When the Covid-19 pandemic reached the UK in March, we were keen to maintain our relationship with Laura Bradshaw and University College Hospital (where we have given lunchtime music recitals for staff, patients and visitors) and provide whatever support to staff we could. It was good to hear, then, that Laura was setting up a ‘Creative Comforts’ channel to provide support and respite for frontline staff during the during the pandemic. A number of artists have contributed, making sketches over Skype, offering origami tuition and more. Riot are very proud to have been asked to contribute some music to the scheme.
In line with the ideas behind the channel, the pieces we have chosen are a little less ‘crunchy’ than some of our usual repertory. You can see a selection of them here and others were shared through the hospital’s intranet. We hope to add more videos to this list in autumn.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (actually only this year, but it seems like much longer ago than that), Riot commissioned a new work from one of our favourite composers, Chaya Czernowin. Chaya’s piece Ayre: Towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of has become a regular part of our repertoire – appearing on our Speak, Be Silent CD in 2019 – and we just had to have her write a new piece for us. That piece will be Fast Darkness I: I can see your turned eyes from inside your body, for the wonderfully sonorous line-up of solo bass/contrabass clarinet plus bass clarinet, baritone sax, trombone, tuba, guitar, keyboard, percussion and strings. We dearly hope to be able to give the first performance at Wien Modern in November.
Chaya has been working hard on her piece through
lockdown. In this first of three interviews, she told Tim Rutherford-Johnson
how it has gone so far.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: You’ve recently posted some pictures of your studio online, with the trees just outside your window casting shadows around the room. How are you finding composing during lockdown?
Chaya Czernowin: The lockdown hasn’t been easy at all, but in terms of composition it has been a blessing – having time with no borders is a real gift. Not travelling and having almost no teaching means that I can stay in my composer’s space without being forced out. It made me live in my work even more intensely than usual.
TR-J: Could you tell us a little bit about that composing space – what do you mean by that, and what does it signify for you?
CC: A piece is a small universe. It has a feeling
about it, an atmosphere, it might even have a smell or a concrete feeling of time
and speed. You might be always breathless when you think of it or you might be
able to finally breathe deeply when you are in it. So the piece has a certain
kind of physicality which unfolds and transforms as you witness it through
opening the possibility of its existence.
I love living in that space. It enables a real
broadening of the self towards a more liberated form of existence. You can
forget about yourself and simply meet something else inside you. When you have
met that something else your only concern is to become very aware of what
it is, to reveal and build it in the best way you can. It is at the same
time an oasis away from ‘normal’ existence and a magnification of
something of it.
you work on one piece at a time, or several at once?
CC: I work on one piece at a time but I know the
next pieces I have to write and they are growing more slowly in the shadows as
they influence each other?
CC: They all come from the same area of
concerns in every period but I can’t say that they influence each
other – each would like to be autonomous. In that sense each piece would
like to feel that it is the be all and end all.
If I write a series of pieces then they are like siblings, and if there are concrete relationships between pieces, like in Anea Crystal (2 pieces which can be played simultaneously) then clearly the relationship has to do with the basic premise.
TR-J: Like Ayre … the piece you are writing for Riot has another extraordinary title: where did this one come from?
CC: I needed to invent a title that would give me
the feeling of speed and disorientation. So this is what came to mind. It
is as disorienting and speedy as this next sliver of a second. To give
another metaphor: mouse A trying to catch what it thought was its own
tail, but found it to be mouse B’s tail. But then mouse B is found to be mouse A,
which was simply confused … Of course the speed of all these proceedings is
extremely fast. No reflection here.
of time, spaces, and of light and dark run throughout your work, particularly
in your recent music. I can detect all three in this title. How do you see them
coming together in this piece?
CC: The images are like symptoms of something
deeper. They emanate from the universe I spoke of, and that universe, while
hard to describe verbally, has a very strong and deep vitality of which these
characteristics and images are a reflection. But I would not normally know the
key and the real full spine of that universe until I had finished my piece, and
in some good cases until had I heard it.
