Part 1

Name: Mark Vernon

Nationality: British
Occupation: Composer, sound artist
Current Release: Mark Vernon has two new releases now: A World Behind This World is out via Persistence of Sound and Sound Postcards from the Centre of the Periphery, a collaboration with Manja Ristić.

[Read our Manja Ristić interview]

Recommendations: Gavin Bryars – ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ (Obscure Records, 1975).

Maggi Payne – ‘Arctic Winds’ (Innova, 2010) – I discovered this incredible album a few years ago and it has caused me to rethink many of the assumptions I previously held about silence and space within composition and electroacoustic music. It is probably the only album I have ever bought multiple copies of to give away to friends. The choice of sounds, how they are manipulated and processed, and the sensitivity and lightness of touch in the way these pieces are composed is a marvel. Every time I listen something new is revealed. The spatialisation and sculpting of sound forms is so tangible and vivid at times it feels like you could almost touch them. However, its delicacy is its true strength and there are many periods when there is almost no sound or complete silence. In this way, the pieces merge with the extraneous sounds of the listening environment and cause you as a listener to question what is composed sound and what is a product of your surroundings. It creates a state of highly focussed listening that seems to suck in and appropriate all other sounds in its sphere. Going back to Cage, I have long been an advocate of the credo ‘extraneous sounds of your listening environment are an intrinsic part of the listening experience’ but I have found few electronic or electroacoustic records that have been able to embody this idea in such a convincing manner.

If you enjoyed this interview with Mark Vernon and would like to stay up to date with his music, visit his official website. He is also on Soundcloud.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

Musically I was quite a late starter. I didn’t start experimenting with sound until I was in my mid-twenties. I was an avid consumer of music but didn’t consider myself to have any musical ability whatsoever. Eventually I started playing around dubbing collages from tape to tape, messing around with a friend's four track and then making my own recordings with a mini disc and eventually working on a PC.

Early passions and influences were TV show themes and film soundtracks I guess. Later, when I started to get more seriously into music it was always things that contained unusual sounds, field recordings, voice samples and other extra-musical material that I was drawn to. Sometimes it would just be a short collage or skit as an interlude in an album but these tracks always transported me somewhere very different and affected me in a way that songs just didn’t.

Having a reel-to-reel recorder as a child was also a formative experience for me. Recording things from the TV with the mic in front of the speaker, discovering the voices of dead relatives on tapes we had partially recorded over and my dad surprising us by surreptitiously recording us having breakfast one morning and playing it back to us - these were all encounters with sound that have stuck with me.

I was also an avid home-taper and mix maker. Making mixes is probably where I learnt the most about sequencing, how to make good transitions and finding a flow. I would do live tape mixes for friends using an old Radio Shack DJ mixer - that discipline, not being able to go back if you make a mistake, was invaluable. Making music, I discovered, was really the same - just on a more micro-level. The elements and building blocks were smaller but the principles were the same.

Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?

I see music almost as a form of brain programming. There are different types of music for different purposes and occasions. It can stimulate the emotions, the intellect or the body – or all three to different degrees – and each has its uses. I can experience deep emotions through music but often I also want to be challenged or made to think by what I listen to. Unpredictability is important. I guess that’s why there is that restless curiosity of always wanting to hear something new.

When I’m composing I am able to visualise the sounds as three dimensional forms with different colours, gradations of tone and sedimentary layers – but I think this is a projection of my imagination rather than true synaesthesia.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

My interests have been pretty consistent – broadly, field recording and environmental sound, the use of obsolete technology, working with found materials and exploring the medium of radio as an artform.

In terms of challenges – the same as for most artists, the biggest challenge is making enough money to live off whilst continuing to make your own work and dealing with the uncertainty and lack of security this precarious way of life brings.

As for ‘searching for a personal voice’ – this is not something I have ever strived for or attempted to achieve. To me this seems far too contrived and ingenuine. For me, the only way has been to follow my own interests and curiosity, to experiment, make my own discoveries and explore the ideas and concepts that fascinate me - and what comes out, comes out. That’s it.

My biggest breakthroughs would probably be the realisation that I can do things I hadn’t thought I was capable of. Making music using a four track and all the accidental discoveries that came with that – pitch bending, feedback, playing tapes backwards, phasing, making loops using the A-B function on a CD player or mini-disc. I’m grateful to have been able to make those discoveries hands on rather than just through a DAW and a bunch of plugins. It gives you an entirely different understanding of what is going on when you’re processing and manipulating sounds.

The realisation that just because I got thrown out of the recorder class at junior school didn’t mean it had to be a barrier to making music – which in some ways it was for many years.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

As a listener I am drawn to the everyday sounds that surround me. A sound doesn’t have to be special or exotic to be interesting. I am very sensitive to sound generally though and that has resulted in lots of annoyance at sounds I have no control over and many sleepless nights due to noise nuisance. To some degree, composing with sound is a form of enacting control over these unwanted disturbances.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

Focussed listening.

Discovering new things about the world around me through sound, mediated by technology.

Uncovering lost sounds discarded on obsolete mediums.

Using whatever is to hand as the materials for my art.

Revealing the miraculous within the mundane and every day.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

I don’t think these ‘topics’ are in opposition to one another so I don’t get the ‘versus’. A piece of music could embody all of these qualities.

To me, originality and innovation are paramount. That doesn’t mean everything has to be entirely new – but that an artist is continually pushing themselves, considering and reflecting on what they do and learning from it.

Perfection is not something I consider to be important. As someone who is drawn to audio imperfections – for example the hiss, distortion and wow and flutter of old tape recordings or the static and interference in radio reception – thoughts of perfection have little to no bearing on my work. I try to be precise and I’m guided by my own particular sensibilities regarding sound but perfection is not something I ever strive for. In fact it can be extremely boring. Virtuosity for example is not something that has ever appealed to me which is why I’ve never learnt to play an instrument.

Timelessness in music is a larger subject. I don’t think it’s something that can be contrived. History decides what music is timeless, not musicians. In my own music I am aware that I try and stay away from recognisably contemporary sounds when it comes to software and instruments, etc. Even most of my audio plugins are over twenty years old. I use contemporary sounds in the form of field recordings as well as sounds from the past in the form of found tapes – so rather than a ‘timelessness’ I’m aiming for a coalescence of different times.  

Perhaps aiming for something that can’t be pinned down to a particular time could be seen as an attempt at timelessness in some way?

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

In short, microphones and tape recorders. Composition begins at the recording stage for me. By listening closely and taking care over what microphone you select for what job and how and where you place it, radically different and unexpected effects can be achieved.

Recording at different distances to give different audio perspectives, tracking sounds where the mic is actively in motion, using tiny microphones to get into small places your ears never could and employing a whole range of different mics from hydrophones and contact mics to electromagnetic transducers offers an array of possibilities.

The wonderful thing about working with sound in this way is that all of my materials are free – a painter needs to buy paints and canvas, a potter needs to buy clay, a sculptor needs to buy plaster or other materials. I find all of my materials for free in the world around me. They are a gift – and there is an inexhaustible supply of them.

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