Interview with Drew Crawford

Harry Matthews (HM): As a composer you have such a diverse and creative output. For you, is there a separation between the creative process of composing a film score and composing Waves Of… (the piece featured at the upcoming SHIFTS concert)?

Drew Crawford (DC): The short answer to that is, no. I would say that when I was younger, I might have felt there was more of a separation. But really, the creative process comes down to, what is your trigger, why you are doing what you’re doing, and what are the restrictions that you have; those restrictions could be budget, schedule/time, and the context to which it will be performed (dance club, theatre, concert hall). And you then you work with all those parameters and it’s exciting! So with a film score for example, a lot of restrictions come externally from the director, producer and the script. But with something like Waves of… there are still plenty of restrictions, and I like to put these restrictions on my resources because it allows me to focus on my creativity, which is of course an old Stravinskian notion. That’s the longer answer!

HM: You have spoken about how many of your compositions exist as studio works, a sound world in which you have full control. How does moving to the materiality of live performance, where often parts of the situation are out of your control, change your role as a composer?

DC: That’s an interesting question, I think it’s important to point out that I started in live performance with real musicians, in a real space in real time. I think I was frustrated with some of the limitations of the materiality of sound, where you can’t control the space etc… I think I struggled with those things quite a lot, but because I didn’t know as much about sound when I was younger, I just accepted it. And then having spent a good 10 years working in studios, through my work, I better understood how sound operates, how you can control it in a studio environment and how you can attempt to control it in an acoustic environment. Coming back to the concert hall has been, still, really frustrating! So Waves Of… is an example of a piece where I’m thinking about the acoustic, and what the acoustic can mean and using that as a starting point. There is no point fighting with my frustrations, writing something that I want to be really dry and short, and being disappointed when it sounds all messy in a large concert hall [Turner Sims has a beautifully resonant sound, something that doesn’t suit all musical styles]. So I’ve confronted this in Waves Of… by thinking about textures that can float. And I’ve been thinking about how I can effect the directionality of a sound within a space. For example, having two marimbas spaced far apart on the stage, and when they’re pushing a note between them it’s as if the sound is moving around the space, suspended between the two instruments. I’m also working with electronics [in Waves Of…], and the way they’re placed around the stage which will give a much more immediate impact. So moments that I want to sound close, direct or immersive are electronically mediated. Moments that I want to have a slightly more diffuse character are live. The live elements plays between things being asynchronous [happening at the same time] to things being rigidly synchronised and I’m interested in what this sounds like in a reverberant space. So when material is asynchronous in a reverberant space it has a lovely smudged cloud-like quality and when things are synchronised we start to hear the sound of the space clearly, as a distinct sound entity. 

Drew Crawford’s sketches for Waves Of… 

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HM: So you’re taking the practice of mixing in a studio environment, manipulating the space using processing tools (pan, EQ, compression etc.), and using this approach with live musicians.

DC: Absolutely, that’s exactly what it is. The thing is, I can’t not think about those things now.   

HM: Waves Of… explores the difference between oscillations and stillness. Could you tell me a bit more about this?

DC: So this comes back to the idea about moving a sound around space, so we’ve set up the idea that sound can move around the space physically, using the position of instruments to show this. There are two marimbas, performed by two people each, spaced at opposite ends of the concert hall, moving the sound around them. And that becomes your foreground interest, the way the sound is moving, and the obvious contrast is for that to stop. So we experience stillness. There are also two pianos at opposite ends, each with three players. So there are sounds being moved around by both the marimbas and pianos, and so we can think about them as being contrapuntal [two separate ideas being played at the same time]. With the increase of players on each instrument, you can increase the number layers of movement that you have and think about them as being counterpoints to each other. So that will become a very complex texture, even if its not harmonically complex, there is a lot going on with sounds moving around the space. In order to contrast this is using silence or stillness. So I’m playing with the idea of giving people a break every now and then, just to reset their ears but also to excite and then calm them down. And I don’t think that’s any different to what we would do melodically, rhythmically or harmonically – I’m just thinking about it in terms of texture and space.

HM: Tension and release!

