Conversation with Lawrence Casserley
Originally published in Avant no. 21 (UK, Spring 2002). Republished in eContact! 10.2 — Entrevues / Interviews with the kind permission of the author.
Lawrence Casserley has dedicated his professional career to the development of live electronic sound processing, as a composer, performer, conductor and instrument designer. This led to the development of his Signal Processing Instrument for improvised music in 1997. He is best known for his work in improvised music using this instrument, and particularly for his collaborations with Evan Parker. In 1967 he became one of the first students on a new Electronic Music course at the Royal College of Music in London, taught by Tristram Cary. For many years he was Professor-in-Charge of Studios at the RCM until he took early retirement to pursue his performing career. His music can be heard on Touch Music, Sargasso, Leo Records, ECM, Maya Records and psi records.
[John Palmer] I first met you at an annual meeting of the Sonic Arts Network (the UK electroacoustic community) in the 1990s. Indeed, electronic instruments have been at the centre of your compositional work since the 1960s. Can you tell me how everything began and what it was that attracted you to the electronic medium?
[Lawrence Casserley] Yes, I remember it well. Simon Emmerson introduced us, knowing that we would be kindred spirits. It was at an important turning point in my life; It was 1995 and I had just taken early retirement from the Royal College of Music where I had been teaching for 25 years, and I was setting out on a new journey — this was one of several meetings which helped to shape that journey.
The beginnings of my dedication to electronic means are a bit complicated; I need to go back a bit farther to explain it. I had come from a classical music background, but with some interesting twists. Although my Father was a great music lover, I didn’t study music as a child, but I sang in church choirs, mostly of the “High Church” Anglican variety, so I was singing plainchant, early polyphony and baroque music a lot. Later I discovered early 20th century music — Bartok, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Berg and Webern — I really didn’t know much about the 19th century!
So when at about age 19 it became clear that I was going to be a musician, this came from a very individual perspective. I was living in the USA at the time, and the music of Ives was being opened up around me — Cage, Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and many others were there. I was very keen on the music of Varese. But the crucial epiphany was European. In 1963 Stockhausen came to Chicago — among the works they played were Zyklus, Refrain and Kontakte. The ritualistic nature of these works resonated with my experience of ritualised reality in the church — as a percussionist there was much to excite me also — but above all it was the sounds of Kontakte that resonated with something that I seemed to know already.
So my musical imagination was relatively unbounded by typically “classical” models. I had always imagined strange sounds, but I had no way of connecting them with music — this is why my response to Kontakte was so immediate and powerful — in a way, I had come home! While still in Chicago I met Ed Zaida and visited his studio (he must have been one of the first people to have a studio in his bedroom), and we did one or two performances together, but it was not until 1967, when I was a postgraduate student in London, that I was able finally to start realising my dreams.
Your electroacoustic compositional work is based on real-time performance. What is it that you found of interest in using electronics live as opposed, for example, to the acousmatic music genre?
I was very interested in the ritual aspect of performance — but because of my background I didn’t consider myself a performer — I guess I was too intimidated by all those people who had played the piano since the age of six or earlier, and lacked the confidence to present myself as a performer. But somehow performance was central to my ideas. I had developed percussion playing to a fairly high level, and playing in orchestras (finally getting to know that 19th century repertoire) was an important experience. My highest level of non-electronic performance was as a conductor (one of the great highlights of my career at the RCM was not electronic at all, but conducting one of the orchestras in Stockhausen’s Carré).
The Stockhausen live works, particularly Mixtur and Solo were important models, and my teacher, Tristram Cary, was producing live works too. More importantly I really wanted to integrate electronic and instrumental sounds. Here my interest in collaboration was beginning — the idea of several people collaborating to produce a composite sound. Later I would direct a student performance of Mikrophonie I at the RCM, an enormous experience for all involved (I actually conducted it!). Another thing was my growing interest in the unpredictable — in the spontaneous event — all of these pointed to live performance rather than studio work.
