Electrifying Music

Simon Waters finds clarity of vision and conviction without the limitations of instrumental playing in his digital composition. He spoke to Frances Noble

Where did you find your creativity? Were you brought up in a musical family?

I grew up in the Tyne valley, surrounded by artists and their children. Both my parents were visual artists – my father a printmaker and my mother an experimental textile artist and embroiderer. I had the most amazing music teachers who were able to expand my range and understanding of music. I learnt the recorder first. but quickly moved on to the baroque flute, an instrument whose complexities and subtleties still excite me. ‘Serious music’ wasn’t all there was though – growing up in the sixties meant that I heard and enjoyed the Beatles and attended local music festivals. I bought my first Beatles record, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ when I was six. I always had very wide musical tastes, although I have to admit that there is one very large gap in my musical knowledge, I have never been interested in the large scale gesture and rhetoric of most nineteenth century music and Wagner leaves me cold! I prefer the intricacies of the Baroque.

Who were your teachers and why were they so special to you?

Layton and Christine Ring had been associates of the Dolmetsch family, and, when I arrived for my music lessons, they would give me an instrument – it could be anything – and encourage me to learn what it could do. By the end of a day in their company I would be able to play it. Layton was an amazing man, he looked just like Salvador Dali, and when he opened the door to me he might greet me in any one of half a dozen languages. The breadth of experience and intelligence they exposed me to was inspirational.

What things do you especially remember about that time?

Oh, expanding my range, my technique and ability by playing along with records. Hearing the music was always more important to me than seeing it on the page and I would play along with everything – the Beatles particularly. Spending time on the beach – the rock pool was my world when I was seven! Looking down into the water and finding the beauty of the things which existed in there is one of my strongest memories. That relationship with, and reflection on, the natural world is still with me. I have always read very widely, the personal histories of composers, biographies of every kind. That gave me an idea of other worlds and has coloured my perception of the world to this day. When I visit Vienna I still think of Mozart’s recollections of Christmas there. One’s adult experiences are constructed on one’s childhood experience. One’s aesthetic is a cumulative experience, built on what one has seen and experienced.

That involvement with the natural world and experience of a wide range of conventional musical instruments seems at odds with your composition practice and teaching which is almost exclusively electro-acoustic.

Not at all. Living with and knowing so many artists taught me the value of studio work. I think of myself as sculpting in sound in my studio, just as a conventional visual artist might sculpt in stone or clay. The solitariness of studio work allows a depth of reflection that echoes the concentration I used to bring to bear on the magic and beauty of a starfish in a rock pool for example. I am able to reflect upon my own work without the delay necessary when another person – the player – is involved. I was always fascinated by instruments and their potential. I used to draw instruments – technically delineating them – so that I could understand the differences between say an oboe and a clarinet. Labelling and categorising instruments meant that they were ‘knowable.’ I was like a naturalist who might come to know the life of a rock pool by a similar process. To me the importance of an instrument lies in its potential to produce sound. If you had asked me earlier in my musical practice what was my dream, I would have replied, ‘To have one of every instrument in the world, so that I could produce every sound.’ My studio comes near to giving me that range of sound to work with.

How did you come to specialise in electro-acoustic music?

At university I played a lot of Jacobean part music but I was always impatient and found conventional musical compensation frustrating because of the time-lag between making the marks on the paper and the performance. My interest in electronic music was developing very fast at that time, but the interest was in the technical, rather than the aesthetic aspects, of composition. I recognised very early on that I could short-cut conventional notation and that electronic composition allowed me a clarity of vision and conviction which could sustain the idea, without the limitations of technique and performance which instrumental music involved. Even now I try to teach my students that we are primarily making music, that though technology offers us solutions to aesthetic problems which are different from the solutions which conventional instruments might offer, the problems are still musical. In using computer technology to produce music we aren’t so very far away from Bach. He was an enthusiast for new instruments, seeing them as a way to resolve problems which had seemed insurmountable.

Tell me how you perceive the strengths of electro-acoustic music?

