I was asked by percussionist Joby Burgess to write music for his new Xylosynth, a sort of electronic sampling marimba.
Much of my music I think of as ‘abstract’-ish. Although I am interested in musics which explore narrative or extra-musical links, I have tended to shy away from actually doing it. I used to feel the inclusion of these aspects covered an inherent weakness in my intra-musical decision making, so I shouldn’t do it. But I thought I might be wrong. I thought it was high time I probed it further to see if I fell into the same traps.
Working with such an instrument as the xylosynth meant that I could in fact choose any sound at all and then attach it to a note on the instrument to be played like any other. This infinite plethora of possibilities was too much for me. I had to decide on a narrower category of sound source.
Often the human element of music making is less apparent in electronic music performance. I was keen to retain it and make it fundamental to the sound. So, in the end, I based the entire work on human speech. This was immediately going to be tricky for me as vocal sounds come with the legacy of daily communication and that extra ‘meaning’. So I thought I might as well use that aspect in as structured a way as I could. I chose text laden with meaning.
I used speeches from George Bush on Guantanamo and the Iraq war, alongside a Donald Rumsfeld speech from the enquiry into prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. I took individual syllables, chopped up, and assigned them to the bars of the xylosynth. At this point their original semantic context had been dislocated. Over the course of the piece I gradually rebuilt them back into words and then phrases, re-inserting some of their original meaning and of course in doing this layering new meaning on to these sounds.
I wanted to create a direct sort of piece that would work with the subject matter. I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that ‘music’, with all its potential for creativity, had recently been used as an instrument of torture by being constantly looped at high volume, 24 hours a day at Guantanamo.
This is a little video of Joby Burgess performing some of the piece in his studio.