A few moments with Chris Mayo


Tomorrow evening at The Forge in Camden we’re opening up a new series of contemporary music concerts called Wednesdays at The Forge.  The concert is a rather extraordinary array of low instruments: 5 Bass Clarinets, 5 Bassoons (including 3 contrabassoons) and 4 Trombones, along with Tenor.  Opening up the concert, will be a brand new work for 5 Bassoons (with members of Reed Rage) by Chris Mayo.  I’m happy to have had a few moments to sit with Chris and ask him about the experience of writing this piece, and what the audience can expect tomorrow night!

AHN: Thanks for joining us Chris!  Can you tell us a little bit about what you first thought when we asked you to write for 5 bassoons, and how you went about writing for such a homogenous – and unusual – ensemble?

CM: My works list reads like a catalogue of unusual and impractical instrumentations. It’s gotten to the point that I just assume people are going to ask me to write for some crazy, odd combination of instruments. I would be surprised if someone asked me to write for a string quartet.

That’s just to say that it didn’t particularly occur to me that this was an unusual ensemble, or at least not any more unusual than other combinations I’ve had to contend with. In terms of it being such a homogenous ensemble, that’s something that I actually found really interesting about this instrumentation. The possibility of having this really pure and intense blend of timbre and sharing and overlapping material in a way where the individuality of voices kind of disappears became a central idea for the piece.

AHN: Your piece is called Youngblood II, is there a Youngblood I?

CM: Yes, Youngblood is a piece for recorder quartet that I wrote in 2012. Youngblood is also the title of Carl Wilson’s second solo album.


As a bit of background, here’s an introduction I wrote to the recorder piece:

“I am completely obsessed with the solo albums of the various members of The Beach Boys. Some of them (Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue) are genuinely marvellous while others (Mike Love’s Looking Back With Love) are unforgivably atrocious. Whatever their musical merits, these albums all illuminate part of the fascinating story of a profoundly screwed-up bunch of people.

I’ve always seen Carl Wilson as a slightly tragic character, constantly overshadowed by his two older brothers: one a super-talented musical genius, the other an hedonistic, womanising partier. I think his two solo albums were his attempt to really establish his own, individual personality separate from them. They don’t really succeed, and I feel like there’s an enormous amount of pathos in that. My recorder quartet Youngblood uses a tiny bit of material taken from computer audio analysis of What More Can I Say [the first track on Wilson’s album] as a seed for a sort of quasi-baroque canonic study. Hopefully, in its five minutes it encapsulates some of the ideas and emotions which I attach to Carl Wilson and his solo albums.”

Youngblood II returns to this same starting material and is also (in a completely different way) a sort of quasi-baroque canonic study. Maybe this will become my thing any time somebody asks me to write a piece for a large grouping of the same instruments.

AHN: That is an incredible back story.  I like the idea of this material you return to each time you write for a particular group of instruments.  Another thing I’ve always admired about your music is the long, audible and – really physically feelable – nature of your transitions.  How do you think about transitions within your music?

CM: Spreadsheets! I do think a lot about change and transition in my music and get super-nerdily obsessed with working them out (which I guess is a little bit “crafty” but then everybody needs to be a hypocrite, sometimes, right?). This usually means having loads of spreadsheets working out various different overlapping arcs of change in lots of different musical parameters all working independently but gradually moving towards the same goal. I don’t really think of them as transitions though, because often they’re the entirety of the music! It’s not so much that there are various ‘states’ which are transitioned between, often it’s just all gradual change.

I mean, it’s not an especially new or exciting thing to say “I’m going to write a piece where there’s a long gradual process that takes place over 12 minutes” it’s kind of been done to death. (Music as Gradual Process and all that.)  So if, like me, you feel like you’re going to do it anyway, you have to find other ways to invigorate – to vitalise(?) the music. My music never ends up being just the bare process, there’s always something sculptural going on that tries to make it into something more explicitly….narrative perhaps?

AHN: I wonder if some of that has to do with your sound world?  While your music is largely focused on traditionally ‘musical’ sounds, you do have pieces that include effects such as rustling paper and breath noises.  As composers, we’re surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by extra-musical sounds.  How do these sounds influence you and how significant are they to your work?

CM: Well, in terms of my incorporation of these kind of effects in my music, there are sort of two sides to that. On the one hand, they are related to those transitions, as they usually come as the solution to some kind of process which is burbling along under the surface of the music. I often plan pieces in a very abstract way without really thinking of the limitations of the particular ensemble I’m writing for. It means that for me the composition process is often about finding solutions to the awkward situations I put myself in. How do you write a 12-note chord for flute, or things like that. It’s often in searching for solutions to these kinds of process-instigated problems that I arrive at these extramusical sounds.

But on the other hand, my use of these effects in music has a lot to do with how much I dislike the use of these sounds in contemporary music. I had a lesson once with the French composer Philippe Leroux and he made the assertion that he thought a lot of my music was about how much I disliked contemporary music. I think he meant that as a criticism, but I think he’s possibly right. I do have what ranges from a mild to an intense dislike of the focus which we as composers and teachers place on the craft of being a composer (finely wrought, exquisitely orchestrated, beautifully heard, all that…) and sometimes I like to present these kind of sounds (paper, air, etc.) in a kind of very un-crafty inelegant way. It’s not exactly a revolutionary manifesto that’s going to rock the establishment, but for me these are often awkward, kind of dumb sounds and presenting them in an awkward, kind of dumb way makes sense to me.

AHN: That’s a very accurate description of what I know of your music.  I’m hugely looking forward to hearing this new piece tomorrow.  Before we go, tell us what’s in store for you in 2014?

CM: I’m currently writing a piece for four female voices and orchestra for Esprit Orchestra in Toronto. It’s based on an excerpt from Toby Litt’s novel deadkidsongs. The novel is titled after (and full of quotes from) Mahler’s Kindertotenlider.

The thought of writing a piece that referenced Kindertotenlieder in the music just seemed to me like such a terrible idea for a piece that I decided that’s what I would do. Sometimes the most inspiring thing for me is something that’s really obviously a bad idea. Some people like to impose various systematic/harmonic/rhythmic/aesthetic constraints on themselves when they’re composing. My favourite constraint is just having a really bad idea to start with—finding a way to turn a bad idea into a good piece is a great way of pushing yourself to do new and interesting things. Like even Youngblood II actually. Writing a piece for five bassoons based on a track off of Carl Wilson’s second album is a bad idea. But that’s what I like about it.

After that, I’m making a collaborative opera for five voices and tape with Opera Erratica. This is part of triptych of pieces loosely inspired by Il trittico with the other two parts written by Christian Mason and Thomas Smertyns. And I’m also in the middle of writing a piece for Crash Ensemble in Dublin which has a very drawn-out gestation period—that piece is about a box of records that belonged to my grandfather. Or that was the idea to begin with. I’m not really sure what it’s about anymore…