Electro-acoustic music avoids the cultural conventions and preconceptions which come with conventional composition. The clarinet, for example, is a piece of musical technology which we tend to think of applying to the possibilities of European music because of its structure. But Indian music can be performed perfectly well on a clarinet. The constraint is imaginative rather than technical. Those constraints don’t transfer to electronic music at all. It provides a window, a multitude of possibilities for expressing ideas in sound. We can only absorb so much information at any one time, and our view of the world is always limited by our earlier cultural experiences. I’m absolutely sure that there is a whole world of of electro-acoustic music which is yet to be made – hopefully by my students.

As a teacher I have two main concerns. First, that my students shouldn’t replicate what I do. This is why I never play them my own compositions, and prefer to examine the work of others. Second, that they will be able to work without cultural constraints and without the constraints of convention. I’m trying to build a community of composers who are as different from one another as is possible. It would be wrong to create a UEA school of composing.

One of my current students has a background in TV and digital imaging, his interest is in what has come to be called acoustic-ecology, which involves examining the sociological aspects of sound. Another student is using digital engineering systems to mathematically generate just those physical inputs which a violinist might use to produce music – pressure, bow-angle, speed, pitch and so on. My students are able to access the immense creative power of the contemporary computer through the mouse, keyboard and screen to generate moment-to-moment relationships in real-time, in a way that a conventional composer, who must represent his or her intention on paper in linear form to be read later by the player, can never do.

University of East Anglia holds an enviable position as a centre for composition.

I have been teaching there for six years and am now the second longest serving member of the teaching team. When I first arrived there had been no staff changes for 22 years! There has been an almost complete change of staff, direction and attitude. David Chadd and I have attracted over quarter of a million pounds in research money for our very different research fields (he is a specialist in mediaeval sacred music). We have taken some risks with the directions we have chosen for the department but
we have succeeded, and as a result there will be a new research appointment this year.

You described your recent work for clarinet and piano ‘Trace’ as ‘difficult’. Did you mean difficult for the players or difficult for the audience?

Well, both really, and for myself as well. The composer needs to get to know the performer in advance and to write with their technique in mind. I was excited by the idea of the commission by the King of Hearts in Norwich to write on the theme of the Bach Sarabande, and loved the idea of collaboration with performers. I am aware that my studio practice could become self-indulgent, merely a way of expressing sound in sound! Going back to working within the phenomenological range of music was a social experience. The piece used aspects of the piano to enhance the clarinet’s sounds. Bach used progression and sequence within his work so that an instrument which can only produce one note at a time appears to be following more than one musical line. Those ideas interest me a lot. That is why I chose to work with two instruments, although the piano actually plays very little. There is always an additional risk when one composes a piece, the risk that the audience won’t understand. Composing for performers increases that risk because maybe their interpretation will not transmit the meaning I intended.

Do you enjoy working to commission?

Writing to commission is really important to me. The pressures of academic life are so great these days. Teaching and supervising the work of others is a great challenge, but there is so much administrative work that goes with it that it’s difficult to make time to compose. A commission gives me permission to write. I’m forced to allocate time to produce the piece by the deadline I have been set. That’s artificial and at odds with the way I usually work because making music is a gradual process, and although there will always be an end point, you may not always recognise it. A commission forces you to work towards a specified end point. Mark-Anthony Turnage is the modern composer I most admire. I envy him the time he was able to devote to his work during his three years as composer in residence to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. That seems to me an ideal world for a composer, being able to compose all the time.

When, as a member of an audience, I listen to music, one of the things which gives me pleasure is the sheer physicality of playing a conventional instrument. Can your music transmit a thrill comparable with that?

Yes, you’re right I am also fascinated with the physicality of instrumental playing. The sensual immediacy of playing double bass, for example, is very different from the purely intellectual sculpting of sound which goes on in the studio. But you shouldn’t forget that marking dots on sheets of lined paper is also at a remove from the sound which the composer intends and the player creates. Until recently, I hadn’t been able to resolve this conflict; but the new fast computer interfaces can interpret human gesture and give the opportunity to join up the two – the muscular sensuality and the intellectuality of electro-acoustic composition. Above all, I would say that we shouldn’t forget that all instruments are tools. The baroque flute provides probably my favourite of all sound pictures, simple, but malleable and capable of complicated responses to the player’s input. It gives the player an ephemeral control over the sound world it can produce from subtle variations in breath and finger contact.The double bass player must also put in a lot of work. It is physically hard to produce good sound from the instrument. In electro-acoustic composition I have a tool which can produce a form which represents both extreme sensitivity and muscular strength.

