1. How would you describe the type of music that you make?
I mainly compose acousmatic music which I then diffuse over multiple loudspeakers. Quite often my work explores the sound of a particular place although recently I have been moving away from that and really exploring the potential of individual sound types.
2. If you had to use the genre categories to describe your music, which would it be?
3. What types of sounds do you like to use when you compose?
It really depends on the type of piece I am composing and why. For instance, if I have recently travelled to an interesting place where I have not been to before, I am more likely to pick sounds I record whilst I’m there. So for instance, I recently completed a work based on a trip to Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu in China. In this work I used a variety of sounds for different reasons- from the Chinese national anthem, because we don’t often hear it in Britain, to the sound of bicycles in hutongs (small streets) to temple chant, to panda calls, to an ancient instrument called the Xun playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which obviously struck a chord with me as a Scot. So in a piece where I am exploring place, I tend to pick out sounds to work with that I found unusual.
If I am creating a more abstract work, I look for sounds that have the most potential when I am working with them in the studio. Sometimes I pick source sounds that are unusual- I once wrote a piece called ‘Black Velvet’ which was made out of a can of Guinness- and sometimes from objects that are often used in acousmatic music – such as glass- in an attempt to see what I can do differently and how I can create weird and wonderful sound worlds from these original sounds.
4. What makes these sounds your favourite?
Usually because they are either unusual, or can be manipulated into something really unusual. Or, because they remind me of a particular place.
5. Are there any sound manipulations that you frequently use?
6. What makes these manipulations your favourite?
I find that these manipulations allow me to really explore the potential of the sounds that I work with. I would describe it like peeling back the skin of an onion, in that there are many layers to work through. The same is the same with sound.
7. How do you go about starting or coming up with an idea for a composition? Do you personally use a similar approach each time? Or is it always different?
Recently, I have found that I am consciously trying to approach each composition from a different angle. It really depends on what my goal is for each composition. If it is a commission, then obviously I have to ensure that the ideas I explore in the piece meet the requirements, but sometimes I decide to explore something in detail that I haven’t really tried before. So, for example, I recently finished a work that really explores gesture, but also sounds in space. As a composer who is rather fond of texture, this was a challenge, but at the same time, it helped me realise how I can develop, and use gesture in my compositional work.
8. Which composers /musicians are an inspiration to you?
Arvo Part (sorry, cant get umlauts)
9. What is it about this music that engages you so much?
I had a classical music training. I completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Aberdeen, where I was primarily a pianist, viola player and percussionist, before I discovered electroacoustic composition.
As a result of that, composers such as Debussy, Handel, Part, Mahler and Sibelius in particular still have a real influence on me. The way that they construct landscape through instrumentation and how they convey emotion is just incredible, as is the way that their music keeps you engaged throughout the entire piece.
In terms of the electroacoustic composers, the reasons vary. Some, like Pete Stollery have moved on from using really abstract sound objects in earlier work, to focusing on the sounds in our everyday environment and giving sounds that might otherwise be ignored in passing, another life. Jonty Harrison’s ‘Klang’ was one of the first pieces of electroacoustic music I heard as an undergraduate, and when I learnt to appreciate it, has continued to influence me. He has also composed works involving more than 70 loudspeakers at a time- which is scary. Yet, despite the complexities involved, he still manages to pull it off!
Francis Dhomont and Francois Bayle are really two of the key pioneers in the field, and again are extremely influential. They both seem to have the ability to present one sound, and then immediately transform it into a contrasting, yet captivating sound world.
Gilles Gobeil’s music has always fascinated me as it seems to focus around mechanical sounds. I often recognise similar sounds from one piece of his to another, yet, I never get bored! Because his work is really gestural, its really good fun to diffuse as well.
John Young’s music is also hypnotic. Like a number of composers, there are always certain sounds that give you clues as to it being a particular composers music, but one of the things that really fascinates me is the way Young uses gesture and pitch and sound material. Quite often I will think that I am listening to a piece of music over 8 loudspeakers, when, in fact, it is only over two.
10. Could you pick a short section from one of your own pieces and describe how you created it?
Black Velvet (2010) is a very early work of mine, written at the end of my Undergraduate degree at the University of Aberdeen. It was a piece that I really started to discover my own compositional voice, and has acted as a stepping stone for a lot of the pieces that I have composed since. I was also asked to premiere the work on BEAST (a very large loudspeaker system) in front of the likes of Jonty Harrison, Pete Stollery and Adrian Moore, so I am really proud to have done that!
Black Velvet uses a Guinness can with a widget as its sole sound source. One of the things I always do is improvise with my chosen sound source at the recording stage. So I recorded opening the can, the gas escaping, pouring the liquid out, rattling the can with the widget inside and then crumpling the can.
Then, I improvise again with the sounds inside ProTools, using different processes and transformations, until I create some new sounds that I really like.
11. What were you trying to convey to the listener in this excerpt?
In ‘Black Velvet’, I wanted to create a sound world that you might hear in a massive factory. There is a constant pulse at the start of the work, which could be like machinery (a direct influence from Gobeil probably). Excitement is created when tension builds, the chugging of the ‘machines’ gets faster and faster until it cannot be maintained, and everything breaks down very suddenly.
12. If you were giving some general advice to someone who was beginning to compose a piece what would it be? What is the most important thing to remember when composing?
1. Good choice of sound materials…
I always keep my ears open for new and interesting sound objects- things that are perhaps not as commonly heard within acousmatic music.
I personally think that play is a crucial part of the compositional process. Improvise with your sound object- do things that you wouldn’t normally do and mine it for every conceivable sound! Quite often you will be surprised with the sounds that come out. Think outside the box. Record all your improvisations. I find this stage of the composition is rather like a onion- peeling back the layers to reveal new sounds that can then be used later on.
My next step is to listen to what I’ve just recorded- in a closed room with no distractions… reduced listening. I edit out any junk (clips etc) but also write notes about the properties of sound. Are they gestural? What do they remind me of? Etc. Then, I start to edit the snippets of sound I definitely want to use. I am very picky. Typically I might record 1 or 2 hours of material, but end up using 5 minutes in my final work. However, I never throw anything away permanently.
Improvise with different programs and plugins- its that mining thing again, but this time with plugins and transformations. Write everything down- that is crucial. Layer different effects on top of each other, change settings in real time, do something completely mad that you would not usually dream of trying out… These can sometimes produce some really interesting results.
5. ALWAYS… keep a composition diary. You have no idea when you’ll want to go back to that recipe for the amazing sound you made 3 years ago.
6. Listening (part 2)… Listen with someone else in the studio and learn to be critical of your own work. DO NOT leave something in a piece if you don’t think it works.
7. Studio etiquette… Work clean… As if you are cooking at home in the kitchen. Name all your sounds and note down in your journal. This saves nightmares later on.
8. If you get stuck…
a. NEVER throw anything away, put it to one side and do something else.
b. Listen to lots and lots of other pieces by other composers. They can inspire and teach you lots without making you sound like them.