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6 Questions to Composer Steven Naylor

The following is an updated version of a text that originally appeared in eContact! 13.3 — TES 2010: Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium / Symposium Électroacoustique Toronto.

Halifax-based composer / performer Steven Naylor composes for concert performance, and creates scores and sound designs for professional theatre, television, film, and radio. His personal work is presently centred on radiophonic and acousmatic works. He is also active as a pianist, performing music that blends improvisation and through-composition. Naylor completed the PhD in Musical Composition, supervised by Jonty Harrison, at the University of Birmingham, UK. Naylor is a former President of the CEC.

[1] Briefly describe your musical / sound art background and education, formal and informal.

I could briefly say this: I studied conservatory piano as a kid, played in some bands, and eventually did my PhD in EA in the UK. But none of that really gives my musical background. Here’s a (not even slightly brief) fuller account.

Up until my mid teens, my musical world was a mix of “classical” piano and theory studies (formal lessons, Kiwanis Festival, etc.), and simple but enthusiastic piano improvisation. The latter was influenced by, among other things, my older brother’s jazz LPs, which included pianist Junior Mance, and much Ellington. I was also strongly influenced by the rest of the family record collection, from which I particularly remember Mussorgsky (Night on Bald Mountain, and the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition, performed by Horowitz), Glenn Gould’s organ adaptation of Art of the Fugue, and many Broadway musicals of the 60s.

In live music, my two role models were my mother, with her piano renditions of (probably) 30s and 40s tunes, and a family friend, Kenneth Pearson, who captivated me with his blues-rooted jazz piano playing. Kenny set a benchmark that I spent years struggling unsuccessfully to meet; I clearly remember the day I asked him (yet again) to listen to my feeble imitation of the blues, and, for the first time (probably finally worn down), he nodded and said “yeah, you’ve got it!” Kenny became a professional musician, playing with a number of Montréal-based artists, and eventually working with Janice Joplin in her “Full Tilt Boogie” band.

By high school (Grade 9), I had reached the usual first conservatory plateau of “Grade 8 piano, Grade II theory”, and quit formal lessons. By the time I entered University (Waterloo Lutheran) I was an “enthusiast” of pop music.

Artists who affected me during my first undergrad degree included the Beatles, Stones, Doors, Hendrix, Cream, John Mayall — and more. I didn’t perform or compose very much, but I was fascinated enough with popular music to decide to pursue a Master’s degree focusing on the poetry of rock music. But when the term started, I realized that my interests were far too narrow to follow the coursework I needed to do. Fortunately, the University of Waterloo (“down the road”) had just started a new program, Integrated Studies, that encouraged students to create their own cross-disciplinary paths. I pitched my project to the admissions committee, and subsequently spent the next few years — initially as a registered student, later as a “hanger on” — in precisely the context I needed.

In those years, I composed “serious” piano music, did arrangements for a folk band I played in, worked as floor director on student television productions, returned to private piano and theory studies for a while, made a (bad) score for a (bad) student film, taught music to children both privately and at a local free school, made a score for a modern dance production using (among other things) a collection of Moog modules and a Nagra recorder, and worked as an accompanist for modern dance classes.

The poetry of rock slipped quietly below the horizon, never to rise again.

It was all fascinating and formative, but the experience as a dance accompanist had a profound impact on my emerging creativity. The instructor, Judy Jarvis, didn’t really want a piano player; she needed a creative partner in the classes to make soundscapes with and for their movement. Judy pushed me to take the piano apart and work from the inside, encouraged me to use found object percussion, directed me to create abstract sonic environments instead of just tunes and beats. I had never experienced anything like it, and I was creatively transformed — though my awareness of that took a long time to catch up.

Then followed a modest blur that included a failing rock band, a somewhat inventive folk band, a lot of time in recording studios accomplishing not a lot, and, finally, a self-imposed exile on PEI in a state of “between engagements”. On the Island, I met Michel Lalonde, a Franco-Ontarian with an idea. With four other musicians, we formed a group whose goal was to make updated versions of francophone Canadian folk music. Interestingly, much of the repertoire came, not from Québec, but from Acadian regions of Nova Scotia. The idea was timely, and Lougarou (soon renamed Garolou to pre-empt a legal challenge to the name) recorded a creative and eventually successful first album at Le Studio, Morin Heights. It was also there that I used my first “ARP Pro Soloist” synth, which featured convenient pre-programmed packaging of some of the most readily recognized sounds of analog synthesis.

But even before the momentum of that album took hold, I was eyeing my next adventure: a new recording band in Nova Scotia, with some of the best Atlantic rock-fusion musicians in it, and backed by a financially solid producer. The band was very good, and our music was quite innovative, within the confines of popular music. More hours in the studio, more learning of new tools (several types of electro-mechanical pianos, new synthesizers — often routed through guitar effects and amps — personal multi-track recorders for working out vocal parts, etc).

In the end, we did make an album, and it was good — but our creative jazz-rock fusion sound got lost in the shuffle, and we were “produced” into a pop band. The album was also very expensive. Soon after, our producer took the tracks (and Canadian arranger Doug Riley) to New York and made it much more expensive, and much more glossy.

