Interview with Tim Parkinson
Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Tim Parkinson’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 337–342. Copyright © 2009
My first contact with Tim Parkinson, through Bryn Harrison, was via his work as a performer, notably at the series of concerts he programmed at the BMIC in its former Stratford Place home from 1997-2000. His industry in presenting music from composers who were new to me at the time, alongside my own pieces, was a galvanizing force. The associations we made through those events have led to many subsequent projects, including this book. Although I came to know his music well at this time, it was the later experience of working with Tim as a performer which led me to a clearer understanding of his work as a composer. We began playing together as a duo, Parkinson Saunders, in 2003, working on mostly indeterminate repertoire which uses any sound-producing means, seated at two tables. The kinds of strategies he uses to realise the music we find interesting reflects his tendencies as a composer: there is a meandering mix of randomness and extreme control, with one often subverting the other with surprising results. The multiplicity that appears in so much of his music confronts our notion of compatibility as a defining factor in a piece’s identity. There is an indirect connection between elements which only becomes apparent through our experience of them, and the way we make the links ourselves as listeners. So whilst found or pre-fabricated material is at the heart of his music, part of a need to look outside of himself to begin work, it is the often bare presentation of these tightly crafted moments which allows their natural beauty to project.
The interview was conducted by email between 3 November – 9 December 2003.
I thought we could begin by talking about how you incorporate found materials into your work. Could you say a little about what you’re looking for in potential material, and how you go about finding it?
I don’t incorporate found materials at all, except in so far as I feel that all the notes available to use are the same notes and intervals that any other composer has ever used. So I have at the start a certain objectivity in working with what I present myself with. What I want beforehand for myself is a large and unforeseen diversity of pitches and intervals – randomness, patterns, shapes – and of course there are countless ways to generate pitches. Writing the detail is often more subjective, but sometimes not exclusively. The whole writing of the piece takes place between these objective and subjective positions. I am uncomfortable being all one or all the other.
Sometimes, in the end, people have asked if I quote other composers, but I don’t. I’m quite inclusive about what pitches or intervals are presented – I like consonance and dissonance – so sometimes a sequence of notes might be reminiscent of other music, and of course it might not be reminiscent of anything to me, but it might to others. In one piece someone once heard Verdi and Chopin in a piece all the melodies of which had been derived from the curves of tree branches. So everyone has their own references. I have certainly toyed with the idea of direct quotation sometimes, but ultimately I feel that is a completely different thing altogether, and it’s something in which I’m not interested at all. But you see the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth is only a major third and there’s countless different ways a major third has been used, and so this is why I think of these notes and intervals in general as found objects. The G and the E flat in the middle register. Used by everyone, but in different contexts. So I use these same old well-worn intervals, but treating them with a preciousness. Like a Joseph Cornell. And for me, instead of making a whole piece out of one gesture, like Beethoven’s major third, I use a whole mass of diverse little sculpted things to make the piece, collecting together a hoard of moments and presenting them all at once in a chaotic environment, which for me is like everyday experience.
I like this idea of tiny crafted moments somehow multiplying out to create a finely crafted whole by implication (however chaotic that might be). When sculpting these little ideas, do they exist in the abstract in relation to possible pieces though, or do you work on them with the idea of belonging to one piece, or even to a particular point in the piece? I mean, do you make them and have an idea this is an ending event or whatever, or does that come to you later when you have a pool of ideas?
I work on them with the idea of them belonging to the piece I’m working on, but they might not at that time necessarily belong to any point within the piece. When I write, I think of each one as I come to it, just as a thing in itself, there and then, very moment to moment, as a closed self-contained unit, not in relation to what’s been or what follows or what’s around.
Often I have used the page as a structural unit, like a movement or a panel, and allowed the players to choose their own order of pages for a performance. Moments work differently in different places on different occasions. The landscape of the piece can be experienced from another angle. Beginnings and endings are often natural events anyway, without my having to announce them in the piece. Switch on the radio, for example, and you start listening from that point, whatever’s playing. And anyway, my pieces are not narrative or illustrative. They are more frames of time within which things happen, rather than a specific discourse or something.
Sometimes I do have an idea that something would be good as an ending event, but this is just vanity, and if I fix it as an ending I’m denying that moment, which I fancy as sounding valedictory, any opportunity of working equally well and potentially more extraordinarily within the rest of the piece.
No, I don’t just write the individual moments and have lots of them stored up somewhere for use sometime, which is more like how you work, isn’t it? For me, I feel the piece – almost I suppose in counterbalance to how much I feel the material to be inclusively heterogeneous or even discursive – is unified in a very general sense, from my point of view, by my initial image of the piece and by my having worked from and on this over a specific period of time. A collection of work within a frame of time. That as well as the frame of time which is the piece itself.
