‘The risk of sound being produced’: Charlie Sdraulig


This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

When I started to put this concert together, I knew early on that I wanted a piece by Charlie Sdraulig. I’ve written about his music, briefly, once before on this blog, and the sense of theatre (that isn’t really theatre, it’s just people playing their instruments), the aura of risk and failure, the downright peculiarity of what he does, was something I wanted to get on stage.

But Charlie didn’t actually have a piece yet that fitted the line-up that I was starting to settle on. So he very kindly agreed to produce a new version of close, his trio for shakuhachi, voice and bowed string, that replaces the shakuhachi with a clarinet. And I’m thrilled that we’re getting the first performance of that version.

In the interview below, Charlie talks a little about risk and failure, as well as the relationship of his very quiet music to its surrounding environment. In the performance instructions for the vocal miniature, few, there is a line that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a score before: ‘If the environment changes in a way that makes it impossible to finish the score, abandon the performance.’ Composing in the possibility of abandoning a performance seems such a peculiar idea, but it captures something of the values at work here.

Charlie Sdraulig

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

I never really considered composing to be a career choice, let alone an anachronistic one. It always was and remains a compulsion. As soon as I began to take piano lessons, I began composing and haven’t stopped since! Why do I continue to compose? I am interested in writing music that allows a particular type of human interaction to take place in sound. I aim to create a sound world that is constantly redefining itself, negotiated and under discussion, which potentially allows the fragility and ambiguity of the act of perception to become audible. I hope to create a listening environment of heightened intensity that explores predominately soft sounds in subtly differentiated detail, a situation that may in turn potentially empower a listener to approach their sonic environments in an aware and sensitive way.

TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?

Although my music often takes place at the threshold of audibility, very rarely do I actually compose silences. There is always the potential for sound to occur to a greater or lesser degree. For example, if a performer holds their bow one to two millimetres above a string, their trembling musculature will cause occasional non-intentional contact to be made. However, often no contact takes place at all, leaving only a physical gesture and silence. Manipulating the various parameters involved, such as bow height or speed, will change the risk of sound being produced. As a result, silence often arises when the intention to produce a sound fails and so momentary silences permeate my work. I propose that these fluctuating ratios of sound to silence allow a particular expression of humanity to be communicated by approaching the space between performer and instrument with the utmost care and sensitivity: an acceptance and celebration of human fallibility and individuality.

The more I explore extremely soft sounds, the more I am acutely aware of the ever present ambient sounds in any given environment. Occasionally, my music may have the propensity to act within its own bubble, oblivious to the sonic environment that envelopes it. Composing an extended silence, as an absence in the intention to create sound, could highlight this environment. I am still working out exactly what my relationship with ambient sounds could be and how I could enter in to dialogue with them. Potentially my music could open itself up to interacting with its sonic environment via cues. That said I have also experienced occasions when pieces of extremely quiet music drew me in to the extent that I selectively prioritised what I perceived to be important sounds in the performance space, so that I was largely unaware of sounds extraneous to what I perceived to be the musical text.

In any case, the distinction between sound and silence can be somewhat difficult to determine when listening to sounds at the threshold of audibility. The perceptual ambiguity of these sounds allows each listener to actively construct this distinction, amongst other things, or not.

TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

The majority of my recent work has primarily explored interaction, such as the interaction between a performer and their instrument, as well as the interaction between one performer and another. I have also been particularly interested in investigating and extending the role of physicality and perception in these interactions. Consequently, many of my compositional decisions relate to specifying the exact nature of the interactions in a given piece.

I always work closely with a performer to find ways of making sounds that allow that particular expression of humanity, which I described earlier, to emerge via an often tenuous interaction between a performer and their instrument. I define physical boundaries that explore the relatively greater or lesser likelihood of a sound actually being produced. Ideally, subtle parametric changes within these boundaries would then create a vast number of micro-variations in that sound.


If I am writing for a small ensemble, the following questions arise: how can I organise sounds created by the unpredictable interaction between a performer and their instrument? How can metre delineate temporal relationships in a context where sounds may be imperceptible or simply not occur at all? Furthermore, beyond purely practical considerations, what do I want the nature of performer to performer interaction to be in my music?

Working as an accompanist, I would occasionally reach an under-rehearsed ritardando, the predictability of the prevailing metre would fall away and a highly contingent form of moment to moment interdependent interaction would occur due to not being able to exactly predict when the other player would act. Essentially, we would aurally cue each other. I found these to be extremely satisfying experiences as a player and, when I perceived them in other people’s performances, as a listener as well. After encountering and experiencing the work of Christian Wolff as well as playing as an improviser, I became more and more interested in the performative alertness and flexibility engendered by sonic contingency.

As a result, I now tend to use various types of cuing that allow temporal and parametric relationships between the parts to be flexibly shaped in real time by each performer’s perception, their listening. Many of my compositional decisions in this domain relate to finding means of cuing between performers that are as tenuous and unstable as the interaction I set up between a performer and their instrument. This could take the shape of something as simple as a question such as ‘is the timbre of the sound of the other player changing at a faster rate than mine?’ and altering different parameters depending on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. In my recent work, I tend to treat time as a context where these interactions mediated by perception (cues) occur within a physical frame (breath or bow lengths).

TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

At the moment, I very rarely think about pitch with reference to equal temperament. I tend not to specify exact pitches but employ a tablature of some sort. In fact, I usually think about pitch as being relatively high or low, dependent on another element. My pitches generally serve an interactive, physical or perceptual function. For example, at times I use the pitch direction of glissandi as the basis of a cuing system or explore a variety of high breathy whistles due to their inherent sonic and physical instability. So a middle C could potentially occur in the context of a glissando that has a function in a particular cuing system or it might not. Ultimately, I don’t think it would matter very much. Personally, I would rather start by attempting to create an interactive framework that could lead to an environment where active and sensitive listening is prioritised. Everything else would flow from there.

Here are the previous posts on Gregory Emfietzis and Ben Isaacs.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, or elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to: ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.


Close to the edge: Ben Isaacs

Ben Isaacs studied composition at Huddersfield with Aaron Cassidy and Bryn Harrison. His current work includes a new piece for flautist Richard Craig and a three-glockenspiel piece for the line upon line ensemble.

As Ben says below, silence doesn’t actually feature in his music much at all – but allone gets the nod for this concert because it sits right on the edge of inaudibility and, what’s more, crams that tiny band with a whole lot of activity. It’s a sort of nearly-imperceptible virtuosity that might carry Beckett-like connotations of futility and waste if it weren’t so damned beautiful in its own right.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Ben Isaacs: One of the things that most appeals to me about composing (in the sense of producing musical notation for musicians to interpret) is the particular way it combines individual creation (each score I produce is very much ‘mine’ and no-one else’s) and collaboration (I am completely reliant on others in order to actually hear the music). To me this specific balance is significantly (albeit not entirely) distinct from other forms of music making, and I imagine that this distinction is part of the reason it endures as an art form, and won’t seem too anachronistic any time soon (even if the question does occasionally get asked!).

TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?

