Matthew Shlomowitz is a composer who defies easy categorisation. An Australian who has lived in London for eight years, he has studied with both Ferneyhough and Finnissy. Yet on a first listen his music seems to owe nothing to either of them.
For about five years now, Shlomowitz’s music has become increasingly beat-based, rhythmically simple, with everything becoming locked to a grid of steady pulses. None of the rhythmic intricacies of Ferneyhough or Finnissy here. But this simplicity doesn’t sound naive. Without wishing to push this too far (because there are intricacies of rhythm here that arise as by-products of the score once it reaches performance), Shlomowitz’s music has a rhythmic whiteness that is at a level very rarely heard in any music. Such consistency, such evenness, is disconcerting, even shocking.
Here’s a video of Five Monuments for our Time, one of a series of Letter Pieces Shlomowitz has been composing since 2007. These are discussed a little further in the interview below, but essentially they all include a degree of openness, such that part or all of the score is notated simply as letters (eg A to E) attached to a regular pulse. Within certain parameters the performers are free to assign their own sounds or actions to each letter. In Five Monuments for our Time, the five letters of the conductor’s part (which begins around one minute into the video) are proscribed as follows:
A, B and C are conducting gestures of the conductor’s choice
D is a bow
E is a non-conducting gesture of the conductor’s choice.
The performers are Gijs Kramers and the Ricciotti Ensemble.
In a way, the grid is like the white walls of a gallery. It’s what happens within the spaces that is interesting. Shlomowitz, like Finnissy and like many other composers of his generation, is fascinated by the nature of material: the connotations, both musical and emotional, that a short burst of notes or even a single sound can hold, and the limits of those connotations when material is stretched, reworked or placed in unfamiliar situations.
Although his earlier work (some of which is available to listen to on his website) uses more abstract material, Shlomowitz has recently been drawn to material drawn from the everyday – popular music and concrete sounds. Because of the latter, samplers have come to play an increasing role in his music, and a good example will be heard in Monday’s Kings Place concert, at which a major new work for piano and sampler, Popular Contexts, will receive its premiere.
As will be seen below, Shlomowitz isn’t so much interested in reworking his material into unrecognisable new forms, but is more interested in the aesthetic frictions created by juxtaposition, translation and recontextualisation. The score for the first of the six Popular Contexts pieces, Free Sound, is available below: the key, I think, is the defamiliarising juxtaposition of quite aggressively ‘real’ sounds – including station announcements and machine-gun fire – with a concert pianist. The effect is initially comic, but it is carried through with such deliberation and solemnity (a product of that rhythmic evenness) that one can’t help but want to hear through to the deeper underlying story of the piece.
Here’s the score for Free Sound, one jpeg per page:
NB: Unlike previous interviews in the 10 for ’10 series, this one was conducted live, over Skype, rather than by email. We began by talking about the use of samplers in Popular Contexts.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Once you’ve collected all your sampled, concrete material together, how do you organise it?
Matthew Shlomowitz: The first thing to say is I should come clean and say that I’m not making field recordings, which composers with more integrity than me might [laughs], I’m just ripping these samples off the internet. And the first in the Popular Contexts series of six pieces is called Free Sound, which has a double meaning. The first is really an acknowledgement of www.freesound.org, a very nice website for ripping samples. And the other confession is that I use Garageband, just a stock standard programme on Apple Macs, so I export all the samples into there and just start mucking around with them really.
TR-J: And do you have a plan for the form or do you intuit it as you go along?
MS: A mixture. What I’ve found recently is that I’ve been mucking around and just generating lots of stuff that I like, and then kind of listening to it at some moment when I’ve got some distance from it, and then trying to think about a form or think about what I’m doing with it. I notice that when I work on Garageband one big problem is that you keep on trying to make it fun and exciting to listen to so it frolicks along happily, but then sometimes I think there’s no critical distance at all from the material, it’s just trying to be exciting. So I try to step back and have a listen and try to reformulate what I think it is.
TR-J: And is working in something like Garageband and pulling samples off the internet rather than field recording, is that just a question of practicality, or is there an aesthetic dimension to that, working with quite off-the-peg sources and technology?
MS: Yeah, on freesound you can find really beautifully recorded things and really badly recorded things, and I like both at different moments. I like making shifts between them even, so you make a really trashy moment in a piece that previously had quite beautifully recorded sounds of things. So there’s not one aesthetic towards these sounds. I guess the reason it’s really nice, rather than recording sounds myself is that I often work with topics, so one of the Popular Contexts pieces is really all about telephone sounds – in the broadest sense, not just the sound of telephones, but everything around telephones, even cold-calling when people try to sell you things. Everything to do with phones, and then it’s really easy to find heaps of stuff.
TR-J: Is that sort of topic-based thinking going on in a piece like Northern Cities?
MS: Well in all of the Letter Pieces the content is not defined, so it’s a bit different. The performers create the material, which is usually a mixture of physical actions and sound events. Each sound or action is represented by a letter in the score. In Northern Cities the two performers have to create a bunch of actions and a bunch of sounds, and they can be anything, except that I stipulate certain relationships. For instance, the A, B and C for performer 1 might be three sound events that are connected to each other, but have no relationship with the A, B and C of the other performer. But then D is the opposite, its a physical action, and it should make a connection with the D of the other performer. For instance, D for one performer is to punch, and for the other is to look as they’ve been punched. So I give some concepts for guiding how people should think about how they generate their material but I don’t define the material at all.
TR-J: So when you’re starting out on a piece, what is material for you?
MS: I guess the first thing to say is that I really in the last few years like material that is related to popular culture and also to the everyday world. So when I’m choosing material that’s sort of where I’m going. But as with the Letter Pieces I’m leaving it open. I guess what connects the pieces where I choose the material with those pieces where I don’t is that the way that I handle the material is usually the same. It’s generally very short objects or events, and a very restricted number of them. So it’s all about patterning and sequencing of them and putting these things in processes and that sort of thing.
In a way, what I do with material seems more defining of the language than the material itself. Like in Northern Cities I’ve seen four different performances of that piece, and it really is somehow the same piece each time, because no matter what you put into it the way that it is treated is so specific that it feels the same in a way.
TR-J: You’ve found a way of retaining the identity of the piece even though the sound material might be really diverse.
MS: That’s right, and in Popular Contexts there are six pieces, and they’re all different, but there is a connection between the first and the fifth, which are basically the same piece, the piano part is almost identical in both of them. The fifth one is called Weird Twin, making a reference to the fact that it’s a recasting of the first one, but the difference is that the samples are all different. So it somehow points at the – not arbitrariness, that’s too strong a word, because not any sample works – but the potential at least that these first choices were not the only ones that could have been made.
TR-J: There is this sort of development in your music from things that are more fluid to things that are quite ‘boxed-up’, for want of a better word. The way that the Letter Pieces work seems to lend itself to that kind of on-off kind of binary structure, whereas some of the earlier pieces don’t. Is that a different relationship with performers that has evolved over time as well?
MS: I suppose there is, because if you want to find ways to work with performers in ways that are more open, you have to find a way to do it and this was my way. Boxed-up is for sure true, but it’s more beat-based …
TR-J: Like a grid …
MS: That’s the right word.
TR-J: And once you’ve established your material, and maybe some aspects of the grid, what sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose the next bar and the next bar?
MS: I suppose the broadest ideas are to create a critical distance from the material. I teach a course for Syracuse University and the students come to London for a 14-week study abroad programme, and I was playing them a few of my pieces on Monday. And one of the students said quite reasonably they didn’t understand why I was starting and stopping the music all the time – they found it really unsettling. And I’m not trying to make unsettled music in any kind of psychological sense, but I do stop and start to try to create some kind of distance from the material. Critical thinking in contemporary music is usually applied to a very select repertoire of sounds and ideas from our postwar tradition, which I find a bit limited and a bit insular. The thinking means a lot to me, but I guess the project is to apply that thinking in a much broader way, to the much more familiar sounds of the everyday world and popular culture.
So that’s the background. But to answer the question more specifically, as I said before on Garageband I just get into what I’m doing and just make music that makes me happy, but I always try to step back and think how can I do stuff with this material that you wouldn’t expect of it. The thing is, when you listen to the first few bars of a Country and Western song one of the first things that I might think at least is that I kind of know this musical style and language, and I don’t expect that this song is going to outside it, and you’re normally right. And you could say the same thing about a lot of new music pieces. So I try not to do that. I try and take the material to places beyond where one might expect, outside its frame of reference. That’s a bit of the imagination challenge I set myself. I might start with a bit of calypso music, but then have a look at, try and find something in the material, even taking a bit of a ‘Stockhausen’ analytical attitude, so that I can find something different in it.
TR-J: When I listen to some of your pieces it’s as though the music’s happening to the material – it’s the opposite of that organic thing where one grows out of the other, and actually the material’s caught in this structure or bunch of forces that are happening to it, and it doesn’t really have a lot of control over how it proceeds.
MS: Yeah, I guess that’s the idea of putting things in sequences, it can often make a distance and make something familiar unfamiliar, which I like. But also you’re right that it is completely inorganic because the material is really fixed – and I don’t just mean the samples, I also mean the instrumental music. I pretty much only do to the instrumental music the kind of thing that I do to the samples. That is, the only variations are to slow it down, speed it up or cut it off in weird places, or to loop it or whatever. So there’s really no organic development in the material.
TR-J: One more question, the trademark question: here’s a middle C, what do you do now?
MS: Well, I would probably couple it with a sample at the moment, which is a pretty lazy answer, but it’s probably the truth [laughs]. Yeah, that is genuinely what I would do at the moment!
TR-J: But what sample?
MS: I normally have an idea. Like I said, one of the pieces in Popular Contexts is all about telephone sounds. And in another one I tried to make a MIDI orchestra – it’s like klangfarben gone wrong, so every note of the keyboard is a different MIDI instrument, so the pianist and the sampler play the exact same stuff, so in one version you hear the piano playing it all with uniform attacks and timbre, but then you hear the exact same thing translated – it sounds like a complete mess really, and you can kind of really see how different attacks can be. So, I don’t just surf around freesound.org [laughs], I normally have some ideas!