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Welcome to the Alex Cannon Music Blog. This is the place to be if you want to be privy to my thoughts on creating music, sharing ideas and working together.


Mint Julep Playtest

After writing my first blog post I decided to get back on the playtesting wagon. Into my bag went my prototype of “The Mint Julep Murder” and due to a series of unfortunate fortunate events I ended up with half an hour to kill at the end of game night, with just myself and another, and no other two player games.

I don’t usually like forcing prototypes on to unwilling gamers but it worked in a pinch. The rules explanation went really smoothly, as there are only 3 or 4 key concepts. Lots of people are familiar with the ‘Cluedo’ style deduction, and soon we were playing.

It was the end of a very long day for me and past 10 already so the brain juices were definitely petering out. I found it really hard to keep track of which clues I’d seen and what I should be excluding/grabbing to my tableaux. In the end I eked out a win, although my opponent was obviously coming to a similar conclusion.

To my surprise he requested to play again, now that we had a ‘learning game’ under our belt (a good sign!) I added number cards (from No Thanks!) to each clue to help keep track of what I’d seen, which helped a bit. The biggest thing I was missing was a tracking sheet of some kind, so I could write in what I’d seen for easy reference against the different tableux.

The other thing that came to mind was the theme. It isn’t a bad theme, but the one major issue I have is that there are only two genders represented, which is normal for most games, but in this game it’s a ‘defining characteristic’ which is problematic for many people in our society.

I quite like the idea of setting it in a space-bar of some kind, and each of the characteristics can come from a different alien species. This would be a more playful take on the theme, but we’ll have to see.

It was fun to get this to the table, and the test highlighted some issues that can be corrected. Keeping the flow of information consisted is going to be another challenge, for another day!





Final Preparations

‘IT is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.‘ Cyril Northcote Parkinson – The Economist 1955

Lizzie, Marcel and I met to go through the staging process, making sure we had the performance space finalised and allowing ourselves a bit of time to work on the live elements, and finally tackle to improvised section, something that we had only really talked about conceptually before. We decided that the most effective fusion between improvisation practices and the aesthetic nature of our other sections was a graphic score,which would be displayed to everyone as a real-time painting onto one of the ‘live’ screens. It quickly dawned on us that we could link the main theme of our project (the university’s identity) into a graphic score by constructing the stag emblem. We then decided to differentiate each instrumentalist by colour: Anita (Vibraphone)– black, Marcel (Percussion) – green, and myself (Cello) – red.

There was a lot to do in the final week of this project, mostly because of the technical nature of our performance. Because much of our material was recorded media in audio or video, we needed a lot of time to collect the content, most notably the chamber choir’s recording of the ‘Surrey Song’ which was intended to form the backbone of our ‘past’ section.

Around this backbone we wanted to summarise the developments in western musical cultures, using stereotypical audio clips from each era of the 20th century. Along with these clips the ‘Surrey Song’ would also evolve, from the classical/hymnal style into jazz and then pop. Apart for arranging the song in this fashion, the mixing was a time-consuming task, most easily completed in solitude.

Another vitally important element of our performance was the video. These three interconnected videos would make up the main visual aspect of the project, and again very time-consuming and laborious to produce.

Because of these factors we had very little time as a group to think about the effectiveness of these media elements; aside from everyone giving general feedback, there were very few chances to iterate the creative process when it came to this pre-determined section of our project. I was disappointed to learn that the central ‘present’ section of the performance would be almost entirely unchanged from the preview we showed months ago.

A few days before our performance we still didn’t have this media completely fixed, and unfortunately Lizzie and Marcel were unavailable so Anita and I met to finally fix everything in our minds. Then I could have enough time to fix the audio, and Anita’s friend Stephen could fix the video. I was happy to see that Anita and I could work creatively with the content we had collected to bring out the effective parts of our overall concept. Together we decided within the boundaries of our entire group’s goals how to achieve an interesting sonic and visual performance. It was only at this stage that we really had the flexibility to be creative, and although I’m glad we had that opportunity, I think it could have been more effective if the entire group was available to workshop these elements. In an ideal world we should have been at this stage a lot sooner, so that we could explore the media in at least a few iterations.

