In this contribution, composer Tom Parkinson discusses his project Musical Experiments for After Dinner, a series of after-dinner musical games. He outlines the origins of the project, the production, and the challenges, and he reflects on the purpose and aims of what it sought to achieve.
Musical Experiments for After Dinner is a series of after-dinner musical games in the form of experiments, challenges, feats, and musical quests that require a degree of wonder, faith, and heroism. They ask people to play with sound and music using objects and materials in the home (usually the kitchen). There are twenty-one experimental proposals, presented as individual cards, in no particular order, with a large illustration on one side and instructions on the other.
How did the project come about and what were your initial ideas?
The project began in the minds of the publishers, Laurence King; the company had made a previous game, Dangerous Experiments for After Dinner (2018), which had been very successful and was adapted from existing Victorian after-dinner games, designed to be played with friends when you’ve finished eating dinner. Angus Hyland at the publisher had the idea to do a musical version of it. As with most of these kinds of projects, it came nepotistically to me through a friend who works at the publisher. One of the genesis points for the project was the illustration that’s currently on the cover of the game, with wine bottles filled to different levels to create different pitches. That had existed earlier on a greeting card, together with some notated melodies to play, which encapsulated the direction.
As an experimentalist, my immediate response was to see if the kinds of experimental sound art projects that Alvin Lucier writes about in Music 109 and Chambers could be appropriate.1 I thought I could apply those ideas into musical games. It seemed like an interesting challenge, and I had experience with homemade instruments and was working as a freelance composer.
What was the process of coming up with the tasks?
The bulk of the of the project was trying to find achievable tasks that could be communicated straightforwardly on a card. I presumed it would take me a few days to get it together, but it took a very, very long time and huge amounts of experimentation, largely because the commission was to make something for experimentally minded adults, not children. Apart from being appropriate for that adult, after-dinner audience interested in experimentation and playing with sound, each task needed to be something you could do without tools, or only with tools that you would have in the kitchen. I couldn’t use, for example, glue or a circular saw.
Many of the kinds of things that would immediately spring to mind in this context rely on technology to be audible. There are wonderful universes of sound hidden in vegetables, for example, but they are very quiet. Experimental music that purports to be about the wonders of material are often actually equally about the wonders of microphones and amplification. The Lucier experiments also turned out to rely heavily on technology or were too challenging to be practical. My experiments needed to be acoustically audible and realistically achievable. The whole project took months to finish.
I remember staying with my in-laws for a couple of weeks before the deadline and driving them up the wall by covering their kitchen with half-rotten cabbage bassoons and repeatedly setting the smoke alarm off. This part of the process was very painstaking and long. I probably spent £300 on carrots during the process! I would initially experiment with tools and then work out how to translate that to using, for instance, a teaspoon rather than an angle grinder. Not all the ideas found their way into the final version—some were thought by the publisher to be too wacky!
There were also technical challenges from the materials: the image on the front of the box, with the wine bottles, is illustrative of part of the process because a regular bottle of wine like that cannot produce an octave from empty to full, so another approach had to be made, and that’s partly why “Ode to Joy” was used as the demonstration tune—it only needs five notes in that range to play.
How did you work with the publisher?
The second part of the process was turning it into the game itself. The publisher worked with the magnificent illustrator Dave Hopkins, and I would send him photographs of myself and a variety of different people doing the experiments. Whenever someone came to my flat, I would stick a cucumber in front of them and get them to pose with it! Some of the illustrations are me, friends, partner, and so on. Dave would send me rough drafts back via the publisher; I never communicated with him directly. Then I would check that there wasn’t something that was kind of conceptually wrong or misrepresenting the task, before the illustration was finalized.
I met with Angus a couple of times but mainly interfaced with Chelsea Edwards and Philip Contos as editors, who were the driving force at the publisher. Chelsea and Philip were excellent at translating the conceptual vision of the project into the result, and they were largely responsible for the titles of the challenges.
What were your parameters or requirements for the tasks?
We wanted there to be a spread of difficulty in the tasks, and none could be impossible. We marked them from one to five in difficulty (indicated by the musical notes on the cards). Hitting a pan lid and submerging it in water is straightforward, but making a carrot recorder is relatively challenging. It took weeks to get some concepts together and streamline the process. It was essential that all would be achievable and there would be a range of difficulties among them (see Video 1).
One of the hardest examples is “A Bird in the Hand.” In this experiment, players must create a bird-chirping whistle from a pear (Figure 1). I love making and using “little sounds,” like toys. Years ago, I was in a band, and we bought several hundred little tweeting plastic bird toys and gave them out to the audience. We never did it extensively, because they needed water in them, and the mass manufacturing led to them producing the same pitch, which was deafeningly uninteresting. But I still have several different clay ones, so I understood how those worked and then was able to follow the process in the pear. That’s one of the hardest to do, in contrast with something like “Gong Fishin’,” where players suspend spoons on string and listen to the resonances, which produces such beautiful sounds. It’s one of the most gorgeous results, and it’s so simple.