In this piece all these images come together to
create a swish of something of which we can see only a part, and that part
appears and disappears fast.
The darkness is what seems to be hiding the object
but we might understand later that it is a part of the object itself. It’s all
about how what is presented constantly renders the secret (of what is the
piece) bigger and more confusing rather than divulging and clarifying it.
The Riot Ensemble is thrilled to announce six new solo commissions as part of our ongoing Zeitgeist project. The six composers below were initially selected to participate in PRS for Music’s Composer Workshops which were due to take place during 2020 with musicians from The Riot Ensemble and Mira Calix. Since lockdown, we have transformed these plans to focus on solo works with PRS for Music delivering online workshops alongside individual coaching and mentoring sessions.
Joseph Bates said: ‘I’m a composer and performer of hazy, detuned music for a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments. I am particularly interested in creating new scales, using atypical tunings and ideas taken from classical composers like Bartók and Messiaen. Contemporary touchstones for me include Fiona Apple, Cassandra Miller and Mica Levi.
‘For this work, I began with my limitations. I created a double bass tuning that interested me and considered what harmonics this would allow. From there, I worked with Marianne to see which could be marshalled into chords, either plucked or bowed. That initial repertoire of harmony grounds the piece and has proved fertile melodic ground for the work’s opening.
‘I suppose I also began with an image. I have been sitting on the roof of our flat’s bathroom, catching the sun and the bellow of passing trains. From there, you can see into the canyon of garden between high-backed Victorian houses. It’s a cobbled-together world of balconies, roof-tops and garden sheds. Its discontinuities are threaded together by a community of birds – goldfinches, thrushes, sparrows, blue jays and blackbirds – whose territorial songs compete with the Jubilee line. Writing about such little birds on such a large instrument seems funny to me.
‘Remote work has been straightforward so far, though the specifics of timbre don’t convey well over zoom audio. When plucked harmonics fail to sound properly, they produce bell-like impurities that can be interesting, or can fall flat – telling the difference over video chat is not straightforward.’
Lola de la Mata said: ‘I am a London-based French/Spanish composer, curator, artist and musician with a background in weaving and printmaking.
‘I have a collaborative approach to my practice which has led me to work with musicians, filmmakers, dance companies, queer performance artists and next Autumn, with a drag artist.
‘Meeting Ausias for the first time, we discovered we shared memories of a town just north of Valencia called Castellón where he lived for a number of years and where I use to visit my family. This ‘naive’ closeness has allowed us to collaborate in an open way.
‘Not coming from a musical background, my initial process was to get to know Ausias and his instrument. As he shared sounds and techniques I was transported to Lanzarote’s dark textured volcanic landscape.
‘Since our first meeting I have been making paintings, photographs, short films and writing a text which will sit alongside the score.’
Aidan Teplitzky said: ‘As a composer, I write work that explores the idea of community, how we establish our identities, and how the individual relates to society.
‘My initial idea of writing for percussion was to take the piss out of composers who need to throw everything and the kitchen sink in because we can and how that has changed because of COVID-19. This ended up changing in the process of working with Sam (the percussionist from Riot) to the piece being about need and luxury, and to explore how these concepts can overlap and how they have overlapped because of the current situation.
‘The hardest part about creating the piece is not being in the room to try stuff out. Music is all about community and connection and even though technology is helping, it mostly reminds me how important the personal is in my work and the value of art to bring people together.’
Zoë Martlew said: ‘My pre-lockdown biography describes me as an internationally touring cellist, composer, performer, cabaret artist, mentor, educator and media commentator. As nearly all my performing and composing work got zapped or indefinitely postponed overnight, I’m now working worldwide as an online spiritual healer and teacher, my hitherto secret ‘other life’ for over 20 years.
‘I’m also presenting and commenting for London Sinfonietta’s digital channel, BBC Radio 3 and make the odd extremely silly cabaret sketch for Living Room Live.
