A few moments with Nicole Lizée

We are delighted to be bringing an all-Canadian portrait concert to the Spitalfields Winter Festival, featuring music by Christopher Mayo, Richard Reed Parry, and Nicole Lizée. Canada is the home of some of the world’s most exciting new music right now, so it is a real thrill for us to be able to perform these three composers.

Lizée’s Black MIDI was written for the Kronos Quartet and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but we will be presenting it here in a new version for ensemble, alongside Mayo’s Beast (for Hugo Ball) and Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Let’s begin with the piece of yours we are going to play, Black MIDI. Where did you first encounter black MIDI music? What drew you to it particularly, and what compositional potential did you sense it had for you?

Nicole Lizée: I came across it maybe three or four years ago – probably in a software forum (nerd alert). I was drawn to its beauty, audacity, and mysticism – and because it is so esoteric. It is limited as a genre as it’s really just one thing: the process of entering thousands of notes with the sole goal of crashing one’s system. Its limitations made it perfect to create a new work from. There are so many unknowns about it – and my mind started looking to the darkness and spirituality of it, even if it doesn’t actually exist. It’s also rooted in malfunction, which is always exciting to me.

TR-J: Did that sense of its potential change in the course of your composing?

As I was writing the piece I began to completely immerse myself in interpreting the genre in my own way and sort of transforming it beyond any sonic or visual preconceptions. It quickly evolved into an idea of designing a TV series or a documentary fictionalizing Black MIDI. Creating scenarios and writing scripts – completely fabricating the social, cultural, and possibly spiritual, implications.

TR-J: One of the most interesting aspects of your piece, I think, is that it goes beyond a, let’s say, ethnographic study of the black MIDI phenomenon (analogous to Bartók and his folk tunes, for example), and extrapolates a whole narrative scenario in which a mysterious ‘black MIDI’ plays a central role. What process led you in this direction? When did you decide to include film alongside the music, for example?

I knew right away it was going to be a multimedia piece – I wanted to tap into the visual iconography inherent in the genre. The appearance of black MIDI is distinctive and immediate and I wanted to play with the semantics of it, in tandem with the sonics.

The integrating of visuals with a music score – where the two completely coexist – is something I’ve been developing for a while. I’m looking to bring film/video/animation into concert music, where it doesn’t exist passively or as eye candy, but is integral to the work and is treated like an instrument itself. I look at this piece as Season 1 of Black MIDI – and imagine subsequent seasons, with the characters continuing their experiences with black MIDI.

TR-J: Much of your work engages with audio technology pushed to or beyond its breaking point – creating glitches and other similar phenomena. Could you start by describing what is the fascination for you of such sounds, on both a sonic and a semantic level?

This fascination began when I was young. My father is an electronics repairman, salesman, collector – he’s been a kind of beta tester for electronic devices since the 1960s – so I was born into a house of machines, most of which were malfunctioning. He never throws anything away, even if it doesn’t work properly. But, as opposed to digital, which generally just dies, analogue machines continue to work; just not in the way in which they were intended to. So these machines – and their damaged sounds and visuals – became my instruments, alongside the acoustic ones. It feels natural for me to include these sounds within an ensemble and notate for them, treating them as instruments; and also allowing them to affect the acoustic writing.

I refer to this state as the purgatory for technology. When machines or media stop functioning the way they’re supposed to for the consumer, they’re no longer useful. So they begin their new life. It’s a type of freedom. Sometimes they do die in a way – they end up in junkyards and landfills or tossed aside and forgotten, in favour of the digital device.

There’s also a darkness to pushing technology beyond its limits – the unknown. This in turn affects the way I write for live musicians, in terms of emulating glitch and malfunction and the extreme precision and minutiae that goes with it. I often treat the score like a schematic, looking for ways to rewire or circuit bend it. There’s also the process of transcription of the glitches – which I’ve spent a whole lot of time doing. Scrubbing, zooming in, and transcribing my findings – without ever quantizing – is a way to delve into sound and illuminate hidden gestures, rhythms, artefacts, and so on.

TR-J: Are you a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist?

Both I think. It’s an exciting time for tech. But it’s also a frightening one. Certainly in terms of privacy, big data, and the notion that data and information don’t actually exist and could disappear at any time. If I think about this from an artistic perspective – in terms of music and books/print, for example – I become an optimist. This may mean we go back to analogue. I recognize the environmental advantage and convenience to books and music as downloads only – but I think people are losing sight of the impermanence of digital archiving and how fleeting it is on larger timescales. When the grid goes down we lose everything. But we can still read sheet music at a piano or hand crank a Victrola to listen to a record.

But the problem with analogue is that people don’t know how to fix these devices anymore – and the people who do aren’t going to be around for that much longer. The art of technology repair is dead and it is more cost effective to just ‘throw it away and buy a new one’ rather than fix it. This is where I become pessimistic.

