You can download the prize-winning piece (and others) from Jo's site.
[by skype, March 2012]
Could you talk me through 'Charged' and 'Zero' [the pieces which comprise Nature of Habit], what’s going on in those pieces and what you wanted to achieve with them?
With those tracks, they were written really, really quickly, sketched out in a night, really impulsively, and I really wanted to keep that, but then I edited them over eight months. I wanted to achieve this formless music, music that didn’t adhere necessarily to traditional counterpoint structures which I kept on hearing in electronic music, repeatedly, and it was really annoying me… And I wanted to create a type of music that existed in its own right and didn’t impose anything on the person that was listening to it, to draw attention – rather you could put the music on, and then if you wanted to, you could sit in and listen into it. I wanted to create a music that had . . . masses of detail and form, but not outwardly so it wasn’t obvious.
Something you could move into as a listener, but that wasn’t necessarily filling up every nook and cranny of your ear?
Yeah, that’s what I was moving towards all the time, and I really wanted to write two long pieces as well, and they would go together as a form, as a release. And quite a lot was going on in the world as well, so… I think they were both written in August last year and I’d just come back to London, I’d been away, but my students were . . . I wanted to . . . I just wrote these works so very impulsively. I was quite affected by what happened last summer and some of it is in the works, it was a difficult time for a lot of people around where I live.
So it came out of this very immediate impulse, I wondered how it fit in your compositional approach generally – where it falls on the spectrum of improv, laptop work, pre-composed/edited pieces?
That in itself I find quite interesting and challenging, rewarding to work in all at the same time. So today I was writing a proposal to work in a studio, to write a live piece that would be published, designed to play live on a laptop. Those two works ['Charged' and 'Zero'], they hit the centre of both improvisation and really fixed composition, they’re slap bang in the middle, because they’re very detailed but I wanted to keep this level of freedom and intrinsic movement about them as well.
What is the significance of the human voice for you?
Yeah I use it in most of my works, or if I don’t use the voice, I tend to work with technological material to create really detailed phenomic material, so you can hear words being spoken in the technological structures. I use the voice, because it’s part of the human body and I find the connection between the human body and technology . . . it’s a very natural discourse to me to work with, but I find it incredibly challenging as well, I like challenges in composition.
It’s not always obvious that the voice was the/a source . . .
You don’t have to know, yeah.
So you’re not bothered about having them [i.e. the human body and technology] set up as an opposition, they’re seamless to you?
For me, in composition, the source material is not important. I like the part where . . . where it goes through a series of transformations; so the stage where you can’t recognize that it is a voice, is to me the most fascinating stage of composition.
You mentioned the word ‘gestalt’ in your notes to the pieces.
Yeah I always compose like this really, but these works I was adamant that I was going to stick to it. Because I really wanted to work with form in a very different way to the way I normally work. I needed points of reference to work with and the visual perception theory of gestalt was a really lovely anchor to work with. I wanted the person that was listening to the music to afford their own places of musicality and moments in the work. That’s how I worked with gestalt. And over duration, I was creating these large, vast works which people could afford their own moments of form into.
OK, I guessed it was the wholeness/integrity theory, as one of first things you mentioned was the works having their own self-sufficiency. Going back to the voice again – are you interested at all in what happens to it in other genres – autotune in R&B, the very abrasive sounds in black metal?
Yeah, I like punk rock! I listen to a lot of r&b, drum & bass and dubstep. And my sonic palette is really, really wide, I listen to NTS radio a lot, and at the moment I’m really interested in their soul shows… that reverb, 1.5 seconds long used on soul voices. I love the sound of records: recordings of the human voice on real records, I think is the most beautiful sound.
The timbre of the old analogue recordings on vinyl? You work in sound design right?
I teach sound design and composition and popular, no not popular music -
[laughs] I look at students’ works and I give advice on editing and they teach me more than I’m sure I can teach them, ‘cause they’re so good at what they do and they have their own voices, they’re just there, they come to me for advice and contacts most of the time.
Live, you do stuff with multi-channel set-ups, multiple speakers. I noticed for Ultra-Tonal, you provided an AIFF version. Your work is focussed on timbre, texture, those micro-details of sound. Do you find it frustrating to have to work in two channel stereo to release music, and having work compressed down into MP3?
Not at all! A release is a release. I’ve got a list of 3 or 4 other releases that I’m going to work on and get out. I enjoy releasing music and I enjoy writing music, and I think the more music that’s out there the better. Unfortunately music does get ripped. It’s a very difficult time for people in music. Incredibly difficult. I’m very lucky to have this release actually.
How important is duration in your work? With your interest in sound design is it a question of exploring certain timbre until you’ve exhausted their potential, or do you have that trajectory or structure in mind before you begin?
I see the works before I start, I can imagine what they’re going to sound like, so it’s not that I will work with one sound until it drops down dead, I like to give myself a bit more freedom than that, with lots of different sounds, bringing them all together, like ‘Charged’, which was a huge amount of material pressed together then expanded.
What does glitch mean to you?
Glitch doesn’t mean technological malfunction to me, it means something more . . . human-being-like. [long pause] I don’t think of myself as being from the Markus Popp aesthetic, I didn’t even know about his work until about six years ago, when I started lecturing, that’s really bad isn’t it? [Laughs] Glitch is definitely more human [to me], it’s like an expression of fallibility but also incredible strength and as human beings I think we all have that inside us, and I like to . . . I’ve always written with glitch, so I’ve always picked out the ends of things, the little clicks that people discard or try to flatten out.
I remember you used the words a ‘spectral peak’ [to describe what a glitch is, elsewhere]?
[laughs] On a less intense level a glitch is a spectral peak, yeah, so it’s just a point of distortion.
But you feel these moments that might otherwise be edited out as imperfections, there’s an emotional resonance that can be unpacked?
It’s just a more interesting language, it’s more interesting for me to work with things that have a bit more weight with them than things that are really polished, and have potential to end up sounding very dull and like everything else. Glitch can be a cliché as well, glitch is full of clichés and that’s what I wanted to avoid with ‘Zero’ and ‘Charged’, which never has a resolution…
‘Charged’ builds remarkably to that endpoint though, it’s almost like a solo percussion piece by the end, all these small impacts.
It sounds like a tabla doesn’t it? I noticed that in a studio the other week, I put it on and it sounded like a tabla in the space.
How did you get into electronic and electro-acoustic composition? Was it a gradual thing, were there particular records that hooked you?
My interest in sound started from when I was very, very young. Really young. My mum bought me a synth when I was 11, and I spent a long time in my bedroom with a graphic equalizer. To get me on the straight & narrow, they got me a tutor who taught me composition from 13, but what we actually did was have cups of tea and listen to amazing records and look at these really beautiful scores. And then I went to Bangor University, and I got into their electronic studios and that was me done. I’d found my natural habitat, in the studio everything made sense, the language made sense. I was listening to Parmegiani and Malec, and it was all . . . I just found a pure language in that, that communicated to me and I wanted to create music not like theirs but at the level they were working towards, which was very refined, they were skilled people. And I got a bit ill and had some time off, did a PhD at City University and went to GRM myself and worked in those studios, the other thing is I’ve always worked, worked, worked, as a lecturer or as a musician or as a teacher, I’ve always done something in music and that was really important, just to work, and have an income to buy computers and speakers and that was always really, really important to me.
[Sketches by Jo Thomas; thanks again to Jo for the interview]