A few moments with Tom Coult

Our next concert will take place on 2 August, when Riot will be appearing at West Sussex’s Petworth Festival. On the programme will be works by Klaus Huber, Cassandra Miller, Gabriella Smith, Paul Burnell, and Siemens Music Prize-winner Ann Cleare, as well as a new work by Petworth composer Terence Allbright. Also featured will be a new set of piano miniatures, Inventions (For Heath Robinson), by rising star Tom Coult, which will be played by our very own Adam Swayne. Tim Rutherford-Johnson caught up with Tom to talk about his piece, his love of contraptions, and his forthcoming opera.

Tom Coult portait by Timothy Lutton

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Going right back to your piano trio The Chronophage of 2011, you seem to have been drawn to eccentric machineries – contraptions whose workings are perhaps more elegant and meaningful than their solutions. What is the attraction of objects like this for you?

Tom Coult: I find some kind of analogue between extravagantly over-designed machines with little to no function, and pieces of music – musical scores are incredibly complex things, containing vast amounts of information, meticulously crafted by the composer. Perhaps perversely, I enjoy the strange collision between the immense amount of work and technical craft that goes into a musical score and the generally short durations. And of course the fact that there is sometimes very little practical or commercial demand for this work to be done. I find it funny, in a way, but there’s also something beautiful and inspiring in a composer/inventor spending lots of time and effort and intellect on something that is simply designed to be wonderful as possible, or as enjoyable, or as strange. I enjoy beautiful answers to questions nobody asked.

Machines, traditionally, find a solution to a problem, or execute that solution more efficiently than other means.  If a piece of music is a ‘solution’, what tangible problem is it attempting to solve, and to what extent, realistically, does it constitute a meaningful solution? I find musical works, however ‘precise’ their composition and notation, a very imprecise tool for addressing problems – sometimes beautifully or productively imprecise of course. 

The Chronophage (‘time eater’) is the insect escapement on the Corpus Clock in Cambridge (I wrote the piece in 2011, having never spent any time in Cambridge and only having seen it on YouTube). Not all of the clock’s seconds are equal, so it’s a (deliberately) very poor attempt at telling time. But it is stunningly beautiful and compelling, and the craft and intricacy of it is amazing.

TR-J: I’m fascinated also by Frank L. Warrin’s French translation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which provides the title of your 2012 ensemble piece Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux. Translating nonsense from one language into another strikes me as a similarly quotidian endeavour. Is there something about that sense of ‘uselessness’ (in the best, Wildean sense) that appeals to you?

TC: Uselessness is a glorious thing once you embrace it … it’s provocative, and exciting – a translation of an English nonsense poem into nonsense French is pure play of language … there’s an ecstatic quality to using translation (which traditionally makes something useful) for sheer pleasure and creativity. 

I find it incredibly exciting when the brief for a commission is ‘fill these fifteen minutes of time with some music’. How do you make those minutes as wonderful as possible? The Wildean uselessness of art is effectively an assertion that pleasure and beauty are intrinsically worthwhile, maybe more worthwhile than anything else in the world. (Parenthetically – pleasure and beauty needn’t mean ‘prettiness’, though there’s nothing wrong with prettiness …)

There’s also a post-Adornian argument for uselessness – ‘insofar as a social function can be predicted for artworks, it is their functionlessness’ … he found there to be a subversive quality to art that exists outside capitalism’s desire for labour to result in profit (because ours is sure as hell not a profitable industry …). I’d probably align my work more with the flamboyant, Wildean form of aestheticism, and would never claim that my stuff is a meaningful critique of capitalism or anything (imprecise solutions to tangible problems and all that …), but I definitely feel that Adorno kind of aestheticism. A (probably doomed) attempt to create for its own sake in a crassly utilitarian world. I think that’s a worthwhile aim.

Incidentally, you’re very precise and correct to say it provided a title for that piece. A lot of the time these kind of inspirations provide me with titles for a piece, rather than the piece being quantifiably about this or that artist/work/machine. Using the title signals (performs?) an allegiance or alignment with something, or it’s drawing a link to shape how a listener might think of the piece and my motivations.

TR-J: In this context, Heath Robinson’s drawings would seem to be a perfect fit with your aesthetic. Where did you first encounter them, and what drew you to them in relation to your Inventions?

TC: I’ve always been interested in the word ‘Inventions’ as a generic title … it signals compositional craft, but also flights of fancy … the rigour of Bach’s Inventions as well as the imaginative conjuring of worlds that don’t exist yet. I sort of had the idea that these pieces would be ‘inventions’, then it made me think of the third suggestion of what ‘inventions’ can mean – mad inventors working on eccentric contraptions: Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Jacques de Vaucanson. The stereotype of mad hair and mad ideas and no sleep … the goggles and the apron.

Heath Robinson is all the detail and ingeniousness of a ‘productive’ inventor, with the productiveness surgically removed. A revered inventor – Edison, say – is revered for finding brilliant and carefully-considered answers to retrospectively important questions we didn’t know we were asking. But Heath Robinson’s inventions are brilliant and carefully considered answers to questions we would have been silly to ask in the first place. I love that.

TR-J: Robinson’s drawings – full of machinery and movement – always seem to me full of sound as well: the clackety-clack of wheels, the hiss of steam, the firing of pistols and so on. Does any of that sound world influence your Inventions? To what extent is there a musical relationship?

TC: There is a mechanical quality to parts of it – cogs in a machine move at different rates … you crank a wheel, the little cogs spin round at a certain rate, the medium ones they’re connected to move slower, the larger ones slower still … all going round doing their own little jobs at their own pace, like the planets in an orrery. That definitely happens in a few movements (‘Skeleton’, ‘Swing’). Then there are sewing machine-like, fast pieces, like ‘Stomp’ and ‘Staircase’, where the notes come thick and fast as if spurted out by a machine.