Another fundamental aspect of your creativity is improvisation. For years you have been an advocate of improvisation with electronic instruments. This has now become one of your strongest musical expressions (perhaps the most consistent). Can you explain your approach to this form of music performance and your motivation in doing it?
That follows right on from what I have been saying — it’s the next logical step really — all the ideas about spontaneity and collaboration lead straight there. Also important was the idea of taking a sound on a journey — the sense of exploration and discovery were at the heart of the music I was making. All these could be developed most fully in an improvised context, and they are still at the core of my work today.
Another factor was the unpredictability and instability of some of the equipment we were using. I simply had to allow for that, and to rely on performers to use their ears and imagination to get things right. A good example is Dodman Point, where we built in “tuning in” periods, in which the performers made minute adjustments to sound and light until it was just right. This was the piece, a collaboration with painter Eddie Franklin-White, that led to the formation of the multi-media group Hydra, and collaboration and improvisation were central to that work.
As my performance experience developed I began to see the live electronic medium as an instrument, and developing that instrument to a viable level became an obsession — and twenty years of trying to make it happen.
You are regularly touring world-wide as a soloist, with other musicians and with several ensembles and instrumental combinations. This must be a very exciting aspect of your musicianship…
This has been a very welcome development in the years since I left the RCM. Before that, my commitment to the studio there restricted my ability to travel, although I did a few trips, mostly with the Electroacoustic Cabaret. But it is the development of the Signal Processing Instrument that has finally given me the ability and confidence to hold my own as a performer in this context. Yes — a very exciting aspect indeed!
There are some musicians with whom you have been performing for many years now; I am thinking of Evan Parker to mention but one. Can you tell me a little about such long-term collaborations? There must be so much going on in the music you play with these people after so many years…
Evan is certainly important, particularly in the development of the Signal Processing Instrument, but I haven’t been performing with him regularly all that long, although I have known him since the early 80s. The story begins in 1995 (close to the time when I met you). We had commissioned Barry Guy to write a piece for Colourscape to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. In Gaia I did some processing of the solo quartet on the ISPW. After the performance Evan said he would like me to join his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. As it turned out it was not until the British tour and second recording in 1998 that I was able to join the group. In the meantime a lot had happened. What the invitation did do was provide an important focus and catalyst for my ideas. For a long time I had been unhappy about the lack of real gestural control in electronic instruments. If I was to function properly in this context the problem would have to be solved.
The previous year I had met Nicolas Collins, who had encouraged me to visit STEIM. Another performer at that 1995 Colourscape Festival was Michel Waisvisz, and he too encouraged me to go to STEIM, so I spent a week in Amsterdam in January 1996. As well as studying the Sensorlab technology, I developed an important new processing concept on the ISPW. Earlier, for performances with Melvyn Poore, I had started using MIDI drum pads as a controller for processes in the ISPW. As a percussionist this seemed a very logical departure for me. I conceived the idea of a delay line that could be played by the drum pads, and by the time I left STEIM I had a working prototype. I had also talked with Michel about the idea of working with Evan, and about my need to develop an instrument for improvised music. He proposed a joint project, and I returned to STEIM with Evan in January 1997. Barry Guy also joined us for some of the time.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of those three weeks to both of us — we were both breaking important new ground. Evan had been exploring electronics for some time; his partnerships with Joel Ryan and Walter Prati, among other collaborators, and the first version of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble were indicative of his belief in the possibilities and his desire for a new way forward. I think that my struggle to find a new means of expression resonated with his own. It was through that resonance that the Signal Processing Instrument was born, and that birth is documented in the CD Solar Wind, which was recorded as we worked. It also cemented a relationship which has led on to a great many things.
