I heard composer, director and performer Michael Picknett for the first time at the June 2013 conference on “Music and/as process”, in Huddersfield, where he presented “Who are we watching? Performing Devised Processes in Music”. Last month, he got his PhD in music composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, on the topic of “Devising Music. Applying Creative Approaches from Dance and Theatre to Music Composition”.
Devising is a term known from contemporary dance or theatre. But, as Michael has shown, the techniques and approaches can equally be applied to creating music. In its simplest form, devising refers to any collaborative creative practice that begins with the performers and is generated through their responses to tasks. Tasks can take the form of instructions, questions, rules or games. As the performers create the material, it can be shaped by the composer or director by refining the tasks or setting the materials to form a finished piece.
Michael’s dissertation is accompanied by three DVDs with audio-video materials (available here), deals with the history and terminology of ‘devising’, discusses five compositions of his, and ends with two appendices (an interview with collaborating musicians, and related compositional approaches, practices and works).
Focusing on finding ways of developing his devised music practice through an understanding and application of devising approaches found in theatre and dance, Michael has explored the practices of three strikingly different devising companies: the American theatre company The Wooster Group, the German dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, and the British theatre collective Forced Entertainment. These are representative of the diversity of work that can emerge from a devising process, which give some indication of the nature of the process Michael has been investigating within his own practice.
In Ne Pleure Pas, Alfred, a duet for two percussionists, Michael looks at transposing physical and semantic practices from devised theatre and dance onto composition, and how musical product differs from creative process. The solo piano The Carter Piece served to examine the enabling of “a sufficiently rich relationship between performer and project as to allow the piece to adapt to the context of a performance”, leading to the concepts of performers as score and projects that age and even expire. In Apologetics 1 for harp and bass clarinet, laboratory practice is explored, i.e. “work on ideas that were not necessarily going to be performed, but that informed our practice in both performance and creation”. This piece changed in between performances, contrary to Ne Pleure Pas, Alfred (no development between performances) and The Carter Piece (reacting to the environment in the moment of performance). Water Music – a piece “about breathing” for two performers – uses the performer’s autobiography and investigates the aesthetic of failure and non-acting. Finally, Apologetics 3, “a play for musicians”, focusses on the relationships between performer and material.
In a chapter on devising projects from the performer’s perspective, ideas of trust and ownership are discussed. The ‘related compositional practices’ are about scores with increased performer input, collaborative composition of solo repertoire (e.g. Berio’s Sequenza III for Cathy Berberian), composers with their own ensemble (e.g. Steve Reich), Scelsi’s Canti Del Capricorno and Kagel’s work with his Cologne Ensemble for new Music, and devising practices in the works of Heiner Goebbels and Meredith Monk.
As a performer, I have been appreciating Michael’s research for several reasons: applied to musical composition, the devising practice throws extra light on a host of aspects of the performer’s position in music making, from experimental performer-composer practices to the way ensembles such as the Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza established and refined modes of collective improvisation, and from theoretical notions of co-authorship and -creativity, openness of musical form, theatricalities, authenticity (e.g. Peter Kivy’s “personal authenticity”), etc., to attitudes towards cultural practices, such as the music sector’s near-obsession with documenting performances vs. the appreciation in theatre and dance of an ephemeral nature of producing and experiencing art. Even if I grew up, professionally speaking, with and in an industry that is built on prioritizing “the perfect statement of an objective pattern”, which goes against “the beauty of a human condition in performance”, I like the idea of the latter especially because it provides potential to artistic development – mine as well as that of audiences.
On another level, I enjoy thinking of Michael’s project as a fine example of AR in composition. As a concept and as a practice, compositional research is far from unproblematic, and I really wish to go into this in a separate post. Suffice it to state that I have still witnessed painfully few compositional PhD projects that I would comfortably qualify as AR. Many are artistic endeavors (however valid, aesthetically speaking) with an analytical or even just a descriptive appendix that fails to demonstrate an impact on compositional practice, others consist of theorizing about philosophical concepts that are related to but that reveal more about the power of the concepts than about the composition or the practice behind it. Michael’s dissertation is also very descriptive, but it shows the huge potential of applying a method that has proven to generate artistic merit in theatre and dance to composition, with results that create both artistic value and promise for further exploration by other artists and/or researchers.