DC: Absolutely tension and release, it’s a fundamental compositional principle.

HM: During the opening of the piece, we hear passages of music that are specified in seconds. Do the performers have stopwatches or does the conductor control the changes between material? 

DC: Well I’m trying to control the amount that the conductor is on stage, I want everything to feel as organic as possible. I have timings that are also approximations and we have been working out during rehearsals how long each section will last. In terms of stopwatches, these would only be used during rehearsals, I want them to internalise the length of the sections to what feels good. In one of our rehearsals recently I realised that I’m thinking, possibly because I’ve done a lot of work in the theatre and with dancers, that I’m approaching the score much more like a script. All the musicians have a full copy of the score, so that they can see what their part is within the group. So when the score says for example, play for 30 seconds, if we decide during the rehearsal that this is better off being around 20 seconds that’s what we’ll go for. But this won’t be by looking at a stopwatch, I want them to do what feels right for them, me as a composer and what works in that space before moving onto the next passage or idea.

HM: You mention that this piece is exploring the concept of waves as a metaphor for our history and our politics, by this do you mean the shift in attitudes towards movements such as Feminism?

DC: [Feminism] wasn’t specifically in my mind, but yes we do talk about waves of Feminism. I was thinking in general, waves of ideas and that ideas come in waves. If we are thinking about the way waves work, they can be transmitted, reflected, refracted etc. and we often use waves as a way of describing movements, such as Feminism. Waves can be amplified, accentuated or attenuated. So I’m conscious of these ideas as a composer and someone who works with sound. But I’m also very aware of how we use waves as metaphors, and I think at the moment things are pretty terrible, globally we’re in a pretty dark place. I suppose what I’m trying to do is cope with that by thinking about it as, yes there is a lot of echoing and reverberation bouncing around, and I have to believe that we can cancel some things out or introduce a new wave . It feels like there’s some splash back, I think a couple of years ago people thought we are at a point there are certain political movements that have been sub-frequencies and now they’re deafening.

We also talk about waves of emotion. We do experience our emotional lives in waves, we talk about ‘a wave of fear’ or ‘waves of love, pleasure’ and again, all the actions that people take publicly are directly related to internal emotional states. Those are obviously really huge ideas and this piece doesn’t seek to say anything profound, but to draw our attention to them. If this ideas of waves as a metaphor as a way of describing emotion opens political discussion, hopefully this is something you can sit with for a while, in relation to the music and allow it to germinate a little bit.

HM: I think that is really apt, considering the current political climate. Emotions are high on both sides of the fence right now, and it’s important to take emotions into consideration.

HM: So for my final question, it would be great to know what you’re up to at the moment and your future plans?

DC: I am continuing to investigate this idea of spatialising live performance and mixing it with electronics. I’m interested in doing a lot more in this space, either with students at the University or with other ensembles. I will be looking into different contexts, including site-specific performance and gallery spaces. I have a few ideas of how I want to work with that going forward. On the complete other end of the spectrum, I’ve got a handful of bangin’ dance pop tracks that are finished and I’ve just got to find the time to release them to the world! I continue to do commercial work for various multimedia projects. One of the things I’m appreciating much more as I get older is how my experiences fit into each other. So experimenting with the HARTLEY Loop Orchestra on these ideas feeds into my commercial work, and similarly the opportunities I get through my commercial work completely influence my ‘art’ work. I don’t want to restrict the kind of projects I do, but it’s nice that all my projects can fit in with each other, which is really exciting!

 You can find out more about Drew Crawford on his website here.

 This interview was conducted by video chat on 24 January 2019

Interview with Lois V. Vierk

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Harry Matthews (HM): I thought we could start by talking about your approach to structure. I’m particularly interested in how you develop a free-form approach, composing intuitively with the sounds you’re using. Could you tell me about this approach?