The other thing is that the piano itself is a machine – there are movements that play on specific characteristics of this huge, mad, music-making machine – how the pedals work, how the hands can and can’t behave and what that means for how the machine responds. 

TR-J: I’m conscious also that although we’ve been talking in terms of machinery the titles of many of your Inventions are actually quite human and/or bodily, rather than mechanical – stomp, shadow, sinews, skeleton, sing, etc. Could you say a little about where those titles come from and how they relate to one another?

TC: Most of them came after the movement took shape, or part-way through, as an evocative descriptor. Some are simple – ‘Sing’ is for one hand only, almost all in single notes, like it was written for an oboe or something … ‘Shadow’ has some loud notes that are constantly casting shadows, the same notes sounding a little later but very quietly. The shadows get longer as the movement/day goes on. Others are more oblique.

There’s a banal but satisfying thing (at least for me) about these titles – I recently noticed that of my acknowledged pieces, 40 per cent of them had titles beginning with the letter ‘S’. It started to irk me, so I’m trying not to do it anymore. But I thought this piece, though its title doesn’t, could be a sort of purge of lots of juicy words that begin with ’S’. So they all do … all single words as well. I decided that early on as well, so in some of them I even thought of the word first – ‘Spool is an interesting word, what would a movement with that title sound like?’. 

TR-J: I first spoke to you about your work a couple of years ago, for a composer profile for the BBC. Even then your career was moving fast; and since then you’ve had a First Night of the Proms premiere (St John’s Dance, 2017), and you have been working on an opera with Alice Birch for the Aldeburgh Festival and Music Theatre Wales. Where are things now, and how are you handling the demands of full-time composer-dom?

After this and alongside the opera you mention, I’m writing some music for the BBC Philharmonic in the coming years, starting with a violin concerto for Daniel Pioro. It has to be to do with gardens in some way – gardens, certainly the more decorative ones, are also arguably things that are subversively functionless … they exist for their own sake, to be wonderful on their own terms. 

I have indeed had the luxury of writing music largely full-time recently, which is a great privilege … I’m trying to not squander it and be productive, but I also sometimes wonder whether I could be equally or more productive if I was dodging my composition time around more other commitments. I don’t know the answer to that. 

Of course ‘full-time composer-dom’, at least in concert music, should always invite the important question, ‘Who Funds You?’ – the luxury of time is always built on something: institutional or academic support, prizes, private wealth and so on. In my case in the last two years I have been being paid as a ‘Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts’ by Trinity College Cambridge, which has allowed me to work mostly full time on composition. Between 2013 and 2015 I had an AHRC scholarship to do a PhD so was similarly supported. Above this the largest sum of money is commission fees, topped by bits and pieces of teaching, some money from royalties and hire fees, the odd bit of talking here and there. My Cambridge post ends soon and while I have a bit of a buffer because of some decent commission fees of late, ‘full-time composer-dom’ is not a condition which I expect to be continuous.

TR-J: The opera features another eccentric machine of a sort – a village that begins losing an hour from its day, every day, until after 24 days time stops completely. Are you able to say any more about how that story develops? And how have you found the process of moving up from mechanisms on the scale of your Inventions or even your ensemble pieces, up to the demands of a full-blown opera?

As you mention, it has a built-in structural process: the story is 24 days long, but those days get shorter and shorter, so Day 1 is 23 hours long, Day 2 is 22 hours long etc. There is no Day 24. 

I can say that the process can’t end … the character’s aren’t in a ‘race against time’ to try and solve this problem (in any case, in some otherwise brilliant ‘time going wrong’ stories – Russian Doll, Groundhog Day, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on – the rules of the game have such compelling weight that no resolution can hold its own … the solution is less interesting than the problem). I guess ours is closer to something like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in that way. 

It’s basically about Violet, our main character – she’s bored, in an unfulfilling life and domestic situation, in a parochial town where nobody leaves or arrives. Unlike everyone else, she’s elated … she’s the only one that finds this thrilling, that something is finally happening to her. The story follows her really – what does she do over twenty-four increasingly short days that seem to be the last of her and her town’s existence? 

I think, left to my own devices (even, god forbid, writing the text myself), the clocks/time thing would have attracted me anyway, but what is so rewarding about working with Alice is she’s found such complexity in the characters and how they react to this … that’s ultimately what it’s about, and she’s also found very evocative imagery in ideas of boats, leaving the village etc that make the whole thing richer. She’s also sprung an almighty formal challenge to me and the director towards the end which I won’t talk about, but this kind of provocation is the joy of collaborating …

Having words, especially such potent ones, helps a lot with the scaling-up process – I’m never starting with blank pages: scenes have shapes, there are in-built forms and structures in Alice’s writing that I can respond to, and characters and scenes have motivations. I’ve worked quicker with this than in other pieces, although it has still been a long process simply because of the length of time to fill for a slow composer!

TR-J: Thank you Tom – we’re really looking forward to giving the world premiere of these new piano pieces; they look a lot of fun!

For more details about this concert, and the Petworth Festival in general (there’s loads on, from 17 July to 3 August), please visit the festival website.

Voyages of Discovery

Date: Fri 2nd Aug, 2019
Venue: Petworth, UK

A new work for violin, cello, piano and percussion by renowned Petworth composer Terence Allbright provides the centrepiece for a concert of audacious contemporary works given by the Riot Ensemble at the Petworth Festival.

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