The Exchange Project: distributed creativity as artistic strategy David Gorton and Peter Sheppard Skærved

Posted on August 26th, 2014 by


The Exchange Project: distributed creativity as artistic strategy


David Gorton and Peter Sheppard Skærved

Paper given at the Performance Studies Network Third International Conference, University of Cambridge, 17-20 July 2014 (adapted).



This paper will discuss the early stages of development of a new piece for string ensemble, that composer David Gorton (David) is creating for and with the violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved (Peter). These early stages were characterised by extensive group improvisations that were used to generate and develop ideas for later incorporation in the piece. We will show selected moments from this process, and close with a few thoughts on what the project might mean for our understanding of musical creativity.


We first starting talking about a new piece for string ensemble in the autumn of 2013 in relation to Peter’s ongoing residency at the Enlightenment Gallery in the British Museum. We were interested in how the Gallery presents to the modern visitor an historical concept of earlier history, and that a musical analogue might be a set of variations on a set of variations. For an initial ‘theme’for this piece we settled on the John Dowland Lachrymae Pavan, otherwise known as ‘Flow my teares’from the 2nd Booke of Songs of 1600, and the many arrangements and variants made of it during Dowland’s lifetime and beyond.


Peter invited David to make some of his own arrangements for string quartet to be performed as part of an event at the British Museum in December, and consequently he made quartet versions of Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’, William Byrd’s Pavana Lachrymae from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and William Randall’s Lachrymae Pavan from the William Tisdale Virginal Book. These were performed alongside an intervention of Peter’s own devising: a Gorton/Dowland mashup, using the Dowland bass line and bits of material from some of David’s recent pieces. As Peter admits this was a not-so-subtle early attempt to influence the outcome of the final piece, and a fairly devious move to ban David from composing while composing (to a degree) himself.

Example 1: short audio extracts of the starts of David’s arrangement of Byrd’s arrangement of Dowland, and of Peter’s mashup.

The Exchange Project

The Exchange Project was founded in 2006 by Peter, and Michael Alec Rose, Associate Professor of Composition at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. They had been introduced to each other by the American composer George Rochberg, who had once been a teacher of Michael Alec Rose, and who had worked extensively with Peter during the six years leading up to his death in 2005. The form of the project is based on previous models that Peter had developed in Mexico, Korea, the Balkans, Turkey, and the USA.


The project runs every two years for a two-week period in the spring. Participants include three or four students (ranging from undergraduates to PhD) and two or three staff from each institution, with a mixture of performers and composers, and those who are both. Half of the time is spent at the Blair School in Nashville, and half at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The central and defining activity of the project is daily experimental workshops.


These could be described as ‘composition workshops’but they are very far from what would normally be understood by the term, where an almost finished composition is played through by a group of willing performers, who might offer suggestions for minor refinement. Instead, the workshops of the Exchange Project generate and develop new ideas: raw materials that can be incorporated into a composition or other project at a later date, rather in the spirit of Peter’s mashup from the British Museum event.


The general method of the workshops is group improvisation, initially led by Peter, with the specific instruction, to paraphrase Keith Tippett, that “there’s no such thing as a wrong note”. As familiarity and trust are developed, ideas and creative leadership begin to come from the other members of the group. With a focus on deep listening and strategies for ensemble communication, the Exchange Project is a safe experimental space without deadlines or other pressures, where a group of musicians can ask one another the question ‘what happens if we try this?’


The 2014 Exchange Project took place from 23 February to 7 March, involving the following personnel:


Royal Academy of Music

Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin

David Gorton, composer

Carter Callison (PhD student), composer/double bass

Sara Cubarsi-Fernandez (MMus student), violin

Maciej Burdzy (MA student), violin

Diana Matthews (alumna, London only), viola


Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University

Michael Alec Rose, composer

Michael Slayton, composer

Audrey Lee (student), violin

Matthew Lammers (student), violin

Caitlin Quinlan (student), cello

Sean Calhoun (student), composer


In preparation for the workshops David added to his Dowland, Byrd, and Randall arrangements by making four-part versions of Giles Farnaby’s Lachrimae Pavan from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and other variations found in Christopher Hogwood’s 2005 Dowland Keyboard Music edition by Heinrich Scheidemann and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. These were to be used as raw materials in the workshops, to be manipulated and experimented with, with the aim of generating new materials that could be incorporated into the piece at a later date.


We have prepared a sequence of video clips that show some of how this experimentation worked in practice, focussing on the development of two types of musical material.


The first set of clips begins mid-way through the second workshop after the players have got to know one another a little and after the arrangements have been sight-read a few times. With so many arrangements on each music stand, the first suggestion was for each member of the ensemble to choose a different arrangement to play from, to see what multiple combinations might sound like together. An unexpected discovery is immediately made: not all of the arrangements have the same number of beats in each section. Peter suggests that those with more material should go “off piste”, speeding up in order for everyone to reach the cadences together, resulting in an interesting scrabbling between Peter (in the foreground of the video) and Academy violinist Maciej Burdzy (to his left).


Example 2: workshop at the Blair School of Music, 26 February 2014.



The next step was to remove the coordinated tempo altogether, and to allow each player to progress through their part at their own speed. Immediately the general pace of material slows down, but with interspersed flourishes where the players deliberately push ahead, or try to catch up. The improvisational character of this next clip is very apparent, with each player clearly listening carefully, finding space in the texture for their own contribution, creating dialogues with one another, and responding expressively to the unexpected harmonies.


Example 3: workshop at the Blair School of Music, 26 February 2014.



Next it was suggested that Peter and the bass player, Carter Callison, should play through their parts in tempo, with extravagant flourishes added by the other players ad lib. This is perhaps not so successful to begin with, and Peter, in an attempt to reintroduce the careful listening from before, starts to refine the outcome by establishing rules, or to put it another way, composing in real time.


Example 4: workshop at the Blair School of Music, 26 February 2014.


Overnight, and in the setting of a new workshop, the flourishes from the previous examples evolved into extended strings of grace notes: here, each player flies through their own material from the first to last note of each section. This appears to be a moment of real discovery, with recognition that the improvisations have moved away from mere mutations of the notated arrangements to something that sounds, and feels to play, quite new and original. Peter’s rather exuberant response validates the general feeling in the room.


Example 5: workshop at the Blair School of Music, 27 February 2014.



Excited conversation followed this moment, resulting in a number of different suggestions for how this new material could be developed. It is important to note that throughout these attempts, and the many other iterations in between these clips, the ensemble is learning. There seems to be a cyclical relationship between learning the notated materials, and learning to improvise with them: the repetition of listening and response reinforces the technical control of materials, and vice versa. In Peter’s string quartet, the Kreutzer Quartet, they often refer to this by removing the ‘l’and talking about ‘earning’their way into a piece.


The next clip is the result of Michael Alec Rose rethinking an idea he had voiced earlier:he asks if the same effect could be tried again, but this time waiting, and gathering, at each of the downbeats.


Example 6: workshop at the Blair School of Music, 27 February 2014.



This material was explored at length throughout the rest of the project, with a large number of permutations. One further clip from this first set shows again how interesting musical results can occur through the unexpected and serendipitous. At a suggestion from one of the student composers, and a consequence of the material in the previous clip, the ensemble are all improvising jig-like rhythms through their parts. The violinist at the front right of the picture, Maciej Burdzy, has swapped his original Randall part with a part from the Bryd arrangement, and in a circumstance very similar to how the process had begun, he now has far more notes to get through than he realises. The result is a fascinating improvised duet with the other Academy violinist, Sara Cubarsi-Fernandez, who has encountered the same issue.


Example 7: workshop at the Blair School of Music, 27 February 2014.



The second set of examples shows an experimentation with tempi and microtonal shifts. Given that the arrangements were in four parts and that at various times we had up to double that number of string players, it made immediate sense to try playing two different arrangements simultaneously, and then to try altering the tempi of the two different groups.


This first clip shows the third attempt. The left hand quartet, led by Peter, is playing the Farnaby arrangement, and the right hand trio is playing the Randall arrangement. Peter’s quartet attempts to get gradually slower, while the trio keeps a slightly faster speed, with Carter, the bass player, nodding their separate tempo.


Example 8: workshop at the Blair School of Music, 27 February 2014.



The following week, in London, we return to this idea, but this time with fluctuating pitch rather than tempi. Here the two groups descend gradually by eigth-tone increments, but at different rates. After trying this out, Peter suggests that his line should stay at pitch, creating three layers of microtonality. This latter version seems more disturbing than the previous one, for the ensemble as well as the listener, because the points of harmonic reference are dislocated from previously learned fingering positions.


Example 9: workshop at St Michael’s Cornhill, London, 5 March 2014.



After a number of permutations the variant in this final clip was settled on as  generally the most satisfying. Here the changes in pitch and tempi are combined, with the Farnaby group on the left staying at pitch but getting slower, and the Randall group on the right playing faster and gradually flatter.


Example 10: workshop at the Royal Academy of Music, 7 March 2014.



It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that we had a number of strategies for deciding what might be attempted each day in the workshops, both in relation to this Lachrymae project and all the other separate projects of the other participants not discussed here. We were certainly not the only ones to influence the choices made, and part of the tactical approach that Peter had was to timetable the workshops in such a way as to allow everybody time for their ideas to be worked on, while being flexible enough to respond to promising new ideas as they emerged.