Lois V. Vierk (LVV): Free-form comes into play when I’m developing the raw materials that I will be working with. When my composition is at that stage I don’t censor myself at all, I’m not thinking about form or structure. This process might go on for a number of days before I start thinking about the overall form of the piece or how the materials will start to make sense as a whole. Often, after I’ve written things down and I’ve let them sink in for a while, I come back to the material and pick out the most engaging sounds, the things that I want to keep in the piece. And some of the other materials are not kept, I might look at them and think that the sound is not strong or engaging enough or that it just doesn’t fit in this particular piece. After this I start thinking about development, how one sound starts moving towards another and how the piece as a whole is going to develop. Often, the first sound that I settle on becomes the conclusion of my works, it’s normally the sound I’m most excited about – the strongest sound that I’m working with. My music is developmental, something that’s very satisfying to me, I don’t want extraneous things, I want it to go from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

HM: Your works frequently explore the repetition of material, however, we often hear subtle changes in each instance of its return. How do you go about developing material over longer durations?

LVV: Over some years I devised principles of what I call Exponential Structure, in which rates of change of musical materials are governed by exponential mathematical equations. You can experience this in Red Shift in particular, as well as some of my other works. Whilst studying for my Master’s degree at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), I was reading about acoustics and sensory perception – how the physical body takes in stimuli of all sorts. An example of this is how the eye will see two lines, the second of which is twice the size, your brain can immediately process that the second line is twice the size. However, other sensory stimulation that comes to the body is not expressed this simply. You may hear two sounds, for example, and intuitively say that one is twice as loud as the other. However the amount of energy needed to produce the second sound will not be twice of the first but there will be an exponential mathematical relationship instead. Scientists have shown that there are different mathematical relationships between how we perceive each type of physical stimulation, including visual, auditory, touch, and the measurable amount of the stimulation itself.

So once I was learning about this, I thought about how I could do the same thing with time. As an example, a piece could begin slowly and stay on the same pitch for x number of seconds, it then moves to a different pitch for, say, .9 times x seconds, and then to the next pitch for .9 squared (.81) times x, then .9 cubed (.73) times x, and to the fourth power (.66) etc. So by taking this exponential approach to time, throughout the whole piece, you get a telescoping effect. The accelerating pitch movement, which is supported by increasing complexity of musical material, produces the perception of a piece getting faster and faster and faster and faster right to its conclusion. Red Shift is one of my pieces with the clearest expression of exponential structure because I pretty much kept to the numbers for each pitch centre as well as for development of musical materials.

Red Shift (1989):

HM: You have written a number of times for the electric guitar (the instrument is present in your piece Red Shift). I’d like to know what attracts you to this instrument, as it still seems even now that it isn’t used as that often in contemporary music?

LVV: Some of it is attraction and some of it’s what grants were available! I have a piece called Go Guitars, go means five in Japanese, for five electric guitars which was written in 1981. It was originally for acoustic guitars, and this was because I was writing for John Schneider in Los Angeles at the time, and he plays classical guitar. A few years later when I was living in New York, there were a few electric guitar players around, and the electric version worked much better. I took the same score and worked with my friend Dave Seidel and it really turned me on to what the electric guitar can do. With Red Shift, it was my first piece in a long time that wasn’t for multiples of the same instrument, I had been writing for ensembles like five guitars, six trumpets, eight cellos or four accordions before that. Honestly, it was the grant that I had applied for that wanted electronics with electric instruments. So I gathered some musicians I had been working with, namely Dave Seidel, Ted Mook (cello) and Jim Pugliese (percussion), and I played the keyboard and conducted with my right hand.

HM: You have spoken in previous interviews about your collaboration with both ensembles and choreographers. It strikes me that working with others is quite an integral aspect of your work, particularly during the discovery stage of a piece. What is it about experimenting with others that energises your art? 

LVV: During the early stages when I’m developing materials I always sit down with the musician I’m going to be working with, even if I’ve written for that instrument many times before. A wonderful player can show you so much, things you haven’t thought about. At that stage of the process, I think it’s great to let the player lead me. I try not to come into it with any preconceptions. This doesn’t mean I will always use what they show me, but I think it’s important to be open because you’ll get a lot more ideas.

