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Conversation with Jonty Harrison

Originally published in 21st Century Music, Vol. 9/1 (USA, January 2002). Republished in eContact! 10.2 — Entrevues / Interviews with the kind permission of the author.

Jonty Harrison (1952) studied at the University of York (DPhil). In 1980, after four years in London (National Theatre; City University), he joined the University of Birmingham, where he is Professor of Composition and Electroacoustic Music, and Director of the Electroacoustic Music Studios and BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre). Many of his former graduate students are leading figures in the composition and teaching of electroacoustic music internationally. Composition prizes include: Bourges International Electroacoustic Awards (including a Euphonie d'or for Klang); Prix Ars Electronica; Musica Nova, Prague; Lloyds Bank National Composers' Award. Commissions have come from leading performers and studios, including: Ina-GRM; IMEB; ICMA; MAFILM/Magyar Rádió; Electroacoustic Wales/University of Wales Bangor; IRCAM/Ensemble InterContemporain; BBC. His music is performed and broadcast worldwide and he has been guest composer at numerous international festivals. His music is available on empreintes DIGITALes, SAN/NMC, Cultures électroniques/Mnémosyne Musique Média, CDCM/Centaur, Asphodel, Clarinet Classics and EMF.

[John Palmer] Jonty, I want to start straightforward with the crucial question: why is it that you write music? What is the inner motivation, the urge that drives your artistic creation?

[Jonty Harrison] I’m not sure I really know the answer to that! I began composing when I was about 15 (though the less said about my early efforts, the better!) and its importance just grew through my undergraduate days until it became obvious that this was what I did; this was me! But that doesn’t explain “why” I write music.

Your electroacoustic music has achieved international recognition and you have become a major force within the acousmatic scene in the UK. Can you tell me how everything began and what was the attracted you to the electronic medium in general?

The interesting thing about this is that I was a late starter in the studio. As an undergraduate at York I could have done a studio course, but that wasn’t where I was at that time. It was only at the end of my first postgraduate year that I felt I really should go into the studio to see what it was all about — and even then I thought of the studio as simply another resource, an extension of my instrumental thinking. Of course, after I’d worked in there for a few weeks I began to realise that the studio was turning my notion of music on its head, because what it gave me direct access to was sound. As for formal instruction in the studio, well… one of the undergraduates gave me a 40-minute introduction to the place, then left. After that I was on my own. But I was very lucky — this period of my life overlapped with the presence in York of Denis Smalley, who had come to York from the GRM in Paris, bringing with him and inside knowledge of the French approach to studio work (the “electronic music” scene in Britain at that time — 1974 — was still dominated by a more Cologne-oriented approach. Denis and I spent hours discussing studio issues and I am particularly grateful to him for allowing me to sit at the back of the studio and actually watch him work. I think my methodology and approach owe much to this experience. Trevor Wishart also worked in the York studio at this time, so I was also able to hear what he was up to — even to the extent of participating in the source recordings of Journey into Space. Great days!

And what has attracted you to the acousmatic music genre, as opposed to live electroacoustic music?

Well, I didn’t really identify what I was doing as “acousmatic music” at first. I was doing “tape music” or “electroacoustic music”, which still admitted the possibility of a live instrumental or vocal presence. And for many, many years I still considered my studio work and my “paper” composition as equal parts of my identity. I have a reasonably full catalogue of mixed works to prove this, and even a couple involving live electronics (though I have to confess that, growing up in the analogue era, live electronics have always filled me with fear and dread, simply because of the sheer unreliability and unrepeatability of the systems involved). And many people have said (and I think they are right) that my instrumental music sounds electroacoustic — I guess this is a result of a preoccupation with sound as a total entity, involving texture and organic transformation over time, rather than with the more traditional preoccupations of composers with pitch, duration, etc, which are more readily measured in discrete, architectonic terms. But, back to my studio/paper identity crisis — I have to come out of the closet here and confess that I knew increasingly during the 80s and early 90s that I was living a lie! I really was an acousmatic composer. It was clear to me that, no matter what I was up to in the studio, when I sat down in front of manuscript paper, all the old serial/post-serial hangs-ups came surging back and I was composing notation, not sound! So in about 1994 I gave up writing for instruments and, with one notable exception, I’ve not written for live performers since. The exception is Abstracts for 8-channel tape and large orchestra — the motivation for this was my old friend and colleague at Birmingham, Vic Hoyland, who urged me to write for the University Orchestra. And with the number of instrumentalists at my disposal (there are 48 separate wind parts for example!) I felt that I would be able to approach the richness and complexity available to me in the studio. I composed the tape part first, incidentally, and only then sat down to compose the orchestral part. And what was interesting about this for me was that the piece almost wrote itself, without my post-serial baggage getting in the way.