Certainly I see each fragment of material as a module which might be contextualized differently in each performance, so in that sense it’s different to you. I tend to make new modules very much with their initial context in mind however. It’s only later when they are reused that the dislocation happens: they might be placed against entirely different types of material and in doing so change considerably in character. The material also often suggests structural functions, at least initially, and is presented with this in mind. In subsequent performances I tend to try to subvert this by deliberately placing modules so as not to repeat their original structural role, so if I start one version with some quiet, sparse violin harmonics, they might be part of a middle section in a thicker texture with other similar sounds in another version. But that’s a conscious decision I would say.
In your pieces, given that the pages are often reordered so that fragments aren’t heard in any kind of predictable or prescribed sequence or combination, and if each of these fragments is a self-contained moment, what’s stopping material from previous or succeeding pieces bleeding into each other? Is there anything tying them to one piece specifically, apart from practical things like instrumentation? I suppose it’s a question of whether you draw notional boundaries between the material and its presentation as ‘a piece’ or not.
Yes, I think for me, the fragments of material are definitely more local to a specific piece. So the recontextualization within every performance is only amongst a fixed set of things. It’s subsequently interesting how things can be shuffled about within a piece, and it still remaining recognizable as that piece. Also, as I said, the piece is partly a gathering together of things over a period of time of work. Like a collection – yet part of a continuity – localized by time and instrumentation.
But I also change elements of the way I work from piece to piece. Pieces are all different, of course, and have different needs.
But the material in your #[unassigned] project must be evolving now? When you write a new module, are there significant differences to what you might have written two years ago?
Absolutely, and I think that’s where the recontextualization is most striking. There are still a few older modules which I regularly reuse, but the role they have in versions has changed quite a lot. For example, there’s a high violin glissando module which I began using in early 2001 and it’s since been adapted for other string instruments and occasionally stretched to about ten times its original length, as well as appearing in its original form. Sometimes it is used very much as foreground material, but at other times it is less gestural in its use, normally because it’s combines with other instances played by other instruments. So in some cases this works well (in that there is a closer relationship with later material), but in other cases I might have written a module which has only a single use because it is tied to a particular performance practicality (e.g. a specific instrument), or it’s used only a few times because of the kinds of relationships between sounds I was interested in at the time. These have changed quite a lot over three years of course, and it’s this which tends to govern whether modules have a longer life.
Could you say a little about the currents constraints time and instrumentation are imposing on your work, or in other words, what are you working on at the moment?
My new piece is for percussion. What’s been interesting for me during the working process is that I’ve just come back to the mobile structure again, but my arrival at that decision was as if I’d never done it before, as if I’d just come up with the idea for the first time, like a surprising revelation. But yet that structure was in the last piece. I start afresh every time and I seem to work very close to the page, then step back and see what’s emerged.
When you do this, do you find you reject much material, or do you readily accept everything that has emerged during this period of working as part of the piece? Does this close focus stop you seeing a (preconceived?) larger picture, or does it allow a more interesting one to emerge do you think?
A mixture. I think I am keen to be inclusive of material, but sometimes for some reason something might not be right in some way, so I do throw things out as well. The close focus I think is more interesting for me in my day-to-day working process. I don’t pre-plan anything in the piece but I have a general sense of what I want the piece to be, and work with that image in mind.
Could you say a little about the working process so far? Do you compose each moment at a separate session for example, or do they take longer? What sort of pattern do you find yourself adopting when working on a piece?
The general image of the entire thing is certainly always at the back of my head, to a degree, when working on the piece. I imagine it’s the same as other people where some times the working momentum is going well and other times days go by, for whatever reason, just trying to do one thing. Walking or traveling is a good catalyst for me of turning over thoughts. The trombone and piano piece I wrote over the summer was written in the West Midlands, Wales, London and Catalonia, with some parts of it written on trains.
Some days more than others it excites me very much how the world is a collage, or composite. When I see very clearly the separateness of each and every thing. Just glancing at things in my room now I can see a piano, five rocks from a beach, a carpet, a box, a teaspoon, a calculator… What actually have they all got to do with each other? Apart from a conceptual umbrella of all belonging to me, or of them all being in the same general space. Put two things next to each other and it’s a juxtaposition, but add more and a general specificity might begin to emerge from the jumble.
