Percussion Studies (LINE, 2021)

I’m thrilled to announce my new album Percussion Studies will be released in August 2021 by LINE, Richard Chartier’s inimitable label. It is available to pre-order now.

From the label:

Percussion Studies by composer Oliver Thurley presents a series of experiments that form delicate sheets of vibrant sound from orchestral percussion instruments. 

In ‘subcutaneous’, homogenous panels of sound are isolated moments suspended in negative spaces. Here, the noises of the listening environment bleed back in. 

‘sanguine’ gradually transmutes one resonant body (bass drum) into another (cymbal) through a convolution process that forms fragile entropic harmonies. 

Percussion Studies is the push and pull of hovering minimalist textures and reflections of emptiness. A barely-there energy is exuded from these pieces, like a phantom touch on skin. 

For ears that appreciate a space between the spectral clouds of Thomas Köner and mysterious sound worlds of Toshiya Tsunoda and Steve Roden.

texture of a cymbal, close-up photo

the heart is a knot

Late last year I had the pleasure of being commissioned by the Riot Ensemble to write a short solo for Marianne Schofield as part of the wonderful Zeitgeist platform. Given the pandemic, the piece was recorded (wonderfully) at Kings Place in London in lieu of a live audience performance. I’m delighted to share the video here.

More information, including the score, can be found here.

Score Scanning: my digital workflow for PDF editing with GIMP

A topic that’s probably of limited use for most people, and limited interest for even fewer: how I batch-process scans of my scores for digital editing.

I write all my scores by hand. Always have. I wish I could wax lyrical about Craft, or Thinking Through One’s Own Hand… but it’s a bit of a pain in the arse and, honestly, it just happens to work for the way I think and my process. I don’t think there’s anything special about handwriting over digital, it just happens to work for me.

The workflow has been the same for years: sketch in notebooks; mock-up frameworks and structures; write the draft; rewrite the draft; ink it; scan it; digital post-processing to clean up, make tweaks and, ultimately, send it off the PDF. While it might not be the sexiest bit of the workflow, dealing with pages of scans, and cleaning them up always feels the most time-consuming. So I have some automated tricks as a workaround.

Okay, this post is really just for me to record my workflow. For some reason I keep losing the .txt file on my computer that reminds me of the command-line arguments.  I’ve recently made the move away from using Photoshop with macros. I’m now using GIMP, and I’ve got a simple little set of Python plug-ins to help automate the process. Here’s the plan (files on GitHub):

  1. Scan the score (a single, multi-page, PDF file).
  2. Split the PDF into individual PNG files (pages)
    • This is easiest in the command-line using ImageMagick and Ghostscript:
    • convert -density 300 input-file.pdf %02d-output-page.png
      • you could add an ‘-auto-level‘ call in between the input and output files to have ImageMagick handle the level balance.
      • in the past, I’ve also had a lot of luck with the pdftk server
  3. Automatically balance levels of the PNG, prepare it for editing (XCF file).
  4. I do my editing/clean-up in GIMP.
  5. Flatten the XCF files down to PDFs.
  6. Merge the individual PDF pages back into a single PDF document.
    • This is easy: if I’m on a Mac, Preview can do it. Otherwise, Ghostscript:
    • gs -dBATCH -dNOPAUSE -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dAutoRotatePages=/None -dAutoFilterColorImages=false -dAutoFilterGrayImages=false -dColorImageFilter=/FlateEncode -dGrayImageFilter=/FlateEncode -dDownsampleMonoImages=false -dDownsampleGrayImages=false -sOutputFile=finalEditedPages-Merged.pdf *.pdf
  7. Done.

Pretty riveting stuff. This is always the point in the process where I swear that I’ll learn Sibelius or Finale for the next piece…


Interloper: Menschenstoff Quartet, Ultima Festival, 2019

Menschenstoff quartet – Interloper (2019) at Ultima festival, Oslo.

I’ve just returned from Ultima festival in Oslo, Norway, for the premiere of a new collaborative work, Interloper, with Swiss improv quartet, Menschenstoff (Hyazintha Andrej – cello; Rahel Schweizer – harp; Florian Kolb – drums; Joan Jordi Oliver – live electronics).

