Interview with Simon Emmerson
Interview from June 2008.
Simon Emmerson is Professor of Music, Technology and Innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.
[John Palmer] Simon, a new CD with your music has been released on the sargasso label. The title is spaces and places. Can you tell me about the four works included on the CD and how they relate to its title?
[Simon Emmerson] When I returned to using live electronics in the late 1980s, I felt I wanted to develop some of Trevor Wishart’s ideas on landscape — real and imaginary. This had not been done much in live terms. I wanted the electronics to transport the performers “somewhere else”, perhaps imitating a real landscape or maybe imaginary, even surreal. Hence spaces and places seemed a logical way of describing this approach. At the same time I was developing ideas of what I called “local” and “field”‚ transformations of the live. “Local” includes processes retaining close causal links to the live source, “field” allowing the captured sound to break out and become separate, so to speak. Sentences (for soprano and electronics) and Fields of Attraction (for string quartet and electronics) have this divided world at its most stark. Then there is Five Spaces (for electric cello and sound projection). Here the five strings are separated out to individual loudspeakers surrounding the audience in a wide arc and a gesture across the strings plays very dramatically across the space. I progressively removed the live electronics (there are none on the CD recording) as the range of sounds Philip Sheppard could get from the instrument was so extraordinary. Finally there is Arenas (for piano, brass quintet, electronics) which is effectively a concerto for Philip Mead. Here the electronics mirror the quintet across the space with the piano as a central protagonist. It’s the largest work I have ever written in every sense. It’s sometimes a bit difficult to get these spatial ideas across effectively in a stereo mixdown rather than the surround sound of the originals.
Most of your music is truly “electroacoustic”: I can’t see a more appropriate term for it; your focus being the interaction between acoustic and electronic instruments. When and how did the journey begin?
Yes, I can only recall one mature work which does not involve live electronics or recorded electroacoustic sound! I became completely hooked on electronic music of all kinds (live and not) after I had met Roger Smalley and Tim Souster, co-founders of the ensemble Intermodulation, in Cambridge sometime early in 1969. I went avidly to their ensemble and solo concerts and knew quite quickly this was where I wanted to go. I remember a trip to London to hear Roger’s Pulses (for brass and live electronics), a very early London Sinfonietta concert in 1969. I still recognise my earliest works for piano and electronics from 1971–72 which Roger played at concerts at that time. After graduating in 1972 I became an occasional roadie for Intermodulation, driving vans, setting up and helping run the systems. I remember very specially the premiere of Tim Souster’s Spectral (for viola and electronics) in 1972 in London.
What is it that attracted you to such a musical environment? And is there a particular æsthetic behind that has caught your imagination?
It has developed and changed. But the act of live performance remains central to me. I just love working with interpreters. I have never written a piece that was not for a specific performer or ensemble that I got to know as individuals. I listen to performances and recordings, try to hear what makes the performer a unique human being, their character and personality. I then try to put that into the music. For me composition is always collaboration. (I should add that I continue to be happy that pieces are then taken up by other interpreters.)
Is there a recurrent source of inspiration in your music?
I think there are recurrent elements but that inspiration varies: it could be a text, a scenario, a play of memory, sometimes the sound of something. I note down musical dreams, too. It’s true that the “spaces and places” described above do recur somewhat.
If you look back at your compositional history, what have been the most important phases of your musical development and how have you tried to pursue them in your music?
I don’t want to be too academic in answering that! But broadly I hear three phases. The high modernism of the 1970s gave way to a more consonant postmodernism in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s (some of those works are a bit too nostalgic, I think now). Then recently I have wanted to return to a harder edge. We shall see how that pans out!
You are also a performer of electronics. Your electronics are very much of a living instrument in your music. Can you contextualize?
Yes, the person on the electronics is always a highly active performer: my solos are in fact always duos. This performer must follow and respond quickly to the performer on stage. The audience may not be aware of just how active and engaged this more hidden performer is. I resist the tendency to machine tracking. I think (once again) that the live element adds an essential edge to the performance.
How have you coped with technology development in terms of performance in the past 30 years?
I have adapted all my 1970s live works (several of which have been performed again recently) to computer (Max/MSP) systems. I abandoned true live electronics in the midi-era of the 1980s, returning to it only when the first generation of digital rack unit gear came on stream in the last part of that decade. That I controlled using pedals and midi fader units. I am a bit late getting into the newest Max/MSP areas of event trapping and more advanced processing (convolution and the like), but my next pieces should move in that direction.
You are also very active as an academic musicologist and author. I know it is a very important activity for you and that you strongly feel for things academic, that being teaching and research. What does all this actually mean to you?
Musicology avoided or ignored electroacoustic music in its formative years completely. I am not exaggerating. I think we (myself, Denis Smalley, Trevor Wishart in the UK) started writing about it because nobody else was! No, we were not the first (we must not forget Hugh Davies’ great contribution, for example) but there was a sense we had to catch up‚ in this country compared with France and Germany (actually that applies to the composition of the music, too).
How do you integrate academic and artistic activities?
It seemed like there were three options on graduation and moving into the “real” world of music making. Try to live on the music alone and probably starve; do commercial music and feel you are distracted from what you really want to do; or try to get a University job. I did the last and have tried, precariously sometimes, to fit everything in. We always want more time to compose and perform. There is always too much paperwork wherever you are. But then again this is no compromise for me as I love teaching. I could not survive without it.
Can you tell me about your views on current music making with technology and performance?