I have got in front of me your beautiful CD Articles indéfinis on the empreintes DIGITALes label which contains works written over a time-span of almost 20 years. How would you describe your artistic development in general and your compositional preoccupations over the past two decades?

I would say that my earlier tape pieces (which were created at the same time as I was still protesting to everyone that I was also an instrumental composer, remember) are quite abstract — they concern themselves with a (fairly traditional) musical discourse, albeit with a rather broader timbral palette than in instrumental music. The best example of this is probably Klang which is available on the NMC label and on my empreintes DIGITALes CD Évidence matérielle. Klang started from the sound of some casserole dishes I discovered in Denis Smalley’s kitchen when I was working at [the University of East Anglia] in about 1979 (Denis was working abroad at the time, so I was staying in his flat). The sounds in the piece might be recognisable as casserole sounds, but the musical discourse is independent of this fact — there is no sense in which “casserole-ness” imparts compositional meaning to the piece. The musical structure is abstracted — as Simon Emmerson would put it — from the sonic material and the piece, as its title implies, is concerned only with that abstracted sound world. This makes it, I suppose, classic Schaefferian musique concrète, because what I have just described springs, essentially, from what Schaeffer calls “reduced listening” (where the sound object is defined by its sounding characteristics and not by reference to its source or cause). Regarding the works on Articles indéfinis, I would say that Pair/Impair, Aria and …et ainsi de suite… fit into the same broad category. In several of my acousmatic works dating from after my abandonment of “paper” composition, however, there is a much more evident (and much more conscious) use of recognisable sound for its very recognisability — reference and recognition are now an active part of my thinking. I call this “expanded listening” and I’m not even sure that the term “music” in appropriate any longer (I’m a musician by training and background, so I think of it as music because I think of myself as a musician; but if someone else wants to call is “sonic art” (Wishart) or “acousmatic art” (Dhomont), that’s fine by me!) — and I’m absolutely sure that the label itself doesn’t matter.

The acousmatic tradition has obviously had an enormous impact on your artistic creativity both at an æsthetic and practical level. Can you tell me what is it that you found so interesting in the acousmatic notion of composition?

At its simplest, that acousmatic music starts, continues and finishes with sound. It is based on percept, not concept and, because it is not tied to other imperatives (visual images, for example), has the ability to fire the imagination and transport the listener in astounding ways.

And what has this preoccupation changed in your compositional mind at a practical level, for example about the way you perceive music in general and the “sound object” in particular, and the way you listen to any sound event? I guess this must have been a fascinating process in both your mind and ears.

Well, the changes are the issues I’ve been discussing — and they happened gradually over the years since first venturing into the studio. Usually my compositional practice has moved (driven by my ears) into new areas and the intellectual rationalisation has come later. I’m not too worried about this, despite the widespread assumption that an academic (which I suppose, technically, I am!) should actually know (consciously, intellectually, I mean) what s/he is doing and why, at the time of doing it. My ears know; it just takes my conscious mind a little while to catch up!

Let’s take your work Unsound Objects (1995) for example. What was the genesis of this music?

