Towards weird realism in music : an investigation into composing with improvisation and found objects

Johnson, D. M. (2016) Towards weird realism in music : an investigation into composing with improvisation and found objects. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This dissertation considers the implications of using recordings of free improvisations on world music instruments and other instruments as source material for fixed media musical compositions. Generating material in this way demanded the formulation of new working methods which inevitably impacted on the character and style of the work produced. A methodology was evolved based on aspects of the performance practice of free-jazz improvisation. The individual style of free-jazz improvisation was a major part of the syntax of the created music. This further enabled novelty in that an improvised based -style replaces the conventional Western reliance on notation and its associated compositional techniques. Rather, sound is generated spontaneously and guided only by aural monitoring of it. A fascination with the sounds of world instruments led to an exploration of the sounds of those instruments in new contexts. Instruments, both world and western classical, became treated as found objects or utilised in ‘studies in ignorance’ in the manner of Sun Ra.1 The improvised material was then manipulated using computer software and structured into fixed-media works. Gesture, texture and timbre dominate these structures rather than preconceived themes or harmonic schemes. Most of the music presented with the thesis is text based or inspired by text; this provides further structural underpinning. I wished to explore the relationship between the Weird Realist aesthetic as posited by Graham Harman in the works of H.P. Lovecraft and an analogous musical response. The separation of quality from object in Lovecraft chimed with experiences of sensory distortion when under shamanic trance and this resulted in Shamanic Incantation No. 5, the only non-text based work. A fascination with fantasy in general led to the composition of an opera in Klingon in which the text and music combine to present a series of tableaux that hint at aspects of sacred violence and the breakdown of shared values in times of war. As if to underline this point, Grodek No.4 presents a collage of disturbing materials drawn from stride jazz piano, free improvisation and expressionist sprechgesang; all of which combine in a new context to illuminate Georg Trakl’s poem on the horrors of violence. As a result of these compositional procedures a cogent sound world using improvisation and electronics was created. The influence of Weird Realism and the use of world instruments stimulated ideas about how musical material can be distorted and re-contextualised. The combination of improvisatory and ‘composed’ elements was fruitful and shows a way of working with two different types of intuition, one in real time, the other not. This suggests possibilities for further exploring the combining of different experiential modes in creative work. 1 A key recording in this respect is Sun Ra, Strange Strings, El Saturn 502, 1966, explored later in the thesis.

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