BI: Almost no role at all! Or at least it’s not really an aspect I explicitly consider whilst composing. However, over the last five years I have focused on writing extremely quiet and fragile music, so for an audience it does quite possibly draw attention to the act of listening in a similar way to music which does deal with silence (however the word is understood) more overtly. For me, this is a wholly welcome outcome of the work as I’m very much attracted to the sense of ‘live-ness’ musical performance can engender, though I tend to avoid pauses of any substantial length in order to maintain a continual fragility of sound. I often write in my performance instructions that the sound should be ‘barely there’, with the implication that it is ‘there’ nonetheless.

TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

BI: Aside from their volume, my pieces typically work within a number of other constraints. Most commonly, this involves severely restricting both the range of pitches used, and the physical gestures with which the performers produce sound. Once these have been established, it becomes a question of emphasising the volatility inherent in the combining of the constraints (for example, various trills and tremolos swelling from niente to pppp and back again using only the top seven notes of the piano). Often these gestures will be repeated, with their various constraints ensuring different results each time, or the range of pitches will gradually expand and contract, affecting the variety of available gestures. In any case, the focus is on the minute. I aim to create dynamic and intricate music that presents a constantly shifting surface whilst remaining extremely constricted.

I have also begun to work with longer durations. In February Kate Ledger performed an hour-long version of my piano piece too expanding and I recently finished a glockenspiel trio for line upon line percussion that can last up to two hours. The combination of concert-length durations and extremely constricted music is one I’m very intrigued by.


TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

BI: Firstly I imagine I’d transpose it up a couple of octaves, or maybe even three or four. I’m drawn to both the instability inherent in playing winds and strings at low volumes in the upper register, and the thinness of sound and short decay at the top end of a piano or pitched percussion instrument. I’m also keen on homogenous ensembles so perhaps I’d have a string trio drawing their bows too slowly to produce clear pitches, playing very small glissandi towards the top of their highest string, and with an occasional trill in there too. Probably there’d be a number of repeating patterns, with the fragility of the bow strokes cracking into different rhythms with each repetition. I wouldn’t need to add much to that.

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

Here is the previous post on Gregory Emfietzis; coming up: Charlie Sdraulig.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, or elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to: ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.

Composing with silence: Gregory Emfietzis

Gregory Emfietzis was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and studied in Macedonia and at Huddersfield and Brunel universities. Recent works include the wind quintet Fear (not), winner of an international competition hosted by the Wiener Konzerthaus to mark its 100th season, the chamber opera The Darkness of Mistico and the puppet theatre piece Music Impossible.

I’ve chosen a piece by Greg to include in my Kings Place concert because I wanted to include something music-theatrical. Not over-bearingly so, but enough to open a corridor between ‘standard’ music-music, and non-standard music-theatre. And Greg’s music fits the bill perfectly, drawing on Kagel and Jani Christou, but retaining a light and often humorous touch. In DIY 1: the pianist and the lamp, the interactions between the piano soloist and an on-stage lamp play with our symbolic interpretations of light/dark, sound/silence and content/emptiness.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Gregory Emfietzis: Well … if you consider the size of the advertising and cinematic industry in our day it certainly feels like a very ‘contemporary’ career choice, strongly related to and heavily employed by our modern world. In our particular field, however, I am not sure I can see it as a career rather than (just) as a choice … Despite the many years of studies, countless working hours (not to mention money spent), it still feels more like a professional hobby, which I (just) need to do.

Tim R-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

Greg E: Composing itself can’t have changed too much for ages. Yes, different periods could possibly mean different tendencies or trends, the development of instruments and advanced technology in the hands of more composers, even different types of notation; but I see that like any other more or less expected development of any other profession… The ‘logistics’ of being a composer have changed considerably though, because of the considerably greater opportunities to gain experience by working with amateur and professional players from all over the world, and the even greater opportunities to document your work and present it to a wider audience through the Internet.

Tim R-J: What role does silence play in your music?

Greg E: An equally important role as non-silence I’d say. Rather than a moment of emptiness and/or inactiveness, silence feels to me more like an extremely ‘loud’ acoustic timbre, which often carries very strong dramatic elements with it.

DIY 1: the pianist and the lamp performed by Nao Maebayashi, London 2010

Tim R-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

Greg E: I’d say I’m more interested in stretching time over ideas, in such a way that an audience loses its sense of time. And since ideas don’t appear as ‘just sound’ to me, the theatricality of live music performance comes in too – so I’m very often dealing with time over dramaturgy over sounds over ideas.

DIY 1 extract

Score extract from DIY 1: the pianist and the lamp

 Tim R-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

Greg E: Surround it with many many many other notes of different sizes. Then circle all of them and draw a vertical line downwards; finally add four shorter diagonal lines downwards: two starting on each side of the vertical line’s middle, and the other two starting at the very end of it. Entitle it: SSSSSSSSShhhhhhh

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, and elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to: ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.

10 for ’10: Daryl Jamieson

It’s been a while, and it’s closer to 2012 than 2010 now, but I thought it high time to revive last year’s ‘10 for ’10‘ series of composer interviews. In any case, we never got to 10, so there’s unfinished business to deal with at least.

I first encountered Daryl Jamieson‘s music in September this year, at the Pharos International Festival of Contemporary Music, in Cyprus.  He was born in Nova Scotia in 1980, but in recent years has made his home in Tokyo. I have elsewhere described his piano trio, Snow Meditation,  as containing hints of a 19th-century Romanticism, but “in a way that wasn’t kitsch, nostalgic, or even ironic”. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best way to approach Jamieson’s music as whole. Remembering back to that piece, more than a month later, I think my specific response was born of a more generalisable sense that here was music that was sensitive to certain formal  habits or practices – and even contained  occasional surface allusions in terms of certain gestures or sounds – but that was capable of re-presenting these things, or perhaps moving between them, in a way that seemed much more generous in spirit than much, more cynical, postmodernism.

That’s still not a precise encapsulation, and Snow Meditation (heard just once) is falling further into memory now. For this profile, Jamieson has provided an altogether different piece, a Fugue in b for piano solo (2010). According to its programme note, it is ‘the third in [a] long-term series of fugues I am hoping to write over my life’. The attachment to fugue suggests a continuing wish to connect with and consider the values and objects of tradition. But there is an almost mystical allusiveness to this piece that may be characteristic. A sense that life is being breathed into or through something that is hardly really there. Jamieson also writes: ‘Donʼt expect to hear the fugal subject: it is played only with the mind of the pianist, not with her hands…’

Daryl Jamieson: Fugue in b | score (pdf)

TR-J: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Daryl Jamieson: I’m not sure that composing has ever been a sensible career choice. I seem to recall a great many composers throughout history becoming so against the wishes of their families, whether that be for reasons of finance or class or gender. But music is part of the human experience and always will be; likewise, people are naturally curious and like to experience things they have not yet experienced. There will always be new music, in some form or another, and so composers will always exist, regardless of financial reward.

