Paul’s Walk

for performer(s), live text and audio processing. Text by Paul Roe. First performance (original version), Up Close With Music, Concorde Ensemble, Dublin April 2015.

Paul’s Walk is a semi-improvisatory live work. It can be performed by any instrument (or two, sharing the part) but probably works best for sustaining instruments (e.g. woodwind or strings). This screen movie is of an older version. Paul’s Walk version 2: updated 2017 – download here: score / app (Mac OSX) / performance instructions

Paul’s Walk from novamara on Vimeo.

APP IS NOT CURRENTLY AVAILABLE: Please note that the mac/ipad app required for this work is no longer updated and will not work on newer OSX. I hope to find another platform soon. 

Lately I’ve been making interactive or ‘responsive’ pieces that are a mix of music, text and sound, on themes to do with place – what it means and how it feels to walk and be in a landscape. This piece was originally composed for clarinetist Paul Roe. The words are taken from Paul’s informal description of a favourite walk, Upper lake at Glendalough in Co. Wicklow – a walk he says he ‘truly loves’.

How to play the piano (in 88 notes)

Music by friend and fellow composer Richard Hoadley , words by me – written and recorded to use within an interactive work, Piano Glyphs, with pianist Philip Mead. Performed at De Montfort University  Cultural Exchanges festival, 26 February 2015.

More info on Richard’s piece here.

 How to play the piano (in 88 notes)

To start, hands still.
Content at first to pedal,
knees rising and falling,
feet pumping.
Making stationary journeys
in Aunt Win’s stuffy parlour
the pianola unfurls its pattern,
punching airy absences
into the middle class gloom.

The invisible other’s papery digits
are miraculously exhumed
and the keys move
to mark the time.

The touch, fingers down.
Fleshy pads leech secret heat
from darkened ebony
and ridged whorls rub
on slivered ivory tusk.
A tactile dissonance beneath this black and white
hints at a sprawling history of lust
(of animal desire)
concealed in those chaste meetings.
And yet
they felt so good.

But that rough purchase
has long since been usurped.
Now there’s the syrupy clasp
of skin on plastic.
Now there’s a new glossary,
a different trade.
The moral slip and slide
of polyurethane.

Keep it legato, if you can (An interlude)
Miss Norman will play some skipping music,
and fifteen infant ballerinas in pink attire will hop
left leg, then right,
across a cold church hall.
They jolt discretely,
too graceless yet to fake that blended join
from leap to leap.
It comes with practice — the piano is the same.
The phrases that we long to get just right.
The limpid, liquid, pearly grains that run and trill,
and peal and flow,
and try to skip along.

One sound follows another,
the action rises, then it falls — no true glissando here.
Think ahead and grasp
towards the next moment.
We dance freely without limits
only in our minds.

Reach inside, be brave.
This overstrung contraption
with its lid-skin lifted
to expose the innards — tendons, hammers, metal frame, and folded felt.
The instrument laid bare for examination.
A candlelit cadaver in a sitting room,
dragged home by night
from some disgusting charnel house.

The lights go down.
The audience waits to be amazed
at revelations from a bloodless corpse.
A hand plucks life from swaddled strings,
a movement etched in clouds of resonating wire.
The internal is entirely strange.
Suddenly, here is a new translation.

Don’t forget to get the piano tuned.
The process is quite arbitrary.
We make assumptions.
Check the 4ths and 5ths,
and choose a scale.
Doubling the frequency
from F to F,
from C to shining C.
But there’s no real independence,
just a wobbling indecision as to possible divisions
that have changed, from year to year.

At last, the piano tuner starts to play,
smiles, picks up a snatch of melody,
and plays again.
Gleefully we sit back down,
lift our fingers,
move them to and fro.

The range is fixed, you know.
Seven octaves,
and a minor third
to bring things to a close.

Katharine Norman, December 2014.


(live performance, Electric Voices)

Score (scan of hard copy – 18MB)

Icarus (for four voices and ‘tape’ – fixed digital sound) was commissioned by Sonic Arts Network and first performed at the Purcell Room, London, in 1993 by Electric Voices. It was also selected for the ISCM World Music Days, in 1995.