I recently read about the first work of AI-generated art sold at Christie’s for a large sum of money. This is also where I become pessimistic.

I see massive potential in technologies like VR. This is a way for people to experience art in new ways and to experience different types of art when it is not immediately at their disposal. This is something to think about now that we are in the age of post-recording. I think people still want to buy recordings – I know I do – but I think maybe they want to buy experiences.

I become a bit of a pessimist when I think about the problem of not knowing what is actual fact. While the internet and its vast wealth of information is nothing short of incredible – the source of the information could be from anywhere – it’s a bit out of control, and there are factual errors everywhere.

TR-J: Many composers I have spoken to have a somewhat relaxed attitude to the obligations and expectations of European or US musical tradition. Linda Catlin Smith, for example, says that one of nice things about being Canadian is that ‘you don’t feel examined’. Is this something you recognise? And, like Linda, do you find this liberating?

I think that expectations do exist but I can say that I’ve never tried to adhere to any. I’ve always found this resistance to ‘obligations’ and ‘procedure’ extremely important and integral to being an artist, even from a young age. As soon as something became trendy or derivative I would abandon it and look for something creative and inspired.

I’ve read analyses of my music that mention my escaping McGill University without ever having written spectral music. There were certainly expectations in the 1990s during my time at McGill. It was very rooted in the European tradition. I, of course, respected it from a historical perspective but in no way was I interested in devoting my time and energy to something that had already been done. I kept completely true to what I had set out to do, even though it came with a certain amount of obstacles. My thesis was a work for turntables and orchestra – with every aspect of the turntable part notated, as well as every vinyl excerpt determined and notated. This was not immediately embraced in the university at the time – in fact it divided the faculty. But I believed in it and that was everything. It still is.

Portrait of Nicole Lizée (c) 2014 Steve Raegele; broken cassette image by Redfishingboat on Flickr.

A few (more) moments with Christopher Mayo

We are looking forward very much to playing at the Spitalfields Winter Festival next month, and happier still to be returning to the music of Christopher Mayo, which we will be performing in an all-Canadian programme alongside Nicole Lizée’s Black MIDI and Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath. Mayo’s extraordinary Youngblood II for five bassoons (yes!) was featured in one of the group’s earliest concerts, back in 2014. For our Spitalfields concert we will be playing his Beast (for Hugo Ball), a wonderfully eccentric ‘setting’ of a poem by the Canadian sound poet bpNichol.

We have chatted with Christopher before, in 2014, but he kindly let us check in him again, to see what has changed.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: When we last interviewed you, you said that you had ‘a mild to an intense dislike of the focus which we as composers and teachers place on the craft of being a composer’ and that this was central to your way of thinking. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that? And is this still the case?

Christopher Mayo: I think, even then, this wasn’t exactly what I meant. I think composers and teachers rightly have to focus on craft, whether of the more mundane variety such as typesetting and notation or the slightly more artistic side such as orchestration, structure, and so on. What I meant really was that I dislike the focus which audiences have on the craft of being a composer, the underlying point being, I suppose, that audiences are so often made up primarily of other composers.

‘Great piece: well orchestrated, idiomatically written for the instruments, logically structured, well-paced, immaculate harmony’ – I’m not sure that any of these things really make a great piece. Actually, I’m sure that they don’t! A well-crafted piece can be successful, but I don’t know that it’s the craft that makes it successful – it can facilitate success, but I think a lack of craft can sometimes be an equal facilitator of interesting music. What I want to get away from is locating our value judgements of music solely in the realm of how – and how well – it is written.

TR-J: Back then you were still based in London; now you are back home in Canada – and Toronto specifically. What do you see as the main differences between the Canadian and UK new music scenes? How do you think the two different settings have influenced your own music?

CM: I’m not sure that in general the differences are so vast, but I think that in London, I was part of – maybe only adjacently and reluctantly – a music scene that doesn’t exist in Canada, and I think possibly exists less end less in the UK. I’m talking about the conservatoire to publisher trajectory that, at least in 2003 when I came to the UK, still seemed to be the prevalent mode of viewing one’s ideal career path among my colleagues at the Royal College of Music. And I think that arc, with all the expected stops along the way, has structural limitations that dictate the way one’s music progresses even more than might seem apparent from the outside. Though I might not have admitted to it at the time, I totally bought into this idea of how a composer’s career should look, and I think trying to fit into this world had an influence on my music that I wasn’t fully aware of.

With the Camberwell Composers’ Collective (with Mark Bowden, Emily Hall, Anna Meredith, and Charlie Piper) I think we felt we were trying to operate outside of this world. But when Tom Service cited the collective in a lecture in Aberdeen in 2010 as a group that was forging a new way to work outside of this conventional career arc of conservatoire to publisher (that wasn’t exactly how he put it), he was rebuked for omitting to say that we were all conservatoire graduates, and variously RPS prize winners, attendees of the Britten-Pears programme, LSO Panufnik participants, and so on. We were never quite as far outside this world as we pretended, though certainly we are now, to varying degrees.