The main collaboration in my life has been with Anita Feldman, a tap dance choreographer. I won’t say all collaborations have gone this well. But with Anita, we always worked with dancers and musicians, experimenting. A dancer might show us a step, and we would ask them to repeat it say ten times – making it faster, slower, or louder, softer. I think things worked so well because Anita and I have similar aesthetics, she also wants experimentation and for things to be clear, not to meander.  Over the years we produced a bunch of pieces, it was very satisfying for both of us. For us, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Neither one of us could have produced those pieces alone. As a composer, because I am used to dealing with notation, it was easier for me to be more in charge of the structure and development. It worked really well.

HM: The piece contains sounds that you built on a Yamaha TX81Z synthesizer. How did you come up with the sounds we will hear in this piece?

LVV: It was totally intuitive. I’m not an electronics composer. I received some excellent advice from my friend and colleague David Behrman, who was one of the real explorers in electronic music. He recommended the TX81Z. So the Yamaha was one of the new FM machines of the day, and you could pile four different waves on top of each other and come up with one sound. Also, David liked this machine because there was new software by Dr. T to easily edit the synthesizer sounds on the Atari computer. Via the screen you could drag wave forms around and explore the resulting sounds. I just played with the sounds and came up with five different voices that I liked a lot. Again, it was the same process as I do with instruments and musicians, working back and forth between sounds and structure of the piece, keeping some sounds and not using others.

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HM: The cello and electric guitar make use of similar material throughout this piece. What are the roles of these two instruments?

LVV: The cello and the electric guitar are playing contrapuntally against each other throughout the piece. The percussion and synth have more supporting roles. But the cello and electric guitar are the backbone of the piece. Acoustically it’s quite tricky to bring off, because cello and electric guitar have to be heard equally in every way. Part of it is volume, part of it is timbre, part of it is articulation. When I’m trying to match two instruments which by nature don’t match, like these two, I’ll ask things like having the cello play more articulated than usual because the guitar is sitting there picking. The electric guitar will have to experiment with settings to match the cello timbre as much as possible. Those are examples.

HM: There is of course a performer who the audience, if done carefully, will not notice – the sound engineer. I found it fascinating to discover the importance of this role and enlightening to hear you discuss the part as an active and central member of the group. Could you tell me why you came to this decision, and whether sound engineers feature in any of your other works?

LVV: I do regard the sound engineer almost as a performer on stage. To make a balance between electronic and acoustic instruments, they have to be mic’d and EQ’d, and the volume has to be mixed very carefully. So it’s no small matter, when you have these very different sound sources and you want them all to be equal. You want them to all to be part of the same, one huge big sound. I really depend on a good sound engineer, or someone who’s standing out there in the audience listening and directing the sound engineer. A lot of my early pieces for multiples of the same instrument can be done with one player live plus recorded tracks. It’s the same kind of issue there, to make the recorded instruments sound as much as the live player, as opposed to live plus an accompaniment. A lot of the things I write demand that you need to hear what’s happening, quite clearly all the time. My music often has a dense texture, with glissando, crescendos and decrescendos, articulations, etc.  I have found that close mic’ing helps to pick up every detail of the sound. It doesn’t necessarily mean to make it really loud. I think of sound reinforcement as opposed to amplification for volume. At the end of Red Shift  though with electric guitar and percussion it will be loud. In other places in the piece I’m looking to include nuance that you may otherwise miss without close mic’ing. 

To find out more about Lois V. Vierk you can visit her website here

The interview was conducted by telephone on 22 January 2019.

Interview with Benjamin Oliver

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© Markus Kinch
Harry Matthews (HM): Let’s start by talking about the upcoming concert SHIFTS. What gave you the idea to curate a concert that focuses on aspects of minimalism?

Benjamin Oliver (BO): We do performance projects quite regularly at Southampton where we bring in people to perform alongside our students. [This project] started from the point of view of thinking about repertoire that would fit with our current student body and I came upon the Steve Reich piece – Music for a Large Ensemble. I like early Steve Reich music a lot and it fitted with the profile of our students at the moment. The Lois V Vierk piece we’re playing [Red Shift] was a suggestion by electric guitarist Tom Pauwels at [our annual postgraduate Composer] Get Together this summer…then the rest of the programme arose over the summer…

HM: I find SHIFTS an exciting title as it not only reflects the historic shift in contemporary music, but it also reflects the current trend towards shifting our attention to other more obscured composers involved in the minimalist movement. It is important to you as a curator to exemplify lesser known works?