In this piece the myth of Icarus is interwoven with brief extracts from Leonardo’s astounding writings on flight, and on the sun, some of which are given below. Both could be said to represent a yearning for distant possibilities, spiritual or otherwise.

…You will study the anatomy of the wings of a bird together with the muscles of the breast which are the movers of these wings. And you do the same for man in order to show the possibility that there is in man to sustain himself amid the air by the flapping of wings…

…Why the sinews beneath the bird’s wings are more powerful than those above. It is done for the movement… … in order that the process of going up may be easy, and that of going down difficult and meeting with resistance, and it is especially adapted for going forward drawing itself back in the manner of a file…

…That bird will rise on high which by means of a circular movement in the shape of a screw makes its reflex movement against the coming of the wind and against the flight of this wind, turning always upon its right or left side… When the bird passes from a slow to a swift current of the wind it lets itself be carried by the wind until it has devised a new assistance for itself… …the bird has always time to redirect its course and in safety adjust its flight which will always proceed entirely free.

The sun does not move.
The sun has substance, shape, motion, radiance, heat… …for in the whole world I do not see a body of greater magnitude and power than this… …all vital force descends from it since the heat that is in living creatures comes from the soul and there is no other heat or light in the universe.

These texts are used as material for the singers and the digital part, in the latter they are processed using a variety of computer techniques. The recordng is from a live performance and doesn’t really do the singers enough justice – they did a marvellous job, and toured the work throughout the UK. I’ve also used and reworked the material from the digital part in Leonardo’s Lists, a piece for dance, live image and video (by Brian Newbold) and live sound, commissioned by Elektrodome and South West Arts (2000).

Yes, really

Yes, really, written in 2008, reached the finals of the New Media Writing Prize 2010. It is an email-based fiction in which the stories of three characters, based in the North of England, are interwoven and arrive in your email inbox as a series of messages. It’s a tale about music, consciousness, communication and being trapped.


Bees and broom

[This piece is quite old, you might find it doesn’t work in all browsers, or at least not without installing Flash and Jsynth plugins]

For a few years we lived on Pender Island, off the coast of British Columbia. Yellow broom, an invasive plant, was everywhere, regarded by many as an unwanted, destructive presence. But not by all …

Bees and broom (2004) is a little piece of interactive online writing that contains a hidden game. It was my first venture into digital writing and uses Flash and Jsynth (for the game). You’ll need the sound up.


Here and there

Here and there (2006) is a small piece of interactive digital writing. For several years I lived on Pender Island, off the coast of British Columbia. At night it was truly dark, and the moon and stars were the only lights. Like the moths, we relied on both for nocturnal navigation. For a period, life was very different and our guidance systems changed … in some ways, forever.

Making Place

Making Place

Here, setting out alone,
feet heavy in the clay,
travel seems a blind cacophony
replete with ancient allegories.
read full text

Scroll down to download materials and for more info.

Making Place is a poetic exploration of place, and place making, for one or two performers and live interactive processing of animation, text and audio. It can be performed by any instrument capable of realising a version of the semi-improvisatory score.

Last tested, May 2017. Please note that the app is no longer updated and may not work on newer OSX (> 10.9). I’ve reached the point where it’s too hard to keep doing major recoding. Might update it one day.

click to: DOWNLOAD MATERIALS AND INFO (64bit Mac OSX app, score etc). Please feel free to experiment – or get in touch.

As of 2016 the performer uses the score in conjunction with a mac app (OSX) that can be preloaded with the performer’s choice of field recordings and images. You are encouraged to incorporate your own images and recorded sounds.There are currently score versions for piano solo, piano duo, violin solo, violin and ‘cello, and ‘cello solo, but almost any pitched instrument could interpret the score.

Making Place was commissioned by Kate Halsall with funds from the Arts Council of England and the Britten Pears Foundation. First performance, Sonorities festival, Belfast, April 2013 (one piano version).Other performances Falmouth University, Cornwall, May 2013 (two pianos – Kate Halsall, Fumiko Miyachi), Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (Kate Halsall), New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival 2015 (violin, Maja Cerar), International Computer Music Conference Athens, ZKM Karlsruhe (piano, Sebastian Berweck), Mannes College, New School NYC (piano, Daniel Schreiner), Banff Centre (Kate Halsall).

The Future

Radiophonic miniature, 1995.

‘The Future – do we have one? Nah, I’ll be dead by then!’

Made from quick ‘n’ dirty documentary recordings using a grotty handheld microphone, this one-minute piece is a brief, evocative picture of children and their thoughts on what they want ‘in the future’ – a musical treatment of their personalities – their frenetic response to being tape-recorded – `me first, my turn, let me finish, my go !’ …this piece is unashamedly sentimental. Thanks to Lindsay, Lynne, Tara, the kids, the dogs and the budgerigar.

Commissioned by Yorkshire and Humberside Arts as part of their “New Radio” venture in 1995 and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1996.

Five-minute wonders

Composed between 1997-2001, each of these short computer-processed soundscapes, midway between music and documentary (and sometimes with tunes), celebrates the ‘wonder’ of a particular time and place, and lasts exactly five minutes.

Anything from the minibar?

A hotel receptionist with a particularly interesting and lyrical North of England accent. The music picks out the inflections and inner melodies within her voice, and perhaps comments wryly on the stock phrases she employed.

Oranges and Lemons

Waiting at a tourist attraction (a Roman fort) where there was an outside gift-shop and icecream kiosk. Listening to the repetitive jingle of the till, the children’s chatter, the sounds of people as they enjoyed doing nothing much.

Something quite atrocious

Root surgery. And all the time an inane radio competition in the background mixing with the sound of the drill and shooshing suction …trying to make it sound like the sea….escape to another place…no luck.

You need a cab?

A surreal taxi journey across Toronto, starting from an aural viewpoint way above the traffic, then descending onto the street, careering around town in the company of a burbling radio and a extrovert cabbie, of Ghanaian origin via Hackney….


Oboe, percussion and fixed sound, 2001.
for oboe, percussion and digital sound, performed by New Noise




contact composer for ‘tape part’.

Insomnia. The inability to sleep, despite attempts at rest. Like an insomniac this piece is agitated and unable to settle. The instrumentalists inhabit a dark, oppressive world which is constantly active, fragmentary and bordering on nightmare. The work was partly inspired by my own experience of insomnia, which usually strikes when I am making work or writing, and by Sylvia Plath’s poem, ‘Insomniac’.

Although composed for oboe and percussion, I’m happy for you to arrange it for any instrument and percussion or to discuss alternatives.

Losing it is a related text-based digital piece using similar materials.

Insomnia was commissioned by New Noise (Joby Burgess and Janey Miller) in 2001. Recorded on their CD Insomniac.

Losing it

Sound alone, fixed, 2004.

Losing it….losing it…close your eyes. Close your eyes! …
Sleep… sleep – you’re losing it, losing it.
Trying to smudge that white line of consciousness.
Aching to fall… into oblivion.
Trapped in limbo between sleep and the desire to sleep.
Frozen beyond waking.
Half dead…half still, half awake? Not whole.
Can’t stop thinking, can’t stop remembering this cruel parade of itchy embarrassments, scratching away beneath blank eyes.
There is too much noise for rest, there is too much sight for blindness.
Sleep now, before it’s too late – morning’s manic birds are gouging you into wakefulness.
Sleep. You’re losing it…

This text/sound piece about insomnia and a nightmarish mental state has been performed in various ways, from a live four-channel mix in a club in Vancouver to a fixed media performance over a 60-speaker system at the International Computer Music Conference in Belfast. The work is made from transformed voice (mine), noise and environmental recordings of an English dawn chorus. I made a related work for oboe, percussion and digital sound, Insomnia, composed for New Noise, and recorded on their CD, Insomniac

Local Materials (there’s my stop)

ClunchOriginally published in Playing with Words: the spoken word in artistic practice, ed Cathy Lane, CRiSAP/RGAP/Cornerhouse 2008.

I was invited to write about pieces I have made in which I ‘play with words’. But, you know, I’d much rather point you in the general direction and let you explore them for yourself. In any case maybe my concerns are the other way around: it’s not so much playing with words, but the ‘play’ — the inherent give and take — between words, language, text and place that I find really fascinating. So I thought I’d write about my journey home instead, with just a few asides. And there are links.