We really didn’t recognize our music anymore, and the fire slowly went out. (Well, more accurately, the fire had already had several buckets of cold water dumped on it from playing cover tunes in nasty clubs and bars in the Maritimes to survive while we worked on the album. So the glossy album with excessive strings and horns was really just the last straw in what had become a classic case of band burnout.)

But I liked living in Halifax, and began to find ways to make it feasible to stay. Gigging did not really appeal to me, but I had done some theatre scoring while on PEI, and enjoyed it. Before long, I found myself doing more theatre scores, which segued quite naturally into film, television and radio drama. And, in those contexts, everything I had done with Judy Jarvis back in Waterloo started to make sense, and to inform how I approached scoring.

Steven Naylor
Steven Naylor [Click image to enlarge]

The quest for ever-new “colours” for my media work soon led me to “world music” (just slightly ahead of its burgeoning commercial popularity). It was an admittedly superficial investigation of a broad palette of music from around the world, but it had the effect of opening up my musical mind even further.

In parallel with that, around 1990, I became involved in the creation of Upstream, a composer / performer collective with a strong focus on improvisation, and continued with that organisation for over a decade. I composed mostly instrumental work for the ensemble, and performed mostly on piano, but occasionally incorporated electroacoustic resources in my work.

In 1994, I also began to teach music technology-related subjects at Dalhousie University. Over time, my interest in instrumental performance became largely replaced by a growing and deepening interest in EA, and in 2000 — at age 50 — I moved to England with my family to begin postgraduate studies at the University of Birmingham, with Jonty Harrison. Working with Jonty, and being part of that postgraduate community, was a creatively and intellectually profound experience, and for the next nine years, EA continued to be almost my entire personal creative focus (in addition to my theatre and film work).

Since then, I’ve become increasingly interested in pursuing a creative integration of the disparate musical influences in my background.

[2] Could you briefly describe your current musical / sound art activities, private, within the community, and public. Please indicate whether you view these as “professional”, “artistic” or other kinds of activities.

I am currently artistic director of subText Music and Media Arts, a presenting organization and ensemble that has been active in Nova Scotia since 2009. We blend electroacoustic and instrumental resources, combine through-composition, studio-composition and improvisation, and embrace other performance modes such as visual media and theatricality.

I am also completing a performance project for cellist Norman Adams, that will combine material from the Bach solo cello suites, interactive processing, notated and improvised expansions on the Bach, multi-channel fixed medium EA, and a live narrator — plus some still images related to the narrative.

At the same time, I maintain a strong focus on pure fixed medium work: composing acousmatic and radiophonic pieces; serving as co-Artistic Director of the (intermittent) Oscillations Festival of Electroacoustic Music; and creating theatre scores for Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia’s international touring productions.

But the most exciting development in my fixed medium work has been the recent launch of my first solo disc, Lieux imaginaires, on empreintes DIGITALes. That project has also been a catalyst for me to focus my personal work strongly on acousmatic music once again, and I presently have several new pieces in progress.

[3] Please briefly describe your uses of technologies in your creative life. You may want to include a short description of the equipment and software / services you use (number of computers, phones, scanners, Facebook, Skype, etc.), and comment on your use of mobile technologies compared to a few years ago.

I consider anything that extends beyond (or simply extends) bodily-produced sound as an enabling “technology”, so, even as a pianist, I view myself as a technology-based performer.

Although my initial background was in instrumental “acoustic” music, I embraced “electric” instruments very early on, and simply continued to incorporate them into my work as they evolved from electric to electronic to digital. However, for the most part, I have always considered myself having a foot in both the “electric” and “acoustic” camps.

My current work can also be divided (arbitrarily) between “personal” and “functional” — where personal represents self-initiated work, and functional represents commissions for dramatic or visual media. Of course, that’s a gross over-simplification, and quite misleading: I consider all music functional in some way, and I invest a great deal of my personal æsthetic in my functional music. But for our present purposes it’s a useful distinction.

My personal work is still largely split between instrumental and electroacoustic, with the latter mostly for fixed medium. In creating my electroacoustic music, I use tools typical of EA studio composers: computers running a mix of commercial and “specialized” software, digital audio interfaces, loudspeakers.

However, I’ve become increasingly interested in including live electronics in my personal work. The inherent ambiguity of the terms “live” and “electronics” is potentially bewildering, but for my purposes I simply use the terms to mean anything other than continuous playback of pre-composed material (both with and without active spatial diffusion). That means that I include live DSP of acoustic sources, live “playing” of synthesized or sampled sounds, and even real-time triggering of longer pre-recorded material, provided that material can, if I choose, be modified during the performance

[4] How do you feel that the use of these technologies has contributed to those areas of your creative life where you employ them? You may also wish to comment on those that you don’t use (and the reasons). Do social media help or hinder in this?