BO: Yes it is. Red Shift… is an amazing amazing piece and I’ve never heard it in the UK, it has been played, but it’s not played a lot. There is so much music in the world so if you find a piece that you really like then as a curator I really like to play repertoire that people may not have heard before…

HM: Is commissioning new works also important for you to consider when putting on concerts?

BO: Not always but I do direct a lot of new works. I conduct a new music group called the Workers Union Ensemble, and we play 90% work written for the group. As a composer myself commissioning and replaying existing pieces by composers is something that’s fundamental to my existence as a conductor.

HM: This concert features the fantastic HARTLEY Loop Orchestra, a relatively new group compared to other Southampton run orchestras, and something I was proud to be a part of when studying for my MMus in Composition with you. I’m wondering what your future plans for the orchestra might involve?

BO: Yes this is only the second gig with the HARTLEY Loop Orchestra… The HARTLEY thing is from when Prof. Andrew Pinnock was Head of Department at Southampton and he came up with the idea that all Music Department groups should be Hartley something and then the loop orchestra came out of the fact that I ran a project called ‘The Loop Project’. Then it just seemed to fit really well with Reich and my music again being played and it just seemed to fit.

HM: Joley Cragg, a member of Workers Union Ensemble, is coming to play the solo part in your piece Changing Up +, and I’d like to talk more about that piece in just a moment. It’s really nice to see professional musicians playing alongside students, this is something I see quite regularly at the University of Southampton, I’m interested to know your ethos behind this type of collaboration?

BO: We do regular visiting professional musicians and also in the case of the Hartley Loop Orchestra there is going to be three or four of our instrumental teachers fitting within the orchestra. There is nothing like playing, sitting next to your cello teacher or your percussion teacher to make you sit up as a performer. If you’re collaborating with them in a playing sense that’s really good for a sense of community. You need to then step up your game as players. When we had the trio of Ivo Neame, Jon Scott and Jasper Høiby come in to play my piece as part of ‘The Loop Project’ you could just see people in the orchestra look at them and go ‘oh my goodness, like what is this’ when they started playing. We also bring in composers to talk to our students about their own work and we have some of the best musicologist in the world come to Southampton to do our Hartley Residency and things like that. Showing models of outstanding playing, scholarship and composition is really important for the development of our students.

We have a number of orchestral percussionists that will get to spend a couple of days with Joley, talking to her about how to approach their playing and how to think about playing percussion in a professional situation. I think that’s only healthy.

HM: So you’re giving students not only confidence but the networking skills you need in a professional environment.

BO: Yeah and also, Joley is going to be playing in the orchestra so Hope and Clare who will be playing with her see a model of how she approaches performance.

HM: Rhythm and pulse are big features in your music. I notice some gestures that seem to pop up now and again, and I remember once you told me you have a favourite chord. So I’m wondering whether any cohesion that exists between your works is planned or instinctual?

BO: It’s a bit instinctive but there are also somethings that I really like so there are probably gestures that you could find in scores from 2005 if you could be bothered. But that’s not to say that I’m actively trying to copy myself but rather than there are things that I clearly like more than other things.

HM: It seems to me that you haven’t finished working with those sounds yet.

BO: Yes, that might be true. But I hope I don’t do a Steve Reich and carry on doing the same stuff for 50 years. [I think Ben was joking!]

HM: Steve Reich didn’t include a video of a snooker game.

BO: (chuckles) I guess so…

HM: In the upcoming concert we’re going to hear one of your own compositions. Changing Up + exists as a major reworking of a previous work for solo percussion you named Changing Up!. What is it about revisiting pieces that interests you at the moment? And are you learning about yourself as a composer whilst doing this?

BO: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have revisited other pieces. I did a rearrangement of a piece for you guys, OUT-TAKE.