‘COVID-19 has dramatically changed my life. At last, I’m free from relentless travelling, from preparing mountains of difficult notes, seminars, lectures. I can sleep and eat when I want to, reconnect with Mother Nature, breathe, rest and recover from decades of adrenaline-fuelled overwork.
‘Weirdly, from the second lockdown kicked in, I’ve not wanted to play, write or even listen to any music. It feels as though my ears are being reset, the very essence of my relationship to music purified. This commission from Riot Ensemble and PRS for Music will be the first piece of music I’ll have engaged with in many weeks, the first sound to emerge from my personal silence, a precious gift in nudging me back to the composing desk.
‘The bassoon is an instrument with such latent emotional power, an almost human quality in the gorgeously melodic upper ranges combined earthy lower timbres, and I see no limitations whatsoever in working remotely. It’s what composers do most of the time anyway. Call me old fashioned, but my approach to this piece is a simple one: music straight from the heart, working with the natural powerful resonances of this wonderful instrument, rather than a load of fancy extended techniques. I’m excited to see what emerges from the silence, birthplace of all music.’
Date: Thu 5th November, 2020 Venue: Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria
The Riot Ensemble journey out to Austria to open the Crossroads New Music Festival.
International contemporary music festival Crossroads aims to promote the collaboration between composition students and young contemporary music performers from different countries. The festival gives an opportunity to the young artists to collaborate together by sharing their cultural and personal experiences. This annual event is organised by Lithuanian student Silvija Čiuladytė and the Institute for New Music, Mozarteum University Salzburg.
Date: Mon 10th Feb, 2020 Venue: University College Hospital, London NW1 2BU
As part of our continuing commitment to exploring the health benefits of live music and performance within hospital spaces, members of Riot have recently began giving lunchtime recitals at University College Hospital, London. In October we played music for voice, saxophone, viola, and cello in the Macmillan Cancer Centre while people waited for their appointments and prescriptions, or just ate their lunch, and on 10 February we will be performing again, playing music by Bach, Telemann, Holst alongside more contemporary repertoire. Concerts start at 1pm, last about an hour and you are free to come and go as you wish.
We are really proud to be launching our ReNew concert series at Kings Place on 14th February with the UK premiere of Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus. The following text is a short programme essay by Tim Rutherford-Johnson on some of the themes of that piece, and the two others in the same concert: A memory of birds (ii) by our director Aaron Holloway-Nahum, and Ctrl by Laurence Osborn, a work that we commissioned and premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017.
It is a wonder and a horror of our age that the songs of extinction will be preserved. Go online and we can find – in digital form and always, forever – the sounds of species that no longer exist. Songs heard and conserved in alien landscapes, looped and replayed until … when? Google the Hawai’ian Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō bird and you can hear its curving, circling song. But this bird was the last of its species: it died three decades ago.
The song in Aaron Holloway-Nahum’s Like a memory of birds (ii) is stylized and does not imitate any particular species (the piece is a sequel to a 2017 work for marimba and cor anglais). But its setting recalls the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō’s online avatar. The song takes the form of a duo between clarinet and bass clarinet. It is shared between them, but dips in and out of alignment, like echoes in a forest. Its surroundings are malleable and uncertain: soft string harmonics and the eerie whistle of corrugated plastic pipes increasingly give way to the hard-edged timbres of piano and drums. As background becomes foreground the clarinets’ song is overwhelmed and almost entirely forgotten, until a habitat becomes no more than a space.
In Laurence Osborn’s Ctrl, the song is a football chant (one familiar to Arsenal fans in particular). Soprano Sarah Dacey appears, amplified, autotuned and in male character, to sing a threnody to failed masculinity. ‘Body is amazing’, she sings, ‘Body is equipped for work and sex and sport. Me and my body, we do what we want.’ The music cycles and swells: the sweat and surety of Beethoven and the moshpit. But the chant is a lament, the bravado a lie, the story toxic. The third movement is a dark lullaby in which strength dies in a Beckettian repetition of hangovers and despair: ‘Saturday morning … Black blinds … At the bottom of everything.’ Hopeless? No: the work ends with a plea, with tenderness, and a last-ditch desire to reach out.
