Outside the gorgeous Halle St Peters (photo: Sarah Frances Jenkins) June 2021

Over the last few months, I’ve been reshaping my relationship with technology. I noticed that I was becoming increasingly dependant on my devices, constantly grabbing my phone for updates and unable to spend a night away from my laptop. It got so bad that I couldn’t write more than a few seconds of music before I needed a digital timeout. My attention span was waning.
Something had to give — so I made a list of everything that I use electronics for: wake-up alarms, coffee timers, calendars, messaging, cameras, maps, music, and so on… It became clear to me that my devices had slowly replaced so many day-to-day items that it was impossible to live without them.
The first thing to go was any app with an “infinite pool” design — the type of platform that you can endlessly scroll. Social media, news, etc. Straight away, it was much easier to spend quality time in the “real world” without the constant nagging feeling that I should be checking in on my socials.
The next big change was music: I was only 9 years old when Spotify was launched, and by that time iTunes was already changing the music commerce landscape. Growing up, the only way I knew to listen to music was through streaming. But recent campaigns, including Stuart Macrae & Fenella Humphreys’ excellent steaming experiment, highlighted to me that these platforms are unethical and unsustainable.

Lots of fun stamps from Ensemble Modern!

So I bit the bullet and cancelled my Spotify membership. Slowly but surely, I began buying CDs (shock!) and loaded them on to my phone to listen to on the go. I quickly fell in love with the cover designs and liner notes of my CDs — including full libretti & extensive essays and commentary about the work. It feels so good to know I am directly supporting the artists, technicians and independent companies that create this work.But there were more unexpected benefits — I started browsing in local charity shops for CDs. Rather than lining the pockets of wealthy tech CEOs, my music habits were now helping those in need. This switch made me appreciate music in a new way: the deliberateness of curating a library, of indefinitely owning a tangible copy of my favourite tracks. Music is not a commodity to be rented— it is a permanent necessity.
At the same time as my ‘digital detox’, I’ve been writing a new piece for Tom McKinney as part of Psappha Ensemble’s excellent ‘Composing…for Guitar’ scheme. This project is quite unlike other young artist programmes of its type, in that it supports the creation of a short piece over a course of short one-on-one workshops over a few months. Rather than rushing to reach a deadline, it was possible to try out new ideas and working methods in a safe environment.
For me, this was the perfect opportunity to try something new. Since I started in education, I’ve never had more than a few weeks to write a piece, so my process became very streamlined. I could quickly whip up a piece in Sibelius and know roughly how it would sound with the help of software instruments. Yet the resultant works all sounded similar… the quick turnarounds required me to use compositional shortcuts which were technically well written, but artistically thin.This new work for guitar seemed like the perfect chance to try something new: improvising and sketching over the course of a few months. I grabbed a guitar (thanks Jasper!) and started to find new sounds. When I discovered something I liked, I drew it in graphic notation on big blank pieces of A3 paper. The composition process quickly developed into something exciting and exhilarating — I never knew what would happen next.

Very early graphic sketches of "...BREATHE..."

Instead of relying on the MIDI playback on my computer, I used the guitar in front of me to craft new sounds — and, where I couldn’t play what I’d written, I used my ‘inner ear’ and a stopwatch to ‘listen’ to the piece. My score was assembled using paper and pens, scissors and glue… it was so liberating to have the freedom to cut, rip, scribble and draw the music, rather than lazily typing it into the computer.

Figuring out how to notate certain ideas of "...BREATHE..."

The resulting draft was like nothing I’d written before — and upon the eve of the submission for my first sketches, I was petrified. What if I had made a huge mistake? I was tempted to scrap all of my work, and pull an all nighter to write something in my old method.In the first workshop (and all that followed), Tom McKinney heroically tackled my new ideas and made excellent suggestions to improve the sounds. We spoke openly about what worked (and what didn’t!), and how to tie ideas together in fluid gestures. Having feedback so early on in a piece — when the material is still malleable — was absolutely brilliant.
Often, suggestions come in way too late in the writing process that only cosmetic, surface level change is possible. But that’s what makes Psappha’s ‘Composing For…’ scheme so unique — the chance to bounce ideas from world-class performers like Tom, and composers like David Fennessy, from day 1.
As the year progressed, my digital detox widened: I started playing with film photography, and writing handwritten postcards to friends. Without my phone stealing all of my attention, I had lots more free time to enjoy things in the real world, and to relax.And, as pandemic restrictions began to lift, I was delighted to join Tim, Tom, and the five other composers in Manchester’s gorgeous Halle St. Peters Victoria Wood Hall to record our new works in person.

Tom McKinney and Tim Williams in Victoria Wood Hall, June 2021

This was the first time hearing my work live in the room for over a year — and what a truly immense and powerful feeling that was.
The final piece, “…BREATHE…”, is a work that I am immensely proud of. I am so grateful to Tim Williams, Tom McKinney and David Fennessy, and to Mark Thomas (Director of Photography) and Rob Kelledy (Sound recording and Mastering) for all of their support this year.
“…BREATHE…” will be premiered online on Monday 19th July at 8pm on YouTube, alongside 5 other works by Robert Reid Allan, Emily Hazrati, Sarah Frances Jenkins, Michael Hughes, and Anna Disley-Simpson.

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