Ingrid Plum’s ‘Taut’ is an ambitious, multi-stranded project. A set of scores, specially commissioned by Plum and comprising graphical, text and conventional notation, provided the basis for a gruelling three-hour performance in London’s earlier this year. That performance was recorded and became the ‘Taut’ album. The scores, beautiful objects in their own right, became an exhibition and, finally, were collected into a book, along with interviews with their creators.
The catalyst for ‘Taut’, as Plum explains in the interview below, was a conversation with Meredith Monk. Plum – an accomplished vocalist who, like Monk, creates subtle and challenging works that span composition and improvisation – had been at a retreat held by Monk a couple of winters ago. A conversation on the final day started a train of thought that would, ultimately, produce ‘Taut’ and, in doing so, occupy most of Plum’s time for the next 18 months or so.
It wasn’t without challenges. Plum admits that the initial response to her call for scores from female-identifying artists was disappointing – mainly because she’d used the word ‘composer’ in her brief and these artists “didn’t identify themselves as composers in the same way”. So, as it developed, ‘Taut’ also became a meditation on the idea of the composer itself – what it means to call yourself a composer, who feels comfortable labelling themselves as such, and who doesn’t.
With many of the activities that comprised ‘Taut’ now complete, Plum is now perfectly placed to reflect on this remarkable project. In this interview, she looks back on ‘Taut’, reflects on its unique challenges and goes deep on a couple of the scores that she received.
We Need No Swords (WNNS): How did you get the idea to do this amazing project with scores?
Ingrid Plum (IP): I was studying at a retreat with Meredith Monk in New York in December 2016. At the end of her teaching, we were talking about scores and the use of the voice in composition as opposed to its place in the oral or folk traditions. I spent the journey back home to England just ruminating on some of the ideas she’d raised, asking myself about what a ‘score’ could be and how you could work most effectively with the voice.
I was thinking about how a piece changes through performance and all the different iterations that you go through as you rehearse something and perform it. It becomes almost as much the work as the original score. Through that I came up the idea of asking people to write scores and giving them total freedom as to what format it could be, as long as fitted on a single page.
WNNS: It’s interesting to that there was such an explicit link between that retreat and this project. How did this turn into a brief for the artists? How did you decide on who to ask?
IP: I chose people that I thought would do something quite unusual as a score. I also wanted people who were very different to each other, because I wanted a spectrum of scores and ways of notating and writing music.
I gave them a written brief, stating that the score needed to be around five minutes in length and one side of A4. It could be for voice, either solo or with electronics or percussion, or both. I left everything else up to them.
I specifically chose people that I thought would do something interesting. There were two waves of asking artists because the first time I asked, I used the word ‘composer’. I found that all the male artists I asked were up for it, but the female artists I asked didn’t identify themselves as composers in the same way. They were shy about describing themselves like that.
So, I changed the wording to ‘music maker’ and then I got the 50/50 spread of male and female identifying artists that I wanted.
WNNS: How long did they take to get back to you with the scores?
IP: It varied. I got most of the scores back within about six months, although some people took a little longer. There were a couple of people who want to do something that didn’t fit on a single page. They wanted to do video or audio, so they had to be shelved for a future project.
WNNS: Did you have a timescale in mind for the project?
IP: No, it was an experiment to see what would come back. When I discovered this first hurdle about the word composer I got quite intrigued by that. That changed the project slightly, where I became dead set on having a 50/50 ratio and investigating that. It was a process of experimentation and identifying variations in the process from start to finish.
I didn’t tell the composers this, but I set myself some rules as to how I was going to respond to their scores – basically I would accept whatever people did, as long as it fitted into a book. I also told myself I would have to say yes to whatever they asked me to do.
It was very interesting talking to each of the composers individually and working through their different process of composition with them. So, for example, some people just sent me something and some people were very interested in talking it through and developing it after a discussion. Some people wanted feedback on their score and some people didn’t.
It was also very different how the scores came to be finally sent to me. Some came through the post as a one of a kind physical object. Some came to me digitally, as scans or PDFs. Some people retained the original and only gave me a copy because they were so attached to it, even though they were supposed to submit their original score to me.
IP: Yeah, well that just shows that some people found it very personal.
WNNS: There’s a real range of stuff, from text pieces, graphics and graphical notation – all kinds of things…
IP: Yeah. Everything from text scores with stage directions from Bobby Barry [‘Contract And Remain Taut (after Lyotard)’] to a photograph and some instructions from Jez Riley French [‘Listening Score 87’]. Greta Pistaceci embroidered an object [‘A Score’]…
WNNS: I read about this in one of your other interviews. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
IP: Greta sent me a beautiful object. I’d seen some of her embroidery work online and I thought it would be very interesting for her to embroider a score. She sent me this beautiful thing in the post, complete with archival gloves for handling it. She was very clear in her instructions about how to handle it but she gave absolutely no instructions on how to perform it.
It was this pristine white page of canvas that had been embroidered and it need to be opened. It became quite performative, just putting on the gloves to take the score out and place it on a stand and make sure that no dirt transferred to it.