HM: The first Hartley Loop performance?

BO: Oh yes I just made that one better. My Loop Concerto was a piano concerto with orchestra and I over-scored it and it didn’t groove and that’s why I changed it. [Changing Up] piece was for solo percussion and it lasted six minutes and I always felt like I kind of crammed a nine minute piece into a six minute one. It had a premiere at 9am in London to an invited audience of about 30 people and then that was it. I was quite pleased with the piece and having the opportunity to revise it and add in different parts just seemed like a fun thing to try and then as it happens it went quite well… Whilst orchestrating it, I could bring out certain elements and make some of the solo part quite different. I knew how it would end and begin, which is always nice as a composer because you’re not worrying about the end. You know what it’s going to be, or where it’s going to end up at least, somehow!

HM: I assume you will also be conducting your piece during the concert. Do you also learn a lot about your work by taking on this role?

BO: I recently played Dan Mar-Molinero’s [Southampton Head of Jazz and Pop] music in a big band and there were all these key changes and weird time signatures and it was hard – karma for all the hard stuff I’ve written other people! It’s not nearly as hard to conduct as it is to play. I now conduct so many of my pieces that I’m not sure if it’s a thing anymore. It’s more rare that I’m not conducting and sometimes I find it much harder to be in that situation. Wandering around outside the performance, not being in control.

So for my last question, I’d like to know what you’re up to at the moment and what your plans for the future might be?

BO: In the immediate future I’m writing a piece for Harpsichord (with electronics) with and for Jane Chapman and then I have couple of days in September with Riot Ensemble and poet Luke Wright to develop some ideas for a piece that will come together in 2020 or 2021.

The interview was conducted by video chat on 21 January 2019.

Interview with Brona Martin

Harry Matthews (HM): Have recordings always been a significant part of your creative process?

Brona Martin (BM): I only got into it when I started studying music. I did a higher diploma in music and one of the modules was ‘out of sound’ or something. At that point I was introduced to Viv Corringham who does soundwalks. They’re very personal soundwalks and she has a different way of doing them compared to say Hildegard Westerkamp, but basically it was all down to place and peoples experience of place and that’s what I found really interesting. So, for one of my projects I created an art installation, I was trying to recreate that sense of being by the sea, with a background recording with my cousin who is a zoologist. She was discussing the different types of sea life that live on the rocks and it was about her favourite place, and there was this beach that was her favourite place. [On the recording] she was saying why and how interesting it was and you could hear the wind and you could hear the waves. So that was my first step into it I suppose.

HM: So recordings helped you interact with your environment?

BM: Yeah. And I think that was my first step before I even knew soundscapes were a thing.

HM: A lot of your work exists as studio recordings. Do you find that when an audience listens to your compositions during a live concert setting, as opposed to listening at home, that their perception of the work changes?

BM: That’s a really good question. Yeah I think first of all, the format it different in the concert because it’s going to be multi-channel. So…it is a far more immersive experience than being at home and listening on headphones. Also, in most of the electroacoustic concerts I perform my music in, even if the work is stereo or eight-channel, the pieces are projected on an orchestra of loud speakers, so the room is filled with 48, 50 or up to 100 speakers depending on where I am. So that is allowing me to create an even bigger hyper-real soundscape with the audience in the middle. I think [at home] they still get the gist of the piece, but I think in the concert environment you can really really immerse the listener into it and make the soundscape more realistic and more believable because you are moving the sounds around in a bigger space. So you can enhance the overall trajectory, whether it’s moving left to right, above or below you. Which is cool.

HM: You will perform Sowing Seeds at the SHIFTS concert at Turner Sims on 27th January. This piece has a fascinating blend between recordings that sound like momentary interactions, performance material and audio manipulation. I’d like to know about your creative process and how did you select the material for this piece?

