Name: Portico Quartet
Members: Duncan Bellamy, Jack Wyllie
Interviewee: Duncan Bellamy
Occupation: Musicians, improvisers, performers, producers
Current release: The Portico Quartet 's Terrain is available from Gondwana.
If you enjoyed this interview with the Portico Quartet, you can use their personal website as a point of departure. Or head over to Instagram, Soundcloud and bandcamp for current updates and more music.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
It really depends, but often myself and Jack will discuss some of the parameters around the work before we begin – a very soft outline if you will.
In the case of Terrain, we were creating these long works alongside pieces that were the polar opposite, short condensed pieces, and these long works gradually separated themselves into a distinct body of work.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I think one has to start with an idea first and foremost. Then it becomes a process of realising that idea. The only way to get started is to simply begin - the work evolves from that point.
I personally don’t think it is the start of a process that is hard, it is seeing the ideas through in a convincing way that conveys meaning.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
For Terrain the work passed hands a couple of times between Jack and myself as we were working remotely. Once we started to work together in our studio, that's when the three movements began to take some real shape, as we fleshed the pieces out, added parts, stripped things back. It’s in that dialogue between us that things start to take shape.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I think it can really vary. Some people need to very strictly control the process, and others will let intuition and improvisation guide them. I think we utilise different strategies depending on the context.
Terrain had quite a strong identity and formal structure from the start, so it allowed us to intuit our way through the process, embracing improvisation and chance to an extent.
That said there were some fairly fundamentally cerebral ideas that coursed through its production.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
This is a fundamental part of the creative process, and it is about how react to it. Do you follow these paths and see where they lead or not? I think it depends on what kind of work you are making whether or not this is interesting.
Certainly it happens to us too, and I think often we will explore where these alternative directions might lead us to. But sometimes they are dead ends and one can sense that. In the end it can be a huge waste of time. It’s good to have enough conviction to resist the temptation to endlessly prevaricate by heading in different directions.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
It varies so much regarding the context of a particular piece, but sometimes it as trite as just feeling „right“ or „honest“ or „complete“. But it depends what kind of work you are making. If it is a process based piece then perhaps the work is finsihed when the process has been completed.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I think this critical distance is pretty fundamental. So many ideas start out so vibrant, exciting, energetic, only to be reduced to being dull and contrived a few days later. Many ideas don’t stand up to this scrutiny and are discarded in the process.
After finishing the demos for a new album, we will go to another studio a month or so later and begin the process of re-recording many of the parts. This critical gap is pretty useful for discerning any other changes that need to be made, or ways to improve the compositions.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I think it differs so much from artist to artist. Even between Jack and myself, we have differing opinions on this.
But in general we take a very hands on approach. The production and mixing are really so integral to communicating one's ideas effectively. It can have an enormous weight and bearing on how the music is received by the audience, so in my opinion it is an essential part of the process.
Mastering is a slightly different story. It is such an elusive, slippery art, but one that can fundamentally change the nature of how the music feels. In this regard I think it is so important to trust whoever you are working with.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Release day is always one of mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, it is still really exciting that the audience can finally hear the music you have been working on for months, or years. But on the other hand, it feels ever so slightly anti-climactic, especially during a pandemic, where there is no launch concert or social component.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing 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?
There are many reasons to write a piece of music – emotional; intellectual; economic. All of these characteristics might be present and intersect with one another in one way or another.
Usually when you make a cup of coffee it is for a utilitariian purpose: you want to drink a cup of coffee.
But there can be times when the situation is reversed. Making a coffee could become a radical act in an artwork depending on the context, whilst much of the production of music is entirely mundane and utilitarian: – music for adverts, jingles etc. These have little to no artistic meaning or value of themselves.
So it is hard to answer this question with any real certainty, as it relies almost entirely on the context and specificity with which these actions occur.