Who or what inspired you to peruse a career in music?
I knew from a very early age, probably 15, that I wanted to be a composer. Both of my parents were musicians – there was music daily in my primary school and later a close friend and his family, with whom I spent a lot of time, were serious musicians and had a big influence on my life. Classical music was woven into the fabric of life. Also, the LP record, from first youth, was everywhere – I had hundreds. I was especially drawn to Modernism in classical music. Everything I could find or could afford I devoured avidly. I was particularly taken by the way it shaded off into electronics and where the Electronic Avant Garde was indistinguishable from it at a certain level.
I suppose it was people like Stockhausen and early period (1967-77) Tangerine Dream who first fired me up to the thought of making music as a life’s occupation. I was academically-minded but strong-willed with it and got myself thrown out of school. Fearing that music was leaving me behind, I moved my whole life towards music – taking the A-level course at the local college. Talking music all day – I could have died. Until I very nearly did as a nasty brush with cancer flattened my life aged 19. The excitement of that time though, that teacher, never left me – pulling me back to music years later at University. Meanwhile, another love of Modernism – in Visual Art – was also tearing me apart and it was to art that I turned after the cancer in the late 80s. I had quite a full career as a international artist, founding Elementalism as a branch of OP Art (which is a whole other story). My visual art though is shot through with musical references and the term ‘Elementalism’ would find its way, with me, back into music later in life.
As a sideline to art I developed as a percussionist – playing at small festivals and folk gigs, making a bit of name for myself. I gave a recital at my home town University of Derby in 2006. A nice concert hall – and afterwards, a man in the audience asked me if I would like to use his recording studio. The cork came out the bottle – I soon set up my own studio – Studio Isabel – and years of pent up music poured out. I approached music as a series of research projects, documenting my progress as works. Now I could make sound into persisting entities – recordings. Acts of musical thought that persisted after the fact – like lines on a canvas. Like my heroes the composers, discovering what I thought music was or could be.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
It has to begin with Mahler – I loved the legions before him but no one reached in deeper than Mahler did. And then there was Berg – as a young man I studied the Second Viennese School, but I really focused on him. It seemed to me that a line passed from Mahler to Berg. His Violin Concerto opened something for me. It was Bartok though who gave me a gestural soundworld I could use. His intense use of rhythm and gesture was a seismic shock to me – and a lesson deeply learned. I climbed my way through the 20th century to dizzying heights it seemed to me of Ligeti, Lutoslowski and Schnittke. And Stockhausen and Henze – both of whom I met. Henze I adore for his gigantic structures and notions of organising complexity. It was such a loss to me when he died. I had followed him since my teens, counting the symphonies as they came. He was a giant to me, a font of the incomprehensibly brilliant, superhumanly great. I have often said ‘He was MY Beethoven.’ Then came a whole new level of direct influence in Berio and Nono – whose ghosts haunt my music in quotation, figure and gesture. Another everlasting presence in my music is Bach – in the spirit of his notion of Invention. His works for solo instruments, that can bravely fill the whole musical mind, as an ensemble in themselves. This is how I approach solo percussion – which makes up a large section of my work – in the internal structures of the many suites of inventions for different kinds of drum and metal object – and in the 10 Drum Sonatas. Deep listening and high concentration are called for to find and enjoy this structuring – as in Bach – my model, hero and God-like figure. This is a whole tranche of my work – a whole research project I call ‘Drum music’ or DM – with its own suite of dedicated albums. I am then a performer and a recording artist – with my own record Label ‘Drowningcircle music’ or DCM.
What have been the greatest challenges or frustrations of your career so far?
I suppose the greatest challenge – so far – has been the journey itself, if that doesn’t sound paradoxical. There wasn’t a career path for the way I’ve gone, there wasn’t a model. I didn’t plan to do it this way, it was simply that this was the way it had to be. I had possibility thrust upon me and made the best use of it I could. A chance meeting at that percussion recital – the recording offer – and I have my first album. That part I say was easy. I wanted to test this notion I had of Invention – after Bach – I’d been thinking about it for years. It is really what I did as an artist – to engage the eye and the mind in a sequence of arrangements and variations in ‘Form.’ That in turn was a notion that came from my studies in music. It fed back into music, in my percussion work – only this time I caught it on tape, process and all – at last.
