Alex Groves' Residency Diary

Participants: Alex Groves

Series: Residencies

Ideas explored: building an installation, developing new work, sound design

Monday, 14th December 2020

At any given moment, I’ll probably have a bunch of different projects on my mind. Pieces, releases, concerts – all at different stages of development from far-off dream to concrete reality. Most start out as a nice idea that pops up whilst I’m working on something else like ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice if I filled a room with sound and dancers and projections and everyone lost themselves for an hour or so’. These ideas are then put to one side and begin to gather other ideas, other thoughts, as I go about my work. Ideas that stick around, the ones that I don’t get bored of, the ones that I can’t quite pin down into a final form, are the ones that intrigue me most. When something sticks around, I have to find a way to explore it, to take it out of my head and put it in the real world, interrogate it and see if it’s worth pursuing.

This piece started out years ago on a residency with ArtHouse Jersey where I walked the length and breadth of the island collecting field recordings. I didn’t have a plan for them but I knew I needed some building blocks. My music is usually built with real live instrumentalists and singers, performers on a stage bringing my music to life. However, I wanted to explore an electronic practice in which I performed as well as composed and to do this I would need some material. Gathering these recordings gave me building blocks that had an inherent richness – uncontrollable factors that would remain no matter what I went on to do with them, little bits of life that I hadn’t chosen but would create a uniqueness in the final piece.

As with most projects, I sat on these recordings for years – I didn’t mean to but I never found the time and space to use them. I filled my time with other projects that felt less scary, things that I could predict the outcome of. But when we found ourselves in lockdown at the beginning of the year, I pulled them out from the back of the hard drive and began to play. This resulted in Curved Form (St Endellion) – an electronic reworking of a piece commissioned by the Manchester Collective whose première had to be postponed due to COVID-19. It was the first time I’d realised an acoustic piece of mine using electronics and I loved it.

Now, I’m sat in the Kiln Studio at Britten Pears Arts about to take one of those ideas floating around in my head and bring it kicking and screaming into the real world. A performance installation created from field recordings that reflects on our relationships with the natural world. Simple! Just a concert-length piece tackling a pretty weighty topic in a medium that I still feel quite unsure of! Anyway I’m not expecting to find all the answers but I’m hoping to find some new ideas to mull over and some new questions to ask myself.

Tuesday, 15th December

Walking from Snape Maltings to Iken Church, I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly the pervasiveness of man made noise – cars, planes, farming. I think we’re too used to blocking these sounds out these days. It’s very rare for us to find ourselves somewhere without the hum of nearby traffic, so we’ve learnt to pretend it’s not there. I found myself unable to escape it though when collecting field recordings – listening to the world through headphones seems to amplify all the details which we would normally ignore.

It got me thinking about whether these sounds have place in the project and what exactly it is that I’m responding to. Am I reflecting the world around me as I see it, using facts and data and recordings? Am I responding to my experience of the landscape – a more poetic vision and one that filters out things like the traffic noise? Or am I trying to create a utopia – an idea of what I want to experience?

Secondly, I thought a lot about rhythms. Rhythms of things we can’t perceive. The natural ebb and flow of the sun and the tide. We notice when a change has occurred but often the transition itself is so slow it’s almost imperceptible. I was caught out by the tide on a path down by Iken church. Every time I’d been there before there was a little sandy beach stretching a couple of hundred metres and, on my way out, there it was as usual. But on the way back, I was faced with a continuous expanse of water, some rocks and a steep bank.

The same landscape had been rendered completely different through a process which I couldn’t see happening. The rest of the walk back was full of further observations, vistas and points along the way that I had spotted on my way out but which were now completely different. The mirrored reflections of the sky in the water turning what had been the dark browns and greens of the mudflats into bright blues and whites.

Wednesday, 16th December

Spent the day building little miniatures in the studio – each one an exploration of a single idea or sound. Some go further than others and some sound better than others on the surround sound setup. It’s a fine balance between creating something that feels very dynamic with lots of movement and play and something that feels very disorientating and unpleasant. Of course both of those things could be useful in the final thing but it’s also interesting to think about how an audience might experience it – a static sound is more interesting to walk around in and a more dynamic sound is more interesting to stand still and listen to.

The most interesting results came from layering several processes on top of each other – creating different elements that are each following their own trajectory. As you follow one, the others change almost without you noticing and when you zoom out to the bigger picture again the landscape is very different to how you left it. I like this idea of people getting lost in the work – being caught out by the tide. I want people to be able to explore the piece both physically in space and aurally by focusing in on different elements.

This layering effect got me thinking about the bigger picture. I’m imagining at the moment a kind of nested set of processes, all of which have their own peaks and troughs. As they all unfold, some align, some clash and some break through the texture on their own.

Thursday, 17th December

Composing without any restrictions sounds, on paper, like a dream come true. When you’re free to create whatever you want everything should be easier, right? But, faced with the possibility of anything it becomes really hard to do something. Focussing on just one idea seems too small and limited but trying to juggle a completely endless expanse is totally unmanageable.

Most of the projects I work on are restricted in someway – forces, duration, medium, etc. In this context the parameters don’t feel like barriers but rather a friendly guide within which to explore – a creative challenge almost to make something new and exciting despite the limits imposed. With this project being entirely self-guided at the moment, the possibilities are endless so today was spent thinking about the edges of the project, the parameters in which I would work.

I want the installation to be something that someone could conceivable experience the whole of but at the same time I’d like it to be something you really lose yourself in. It needs to be long enough that your sense of time can be warped by it but also not so long that people would feel uneasy about committing to the whole. I quite like the idea of an hour long piece so that it starts on the hour every hour. People can come and go as they please or turn up on the hour and stay for the whole experience. I always feel a bit conflicted with installation work because I feel like I’ve just missed a good bit or I’ll just miss a good bit if I leave. I end up in a state of never quite entering into the installation and always feeling like I should’ve stayed on longer. Maybe that’s just me, but by providing a framework for the piece that people can choose to engage with I feel that everyone can enjoy it on their own terms.

Friday, 18th December

My final day in the studio and it’s a day of wrapping up loose ends and asking questions for the future. Going through the miniatures I’ve made this week and the sketches of forms and structures that I’ve put down on paper, it feels like something is starting to come into focus. I don’t want to pin it down too quickly – limiting my options and coming up against a dead end – so I’m just trying to keep the idea floating. Trying out little bits of it, improving smaller parts and seeing how they effect the whole.

Looking to the future, I’ve got carve out some more time to work on it. Next up will be sitting down with the questions that have come out of the week. Questions like does the piece break down into smaller sections or is it conceived as a whole, how do I want audiences members to feel in the installation – energised with an impulse to move or laid back and meditative, and what other ways could this installation happen – outdoors, with live performers in the space, etc.? Of course, with lots of these questions the answer will never be a binary either/or – I’ve got to find a balance between both and that balance will come eventually but it’s not what I need to focus on now.

For now, I’m going to continuing playing around, continue asking questions and continue seeking out inspiration. It may feel like I’ve been working on the project for years because it’s been spinning around my head for so long, but in reality I’m just getting started. My week up at Snape has begun the process of turning a dream into a reality and now the real work starts.