The performance

We were quite pushed for time setting up the staging on the day of the performance, as we hadn’t accounted for the equipment used in the earlier recitals. Thankfully Anita persuaded some people to help us out, and we were able to have a quick run through just to check everything was working as we had intended.

There were a couple of last minute decisions that bugged me; during the blackout section in the ‘present’ the other group members decided we should turn on the projectors. I thought it would have a greater impact on the audience if they were instead plunged into relative darkness, then the projectors would switch on when the video resumed, further adding to the visual dynamic shift intending to saturate the audience. The other point of contention was whether or not to ‘sign’ the graphic score with the group’s team name ‘LAMA.’ Although I can understand that by that time we were incredibly proud of our group’s work, I think it only served to undermine the overall brief: instead of celebrating the history and vision of the university, we were celebrating our group achievement with that gesture.

The project

Overall I’m extremely pleased with the outcome of this project. I think that we created a rich and diverse aesthetic language for ourselves, and this was expressed with a reasonable amount of unity within the varied sections of our final performance. I was also pleased to know that my own interests and abilities had grown through this project, sharing ideas and learning about collaborative and creative practices has had a clear impact on my individual creative practices. I can also say that I have had several new experiences and new achievements in connection to my group work. For the first time I have:

  • created a sonic collage
  • mixed and mastered a video soundtrack
  • edited video and created a video collage
  • helped construct a model for improvisation
  • performed as an improviser, both gesturally and musically
  • studied and put into practice theoretical approaches to creativity

I think that the group has been successful because we were committed to producing something of high quality, and helped incredibly by an open attitude towards individual and group creativity. We committed the group’s work towards fulfilling the brief for this project, and through almost all stages of the creative process this ideal allowed us to unify our diverse range of ideas into something effective and hopefully enjoyable. Although we initially struggled to find a group dynamic, we came together with a common goal, and in the end I think we were all pleased with each group member’s contribution to the final product.

Something I would have like to explore further was the different combinations of people involved in the group meetings. Each individual group had a different dynamic, within which certain resonant ideas took the project into different pathways. Our was certainly a group with strong characters and not without it’s challenges, however I think this willingness towards self-expression was managed effectively and in the end we came out of the process individually stronger, with a successful performance and a broader set of skills.

Final thoughts (for now)

It seems a bit strange to be ending the blog here, as there’s still a lot to do. We’re still working on the backing track for the first section. Before that’s done we can’t make a lot of progress on the live performance. The middle section is unchanged as of a couple of months ago, and we’ve made a lot of progress with material and shaping the performance since then.

My biggest concern is the improvised section. I think that unless we have a good chat about the model of performance we’ll be using it could well be a disaster.

The project is ramping up in activity now, so hopefully my next post will be a doozy!

Music, Sound and Multimedia – Jamie Sexton

This book is a great resource for my personal creative practice, exploring many types of multimedia art, including film music, video-game music, and most importantly (for this project) live performance.

Sexton focusses on pop music. The most interesting example to me was the study of the animated members of the group: Gorillaz. During live performances, the audience, live musician, and animated avatar would all be present, creating a rather unique performance structure.

‘Gorillaz’ music, although composed by the creative team behind the band, is informed by and openly references a gallimaufry of lyrical, rhythmical, and melodic motifs from a range of genres. What makes Gorrilaz so distinctive in performance, however, is that their music depends on performers such as Shaun Ryder and Neneh Cherry, associated with different-sounding bands/genres, who are able to fuse inter-mediations of live and playback forms through physical interaction and sonic synchronisation… Gorrilaz’ work emanates from a spirit of collaboration that decentres notions of authenticity and originality, positioning their work openly in a postmodern field of play and display.’