Music making with technology has always been in a state of rapid change; it cannot stand still. Whether a dilemma or an opportunity, the great divide between so-called “art” and the more experimental “popular” streams is steadily blurring. But there remain clear distinctions of intention and aim — and some very different listening environments. I have always wanted a plurality of approaches to composition and performance. That is not the same as a greyed out porridge of mixes. Clear and concentrated listening need not be lost in a sea of low quality playback — but it is also increasingly true that the traditional concert format is not adequate or popular. We need some inventive rethinking of the spaces, places and rituals of performance. I have written about this in my “Sound Houses” article for Organised Sound (6/2) as well as in my recent book, Living Electronic Music. While my own music remains part of the concert music tradition, that may change as concerts change.
I’d like to know more about your artistic universe and æsthetics…
I suppose my æsthetic world oscillates between the impressionistic and the expressionistic. It’s a world where feelings are painted in sound. I have always liked working with the voice and texts because of the suggestions of sound qualities that can be exploited (in many texts of Shakespeare for example). I also think of it as “elemental” (earth, air, fire, water crop up as themes quite often). I also cannot make a real distinction between timbre and harmony — I work with pitched material when writing for live performers and do not avoid consonance. I think of this as a “postmodern” attribute which, perhaps, I am trying to move away from. I am becoming more interested in complex and noisy sounds — as I was when I started out in the 1970s. I wrote percussion pieces with electronics as well as improvisatory short-wave radio pieces, for example, before moving into the pitched world of the vocal and instrumental works I did in the 1980s and 1990s.
A very direct question: why do you think music is so important for you?
I have always had a sense of awe (even thrill) in the presence of good music. Music has a transcendental quality at its best. I understood this for the first time at the age of about eleven when I was taken to a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. I left the hall a different person than I entered it — these epifanies are what is important in life. It happened again later with my first encounters with electronics at Cambridge in the late 1960s listening to works by Roger Smalley and Tim Souster (of Intermodulation, the live electronics ensemble). I was simply blown away, transported somewhere else, beyond...
at that time you were studying science at Cambridge, if I remember well…
Yes. Actually as a science student, technology was for me relatively easy to grasp, but I was very interested in questions like “How is the music constructed?” At the same time as feeling it very deeply, I was always inquisitive and wanted to find out how things were made. I became aware that there was virtually no writing of the slightest relevance to this question, I mean beyond the technology. I think that is why — at least in English — it was the composers who started looking at the music and “how it worked”. I think this impulse also comes from a desire to teach. I cannot imagine a life without teaching and for that we need some substance beyond immediate opinion as to what we think is good or bad practice. Opinion must be backed up by reason. But practice does come first, then a more contemplative look at the results.
I would like to hear a bit more about your music...
I have sketch books covering the last thirty five years. In these I note down a wide variety of spontaneous thoughts on composition. Sometimes dreams which include “my own” and other music, performances, even conversations. I do use numerical systems to structure music. But in this I believe not in “hearing a system” but in “hearing the results of a system.” There must be a coherent relationship between the poetics of the work and any systemic procedures the composer might choose to use. These need in no way be “decoded” by the listener but the results articulate the discourse in a way that defines the musical experience. So, yes, for many of my instrumental works I am of the “fibonacci” generation. This creates for me a flexible model for growth patterns which do not have obvious binary rhythmic or duration implications. My sketch books are full of my scribbles towards these procedures.
Does this also apply to your acousmatic works?
My acousmatic music remains more freely structured and free of any imposed procedures, though usually in “scenes” as it turns out. Especially with the advent of multichannel possibilities I have returned to studio work recently and find it increasingly seductive. Then a third stream of interest has been my engagement with non-western instruments (a piece for Shiva Nova in 1989 for flute, cello, sitar, tablas, electronics; and one for Inok Paek for kayagum and electronics) also (related in a sense) works for baroque flute (Eleanor Dawson) and harpsichord (Jane Chapman) with electronics. In these works I wanted to explore “difference” in traditional music practice; notation had to be modified or abandoned, different approaches to music performance embraced and explored — always working at first hand with the musicians. All these works are recorded and will be on my second sargasso solo CD out late in 2008.
As a strongly dialectic dimension, space is very predominant in some of your music. Jonty Harrison advocates the term "diffusion". Recently, Kevin Austin told me that he prefers the term "projection". This may only be a terminology issue, but I’d be interested to hear your point of view on this and ask you: is your music “projected” or “diffused” in space?
I use the terms “diffusion” and “projection” interchangeably — in fact Chapter 6 of my book Living Electronic Music is called “Diffusion-Projection: the Grain of the Loudspeaker”! I can see that “projection” appeals to those who feel they throw sound into the space rather than mix it in — but I have no strong view. For me space has always had a two fold nature — I look and listen outwardly to create an extended inner space — Gaston Bachelard described the notion of “intimate immensity” in his Poetics of Space. It is the synthesis part of this dialectic divide (which we are increasingly told from ecology is an unsustainable division in any case) which I seek.
Simon, it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much, indeed.
Other Writings by the Author
“New spaces/new places: a Sound House for the performance of electroacoustic music and sonic art.” Organised Sound vol. 6/2 (2001) pp.103–105.
Living Electronic Music. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.
Spaces and Places. sargasso scd28005, 2007. Includes the works: Sentences, Fields of Attraction, Five Spaces, Arenas.
Points and Pathways. sargasso (forthcoming). Includes the works: Pathways, Points Trilogy, Time Space.