I think most of us in similar age brackets have a fairly common history in our encounters with tools from the late 70s onwards, and similar stories about how they have driven our creative practices. So I don’t feel there is anything unique about the period in which I began to use multi-track recorders, synthesizers, and, later, samplers and computers.

What is (for me) more interesting is the prior formative period — those early encounters with technology that laid the foundation for a later interest in electroacoustics.

I started as an acoustic pianist, but, thanks to a small monophonic PA system that my father had at home, I also discovered at an early age the enabling power of electric tools.

In fact, one might say that my first “acousmatic” work consisted of a “spook house” I created in a lightless section of our basement. My friends would lead unsuspecting younger children on a flashlight-lit journey through suspended Halloween costumes, while I moaned and groaned into the microphone, causing supposedly scary sounds to emanate from a hidden loudspeaker.

By the time I was in University, it was clear to me that an acoustic pianist was at a decided disadvantage in popular musics, so I began to notice what kinds of electric keyboards were available. At some point, I had my first experience with a Hohner Pianet — an appallingly inadequate “piano” but an interesting (albeit primitive) instrument in its own right. In parallel, I began to drop in regularly to the local Hammond organ dealer, learning about tonewheels, drawbars and spinning Leslie speakers (and about the need for a great deal more cash than my student budget could provide).

All this led, in due course, to my acquiring a simple “Ace-Tone Top 5” electronic organ, and a truncated Leslie speaker (with no horn), so I could play in a local blues and rock band. Neither device was very sophisticated, but both were empowering.

While that particular adventure did not last long, by that point I was more or less hooked on electronic technology. Soon after, I began a second degree program that was quite open to individual artistic exploration, and, in that context, I cemented the acoustic / electric split in my work by playing acoustic piano and guitar in a “folky” band, while also working with (as mentioned earlier) early Moog synthesizer modules and a Nagra recorder for a modern dance score.

This combination of, on the one hand, a symbiotic relationship with electronic tools (and, increasingly, visual and dramatic media) and, on the other hand, a fundamental appreciation for acoustic sounds, is what probably led, over time, to my passion for electroacoustic music — a medium in which I have the potential, at least, to combine both interests.

For composers working with electronic technology, social media (and their electronic predecessors) are both a blessing and a curse. The ability to learn almost immediately about new developments simultaneously facilitates our use of new tools, increases our global awareness of artistic practices — and paralyzes us with indecision and insecurity.

[5] Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, Skype, Twitter, blogs … are part of the lingua franca of the students I meet every year. Are there ways for the older generation to use these technologies to communicate our values to those who were born after (about) 1988?

I am fairly confident that a useful relationship with modern social media is possible for an older generation of technology-dependent artists, though it is getting harder and harder to see and hear through the clutter. The key, I think, is to not be overwhelmed by the sheer volume and pace of information, and mistakenly confuse quantity with quality. In other words, we should embrace the possibilities of almost instant outreach, but maintain a style and quality of communication that we believe in.

Will there be some kind of cognitive (communicative) dissonance? Of course — social media are not exactly founded on thoughtful discourse. But we can simply make the choice to accept that, and wilfully stay true to our “content”, while taking full advantage of the communication reach of these media.

[6] Distribution of work used to be difficult to secure. Today with YouTube and Clouds, it is ubiquitous. Where it used to be difficult to find a copy of something, today, sometimes it is almost as difficult, not because it is not available, but because there are 1200 other (similar) competing items. Could you comment on how you see your work in this context now and in the future?

There is no question that the distribution of music is undergoing a dramatic transformation, and that this transformation from physical to virtual object has both pros and cons for creators and consumers alike. But many of those pros and cons vary according to the musical “style”, the musical medium, and the final audience or context for the work. And that means that my response varies according to which part of my (rather eclectic) work we are considering.

For example, I am reasonably comfortable putting my instrumental music online, despite the fact most listeners expect compressed formats that stream very quickly. Correctly or not, I tend to expect them to listen “through” any flaws in resolution or frequency response, and still grasp the musical intent, because of their (probable) familiarity with much of its sound world.

However, I still have some reservations about offering my acousmatic works that way. People do listen to acousmatic music in compressed formats all the time, and often on very small, low-fidelity systems. But many acousmatic composers imagine an ideal multi-speaker concert system when we are making our work — even though access to performances on such systems is limited. It is very difficult to let go of that ideal for a music in which every detail of every moment has been meticulously controlled by the composer.

But there is a compromise that (for now) works for me: on my new disc, the work is in high-resolution stereo and 5.1 Surround. That means listeners do have a choice to hear it on personal systems in as close to concert quality as currently possible. Many will choose to listen to a stereo mp3 or a streamed version anyway, of course, but at least I know it was not the only option available to them.

In time, as bandwidth and processing capacity expand, I do expect that widespread virtual distribution of full resolution and surround formats will become practical. But before it does, I think there is also a danger that listeners accustomed to compromised audio fidelity may simply lose interest in hearing anything better. And at that point, our expectations about quality and distribution may have to take a serious step backwards.

[7] Open area commentary.

[Still refreshingly empty.]

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