In this particular performance Madonna appears both as an animated avatar and as a live performer, creating a greater connection between the animated virtual performance and the real life performrs.

Thinking about the animated element of the live performance I am reminded of an interesting performance of ‘The War of the Worlds’ by Jeff Wayne. In this performance a gigantic holographic model of the late Richard Burton narrating was projected above the stage.

Both of these multimedia events create their own super-reality, embelleshing the live music performance with an impossible animated avatar. Whether or not the audience of today has enough suspension of disbelief is difficult to measure, however both performances seem to have been successful.

I think these factors could play a really useful guide to the way we shape our performance. We’re planning on concealing a lot of the music-making from the audience, and it seems that there are many ways we could link the sound to the video display we’re also using. So far our group has identified that there could be a link between the buildings of the campus, the purpose of the building and the organisation within, and representing these elements using sound.

The visuals are something that we have to have mostly fixed, although we will be using shadows as part of a live visual performance. Because of this I think we will have to try hard to seamlessly connect the visual and audio elements.

Improvisation – Derek Bailey (1980)

Where is the impromptu?

Whilst studying improvisation in musicology a common theme seems to appear. The idea that classical music idealises the composer’s output, and neglects the importance of improvisational elements within classical music and the composer’s working methods.

‘The larger part of classical composition is closed to improvisation and, as its antithesis, it is likely that it will always remain closed.’

However this seems at direct conflict with the study into the Romantic ideals explored in the 19th Century. The impromptu form, first published in 1822 by Jan Václav Voříšek is based on the ideals on an improvised work. Many other composers took this form, often beginning a set of variations with a theme seemingly inspired by improvisation

“impromptu.” The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 2 May. 2013. <

In addition to the impromptu in the western classical tradition is the cadenza. This formal section of the music is often supposed to be improvised, allowing a soloist to interpret the previous material and show off virtuoso abilities.

Of course these are only two specific examples within the tradition, but I can’t help think that our attitude to studying music has been over-concerned with the formalisation of classical music performance that happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Trying to find improvisation in the idealised elements of western art music is difficult, because it hasn’t been placed on the same pedestal.

Group Flow

Group Genius – Keith Sawyer


Sawyer suggests 10 things to consider when trying to find/develop group flow.

  1. Goal

The group must have a unified goal, whether it is a problem to solve, or a problem to find (such as a theatrical or musical performance, where problems arise during the course of the performance)

In this case I think our group is finding the problems. Our performance is going to be full of technical aspects and different combinations of media. In this case we are trying to find and eradicate the problems that will detract from a successful performance.

  1. Close listening

This concept is based on the idea that there is a marked difference between participants who spend most of the their time listening to other group members perform at a much higher level that people who spend more time thinking about their next response, sometimes disregarding details or subtleties in the group’s previous state.

I find it hard to tell whether our group uses this skill effectively. There are some times where I consciously drop out of a conversation to listen to the discourse between the other group members, but there are also other times where I have dropped out of the conversation because I am developing an independent thought.

The main difference between our current creative efforts and the type of group flow being scrutinised in this chapter is that we’re working over a much longer period of time, with much of our project based in planning. I think a real test of our close listening skills will come when we get down to the nitty-gritty of performance; especially in the proposed improvisation.

  1. Complete Concentration

Having complete concentration on one group activity can allow the group members to enter a special state of ‘group genius.’ In this state there seems to be a naturally high level of performance, where the group acts in a unified manner. ‘there’d be a natural ebb and flow that reminded you of how rhythmic and musical basketball is supposed to be… it was almost as if we were playing in slow motion.’

Similar to close listening, I don’t yet feel that we have as a group had complete concentration on one goal at the same time.

  1. Being in Control

Being part of an autonomous group is an important factor when it comes to group flow. When the participants are in control of their actions and environments, they are flexible enough to shift roles and focus around to complement a project with changing direction.

I feel that as a group we have enough control of our project, which from the beginning had very few limitations. One thing we are working on more and more as the performance approaches is how to control and develop our performing environment.