BM: There was me, and there was the Vonnegut Collective, Jemma (Violin) and Gary (Trumpet), and participants from this wellbeing centre, in Manchester, where people with different issues and problems in their lives go here to engage in creative activities and meet people.  I had 8-10 participants and I introduced them to soundscape composition and started getting them to think about their environment and things that stood out or meant the most to them. A lot of them had grown up in Manchester…so they were able to tell me a lot about industrialisation and how things have changed over time, like construction, how the place has changed over time. We looked at examples and then we went outside and they all had a recording device. I wanted them to record sounds that they noticed or found interesting, and each of them just went on their own personal creative expedition. For example, one guy made his own instrument, and he was playing with that. Then another girl started to improvise with the environment and the objects around her. When you listened to her recording it almost sounded like a complete piece.

There were some conversations that I recorded that I found really interesting. I basically had a folder with each person’s name on it, and I made a sound library with that, which was divided into recordings ‘in the park’ or ‘conversations’ so they could easily find different recordings…

We went to a small park that had these tubes, you know, the tubes that go into the ground and you can sing into them, you’re on either side of the park and you can hear each other. We were recording there, and loads of amazing things happened, this guy started singing into it and I think he actually made the song up but he was just singing into it and it was so beautiful. Another girl was singing, and she British Iranian, so she had loads of different musical experiences that she brought and she was singing into the tube and it just sounded amazing.

So that guy, he opens the piece. I was trying to do a portrait of each person, a special sound experience that happened. Yeah it’s divided into three, clearly, but for time constraints I couldn’t do a portrait about everyone, so I picked some of the scenarios that I found sonically interesting but also very special.

HM: I find it interesting that you gave these students the tools to make their own recordings. Then you’ve taken their recordings as tools for your work. I think that’s a really nice way of composing.

BM: Yeah, it is. First of all, I wanted to be on the same page as them, you know, the same level, we would all share, and I would share my recordings. In terms of time constraints, it also gives them more material to work with. They’ve only had possibly two hours of recording time. They might want to use other material, or they might listen back to other peoples recording and think, ‘WOW, that’s amazing’ and ‘how did you do that?’ and ‘I didn’t know that sound existed?’.

HM: You mentioned how the recordings were collectively compiled into a sound library. What are your thoughts on composers sharing these materials on a larger scale? I’m interested because I once read somewhere that Hildegard Westerkamp thought it was important to have a connection with the recordings she uses, however, with the now vast amount of material to be freely assessed online should composers also be exploring these options when creating new works?

BM: There are two things there. The first thing is that, when I write a piece that is very place specific, kind of more so than this one, I make recordings and then I put them in a sound library. I’m only allowed to use these, I restrict myself and I only use those recordings for that piece. So even if I think, oh the sound of thunder or the sound of something might be useful here I’m not going to go to freesound and download it. For those types of works that are very place-specific I have to have recorded the sound – or I have to have some kind of relationship. However, there is a piece I’m doing [called] Florida Soundscape Body of Works and one of them I’m going to use frog recordings that I didn’t record, but my friend did. They were on the residency with me, and I know where they were recorded and I’ve been to the place. I suppose I feel, in terms of this work Sowing Seeds, I do have a connection to the recordings, as I was there when they were made. When I listen back, I can see the person and I can see the place, and I know exactly where it was recorded and possibly how they did it…

HM: Do you think finding material this way would result in a less ecological or interactive aesthetic or not?

BM: For me as the composer, yes. For the audience, they obviously don’t have the same connection to the recordings that I have made.

HM: Is there anything you do as a composer to try and bring that connection to the concert hall?

BM: I suppose, the integral context of the piece and what was happening at the time, and the reasons why I’ve done it – the use of spoken word has been really useful in reinforcing the overall context of the work, so I have done that.

HM: Is that spoken word in the piece, or as a programme note?

BM: No it’s in the piece, it’s audio. Like interviews or conversations.

HM: So you use language as almost a describing factor for where your sounds have been taken from.

BM: Yep. It depends. When I do community engagement stuff and when I’m working with other people. I like to make sure that they’ve been heard on the work as well. Because it’s been a joint effort and they’ve inspired me and I’ve inspired them. So, if you look at the work that I’ve done, like the spoken word works, they were where I did workshops at home. I brought people on a soundwalk and the community engagement stuff just throws up so many different scenarios and opportunity and it makes me think outside the box. Whereas when I’m on my own and I’m working on a piece that’s just, you know, I go out and I do the recording ad I’m solo, just by myself, the work is an in-depth exploration of that soundscape.

https://soundcloud.com/brona-martin/a-bit-closer-to-home
https://soundcloud.com/brona-martin/the-thing-about-listening-is

HM: A personal exploration?