Late in the day, humanity is realising the harm its relentless drive to acquire, occupy and consume is doing to a habitable planet. In its first movement, ‘Anthropogenic debris’, Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus sets the tone of ecological crisis. (The recording below is of the West German Radio broadcast of the premiere, performed by Klangforum Wien. The music starts at around 5’45”.) The debris in question is the vast collections of plastic that have ended up in the world’s oceans and have been gathered by circulatory currents (known as gyres) into giant, swirling patches of rubbish and pollutants. As they turn, plastic is drawn into them and then ground into smaller and more dangerous particles – which themselves pose an existential threat to life on Earth. As well as a large sheet of cellophane that is absorbed into its percussion section, Lim’s piece is full of representations of looping and turning, as well as degradation and loss: she transcribes the song of the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō; recycles a violin solo of her own, based on tracings of a ninth-century Chinese star map; and inserts allusions to historical music, in the form of bars from Leoš Janáček’s late-Romantic piano piece On an Overgrown Path. All of them represent forms of extinction. The star map predates Western astronomy by five hundred years, but its achievement has been erased by history. The Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō’s mating call will never be answered. The Janáček, warped almost beyond recognition in Lim’s piece, was described by its composer as comprising reminiscences ‘so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish’.
Circulation also entails slippage: as debris loops back, it recalls both the past and its present. Slippages occur on every level, whether the timbres of brass instruments playing unstable half-valve sounds (as in the opening duo between horn and trumpet), or the larger-scale slippage of identity in the fourth movement, in which a solo violin attempts to ‘teach’ or transmit her music to a percussionist playing a rudimentary string drum. The last movement is based on another real – and extraordinary – singing phenomenon: the ‘dawn chorus’ of coral reef fish that takes place in the changing light of morning. Lim recreates this mass of clicking, rasping percussive sounds through the sound of Waldteufels (small string drums) and windwands being swirled in the air – an effect that is as visual and tactile as it is sonic. Plastic returns, in the form of a one-metre tube that extends the range of a contrabassoon theoretically below the edge of human hearing. And so the final song is one that we can no longer know nor understand, pointing to a future perhaps no longer meant for us.
At the CLF Art Cafe this Friday and Saturday, as well as new pieces by Peggy Polias and Igor Santos (and Anna Korsun’s Sottilissime for singing string trio) we will be bringing scenes from a new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler. Laura often works in music theatre, as both a composer and performer, and as the founder-director of Size Zero Opera. Many of her pieces put a contemporary spin on age-old themes: sex, violence, the natural world and, in the emoji-emblazoned FFF (heard first at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017), political engagement. GOLD is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, written in collaboration with the librettist Alasdair Middleton, that teases twenty-first-century themes of language, identity, privilege and sexual politics out of its fairytale origins. In our concerts we will be giving the premiere of the opera’s first seven scenes, sung by Lucy Goddard, Rosie Middleton and Riot’s own Sarah Dacey. You can find more information and tickets here.
Laura found time amidst a busy week of rehearsals and other challenges to speak to us about her piece.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How have you set about updating
the story of Rumpelstiltskin, or adding a contemporary spin to it? What does an
ancient fairytale like this have to say to the twenty-first century?
Laura Bowler: I have always had a fascination
with fairytales. The tale of Rumpelstiltskin
appealed to me because of its focus on naming the unknown, the misunderstood,
the other. Whenever I heard conversations about Rumpelstiltskin, the title
character always seemed to be presented and understood as the ‘evil’ one and
the manipulator. There was very rarely any mention of the Father and the King,
without whose power the tale surrounding the daughter’s deal with Rumpel would
never have occurred. It is the socially legitimate and patriarchal powers in
the narrative who place the daughter into her most vulnerable position. Rumpel
is a desperate character who takes advantage of any given situation to gain
what power he/she can. For me the story places a magnifying glass on society’s
blind acceptance of seemingly legitimate power and our fear of those we do not
know or understand.