There are other, longer, relationships which must be mentioned, most particularly flautist and composer Simon Desorgher. I first met Simon in the early 70s, when he was a student at the RCM and I had just started teaching there. He was a member of Hydra, and we did various other performances together. In 1980 we set ourselves up as a Flute and Electronics duo, but performance opportunities were extremely hard to come by. So we decided we would have to make some. In 1983 we gave a performance at the Nettlefold Hall in south London; this was such a success that they asked us to propose more events, and we talked of our desire to start a festival. The result was the first Nettlefold Festival in 1984. Three significant collaborations came out of this.
For the first festival we created a new instrument, the giant panpipes. This was a combined acoustic and electronic instrument, although the electronic part in the early performances was cobbled together out of available equipment, mainly VCS3 synthesisers and analogue tape delays. The instrument is in two sections; Simon’s set of pipes are blown flute fashion and the longest is fifteen feet; my set consist of a low part in which the tubes are fitted with drum heads and a higher part using tubes like a glockenspiel. The pipes use an interesting tuning; the bottom set are tuned to five equal notes per octave, and the higher parts are all odd harmonics of these five fundamentals, yielding a rich set of intervals, which are essentially harmonic.
The next event came at the second festival. I wanted to revive one of the Hydra pieces, Hydrangea, a collaboration with sound poet Bob Cobbing. This needed a more informal seating arrangement, and we were told that the hall could be set out in “cabaret” format, with tables and chairs instead of fixed seating — so the Electroacoustic Cabaret was born. This grew into a larger collaboration with a number of musicians and mime artists, with a particular emphasis on unusual instruments and theatrical presentations. A significant aspect of both the panpipes and the Cabaret is that I was performing on stage and someone else was at the mixing desk — an important step in my progress as a performer.
Finally, after five years at the Nettlefold Hall, we knew we must find a way to engage a larger public. In 1989 the opportunity arose to present music in artist Peter Jones’s Colourscape. Peter had been making Colourscapes since the early 70s and showing them all over the world, and these giant walk-in sculptures had become by then a highly developed art form. Performing in Colourscape completely transforms the relationship of the performer and the public — a wonderfully challenging situation in which to work. From then on our festivals have all taken place in Colourscape. The collaboration continues: in 1994 we were able to commission a new Colourscape especially for the festivals; now we have Colourscape Festivals in a number of different locations. Recently Peter and I have started collaborating on installations. But all these things came about as a direct result of the original, and continuing, collaboration with Simon.
The other long term collaboration I would like to mention is with tubist/composer/improviser Melvyn Poore. Like me Melvyn’s work crosses over boundaries between improvisation and composition; like me he is well versed in the technology of real-time computer processing; like me he has a long history of live electronic performance. We also have experience of many different situations and kinds of music-making; it is a very stimulating and mutually supportive collaboration, and work with Melvyn has been an important ingredient in the development of my ideas.
This has been a rather long answer, but I felt it necessary to pay tribute to these collaborators, without whom I could never have achieved so much.
Many of the musicians you perform with differ from each other rather radically. Each musician has his own personality… How do you cope with this always-changing aspects of musical understanding and performance in your life?
I don’t just cope with it I revel in it! Every new collaboration is a new journey, a new exploration — it also makes new demands — presents new challenges. Each player demands a different response — and they have to respond differently to me as well. I think the promiscuity of the improvised music scene is one of its most exciting aspects — a constant cross-fertilisation of different ideas and approaches.
Your own compositional voice reminds me of McLuhan’s idea that “technology is the natural extension of man.” In your concerts I always experience the electronic medium being a physical extension of the musical mind and body. It is such a direct employment of the electronic medium that makes it a real musical instrument, isn’t it?
I am very flattered by that suggestion. I think that is what I have been fighting for — struggling towards — over thirty years. If that is beginning to be apparent then I am very pleased. But there is still a long way to go…
Yet, sometimes things don’t go as one would wish they would, mainly due to technical failures or shortcomings. This must have been a long-term problem for you… How have you coped with this situation throughout the years? And what has changed between your approach of, say, 20 years ago and now?