BM: Yeah.

HM: Moving away for a moment from recorded sounds for a moment. Can you envisage your electroacoustic works involving live performance or live manipulation of sounds at some point? Is this something that interests you as a composer?

BM: Absolutely. I just have to figure out a way of doing it. I don’t want to be just doing it live and triggering sounds. I need to figure out what software I would use, I kind of need to design a live performance patch or something.

HM: Well if you figure it out please let me know!

BM: Hahaha, maybe we should collaborate [This is in writing now Brona]. Actually, I do think it would be easier if I did collaborate going live. I think if I was to do something live, I would incorporate visuals or live performers. Multi-media maybe. I just need the time, but it definitely does interest me.

Also, if you’re processing sounds live, obviously the work is never going to be the same again. Whereas if you’re playing an electroacoustic piece, okay the acoustics of the environment change and that can change the piece, but you’re still playing the same recordings and processes. So I think performing live can change how the piece is interpreted.

HM: For my last question what are you up to at the moment and what about your plans for the future?

BM: I’m currently working on the second work of the Florida Soundscape Body of Works. The first work explored the night-time soundscape of crickets and then the next one is going to be looking at the sounds of frogs. I’m also trying to find the time to experiment with ambisonics and 3D spacialisation. I’m hoping to go to Sweden again, to the electroacoustic studios in Stockholm, to do some work there. That’s where I wrote my last piece so I’d like to go there again, I find it hard to focus at home. And I’m thinking about doing this stuff live and that’s about it for the moment.

https://soundcloud.com/brona-martin/sets/florida-soundscapes

The interview was conducted by video chat on 16 January 2019.

John Cage ‘Five’

In our upcoming performance OUT-TAKE Ensemble is performing ‘Five’ by John Cage. ‘Five’ is taken from the fifth set of Cage’s series of so-called ‘Number Pieces’, and is the first of five pieces within this set… (confused? Wikipedia can explain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_Pieces).

I’m certainly not alone when I say that Cage’s music is immensely influential. His ideas remain fresh and innovative, and are frequently absorbed by composers all over the world. His teachings show young composers that you are free to go and push the boundaries on the preconceptions of what music sounds like. To many listeners of Cage, the end result might sound a bit unsuccessful, annoying even. But that is okay, because for Cage the process and sculpting of sound is more important. We aren’t expecting any of you to be humming to the tune of ‘Five’ when you leave our concert, but we do hope that for a moment, we can all take pleasure in a sort of controlled randomness that defines Cage’s sound.

‘Five’ is written for five unspecified instruments and lasts five minutes. Each player has one page of music, containing several short modules of musical notation comprised of between one and three notes, which must be performed within a specified range of time. We are all given different pitches to play, and we all follow stopwatches as this piece is performed in time as seconds rather than beats per minute. Cage gives us the freedom to choose when we start our notes and when we finish them (within the predefined range of timings that he specifies); the idea is that we sustain that single note for this duration. However, we must decide before we begin the note the time at which we both start and finish the note. So for example, I might think in my head ‘I’m going to begin this B at 1’49” and finish at 2’13”. Now irrespective of what happens whilst I perform this note, I must remain genuine to my original time frame. The reason for this is because Cage was very interested in removing the EGO from musicians that perform his music. This rule stops musicians taking advantage of a moment to show off or take the limelight. The music remains pure, unaffected by our human tendencies. When we perform ‘Five’ on the 20th November at Talking Heads, we hope that you enjoy five minutes of tranquil unscripted beauty.

If you fancy hearing a stunning rendition of ‘Five’ please check out this version performed by the voices of Andrea Fullington, Allison Zelles, Alan Bennett, Paul Elliott and Shabda Owens: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W57Eaq4e7g