Blog: Artist Claire Willoughby on her Jerwood Arts Fellowship

1 April 2021


My time being a Jerwood Fellow so far has been a gloriously rich mix of reading, watching stuff, chatting and starting to create sketches for a piece I’m wanting to create for an ASN audience.

I am inspired to make a sensory show for young people who seek sound – using live voices as the lead element (both acoustic and amplified / augmented). Prior to my fellowship, I was really interested in the dichotomy between the structure of notated music, and the space for improvised play with sound – how can we perform a technically complex piece of written music, and still hold the capacity for reaction / interaction with audience members. This is still something I am working out, and although I would love to get 12 singers in a room to play with some of these ideas, at the moment I am mostly creating little sketches of music by recording my own voice over itself in layers, listening back, adding space, listening again, adding harmonies etc…

I have attempted to challenge myself to think differently about the way I create this music. Rather than approaching it with the academic / theoretical way I have always been taught to regard musical composition (as a very sensory person, I have always struggled with this), I decided to let my own sensory experiences lead the process, to see if that would be less restrictive for me.

One of my original inspirations for this piece was the use of natural soundscapes, and the idea of using these as the starting point for creating a kind of aural weighted blanket (or comforting sound bath). I started exploring the myNoise website (something I listen to at night to relax) and was drawn to 3 key soundscapes – Ocean Waves; Primeval Forest; and Windy Cliffs. All of these are rooted in incredibly specific geographic landscapes, and spark an extraordinarily visceral response for me. Images, colours, the feel of the breeze, the taste of salt – suddenly I am transported – and even if these reactions are very likely to be different for different people with different life experiences, I was intrigued to discover what it might be like to use these as my stimulus for creating music that responded to my personal sensory reaction, rather than any literal musical translation or recreation.

Therefore, I have been completing a series of steps, each time leading to very surprising and exciting results (none of which I could have predicted!)

1. Listen to a soundscape. Turn the volume up. Close your eyes. Let the sound envelop you, and wash over your skin. Let the mind wander – what images do I see, what shapes and colours? Are there any scents or textures or tastes I can sense? Sink into and through the first impressions – what comes after those?

2. Open your eyes. With the soundscape still playing, start to create visual images. I mostly have been using watercolours and pastels, but sometimes I use pens and pencils. This might just be one image, it might be lots.. I try to remove any expectation or judgement – its more about the process than the outcome.

3. I might wait a day or two before coming back to step 3, as I want to create a distance between the original soundscape and this next stage. I take the artworks I have created to the piano, and, using them as a visual score, I start to create musical sketches. As visual scores, it might be the colours used, the shape of lines, any words I’ve written – all of these can influence the notes or rhythms, any dissonance or harmony, the texture or timbre. Some of these come out as vocal soundscapes, some are more like actual songs, with verses and chorus. I’m trying to keep in mind the idea of space, and where phrases have the potential to be repeated / can spring into an improvised section, and where things might be tighter and more structured.

4. Taking these musical sketches, I move everything into voice. I’ve been using GarageBand to record different layers of my voice over one another, and its useful to have these initial ideas as a starting point for when I can be in a room with other singers. Myself and my mentor Hanna Tulliki have been talking a lot about scoring, and different ways to write music that can be read by other performers (particularly ones who might not read music in a traditional sense), so its really interesting to think that the next step further down the line might be finding a way to communicate this.

Here are a few examples of the scores I have made: