Alan Edward Williams

Composer/ cyfansoddwr

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Playing the Echo: a musical-acoustic collaboration

Every so often a project comes along which is so attractive that I want to drop everything to make it happen. Playing the Echo, part of the Manchester Science Festival, was one of these and proved to be an excellent example of what happens when science and the arts collaborate.
My colleague Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustics at the University of Salford, had been asked to give a talk in the Manchester Science Festival about the extraordinary acoustic of Manchester Central Library Reading Room. cwbmb4lweae-xb4-jpg-smallAs Trevor is also a musician (a rather fine saxophonist on the quiet) and we’d been talking about doing something together for a while, he asked me if I’d do something musical for the event.
I didn’t need asking twice. If you’ve ever been in the reading room, and in particular, if you ever went in before its recent renovation (2008-12), you’ll remember the surreal acoustic effects created by any audible movement such as (typically) a pencil dropping, a cough or a sneeze. As a schoolboy and later as a student I would sometimes some and use the library, nearly always in the old Henry Watson then tucked away on the third floor, but I would always find some excuse to go into the reading room, and unobtrusively drop something or cough extravagantly, just to hear the echo.
At that time, before acoustic treatment as part of the refurbishment, there were two really notable features – one was the extensive reverb, which Trevor tells me was formally around 3 seconds. The other, more obvious, was the repeated echo, most obvious at higher frequencies – which is why pencil dropping was so effective. A single source could be heard up to 5 or 6 times reflected off the hard surfaces of the dome.
After acoustic treatment, both the reverb and echo were dramatically reduced, leaving only a single noticeable slapback echo around a fifth of a second after the initial source.
My research student Adam Hart (whose AHRC project is actually digital music learning interfaces in schools, but who is kind enough to tolerate my many demands on him as an all round technologist) and I went in to the reading room before it opened – Trevor had already been in with his sax, and advised us that short, sharp sounds would be more effective in the acoustic. So I asked Gravity Percussion duo to play, and it turned out they had already played once before in the room, and were able to offer some advice on the acoustic as well.
Adam and I were equipped with two pairs of claves and recording equipment. We wandered around the room for a bit, playing with the acoustic and recording it, and noted that towards the centre of the room, the slap-back echo was very clear and focused, and that towards the edge of the room it became more diffuse. OK, we thought, that’ll do. I measured the echo, worked out what metronome mark I’d need to make the echo “slot in” to the gaps between notes: this turned out to be crotchet =139 – if a crotchet is played at that speed, the echo ‘plays’ quavers in between. I reckoned that as guitarists often use digital delay in this way (such as the Edge from U2), it shouldn’t present too many problems for the ensemble even if the echo was generated by the building. I also set the tempi so that sometimes the echo would slot in as a compound time quaver – in 12/8, at crotchet = 112, the echo is the second quaver in a dotted crotchet beat.
My other main thought in writing the piece was also architectural – the room is ringed by a colonnade of 28 pillars in 4 segments, separated by doorways, and atop them is a quotation from Proverbs: 4:8 ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.’ This gave me a title for the piece – Pillars of Wisdom.
The four entrances can be disorientating, and counting the pillars initially made me think of another ring of upright stones I’d written a piece “about” – Bryn Cader Faner,img_5895 near Talsarnau in Gwynedd. This bronze age circle is located at the junction of two ancient roadways linking important trade routes in North Wales. The two locations could hardly be more different – one on a bleak mountainside, one at the heart of a vibrant, modern city – but they are both collective expressions of the importance of culture, placed at significant junctions.
So I used the same procedures to write the piece as I did with the one about Bryn Cader Faner, Meini Hirion, which I wrote for my ensemble ACMG at Salford Univeristy. I also wanted to use the ‘keynote’ sound of the centre of Manchester –the D/A diad played by trams when they are in the city centre. As it happens, that was the keynote of Meini Hirion as well – pure co-incidence.
We knew that high frequencies weren’t as well reflected as lower frequencies in the reading room – or more accurately, the prominent high frequency reflections of the existing space had been most successfully damped by acoustic treatment. I wanted to show this in the piece, so I started it with 5 basic frequency bands moving from high to low – claves, high woodblock, low woodblock, bongos high and low. This opening passage is about establishing the tempo so that the echo slots neatly between the played strokes.
Then, in a fit of theatricality, one player walks to the perimeter of the room while the player in the middle plays a ‘holding pattern’. The perimeter player reads a series of notes which I’d blu-tacked to each pillar – and these notes are passed to the middle player, who plays chords derived from them on the marimba or vibraphone. While theses chords are being played, the perimeter player walks to the next pillar for the next chord. All 28 pillars have a separate chord, and these will work in any order.
It was important at all times that eye contact was possible between players because the acoustics of the hall made the normal listening difficult, so I initially placed the marimba and vibraphone opposite each other as close as possible to the central plinth-type thing that dominates the centre of the reading room (it used to be the librarians’ desk and hide a spiral staircase to the store underneath).
It turned out that this made it almost impossible for the musicians in the last section of the piece, where the perimeter player returns to the centre and they play various ‘hits’ in unison. We discovered that the room’s acoustic created an extremely strong focal point on the opposite side – exactly where the other instrument was placed initially – and this focal point was not only much louder than the sound leaking round the plinth but also slightly delayed. The musicians had to have sight of each other to play in sync so we had to slightly offset the instruments.
Prior to the performance, Trevor had given an introduction to the acoustics of curved spaces in a separate performance space. The audience then walked up to the reading room and were invited to wander round the space to experience the different qualities of sound created by the hall’s acoustics. In this accompanying 360 video made by Trevor and his team, half the notes you’re hearing are actually reflections from the room. The microphone was placed more or less at one of the focal points, so the hall is really acting as an amplifier to the signal.

