top of page

Musical Ruins: a practice-based approach to explore ruin as an aspect of musical borrowing

Doctoral thesis (PhD)

I have always been fascinated by architectural ruins. Ruin depiction and aesthetics are commonly explored within various disciplines, including archaeology, literary theory and the visual arts. When I first encountered the music of Helmut Lachenmann, whose oeuvre was compared by my then teacher to visiting the ruins of musical history, I was excited by the prospect of marrying these two disparate interests. By using this multidisciplinary perspective, I look to contextualise my own compositional practice of musical quotation. In this portfolio of original compositions, I create ‘musical ruins’ that might establish a listener experience analogous to visiting an architectural ruin. I here define musical ruins as degenerated musical borrowing. Specifically, for the focus of this project, I ruin historical art music. The accompanying commentary seeks to shed light on my creative processes, to provide critical reflections on my practice and situate it within the two conceptual frameworks of ruin and materiality. Each chapter probes a thematic strand within the portfolio, using the compositions presented as examples and case studies. It should be noted that this research is directed primarily at discourses in contemporary music and composition, rather than the rich body of ruin scholarship it draws upon for metaphorical stimulation and reflection.

Relating ruin experience with the creative process in Radcliffe Tower: Redirected Reflections

In June 2018, I was commissioned by the Royal Northern College of Music New Ensemble to write a six-minute composition for large chamber ensemble as part of the ‘In Focus: Kaija Saariaho’ festival. Until this point, my creative practice had involved me attempting to write music that is a ruin - a problematic metaphor, though a stimulating springboard for other compositional exploration. With this new commission, however, I wanted to explore phenomenological affinities between the act of composition and my own experience of ruined buildings and spaces easily identifiable as ‘ruined’. How might my engagement with a heritage site inform the creative process?  Furthermore, how might I relay this to a hypothetical listener so they might empathise with my experience? In this chapter, I will outline the creative process undertaken in the resulting work, Radcliffe Tower: redirected reflections, as well as the relevant creative and contextual thinking that informed and emerged from the creative process.

The Human Still Lives? Technology, Borrowing and Agency in the Music of Nicolas Collins

This paper considers aspects of late 20th century experimental music in a post-digital era, where DIY approaches of hacking now outdated digital technology have enabled new forms of artistic expression – namely, glitch and aesthetics of failure. More specifically, it will examine American composer Nicolas Collins’ approach to hacking portable CD players as a means to imitate sound production methods of turntable artists from the 1980s, in such works as Still Lives (1992). The paper will then explore Collins’ attempt to orchestrate this work for acoustic instruments using open musical notation in Still (After) Lives (1997). This discussion is viewed through the lens of musical borrowing, tracing Collins’ material – a canzone by Giuseppe Guami – through its varying mediums and guises, highlighting the limitations of technology and notation as a means to rearticulate a musical fragment and the fruitful artistic avenues this opens. Through the examination of a musical material, the paper goes on to scrutinize the entanglement between human, material and machine agents. I propose that understandings of such practices might be extended from the post-digital to the post-human: a collaborative network of agentic ‘things’.

Interpreting Telemann: restoration and reconstruction

June 2017 marked the 250th anniversary of Georg Philipp Telemann’s death. In its aftermath we look at a variety of recordings of his oeuvre, with a focus on chamber music. In particular, Telemann’s varied fantasias, a genre whose origins lie in the impromptu fancy of the improviser or the airy dreams of the composer, provide an opportunity to differentiate methods of interpreting historical music. We encounter the pursuit of authenticity through historically informed performance as well as artistic practice that makes an equally valuable contribution to the repertory, or what I distinguish as restoration and reconstruction respectively.

Hearing the Ruin: Ownership through Sound

A short reflection piece on ruins, sounds and ownership, alongside some excellent writing from others in the Clusters and Entanglements group.

Ruin Renewal: Manchester's Upper Brook Chapel 

This essay offers a reflection on the development of the Upper Brook Chapel, Manchester. Taking Robert Smithson's concept of 'ruins in reverse' as a starting point, the essay attempts to articulate how the processes of ruin restoration can lead to an aesthetic that is more ruinous. The essay draws upon existing architecture and natural formations for comparison, before reflecting upon the social implications that arise from such redevelopment projects.

Helmut Lachenmann's Salut Für Caudwell: an analysis

This analysis of Helmut Lachenmann's Salut für Caudwell (1977) for guitar duet is intended to add to the small amount of English literature that directly examines Lachenmann's music. A description of Salut's construction is offered, decrypting the extended techniques employed and outlining the work's formal design. The concept of ‘musical ruins’, namely degenerative yet familiar material, is deployed as a means to discuss specific moments of the music, and it will be demonstrated that moments of ‘musical ruin’ are inherently linked to aspects of instrumental technique as well as the musical form, making them critical to the reception of Salut. Other analyses of Lachenmann's work are used as methodological models and comparisons, providing a framework within which to examine unfamiliar musical territory, and placing Salut within the repertory of Lachenmann's more thoroughly documented music.

bottom of page