Some weren’t practical or appealing in the end—one game involved creating an atmospheric soundscape by cooking, such as making the sound of rainfall by frying bacon, other sounds for storms and so on, but in the end, we didn’t use it. There is a remnant of this idea in the task that involves singing through funnels to sound like old gramophones (Figure 2). The “virtuoso” extension for this is to fry onions to sound like the crackle of vinyl.
The domestic dimension and “everyday musicality” is reminiscent of John Cage’s works and approach. Were there any models or musical precedents you were looking at in this respect?
Many of these experiments had come from serious experimental music. I had done a theatre show once that finished with someone smashing a glass with their voice, so that became a challenge in the game.2 That one was dear to my heart. “Funnel of Love,” singing through a funnel (Figure 2), and “Eggs and Bass,” where players have to make a meringue on a speaker, had both come from theatre shows, too. I had done a performance piece with a choreographer that involved horror film Foley—punching melons and cracking celery—so that also became a piece in the game (Figure 3).3
Some of these are quite traditional, like playing the spoons and the wine glasses. Quite a few of the challenges game out of experimental pieces. Others were completely new, like making a kazoo out of a courgette and the melon drum kit—I thought that would be fun and messy! I also spoke with composer and instrument-maker Sam Underwood, who works with experimental music, and he reminded me of making an oboe out of a straw, which I had initially rejected as too difficult, but he convinced me it was possible. It was actually much easier than I imagined.
Can you describe the “virtuosi” instructions’?
As well as the instructions for each challenge, the cards have on them a “Virtuosi” section at the bottom. These are a kind of “hard mode” or extension. The aim is to point toward further things you could try if you wanted to take the ideas further.
Purpose, Style, and Results
Many of the games involve co-operative play. Was that a conscious part of the plan?
It was important that there was a sonic result to play and experiment with. I wanted pieces that adventurous students might play around with together—many of the tasks and games are collaborative and require people to play together.
What I really enjoy about this territory is the physical connection with creating music. For example, in “Plucky Little Lemon,” toothpicks are stuck into a lemon and wedged into a glass. On its own, a toothpick barely makes a sound, but by anchoring it into a lemon and putting a resonating chamber on it, it turns into an audible instrument to play with.
Is the point of the challenges always the most musically “pretty” outcome?
Some examples find musically beautiful things in everyday objects, or ask you to re-hear everyday sounds as musical. For example, in “Popcorn Free Jazz,” players cook popcorn in pans covered with foil and baking paper. The foil and paper act as drum skins, and the sound of the exploding popcorn becomes a free jazz drum solo when you put a beat behind them. Suddenly, it sounds like an amazing solo!
The tone of the cards implies you’re playing with the audience—is that the case?
The text for the cards is in a very mannered archaic style, often very arch. With the challenge involving the pan lid in the sink, like a gong, for example, it says, “Your kitchen is now a temple of cosmic vibrational energy and you are, without question, at one with the eternal resonances of life,” clearly tongue-in-cheek (Figure 4). The courgette kazoo says, “Imagine yourself as a latter-day version of Henry II’s pet clown, Roland the Farter, on a break from your main act, honking your way through the national anthem…Remember that there is also a thin membrane between the witless and profound,” and so on. This style apes a Victorian manual style. But it also sets up a playful engagement with those playing. The package box has “LOUD! Do not open” on the side of it, but one has to open it—immediately establishing a connection with the audience of experimentation and transgression.
How this project different from your usual composition process?
Making this game was a very different way of working—more like writing a recipe book than writing music in my usual way. I had no idea how long it was going to take to put it together. Like a recipe book, it’s the testing and documenting, rather than actually having the ideas, that takes the bulk of the time. For example, turning a blender into a drum machine went through very many versions before I accepted defeat. Probably the most laborious failure was leek and bin liner bagpipes.
What do you hope people will get out of these games?
My primary hope is that people will play and have fun together through doing the experiments. That play and fun is almost exclusively the point of these games. It’s not just the “joy of music” as we traditionally conceive of it, but also the joy of sound and discovery. The joy of acoustics, resonances, and the physical materials. They are asking you to experiment with sound, and the things you will discover, some of those don’t need writing about or saying explicitly, for example, hearing the tuning change in the icicle xylophone. There’s something profound about the nature of materials and the way that physical changes are sonically manifest. I was trying to just hint toward that, which players will discover for themselves, as they engage with the challenges.
Alvin Lucier, Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1980); Alvin Lucier and Douglas Simon, Chambers (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1980).
Sharon Smith and Tom Parkinson, We Might As Well Live (2011).
Keren Levi and Tom Parkinson, Clubbing (2015).