TR-J: I’m interested in the idea of naming – or
name-calling – which is used as a framing device to the opera. At the start,
Adam names all the animals but some, like Rumpelstiltskin, slip away, without
names, from the dominion of man. And then in the final scene all sorts of slurs
are used against him. What is your thinking here?
LB: I don’t want to put words into Alasdair’s mouth so I’ll answer this from my perspective. The Rumpelstiltskin phenomenon is the tendency for the naming of something to create the impression of imparting understanding of it. This is something which is perpetuated throughout society in today’s media. The idea of the ‘monster’ character in a story takes away any responsibility for what society may have created or been able to prevent. An individual is reported to be a Terrorist; they somehow become inherently bad. Naming something may give one a sense of owning that person or thing, and with that, an assumption that we somehow understand them/it.
TR-J: A lot of your work deals with contemporary themes
like this. What are the challenges of making work on such specific themes? And
how do you avoid simply preaching ‘issues’ to an already informed, liberal
LB: I have the dreaded artist’s guilt, which is what drives me to create work that is somehow politically or socially engaged. Composing is a form of communication, and for me I want to communicate and ask questions about what I personally feel is vital to humanity in contemporary society. I think it’s very easy to assume that it is an informed liberal audience, but I can’t imagine that everyone is in a constant state of self reflection ensuring that they are checking on any developed or developing bias that they may hold. I never try to preach with my work, but I value the role that the arts can play in the debates of a free democratic society. After all, politics in theatre is as old as democracy itself.
TR-J: What are the advantages, to you, of working in music
theatre? How is your identity as a performer – as well as a composer – tied
LB: Performing enables me to create work
that I may not feel is kind for me to create for other artists. I purposely
push myself to extreme states as a performer inevitably causing certain
psychological and physical repercussions. I thrive off collaborating with other
artists, but I also work within a field that celebrates perfection and I am a
performer that strives for rawness and vulnerability – something that is not
always encouraged in western classical music teaching. Performing also enables
me to be more empathetic to the individual performers that I collaborate with;
to not just write works for the musician but to create works that also embrace
who they are as a person and their experiences. Working in music theatre
enables me to communicate more directly. Despite my love of more abstracted
forms of communication, the inclusion of theatre, text, and the human body
enables for a less intangible form of communication, and this is important for
me as a creative at the moment.
TR-J: These performances will just be of scenes from GOLD.
When can we see and hear the whole thing?
LB: Probably next season if all goes
TR-J: Finally, what else are you working on at the moment?
Are you still making work with Size Zero Opera?
LB: I’m working on several smaller scale
works at the moment for a range of artists including Alwynne Pritchard, Scott Lygate and Platypus Ensemble (Vienna).
Then I’ll be tying myself to the desk to write a new 50-minute multimedia music
theatre work for HCMF for me to perform with Decoder Ensemble (Hamburg). The work is
called Advert and explores the rise
of tribalism within contemporary society. I’m super excited to be starting a
new duo with the flautist Ruth
Morley (Red Note Ensemble) and our tour of new commissions beginning next
season. We’ve commissioned Dierdre McKay, Diana Soh and Carmel Smickersgill.
Future collaborations include projects with Extinction Rebellion, Katie
Mitchell and a monodrama that the incredible composer Diana Soh is writing for
me. Unfortunately, due to sheer lack of time, Size Zero Opera has stopped
commissioning work. However, if the right project came along I’m always happy
to put my producer hat on.
TR-J: Thank you for talking to us Laura! I cannot wait to hear GOLD this weekend.
Riot’s 2020 starts with a rush with two concerts featuring world premieres from last year’s Call for Scores commissionees. Come and hear them, and us, at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham on 31 January and 1 February. Alongside scenes from GOLD, the new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler, we will be playing brand new pieces by the Brazilian-American composer Igor Santos and the Australian Peggy Polias. Details of both concerts can be found here and here.