The collaboration was interesting and a new and somewhat unusual process for me. Given Menschenstoff’s makeup as improvisers, it didn’t make sense to take the more traditional route of workshopping ideas and then to fix that in a score or rigid form — ‘composer writes music for performers’ — to do so would only undermine their agency as improvisers in a piece that we wanted to share.*

In April I spent a week in Zurich with the group, workshopping, talking and listening with them. We came out of that period with was a pool of fragments, processes and ideas. These weren’t fixed ‘sections’ so much as a set of approaches that they, as improvisers, might draw upon in the performance. In reality, there were some fragments that stayed relatively cohesive, and invariably became thought of as structural landmarks in the piece. As such, the fluidity of drawing from that pool of ideas may not have remained as free as initially planned. I recall that improv groups like AMM and The Necks instigate ‘no discussion’ policies after performances or rehearsals, so perhaps we talked about too much…

The performance itself was fantastic and the musicians were utterly brilliant. While we may not have solved that idea of improvised structure entirely (baggage I’m likely bringing from being ‘the composer’ in the room), I think our solution worked out well for such an unfamiliar approach.  

My thanks to Menschenstoff for bringing me into this project, and to Ultima festival and the Ulysses network for making it happen.

* Not that there’s anything wrong with that method of improvisation, of course. Richard Barrett’s codex pieces do a great job of structuring and guiding improvisation while still allowing that agency… it’s just still structured by Barrett. It’s a Barrett piece). For a great encounter with these pieces, see: Reardon-Smith, H. (2017). ‘Codex: Embodied communication in Richard Barrett’s scores for improvisation’. Directions of New Music

Just Tuning In

Some resources for microtonality, just intonation, xenharmonic systems, being out of tune, and other tunings.

I’ve been thinking about microtonality and alternate tuning systems a bit recently. It’s not really my area of expertise but I’ve got a sense that an upcoming composition will need some understanding of Just Intonation. While I’ve read some Partch and Tenney in the past, and some Ben Johnston last year, I can’t say that I really understand it… or rather, I’m not sure I have a feeling for it as much as I’d like to. I need to re-read some things, certainly, but I wonder what I’ve missed in the past, or maybe I’ve been starting from the wrong point…

Given that I’m teaching a bit these days, I started thinking more about how I’d want to learn about microtonality if I were coming to it fresh… and what some of the useful resources might be useful for diving into this strange world of seemingly endless tuning systems. Now, I think listening is generally the route into an area like this, but I’m curious about how it’s explained and discussed, so I’m looking for books/readings/resources. I asked the hive lattice-mind:

I had a sense of some of the key touchstones (Helmholtz, Partch, Tenney) that would crop up, but then in the sprawling comment threads lots more interesting material started to turn up. I thought I might list them here to make it easier to find things. This is of course by no means a comprehensive list of where to start with microtonality, but, if you’re curious, it might give you a nudge to go and read some things:

Lawrence Dunn offers these:

(I’ve not had a chance to read through all of this yet, so recommendations are not necessarily endorsements.)

Thanks to everyone who got back to me with suggestions. (*deep breath* @frozenreeds, @DrPAlvarez, @wednesday_club, @moderncomp, @stephanmathieu, @l_a_dunn, @azzigotti, @swayzeroundhaus, @aaronhnahum, @chayaczernowin7, @rchrdbkrmuso, @michaelbegg, @fantasticdrfox, @mugloch, @heathen_specs, @larrygoves, @_anthonyvine_)

What did I miss? Obviously, this is a massive field of musical thinking, so there’s no reason to try and cover everything. But if there’s some really useful introductory resources, I’d love to know about them. If you have any more ideas of where to look, please send me a message or tweet at me and I’ll update this list. (You’ll note that these resources are white-male heavy… I’m also interested in hearing about writings from those outside this particular demographic if you know of any!)

Finally, I’ll leave the last word to my sage colleague, Scott Mc Laughlin: