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.

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.


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.

Writings on sound and art


That passing glance – sounding paths between memory and familiarity in The Routledge Companion to Sounding Art, Marcel Cobussen, Vincent Meelberg and Barry Truax, eds, Routledge, 2017.

 Some questions around listening: Vancouver Soundscape Revisited by Claude Schryer in Expanding the horizon of electroacoustic music analysis, Simon Emmerson and Leigh Landy, eds, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 376-299.

Listening at Home in Affective Landscapes in Literature, Art and Everyday Life, Christine Berberich, Neil Campbell and Robert Hudson, eds, Routledge (previously by Ashgate), 2015, 207–221.

On the concept of Acoustic Ecology [pending] — keynote speech for Symposium on Acoustic Ecology, Kent University, November 2013.

Listening together, making place, Organised Sound 17/3, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Guest editor/curator, two themed issues of Organised Sound (CUP), on ‘Sound, Listening and Place’ (read editorials for 16/3 and 17/3, 2011-12).

The Listening Workshop, an essay written in response to attending the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology conference in Corfu, 2011. Published inSoundscape, the journal of the WFAE.

Beating the bounds for ordinary listening, keynote presentation, World Forum for Acoustic Ecology conference, Corfu, 2011.

Conkers (listening out for organised experience), in Organised Sound, 15, pp 116-124 doi:10.1017/S1355771810000105. 2010.

Listening Change , a panel presentation for ArtMusFair 2010, Fryderyk Chopin Conservatory, Warsaw. October 2010.

A Wave Across the Auditorium, an experimental essay on sound, art and space for a book accompanying Absorption and Resonance, an exhibition of Sound Art in Norway (2009).

Local Materials (there’s my stop), an essay on my works with voices, words and sound. Also published in Playing with Words ed. Cathy Lane (CRiSAP/RGAP/Cornerhouse, 2008).

Where are We Listening, and What are We Listening To?, a keynote address: EMS07 (Electroacoustic Music Studies 07), De Montfort University, London.

Pareil à un voyageur perdu, (trans Evelyne Gayou) in Portraits Polychromes 10: Francis Dhomont. Paris: GRMINA,INA PP10,2006. (translation of Chapter 6, Sounding Art)

Before and After Listening to Judy Klein’s ‘the wolves of Bays Mountain’, for Open Space magazine, issue 6, 2004

(book) Sounding Art: Eight Literary Excursions through Electronic Music, Aldershot, UK and Vermont, USA: Ashgate, 2004.

Stepping outside for a moment: narrative space in two works for sound alone, book chapter, in Music, electronic media and culture, ed. Simon Emmerson. Aldershot, UK and Vermont, USA: Ashgate, 2000.

Real-world Music as Composed Listening in A Poetry of Reality: Composing with Recorded Sound Contemporary Music Review, vol 15 Parts 1-2, ISBN 3-7186-5932-8 (1996), Taylor and Francis, issue editor Katharine Norman.

Telling Tales, in Timbre Composition in Electroacoustic Music. Contemporary Music Review vol. 10, Part 2 pp 103-9. London: Taylor and Francis, 1994.

Other bits and pieces

The Space Between: a curated online gallery of electroacoustic sound works, for

An essay on Mentoring, posted to a list and subsquently published in eContact (journal of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community)

“Canadian Music and Performing Arts,” encyclopedia entry for The World and its Peoples (Brown Reference Group).

“Classical Music and Opera,” extended entry in USA 1950s, encyclopedia series (Brown Reference Group, 2005).

“Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio,” in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, ed. Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, and New York: Grove, 2001.

“Electronic Music,” extended entry in Encarta Encyclopedia (1995– ), World-English Edition (Microsoft CD-ROM).

Realworld Music (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton 1993) Summary – The dissertation explores the aesthetic, philosophical and listening implications of a documentary approach to tape music composition. I see this approach as fundamentally different from that of classical musique concrète. The first chapter suggests ‘categories’ for the way we may listen creatively in real life, and transfer these stances to musical listening. Subsequent chapters draw on comparisons and analogies from oral storytelling traditions, Eisensteinian film theory and modern poetic thought. I discuss a variety of pieces by composers such as Risset, Ferrari, Lansky and Lucier, and also some of my own compositions. NB a revised version of some of this dissertation is published in A Poetry of Reality: Composing with Recorded Sound (see above).

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).

Window (for John Cage)

Life, and sound and music, go on — in all kinds of weather.
But everything is worth a listen.
An  interactive sound essay about listening and everyday experience.
Turn up the sound and listen.
Winner, New Media Writing Prize (2012). Selected by the Electronic Literature Organization for inclusion in ELC 3 (2015).  
The original online version dates from 2012 and may not work in all browsers (as of 2019 worked in Chrome). The apps are no longer updated and are not guaranteed to work.

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)