Personally, I compose for a very basic reason: I want to express something about the world and my emotional reaction to it, and the tools at hand that are most comfortable, most familiar to me are musical. It’s not really a career choice, it’s just something I do. In high school and university I had many diverse interests that I could have pursued as a career, I suppose: I studied math and drama and poetry as an undergraduate, and my science marks in high school were higher than my music ones. But composing allows me to indulge and explore all these fields – drama with opera and music theatre, poetry with songs, science and math with the serial matrices I create to govern the harmonic fields in many of my pieces – and so I can develop all of those interests along with my musical technique.

TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

DJ: Composing, for me at least, still involves sitting at a desk with a sheet of blank manuscript paper and a pencil. Part of my practice involves matrices and series with moderately complex maths worked out on a computer, but nothing I couldn’t do by hand if forced. In the pure moment of creation, I don’t think anything has changed for centuries, not in the way that I compose.

However, there has been a growing crisis with the role of the composer in society, which has been steadily decreasing over the past century even as visual artists have recently become ever more prominent. In Japan, for instance, if you ask the average person about contemporary composers, most people can name only Takemitsu – who died more than a decade ago – if they can name any at all. Composers have mostly excepted themselves from the general public debate, despite the efforts of those few composers who write political music, such as Richard Barrett, or who are politically active, such as Pascal Dusapin. I went through a period of writing political music, mostly in my undergraduate years, but since then have largely avoided specifically political themes. I do think about how my musical organisation and structure can reflect their political and societal equivalents, though music is abstract enough that people who want to ignore that type of political message can and do. Political engagement, even by major composers, seems to be ignored by even the quality papers, let alone the general public, and so I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is.

That said, direct political or social action is something I personally would like to be more involved with in the future. Recently the mmm… ensemble (which I co-founded) embarked on a year-long charity project called the ‘hibari project’*, which will raise money for those who were orphaned or disabled by the Great East Japan Earthquake. We have given a hundred composers from around the world a platform to reflect publicly on a matter of international significance, while also helping the victims financially. I hope that this will play a small part in remaking the connection between composers and the general public.

The other big change in the past thirty years, a more positive one, is in communications technology. mmm…’s main concert series, the ‘Circle of Friends’, features young composers from around the world. [Coincidentally, they have performed pieces by three composers in ’10 for 10’ series – Evan Johnson, Timothy McCormack and James Weeks – as well as one other hopefully to come in the near future – Ed.] We’ve only met eight of the twenty-five featured composers in person, and all of our interactions, including rehearsals, have taken place on the internet. This is undeniably new, and even ten years ago, in an age before Skype made long-distance phone calls irrelevant, our ensemble could not have existed in its current form. The opportunities to meet composers from abroad and have pieces performed in countries where you’ve never set foot seem to be greater now than ever before, and that must be a good thing for world culture.

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

DJ: I like collaborating with performers, and I like workshopping pieces, and I’m quite jealous of the method choreographers use to create new pieces (teaching the piece to the dancers in small bits, moulding those bits into a whole over weeks or months, with the dancers learning everything by rote as you create). But in practice, I usually work briefly with the musicians before I write, hearing them play and learning their limits, and then present them, a few weeks or months later, with a nearly-finished piece. That’s as much a limitation of performers’ schedules and/or distance as a choice of mine.

In rehearsal, I’m content to not be in total control of things; I like to let the performers bring their own artistic sensibility to the music, and not be overly concerned with what I think is the ‘correct’ way to play it. After a piece is first performed, I’m creatively finished with it. I don’t do revisions, neither am I protective of my initial intentions. I sometimes don’t even recall my original intentions, as I’m already writing the next piece. So if a new performer takes up one of my pieces, I encourage them to trust their own judgements about the music, and not rely on my critiques. The composer is only one-third of the necessary minimum number of intelligent beings needed to create musical meaning. Both the performer(s) and the listener(s) bring their own experiences and interpretations to the music, and their’s are not less important than the composer’s.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

DJ: I have two different methods of approaching composition. One is serial (neo-serial?) with regard to pitch, one is comparatively free (structured improvising on the page). The series and matrices I use in the first method tend to be derived from natural phenomena – such as mountain heights – or arcane numerological analyses of poetry. The soundworlds created by the two methods are not so dissimilar, but the neo-serial pieces tend to have more notes. In both cases, I first plot a structure – indicating textures and durations of sections – and as I compose the details of the pieces, I’m principally concerned with rhythm and colour. That is not to say I don’t care about pitch or harmony, just that I separate my harmonic thought from my rhythmic and timbral thought.

Since the overall structure (and sometimes pitch) has been predetermined, while I compose I can focus on the individual moment, the individual note, its colour and duration, the balancing of irregular rhythms with regular ones to avoid the tyranny of pulse and barline. I try to infuse each moment with what I consider beauty. This emphasis on colour, beauty, and ‘the moment’ is something I have in common with Japanese aesthetics, though this has been a dominant strain in my music ever since I discovered Feldman in the early 2000s, long before I moved to Japan. Certainly whilst in Japan I’ve been consciously developing this aspect of my music, and have been greatly influenced in this by Japanese art, especially Noh theatre, and by learning to play the koto.

TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

DJ: I’ve got a series of piano miniatures to write that I’ve been putting off for the best part of a year, as well as a piece for the next mmm… concert on 27 March (this will be an alto flute and violin duo), and a piece for koto (with voice) and viola for the third concert in an on-going series called Music Without Borders, which is a collective of five composers who write for Frankfurt-based koto player Naoko Kikuchi along with various other instruments, both Western and Japanese. All of my upcoming projects are influenced by, or are settings of, Japanese poetry, which has been an abiding interest since the mid 2000s.

TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

DJ: There is no dusk here. There is a moment when it is day, then there is a moment when it is night. The day is over. There is a sound that was a middle C, but its middle C-ness has gone. When did it go? you ask. I didn’t notice either. It was here a second ago, you say. Never mind, it’s gone now. The moon is bright tonight, you say. There is the illusion of rain. The middle C, stripped of its middle C-ness, lingers.

*The Hibari charity project  launched on 25th October. It will be updated every Tuesday for the next year with two new pieces of contemporary music. The pieces are available to stream through the site; to download, all that’s required is a charitable donation. All proceeds go to the Asahi Shinbun newspaper’s Social Welfare Organization, helping children who were orphaned by the Japanese earthquake, as well as elderly and disabled people who were affected.

Hibari’s first week features pieces by Sunao Isaji and Nicholas Deyoe; future composers include Ben Isaacs, Evis Sammoutis and Ken Ueno. You can also keep up with the site through Hibari’s tumblr.

10 for ’10: Matthew Shlomowitz

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:

title page, page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5, page 6.

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!

10 for ’10: James Weeks

Anyone remotely familiar with the new music scene in Great Britain will have encountered James Weeks in one of his many guises – conductor, composer, director, writer, enabler. A cheeky part of me sees him in this way as a sort of pre-Faustian Thomas Adès. He is a brilliant conductor – his vocal group EXAUDI is widely acknowledged as one of the very best in the business – but he is not as well-known for his own music. Which is a shame, because his is one of the most distinct voices of his generation in English composition.

