This interview took place by email from March 2004 to early 2005. 

I’ve always found your approach to numbering and titling pieces an interesting one. Although you use only numbers for some pieces, most also have sub-titles which are either factual or somewhat cryptic (such as No.33 (Valentine Tregashian considers…)). The more abstract nature of the purely numerical format is interesting given the resonance of other music in some of your pieces. They seem to frame the music in a more objective way, and I was wondering why you chose to use this format, and how it relates to the material you use?

Oh, strange as it may seem, titles are a hugely important subject for me. I think it was Jasper Johns that said that a title contributed as much to a painting as a colour. I agree with him. I don’t want to add needless, trivial, implications to a piece for the sake of it needing to be called something. When did all this title business start anyway? Very strange historical development. If I give the piece a sub-title it has a reason to be there, an implication, an additional meaning, a commentary, a riddle. I give all pieces numbers because this is as anonymous as I can make it (“opus” even has too much cultural baggage) and allows the listener room to listen. These days, however, the subtitles are becoming longer and longer, the third piece in No.38 (Three small pieces for string quartet) has the sub-subtitle ‘Countess Eva von Spendu (on an horse) gallops through the forest (pausing four times to contemplate natural splendor)’. This is not a description of what happens in the piece but has a certain implication, or rather, a cultural and historical resonance which in some way adds another vibration to the music. The subtitles often contain precise details (such as the fact that she is galloping on an horse, rather than another animal, or just pretending to gallop along like a child playing “ponies”) which perhaps also serve to deflate any strictly programmatic interpretation, or just add to the confusion/richness. The second reason that I give the pieces numbers is practical in that I can remember numbers fairly well. I can recall the faces of people that I sat next to in a bus years after the event, but seem to forget names, lyrics, and, most irritatingly, titles almost immediately. I’m very jealous of people who can remember all the lyrics of pop songs and sing them at parties. That sort of thing just doesn’t seem to get stored in my head.

Do the (sub)titles always come first though? You have said that ‘Tanase’s Eyes’, the title of the first piece of No. 38, came from seeing a photo of Romanian singer Maria Tanase, and this is consequentially linked to a very specific musical situation. Is this kind of spark often the starting point for pieces, and do you always have a sense of where a piece is going from the outset? I’m thinking of Johns’ observation on his work, when he says ‘Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it’.

The piece you mention ‘Tanase’s Eyes’ was sitting ‘half baked’ on my piano until the Quay twins introduced me to recordings of Tanase’s singing, and showed me a few photos of her. The subject of the piece clicked immediately, a faded, forgotten beauty looking out from a battered photograph, a voice almost covered by the hiss of the recording. The resulting piece is a ghost-like deconstruction of an imaginary folk-like song, accompanied by slowly fragmenting mandolins. In this case the title crystallized my thoughts, and added another resonance to the music. I never actually start with a title, poor notes! Imagine having that hanging over you, trapped at birth, how horrible. Almost as sad as being born into somebody’s architectural master plan.

The short answer to the last part of your question is no, I usually have no fixed idea where the piece is going, but I do know exactly where it has been. I prefer to concentrate on becoming as aware as possible of what I already have before me, and trust my ability to land on my feet structurally. The choices are simpler working this way – what do I have – does it carry on – if yes, how – if no, what comes next?

With reference to the ‘how’, to what extent do you use process (either predefined or contingent) to create pieces or sections of pieces? The first movement of No.36, for example, suggests a systemic approach, where the horn player runs between the two podiums in a gradually decreasing time frame set against a layered cycling of pitches in the other instruments.

I like your division of working processes – I try to get my students to trust the ‘dynamic’ process of listening/analyzing/thinking as much as they trust the following of predefined systems.  In my own music this all varies from piece to piece, I don’t have a routine way of approaching a work. The movement from No.36 you mention, for example, is constructed by overlapping two formal processes, a gradual diminution of duration between horn calls on top of a slow increase in density/volume of instrumentation. The resulting effect is of an increasingly deranged soloist accompanied by an unfolding ‘landscape’ of instrumental sound.  How I got to this particular idea in No.36 and how the notes worked out as they did I have no idea any more. This is not unusual, after finishing a piece I usually have very little idea exactly why things have become what they are. During the writing I could explain just about every minute decision and I fill notebooks and scraps of paper with figures and calculations always trying to keep tabs on what I’m working on and how it relates to all the other material that I already have.

I think it’s true to say that every piece I write obtains a subject as I work on it. The subjects in No.36, for example are, in Movement 1 “call and echo” and the insanity of following a system of life; in Movement 2 the soloist battles to be allowed through the pearly gates into the heavenly landscape (played by the ensemble); Movement 3 follows the journey of someone who has disappeared (died). These subjects are mostly derived from observations – I collect ideas, images, situations, dreams, memories and write them down in little books ( each piece has it’s own book) – and a lot of subjects are inspired by my interest in old films, animation, silent films, slapstick comedy, non-literary theatre (circus etc).