You said to me once that music is deferred action. Can you explain what you meant?

There is a notion that sound is a replacement for, or a representation of, physical gesture, not merely representation of an idea. It comes from the anthropological theory that language developed as a supplement for physical action (once we could say ‘Look,’ for example, we didn’t need to point). Man is a mimetic animal, if conflict could be encoded in sound, the energy of the exchange could be verbal rather than actual. Music is deferred action, the muscular act of playing is a trace of the residual idea of the sound itself, envisioned originally by the composer, represented on the page and re-envisioned by the player. I have worked with various ballet companies, especially Ballet Rambert, and it is the idea of the sound extending the physical movement of the dancers which gives me most pleasure. I can compose, not only to provide the music for the dance, but to extend the choreography beyond the physical capability of the dancers. I worked with Richard Alston and Moss Cunningham who wanted to choreograph sound itself. There was a wonderful production of Dangerous Liaisons at the Gaumont Theatre in Southampton in the eighties, where the choreography, lighting and sound worked together brilliantly and I first became aware of the possibility of sound as an extension of bodily gesture.

How can I recognise beauty in your music? I have listened to ‘Trace’ twice and I think I found more pleasure from hearing it the second time.

Beauty is only a recognition of convention, it is never distinct from social context or from its time. So your response is always going to be dependent on resonances in the real time during which you listen to the piece. The beauty you do, or do not find, is not exclusively of the music itself, it needs external reference which only the individual listener can apply. So your response to the second performance could have been due to any number of things – your mood, familiarity, the welcome recognition of particular passages, the ambience of the audience and performers differing on the two occasions. I don’t expect a standard ‘right’ response to any of my music, I would be foolish and disappointed if I did. We hear so much music today and we are used to being able to revisit particular performances on our favourite recordings, but we should remember that Beethoven never heard as much of his music as I did at University! In the twenty-first century I hope that people will find sufficient moments of beauty to want to revisit my work. There is real pleasure in contemplation, in allowing our relationship with an object to develop and build through time. The shock of the new can fade as the work becomes more familiar. If we are able to build our relationship with the work completely on first apprehending it, it could be that the work is a failure and there is nowhere else for us to go beyond that first response. I hope that the responses to my music will be variable through time.

Lack of understanding is a natural state that individuals strive to overcome, yet current educational philosophy precludes children from following their noses through the material which is available on grounds of elitism and exclusivity. I am disturbed by the introduction of the national curriculum. I learned to read by reading adult books, because I wanted to know the things they contained. I hope that audiences listen to my music in the same spirit.

Who is your audience and what do you ask of them when they listen to your music?

Anyone really, who is prepared to listen, prepared to invest the interest and join
the contract between the making and hearing of the music. I don’t play my own music to my students because I don’t want to influence them. I prefer to work with them in coming to an understanding of other work, perhaps indicating a route that might open the piece to them. One of the reasons I am not interested in nineteenth century rhetorical music is because it offers only one way of listening – it dictates that way to the audience from within the piece. I wouldn’t be so prescriptive. My audience must find their own way through my work. I very much admire Bach because there are so many ways of working with this material. The music he has written is the skeleton to which you, as listener, can attach your own metaphor. I haven’t conceived all the possible ways my pieces might be heard, and I’m always open to the risk that a new way of understanding and enjoying a piece could be found. I don’t have a crystalline platonic model for what I have made and how it will be received – I’m open to suggestions.

Let me try to explain what I mean in a more specific way. I wrote a piece called ‘Drift,’ a 12 minute score, whose form I found in the word itself, a slowly developing, drifting composition.Then all sorts of other connotations came to light, spin drift, snowdrift, drift mining. All these words were liable to come to the minds of people who heard the piece. So the very identity of the piece could drift as individual listeners brought their own contexts to bear on what they heard. The piece won a prize, and a French critic making an anglophone joke, said to me, ‘Ah, yes, I catch your drift.’ The piece has been recorded as a result of winning the prize and so has become fixed at that particular moment of performance – its drifting ended.

Illustrations: digital scores by Simon Waters

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