Karate and composition: Soundhub composer Ben Gaunt on the creative process

Composer Ben Gaunt is in Phase I of the LSO Soundhub scheme. In this blog he describes the very start of the composition process and the influences that are guiding him along the way.

In karate (and other traditional Japanese martial arts), kata is a choreographed sequence of moves used to develop technique, strength, and speed. In essence, they are a kinetic database of punches, blocks, kicks, and throws; regularly practising kata will help you deal with real-life violent situations.

I have studied karate for about eight years, under Sensei Simon Keegan, and while I have never been particularly great at kata I do find them fascinating. Their intriguing names, translations and mistranslations imbue them with a sense of mystery. The sequence of moves, unique to each kata, possess a rhythm that I find appealing. In fact, they really are quite musical – flurries of activity, followed by cadential moments of repose; tiny, intricate movements followed by sweeping kicks or explosive leaps accompanied by guttural shouts.

Ben Gaunt and Simon Keegan   Ben Gaunt and Simon Keegan 

Simon Keegan (left) demonstrates moves to Ben Gaunt (right) while he takes notes. 

In competitions, martial artists will perform kata, often accompanied by non-live music. The chosen music tends to be bland, unadventurous, and does not resemble or reflect the meaning or movements of the kata. Consequently, the martial artist has to accept that the kata and music will not synchronise (which is, in my opinion, an unacceptable outcome – why have music at all?) or the martial artist has to change and adapt the kata to fit the music (which is, in my opinion, even more unacceptable!). As part of my LSO Soundhub residency I intend to address this by producing a work that synergises and synchronises music and karate. Neither the music nor the kata will be compromised; they will harmoniously coexist and interact.

In early November, Simon and I met to discuss the project. What kata would he perform? How would I ensure the music relates to the kata? What am I hoping to achieve by setting kata to music? How traditional should the performance of each kata be? Should Simon bow before each kata, as is customary?

I don’t yet know the answers to most of these questions. But what I do know is:

  • Simon will act as a conductor – his kicks, punches, leaps and shouts will act as visual cues to the musicians
  • I will attempt to write music that reflects the internal feeling one gets when performing each kata
  • I will attempt to write music that reflects the title, meaning, and history of each kata 
  • I will ask Simon to improvise a new kata in the showcase in June

This is going to be fun!

The Soundhub composers will be showcasing their work at two events at LSO St Luke's in the coming months:

> Sat 30 Jan 2016: Phase II composers Daniel Kidane and Na'ama Zisser
> Sun 19 Jun 2016: Phase I composers Yasmeen Ahmed, Ben Gaunt, Oliver Leith and Lee Westwood


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