When watching TV also the various images on the screen are actually a sequence of very diverse and changing images, which of course we connect together in our minds and form a narrative (if one is not already given, which is very seldom.) Then, simultaneously, there’s the stream of thoughts going through one’s head, affected and sometimes not affected by what’s being seen and heard, and sometimes self generated, like an impulse to switch it off, or make a cup of tea or something. Add that to the plethora of objects, sounds and images, the mass of things constantly coming in through our senses. And of course in the face of this, the separateness of each thing is forgotten because one’s brain orders it all into degrees of importance, into categories, seeks patterns, reasons and so forth. But seen in the light of being without any preconceptual ordering, suddenly it’s perceived as a mess.
And people are part of this. I have always liked watching people in a queue, or sitting next to each other on the tube; again, their separateness, individuality, their independent being, their movements. I remember being captivated by watching two people in back-to-back adjoining phone boxes standing next to each other having separate conversations. And also in that context when someone is on the phone, half of them is also somewhere else.
To return to the question, I feel my actual writing of the piece is composite also because we are not the same person every day, but are always changing. So I come back to my thoughts about the piece being a collection of work over a period of time, and there are other concerns and interests as well.
This reminds me of your programme notes, where you say things like “lots of different stuff things I don’t like also no point in any of it all at once with no consequence as if it was just something happening the weirdness and incredulity of actuality”, and also the analogy you make between your music and a party, which is certainly apt, and mirror my experience as a listener. I was wondering how you see non-intention as being part of this: what is the point of it, and are there consequences?
Well, the party is an immediate easy analogy for such a structure. That was an old programme note which I don’t use anymore – it was good at one time for some things but soon fell apart as a neat way of explaining everything, of giving the ‘artist statement’ that is required by people sometimes. The pointlessness was meant just in the context of being both a way of beginning for myself, to disarm and humble myself, and also in that during the course of the piece there is no narrative structure. In the light of expecting a traditional development or discourse, there might appear to some to be no ‘point’ to the consequence of events, no fulfillment to the expectation that the piece should ‘go somewhere’. I’m not interested in that, so I start with that supposed negative quality of ‘pointlessness’ and work upwards. The actuality, or suchness, of what’s there is what I’m wanting to provide a space for, and considering this is to think in other ways than consequential thinking; to say that things lead to other things in a developmental way, and to make a piece the direction of which appears to be completely aimless, which is at home in every moment within itself and doesn’t need to justify itself by aiming at something else.
Then I suppose this suchness of the individual moments is often complicated by the multiplicity of these things going on. And I suppose ultimately I’m thinking of a situation which, rather than being ‘a piece of music’ or ‘work of art’, is more like some kind of natural experience, which for me is my preferred experience above all, which is full of this actuality, but which mostly is elusive because one is often too preoccupied and distracted with one’s thoughts all the time.
I expect this goes some way to explaining the use of titles in your pieces, which tend to be fairly undemonstrative and factual, for example viola piece or ten brass. You also use the prefix ‘untitled’ in some pieces, as in untitled winter 2002, or untitled cello and piano (2002). Is this part of a desire to distance yourself from any unnecessary poetic meaning or inference, and how do you feel about the association it makes with other music or visual art practices?
Two hundred years ago it seems there was less of a problem. I remember seeing a list of C.P.E.Bach’s output and seeing Sonata after Sonata. The actual substance of the music was the whole focus, and the title as convenient extremely general descriptive stuck-on label. Possibly they didn’t even ask what the piece was called each time, but it was always ‘new work’ or ‘new sonata’. The experience of the music becomes a little more forefront. And then of course as a direct result of that, people end up giving nicknames to the list of Haydn Symphonies, like ‘The Hen’ or something, because somebody thought that something sounded like a hen in the piece, which was very probably never in Haydn’s mind at the time he wrote it, which nonetheless ends up in a catalogue and programme note, and which in this case ruins the piece for everyone else then because we end up listening out for this hen and miss everything else.
When writing a piece, in terms of titles, I often just think of what it is. I do consider a number of things, for example considering whether the ‘trombone and piano piece’ should be untitled trombone and piano. But my titles aren’t as blank as yours are, or Richard Ayres’. When listening to a new CD, without thinking I often end up never looking at the titles, unless I have to talk to someone about something on the CD. On one’s CD player, everything is just Track 1, Track 2 and so on anyway. Along these lines I remember going to an exhibition of new paintings by Cy Twombly, and everything was Untitled, and all very similar and exactly the same size.
A title is just a label to put on the experience you’re about to have, or the memory of an experience you have had. A title for a piece of mine full of ‘poetic meaning or inference’ as you say would just frustrate me, and to my mind, limits the expectation and perhaps experience of the listener in some way, which is diametrically opposed to what I’m wanting. So at the moment I tend to give pieces some kind of unrevealing title, so that the memory of the piece itself becomes the image held in mind.
 two cardboard boxes (2003)
 trombone and piano piece (2003)