This is a very circuitous way of saying, we don’t have this scene because we don’t have these institutions in Canada. There are a few conservatoires, but they are not where the majority of composers study, some of them don’t even offer composition. There are no publishers championing the careers of composers. And so we also don’t feel the restrictions which following this arc can sometimes place on people.

In the UK, of course, this career path that I’m describing is only a fractional part of the new music scene, and its pre-eminence seems to be diminishing. Maybe it was never quite as prominent as it seemed to me as an inexperienced Canadian composer arriving at the Royal College.

TR-J: What would you say are the defining qualities of the new music community in Canada? What particular roles (if any) do you consider are played by factors such as landscape, climate, culture, the sheer size of the country, and so on?

CM: Openness. I’m not going to be so naive as to suggest that this stems from any kind of cultural, political openness, because Canada is not immune from the swing to right which seems to be sweeping the world. But aesthetically, I really feel like Canada is a place where anything is welcome.

TR-J: Beast (for Hugo Ball) is a setting of a poem by bpNichol dedicated to the founder of Dada and the original sound poet. Could you tell us what significance both Ball’s and Nichol’s work has for you?

CM: This was the second piece I wrote based on the work of bpNichol (I’ve since written a third that will probably be my last, at least for the time being). He’s a fairly legendary figure in Toronto – there’s a ‘bpNichol Lane’ in Toronto which has one of his poems set into the concrete of the pavement. Hugo Ball, I’m not too embarrassed to admit, I’d never heard of before working on this piece. I’d seen the photos of him in his Karawane costume and I knew about the Cabaret Voltaire, but his name wasn’t familiar to me. I spent a lot of time researching him for this piece and read his memoir Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary and his novel Flametti, or The Dandyism of the Poor. He was a very compelling, deeply serious character. There were several quotations from his memoir that had a direct influence on my piece; the one that comes to mind is his discussion of industrialization:

The modern necrophilia. Belief in matter is a belief in death. The triumph of this kind of religion is a terrible aberration. The machine gives a kind of sham life to dead matter. It moves matter. It is a specter. It joins matter together, and in so doing reveals some kind of rationalism. Thus it is death, working systematically, counterfeiting life. It tells more flagrant lies than any newspaper it prints. And what is more, in its continuous subconscious influence it destroys human rhythm. Anyone who lasts a lifetime near such a machine must be a hero, or must be crushed. We cannot expect any spontaneous feelings from such a creature. A walk through a prison cannot be so horrifying as a walk through the noisy workshop of a modern printing shop. The animal sounds, the stinking liquids. All the senses focused on what is bestial, monstrous and yet unreal.

On a surface level, this quotation led me to include a transcription of the sounds of a printing press in the percussion at the beginning of the piece, but on a deeper level, this idea of giving ‘sham life to dead matter’, ‘counterfeiting life’, those ideas became central to my own conception of what I was trying to achieve in the piece in incorporating a recording of bpNichol performing the poem.

 

TR-J: Rather unusually, your ‘setting’ uses a recording of Nichol performing his text, rather than a live speaker or singer. I’m interested in what particular qualities of Nichol’s performance attracted you, and what impact did it have on your subsequent compositional approach?

CM: The thinking I mention above of ‘counterfeiting life’ came later in the process, my initial interest in using a recording of bpNichol rather than setting the text more traditionally came from a desire to engage with all the peculiarities of tempo and pitch in bpNichol’s original recording. His performance is extremely free in all parameters and trying to match and counterpoint these wild shifts was the compositional problem to which I had to find engaging solutions.

TR-J: Finally, my favourite description of Canadian music is Martin Arnold’s, who describes an aesthetic of ‘slack’ – a sort of looseness towards tradition, precision and those European qualities of craft to which you refer. Is this something you recognize in your own music – in your approach to setting Nichol’s recording, for example – and if so, what does it mean to you? And, conversely, what are the areas of precision or formality in your work?

CM: I love this description of Martin’s, I think it’s so apt. It’s funny, in this piece, the music ends up needing to be exceedingly precise in order to match the ‘slack’ that already exists in the bpNichol recording. So there is a lot of ‘slack’ there, but I can’t really own it. It’s like stolen valour; this is stolen ‘slack’! In all my works, there is a level of precision in notation and structure and harmony that’s far from ‘slack’, but I still feel this looseness. My work has a precision that nevertheless achieves a certain amount of awkwardness, grit – aims for awkwardness even. I’m never looking for elegant solutions. I prize a bad idea far over a good one. I love it when someone tells me an idea they’ve had for a piece and it just seems like an astonishingly terrible, completely unworkable idea. That’s the piece I want to hear, the one that makes something good and compelling out of something that seems unassailably atrocious.