The bus ride is still new to me. In the dark January evenings the country roads all look the same and the convoluted route, looping back and forth through several villages, makes things all the more confusing. There’s a long stretch of unlit road just before my stop. Here the bus gathers speed and hurtles past unseen fields and occasional signs that I can’t quite read through the dirty windows. If I’m not careful I lose track of where we are, and of when I should alert the driver to pull over. From the brightly lit interior I strain my eyes into the blackness, searching for a particular whitewashed wall that looms up on the left and tells me to ‘press the red button now’.

Two women in their early twenties regularly share part of the trip. I think they work in the health club. They talk about nothing of substance (or so it seems to me), simply batting back and forth freshly turned anecdotes unceasingly — boys, sex, love, life, money, life, love, sex, boys. They perform to each other in a make-do mix of imported and regional accents and idioms: this magpie vernacular cements their connection. I can only provide a taste, because you’d need to listen.

‘An’ we argued all the time before it all went tits up.’

‘He was owtside the Co-op last night wiv his mates. But I didn’t talk to him coz he had these really funky trainers on.’
‘So I TOWLD him no we’ve broken up, so you can’t be coming back and ’aving sum more of it now, can you?’
‘Just where duz he get off!’

When they leave, their absence creates a space that reminds me I’m almost halfway home. For a few moments I mentally recreate bits of their conversation, trying to retain the sounds so I can figure out what’s going on in that accent. And I remember that I grew up using speech patterns that were quite similar to theirs, even if at some early point I chose to abandon them for different materials.

The other night, a Friday, the driver stopped to let a couple of amiably inebriated male passengers get out to pee into a hedge. Too pissed to piss out of sight, their antics caused guffawing from the busload of observing passengers. I turned to joke with the workmen sitting behind — and heard both my voice and vocabulary slide slightly towards theirs. When I pick up the phone at work I do the opposite, sidestepping easily into administrative turns of phrase, ‘upgrading’ my accent, rolling reassuring competence across the lines. Playing the game. Playing along with the right words, and sound, for the job. It’s a common, almost unconscious social accommodation in situations where we know the landscape down to the smallest sign. But transplanted between countries, or even counties, that ostensibly speak the same lingua franca we lose the subtle to and fro that comes from knowing our place. Instead, the new patina on a once-familiar language brings something else in view.

In Anything from the minibar? I recorded a hotel receptionist who mouthed the conventional phrases of ‘customer service speak’ in the gentle sing-song of a Northumbrian accent. To me her accent was attractive, to her it was unheard. ‘Morning, checking out?’, ‘Two nights’ accommodation, that’s your total bill?’, ‘Has everything been alright for you?’ No, it hadn’t. And no, I didn’t ask her permission to record, I fear. But then she was already performing a script that wasn’t her own. And this piece is a celebration of her performance, and her voice.

I have worried about the ethics of this, but far less than in the case of a clandestine recording of a Dublin street-preacher, whose fire and brimstone oration was for everyone to hear but came from the heart. I decided his recording should have the right to remain silent. For me his accent and delivery were exotic, for him both were incidental.

The fields rush past outside. The wall I’m looking out for is made of clunch, a local limestone that has been quarried since Roman times in this part of England; it was once used extensively for building, despite its tendency to fracture or erode. Under my breath I experiment with my latest new word absentmindedly, ‘kuh…lunnnn….ch!’ ‘kerrrr…lunCH!’. I like saying it. The procedure involves anatomical operations that I can perform instinctively, but couldn’t name without looking them up: the springy impetus of tongue against roof of mouth, the dropped jaw vowel, and the satisfying ‘chuh!’ to seal the deal. A good solid word that (for me) sticks out at the moment, just like those odd lumps of chalk that stud Cambridgeshire clay.

Traditional buildings are born of compromise — a pragmatic ‘making do’ with what’s inherent in the landscape. They may eventually slip away but of course their materials are already memorialized in the local names for place — Chalk Vale, Quarry Lane, Pit Road. The materials of vernacular language are similarly cobbled together unthinkingly and, just as unthinkingly, discarded along the way. Sometimes all that’s left of the past are shards of vocabulary that mean far less now than they used to. Around the corner from my home, Limestone Close is a 1980s brick-built housing development.