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Northern Voices Opera project- the survey

The Northern Voices Project

We’d be really interested in hearing how well you think singing operatically in a Northern accent works. Over the course of the project Ian McMillan and I wrote four songs using Ian’s own Barnsley accent. Here are links to videos of them being performed by singers Nick Sales (tenor), Zoe Milton Brown (soprano), Sarah Helsby Hughes (soprano) and Tom Eaglen (baritone), with John Wilson at the piano.

We’d love it if you could listen to one or more of the songs, and then let us know what you think with this short survey. The whole thing will take about 5 minutes if you listen to one song all the way through. We’ll be thinking about your responses when we write the full opera later this year and early 2016! Thanks so much!

1. Like Me Dad

Me mam said he had a lovely voice

‘like an angel in a cap’ she said…

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Why the “pop music revolution” research doesn’t tell you what you think it does


There have been a number of attempt recently at applying an evolutionary biology approach to the study of popular music, and on the face of it, this makes a kind of sense. The thinking is that because we can speak of heritage and inheritance in music, then a similar process of evolutionary change occurs in music as happens in the natural world.

A recent such study, published by the Royal Society, no less, claims that it the first such study to use quantitative data analysis, and that therefore the results of the study are “scientific”. This is a big claim – while in central Europe it may be usual to speak of Wissenschaft in relation to music, the English language tradition is to claim entirely different methodologies for the scientific and cultural realms.

The authors of this study claim their aim is to provide a “rigorous test[s] of clear hypotheses based on quantitative data and statistics”. While I’m not qualified to comment on the statistical analysis provided in the study, it seems to me that even without testing the data analysis methods, there are some fundamental flaws in the argument which undermine the basic assumptions of the study.

Using spectrum analysis, the team analysed a huge number (over 17,000) of top selling songs according to several musical parameters, and for now, I’m only going to deal with one of these: harmony. The example shown in the article deals with a tiny snippet of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. The example shows the 10th -20th second of the song extract, and the chords (shown in the “supporting information”) for seconds 14-19 of this extract. It’s not clear where exactly this is in the song, as they don’t say which part of the song the 30” comes from. The spectral analysis suggests a Gm-E flat major chord change. The trouble is, there never is such a change in the song. There are plenty of Gm7 – Cm7 changes, as part of a VI-II-V7-I cycle of fifths pattern in B flat major, as you might expect in a song which uses functional key-based harmony interspersed with enharmonic note-in common modulations. As anyone who reads chord symbols knows, the top three notes in closed position of Cm7 do indeed make E flat major triad (E flat, G and B flat). It’s often a moot point in classical music and in jazz as to whether a chord is “really” chord II7b or chord IV6. Either way, it doesn’t really matter in functional harmonic analysis, since they are both approach chords to the dominant.

However, the study is based in part on a statistical analysis of the prevalence of particular chord shapes – major, minor, minor7 and dominant 7 shapes. Indeed, one of the methods by which one genre is distinguished from another is by the prevalence of one or more of these shapes. BUT if the technology used can’t reliably distinguish one of the basic categories of chord itself (as we’ve seen, it’s often moot whether you hear a chord as belonging to one category or the other) then there’s no reliable conclusion that can be drawn from the precarious tower of culturally ill-informed inference they pile on top of it.

