Intraversing – An Autobiography of the Bassoon

Now that the deed is done, and there's no chance of me going back on my own words, I feel it's time to write a little something about the piece I've composed for Phase I of LSO Soundhub...

Despite being an instrument rich in harmonic curiosities, one capable of some incredible, unearthly noises, the bassoon remains a surprisingly enigmatic voice, an underdog within the modern canon. Over the past four months my time has been spent digging deep in an attempt to tap into the very heart of these sounds, in order to try and shed new light on the face of the instrument.

Intraversing is an eighteen minute, through-composed piece for three bassoons. Essentially, the music is an exploration of the sonic identity of the bassoon itself, and as such, all material is derived from the instrument. In this way, the piece can be seen as a sort of inward glance, an autobiographical study of the bassoon, one undertaken and recounted by itself. It is this gesture of the instrument turning within, rather than having an abstract, alien musical idea superimposed upon it, which seemed most integral to me, and thus became my point of departure.

In order to tear open the seams of the instrument and see what lay inside, I used a super-cool programme called AudioSculpt, which allows you to input a recording of, say, a bassoon playing a foghorn-of-death-like multiphonic, and break it down into its constituents (see the spectrograph below). Once this blueprint of the instrument's voice has been exposed, you can then take the data away and use it in some musical manner, like you might use a familiar scale or rhythm. So, using analyses of both straight-up notes and multiphonics (alongside other nuanced, surface noises and a whole host of other techniques which help to destabilise the traditional sound of the instrument), I gradually built a palette of sounds which could be used to create a sort of musical terrain, navigated and explored by the three voices.

Following along these lines, the shape of the work as a whole is loosely modelled on the arc-like events within a single note, from the instance of exhalation, the surface noises of the keys, the gradual excitation of the reed, the broadening and strengthening of the spectral range (with a bias for certain partials over others), which is then refined back down to a single, lingering partial, before fading away completely.

Whilst this forms the shell of the work, another key factor is at play. Twenty spectra derived from analyses of the recordings I'd made are allowed to unfold, one after another, over the course of the eighteen minutes. The first spectrum (taken from the lowest note of the instrument) is extended over a very restrained ten minutes. From this point forth, the music opens up dynamically, and begins to accelerate through the much more inharmonic spectra of multiphonics, working its way back inescapably to the familiar harmonicity of the introduction.

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Composing with such materials, it bears pointing out that this undertaking would have been almost impossible for me without the extended contact time I enjoyed with the players of the LSO. We met on numerous occasions to workshop all manner of ideas, allowing much of this to fall by the wayside, whilst carefully selecting the right ones to form the fabric of the final piece. It is this thorough method (along with advice from the formidable James Weeks, to whom the work is dedicated) which allowed the music to be sculpted gradually under the expert guidance of those who were to perform it. And in a time when the opportunity for revision generally takes place little earlier than the day of the concert, I can attest to the fact that this is a great liberty indeed!



Intraversing was premiered by Dan Jemison, Joost Bosdijk and Dominic Tyler, under the baton of Darren Bloom, at LSO St Luke's, Old Street, at the LSO Soundhub Showcase on 19 June 2016.