Sometimes I miss the clunch wall and only realize this when the bus has passed my stop and the church comes into view. Once, nipping home through the churchyard (with my head bowed, but only against the rain) I noticed a poster flapping on the door. It announced a joint service between various denominations and was printed in English, Welsh and Gaelic. The Welsh I identified immediately — I could even try to read it out loud, approximating the sound of the words without knowing their meaning. But for me Gaelic is too strange to even attempt: although it uses familiar characters, there are all those unfamiliar diacritical marks to contend with. I know they change the sound — but I don’t know how. And words need sound.

In Trying to translate the pianist’s live, electronically processed sounds interweave with the digitally processed sounds of both Gaelic psalm-singing and speech from a radio documentary. The latter concerns the difficulties of translating texts from Gaelic into English: from one language with a vocabulary rooted in experiences that no longer exist to another whose vocabulary has moved away from the old ways of living. Trying to translate is a meditation on the interdependency of spoken language and experience, and on how easily the loss of one can lead to the loss of the other.

But, naturally, spoken words are just part of the story. An ‘old boy’ (as they call elderly men around these parts) gets on the bus most nights and stays up at the front chatting, completely ignoring the printed admonition: ‘do not stand or talk to the driver while the bus is in motion’. With his back to me, I can’t hear more than the murmur of his voice and the driver’s occasional short responses. But I see more than words alone can tell in the apparently nonchalant leaning stance of the passenger, who still wants to be one of the boys, rather than just some ‘old boy’. Perhaps he’s an ex-bus driver who knows the old cross-country routes like the back of his hand but is no longer required on this journey. He is trying to hang on to the banter of a place that has receded into his past. The driver knows; he accommodates the man out of kindness but his terse, impatient head movements give the game away. Although of course that’s just the story I chose to observe, and to tell now. It may not be true.

In In her own time I transformed my mother’s reminiscences about growing up during WWII, or ‘the war’ as she always calls it — in her mind, and in her words, this was the only war to touch her. In my piece, for much of the time, I chose to obscure her words. There are other stories in the way memories are re-articulated in the patterns of speech, especially when the patterns are imbued both with harmony and pitch, and remembering emotion. As she relates tales of crashed Spitfires, shrapnel popping in the garden hedge, and neighbours crushed to death in their homes, her slight London accent plucks the digital filters that tune her voice. But while you cannot always hear her words, for much of the time (I hope) you can hear her feeling. (The piece starts very quietly….listen.)

The bus pulls up at the crossroads, about ten minutes away from my non-verbal cue. Rather than demolish clunch walls, builders over the years have propped them up with added buttresses and bulging patches of later bricks and mortar. Wearing their histories visibly, the walls are silently eloquent: they are, to borrow Nabokov’s words, ‘transparent things, through which the past shines’.

A woman in her thirties presses the button and gets up, reluctantly closing her paperback as she makes for the doors. She has a slightly hippie dress sense that I like (though she might describe it with a less dated vocabulary). In the mornings she often sits down next to me, but we never speak. Her preferred reading is Arthurian, quest-based fiction. Heroes and heroines. I take a sidelong glance as she devours page after page, and imagine a stream of text spooling through her mind. I wonder what her internal reading voice sounds like, and if it imparts an inflection to the words that’s unique to her — and if that affects the meaning in subtle, unknowable ways. Her silent reading provides an inaudible virtual filter that’s a kind of ‘duet’ with the author’s text, itself a transliteration from inner voice to printed word. What is this voice that we create? Is it simply a speaking voice internalized, or is it something more directly hard-wired to conscious thought? How do the voices of internal discourse differ from speech, or even from one another? Where are we now? It’s still so dark.

Islands of One is my first sound-art piece in which I have used my speaking voice as material in conjunction with an autobiographical text. For me this was quite a difficult decision because on the one hand this could be deemed insufferably narcissistic, and yet on the other hand perhaps the only way to make art about phenomenal experience is to tell it how it seems, first person. And this is also the first piece I composed with headphone listening in mind. My voice, close up — right inside the listener’s head.

(This is a rather old flash piece from 2006 and might not work in your browser. Sorry.)


