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A musical collaboration for World Oceans Day

I’ve just completed a short collaborative piece with Music Programme Leader Carla Rees in celebration of World Oceans Day, which occurs every year on June 8. Across the world there are close to 3000 events in 150 countries designed to celebrate and focus our attention onto the value of the world’s oceans and what we can do to conserve and protect them and allow them to flourish.

With a particular interest in octopuses and sea mammals I have produced short pieces to celebrate the event since 2018, until now involving video as well as musical instruments and electronically produced music and effects. 

I wanted to do something different this time round and while I was mulling over the possibilities I came to the realisation that one of my personal compositional highlights of the year was a piece, Crossing, I wrote for the Polaris Duo of saxophone and harp and electronics, which I later developed into a 35 minute work for 4 harps, saxophone, percussion, 3 vocalists and improvised electronics, Crossing 2, performed at the New Music Manchester festival in November 2019. 

In both compositions I made space for extensive creative input by the performers through the use of graphic scores and electronic ‘backing’ parts, while also including much fully composed music. The overall musical result at the premiere was exactly what I was looking for but what also grabbed me was the thrill I got when I heard what the performers were creating themselves, using my visual and electronic material as a foundation to base their own creativity on. 

So it was with this in mind that I dropped Carla a line at the beginning of June asking if she would be interested in joining me in making a short piece for June 8 along the lines of my Crossing experience, though pushing the approach a bit further to test the possibilities and see new results. Knowing Carla’s specialism in playing low sounding flutes, I was curious to discover what it was like to work with the contrabass flute, as amazing to see as it is to hear, and the choice was quickly agreed.

There is a lot of collaboration-at-a-distance happening at the moment due to the effects of Covid-19 with many different approaches to solving the need for group music making but from dispersed locations.  We adopted a simple, three-layered process to produce the track. This involved my sending Carla by email an audio file with a base layer of electronic music, then Carla sent me back her recordings of contrabass improvisations to that layer, and finally I added a third layer of electronic sounds and effects built on the first two layers. 

What I really appreciate about working with other creative musicians is that things never go to plan, and while we started out thinking one improvisation would constitute the entire second layer we actually used four different improvisation takes that Carla made, one in its entirety and various sections from the other three. 

Carla says “I made four different versions because there was so much potential in the material Gavin had sent me. I didn’t comment on them in any way, but gave him the choice of which to use, and the option of combining elements from all four. What he doesn’t know is that the complete version he chose to use was my favourite one, and the elements he picked out from each one were the elements that I would also have chosen to combine. This was our first creative collaboration, so it was amazing to hear Gavin’s final version coming out exactly as I had imagined it! The project also showed me how a very short piece of music can have a strong atmospheric impact; it’s only just over a minute long but the piece manages to create its own identity.”

Overall my aim was to evoke the immensity and expansiveness of the ocean while highlighting the use of sound, some might say song, by sea mammals in communicating across those vast distances. 

Thus, within a week, Whale Song, an homage to our oceans and the creatures that dwell in them came into being. For me, I hope the piece has aesthetic appeal in the way it sounds, but it was also a useful small-scale test of the layering process – responding to another musician’s music as in a live, in-the-room, improvisation but at a glacial pace. Future experiments may not stop at three layers…

You can hear Whale Song by clicking here

To find out more about World Oceans Day, and to get involved, click here.

Photo credits:

Carla with contrabass flute: Carla Rees

Whale Spotting, Kaikoura: Iswanto Arif on Unsplash

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Posted by author: Gavin Wayte
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3 thoughts on “A musical collaboration for World Oceans Day

  • A fascinating collaboration and gorgeous textures. I love the way the whale song is foregrounded against the deep wash of sound – there seems to be far more than three layers involved here. And a new take on what the contrabass flute can do. I wouldn’t have recognised it without the description of the piece in the text! So good to hear exciting new collaborations under lockdown.

  • Just not long enough. I could have listened to a lot more of that. Very evocative of the ocean and the sounds of the animals communicating, giving a sense not only of the vastness of the ocean but the mystery of the lives of the creatures that inhabit it. A lesson in what could be achieved with a composition based on a field recording. I say could rather than can because I don’t know if this was based on a specific recording. It seemed an archetypal depiction of the ocean. I think the use of an acoustic instrument for the whale sounds gave it even more immediacy and a sense of reality. I know deep flutes can be a little quiet but the studio balancing of the sound brought out the inherent power of the sound of the contrabass.

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