BCMG Apprentice Composer-in-Residence 2013 Shiori Usui

Crack Up - adding laughter to BCMG's Family Concerts

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Crack up is a piece of music based on my friend’s laughter – and two previous laughter pieces I composed – that I have written for BCMG’s Family and Schools’ Concerts on Sunday 28 and Monday 29 April.

In this small chamber piece (for oboe, trombone, percussion, piano and cello), I wanted to further explore some musical and theatrical elements that I felt I could not investigate enough in my previous laughter-based compositions. Crack Up consists of 3 sections:

Section I
Melinda Maxwell, BCMG oboist, surprised me when we had a small workshop during the time that the piece was composed, by demonstrating how expressive she can be by just playing the reed of the oboe. It was as if an opera singer was singing in front of me! But despite of my first impression, I decided to combine this sound with the high pitches of tenor trombone to express some inevitable squeaky and wobbly sound that often come out as a result of suppressed laughter. I also wanted to explore some spatial and theatrical elements of this particular situation.

Section II
I chose the title Crack Up because it means both ‘to break out in laughter’ and ‘to have a mental or physical breakdown’. In this section, I wanted to explore the latter (the mental breakdown), something that is hidden somewhere deep behind the laughter, hence the subtitle A song of tormented soul.

Section III
The laughing rhythm of my friend inspired me to write this section. It is contagious and repetitive. I also experimented to see if my heart rate would change at all when I laughed hard continuously for a long time, so you might hear this in the piece. The harmony used in this section was derived from the spectral analysis of my friend’s laughter.


When writing this blog post I thought it would be fun to end with a small quiz prior to the performance of the piece. First, please have a listen to the second track titled ‘Mystery audio clip’ in the audio player on the right-side of this page.

What do you think this sound is? How do you think the sound is produced? And what do you think I was reminded of when I first heard this sound?

Shiori Usui’s piece will be premiered in BCMG’s Family Concerts on Sunday 28 April 2013, with repeat performances in our Schools’ Concerts the following day. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group appointed the young Edinburgh-based Japanese composer as its Apprentice Composer-in-Residence for 2013 back in February. Described as a composer with ‘individual ears’ (The Times), Shiori Usui’s works have already been performed in Japan, Europe and USA by diverse range of soloists, ensembles and orchestras. BCMG’s Apprentice Composer-in-Residence scheme is a joint initiative with Sound and Music (SaM), and funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
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