Eye-Music: Inkwells

Composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian has been working hard on a new work for her residency at Khadambi's House, 575 Wandsworth Road, for a performance which will be streamed live on YouTube and Facebook on the 22 October. She explains her concept for the work, Inkwells, written in the fascinating 'eye-music' style and the process through which the work has come.

I’ve created some new pieces especially for the online concert coming up on the 22 October from 575 Wandsworth Road. I thought you might like to see this one first, as it’s a piece of eye-music.

What is eye-music? As far as I know, it dates back to the Renaissance, at least, and it features scores which also function as art by painting the words and/or structure of the piece with graphic illustration. Here’s an example of a love song by Baude Cordier, with the staves organised to form a heart.

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My new take on eye-music is to flip this relationship so that the physical structure of the staves dictates the form of the music. In this new piece, Inkwells, for soprano and tape, I’ve cut holes through the paper so that you can see notes from the staves below. This gives the notes a new relevance from one page to the next, and creates a reductive shape by the end.

It is a faff to create, so why do I do it? I ask myself this question at various stages of the eye-music process, especially when covered in ink and glue. In general, I love how it can give me restrictions to work within. Interacting with another art form encourages me to come up with creative solutions I may not have thought of otherwise. And with my residency at 575 Wandsworth Road, the stimulus is almost entirely visual, so eye-music seemed a fun way to directly respond to Khadambi’s carvings and paintings.

So here’s how Inkwells came about:

It started with an afternoon sitting in this room at 575 mesmerised by the way that the inkwells and glass glowed on the far table in the sunlight.
Here’s a photo of that very moment (note my empty manuscript paper…):

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I recorded the sounds of the objects on that table, and created a rhythmic piece for reel-to-reel, featuring the mbira from Khadambi’s study. I wrote the vocal line by using the mode from the mbira, and for lyrics I used 'A Poet', by Khadambi Asalache. It seemed the perfect match for the inkwells – so much so that I wrote my first draft of the piece with pen, rather than pencil, and ran out of ink on the last note… which, ironically, featured the word 'pen'.

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A Poet – Khadambi Asalache


The eye-music came in to action when I structured the piece around the wooden stools which are tucked under the table of inkwells. I cut their irregular seats as shapes on the first page of music to reveal notes beneath. I also used their wooden resonance as percussion in the tape backing.
Here’s my sketch book – I decided to refer to these scribbles I made on the day, rather than photos, to help trigger memories.

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I even experimented with a more illustrative form of eye music (as I mentioned its Renaissance origins earlier) when a rabbit I spotted on the wall in the bedroom hopped on to my music:

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By the time it made the final score, the rabbit had turned into a hare (longer ears) and was functioning as a performance direction to the singer to encourage her to ornament the notes. It felt appropriate trying illustration as a new stage for me, and it also mirrored how Khadambi’s work at 575 developed to include paintings later on.

And then there was the process of producing the hand-made score. I’ve shortened it for you. First – measuring and drawing the staves:

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Then cutting holes from the shapes of the wooden stools, and hoping they align so that music can be seen on the black paper below…

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Next, writing the rest of the music in ink (white ink on black card was a challenge… I’ll do better next time):

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Followed by adding the hares in pencil and ink, and illustrating the repeat bar with a pattern from the bedroom wall. I like how the hares glow against the black, it reminds me of another poem of Khadambi’s: 'The Cave Painter.'

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And the final step was binding the front cover, with the help of Claire’s invisible tape at the Barbican!

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You’ll be able to see it more clearly during the premiere on the 22 October, and you can send any questions about it to us online and we’ll answer you live on camera. That’s Saturday 22 October 6pm (BST), on the LSO YouTube channel and Facebook page, coming to a computer near you…!

P.S. If you’re a singer, this is a simple piece which you’re welcome to try (it also works down the octave if you’ve a lower voice, like me). The notes highlighted by the shapes cut into the staves encourage individual embellishment…