But despite requiring all participants to contribute it was inevitable that the group, comprising a mixture of musicians of different ages, experiences, and interests, should need to be guided, and in the video clips Peter’s leadership is clearly apparent. What isn’t apparent, but needs acknowledging, is the way in which ideas developed in social time, through conversations over dinner and so forth, and in response to each other’s projects. For example, the idea to try microtonal shifts in the previous examples came as a direct suggestion from Academy violinist Sara Cubarsi-Fernandez in response to the workshop on her microtonal violin studies project.


The other important influence was that of ‘phantom’composers that entered the conversation and became points of reference. At one stage in the workshop where the two groups had different tempi, Michael Alec Rose exclaimed “it’s just pure Tippett, right there”, and Peter, in trying to describe an ensemble coordination technique says “let’s do the Schnittke 1 thing”, in reference to the First Concerto Grosso.Michael Finnissy’s name came up on several occasions, firstly in relation to the melting effect of the different tempi in the second video clip, and then in describing how a chord should be held: “as if lost in thought”- a quotation from his 1996 work Plain Harmony for string quartet. Peter also observed that learning the complexities of the Byrd and Farnaby through the oblique experiments of the workshop was strikingly similar to learning and, “earning his way”into a Finnissy score.


Distributed creativity as artistic strategy

In recent years a critical discourse has emerged concerning the collaborative relationship between composers and performers, and more widely the social and distributed qualities of creativity in musical and artistic production; of particular note are the writings of Georgina Born and Eric Clarke. Yet, what Tim Ingold describes as the “hylomorphic model”, the tendency to read “creativity ‘backwards’, from a finished object to an initial intention in the mind of an agent”, remains entrenched among the communities and infrastructure of Western classical music.


In relation to oil painting Ingold observes that revisions and alterations are obscured by the density of the paint, and that “we are thus more inclined to treat the work as a finished object, and to treat it as an index of the intentions of the artist, as though the latter were linked to the former by a simple chain of cause and effect.”The same could be argued for a musical score, and even where an analysis of sketch materials is possible, revealing revisions and alterations (the equivalent of x-raying an oil painting), the conclusions largely serve the original assumptions of the hylomorphic model, by providing the stages and links of the cause and effect chain: the imposing of intensions on notation, form on material.


Following the Exchange Project David began work on a score of the Lachrymae Variations piece. This task, which remains incomplete, includes many of the techniques and methods that are recognisable from the completion of his other scores over a period of years: manipulation, transformation, extension, variation, pacing, structuring, and so on.


Example 11: first page of the autograph manuscript of David Gorton’s Lachrymae Variations


A look at the score would reveal these techniques through the working of the Dowland material, and the interactions of variations by Farnaby, Randall, Byrd, etc. It is easy to notice though that the opening of this piece remains very close to the improvisation on the ‘gathering at the downbeats’video clip in Example 6 above. Yet the creative process that led to the generation of this opening, shown in the videos as social, distributed, and above all serendipitous, remains invisible in the score.


The Exchange Project, then, confronts us, in a very practical sense, with Ingold’s ontology of making, which reads creativity ‘forwards’, rather than ‘backwards’. As an artistic strategy the Exchange Project embraces this idea – the itinerant following of the grain and flow of materials – and it establishes the social and distributed conditions for what Keith Saywer and Stacy DeZutter call “collaborative emergence”. Ingold rather fittingly describes all this as “improvisation”: “To improvise is to follow the ways of the world, as they open up”. For the Exchange Project and the Lachrymae Variations, “this is where the creativity is to be found”.



Georgina Born, ‘On Musical Mediation’, Twentieth-century Music, 2/1 (2005), 7-36.

Eric Clarke, Mark Doffman, and Liza Lim, ‘Distributed Creativity and Ecological Dynamic: a case study of Liza Lim’s ‘Tongue of the Invisible’’, Music and Letters, 94/4 (2013), 628-63.

Edmund H. Felowes (ed.), revised Thurston Dart, The English Lute Songs (Stainer and Bell, 1969).

Michael Finnissy, Plain Harmony (OUP, 1996).

Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (Dover, 1963).

Christopher Hogwood (ed.), John Dowland Keyboard Music (Edition HH, 2005).

Tim Ingold, ‘The Textility of Making’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34 (2010), 91-102.

Keith Sawyer and Stacey DeZutter, ‘Distributed Creativity: How Collective Creations Emerge From Collaboration’, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3/2 (2009), 81-92.

Alfred Schnittke, Concerto Grosso No. 1 (Boosey and Hawkes, 1977).