  1. Blending Egos

Egos can quite easily destroy a group’s shared identity. For those who have a strong ego are less likely to employ close listening and pull the project direction towards their own ideals. For those with no ego, it is more likely that confidence in their possible contributions is low, and they will be a less productive member.

I think that in our group we have a range of ego types, however we’re all quite strong individuals. The hardest part has been balancing the different levels of control and methods of working that we are individually used to.

  1. Equal Participation

This really follows on from the last point. It makes obvious sense to think that the most productive working group is when each member can contribute. This means that nobody overtakes the project, allowing all members to join in with the dialogue and critical process that makes up the important elements of developing an idea.

I’m not sure about whether or not we as a group have had equal participation. So far it seems that we have each had a good amount of contribution but in different elements within the project. I have been working mostly on the music creation, Anita on the video elements, Marcel on the Lego, and Lizzie on the improvisation. This might be a bit of a downfall within the group, although since I first had concerns about this fact, we have made efforts to critique, and contribute to every area of the performance.

  1. Familiarity

This section provided a surprising insight into the life span of innovative groups. Although it’s important to have the familiarity to know a participant’s strengths and weaknesses, to be able to complement and support them effectively, it’s also important that each member retains an individuality, and the ability to bring something new and unique to the group’s action.

As I said in an earlier post I think the level of familiarity in our group is improving. Although Sawyer notes that some improvised theatre groups disband after three months or so, I don’t think our group has had the level of saturation in group work. I think the group is working to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, with new and unique contributions from each member.

  1. Communication

It is important to have a free method of communications. Sawyer states that it’s not always the arranged meetings which have the best creative group flow, but in the less formal communication that proliferates around these meetings simply due to physical proximity.

Our group doesn’t have a strong level of contact, however we make use of internet communication to good effect. Using soundcloud to share sounds, and youtube and dropbox to share videos we have been able to effectively share ideas. The one advantage to this is that we have been able to remain productive despite differing lifestyles. We can each drop in to the creative and critical aspects of ideas sharing individually, at our own pace, without the pressure of having to respond within the limitations of a group meeting. Overall I think we have used informal communication excellently.

  1. Moving forward

Compounding on ideas is vital to development. This stems from having the freedom to control the group’s actions.

This has been a big part in our group’s project. Slowly but surely ideas have been proposed, tested, critiqued and improved upon. I think our group has a strong sense of moving forward. One problem that might arise from this mentality is that we do not give enough time or consideration to ideas that do not immediately seem to move the project forward, which might be to the detriment of the overall project outcomes.

  1. The potential for failure

Sawyer states that the most successful theatre groups treat each performance as a rehearsal for the next. With this mentality the fear of failure is somewhat mitigated.

I think that personally our group hasn’t really had to cope with the fear of failure as much as we could have done, because of the working method that we employed from the beginning. This may be slightly paradoxical, as we chose to try and move out of our comfort zones. In one way this made failure a lot more likely, however I think more importantly it meant that we all had the excuse that we were all ‘just trying something new.’


In our last meeting Anita brought along her video editing friend, who showed us the edited video from our last session. It looked really good, but we’ll probably need to make some changes to fit with our plan for the musical elements.

We were all thinking about how we were going to use the projectors in the performance. We had already decided to use sheets to create a good platform for the displays, when I had a bit of a flash of inspiration. Instead of projecting onto the walls with sheets on, we could use them to mark out the contour of the audience area.


It would mean that the performers could be completely unseen, or in shadow, or come into the audience area. The most appealing factor to me was to have every inch of wall space able to be projected onto, allowing for a real intensification of the experience. There was a disagreement about how we use the ‘windows’ of the sound boards. I would prefer to use full walls to project onto, rather than the smaller ‘window’ in the sound board, as I think it would be more impressive. The other group members weren’t as convinced so I think we’ll try doing it a few ways and see what’s best.