Music was, would be, I thought, a sideline to my visual art. It turned out to be the sideline which killed off my art – music was just too strong. It had always been there at the root – it was the root. I used to think of my art in musical terms – adding a blank score below a picture, like someone might ‘play it’, or in giving pictures Opus numbers. And that is whole other story. I didn’t plan to stop drawing – but I was coming to an end with it – 900 something works and the concept – Elementalism – had worked itself out. Music was the accident waiting to happen. Twenty years before when I ‘left’ school, to study music, I was following a dream. And at university I followed the dream again, after the cancer, in the early nineties – but then I turned professional in art because that was my strongest suit. When the art was ending in 2006, music was waiting ‘as a microphone in a recording studio’, and I was a practiced percussionist who had been teasing ‘Invention’ out of solo instruments for years. As once in geometric form, so now in figuration and gesture. Now I was making a distant dream of music a concrete reality. And proceeded to sell that concrete reality on CD at live events. It was that hard expression of recording that I’d never previously had – or life could have been very different.
Getting time at the studio was difficult – and quite a journey too. Fundamentally, I wasn’t really happy with the quality. There was a second unfinished album, so I set up my own studio and I had what I call a creative Big Bang. Areas of research interest settled out in very short order. The ‘Drum Music or ‘DM’ that I had made a start in, recording albums of DM works, continued apace. However there was another species of percussion – on metal, on wood, on any capable object – works for which gave me a second dedicated area of exploration, with it’s own physical space to work in – this I call Metal Percussion music, or MPM. Electronics with both kinds of percussion and my huge background interest in Electronic music led to its another dedicated research area, my largest – Electronic music – EM, the third of Five Tranches that make up my music. The fourth was with tape looping and phase effects – something that had a parallel in my visual work, I called Phase music, or PhM. The last to emerge was a species paralleling Classical music, as work with orchestral instruments – ‘Music for Strings, Electronics and percussion or MSEP. All this was such a confusion – with documentary works, ideas and groups of proto albums forming around the notions of those five Tranches – I threw my hands up and said ‘OK – let’s sort all this out’. The result – a hard group of 27 albums neatly sorted out into those group collections, Setting a pecking order once and for always in my work. I just kept building on that foundation. For a long pointless reason I call these my Blue Cherry group. It’s the foundation group, a secure beginning for all that followed.
Another thing that I brought with me from the art was the notion to number works, itself from my music studies, feeding back, feeding back. In art I had a canonical works catalogue – ‘CW.’ Paralleling that, as recordings came of completed, acknowledged works, I give them ‘Rh’ numbers. Originally this meant ‘Rhythm’ – which my first recordings were, essentially. Soon though the output graduated into things far beyond just rhythms. I dropped the word but the letters stayed. It was comfortingly like my art world life.
It wasn’t plain sailing on the other side of this foundation group but it was never quite that difficult again. Everything had somewhere to go and I had five directions to do it in. The next big group of albums I thought of as a wide new horizon of possibilities – hence ‘New Horizon’ – whimsically enough. The important thing though, are those 5 directions I set myself, that go right through my work, each with their own series of albums. At times their notions overlap and blur – I call these effects cross currents but the intention I feel is understood.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I have been talking about the music in my name, the five Tranches, where I am Composer and often performer and of which there are now 126 album volumes. In addition to this is what I sometimes think of as a sixth Tranche – that of music in close Collaboration – Collaborative music or Cm. I like working in collaboration, very much – I love it. My role is usually to structure, to finish, to polish, to produce, ideas we have worked on in common, or where an early phase of material is given over to me in a collaboration. My four main collaborations, have been in four multi Album Duos – there are many others with just a few or one production, all on my DCM label.
I have been very open to this right from the beginning. Visual Artists don’t usually work with one another – musicians I have found do this naturally. As a musician I have actively sought to do this – as an Artist I did not – it was unnatural and unthinkable. Quite by accident I came across Jim Tetlow, my first big collaborator, in an electronic trio in Leicester’s underground music scene – I knew the others but not him. We spoke and our lives were instantly changed. I recorded with him on stage the next time – like me his mode of working was the CD album as a canvas. We made allot of music together – closely combining composition and production as ‘Tetlow and Broadhurst.’ Through him I met Cellist David Dhonau, who was then playing with the classical Trio Accortumn. With him I formed the duo ‘D’juil’ [pronounced ‘Da-Xule’] – later ‘Ensemble D’juil’. Our 22 experimental albums for Cello with Electronics, Percussion, Bass, Woodbox, Violin or second cello have been groundbreaking for me in the studio and live. I love this guy like a brother – and, our work together has attracted the attention, some from amazing people, like Neil Heyde – Professor of Cello at the RAM, and Ken Hesketh – Professor of Composition at the RCM. Ken Hesketh has been particularly kind to my work.