Some of the words on it are obscured and the reverse has staves on but the front of the page doesn’t. So Greta was very clever in stretching the brief as far as it could go, while keeping it to a page.
WNNS: How much work did you have to do to prepare for the performance?
IP: I had to do a lot of interpretation. It was a real collaboration, a 50-50 split between the score itself and what I brought to it in terms of my interpretation. I did a residency at Rose Hill art centre in Brighton, where I went in every day for a couple of months and just to work with the scores. I would allow a day for each score to get to know it individually.
It was very similar to a meditation practice actually. A meditation teacher had told me that I should practice meditation at the same time every day instead of when I felt like meditating, because I would meet myself in different states. And so when I went into the rehearsal space with the scores to workshop them, I kind of met myself through the score and allowed the score to take me somewhere new, out of my usual habit.
WNNS: Sounds intense.
IP: It was quite intensive, and very much a solo process. And I had to track the changes from the beginning of the day to the end and the process of trying different things with the scores.
There were just a couple of scores where I had to actually go and have a conversation with the composers. One because it was a site-specific score that couldn’t be performed unless it was adapted, so we had to work through an adaption for it to be performed at Iklectik and recorded.
WNNS: Which one was that?
IP: That was Lisa Busby’s ‘Song of Resentment’, written for Brighton beach. In the book, the top half of the score is the original version and then the second half is the adaptation for me to be able to perform it at Iklectik.
WNNS: Tell me more about your preparations
IP: I started off with an intensive day working with each score individually and then I started grouping them together, and started going through them together to develop some sort of sequence. They naturally fitted into three groups and that would become the three different sets that I performed at Iklectik. I did a lot of recording just informally to remind myself, especially of the more meditative pieces like Lia Mazzari’s watercolour score [‘Speak Up’].
The Jez Riley French piece [‘Listening Score 87’] also required some experimentation. I had to try and practice it in an environment where I could hear the outside. But it was all about responding to the environment you’re in, so the piece changed massively once I was in a different place.
WNNS: Let’s talk about the performance and the recording for the release. Your plan was to perform and record them all in a single session. What was the thinking behind that?
IP: I was questioning the nature of composition and the nature of performance. There are stages of development that you go through when you learn a score before you perform it. I was very keen to capture the exact moment when I felt it was ready to perform to the public.
And it had to be a live performance because it was questioning the nature of performance. Performing in the studio is very different to performing in front of a live audience. There had to be the pressure of failure and the nuance of the room, the environment and the audience.
I wanted to capture it all at the moment it was ready to come out of the rehearsal space into the public for the first time. I’ve never been into over-rehearsing a piece. I want to get it to the sweet spot when it’s ready for the public to enjoy that moment. There’s a sweet spot when you get to know a work, but you don’t know too well. I feel that you lose something when you get to know a piece too well. It’s not necessarily a negative change. But it changes.
WNNS: How did the performance go?
IP: Very well, despite the fact that I got a chest infection because the rehearsal space didn’t have any heating! But I was pretty pleased. I mean, I was ill at the time but I kind of went into a zone. What I found interesting was that people found those moments where I was preparing myself for each piece as interesting as when I was performing it, because I had almost a ritual way of placing the objects for each piece out. And I would do things like tap my head or touch my head and really look at the score and sort of get into the physical placement for the voice and performance space mentally for each score before I did it.
In terms of performance challenges, it was a bit like changing gear 14 times on the night. And the duration of the gig – it was three times longer than a normal performance.
WNNS: Were you nervous?
IP: I felt quite nervous about the pressure of the recording, but as a performer I use any performance anxiety as my jet fuel to do the performance. That’s why performing to an audience will be totally different to performing in a studio. It brings out something. Maybe you lose something, but you gain something at the same time.
WNNS: How did the crowdfunding come about?
IP: When I got the scores back I started realizing that they were incredible. The project became about doing service to the scores and showing them the world in the best way possible.
That’s when I realized I had to do it on a bigger scale than originally anticipated. I applied for Arts Council funding but you have to match 10 percent of the funding and that’s what the crowdfunding was for. I did the crowdfunding as a pre-order because I wanted it to be straightforward. You basically just buy it in advance.
WNNS: The gig was in March 2018, so after that it was going into production for the book and album release I guess?
IP: After the performance, the live recordings were mixed by me and then mastered at Saint Austral Sound, who had originally recorded it. That took a while and then the exhibition and book were created after that.
I wanted to have an exhibition of these scores, but I wanted to be able to play the album in the same space where people were walking around and enjoying the scores as objects.
I hung the exhibition so that those scores on the wall were at working height rather than the usual picture in a gallery height. I had to lots of music stands with the scores arranged on then. I was going for that moment when a concert is just about to happen, so there’s a music stand and a score on that stand and a spotlight. And that’s what the exhibition is like.
WNNS: The multidisciplinary thing works really well on this project, with the scores and the performance and then the exhibition and book…
IP: Yeah, they were very different but they all took up space in different ways. Tania Chen’s score [‘Icons of Elegance’] involved looking at pages in ‘Vogue’ magazine. So, for the exhibition I kept the pages that had I used, and suspended them from the ceiling above the score with the instructions on a sack.
