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6 Questions to Composer and Media Artist Joseph Hyde

Joseph Hyde’s background is as a musician and composer working in various areas, but in the late 90s, following a period working with BEAST in Birmingham (UK), he settled on electroacoustic music, either purely acousmatic or with live instruments. Since then, his work has diversified. Whilst music and sound remain at the core of his practice, collaboration has become key, particularly in dance. In these collaborations, he works both as a composer and in a broader capacity with video, interactive systems and telepresence. His solo work has also broadened in scope to incorporate these elements. He creates “visual music” works, and is currently engaged in a study of the work of Oskar Fischinger. Hyde is a Professor of Music at Bath Spa University in the UK, where he teaches within the Creative Music Technology BA programme, in addition to running a Master course and supervising a number of PhD students.

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

As a child, I had a bit of a split personality, music-wise. On the one hand, I did the full classical music thing, going through all the grades etc. on piano and trombone. On the other hand, I liked pop music, but I was always a bit out of my time — my first love was the Beatles, which I listened to obsessively from my dad’s records, starting around age six or seven. Even as a teenager, I didn’t like 80s pop much — I found a group of like-minded friends and we formed a pretty terrible band playing, I guess, some kind of psychedelic rock.

Joseph Hyde performing with Ian Watson
Joseph Hyde performing with Ian Watson at Amalgam #9, held at the Cube Microplex in Bristol UK on 14 December 2012. [Click image to enlarge]

I think if I’d been a teenager in the 70s, or actually in the 90s, I might have tried to make it in popular music, and it was really my dislike of 80s pop (actually the 80s generally!) that drove me towards more classical and avant-garde music. I was always interested in electronic music but didn’t have much chance to make any until I got to university. I did my degree at the University of Nottingham, where they had a fairly basic studio, the highlight of which for me was an EMS Synthi AKS, which no one else used, but I got obsessively into. Andrew Bentley was there as a researcher, writing some of the early Composers’ Desktop Project software on Atari STs. I used to bug him all the time and get him to let me play with that, too.

Then I had a brief period of thinking I wanted to be a film composer. I did a diploma in Film Music at the London College of Music, which persuaded me that I didn’t want to be a film composer. So instead I pursued my interest in electronic music, and went to do a PhD with Jonty Harrison at Birmingham University. Like many, I found that experience completely transformative — five years with fantastic studios, the BEAST diffusion rig and a brilliant group of composers (staff and students) made for the perfect creative environment, and allowed me to find myself as a composer.

[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.

Really for the last 15 years I’ve been progressively expanding my practice around (sometimes I say “away from”, but I hope that’s not actually the case) music, so that I’ve not actually made a standalone piece of music during this time (though I hope I will, one day).

I’ve got really interested in visual music, and I make a lot of work in this field. You might prefer to call it audiovisual music, or videomusic, but broadly speaking, I’m talking about music with a visual component, rather than music or sound design for more mainstream forms of film or TV. I’ve pretty much stuck with using camera-based footage rather than animation — as I mostly work with musique concrète materials in the audio domain, this seems appropriate. It’s still pretty abstract though, and I’ve been consciously developing this recently, aiming at visual suspension, which is my term for a visual equivalent of reduced listening.

I’m also doing a lot of research in this area. Despite 20 years in academia, I’ve not written all that much in terms of papers etc., but I’ve finally found my subject, I think — early pioneers of visual music such as Oskar Fischinger, who I’ve been writing about recently. I’ve also been running a symposium on Visual Music, called Seeing Sound. 1[1. “Seeing Sound is an informal practice-led symposium exploring multimedia work which foregrounds the relationship between sound and image.” (Seeing Sound website)]

I also collaborate a lot on interdisciplinary projects. 2[2. For example, danceroom Spectroscopy (dS), which is “part video game, part science visualization, part art installation, and part social experiment.” (dS website)] These have mostly been in the field of contemporary dance. Recently they’ve got a lot more complicated though — the one I’m working on at the moment includes a Quantum Physicist, a programmer, a music technologist, a techno artist, a choreographer and five dancers!

[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.