Yes, technical problems have been ever-present — not least because I have always pushed the available technology to its limits. I have to say that I have managed to avoid any really spectacular disasters, although sometimes only by a hair’s breadth, and sometimes only by adapting to what I could get working. Plenty of times I was bitterly disappointed and frustrated by how far the performance fell short of what was really intended. One of the worst moments I remember was the very first performance of Labyrinth in 1989. Simon Desorgher’s radio mic failed to work, and when Theseus entered, instead of processed flute sound flowing around Colourscape there was only silence. I was in my Minotaur costume in the middle of Colourscape, so I could do nothing; after what seemed like centuries I heard a far off un-amplified, un-processed flute, and eventually Simon appeared, like a Pied Piper, leading the audience, who had gone off to find the sound! The next day everything was fine, and we never did find out what the problem was.
What I do remember are long days when we struggled to get it all working — sometimes until minutes before the audience arrived — things like tape delay systems and complex feedback networks were very sensitive to set up — sometimes the tiniest difference could render them useless. Then, utterly exhausted, we had somehow to find the energy to do the performance.
What is different now is not so much the approach, as that the technology is finally catching up with what I was trying to do. When I had just acquired my ISPW I had a conversation with Eddie Franklin-White, my old collaborator from Hydra days. I was telling him about what I could now do with my wonderful new machine. His immediate response was, “I remember you talking about this twenty years ago.” What is different now is the way that I can control things. I can mould the behaviour of the instrument to my needs much more. The other thing is that complex systems do not have to be set up from scratch each time, so much more time and energy is spent on the music rather than technicalities.
You sprang from the avant-garde and experimental circuit of the 1960s. In retrospect, how do you look back to those years? Are they important for you, and, if yes, why?
The 60s were a period of most intense learning and discovery. As I have said, I started studying music more or less from scratch in 1960. By 1966 I had a degree in composition from the Chicago Music College, had a substantial portfolio of compositions, had studied percussion enough to play in the orchestra, had conducted the premiere of one of my orchestral works, had made my first hesitant steps into improvisation, and I was heading to England for postgraduate work at the Royal College of Music, and another set of new experiences. By 1970 I had composed my first electronic works, was teaching at the RCM and starting a new electronic music studio at the Cockpit Arts Centre in London. To be honest it all seems a bit of a blur! I think it was in the 70s that I really started to find a voice and a purpose. It was the collaborative and exploratory environment of Hydra that laid the foundations for what would come.
The literary work of Jorge Luis Borges is very important for your music. For example, you have been very much attracted by the idea of labyrinths as an intriguing psychological and temporal circumstance which has caught your imagination. There are surely other aspects in Borges’ voice which have attracted you… which ones? What is it exactly that has inspired you musically and how has this inspiration taken shape in your works?
This is just one of many connections I have made — but certainly a very important one. I have always made connections between my music and other things, particularly painting and literature, but things like nature as well, although very often I can’t explain in words what that connection is — somehow it expresses an ineffable truth. I see this, often paradoxical, connectedness everywhere in Borges’ work. I think that is what drew me to it initially. Another example is the work of Antoni Tàpies, particularly the wall works and other heavy impasto paintings. I see some of my current work as closely related to these. There are a number of Borges ideas in my work, particularly the language of the Minotaur in Labyrinth and, of course, as you say, the labyrinth itself, particularly the labyrinth of time — the Garden of Forking Paths.
Another crucial aspect in your music is (or was?) the idea of a journey…
Very definitely “is”, and I have mentioned this several times already. It is so fundamental that I don’t think I can properly discuss it in isolation. Perhaps I can talk briefly about a couple of works that come at the transition period from instrumental composition to electronic composition.
