Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces 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?
"Violet Man", the final track on the album Bite of the Orange, was actually composed during insomnia while we were already recording the album. I’d made two sketches, one of which ended up being the title track, and the other which was the precursor to what I composed during insomnia. I remember feeling that my sketch for this piece wasn’t as strong as it could have been, that something was missing and that it was too similar to the other sketch. Then I woke up at around 5am, and when I found I was still awake at 6am I got up and had the basic piece finished in two hours. After we’d rehearsed it I then added the final section, as we all felt it was a bit too short. Although the actual composing was very intuitive (like all my other pieces since 2012 I composed it on the tuning vine), I’d spent a few weeks intensively researching the intervals implicit in the microtonal mode arising from prime numbers 3 and 13, upon which the piece is based. So this rather cerebral research probably fed unconsciously into the actual composition, and may be
have been the reason I was able to compose it so quickly.
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?
Through the tuning vine I use electronic technology much more than I used to. I suppose humans excel living in human bodies that have evolved to interact with a changing environment, and machines excel either at having machine-like bodies (like a tuba), or doing calculations extremely fast, like a computer. In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, I’ve often found this rather missing when working with computers, and the tuning vine is an attempt to mediate between the mathematics that underly Just Intonation, which the computer is so good at calculating, and the human body, which intuitively understands such concepts as colour-coding, multidimensionality and high and low.
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?
Most of my work is collaborative. Even if we’re rehearsing one of my pieces in an ensemble it works much better when everyone is able to suggest things and we negotiate the best result together. In my experience collaborations can only really work when they happen organically, rather than being organised by people other than those doing the collaboration. This can work though when that person knows the collaborators very well, for example when Simon Reynell suggested I recorded with Roberto Fabbriciani for his record label Another Timbre. At any rate collaborations require a great degree of trust and it certainly doesn’t work when the chemistry isn’t right.
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?
I only really get to know my compositions when I perform them live. In some compositions, such as the graphic score "Borromean Rings" for my duo Reidemeister Move with the bassist Christopher Williams, I deliberately plan in spontaneous decision-making, which means that the piece ‘blossoms’ differently each time we play it. But other compositions that leave less room for improvisation evolve over successive performances too. I play my composition "Plateau Square" for microtonal tuba and quadraphonic sound-system, for example, quite differently now than when I recorded it in 2012.
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 enjoy exploring the interaction between time and both harmonic and physical space. I suppose I’m really exploring the relation between the transcendent and timely, as the eternal harmonic relationships come to life and interact with the performance situation. Some pieces such as "Nouveau Saxhorn Nouveau Basse" and "Mother Tones" also refer to the history of the instrument. So these pieces deal with a sense of historical time as well.
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?
I actually think all sounds I use take on compositional qualities, as the compositions arise in the process of exploring something that’s implicit within the sound, or in the interaction between sounds. My current research into half-valve combinations arises from a desire to acoustically filter the harmonic spectrum, which is also closely related to Just Intonation as this is based on the harmonic series. I currently work mostly with low sounds, partly because the microtonal tuba is usually involved, and partly because the upper partial tones of these sounds remain within the range of audibility.
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?
Though I don’t actually experience synaesthesia, since developing the tuning vine I now immediately associate certain intervals with certain colours and vice versa. Concerning outermost borders, very low pitches start to be perceived as rhythms, as the repetitive structure implicit within all pitched sound becomes clearly audible. I find that very high pitches can be hard to tune as much of the tuning process depends on aligning the upper partial tones, which lie outside the range of perception for very high pitches.
Extremely quiet music can open up the ears to environmental sounds. Extremely loud music generally makes me want to leave the room.
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?
I’m generally suspicious of overtly political art, as the criteria for its success become extraneous and the result is often very one-dimensional. Although making the music I do is not overtly political, it may be inadvertently so in that I’m not content to simply consume the music that’s already on offer. And if the political system were to become totalitarian, making any music at all would immediately become a political act.
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 don’t think I have a general vision. I’m more focused in realising my own artistic vision in developing the potential of the microtonal tuba and tuning vine. I think it would be very healthy for our culture to understand that the 12 tones of the equally tempered piano keyboard provide just one rather distorted window into potentially infinite harmonic space. Reconnecting with a much older tuning tradition could help overcome a current feeling of malaise, that everything has already been said and that the story is essentially over. An in-depth understanding of tuning in combination with our current technological possibilities makes it immediately clear that this is far from being the case, at least as far as music is concerned.