Hardware-wise, I keep it pretty simple really — one laptop, one iPhone, one iPad. I don’t really have any outboard of my own (though I have in the past, and I think I might again in the future). My theory was that the laptop can do all the actual work in terms of sound and media production, and I’ve focused my purchasing on technologies to get material in and out of it. So my only “outboard” is a few decent mics, a nice Sound Devices interface (I also use this for field recording), some good Genelec monitors and a few controllers etc. I also have a semi-pro DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera with quite a decent collection of lenses which I use for video. I should say that as a lecturer, I do have access to a bunch of other equipment (and studios) at the University, which I also use from time to time.

Software-wise, I use all sorts. I’ve realised it’s an occupational hazard of teaching music technology — I teach most things and have access to them, so I tend to flit between them. Pro Tools still seems to be my main DAW — I used Logic for a while, then Ableton (which I do still use a bit), but I came back to Pro Tools relatively recently and realised that it works best for me. Lots of plug-ins of course, a bit of Max/MSP, and I’ve recently dipped my toes into code a little — a bit of processing, some very basic C and C++.

I use mobile technologies a lot, but not directly for creative work. I think the iPad has great potential as a controller, but it’s not really become a fixture in my workflow yet.

In terms of “web 2.0” (do people still say that?) technologies I was a surprisingly late adopter. I do use Skype and Facebook, but somewhat reluctantly. I’ve also recently started to use Twitter, but I haven’t really fully got the point of it yet, I think.

[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 had a horrible realisation the other day, which is that I spend more time with my laptop than with any other object — animal, vegetable or mineral, and this includes my wife and kids! That’s both terrible and incredible, I think — this one little machine (I’m writing on it now, of course) contains — or increasingly, connects to — most of my life. All my work is there — I make pretty much all my music and other art work on it, do most of my more academic research on it, and all the admin associated with this work is done via email, Skype, Google docs, etc. And of course, through Facebook etc. it’s increasingly important for my social life too. So I suppose the honest answer is that this technology hasn’t contributed to my creative life, it pretty much is my creative life (or possibly even my life, full stop).

I’d really like to get away from this screen a bit more though — I think it’s really unhealthy. It’s one of the reasons I collaborate so much — it gets me out of the house. It’s also why I’m getting more interested in lo-tech analogue technology. I don’t know whether smartphones and tablets help this situation or make it worse, but I certainly use both plenty.

[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?

This is a really interesting question, and something I think a out quite a lot, actually. I genuinely believe that the internet, especially in its “2.0” incarnation, is a revolution for human interaction, even consciousness (I don’t know whether in a positive or a negative way… I’m guessing both). I’m aware that every generation inevitably has an inflated opinion of the historical importance of their own era, but my hunch is that this really is a big shift for humanity. If I’m right about any or all of this, then I’m really happy to have been born when I was, because I think this puts me (/us) in a unique situation. We will be the only generation to have one foot in the pre-internet era and one in the “information age”, and I find that quite a privilege. When I think back even to my university days, I find it astonishing that to write an essay I went to the library and read books, then wrote my essay with a pen and paper; that a phone was something with a fixed location, that people used to write letters, memos. I think I can see how amazing and revolutionary the internet is because I witnessed its birth. “Digital natives” will never have this perspective, and I think it’s important for us to pass on both a sense of wonder at the possibilities opened up and of what’s been lost. I sense that the younger generation values information (of all kinds — I’m including music in this, for instance) less, precisely because it’s so ubiquitous. To stick with music as an example, whilst it’s amazing that I can now get pretty much any piece of music instantly at the click of a mouse, I do think that I valued music more when I had to actually go to a record shop and buy a physical object. I had a lot less music back then, but I appreciated it a lot more.

[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?

Generally I think this has been great for me. I love the fact that I can put something online and anyone, anywhere in the world, can access it instantly. Of course, we all know that the big question is whether they actually will! And, as I mentioned above, I think instant accessibility of information (including music) is a mixed blessing.

Copyright and IP protection is a lost battle in the internet era, I think. I personally believe this will result in the death of the “music industry” (should those two words ever have been put together in the first place?), and I’m not sure I care. I tend not to worry about any of this in terms of my own work. I figure that working in more experimental areas, I’m not really looking to “move units”, in terms of sales. What’s important to me instead is reputation and exposure, and the interesting (and sometimes remunerative) projects that might come my way because of that. So you’ll find pretty much all my work, in full, on my website.

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