I hope I’m right in saying that a lot of your pieces are formed in movements. What is it that attracts you to this way of constructing pieces, and how do you view (dis)continuity in your music?

These days all of my pieces consist of several movements (this wasn’t always so) and this is the result of a series of experiments with structure.

Firstly: I was trying to categorize different uses of silence in music. I’ve always been obsessed with the difference between music/silence that is the result of structural ‘timing’ and silence/music that enables the listener to remain aware of physical time passing. Some music (most of western art music) uses timing to generate and sustain the effect/illusion of time passing at a tempo and with an energy flow that the composer determines. Such pieces seem to flow quickly or slowly and can slow down or speed up. The listener is unaware of the natural or physical passing of time until the composer makes a mistake with the timing and the listener begins to notice that their seat is rather hard, that the ceiling needs a coat of paint, or that the cellist should do something about his dandruff. In other music (many non-European folk musics, for example) the listener is frequently aware of the fact that are sitting in a room experiencing an event which is a performance of music, and this awareness is not a problem it’s actually part of the experience. In this case the passing of time is not something to hide, and the emphasis is not on the generation of illusion of time passing in a particular tempo.

My earlier music was usually constructed by placing blocks of sound next to each other and separating them with silence. Sometimes the silence had the function of generating tension or energy (timing), sometimes it would serve to break the illusion and bring the listener back to the awareness of the concert ritual and physical time. I decided that the most extreme break between blocks of sound (within one concert) would be the ending of one piece and the beginning of the next piece. The second longest break between blocks of sound would be the break between two movements with the usually rituals attached to such an event, the turning of pages, the players looking at each other, and the nodding of heads giving the new tempo etc. In my piece No.21 there are about fifty such movements; page turns separating blocks of music that sometimes consist only of one note, or a little scraping sound – occasionally there was no sound at all, just the nodding to symbolise that a movement had started and that it consisted of rests.

Secondly: constructing pieces with movements became increasingly attractive because of the complexity and ambiguity of narrative implication that it can offer. I should explain that I think that the person perceiving events actually structures narrative for themselves. I would even define narrative as a series of events in time linked by a human experience. The listener/viewer/observer links events of whatever kind together and the result is their own personal experience, story, or narrative. I’m fascinated and excited by the idea that the listener’s perception of musical structure, and their emotional and intellectual reactions to what they hear in a concert, is just the latest in a life long and continuous process of perception and reaction – a continuous building or shifting of contexts – the reaction to a cluster chord or a trill is the result of years of living and experiencing life, and each experience will be added to the last, changing the context of the whole. The ritual of the ‘movement’ is a way to combine and juxtapose vastly different musics, and build up a line of relationships over a long period of time – each commenting somehow on what has preceded it.

You mentioned that you collect ideas in notebook: what sorts of things draw your attention and how do they find their way into finished pieces?

All sorts of things attract my attention. These could be sonic, theatrical or human events. I rarely write down musical notes like Janacek did, but I make a note of occurrences and use these descriptions later to spark my imagination and to recreate the memory of the essence of these occurrences. Things often end up in pieces, for example when walking in the mountains I found a place with an echo that took ages to sound and this ended up as the first movement of my horn NONcerto in which the soloist runs back and forth playing his own echo. I once watched a ‘bag-lady’ in London who spent hours just emptying and refilling her small bag of possessions, and time after time each object seemed to take her by surprise and was a joyful new discovery, and the memory of this observation was incorporated into the NONcerto for alto trombone in which the soloist searches in a box of objects for mutes.

I wanted to ask you about the visual nature of your concert music (with the NONcertos being a good example) particularly given the completion of your recent opera Cricket Recovers.

I haven’t really made a lot of pieces that have an added visual element, just two NONcerti (Alto trombone and Horn) and a strange sort of opera without words called No.26 (and I don’t think the visual element is necessary in the Horn Noncerto). I try to make pieces that work purely sonically, but listening to sounds and music is such a vivid and visual experience for me, it’s actually strange to have to differentiate between what is sonic and what is visual in a musical performance. I guess as a composer I am just trying to allow the notes to become as vivid in the air of the concert hall as they are in my head. Anything theatrically visual in my pieces is just an amplification or expansion of the already highly theatrical and stylized visual event that is a live concert; it is an addition, maybe an interesting addition, but just an addition.

In this respect, has your work on the opera changed (or strengthened) your approach to concert music in any way?

The opera is a completely different sort of piece based as it is on a text with a very unambiguous narrative, and being written knowing that I will not have much control over what it will look like. I did compose a few visual descriptions into the notes – some actions, the time of day, the weather, the seasons changing, and of course the theatrical pacing. In a way the music in the opera is purely functional, setting the mood and atmosphere and describing what isn’t sung out loud. The director and designers took a lot of trouble to get to understand my thoughts about the piece, but in the end did something that I could never have imagined beforehand and really took it to another level.