Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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?
Lockdown life is so different to my life in 2019 which had finally gotten to where I wanted it. I had to juggle so many things and organise my time into one main task each day. I would compose, run several projects, book tours, record, perform, tour, mix and master, promote concerts, make music videos, create artwork, organise launch campaigns, boring behind the scenes admin, publishing, make websites and running things online. It was hectic, 15 years in the making, but I’d become self-sufficient making a living doing what I loved and mostly with my own music.
Nowadays I basically just play piano, do admin and go for nice walks every day, with occasional online concerts and socially distanced recording sessions. It has been a chance to catch up and start some new things. I’ve released loads of music that was just sitting on hard drives and started a new record label with the founders of contemporary classical and avant-garde music festival ‘Hidden Notes’. We inventively named it ‘Hidden Notes Records’ and the first release is Spindle Ensemble’s second album ‘Inkling’.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Inkling is the piece of work most dear to me. Each song is a combination of many ideas, I try and keep a good balance of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic starting points. As a composer, I put the initial ideas together in a basic form on piano and as a group we arrange them, the other musicians have freedom to input their ideas into the arrangements. Unlike most contemporary classical music, ours is very melody driven, and most melody based music has a set rhythm section, but we don’t. So, in a similar way to a string quartet, we take the versatile sounds of our instruments and alternate roles so that each piece flows through many voices and layers.
I avoid representing any literal concepts with my compositions. I like to emulate the emotional journeys everyone can relate to through their own unique experiences. Using harmony, you can make a contemplative melody sorrowful or enlightening, through rhythm you make an unstable harmony set triumphant or uncomfortable, through dynamics you can intensify or seclude and so on. It gives the listener a way to connect emotionally and create their own narrative.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Creativity comes in waves, I can force it to some extent but that only gets me so far. I feel considerably more positive about my music and my life when I know the circumstances for creativity to blossom are instantly available, so that when the wave comes I’m ready and can give in to it.
Sometimes these moments come when you least expect. There’s an exciting feeling when they’re about to happen and I get pulled to the piano like a magnet. It’s special and when it goes well a new piece of music is being born and I feel like a bona fide artist.
Almost all musicians crave a space where no-one can hear you or interrupt your focus and you can play and hopefully record your instrument as loud as you want at any time. It’s not easy to achieve when you are on a low income living in a city, you’ll most likely have to make compromises. But it’s often fundamental to enable creativity.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Many of our pieces encourage improvisation naturally and in rehearsals we get to try out different ideas, arrangements and just jam together. That’s one of the most rewarding experiences for us all, we’re great friends and our line-up is unique (as far as we know) so together we transform piano sketches into something that only we can do.
We like to have movements in pieces where some of us have freedom to improvise to a brief, sometimes soloing but more often creating layers and textures that can interact spontaneously with one another. So, the relationship goes both ways, improv can lead to composition and composition can include improv.
But we’re always aware that the aim is to optimise what we can do live. When we’re recording, we capture the best live performance of a piece we can, which is the same experience to playing a concert just without an audience. It is undeniably different having an audience but we find a way of giving the same energy into recording sessions, otherwise it just wouldn’t feel right.
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?
We’ve come a long way since our debut album BEA, we’re so much more familiar with the sound aspects of the ensemble now that we’ve performed extensively together. Knowing what sounds we can produce together influences the compositions and we like to get the full range out of our instruments. In a single piece our violinist Caelia Lunniss and cellist Jo Silverston will play a combination of melodies, harmonies, cannons, riffs, rhythm section parts, pizzicato, textural washes, double stops, contemporary harmonic techniques, various bow positions for more abstract tones. Harriet’s tuned percussion instruments are also a big part of our sound and not as commonly used in chamber music, she uses a bow to extend the vibraphone and marimba’s soundscape. So, we know our palette and it makes compositional choices for us.
For our second album ‘Inkling’ some of the compositions suited an extended line up for the recording, so we enlarged our sound with some guest musicians. We layered up string sections, added brass, woodwind, orchestral percussion, concert harp and even electric guitar. We also knew we were making a record so we structured the album to be two great sides of optimum length for 12” vinyl with a mix of quartet pieces and extended line up on both.
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?
Sound definitely brings up visual imagery for me, I think they're the most linked senses in art and it’s what our fans always mention. I generally avoid saying what a song means to me as I don’t want to influence anyone interpretation of it. Audience members visual manifestations of our music is fascinating, their imagery work so well and can be totally different to what I see. After watching us perform ‘Chase’ someone told me they saw horses charging into battle and it such a perfect match.
We work with a lot of visual artists in our live shows and for music videos. Marie Lechevallier made a beautiful animation of epic colourful landscapes using stop-frame and film on a multiplane for our Morricone style piece ‘Okemah Sundown’ which works so well. And Narna Hue combined super 8 footage and scratched 16mm film to make a stunning ‘obscurity of sight’ themed video for our most recent single ‘Caligo’ which gives extra life and movement to the music.
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?
As a golden rule, my art is necessarily its own purpose and audience. As independent as possible from any other factor and I commit so much time to it that it is an inseparable part of my life, we’re symbiotic. I strive to make music that guides itself, not to fit in or be cool, just to be true and expressive. When I write a piece of music that really works to my ears, I don’t need to understand why it works so long as I’m captivated by it.
My relationship with my music is so personal now that it has a massive effect on my mental health, especially when I don’t feel good about it. So, I have dedicated my life to it, I work all the time to keep moving forward and that allows me to feel comfortable with my life as an artist.
Composition and playing piano are my biggest passions, they’re also my version of therapy. But I’ve had to do so much more additional work to become self-sufficient. It’s been a huge investment of my time with lots of sacrifices, but is paying off because I can now create the art I want living the life I’ve chosen.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21 st 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?
The scope of music and technology is being explored by so many talented artists in so many directions, it’s exciting to see what can happen in combination with other art forms. For now, though I’m absorbed in the what can be done musically without technology.