I put Jez Riley French’s score in the window because it involved having a window open and the outside environment was equally as important as the inside performance. There were scores by Nick Hudson, Lia Mazzari and Kelly Jayne Jones that lent themselves to being very much like pictures in a gallery as well as working objects of score.
WNNS: One thing I was interested in was the fact that the scores could use electronics and objects as well as the voice. Did that cause you extra challenges or difficulties when you’re prepping or performing it?
IP: It was helpful because setting up different instrumentation for the different scores helped me to set up the physical and mental performing space during the performance.
I use a lot of found objects anyway, and some of the scores specified objects, which led me to try new things. And then there were some objects that I brought in myself to help me achieve what I thought was dictated by the score.
For example, Helen Frosi [‘Mimosa’] said to allow the shape of the words to guide the length and timbre of their sound. So I used a megaphone for those words I felt that they were particularly authoritative.
For Graham Dunning’s [‘Enjoy Rtnhua’] I used cassette playback, which is one of the things I normally use for field recordings. I used a karaoke version of the score and then used tape manipulation in the performance to cut it up in the same way that he’d cut up the score. I had to learn to sing that song note by note so that I could see the words, which was an interesting process.
WNNS: You touched on Jez Riley French’s score earlier. At first I didn’t quite believe it was recorded in the same session because it does sound like you’ve got layers of processing on it.
IP: I had a loop pedal and a microphone and various items of percussion. I was responding to the outside sounds, which I was hearing via a rifle mic. I had someone outside with the rifle mic and they recorded while I was listening on headphones. It was quite a surprise to me, the sounds I heard. For instance, we suddenly had a party bus appear out of nowhere at the beginning, which was hilarious. There were also lots of clanging sounds and the low rumble of traffic because of the tunnel near Iklectik, with the trains going over. So I used the loop pedal to build up this rumble by tapping the microphone and just recording the tails.
I also had a photo, but Jez gave no explanation of what was on it. It was quite abstract, and I thought it looked like chemtrails in the sky. It turned out to be a reflection of some strip lights. I concentrated on looping just the trail of the sound rather than the sonic agent of the sound, to build a rumble like the traffic. Then I used percussion to create a call and answer with what was happening outside, in a kind of duet.
WNNS: The other score I wanted to ask about is Iris Garrelfs’ ‘The Modular Vocalist’. I’ve seen Iris perform when she’s looping her own voice in these huge kind of choirs and it seemed like this score had some had some similarities to that – although it was sparser and very beautiful…
IP: Iris included the loop in the score as a graph, showing the layers of looping on top of each other and when you should layer and when you shouldn’t. It’s a real singer’s score, written for a singer by a singer, because it allows you to try different vocal techniques and it focuses on the transition between those techniques and how they work together.
WNNS: I guess in some ways ‘Taut’ is an ongoing project because you’ve got a network of relationships that you could carry on doing things with. Or is it all closed off now and it’s onto the next thing?
IP: The book tracks the journey from the scores to the performance and stops after the performance. Then the album is there to be listened to as people read the book. The book is the artefact that lives on after a particular was a moment in time – the performance. That moment can never be performed in the same way again, because that’s how you get to know a score has a further life with you where it changes with each iteration.
I think ‘Taut’ was such an endeavour that it has to have more life. I performed it again at the Sonic Arts Research Centre in Belfast and at Goldsmiths [in London] while I was teaching some workshops in composition and performance. I also perform pieces from it when asked. I performed a few pieces at the safehouse in Brighton, who was interested in free and structured improvisation. But I haven’t performed the entire thing in one go again because it’s a marathon of a performance, which doesn’t fit a usual performance context.
My relationship with the scores continues to develop and grow with the composers. I’m really proud, not just of the performance but of the book and the exhibition as well. Every section was exactly how I wanted it to be. And there were a lot of surprises along the way where I learned a lot as well.
WNNS: It’s an amazing project! Do you think there are things that you’ve learned or taken from this experience that you can bring to your future projects?
IP: It stretched my ideas around performance. I have to admit that I am one of those female artists who does not feel comfortable in saying that I am a composer. The next big step for me is to put my compositions out there and talk about myself as a composer as well as a performer.
Before the next project I’m going to release a whole bunch of live recordings. I haven’t repeated a performance for a long time in terms of my own improvisation. So, I’m collaborating with a sculptor, where they’ve created the artwork and photos and I’m releasing live recordings. There’s one I howled like a wolf that I’m going to try to time with the appearance of the wolf moon in January .
WNNS: And a new composition project after that?
IP: It’s too early to say… I think it will be a combination of songwriting and sound art, probably in 2019. I’m very interested in releasing another book. I enjoy the format of a book with a download album.
The next thing for me is to go that journey of writing and figure out how to how to own the fact that I am a composer who blends these different genres together. I also want to try to bring more of a visual practice as well, so it will be multidisciplinary.