Moreover, what is proposed is a kind of neutral listening – an ideal listener in fact. The machines used (even though as I’ve shown, they are far from perfect in their analysis) are gheld up as the ideal listener. We know that this is problematic. Listening to music is a performative action, i.e. it is an active process of selection and pattern recognition. What is recognized and valued by the listener is culturally determined. The structure of punk – as measured by the study’s methodology – would be almost indistinguishable from rock: a fact recognized by many commentators. But what was different about it was the energy, the type of energy with which the instruments were played, the accents in which the vocalists sang. In the terms of the study, these differences would be negligible. But in the 1970’s they might have been enough to get your head kicked in. Musicologists of popular music have long recognized the inadequacy of traditional categorizations in pop music such as harmony and melody, since these aspects ignore key features of the music, described by Sheila Whitely amongst others in the title of here book The Space Between the Notes.

The fact that a cursory reading of the article reveal both factual inaccuracy and cultural naiveté suggest that the authors of the article had do better to start with an undergraduate course in critical theory and harmonic analysis.

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Five Things I learned about writing opera in a Northern accent

Northern Vowels, Classical Voices 2

Five Things I learned about writing opera in a Northern accent

  1. It’s as much about the composer as the singer. You can only get a Northern accent to be perceived by the listener if the difference between long vowels and short vowels is reflected in the music. In the Song Like me Dad , for example, when I first got the text I hadn’t heard Ian reading it, so the phrase “right aht o’ window” I set with a longish note on the final vowel of “window”. In Manchester, where I grew up, we tended to say the second vowel of window as a dipthong [ou], and hence, relatively long. Ian, with his Barnsley accent says something more like “wind-er”, with a short vowel at the end. So the minim became a quaver to go with the vowel.
  2. You have to throw the classical singing rule book out of the …erm…wind-er. In one of the songs, the singer, Zoe Milton Brown, had to sing “I would stand”, and I had set “stand” to a long note. But even in conventional English, the vowel being sung wouldn’t be the one in conventional speech. RP English in speech would have the vowel as [æ], but lengthening the vowel would tend to make the vowel a long [ɑ] sound. The Northern “stand” uses the same [ɑ] vowel as classical singing technique, so we couldn’t make enough of a distinction when the vowel was short. Our solution was to lengthen the “n” on “stand”, leaving the short [ɑ] typical of Northern speech. This is all counter to the singingtextbooks, which emphasise the need for open vowels (again, something which is trained into choirs at an early age). We don’t know how this will carry over an orchestra, but it certainly carries over the piano.
  3. There’s no such thing as an ugly vowel. If it’s intelligible, it makes sense. In many cases, the vowel sound most felt to verge on the ‘ugly’ was the wide Northern [a] (as in Mancunian “car”, or South Yorkshire “aht” (for “out”). In conventional English singing technique this is modified to [ɑ] as it would be in RP English (southern “bath”), and even in Italian singing, singers are careful with this vowel, softening the extreme [a] of many Italian accents. But we needed it, and after a while it started to seem like a normal part of singing. The perception of “ugliness” may be international – listen to Adrienne Csengery sing the first word – “kásásodik” – of Kurtág’s Attila József Fragments and nuance it so that the “á”-[a] – sound becomes something a little more like the [ɑ], but it’s still only a perception. If the singer is telling the truth about the character, it can’t be ‘ugly’.
  4. The Northern (especially) “ t’” is never sung! There’s a common misperception that the Yorkshire definite article as in “going dahn to t’ shops” is some kind of “t”. It’s not – it’s a glottal stop. It became confusing because there’s a convention that you write the missing word with a “t’”. But when you do this in scores, because the singers are trained to read and pronounce everything, you get the temptation – even fro Northern based singers – to say it as a “t”. So we stopped writing it as a ‘t”, and just used the apostrophe instead.
  5. Dipthongs can also disobey the rules. The normal rule in singing English is that the second vowel in a dipthong is tucked away right at the end of the note. Mostly we also followed this rule, especially on melismas (lots of notes to one vowel). But there were occasions when we emphasized the northern-ness of the accent by relaxing this rule, such as the line “Tricky those dicky-bows to tie”. The second vowel in the dipthong in “tie” became slightly elongated, partly because we wanted to emphasise the restriction of the singer’s throat casued by the tie.

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Northern Voices

Northern Vowels, Classical Voices

In Victoria Wood’s recent play That Day We Sang there’s a memorable scene where the singing teacher takes the choir of young Manunicans to task for singing in ‘Lancastrian’ vowels. I remember similar experiences at school, and more recently when working with Saddleworth Male Voice choir on a radio drama where they were supposed to be a group of miners, I asked them to sing with Northern accents. The choirmaster, a Northerner himself, told me half-jokingly that I’d undone the work of 10 years in getting them to sing flat ‘a’s instead of Received Pronunciation vowels. So the absence of Northern English vowels is down to training – we simply have our accents trained out of our singing voices. But that still doesn’t explain why Northern English is so systematically banished from classical singing in English.