The solo organ work Exultation for the Expulsion from Eden (1967) was inspired partly by the final lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which he posits Adam and Eve setting out on a journey that is the story of mankind. I conceived a work that starts from its climax, gradually falling in waves to its quiet conclusion. This work is probably the closest I ever came to a strict use of serial technique, except for one thing — the row changes by a careful evolutionary process throughout the course of the piece. At the beginning the row is constructed so as to emphasise minor seconds and tritones in its dramatic outbursts — a process of symmetrical exchanging of notes gradually decreases the intensity until, at the end, there is a particular emphasis on the falling minor second and minor third (which is heard as an augmented second). Is the journey one of tragedy or hope? We never really know.
I see in this a very close parallel to a procedure I adopted in my early tape work of using progressive modulation to transform a sound gradually. The best example of this is in Transformations I (1970). The RCM studio had acquired some voltage-controlled oscillators and a very interesting voltage-controlled filter, one of the first products of EMS Ltd, which allowed separate control of centre frequency and bandwidth. This made it possible to create some rather voice-like sounds from a network of controlling oscillators. I recorded a passage of this material and slowed it down several times. The length of this passage became the length of the piece. Then I imposed on it a structure which alternated between straight sound and transformed sound — I likened it to a sound travelling behind a window with alternate panes of clear glass and frosted glass. The transformed sections were made by removing that section from the original tape and using it as material to construct a transformed “episode” of exactly the same length. For each episode I went through the transformation processes of the previous episodes and added a new one — I also usually included some material from the previous episode. Transformations included cutting the material into short sections interspersed with blank tape and made into loops. Two loops could be played at different speeds and fed to the two inputs of a ring modulator, creating new material. The dense sounds at the climax of the piece have been through several stages of such transformation. In the final episodes I attempt to unwind this process, but what has been experienced on the journey cannot be unlearnt — the past cannot be undone.
Later I was to develop this idea in live performance through the concept of networks. A sound is fed to a complex network of delays, processes and feedback paths; once started on its journey it will carry on through the labyrinth to its final destination. This concept is particularly evident in Los Hijos del Sol and Labyrinth, and is also an important ingredient in the workings of the Signal Processing Instrument.
What was your first performance instrument? And have your performance tools developed through the years? What are they now?
Originally, the “instrument” was a collection of equipment; mixers, synthesisers, tape recorders, etc.). One of the first things i did was to build myself a mixer — really the only possibility in those days. Then I was fortunate to be able to purchase one of the earliest things made by EMS Ltd, a VCS1, forerunner of the famous VCS3. This was a hand-made unit in a grey “Lektrokit” box. The original was made for the composer Don Banks, and I think there were only three ever made. This had a microphone amplifier, two oscillators, a ring modulator, a filter and a small spring reverberation unit. Then I purchased a second-hand Revox, built myself some Heathkit amplifiers and speakers, and I had an instrument! The VCS1 was used for my first live electronic work, Solos, Commentaries and Integrations, which was performed in 1969.
Nowadays it is very different. All the facilities of that first instrument can be duplicated many times over in my MacIntosh PowerBook; the whole Signal Processing Instrument packs into one suitcase to fly to the next venue. I always dreamed of a fully configurable system, that could be altered quickly to suit every need — now it is a commonplace.
Another central awareness of your work is the relation between sound and space. How have you dealt with this important feature in the past, and how are you dealing with it now?
This has taken many forms. I do not have a purist approach to the use of space. In the Hydra days we sought to immerse the audience in a multi-media experience, surrounding them with sound and light, so multiple speaker systems were a vital ingredient. We also used, where the venue allowed it, more than one space, so we could move the emphasis from one area to another — this anticipates Colourscape to some extent.
I have used many different approaches; in Dodman Point I used a tetrahedral speaker array with the audience around the outside — the idea was to achieve a sculptural sense of the sound moving around in the space between the audience — this was actually very successful.
