Name: Tess Tyler
Occupation: Composer, sound artist
Recent release: Tess Tyler's "Sell The Sky", the first single leading up to her debut album Fractals, is out now.
Recommendation: Emilie Nicholas (anything she has written). She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.
Where The Heart Beats by Kay Larson. It’s a great read about John Cage, Zen Buddhism and post-war American culture.
If you enjoyed this interview with Tess Tyler and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, and Facebook.
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?
My parents both worked in musical theatre, and as a result I spent many evenings after school in theatres and rehearsal rooms. I remember sitting with the score on my lap, and following along with the performances to keep myself occupied. I’ve no doubt that this is what started my deep curiosity for music.
I trained in both piano and violin from a very young age. Singing lessons came a little later. At around 12/13 years old I became tired of playing classical pieces, so I took it upon myself to learn songs from recording artists that captured my interest (Regina Spektor and Tori Amos come to mind at that time). Once I had a good grasp on how their songs were written, it gave me the confidence to start to writing my own.
As my listening expanded, so did my music. That’s still very much the case, and I hope it never changes!
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
On the whole, if I’m emotionally connecting to a piece of music, I often find my body softening. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is - if I’m feeling angry, and what I’m listening to validates that anger, I feel safe to really explore and process it. It’s feels like compassion and good company.
When I’m composing something I try to tap into the nuance of what I’m feeling at the time, and try to let that pour out into the music. It helps me to connect with myself, but I also love the idea that there might be someone else out there who might connect with it in the future, too.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I would say that my development is mostly based on experimenting with compositional techniques.
An early breakthrough was discovering the band, Tool. They are the reason why I started to play with complex metre. It opened a door to progressive music, which is one of my main influences as a composer. This discovery happened alongside a growing love for the minimalist movement (also very progressive) and modernist classical composers.
The combination of these influences alongside my dark and somewhat dramatic personal voice helped me to shift my focus from the notes themselves, but more to timbre, texture and the overall aesthetic of my work.
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.
I think I’ve formed a sense of identity around being attracted to dark and abstract subject matters. I like to explore things that most people wouldn’t talk about comfortably within normal society, and try to express this unashamedly in my work.
Similarly, I was also massively drawn to listening to music that is impactful in this way. I grew up in an environment where difficult emotions weren’t often engaged with, so I guess my way of getting that need met was to connect through music that gave permission for these things to be expressed.
I’ve also grown to love how I always seem to do things a little differently. I really try to subvert any expectations about genre and structure, or what convention tells us music “should” sound like in order to be of value. People usually have trouble defining what my music sounds like, and I’m quite proud of that.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity.
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’m extremely interested in both, however, I think that the word ‘perfection’ should be stricken from our vocabulary when it comes to art. What the hell even is it?!
I’m personally not that interested in continuing a tradition in the complete sense. I wholly surrender to the fact that all creative ideas are borrowed from the past. However, in my opinion, whatever it is that you borrow is only successful when you inject a part of yourself into it. Otherwise it’s just an imitation, devoid of anything emotionally ‘real’, and unlikely to get an audience to connect with it.
For me, innovation in music is purely borrowed ideas coupled with an original one. I imagine that in itself organically brings music into the future.
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?
The piano and any resampling gear I can get my hands on. I also love the orchestra, but I tend to use it in less conventional ways as I develop as a composer.
I honestly don’t have any set strategies. I always focus on what I feel / want to say first, and then think deeply about how I can - with the tools I have available to me - find the best way of expressing that.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
Make the bed, yoga / stretching, walk the dog, admin, studio, make a nice meal, try to read something, sleep as much as time allows.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
I don’t really have a set creative process, but as a basic overview I either start with a small idea I’ve written on the piano, or a sound / texture that I’ve made in my DAW. These are pretty interchangeable. I then try to flesh out any melodic ideas through counter melodies or arrangement of other instruments and begin to form an outline of the structure of the piece. Once this is somewhat established, I develop and evolve any sound design so that it grows alongside the tonal elements.
If the piece still feels like it has something missing, I’ll start to think about collaboration with a soloist or another composer …
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I used to be quite precious over my work, and would struggle to know when to let it go into the hands of someone else (even if it’s a mix / mastering engineer). It was a control thing - just in case the piece wasn’t quite finished or, shock horror, not as good as I could possibly make it. So much self-inflicted pressure!
I’m now very familiar with the feeling I get when I know a track has passed its expiry date with me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t like the piece anymore (it’s sometimes quite the opposite), but I know that there’s nothing more I can personally do with it. That’s when I pass it on to someone else. I’m lucky that the session players I work with are incredible composers in their own right, so it really does manifest as a true collaboration.
I can and do write music solely on my own (mostly for film), but I must admit it feels so much better when the process is shared. There’s something truly exciting about knowing that you could never come up with the same material as another artist / composer - it makes the finished result so valuable and sacred.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
I have no idea, and I don’t really think that’s for me to decide! All I hope is that it makes people feel some cool stuff.
I wish I had a good answer for music’s role in society, but I don’t. What I do know is that it makes the world bearable. Here’s a quote that might help answer this one:
”Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent" - Victor Hugo
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
I think I’ve almost already answered this in the previous questions, in that I believe music helps us to feel seen and validated when tackling the harder things in life. It doesn’t matter whether you’re listening or creating, it gives us permission to feel and approach the things that every day society doesn’t openly accept us for.
I have most definitely used both listening to and creating music as a form of therapy when experiencing pain. Although you would never know it, as my work to mainly is without lyrics, a lot of my work is the product of attempting to process the passing of my father and the breakdown and loss of various relationships.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
Music is science. Entire theses have been written on this subject, so I’m definitely not going to do this question the justice it deserves.
As far as I understand it, science explains how music is intrinsically connected to nature. It’s arguably the most complex art form when we think of how it affects humans physiologically / psychologically, yet if you zoom in deep enough, it’s just pure vibration.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
It is different for me, yes.
I don’t invest a part of myself in absolutely everything I do. At least not consciously. When writing or performing music, you are putting yourself in a very vulnerable position and essentially broadcasting ‘this is me right now, in my purest form’. Even if no-one else hears your music, it can still be hard to acknowledge that to yourself, depending on the piece.
The whole process can sometimes take a lot of emotional energy, when mundane tasks don’t tend to do that as much.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
Again, this is a huge (yet great) question that I fear I won’t be able to answer to the extent it deserves. I can only speak for Western ears here, but I believe that the way we perceive music is a mixture of how it resonates in our bodies, and how we have been conditioned to enjoy the tension and release that is naturally generated through the diatonic series. A nature versus nurture kind of deal.
There’s no doubt that certain frequencies and timbres of sound resonate in the body in specific ways, however, we have learned how to harness and manipulate this through the Western key system. Through some sort of witchcraft that I don’t understand (I’m skipping a huge bit here), the combination of the two can communicate the complexities of things we can’t put into words or images alone.