Pressure is a piece composed for Bex Lycett’s major project at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. This piece was inspired by the following painting.

Original Painting by Bex Lycett

The brief for this piece was to compose using a painting and the
transcript of what a synesthete could hear when looking at the painting. This piece uses a tonal centre that was depicted in the transcript provided by Joe Spinoza, which I then used to lead into my own harmonic choices. The saxophone was used to represent the contrasting white lines in the painting and the string quartet represents the colour in the background through gradual harmonic changes and variations.

The majority of the inspiration for this piece came from the original
transcript that was given to me as part of the brief. I worked with the
harmonic progression into the opening of the piece and then moved to my own tonal interpretation of the painting.

To start off the process for my composition I decided that the white
lines would be represented in the saxophone part and then the string quartet would be representing the rest of the colours. This is what inspired me to have the saxophone as more of a solo instrument and the quartet producing more of a whole sounds. I tried to focus on making the saxophone part stand out from the rest of the texture in the way the white lines do in the painting. However, I did not want it to be like this through the entire piece so I based the structure of the melody on the white lines so when it isn’t in the painting the saxophone part rests.

The saxophone part in this piece is mainly improvised but I did give the performer some guidance for the performance. I composed an
outline of the melody line and asked the performer to play the notes I had written at the time intervals I had given but they were allowed to improvise and add elements to the melody around what was notated. I really like this way of composing as I have some control over what is performed but also the outcome is influenced by the performer and it becomes more of a collaborative section of the piece. Another reason I chose to do this was because I thought it would work well to create a more virtuosic solo part with a sense of freedom and fluidity that would not be achieved when playing a fully notated part.

One of the first decisions I made was that instead of using dynamics in
this piece I wanted to use changes in bow pressure. I struggled a lot with
working out how to notate this for the performers and in the end, it worked best when I provided percentages of how much bow pressure should be applied at a particular time. I liked the way that applying different amounts of bow pressure could really change the sound and the pitch that would be produced by each instrument. I also found it was a good way to create more variation in the sounds throughout as I did not want the melodic movement to be overly complex.

Premiere of Pressure

As befor, in most of my pieces, notation is something that I really enjoy
experimenting with. For this piece, I felt it was really important that the
notation reflected the ambient and free atmosphere I wanted to create. This was something that ended up being a lot more complicated than I originally planned as once I had removed tempo indication and bar lines the performers were confused on how long to play each note or section for. After working closely with the cellist of the quartet we discussed ways that would be best to convey the feeling I wanted to create whilst it was still easy for the performers to understand. I feel that it is very important to discuss things like this with the performers where possible as you get more direct feedback on what changes will make it most appropriate for each of the players.

This then led me to put a timeline into the score and handwrite each
part for the performers. This meant that I could write how long each note should be played for in seconds and each performer would use a timer to make sure they stayed in time with each other. After rehearsing this piece with the performers we decided that this made it much easier for them to play it. During the process of sorting the notation for this piece, I decided that for the string parts to work in the way I wanted them to I made it so that it was not critical that each performer’s timings were precise. I think this also added the ambient feel to the sound that was created as there were a lot of harmonic overlaps and gradually resolved dissonances. I like this idea as it added another element of freedom to the piece along with the improvisation in the saxophone line.

As part of the Impasto project during the rehearsal stage Bex
sent recordings off to the synesthete and he responded to what he heard with a description of colours and shapes that Bex then transformed into a painting. This is the outcome painting of Pressure.

Premiere performance of Pressure
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