The 1980s were both a difficult and an exciting time for your creativity. Searching for new approaches to performance with electroacoustic instruments has not always been easy…
Yes — by the end of the 70s I had become very frustrated by the limitations of the equipment. In 1980 I wrote a piece called Angel Music, for oboe, percussion and live electronics. This was never completed because I simply didn’t have the resources to do what I wanted. But the new micro-processor technology was beginning to show a way forward. Initially, I proposed a design for a realtime DSP machine in collaboration with an electronic engineer, Richard Monkhouse, but we simply didn’t have the resources to develop the concept. In 1983 a new range of processors for DSP was produced by Texas Instruments, and I felt that this was now something I could work at on my own without many resources. I developed several interesting prototypes, but making them reliable enough to carry around to concerts proved the biggest difficulty.
At the same time, the developing collaboration with Simon Desorgher was leading me in new ways. These two activities, combined with growing responsibilities at the RCM, were taking up most of my energy, and I was doing less composing. But what became gradually more apparent was that the activities of instrument design and performance were really just part of the composition process. I was beginning to see them more and more as different aspects of one activity.
In the 1990s new horizons opened up in your life… if I am not mistaken these were the times when your involvement with the Colourscape events began…
Yes — Colourscape was important because it opened up a new relationship between performers and audience. Apart from the fact that this was a very beautiful and exciting environment in which to work, it puts the performers and the audience into the same space, and into a radically different relationship. We worked a lot at trying to find good answers to this challenging situation. One was a piece called Siwrnai, Odyssey of Light. This was a collaboration between Colourscape artists Peter Jones and Lynne Dickens, mime artist Ian Cameron, who had been involved in the Electroacoustic Cabaret, Melvyn Poore, Simon Desorgher and myself, with trombonist Alan Tomlinson joining as a performer. Here we attempted to lead the audience on a journey of discovery through Colourscape. The journey concept is inherent in Colourscape, one of the reasons I found it so exciting to work in.
In 1992 you purchased one of the first IRCAM Signal Processing Workstations. How did this instrument change your compositional, improvisatory and performance work?
This was one of those strokes of luck that come only rarely. I was beginning to feel frustrated with my attempts to make a dsp system myself; I was weary of counting nanoseconds, and the growing performance opportunities of the Cabaret and Colourscape created the desire to put more energy into performance. A sudden change in our personal circumstances created an opportunity not to be missed. My wife’s parents had died and Judy inherited some money which she was happy to share with me. So I will always be grateful to her for what turned out to be one of the most dramatic turning points of my life — suddenly, as Eddie rightly pointed out, all those tools I had dreamed of twenty years ago were in my hands.
One of the first things I did was to re-create some works of the 80s that I had never been able to perform properly, most notably The Monk’s Prayer and the processing for the giant panpipes. In 2001 I will finally complete Angel Music for my sixtieth birthday. But it was the new opportunities that were to be the greatest justification for that outlay — the Signal Processing Instrument simply could not have been created without the ISPW.
Yet, you have also written acoustic works which are less known than your electroacoustic output. Can you tell me about these works? Are you still writing pure acoustic works today?
These are almost entirely from the 60s, but there are one or two interesting pieces, particularly the chamber ensemble works Seven Pieces for Fourteen Players and Mixtures and Interludes, and the Orchestral Studies. These last (only one of them was ever performed) were based on literary and painting references. It was intended that they would have linking tape music sections, but this was never done.
Perhaps more relevant are the instrument and electronics pieces that I did in the 70s, particularly the Kyries and Alleluias series and the rest of the Transformations series. These last were to come together in a massive piece called Eclipse. This alternated sections of Transformations IV, a tape setting of a series of poems by my father, and Kyries and Alleluias IV, for four ensembles and live electronics. A third piece Aura, for computer controlled sound and light, would surround the whole work, beginning before the audience arrived and finishing after they left. This is another work that was never performed. The final iteration of this line of work was Ritual Dances, for ensemble and live electronics, completed in 1991.
What is your own vision of the future?
I think the most wonderful and exciting thing about the future is that you can’t know what will happen. You can only proceed with courage and hope through Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths.