How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Technology is ubiquitous in my composing workflow. From a purely practical perspective, it is a time-saver, especially where score preparation, arranging and orchestration is concerned. Creatively, I see technology as an instrument and try to use it as such. To search out unusual, boutique sound design tools by fellow composers and sound designers, such as those created by Sylvain Stoppani and Sandy Small (aka Blinksonic). Like learning to play a new instrument, you have to put in the hours to gain mastery over such creative tools, but it is important for me that every new work contains this element of play and discovery. The art of improvising with electronics is one I am endlessly fascinated with and try to incorporate into my writing as much as possible. The happy accidents of play and experimentation, and the cognition involved when we turn those accidents into something fresh and new, are I believe what separates us from machines. Knowing when to run with and develop an idea that was initially a mistake, or unintended, can lead to joyful discoveries that maybe machines will never be able to uncover.
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, including the artists performing your work?
My work in theatre, media, and TV means that I am always collaborating in some form. Creating scores and soundscapes for the stage probably involves the closest interactions with directors and other performers, such is the immediate, live, and physical nature of the theatrical space. I love being in the rehearsal room, on hand to respond to ideas and scenes being explored. There are still some theatres where musicians and live bands are used, and I have had the joy of working on productions where this is the case, for example at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Through the session work that I undertake as a media composer, I have been lucky to work with some of the best musicians in the industry. I wrote an album of music for wind octet several years ago, inspired by and written, in part, for a friend and colleague Joy Farrall, principal clarinettist with the Britten Sinfonia and Head of Woodwind at the Purcell School. The idea for this album came about whilst sitting in on a woodwind session at Abbey Road. I was so struck by the world-class musicianship of the players that I felt compelled to create a production music album that showcased this musicianship, whilst being a fun and useful source of music TV and film editors. That was how the album 'Wondrous Winds' and its follow-up 'Woodland Mystery' came into being. Much of my work featuring acoustic instruments and live ensembles has evolved out of this kind of situation and is a response to watching, listening to, and talking with performers. I composed a setting of Shakespeare's 'Blow, blow, thou winter wind' (from As You Like It) for the contemporary trio Juice Vocal Ensemble. Scored for voices and tuned blown bottles, it is a metaphor for the rawness of the wind and the alcohol-induced sorrow of a scorned friend. The ingredients of this piece occurred to me after I had watched and absorbed the musical personalities of the three performers and considered the kind of experimental work they explore and the extended techniques they like to incorporate.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
The majority of my writing is developed through some kind of live playing and improvisation. Today I had spent the morning sat at the piano playing and experimenting, writing, and re-structuring some new and existing songs for a theatre piece. I have been scrutinising how well these pieces will work in a live staged context, not just from the performers' perspectives, but also within the overall narrative shape of the drama. I know that when it gets to rehearsals and the songs are given life by some great stage performers, as they work with my material in a way that is instinctive, almost improvisatory, I will be inspired to revisit the scores to incorporate the lessons learned.
Time is a variable only seldomly 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?
I was asked to compose a piece for voice and piano to be performed as part of the York Late Music series. The only requirement was that the composition had to be exactly 100 seconds long. I chose as my inspiration the recent news that, on 23rd January 2020, the Doomsday Clock was shifted forwards to 100 seconds before midnight. The pianist starts by setting in motion a metronome, set to 60bpm. Whilst accompanying the soprano, who sings significant years in the Doomsday Clock's 75-year history, the pianist then counts down vocally from 17 minutes to 2 minutes, the furthest to the closest distance the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock has been from midnight. Soprano and pianist are harmonically at odds with each other until the music approaches midnight. This is an extreme example of how time can be made to impose itself noticeably on a composition. In reality, time is always imposed on music, just as it is on all aspects of our lives. Writing this piece helped to remind me of the importance of checking-in with the linear world of a composition, to scrutinise whether its temporal proportions are satisfying and effective.
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 nature of composing for theatre and media means that you are always thinking about timbre, either from an esoteric perspective or an orchestration one. So much of the music and sound design that I create goes straight 'to tape', with tracks and ideas laid out from the outset, I am always processing and responding to real-time auditory feedback. I find that the traditional aspects of orchestration apply similarly to modern production, blending complimentary or contrasting timbres to create warmth or definition or carefully selecting voicings to balance harmonic textures. These are techniques I am aware of using in all areas of production. I like to have maximum control over the timbre and sonic fingerprint of each instrument, or track, in my 'orchestra'. Many modern synths and sound design tools comprise highly active, busy and rich sound generation techniques. There is a big drive amongst developers to give composers instruments capable of generating sounds that are ready to be dropped straight into a composition. Whilst this can be helpful when time is short, my default approach is to remove and tone down these sounds so that they do not pull focus. In a real orchestra or ensemble, players continually adjust their tone to facilitate the sonic blending appropriate to the style of music. In the virtual, electronic ensemble, we as composers similarly have to use whatever tools we have available to control the tone of each element from one moment to the next. In addition, context is everything. When having to create subtle, expansive musical atmospheres for theatre productions. I find that using identifiable instruments or sound sources can be distracting. I might want to opt for a muted string section, but something more suggestive, and stylised might work better. In a recent production of Much Ado About Nothing for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, I created tonal beds and atmospheres out of birdsong to meld the musical and natural sound-world of the play into something cohesive. Birdsong is a great example of a sound occurring in nature that is, by definition, has all the qualities of being ready composed.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Synaesthesia, a phenomenon experienced by some people where one sense stimulates another, has been cited by certain composers as having a profound effect on their music. I find accounts of synaesthesia fascinating, and I do not think it's coincidental that I am drawn to music by composers who experience it. Before I realised that Messiaen was synesthetic, I had long been captivated by his use of rhythm and tonal colours. Messiaen's ability to hear in colours has a profound effect on his music. Every Christmas I try to get to a recital of his organ masterpiece La Nativité du Seigneur. Listening and meditating on this music within the surroundings of a cathedral is like being bathed in colour as if the sun is streaming in through an array of stained-glass windows. Given that sound is transmitted through mechanical waves whereas light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, it is intriguing to think about how one sense stimulates the other, neurologically. They constitute different parts of the physical world, and yet they are profoundly connected in our sensory experience of it. Our ears are adapted to detect mechanical sound waves in the range of 20Hz to 20kHz, and wavelengths from about 17 metres to 1cm. Our eyes can perceive visible light, part of the electromagnetic spectrum, in wavelengths between 400–700 nanometres. Outside of our senses, properties of sound and light extend way beyond our ability to perceive them. All of these thoughts put an interesting spin on the idea of sound or light having borders. There is the limit of our perception, and then there is the limit of the natural world, which in the case of the electromagnetic spectrum is the speed of light. This puts our own ability to perceive into perspective!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
If my work as a composer feeds back into everyday life, I hope that it does so in a way that helps tell the stories of our lives and the world in which we live. As I have described above, this desire is woven into the music of my Wonders of the Cosmos album. If I have a philosophy or approach as an artist, it definitely embraces communication as an ideal. As musicians, we have been given a precious gift, one that allows us to communicate something of the wonder of the Universe and created order through a unique language that seems to have no barriers and requires no translation. A friend of mine, and a first-rate musician, does extraordinary and life-changing work as a music therapist. What greater or more profound example of communication through music is there than this? As musicians and composers, if through our work we are able to communicate anything, whether an emotion, a deeply held belief, a story, or even an abstract thought, then I would argue we have succeeded as artists.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I think music has survived a number of existential earthquakes, from breaking free of the confines of religious constraints to emancipation from patronage and pursuit of the individual composer as an artist, and more recently the serialist revolution and the rise of the avant-garde. In the way that we have continually re-invented our homes, from the materials we use to build them through to their design, we have wrestled with and agonised over the essential elements and aesthetics of music across the centuries. I believe that just as we have always needed a roof over our heads, we will always need music in our ears. The form and nature of that music will, I think, follow the cultural trends of each age, just as it has always done. Currently, we are seeing a revolution in the means of music distribution and creation, as befits the digital age. But regardless of the age or culture in which we live, we will always recognise the sound and meaning of music, and its necessity in our lives.