Name: Ceridwen McCooey
Current Release: The Conference of the Birds on Rhodium
Recommendations: The Conference of the Birds by Attar, translated by Sholeh Wolpé. / For the sake of nostalgia, “Escape Artist” by Zoe Keating. I remember many a night listening to this when I was younger and trying to figure out just how she created it. There is a particular spot in the song that I would listen to over and over again because it gave me chills. Hope it gives you chills also.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ceridwen McCooey, find out more on her website www.ceridwenmccooey.com
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started composing when I moved to a specialist music high school and in our final year exams we had to do a composition subject. It became one of my favourite subjects as it was a way for me to both perform and also to create. I had always love performing and playing the cello but I found my purely classical education to be at times restrictive and uncreative. Composing allowed me to really make music rather than just play it.
One of my main early influences was Zoe Keating who is a wonderful American cellist. My own cello teacher at the time, Imogen Manins was also incredibly influential and encouraging of my passions. She was the one who first showed me the looper.
I think one of the things that drew me to music and still does, is that is it so incredibly comforting. It is a way to detach from the world around you and enter your own world. I was quite an imaginative child, forever playing make-believe games. Music is a way for adults to enter fantasy worlds. It can hold you in an emotion and guide you through it. I’ve said it before but music is the perfect parent.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I actually feel like I was driven by quite the opposite. I wanted to make sound that I hadn't heard before. I was driven by thinking about what I wanted to listen to at the time. I don't know if I ever went through a phase of emulating others entirely. I definitely listened to Zoe Keating and wanted to achieve similar results in terms of her technological technique and process, but I never wanted to make something that sounded similar to her music.
My own development was simply just playing/creating what I wanted to hear. I think it still is that. I don't have any formal compositional training and for a while I wanted to learn more about the foundations of music-making so that I could branch out from there. Now I actually quite like my untrained ear, I don't feel restricted by any genre, form or specific sound world. I don't really know what I’m doing when I’m writing and I think it gives me freedom. There are definitely downs sides to this, sometimes I want to make something specific but I don’t know how to, or I don't have the technique to write in that style. But I think it has meant that I try writing things that don’t remind me of something else.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I’m half joking when I say this but I think the fact that I am young and do not really know who I am gives me a drive to write very different styles. Sometimes I wake up and I want to create pretty sound worlds, watch rom-coms and be kind to everyone. Then sometimes I wake up and I want to create noise music and glare at children who laugh too loud on the train. I am trying to figure out who I am and what I want to create, but at the same time I hope I never decide.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My main creative challenges have always been and continue to be the technical limitations of the looper and my own confidence. I can hear music in my head that I want to write but then either technically I can’t figure out a way to make it or I convince myself it is not a great idea. The technical side of things has got easier over time as I have got better at looping and also crossed over into the world of post-production editing. The lack of confidence is something that all artists have and is actually really important. It’s good to be able to have tools to overcome it and create anyway, but I think it is a sign that we care and if we were to stop caring then we should stop creating.
Time is a variable only seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Time is something that is continuous no matter what you do, however music is a way to manipulate it. It’s a tool that we use to evoke or enhance feelings. It can be very powerful to have the ability to alter not only your own perception of time but also the listeners. For example, in The Conference of the Birds, I am trying to capture the sense of anticipation for the future. The birds are going on a journey that they have not yet started. The work is set in a time that precedes that event but is alluding to it. In the final movement, I have tried to create a release of that tension as the birds begin their journey.
It’s so strange how time can also feel very different when we know what is coming. I am reminded of this when I listen to a song for the first time. I gather an idea of it and have reactionary opinions. Then, if I listen to it again, straight away my knowledge of what happens next changes the experience of time. For example, the first time you listen to a song you don't know when the next event in the song will happen. But on the second listening you know when the next event will occur and then all of a sudden, the initial section feels much shorter than the first time you listened. I like this phenomenon because it means you can listen to a song multiple times and hear something different each time.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The more music I make, the more I think about the idea of sound, specifically it’s texture and the qualities of noise that the sound possesses. I think it requires a different kind of listening though; textures can be satisfying when our minds are not distracted and we have the patience to appreciate them. Sound art or noise music is very good at simply using sound and texture as a compositional element. It’s actually a very difficult task to achieve interesting and captivating sound art. When it’s electronic, it’s hard to not accidentally slip into the generic world of ambient beats and when it’s instrumental I think the challenge is to avoid simply displaying all your extended techniques. When texture is used exquisitely it can feel so satisfying. Like food; all of a sudden, a light crunch or pop or something smooth happens and for a split second you can feel ecstatic.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Collaborations can be highly productive ways of creating music. In my own approach, I find that at the moment I work slightly better solo. This is because I tend to be a bit of a people-pleaser which is not a good state to be in when making music. I find it hard to get into the flow state when I’m working with someone on the same thing. When I am beginning to create something, I have a strong image of what it will be in the end and I guess I find it hard to shift this image. In saying all this, I haven't had enough experience partaking in collaborations. I am a fairly new composer and have mainly focussed on solo work. I do enjoy improvising with other people. There is a wordless connection that people have when playing music together that speaks volumes and can feel profound.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I spend my days doing a mixture of things, most of them related to music. Typically, I will get up and leave the house to go practice at uni until I have a rehearsal or a class. Then I usually have work as an usher at a music venue in the evenings and if not then I am either practicing, composing or playing/watching a gig. As many people have said, music isn't really just a profession it’s a lifestyle choice. I don't think I can separate music and other aspects of my life. Most of my friends are musicians. I also work as a sales assistant at a string instrument store. There is also a really strong correlation between what happens in our personal lives and what we create, so I am thinking, musing, dreaming, all the time. I find it very hard to separate the two.