But proximity is a relative concept, one with a lot of ‘play’ in it. I currently spend a large part of my week reading and responding to email messages. Many are from strangers, whom I will never ‘hear from’ outside the written word. But it’s not only work-related acquaintances that I know this way, in fact I have more than a few good friends that I have only known online, ‘dis-voiced’. We have never met in the flesh, and probably never will, and we have never felt the need to phone. And yet, on the strength of their words, and mine — the way we write to each other — I feel we are quite close. And we are, I think. When another email arrives, or we ‘chat’ by text, it’s not only the words but the person who seems near — here, with me, inside my reading voice.


In Yes, really, a venture into fiction delivered via email, I have attempted to play with the intimacy of the Inbox. A counterpoint of three voices addresses the reader; each voice is written in a distinctive style and tone, each expresses experience through a particular sensibility, and each requires the reader to take on a ‘role’, and to interact by reading. There are no sounds, other than those created inside the reader’s mind. For this kind of art, no speakers are required.

In a growing number of cases, people perform significant aspects of their social — and emotional — lives on the internet. That small word ‘on’ gives a clue to its place: the same connective preposition used for radio, phone, or TV. A place to be — or to feel oneself to be — with others. And on the internet we are constantly creating voices — reading or writing online epistolary communications that speak through the imagined (or, still less often, the real) sound of language And it’s all ‘up close’. Every message gains local significance. Even the Chinese spam mail, rendered as a series of question marks by my anglo-email software, is a mute interrogation.

The virtual and the real are concepts whose unfinished edges increasingly rub against each other. And the relationship between the two seems ever more dynamic as the notion of what people call home expands to include the insubstantial. And I wonder if one day these concepts, and their words, will be discarded as inappropriate building materials. Perhaps they will only remain in the names for places that were more important in the past. What seems solid now may fracture and erode with time, and ultimately evanesce. Something will come along.

And there it is: the white clunch wall. The dishevelled remnant of a boundary long fallen out of use. It marks the place where I get off.

Katharine Norman, January 2008.

If any of these links are broken, please email me for directions.

Some routes
Crystal, David (1997, 2nd ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel (2005). Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language. New York: Zone Books.

Milne, Esther. Email and Epistolary technologies: Presence, Intimacy, Disembodiment. (accessed January 2008)
Nabokov, Vladimir (2002, written in 1972). Transparent things. New York: Vintage Books.
Norman, Katharine (2004). Sounding Art: Eight Literary Excursions through Electronic Music. Aldershot, UK and Vermont, USA: Ashgate.
The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland – Preface to Cambridgeshire
(accessed October 2014)

Leonardo sketches

Sound alone, text/voice based, 2000.

Leonardo da Vinci strode through life inventing things – for him, the world was a big dance of possibilities. The texts in these two very short movements ((1. Pandolfino’s books 2. Anaxagorus – performed continuously) are taken from some of the many notes and remarks that he wrote in the margins and spaces of his Notebooks. In additional annotations, across the margins or over other writings, he listed lists objects and ideas he wanted to remember: everything from an inventory of all his tableware and linen – ‘two small sheets, two large sheets, one table-cloth and a half’ – to observations on books, birds, money. His was a mind where everything was active and interconnected, all mixed up together.

These pieces were made as preparatory pieces for a larger work for dance and interactive video and electronics, Leonardo’s Lists, first performed in the L-Shed, Bristol in 2000, commissioned by Elektrodome.

My thanks to the late Edward Williams for contributing his voice, commissioning this work, and for much, much more.

Islands of One

Sound alone, sonic fictions, 2007.

For several years I lived on a small island off the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada. An experience of personal illness while there was the starting point for what became ‘sonic fictions’, four short audio-texts about experience and place. The stories, like my post-recovery reflection on hallucinating wildly, became a meditation on the fragility of whatever thread it is that holds our sense of self, and reality, together.

Most of the sounds, other than my speaking voice, are recordings from my then home, Pender Island.

What is this Island?

One way or the other

Sparkling, gossamer – this was how it seemed

You think you know what you’re doing

Islands of One was made in 2007 for first performance at The Western Front, Vancouver, was selected for the Media Show of the Electronic Literature Organization in 2008 and has been presented at several concerts and galleries, as well as broadcast on BBC Radio 3.