Peggy and Igor were kind enough to share some thoughts with us about their music. Peggy’s interview can be found here. Here is what Igor had to say.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Igor, we’re really excited at Riot to be playing your music for the first time. Let’s start with your background as a composer. How did you start, who have been your teachers, and who are your inspirations?
Igor Santos: I started music as a
self-taught classical guitarist, in my native town of Curitiba in Brazil, and
was composing almost from the outset. I couldn’t read music in the first few
years, so I wrote and played my own guitar pieces, and also composed a large
amount of orchestral music on the computer (all in MIDI – either through
digital piano rolls or guitar tablature notation). I recall heavily imitating video-game
music (mainly the Japanese orchestral stuff), and a lot of Tchaikovsky.
For a few years I was also quite
serious about becoming a guitar virtuoso (furiously practising Villa-Lobos and
Tárrega), but completely gave up on the idea after seeing Yamandu Costa perform
a solo concert. His musicianship, groove, and energy in performance (which
overcame his incredibly fast but – at the time – very messy shredding) were all
too overwhelming. I knew I didn’t have it in me: neither the training nor the temperament
to become that kind of performer. It was a transformative moment, and from then
on I started practising piano (as a clean slate!), and mainly thought about
During my undergraduate studies I learnt
tremendously from Paul
Reller, a generally funny personality who was tyrannical about discipline
in composition – discipline in one’s personal work schedule and discipline in
thinking lucidly about the compositional process. Paul was zealous about the act of composition – in an almost
spiritual way – which was always inspiring. At the Eastman School I had a lot
of emotional and artistic encouragement from my teachers (Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez and Ricardo
Zohn-Muldoon), and at the University of Chicago it was all about solidifying
different skills: a focus on craft with Augusta Read Thomas, gaining a practical,
up-to-date, and lively approach to electronic music from Sam Pluta, and learning to think
carefully about a composer’s influences and musico-historical context, with Anthony Cheung.
As far as inspirations are concerned, there are probably too
many artists to list, but in contemporary music I admire the music of Salvatore
Sciarrino, Simon Steen-Andersen, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Enno Poppe. Sciarrino
for the sensuality, imaginative instrumental writing, pacing, and use of
variegated repetitions (which had a great effect on me early on); Steen-Andersen
for the conceptual rigour, humour, and his use of ‘real-world’ sounds and
images, and Poppe for his approach to microtonal keyboards, and for his combination
of sharp musicality with wild abandon. Westerkamp’s music is inspiring to me for
its meta-awareness, sensuousness, and general non-elitist approach to sound – works
like Kits Beach Soundwalk,the
Breathing Room series,and Für Dich are quite remarkable (and
TR-J: I really enjoyed discovering your piece suggested affinities through our Call for Scores this year. One of the things that struck me from that piece is your use of little loops and repetitions. What is the role of repetition in your music? You’re obviously not starting from a minimalist standpoint; I’m reminded more of the repetitions Lachenmann writes in towards the end of Kontrakadenz, for example. Would that be right?
IS: Repetition has played key role in my music for the last four
years, expressed through loops, loops within loops (asymmetrical
superpositions), and different kinds of refrains.
I think it started as a need to create more dynamic forms.
My music is generally concerned with transformations and arrival points, and
inserting loops is one way in which I interrupt constant linear motion (which
can get exhausting), and become more playful when creating and breaking
Kontrakadenz is one of my favorite orchestral works of the 70s, and definitely a huge influence on me, although I wasn’t actively thinking about it while writing suggested affinities. The main similarity, perhaps, is that my piece uses loops cumulatively (building and reaching the longest loop before the pianist’s solo cadenza), and Kontrakadenz (no pun intended) also builds its climax in a similar way. The main lesson I always took from that piece, and from all my favourite Lachenmann works, has to do with creating different points of accessibility. Repetition in Lachenmann provides a kind of anchor to the music’s hyper-refined and sometimes elusive timbres – it allows you to listen to the sounds closely and differently each time. The ‘real-world’ sounds in Kontrakadenz (e.g. the radios and meta-commentary) serve a similar function in that they give a different angle to the music, making everything less abstract and creating a complex and rich listening environment.
