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Marloes (1979) for large ensemble and blindfolded ambulant audience
Marloes - named after a particularly beautiful beach in Pembrokeshire, on the Welsh coast - was the first work in which I explored the idea of proxemics consciously as the main compositional principle. I visited the beach frequently as a child, partly as a result of the fact that my artist father was drawn in the late 50s and early 60s to the work of Graham Sutherland, who had also worked frequently in Pembrokeshire. The choice of sites - many around the Cleddau Estaury - for family visits was as often influenced by whether they had been Sutherland's subjects as by their apparent attractiveness to children, but Marloes - with swathes of unspoiled sand, extraordinary rock formations, and rock pools seething with life - ticked everyone's boxes. Many of my father's graphic works from the 1960s had Marloes as title or subject (see 'BW' in main menu).
As an earnest proto-composer I made copious notes about the paradoxical nature of the sonic proxemics of the experience of lying on the beach with one ear close to the sand. The closest, most intimate sounds - of the water seeping in and out of the sun-baked, compacted sand were the quietest, but most persistent. The middle-ground 'local' sounds - occasional voices, increases in wind movement, a passing gull - were loud enough to obscure the intimate water-sand sounds, but more infrequent and irregular. The loudest sound, paradoxically, was the most physically distant - the regular break and drag of waves on the shore. This could temporarily, and periodically, obliterate all the other sounds of the environment. Of course at this point I hadn't read Hall's writing on proxemics, but the principle was noted in many sketches - necessarily in graphic form - which were later mined at the end of my undergraduate degree for an event at Nottingham University's Music Department - then housed in a Georgian house and its extended outbuildings on Beeston Lane.
This performance, in which my composition teacher Nigel Osborne played snare drum with brushes - and which involved this and the department's four timpani, each with a separate performer - as a rather too literal representation of the 'loud but distant' layer of my beach sketches, also involved another principle which was to become important to me in more mature works - that of an 'untethered' audience. In order that the relationship between each audience member and the multiple distributed ensembles which contributed to the 'intimate', 'local' and 'distant' proxemics of the work were kept dynamic and engaging, the audience had to move - silently - around the performance space. But in order to enforce concentrated listening, each audience member was blindfolded. This necessitated rigging a complex suspended system of wool and coat-hangers around the room, and asking each audience member to 'stay attached' to the trolley-bus like rigging with one hand.
Against considerable odds, the system worked reasonably well. The work made a considerable impression on its audience, not necessarily always for the reasons I'd hoped and intended. Perhaps the longest-lived, good-humoured, story associated with it involved the fate of one of the lecturers in the audience, the eminent Czech music scholar John Tyrell, whose shortness of stature I had failed to take into account. Becoming detached from the woollen 'guideline', John moved cautiously but irregularly around the space, occasionally colliding with other audience members, clutching his spectacles protectively in one hand, and waving the other helplessly.
Picton Point, Pembrokeshire (c.1960) Brian Waters
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