us about this piece, in particular about the relationship between performers and location and the translation to an audience?
(NW) Thank you! Well, like I said earlier, one of my main aims was to draw the audience inside the sense of lostness in the performance. I have a friend who is a keen explorer of disused mines, and have been looking at his photographs of these locations in absolute awe. This, combined with my pre-existing interest in underground mazes (e.g. explored in the collaborative multimedia piece with Gavin Osborn and Trio Atem, 'Chthonic Mazes') led me to try and seek a location where I could - safely - film shots for TOMB. The Derbyshire Caving Club kindly gave me access to a disused mine in Alderley Edge, where we filmed in a series of locations in a labyrinthine network of caves and
tunnels. Without our expert guides, it would have been really easy to find ourselves lost in the dark in this place! I think that comes across in the final films, which have been edited to look a little like they are artefacts found some years later. In the piece itself, the performer is using the film as score, responding to specific changes in light, and must almost imagine themselves to be in this lost location. I hope that audiences sense this, and are able to share that experience because of the visual element, and the way that visuals and sound interact and combine.
(SD) Sounds like a fascinating place, and the intention really did come across in performance. I began to wonder how it would feel taking this audience invitation onto another level and projecting across the entire space, and maybe even the potential for VR. Anyway... I feel like the underground elementprovides an extra sense of panic related to the fear of the unknown - I don't know whether or not that's something you considered?
(NW) Definitely! And there's a direct link here with Danielewski's novel 'House of Leaves', which really inspired a lot of my thinking. Without giving too much away, there's an underground exploration in that book that is terrifying, riveting, and implausible yet believable. It's the idea of being trapped, constrained, restricted...that compounds the issue of being lost when underground.
SD: Nice! I'll make sure to check it out soon.
With ‘overcast’, we’ve asked you to create a site-specific piece that creates the illusion/feeling of a contrasting location within the actual location. We’re super excited to get stuck in - what has been your process and what should audience members expect?
(NW) Well I found this concept really challenging to begin with. The idea of somehow evoking a large space when situated in a confined one, is somehow more problematic than the reverse! When I started work on the piece, I was continuing to research different types of mazes, and came across these Scandinavian Troy towns. These are a type of maze that in this part of the world is laid out in stone, and there aren't walls, but shallow markings of paths. There is a folkloric element too - that the fishermen lead the evil sea spirits into the Troy towns, and then run out, leaving them 'trapped'. But it's a rather conceptual idea of being trapped in a (technically) open space. So this was my starting point, and the end point very much has a ritualistic quality to it. The title 'overcast' implies an outdoor location, but also a sense of confinement in a large open space. For the performance, the members of the Vonnegut Collective are asked to memorise their music, and much of the music involves them elaborating on and extending very carefully crafted material. The visual dimension is considered, too, through lighting, and other areas (without giving away too much!). And the word 'overcast' has really influenced the sorts of sounds that the audience will hear. I've been quite experimental with mutes and very specific timbral qualities!
(SD) This sounds like an amazing concept for a piece, and I'm really glad that the challenge has encouraged a new dimension to your exploration of mazes. I notice that you're taking some really interesting DIY approaches to visuals - what can you tell us about that?
(NW) Aha, yes the visuals are VERY DIY. I thought about using film, and experimented with some projected images of water, but it wasn't quite right, and let far too much light into the space. I'm also generally keen on a hands-on approach to this kind of thing where possible. It's an element of my practice that I'd really like to develop, and that I had a great time exploring on the 'Time-trace-place' residency in St. Ives last summer. I don't want to say too much about what exactly will happen in the performance of 'overcast', but I've been working with Giles Bastow on creating lighting that evokes water and overcast skies. Interestingly 'overcast' is a mining term, referring to passages that cross without an intersection!
(SD) Nice - I'm sure it'll look incredible and hopefully create a really memorable experience for those who attend.
To wrap up, I'd just like to say thanks for your time and we'll see you soon. Once again, I can't wait 'til we get stuck into this piece and the series in general.
(NW) Well thank you so much again for inviting me to work with you and the Vonnegut Collective. I'm really excited to see and hear how the composition evolves in rehearsal and performance!
Nina Whiteman's 'overcast' will be premiered by the Vonnegut Collective on the 9th June, upstairs at TAKK (HATCH MCR, Oxford Road). Tickets available IN ADVANCE ONLY at: www.ticketsource.co.uk/kinetic-manchester.
For more information on Nina, visit her website.