Over the last 9 months I’ve been working on a project to test the possibilities of opera singing in a recognisably Northern English accent. Ian McMillan and I have been planning an opera –called The Arsonists – in which the characters will have Barnsley accents. When I first thought about how I might do this, I listened to singers like Gracie Fields, who sometimes used her native Rochdale accent in her singing, but who also had at the top of her range had an impressive coloratura technique. Only the thing is, the Rochdale was all low down in her voice – in the part used for music hall and comic singing, while in the top of her range which was much more operatic her pronunciation went all Queen’s English. I tried without success to find examples of truly operatic voices singing in any Northern accent, and looked in vain for any reference to the accent in any singing manuals. Asking opera singers and teachers why this might be, I often got the response that Northern vowels were too ‘flat’, too short, or too unmusical.

At the start of the project I was beginning to get slightly down hearted – maybe it really wasn’t possible to sing opera in Northern accents. On the way to meet Ian in Huddersfield one day last summer, I happened to have been playing through Schumann’s song Thränenregen. Waiting at Marsden station in West Yorkshire, I asked a fellow passenger where I could buy tickets. His reply changed my whole attitude to the project. He said “On’ train”. It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said it -with that gloriously open monophthong vowel [ɛ], which is EXACTLY THE SAME VOWEL as the German ä in Thränenregen. Nobody would say that German vowels are too flat, or too short to sing, but this is exactly what happens when we educate junior school kids in Yorkshire out of singing “Away in a Manger” with their [ɛ] vowels. The same vowel in RP English “train” is also long, but is a dipthong, with a final [ɪ] tucked in just before the ‘n’. Other long monopthongs in some varieties of Northern English are the [ɔ] vowel in ‘coat’ (very close to German ‘o’ in ‘Boden’, but a little more open), and [ə] as in ‘Turning’, similar to Hungarian (long) ő. Normally classical singers in English make that ‘turn’ sound more like ‘tarn’. Yet if you did this in Hungarian the word would be unintelligible. Hungarian classical singers DO sing the [ə] vowel – spelt ‘ő’ – so we can see that in these three cases at least there’s no physical reason why more “Northern” sounding vowels can’t be sung in classical technique.

Over the next few days I’m going to post up some observations we’ve made over the course of the project. First though, I’ll describe how we went about the process. Ian McMillan and I agreed we’d try writing some songs together, and the first thing we did was record Ian speaking his own verse. We also worked closely with socio-linguist Philip Tipton, whose research specialism is the Lancastrian “square-nurse” vowel merger: in other words where the two words use the same vowel sound in the Bolton accents (think Maxine Peake and Peter Kay). Philip was able to forensically analyse the exact vowel being used at any point. Philip translated the texts in to IPA – the International Phonetic Alphabet – which I’ve already been using in this post. IPA only gives relative mouth positions for phonemes (the basic sounds making up speech), so the singer also referred to recordings made by Ian McMillan of his own song texts. Then we gave the songs in score to the singers, who learned the notes, and then honed the accent repeatedly under the guidance of myself, Philip and Ian. Finally we were able to end up with a sung aria in which – we think – Ian’s Barnsley accent is clear and comes out in the singing.

In order to do this, we had to throw the classical English singing rule book out of the window. Often, we had no idea how to make a particular sound, and there was no expert to refer to. Sometimes we found that it just wasn’t possible to make a clear Northern English vowel at particular points in the music, and sometimes we found that we had to fake it to make something that would be perceived as Northern, even though the vowel sound actually being sung was not one used in ordinary speech, and sometimes the music demanded that we didn’t follow exactly the way that Ian had read his own texts. I’ll be putting up videos of the process and the final showcase which took place in Salford’s Peel Hall, so you’ll have the opportunity to let me now if you think we’ve succeeded or not. In the meantime, I’m going to make some individual observations on the process in my next post.

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Jazz Travel Diary

I’ve been quiet on here for a while, but I’ll break my silence to put up some lead sheets for some jazz tunes I’ve been writing ready for my quintet gig at the Swan in Dobcross, March 1st.image

They’re a kind of travelogue about different places I’ve been in the last couple of years…feel free to use them, just credit me.


Botafogo Bop

La Habana

Mekong Song

OK, I haven’t been to the Mekong river: this was a song I remembered writing as an undergraduate some 25 years ago. the original piece set a poem by James Fenton, “In a Notebook”. The original score is irretrievably lost, but I remembered most of the tune, and re-harmonised it.