Well, I’d like first to make an important point about what you earlier called the “compositional mind”. I would say that my compositional mind is not, cannot, be independent of specific material (and this, I believe is the real meaning of “concrete” in the term musique concrète — it’s not simply the use of “real world” sounds recorded with a microphone as source material; this is a distortion of history, especially in English). For me, composition is a partnership between material and composer, each interrogating and challenging the other to work out the next step in the process of musical creation. In my case at any rate, the “compositional mind” is not something which imposes abstract “musical” speculation on inert sound material — sound material is not inert! You ask about Unsound Objects — well I guess the materials I chose to use (and I’m an obsessive collector of sounds — I now travel with two DAT machines and a mini-disc recorder, much to the irritation of my family) were essentially referential and likely to be recognisable by listeners. As it would therefore be impossible to expect listeners to be able to exercise “reduced listening” in such a framework I chose instead to exploit this very recognisability in working on the piece. This is an implicit challenge to Schaefferian orthodoxy about the definition of the sound object through reduced listening; it is dangerous and, hence, “unsound”. As for the actual processes and so on in the studio — well, I guess you could say I followed my nose (or, rather, my ears): there was no preconceived plan or structure; the material and I evolved the specifics of the piece as we went along. It was an organic process.

In this work you achieve multiple layers of connections between abstract and abstracted sounds resulting, as you write, in “a continuum of reality, unreality and surreality.” Can you amplify this?

Well, I think this is what I was alluding to above — the ability of material to be heard/perceived/understood (shades of Schaeffer’s écouter, ouïr, entendre and comprendre here, I think!) — simultaneously as abstract musical events, sound events abstracted from the real world to participate in a musical discourse and soundscapes referring to real world sound events we may all recognise. In addition, this very recognisability unleashes in individual listeners echoes of their own personal histories — and these ambiguities are what makes the acousmatic medium so exciting and so powerful.

One of the main characteristics of your tape music is the vitality of the sonic gestures. There is a recurring sense of impulse which goes hand in hand with a meticulous attention towards sound-colour and timbral transformations.

Well, I would certainly hope that was the case — or the sonic surface of a piece would be very dull. The “impulse” archetype is a personal favourite, probably because it is believable — it could exist in the real world (by contrast, I’m not keen on reversed sounds, because they are physically impossible — remember, ambiguity is one of my big interests!). Transformations are fascinating because they play with the borders of our perception: at what point do we know that object A has become object B? Ambiguity again!

Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre

You are the founder of BEAST. Can you tell me how, why and when everything began? What did you want to achieve with BEAST?

I founded BEAST in 1982 when I started doing tape concerts at the University of Birmingham. I used the four channels of amplifiers and speakers we had in the Studio, augmented by some speakers of my own. The system grew during the late 80s and in 1990 we were something of a hit as the main concert system for the ICMC in Glasgow — I even had to do an impromptu “introduction to the system” presentation by popular demand. What I wanted to achieve was, I suppose, appropriate standards of presentation of tape pieces in public listening spaces. By this I mean restoring the spectral/spatial detail and the dramatic intensity of works which the acoustic properties of public performance spaces tend to distort. To do this you have to have large loudspeaker arrays, even for stereo pieces and even in relatively small auditoria.

In retrospect, are you happy with the results you have obtained so far, or are there other paths you would like to follow with BEAST? I mean also, but not only, from a technical point of view, for example.

Well, there is growing interest in multi-channel formats — I’ve now done three eight-channel pieces myself — so that is where the major research and development needs to be done. The logistical complexity of controlling multiple source tracks, however, rises exponentially the more tracks you have.

You are regularly touring with BEAST worldwide. This must be a very exciting — and indeed tiring — aspect of your musicianship.

Yes, but it’s worth it when we get the kind of reception we got at the Inventionen Festival in Berlin last July — and when I’m introduced to people at overseas conferences and they say, at the mention of my name, “Oh yes — BEAST!” It’s worth all the hard work if we’re making a difference.

Surely you must have experienced technical problems and shortcomings during performance. How have you coped with these situations throughout the years? And what has changed between your approach of, say, 20 years ago and now?

Well, the frivolous answer would be to say that if you stick to performing acousmatic music on a fixed medium, a whole lot of variables are removed from the equation! Live electronics is a bit of a nightmare by comparison, but it is, of course, much better in these digital days.

How would you place the acousmatic genre within the contemporary music scene both at an æsthetic and practical level? Why do you think it is so important?

To be frivolous again, I might respond by saying that you have the question the wrong way round — that it is the contemporary music scene which is part of our acousmatic experience! I also wonder how broadly you define “contemporary music”. But, to be a little more serious, I would say that there certainly is a place for acousmatic music on a world-wide basis. You might not get a full house for an acousmatic event in a given city (unless it’s Paris or Montreal, of course!), but these days, that is less necessary than the fact of being part of a world-wide, networked interest group (thanks to email discussion lists like <cecdiscuss> [Ed.: now cec-conference]). It’s much harder to persuade the local regional or even national arts organisations of the merits of the cause, because the music business is still driven by sales (of tickets, CDs, whatever). But acousmatic music has a place in the greater scheme of things and I doubt it will go away, despite the temptation to subjugate it to visual media.

Yet, if we look at today’s music industry we see how marginal the electroacoustic genre still is. Although there is a growing number of electroacoustic composers worldwide, I don’t think the majority of music festivals and institutions, not to mention contemporary music promoters and publishers, are showing an adequate consensus and awareness of the importance of this genre.

Yes well, as Attali might have pointed out, you’ve missed out the most important group — everybody is now potentially an electroacoustic composer, given the infiltration into modern life of the computer and the sound card! It is no longer necessarily tied only to “music festivals and institutions, … contemporary music promoters and publishers.”

What could be done to improve this situation? You are also a key-member of Sonic Arts Network, the British electroacoustic music society: surely you must have addressed this problem several times.

I’m not sure that any one person or group has the right to do anything to “improve” the situation! Who is defining improvement? Sure, we always need more resources, more events, more money, more access, more information, etc. But Sonic Arts Network cannot deliver all of this single-handed — it simply doesn’t have enough money to do it (even though, without wanting to blow our own trumpets, I think we make a valiant attempt to address as many of these issues as we can). I believe that the fundamental role of Sonic Arts Network is to support and promote the sonic arts. But let me stress the word Network in the name of the organisation. Surely Sonic Arts Network should be the web which binds together activity in the sonic arts in Britain and links that activity to what’s going on elsewhere. It doesn’t need to be centralist — and still less dirigiste — to do this.

In Britain, for example, there is a clear æsthetic split between acousmatic musicians and those composers who are entirely, or largely, live-electronics based. Look at the London Musician Collective, for example, with its own, rather specific, music scene. How do you perceive this dichotomy?

I would say that we should let many flowers bloom! I have no problem with “difference”, in all its manifestations — it’s what makes being alive so fascinating!

This brings me to another important point: what is actually electroacoustic music? This question first came to my mind during my first professional visit to the USA. I still remember a conversation we had during the 1996 SEAMUS Conference in Birmingham, Alabama, in which we both agreed on a definition of electroacoustic music resulting from a specific æsthetic of sound, that is the transformation of sound in its timbral and “abstracted” qualities, rather than the use of electronic means in composition merely as amplification devices or reproduction tools of acoustic instruments. Although your music speaks unequivocally for itself, could you revive your thoughts on this rather crucial issue?

I think I’ve got pretty close to answering this question in addressing some of your other points. For me, much music described as “mixed” or “live electronic” is still essentially instrumental in concept. I find it a shame that so much music continues to ignore, or — worse! — be unaware of the new ways of thinking heralded over fifty years ago by Schaeffer. If I ever did another “live electronic” piece (and the possibility is getting closer all the time!) it would be tackled from the acousmatic end of my experience, rather than the instrumental.

Is your musical creativity inspired by something in particular? I am thinking, for example, of extra-musical forms of arts or specific philosophical notions.

Er… no! I’m inspired by sound!

You have also written several acoustic works which are perhaps less known than your electroacoustic music. How do you experience writing for both media? Are you still writing pure acoustic works today? Is this for you a conflictual situation or rather a unifying musical circumstance?

I think I’ve droned on enough about this earlier!

And you are also a conductor. I remember attending your impressive London performance of Stockhausen’s Momente a few years ago.

Ah yes — I must say, I get an almost visceral thrill out of conducting. Of course it’s interesting to note the similarity between working as a conductor with an orchestra and working in the studio. In both cases one is probing what is musically possible with given material, without actually producing the sound (in the real sense) oneself. But shaping it and enabling it to sing — oh yes!

How important is the relation between sound and space in your music?

Crucial — but I’m much more interested in space as an inherent property of my sound objects (I never use mono source material!), which the material/composer partnership teases out into larger-scale musical structures (an organic process), than I am in what I suspect is more normally thought of as “space”: the placing of objects in a particular location (an architectonic process).

You have advocated the notion of sound diffusion, rather than sound projection. Can you amplify this difference from a practical performance-related listening experience? How do you deal with this important aspect of performance logistics within BEAST?

I simply mean that sound does not travel in tight, focused, controllable beams like lasers (though, of course, there are differences between on- and off-axis frequency response) — it diffuses into the entire space. So I prefer to talk about diffusion than about projection.

And then, of course, there is Jonty Harrison the academic. I often think of your outstanding achievements at the University of Birmingham (BEAST being “only” one of them!). Amongst many achievements you have been able to create an international centre of excellence for electroacoustic composition. How do you actually experience being an academic?

I try to provide a supportive and sympathetic environment for composers: decent resources, regular supervision by someone whose ears have been at this business longer than theirs, a large enough community of fellow travellers to avoid the isolation which can so often lead to demoralisation and being “blocked”, the opportunity to collaborate and the opportunity to perform at professional level.

What is your educational vision regarding electroacoustic music?

If you have something to say, I’ll try and help you say it! I’ll also try to point you in the direction of anything/anyone else who may be able to help. But please don’t turn into a clone of me!

What can be done to improve an awareness towards acousmatic music in today’s educational world? I am thinking particularly of music colleges which tend to represent a rather conservative approach to contemporary music.

Well, I fear that the current financial climate — in the UK at least — means that institutions are on the receiving end of thinking which is driven more by quantity than by quality. Of course, there are some very good social reasons for this, and I don’t want to sound elitist — we still have lower tertiary level student numbers than many other countries. The problem for music in any form is that it is an expensive subject to study and to teach — just think of instrumental tuition, spaces for private practice, rehearsal and performance spaces, etc., let alone the cost of studio equipment — unless the course is entirely history based. Nevertheless, I suspect that current concerns over “access” to university may very well recognise that there is a “market” (argh — just listen to me!) among people who are currently exploring sound on their home PCs!

Talking from experience, we usually find that the least interested students are those coming from a strictly classical music background who tend to gravitate around the music college (conservatoire) environment, rather than the university’s. What do you think we could do in order to improve this situation?

This has not always been my experience — I feel that my greatest successes have been in, if you like, “turning round” students with a rather traditional, instrument-centred view of themselves through opening up to them the possibilities offered by the studio. Remember that when they arrive at university they have dedicated over half their lives to becoming proficient on the clarinet or whatever, so it is hardly surprising that this is how they define themselves as musicians. But to see people go through the process of discovering that they are also composers (in fact that they are more composers than any other kind of musician) is exciting for me as a teacher.

On a larger scale, how do you perceive the world music scene at the moment?

Er… I’m not sure I know where to start. Have you got another 200 pages?

Selected Articles by Jonty Harrison

“Sound, Space Sculpture: Some Thoughts on the ‘What,’ ‘How’ and ‘Why‘ of Sound Diffusion. Organised Sound Vol. 3/2 (1998).

“Imaginary Space — Spaces in the Imagination” (1999). Proceedings of the Australasian Computer Music Conference, Wellington, NZ. Also in MikroPolyphonie Vol. 5. [Online contemporary music journal no longer available, but archived by the National Library of Australia.]

“Diffusion: theories and practices, with particular reference to the BEAST system.” eContact! 2.4 —  Diffusion multicanal / Multi-Channel Diffusion (1999). Montréal: Canadian Electroacoustic Community / Communauté électroacoustique canadienne.

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