Moreover, I think it is a distinctly English voice, although it’s hard to explain why. Not in any crude nationalistic sense, you must understand, but in the same sense that makes ‘frost and snow fall, mingled with hail’ (‘hreosan hrim ond snaw / hagle gemenged’; The Wanderer) one of the most quintessential lines in English literature, or the sense that informs Purcell’s brutally honest passacaglias, the bleakness of the landscape in Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Finnissy’s empirical dissections of the world’s music. It’s a little bit cold, a little bit stand-offish; but, from that, capable of revealing great beauty in things.

When I listen to Weeks – and, as he says below, his pieces do often sound very different from one another – I am aware of a consistent attitude or stance that points towards a particular aesthetic. This consistency arises, I imagine, from certain technical procedures devised by the composer and adapted for successions of pieces (some of which are referred to below). But deferring the perceived aesthetic effect to the realm of technique is not to diminish its reality. If modernism taught us anything, across all the arts, it is that technique and aesthetic can very rarely be separated. (When they are, by the world’s more naive epigones, the results are invariably disastrous.)

The Catford Harmony, one of a series of ‘London Harmonies’, is from the gnarlier end of Weeks’ style: its punching rhythms and wide intervals spool out grids of sound, like a demented ticker-tape machine. The music shapes the very air around it. On one level it is quite crude music, but Weeks’ real gift lies in the construction of his canons, which never fall into the trap of sounding well most of the time, but flagging occasionally ‘but we’ll leave it because that’s what the process demands’. The energy, and thus the interrogation of the fundamental materials, never wavers. In a world of ephemera, deceptions and cynical exploitation, music of such honesty and commitment is to be cherished.

The Catford Harmony | score (pdf)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

James Weeks: I honestly couldn’t imagine myself not doing it. I’ve been set on being a composer since I was nine, so clearly there is an overriding inner compulsion within me to write which I don’t question and never have. In the last few years, when my working time has been torn between doing things that earn money (mainly conducting) and writing, there has been a certain heightened urgency to the question of ‘why?’, but all I can say is that I feel lost without regular recourse to the desk: everything gets out of kilter and I get miserable. So I think I am shackled to this ‘anachronistic career choice’ for good!

TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, is different now than from 20–30 years ago?

JW: Well, staying with the idea of composing being anachronistic (in the way I do it, with pencils, manuscript paper, scissors and paste), I think things have changed markedly in the ten years I have been working, let alone 20 or 30. When I was studying at the beginning of the last decade (I did an MA and PhD at Southampton from 2000–05), there still seemed to me to be a basic hegemony in place of notated music, acoustic instruments, composition-as-discourse, a real sense of developing modern/post-modern/experimental traditions. It may be just that my perspective has changed since I am no longer attached to a university, but I think that recently the culture of what you might call Sound Art and extended/multi-media has much more profoundly penetrated new music, both in obvious ways (the ubiquity of electronics) and less obvious ones – there is a major aesthetic shift going on at present and I think the next ten years will be really important ones for the art-form. My impression is that a lot of what is going on in this area is very superficial, often (ironically enough) quite conceptually dated, and driven in large part by promoters who want to look cool; but beneath that there are currents which are altering both the way the composer works, technically speaking, and the idea of composing and composition. It remains to be seen just how anachronistic my rather traditional idea of a composer actually is! Being of an experimental bent, I’m very enthusiastic about the more radical things going on, but sometimes I feel a bit sad that fewer and fewer people are listening to music in the way that they did, because in my view it was more interesting.

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

JW: I conduct or play in a lot of the performances of my music that take place at the moment. I don’t think that’s ideal as it looks like you’re a bit of a one-man-band, but that’s the way it is just now. I’m very happy being in charge of performances because I’ve found that the style of playing or singing I want doesn’t necessarily come naturally to many performers, so it’s good to be on hand to get that right. I find often players are expressive in the wrong way – too Romantic or rather Expressionist in the sort of standard late-20th century repertoire mode – whereas in fact if you wanted a model, Early Music style would be a lot closer (though not quite right either). When other groups or players take up pieces or I’m not on hand to work with them, I just take the attitude that I’m delighted they’re playing it at all and don’t get all Ligeti-ish about it (he was famous for his high-handed way with performers). Sometimes that ends in tears (my own) but I’m learning slowly who ‘gets’ my work and who doesn’t. It’s a process.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

JW: I’m very materialistic about material. It’s something absolutely concrete, like bricks or mud or water. There are two different things here though: there is the sonic material, the physicality of the sound itself, and then there is the material on the page, the ‘music-stuff’, which gets shaped and played with and permutated. I keep both areas separate and then they get put together in the sounding result: what excites me is the way these two material planes act on each other in performance, often very unpredictably. Some pieces privilege one materiality over the other, the balance is always a bit different, which is one reason why my pieces often sound very different from each other, even when the basic way of working is very similar.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

JW: For the last few years I have been working with the most basic or elemental of musical materials that I can. Talking of mud and bricks, these really are musical building blocks, very simple or crude. These preferences are hard-wired for me – I feel completely at home with them. My ways of proceeding are similarly basic at the moment, very simple permutations or patternings using the minimum of resources – born of the urge to see what I can get from the most barren of musical ground. As I naturally write linearly, most pieces tend to be contrapuntal layerings of these simply-permutated lines, quite often arranged into blocks which then get replaced by other blocks, and so on. Canon is another central technique for me. So the decisions I am taking are firstly to do with the selection of materials, and secondly to do with the way things are going to be permutated or extended. Most of this takes place at a pre-compositional stage. Timing and placement can also be pre-compositionally decided, though not always. In short, composition literally is ‘putting together’ for me: I write to find out what the consequences of my decisions are when everything is put together. And the decisions themselves are not primarily ones of musical efficacy, but are stringently aesthetic in character.

TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

JW: Dozens! So many ideas for pieces – no time to write them. In terms of commissions (or requests), I have a flute piece to write for the autumn for the Japanese flautist Reiko Manabe, and then the next big piece is the climax to my London Harmonies series, The Spitalfields Harmony. This will be for choir (New London Chamber Choir) and ensemble (London Sinfonietta) for next year’s Spitalfields Music Summer Festival. Beyond that I am planning a setting of Pessoa for a handful of voices and instruments for next autumn, and a series of short instrumental pieces with tape.

TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

JW: I think a line of minims would be nice. Then I would think of something to put on top of it.

10 for ’10: Linda Buckley

Ireland’s Crash Ensemble, founded by Donnacha Dennehy, Andrew Synott and Michael Seaver, has become a hub for an exciting brand of Irish postminimalist and electroacoustic music. Linda Buckley is one composer to have benefited in this way, and Crash are bringing her piece for viola and electronics, Do you remember the planets? to Kings Place as part of the Irish American concert series taking place this week.

Buckley is completing her PhD at Trinity College, Dublin, with Dennehy, and one senses a connection in her use of microtonal inflections within harmonically open textures, something that gives her music (many excerpts of which can be heard on her website) a combination of bold assertiveness and a smooth, glassy elegance. Planets, for viola and soundtrack and inspired by Pythagoras’s theory of the music of the spheres, is a good example: the viola part is quite sparse, dominated by strident fifths and fourths, but the accompanying soundtrack offers an alternative perspective of diffuse textures and harmonies that completely transform the solo line, opening its solidity and certainty up to question.

Buckley has just returned from China, where she spent time working on a new piece combining uilleann pipes, erhu and electronics: the combination of instruments from within and without the Western classical tradition parallels her interest in combining tonal and microtonal harmonic spheres. In the following interview, she talks about her compositional thought and method, her relationship with performers, and how influences from world music feed into her work.

Do you remember the planets? | Do you remember the planets? Viola part (pdf)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Linda Buckley: I guess I don’t really think of composing as a ‘career choice’ as such, in that I don’t think I ever really conciously made the decision ‘I am going to be a composer’ – it just happened quite naturally, it chose me. It was like a natural logical progression stemming from a curiosity about sound, about harmony, about emotion.

I do it because something sparks this inside me, and I want to share it – maybe it’s an atmosphere, or a sense of magic. Something that can be expressed in sound, perhaps not so easily in the written word. I do it because when music excites me, or moves me, I want to communicate this to others, share the experience.

TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

LB: It’s difficult to say, but I imagine there’s more of an atmosphere of openness and inclusivity in the current scene than perhaps was the case thirty years ago, maybe less reactionary activity. There is a sense of boundaries being blurred now between genres which I think can be a positive thing – e.g. my experience of Irish traditional singing, Indian vocal percussion, Javanese Gamelan, medieval organum as well as electronica and postrock has definitely filtered down into what I do. I compose music, but I also sing, play gamelan, perform electronic improv – it’s all about embracing the total experience of music making. For me, I like the human connection aspect – perhaps moving away from the image of solitary isolated composer figure removed from society!

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

LB: This is very important to me – a lot of this is to do with getting to know each other as people, as well as the musical composer/performer relationship. That’s why I love working closely with performers, developing the piece with them, exchanging ideas, honing the craft. I also like to work with particular performers/ensembles on more than one occassion, building up a dynamic with them. I think this make rehearsal much more interactive and means that more of the original feeling and intention of the piece can be conveyed meaningfully to the audience in performance.

I’m always excited to see what happens when a piece is played by different performers. For example, this piece Do you remember the planets? for viola and tape is probably one of my most performed – from Tasmania to Dublin to New York and beyond! Every time I hear it played by a different violist. I hear something new in it – it really keeps it alive and fresh for me, as it written five years ago which feels like a long time ago now. Some players really go for its almost raw electronica-like energy, others connect more to its medieval influence, and purity.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

LB: This can come from anything – from the sound of a gate creaking, to wind blowing through pipes, or a single chord that seems to extend out, like a blurred vision. Sometimes it’s like having ‘aural hallucinations’ when you can internally ‘hear’ the sound you wish to create, in the early stage of the process. Then you try to capture that initial experience – to ‘sonify’ it. That’s all part of the excitement, moving closer and closer to capturing that aural idea … sometimes it’s almost like trying to remember a dream. But in a more practical sense, eg. when working with instruments, it could be something like the sound of a single note played ‘sul tasto’ on cello – this can then trigger more ideas. Or in electronics it could be a type of granulation – perhaps extending a short simple sound into something more harmonic and expansive.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

LB: I suppose major interests for me would be thinking in terms of parameters to explore such as timbre, rate of change, harmony etc. When dealing with pitched material, how the horizontal relates to the vertical and vice versa.

TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

LB: I’m writing up my doctoral thesis at the moment so that keeps me busy! I’ve also just returned from China where I worked with traditional instrumentalists on a new piece – exploring ways of combining Irish traditional instruments with Chinese instruments, and electronics … so that will have further developments in the future. I’ll also be working on a new piece for the Irish National Symphony Orchestra, so I’m excited to immerse myself in the large forces and possibilities of the orchestral sound world. Future work includes new choral music, as well as more performing with live electronics.

TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

LB: Extend it out, into a sea of lush microtones …!

10 for ’10: Bryn Harrison

I saw Bryn Harrison‘s music before I heard any of it. This was back in 2001, and he was giving a research paper at Goldsmiths College a year after I’d finished my Masters there. I’d been intellectually in thrall to the very different temporal and notational manipulations of Feldman and Ferneyhough and as Harrison presented slides of some of his recent music (from the Listenings series), in which very precise, very sparse material was rotated around asymmetrical rhythmic cycles, I saw music that stirred the two contrasts together.

Harrison’s music isn’t a cocktail recipe, but that combination of apparently opposite poles is an interesting place from which to approach it. The mix of what we might call European and American influences gives his music a feeling of both intensely structured rigour and aleatoric freedom. As he explains below, his music still involves material cycled round in asymmetric loops, but it has become considerably more dense over recent years such that the sounding surface acts as a thick, almost impenetrable skin through which details may periodically become apparent, but beneath which the full depth of activity can never truly be appreciated. The listener is cast somewhat adrift, therefore, in an aural environment that continually pulls them back and forth between highly energised structural details and an almost completely neutral surface sheen. Where Harrison is most successful is in exploiting the expressive potential of such a combination: the tension between intensive detail and strait-jacketed stasis has a melancholy grandeur, a bittersweet ebb and flow of resistance and acquiescence.

There isn’t a better piece in which to explore this tension than Harrison’s Repetitions in Extended Time. This 43-minute work was written for Ensemble Plus-Minus, who will be performing it at Kings Place this Monday, 12th April. I strongly recommend that you take up the opportunity to hear it for yourself. This piece is too big to share (although extracts are available via Harrison’s website) so here is the much smaller Quietly Rising, written for pianist Philip Thomas:

Quietly Rising, mp3

Quietly Rising, score (1 page only)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Bryn Harrison: I’m not sure that I find composing to be an anachronistic career choice. After all, there seem to be more composers now than ever before working in a multitude of musical genres. I can understand though why some people might consider sitting down at a desk and composing with pen and paper a little old fashioned but that is my preferred method of working and I find it to be the most effective way of hopefully ensuring that what comes off the page still feels vibrant and new. Composing needs to feel invigorating and stimulating and as long as the creative impetus is there I will continue to do it. I do find that it becomes more challenging as one gets older. Pushing through into newer territory becomes more difficult and it is easy to fall back on what one already knows. I am happy to adopt the position (as, say, many painters do) of working within a very limited field so that each piece does not need to feel radically different to the last, but there always has to be the feeling of the pushing myself slightly further in a particular direction. I still find it stimulating to discover things about my music that I hadn’t previously considered.

TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, is different now than from 20–30 years ago?

BH: Well 20–30 years ago the goal seemed to be to get a publishing deal but I don’t hear younger composers talking about that at all any more. I suppose that electronic communication has made it far easier for composers to promote and disseminate their music themselves. I think the situation is actually healthier now. There seem to be more composers working across various disciplines and enjoying the autonomy that comes from having certain creative freedoms and not feeling that one has to write for a particular group in order to get a degree of recognition.

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

BH: It feels increasingly gratifying for me to work with performers who I know and respect. Over the last few years I have built up a particular working relationship with groups such as Ensemble Plus-Minus, the Norwegian group Asamisimasa and, more recently, ELISION. Essentially, this has meant that although I still adopt the standpoint of writing for the instruments themselves (rather than for the particular strengths of an individual player) I have confidence that what I’m writing will be given the level of committment that is required to really pull the piece off. I very much doubt that Repetitions in Extended Time would have been written for a group with whom I had not worked previously due to the immense amount of concentration required. Similarly, it would be difficult to envisage writing such a complex and enduring piece as Surface Forms (repeating) for a group other than ELISION. I am always interested though in the differences in perspective that arise when another group take up an existing piece. Often interpretations will be quite different and bring fresh insights to the music.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

BH: Morton Feldman once said that he thought there was a crucial difference between having ‘ideas’ and a sense of what the material was in one’s music. I would agree with Feldman here. For me, materials are the pitches and durations that I deal with on a moment to moment basis. What I am interested in is the inter-relationships that occur between the rhythmic cycle and the melodic cycle and, in the case of ensemble pieces, the ways in which cyclical materials can be distributed or combined. Timbre and dynamics are also important but it is the projection of cyclical pitch material through time that I am principally concerned with. I try to steer away from a music that is in any way rhetorical or referential. I am interested in a music that is purely reflective/experiential and engages with our faculties of musical perception, cognition and memory.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

BH: I am interested in writing a singular, monolithic kind of music that asserts a kind of objectified presence and that seems to operate in a different way to that which unfolds through time. All music, of course engages with the passing of time but we can still hold to the notion of stasis as a symbolic representation of something which, we might say, reflects a certain ideology but which, ultimately, will be superseded by the reality of dealing with a transient, temporal art form. In the past I have worked with panels of material which are presented with little or no direct development and which assert themselves as objects by being comparable to one another, and have written single movement works which change very gradually. What I have been trying to do in very recent pieces such as Surface Forms (repeating) (2009) is to present all the material as quickly as possible but to allow the listener time to then assimilate this very high level of information over a prolonged period of time. I find it fascinating how we deal with very high levels of information, especially when these ideas are presented over and over again. I’m really interested at the moment in allowing the listener to build up the musical image very slowly over a period of time through constantly revisiting the same, almost ungraspable, musical surface. In Surface Forms (repeating) there are some very literal repeats but they never feel this way because the listener is always scanning a different part of the musical surface when the same materials re-occur. In other words the music has to be cognitively constructed rather than directly perceived.

TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

BH: I’m mainly focussing on a solo classical guitar piece for Anders Forisdal (guitarist with Asamisimasa) following a commission from the Norwegian Arts Council. I have about three weeks to complete this. There are also projects in the back of my mind for Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea, the London Sinfonietta in collaboration with digital artist Tim Head, and a vocal ensemble piece for EXAUDI. So plenty to keep me busy!

TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

BH: C for me is as good a note to proceed from as any other but I’m particularly pleased that you picked a mid-range note! I would create a pitch cycle from the C to other contingently related pitches which eventually would return to the C only to become, once more it’s point of departure. I would then create a rhythmic cycle that was of a different length to the pitch cycle and experiment combining the two.

10 for ’10: Timothy McCormack

Timothy McCormack (b. 1984) writes high resolution music. Music of razor sharp detail, printed on aluminium. No: not that. It is music magnified too far, so that the spaces between every RGB pixel on the screen are visible. Still no: it is both these, both micro and macro. Timothy McCormack writes music that occupies a fractal world of multiple, conflicting geometries.

It has a monolithic quality, certainly, there is no narrative pull, but it nevertheless inhabits and participates in the passage of time. The monolith is neither static in space, nor within itself. Like a body whose cells replace themselves entirely every seven years, standing on a ball of fire and shifting continents, exploding to the edge of the universe at the speed of light. It’s all a question of where you look from. And yet in all locations there are still the same universals, the same forces acting in the same ways. Hyper-activity, completely caged.

The extract above is from the opening of McCormack’s The Restoration of Objects (2008), for four strings. Although McCormack’s output is still relatively small, and some compositional preoccupations are still coming into focus, this is, for me, a very accomplished piece. The sound of four string instruments, and the striated treatment of their technique, give the whole a sonic homogeneity that belies the intensity of activity beneath the surface. Again, it all depends on where you stand. As is apparent from the interview below, questions of perception are central to how McCormack writes his music.

Disfix, which ELISION will play tomorrow night, is a slightly earlier work. Scored for bass clarinet, piccolo trumpet and trombone it doesn’t have Restoration‘s sheen. Instead, however, it has a sharper grain; the margins between parameters – breath, embouchure, fingers, tongue – are wider, the difference between instrumental timbres similarly so. It leans, therefore, to the intensity of those RGB pixels, brought bright and burning right up to the eye. This video is of ELISION’s performance of this piece at Huddersfield last year. A pdf of the score may be downloaded from the link below.

Disfix – pdf score


Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Timothy McCormack: There are a number of reasons why I’ve stuck with composing. When I first started seriously composing, I appreciated music’s ability to remain completely abstract and non-representational, or at least more so than other art mediums. This sentiment as been expressed many times throughout history (‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ etc. …), but it was an important early realization for me. Any mirror that music attempts to hold up to the world is a highly subjective one. Thus, I find the medium of music is more adequately described as a filter – and I find that filtering the real is more interesting than merely representing it.

Something else I find fascinating about composition is that it includes a confrontation with other artists and interpreters as a condition of its process and its completion. Meaning: my music gains its significance after having had a confrontation with a performer and listener – it does not end with the double-bar line that I write once I’m finished with the score. I view performance as a confrontation between composer, score, performer and perceiver and, in this arena, each of these forces has the ability to influence the experience. Thus, ‘the piece’ exists on many levels at once, including but not limited to: the piece as realized by the performers (taking into account their unique approach to interpreting music and the individuality of that performance); and the piece as perceived by the listener (who continues to shape their perception of the piece even after its performance has ended). I find the latter to be particularly interesting, as I think that what the listener remembers surely cannot be ‘the piece,’ but an imprint of the piece; a memory-object – something non-aural yet created from and triggered by an aural experience. The possibility of such post-musical experiences is something that my recent pieces directly address through an attempt at preemptively creating a dialogue with the perceiver’s memory and inducing a listening state in which the remembered sound is more prescribed, narrowed and in focus for the perceiver after the aural event has ended. In a way, the piece attempts to become its own self-reflexive filter, doing so to itself as would a performer and listener.

In short, I am a composer because music continues to provide objects of inquiry that I find interesting: spatiality vs. temporality; density perception; sensation; acoustics and mechanism; the performer-instrument apparatus (which I’m sure I’ll discuss later in this article). The fact that music invites the study of such divergent areas is a large reason why I continue.

Switchboard operator. Now that’s an anachronistic career.

Tim R-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

Tim McC: Obviously the Internet has had a huge impact on a composer’s ability to connect with performers, ensembles, listeners and other composers. But, more interestingly, I believe that the performer situation has changed in the past 20 to 30 years. It seems that more performers are getting interested in pursuing contemporary music performance at a younger age, and are engaging with it very seriously. I see more and more young performers investing a significant amount of time and employing a rather developed, advanced degree of thought into their performances and their role as contemporary music interpreters. I went to Oberlin Conservatory, which is an exclusively undergraduate school, so: students in their late teens and early twenties. There was a tremendous interest and investment in contemporary music performance practice at the school, and the students were interested and proficient enough to tackle some pretty incredible projects (I’m thinking specifically of three portrait concerts of Lachenmann as well as a fully-staged, US première of Olga Neuwirth’s opera Lost Highway). More indicative of what I’m talking about were the equally ambitious and, importantly, student-initiated solo and small chamber group projects. I use Oberlin as an example because the performers who attend are so young, but I’ve seen ambitious projects being tackled by young performers all over the place.

As a young composer, this means that the relationships I make with many of my performers become lifelong engagements, and the nature of the relationships become highly exploratory and collaborative. It is a truly special situation when both composer and performer forge such a close relationship, and develop as artists together over years. Which I suppose leads us to your next question.

Tim R-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

Tim McC: My relationship with the instruments I write for, and how I write for them, is typically a product of my personal relationship with the instruments themselves. The sound world explored in a piece is largely a consequence of the specific techniques and physical operations I myself explore with the instrument in question. That being said, working with performers is a hugely important and valuable part of my compositional process. My personal work with instruments is perhaps a testing-ground for the elements that will eventually comprise a piece of music, and it is with performers that these elements are cultivated into material able to sustain significance throughout a piece’s duration.

It is more important to me that my relationship with a performer is one that continues through multiple pieces rather than one that begins and ends with one piece. This goes equally for performers specifically for who pieces have been written as well as for performers tackling pieces not written for them. Since the basic elements of my pieces are yielded from my own private work with instruments, it is always interesting when another performer takes them on. As long as the performers or groups approaching my music do so with interest and intent, I don’t think that there can be a ‘definitive’ interpretation. The performers become mediators of the music I have written – the music bends to their personalities as artists. (Despite its apparent rigidity, my music is actually quite malleable.) Thus, ‘what happens’ when a piece is taken up by another player/group is an accumulation of significance, as it continues a dialogue between myself and the two (or more) interpretations/interpreters. In this way, the pieces I write can be seen as invitations for collaboration and discussion between myself and the performers who choose to accept them. The pieces suggest and request a long-term engagement and exploration. I believe that it is this ongoing dialogue, experimentation and collaboration with performers that takes my personal exploration of instruments from technical research to artistic endeavor.

Tim R-J: What is musical material for you?

Tim McC: Anything that I find I am able to use to circumscribe the musical territory in which a new piece may operate would be considered ‘musical material,’ even if its originally non-aural. That is, anything that suggests to me how a piece might behave (not necessarily how a piece might sound).

Though a number of forces may influence and shape a piece, it is the instrument itself, as well as the performer-instrument apparatus, that is the greatest factor in determining how a piece behaves and sounds. I view the relationship between body and instrument to be one of mediation whereby they each have the ability to articulate and actuate the other and circumscribe how each operates within the context of the other in order to create sound. The nature of this relationship has become the basis for most material in recent pieces. To narrow it even further, the actual point of contact between the body and the instrument, and the space created therein (which I conceptualize as a catastrophically violent, albeit microscopic, space), has served an increasingly more significant role as material and thus in determining both aural and behavioral aspects of the piece in progress.

Tim R-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

Tim McC: How to deal with time has always been one of the most interesting and terrifying compositional issues for me. Olga Neuwirth once said to me: ‘Every second is a decision, which is a horrible thing’. Though it resonates deeply with me, I attempt to overcome this sentiment by composing a space in which the decisions I make yield multiple relationships between gestures and events. I employ a developmental and contrapuntal approach that is deliberately interested in musical events relating to other events in a multitude of ways. In doing so, the piece becomes a three-dimensional object for me, conceptually. In such an ‘object,’ I no longer need to connect events and gestures linearly or teleologically; rather, I see the temporal flow of the piece as charting a path of exploration within a spatial territory, even if that territory is highly conceptual or aestheticized. In a way, I like to think that my pieces explore the spatiality of time, and vice-versa.  To use this approach may be a decision that is made before the piece itself, but it informs how I proceed through the compositional process.

Tim R-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

Tim McC: I am currently working on a new voice and trumpet work for ELISION called Map of Glass, as well as a flute solo for Richard Craig. The projected ELISION première of Map of Glass is at King’s Place next November.

Tim R-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?


Tim McC: There are so many forces and influences that would have to convolve before that middle C exists. I would first need to know the instrument from which it is produced. The answer to that would then suggest what physical operations the performer and instrument are engaged in. Chances are, in the end the middle C would be pulverized, and robbed of its ‘middle C-ness’. If a wind instrument produces it, the middle C would become more a fingering than a pitch, providing a mechanical ground from which god-knows what horrible sounds would be issued; if a string instrument, it would be more a hand position than anything, and the likelihood that the hand would rest upon that middle C and that the bow would rest on the string on which it exists for any significant amount of time is slim.


All that being said, what would I do now? Probably, and generally speaking: move away from it as quickly as possible.

10 for ’10: Evan Johnson

I’m more and more of the opinion that even most of those who claim to write about contemporary music aren’t actually interested in doing so: when people say ‘contemporary music’, even when they’re talking about composed/art/concert music, they mean music written 40, 50 or 60 years ago by composers who are almost all dead.

There’s plenty of room left for people to write about the major senior figures of today but really, when the world has only just caught up with Lachenmann in his 70s and while Saariaho is considered the bleeding edge of the avant garde in some quarters, it could be a while before you’re reading much about those composers currently in the vigorous maturity of their 40s or 50s.

There’s a blind spot about what ‘contemporary’ really means in classical music. This annoys me. It’s time to talk about about the real avant of the avant garde: emerging composers with massive talents who aren’t ‘bright prospects for the future’ but who are in fact contributing in original, imaginative and expressive ways to the reality of modern composition now. Those composers who are truly contemporary.

So welcome to a feature I’ve been meaning to introduce for some time. This year, 2010, I’ll be presenting 10 profiles of emerging composers who really excite me. The profiles will appear roughly one a month, and each will be connected as far as possible to a UK performance of that composer’s music. Each profile will include some downloadable goodies – score and sound – and a short interview with the composer. To keep things both interesting and consistent, I’ll be asking each composer the same set of questions (although, depending on responses I may not post all the replies here):

  • Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?
  • How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?
  • How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?
  • What is musical material for you?
  • A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?
  • What projects are on your desk at the moment?
  • Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

I’m delighted to begin with a profile of the American composer Evan Johnson (b. 1980; no relative). I first encountered Evan’s music in a performance by EXAUDI of his Colophons (“That other that ich not whenne”) reflecting pool/monument. I think even then I knew that I’d not heard a surer bet than Evan’s music. It takes fearsome intelligence and a worldview that recalls the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and combines them with a deep sensitivity to musical traditions, techniques and philosophies that are often seen as opposite, even aggressively antagonistic to one another.

Extract from Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum), 2009

At first glance, the music appears irrevocably tied to a heavy, European tradition of rich notational determination, formal complexity and hierarchy. But experience of the music in performance immediately reveals something else, something lighter, more intangible, more unpredictable, a willingness to push boundaries beyond the rational, and to do so for the sake of not knowing and of being simply interested in finding out. In the middle of Colophons the dense cobwebs of vocal writing stop, suddenly, leaving only a single, scratching tone on the violin in the air. It hangs there, precariously, for 10, 20, 30 seconds. Too long. And then the voices start again, as though nothing had happened. It’s an extraordinary moment that makes no sense at all in traditional discursive terms, yet it absolutely nails that piece for me.

Evan’s music is something like that: it carries with it an aura of irrationality and impossibility, a fantasy that almost (but, crucially, not completely) evaporates with its own expressive coming-into-being.

Londoners are in for a treat in February, then, with two concerts including pieces by Evan. The second, by pianist Mark Knoop, features Dehiscences, Lullay (‘Thou nost whider it whil turne’), 2005. The first, at King’s Place on 8th February, will see Benjamin Marks and Tristram Williams of ELISION give the first UK performance of Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum). A score extract of this piece is reproduced above; with the composer’s permission here is a short extract from the first section of the work:

Apostrophe 2, excerpt | score (pdf)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Evan Johnson: Well, it can’t be too anachronistic if there are even a few people out there who want to present and listen to the things I produce. Anachronism then becomes their problem, not mine! But – if by ‘composing’ you mean the act of writing down notated material for performance by others – yes, the whole notion may be in the process of becoming obsolete, especially now that the writing, publishing and promulgation of notated music has been thoroughly left in the dust by new technologies.

This question is particularly apt for me because I consider the writing down of music and the insistence upon its live performance as a polemical act. I believe passionately in the importance of music, and art more generally, as a framed experience removed from daily life, and in opposition to it – an opportunity to undergo a sort of perceptual and intellectual stimulation that infiltrates one’s life as an alternate narrative that promotes the possibility of the unexpected. In this sense, my work as a composer is that of a perpetual sceptic of the constant availability of music for consumption, and of the encroaching valorization of the infinitely customizable (and therefore predictable) more generally. I find that, without even intending it, I am calibrating my work more and more for live performance – through extremes of dynamics, slightly modified stagings for instrumentalists, an emphasis on musculature and breath, and other sites for musical content that don’t lend themselves particularly well to reproduction. The end result is a work that demands the sort of attention and framing that excerpts it from the rest of the audience’s experience. That, for me, is what the whole thing is about, anachronistic though I fear it may be.


TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

EJ: I haven’t had as much experience as I would like working intensively in the precompositional stage with performers, but I have been extraordinarily lucky in the past several years with the interest my work has received from performers who are both capable and enthusiastic about tackling whatever I throw at them. My music tends to exist at boundaries of difficulty, endurance and notational complexity (which not infrequently falls over into purposeful impossibility), and its appeal among performers, even new-music specialists, is understandably limited as a result. I don’t begrudge anyone that; it’s a natural consequence of the things that interest me compositionally.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

EJ: I don’t know. Everything. Or, more specifically, its definition changes several times over the course of a particular project. I tend to start by thinking about duration, and more specifically about relations between durational ‘containers’; in other words, about proportional time structures. I have developed over recent years a strong sense of how specific proportional sets work in their particularity, and they have over time acquired for me a definite personality, the way instrumental timbres or harmonic vocabularies do. I’ve also developed a small array of transformational procedures that enable me to generate durational material on all timescales out of a limited set of basic proportional ‘ingredients’, while still preserving something of that initial personality. It’s only at that point that I will think about inserting pitches, gestures, and so forth, sometimes with the idea of emphasizing the various machinations of these proportional structures and sometimes with the aim of struggling against them.

I should add that duration for me is not at all a purely arithmetical construct; it is intimately tied to the experience of the performer and their lungs, muscles, and mental endurance. What the direct play with duration allows me to do is give certain material a sense of being ‘too long’ or ‘too brief’ not only for itself or for the listening audience, but also for the performers. Playing my recent music is always an athletic feat, which for me is absolutely fundamental to the meaning of the whole enterprise of music as a multivalent interpersonal communication. So, in a sense, ‘musical material’ for me is primarily duration and the relationship between a frame and its contents, or a figure and its ground; but at the same time it is also the sinews and lungs of the bodies on stage who are viscerally inhabiting those frames.

Finally, I insist on broadening the definition of ‘musical material’ beyond that which is heard by an audience. The end product of my work as a composer is not what is heard by the listening audience; it is the score, and the score I produce is more than merely a set of instructions for producing sound. The ideal notation, for me, is not the most ‘transparent’, the most recuperable by an ideally perceptive audience. I am much more interested in situations where there is an insuperable gap between what the performer sees, experiences, and projects and what the audience receives, because that gap is where the unexpected and spontaneous can occur. My job as a composer is not to narrow that gap as much as I can, let alone to eliminate it, but to shape it in productive and (for the performer) thought-provoking ways.

For this reason, I have an abiding interest in alternative approaches to notation, from the Cage/Feldman/Brown tradition in the US – which I consider my particular artistic ‘inheritance’ as an American composer – to Europeans like Kagel, late Nono, and (particularly) Sylvano Bussotti, and stretching back to Satie and the incomprehensible and incommunicable performance indications in his piano music.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?


EJ: There are always too many decisions; much of the time, I find the process of composition incredibly difficult, almost painful, for that reason. I don’t enjoy making up my mind!

I will say, though, that I regard the entire compositional process as a gradual accumulation of restrictions on myself, of various sorts. The initial compositional idea is a restriction in that it defines the field of inquiry, the parameters of the project I’m setting out upon in a general sense; in fact, that initial idea often comes in the explicit form of a restriction (What if this piece was limited to ____, or only did ____?). Then the imposition of restriction takes more specific form, in that a process of winnowing begins in which decisions have more and more local effects on a gradually ossifying structure. At some point – and my decision as to when this point has been reached often has a lot to do with my own perception of the success or failure of the result – I have accumulated enough materials, and the containers for those materials are small and circumscribed enough in their possibilities, that I can fill them, link them, and mould them at will into a finished result with the overall effect that I intend. At least, that’s the theory.


TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?


EJ: I have no idea how to answer this question! As I mentioned before, I’ve become thoroughly accustomed to thinking about duration, proportion, and the properties of diachronic relationships before I have any particularly concrete ideas about pitch. That isn’t to say I don’t have instinctual feelings about certain pitches and intervals; D flat and the perfect eleventh are particular favorites, which is why both are apotheosized throughout Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint). I also have an instinctive tendency towards ‘open’, quasi-diatonic harmonies on the local scale. If I had to choose a pitch to follow that middle C, then, it would certainly have to be the F an eleventh above, probably significantly softer than the C, and perhaps with a low D flat to ground that F and give it a certain diatonic resonance and potentiality.

To give a more complete answer, though, I’d have to know (a) how long the C is held for, or at least how far away the next attack is, and (b) what relationship that duration enacts with the governing structural window …