Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Music and Sound

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posted on 2021-12-08, 16:53 authored by Johnson, Hermione

My practice as a composer has many influences but amongst the most important are the ideas generated through the spontaneity and immediacy of improvisation. Throughout the discussed works there is an underlying project of negotiating a relationship between composition and improvisation that allows for the shaping of musical forms which are flexible in their interpretation and performance without being structurally undermined by the formal limitations of “real-time composition”. Across the five works that make up my submission I have explored a spectrum of composition ranging from formalism to free improvisation. While making connections between the differing methodologies and delineating a pattern of musical form there is an overall pre-occupation with constructing a language of music as ‘sound matter’. The compositions presented are a response to this idea and find form through timbral distinctions and contrasting gestures that in their various aspects can communicate things over and above the immediate perception of sound matter as “noise”. The three compositional works that have been configured to include an aspect of such improvisation are Body and Soul, 5 Violas and Mirrors. In these pieces it is expected that the musicians have a capacity to respond to the moment of musical utterance singularly (as in Body and Soul) or as a group to interact with what is happening between the musicians in the present, rather than being strictly tied to a prescriptive score. The writing thus has a ‘looseness’ that places an emphasis on the ability of performers to interpret shapes and contours from graphic notation and directions, and demands that they listen closely to each other. Autonomy is passed to the player through the use of cueing whereby musicians must listen for signals given by the other players, and are dependent on this, in order for the piece to unfold successfully. The music is in the relationship between the musicians, or musicians and the score equally, with a focus very much on listening, listening to each other and to the sound that is produced between the players and in the moment. In this sense the strength of the music lies in the spontaneity of the musicians’ interpretation as much as in the outline of what I as the composer have detailed. The pieces are formed as a project shared between the performers and the composer as a type of co-production. This is a re-configuring of the traditional relationships between performer and composer that stereotypically divides the roles between servant and master, into a more equal type of approach. All of the works presented are sound-based, and concentrate on shifting elements of timbre, dynamics (soft and loud), spectrum and density that evolve through the interplay of their opposed dimensions. In creating form in these works it is interesting to observe the structures that translate from conventional music into sound-based music, which seems to me most apparent in the dramatic interplay of ideas: a sense of dialogue and contrast between distinct materials. You can always hear ‘voices’ or ‘characters’, that is distinct sonic cells or materials as equivalents to themes or motifs, that are identified and followed as they unfold in various ways. It is the unfolding of these voices that underpins my music, whether it is improvised or notated. The formalist work Parabola stands apart from the rest of the works in that it is a completely objective creation of structure through the mathematical calculations of a computer, devoid of any humanly determined expressive gesture and moulded from arbitrarily selected notes on the organ. In chapter 3 of my exegesis I have compared this work to my practice as an improviser. There is however an interesting correlation between both in the approach to form as a plastic block of sound. These two works can be regarded in terms of their structural dialectic as sharing close similarities. The parameters of each work produce a multiplicity of sound events and sonic cells that evolve as complex noisy structures, swarming sound fragments that are moulded into an overarching frame. The starting point for all of these works is an interest in sound potential to reflect the underlying fabric of the ‘world’ and how it can connect us to it through music. Starting with the smallest sounds, the peripheral aspects of conventional timbres, I have developed an understanding of musical shape that is structured around the physical properties of sound – the beauty of sound – that can be connected to in a direct and simple way. It is the exploration of things (sounds) ‘as they are’, the perception of sound as belonging to and being of the world, and in this forming a multiplicity of meaning, that informs my practice. In this mode of understanding, sound has a‘neutrality’ that can be moulded to express ideas and to communicate new ways of seeing and thinking. This approach is similar to Annea Lockwood:  For me, every sound has its own minute form – is composed of small flashing rhythms, shifting tones,  has momentum, comes, vanishes, lives out its own structure. Since we are used to hearing sounds  together, either juxtaposed or compared, one sound alone seems quite simple; but so are the round  scuffed stones lying about everywhere, until you crack one apart and all its intricate beauty takes you  by surprise. Beyond this, my practice is also defined by what might be called a deconstructive approach to composition. This is subject to continuing debate though much less so than during the heyday of post-structuralism, but I understand it in a sense very similar to that given by Terry Eagleton (1983):  ‘Deconstruction’ is the name given to the critical operation by which [binary] oppositions  [such as music/noise, performer/composer] can be partly undermined or by which they can be shown  to partly undermine each other… The tactic of deconstructive criticism… is to show how texts   [any system of meaning is defined as a text] come to embarrass their own ruling systems of logic. It is through a deconstructive approach that I am to create new musical experiences. By undermining what are typically understood to be stable systems, such as the performer/instrument relationship or binary, the elements in such systems can be ‘denatured’ or ‘de-familiarised’ thus intensifying and revitalising our experience of them. The chapters that follow include an analysis of each work and discussion around conceptual intent. Beginning with Mirrors, chapter 1 looks at the nature of sound in relation to space, and the de-centering of the listening perspective. Chapter 2 examines Body and Soul and 5 Violas, drawing comparisons between the two in the de-construction of conventional modes within Western art music practice.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Musical Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

4 Experimental Development

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Composition – Score



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


McKinnon, Dugal; Norris, Michael