Those are two initial ways in which I think about repetition
– to make linear forms multi-faceted and to reify the identity of particular
timbres and structures. There are multiple answers to this, to be honest, and
the more I work with repetition the more possibilities and complexities it
TR-J: The piece you
have written for Riot is called clonewheel(s).
I presume the title comes from the clonewheel organ? Could you say a little about
how that type of instrument has inspired this piece, and how it has shaped the
music you have written?
IS: Clonewheel is a term for any digital organ that emulates the
tonewheel sound mechanism of antique Hammond organs. I’ve always loved the tone
and quality of this instrument, and was inspired to work with it this time after
falling into a YouTube wormhole of Cory Henry solo performances.
The keyboard in my piece is a weirded-out digital Hammond
organ (i.e. a clonewheel), whose timbral qualities, gestures, and registration
changes are reflected (or ‘cloned’) by other instruments in the ensemble.
TR-J: Quite a lot of
your pieces seem to start from the mechanical or physical properties of
instruments, and to play with this in some way. What is the source of this
approach for you? And how have you explored this idea?
IS: I am interested in defamiliarization – of finding new
meanings in things taken for granted – and as a result I have to start pieces
from specific and recognizable (i.e. familiar) objects. When choosing the
initial source, I aim at sounds, gestures, transcription, or concepts that are
concrete, such as the physical property of an instrument, as you mentioned. This
is also a personal preference – I like direct and tangible ideas, and do my
best to avoid vagueness and mystification.
Instrumental sound is not always the starting or focal point
for my pieces, however. In speak through
speaking (2017) for example, I open the music with a speech transcription
(played by a solo double-bass), which is deconstructed throughout the piece via
repetition and re-orchestration. Another example is anima (2019), where the focus is on non-linguistic utterances – vocalized
by the performers and constantly imitated and transformed by their instruments
(harp and a variety of percussion).
TR-J: And what role do
electronics play in your work – in this respect and in others? I am thinking of
suggested affinities, as an example,
but maybe this is also relevant to the synthesizer part in clonewheel(s)?
Electronics in my music are a tool for estranging acoustic
instruments. The electronic sounds are constantly doubling or playing in
proximity to the acoustic instruments, and the goal is to slow down the
perception of who is sounding, and to become something new in the process (and
to hopefully sound like a ‘realistic’ new instrument).
That was the approach for the soloist (a kind of meta-piano)
and obbligato parts (meta-harp and meta-vibraphone) in suggested affinities – the electronic sounds are both digital
versions of these instruments, and vocal articulations that they constantly
Lately, I am much less concerned with ‘realistic’ sounding
meta-instruments, and embrace the oddities of digital reproductions. In clonewheel(s), for example, there is
less of an obsession on doubling instruments with electronics, and more in emphasizing
actions that a real Hammond organ cannot perform, such as exaggerated
pitch bending or unusually fast drawbar (timbre) changes.
TR-J: Finally, you are a parent as well as
a composer, and until recently you were also completing a PhD. How do you manage your time?! Do
you have a special time of day or place for composing?
IS: Managing time is always a challenge,
and there were a few moments during my PhD where parenting, composing, teaching,
and trying to graduate all felt impossible. In the end it’s just a matter of
prioritizing as needed, and getting help when/where possible. I wish I had helpful
tips and good pop-psychology notes, but every situation/deadline is different.
Being a parent is pretty demanding, but it taught me to be more efficient with
time and to brood less – likely a byproduct of necessity and decreased
As far as time and place are concerned, I have no sacred rituals. The only consistent habit is that I work mostly at night and reserve a few early mornings for when I get stuck on something (intuition seems less judgmental when half-awake). My instruments and desk are nicely setup in my apartment but it’s not a priority to stay there; for different reasons I always end up split between home and libraries (for composition), and coffee shops (for other work that needs attention).