The third of my ‘Big Four,’ to coin a phrase, came in at a low-point in my collaborative work. I don’t remember how I met him – he was just there, with the perfect solution to my problems. Berlin based, German Wind Specialist – Markus Wenninger. A most remarkable man – with an almost superhuman ability to play any wind instrument. It has been said that you can’t write something he can’t play. Many have tried. We began as a trio –‘JJM’ – with Croatian composer Jurica Jelic [Jurica – Julian – Markus] – and a concert length development of a theme by Jurica –‘Breeze.’ JJM became a publishing platform for the three of us. I worked a little while with Jurica as Anjelic [JuliAn jellic] but found the most wonderful wellspring of creativity with Markus – and 12 Albums as Wenninger Broadhurst. He even played some Artworks of mine as ‘found Scores’. I would set him in Solos, and in layered, duets, trios, quartets, and quintets. We are always finding interesting thing for each other to do ! The latest thing is wants to learn and play my compositional study for Six Trombones – after Berio – ‘Beriom 1 – on a single instrument. With his superhuman ability he can do it – if anyone in the world can do it – like Paul Cassidy on the Piano – superhuman.
Then Serbian Pianist Marina Vesic, fresh out of the conservatoire in Vienna, asked me to work with her. We recorded 5 experimental albums for Piano and percussion as Konnyek [from Bartok’s Bluebeard]. Fiery and brilliant, Marina turned later to all kinds of music, with a wide range of people – Very happy to have been part of that. My work with her is on the JJM platform.
How would you characterise your compositional language and how do you work?
I arrived later in life than I suppose is normal, to the idea of having what you might call a publicly productive life in music. Arriving from a long but necessary detour in Visual Art – I was accustomed to being the complete author of my work. Percussion was the area of practical musicianship I had retained. It was, sadly, something I thought I’d never do anything with. The gold standard for me, in music, was the recording. I’d had a million ideas – I would carry drumsticks and beaters everywhere, any sufficiently resonant object would engage me. I adored the sound of Metal, and wood – I was fascinated by the possibilities of percussion on what you would call Idiophones – objects of indefinite pitch. If I wasn’t drawing – or listening to music, I was rehearsing an imagined Work in music, pitch and rhythm, fascinating me like effects in visual art. But at the time recording was not something, available. It was very expensive, beyond my means. I often asked galleries if I could also perform but it rarely happened and when it did it remained undocumented as work, something my life was geared to produce
The structure of my percussion was complex – I dissected it as a language – thinking of this structuring as works unrealised – unfinished until captured notated or recorded. When I was offered the chance to record – to realise works as sustainable documents, like drawings recording visual actions and thought – it unleashed a creativity unknown to me. I’m not a sound artist though. I am a musician – everything had the presumption of music. It inculcated my life from the earliest times. I’d thought about it day and night and now it was in my grasp.
Percussion is something special to me, tuned and untuned. Some drums are so extensive in their possibilities of sound graduation, pitch and timbre – that I said it was like having an orchestra beneath your fingers. Every graduation of attack, every part of the skin, every finger and pair of fingers – was a line, with two and three pairs of fingers I had polyphony. With phrasing and degrees of punctuation as volume and silence I had a communicative music. With figuration, phrasing and punctuation I had syntax. I had ‘Invention’ and variation. I could sit down in front of a microphone and explore the possibilities in given theme or motif. Large-scale ‘composition’ for different kinds of drums and resonant objects gave me my first sets of musical Works. Impossible to notate, for their length, complexity and timbre – so the performance of the work, became the work, the Recording as the Work in itself. Notation was the glittering prize and a poisoned chalice – how would I get performed ? And anyway I didn’t know enough yet there was so much to discover. I was developing those research areas I spoke of – the Drum music and the Metal Percussion music. I was beginning to think of music beyond actual performance like Milton Babbitt had and in the studio – multi-layering offset looping – symmetrically and asymmetrically – and music was becoming something different – my own electronic music bringing in colour over timbre. With Electric Bass. Violin, Cello and flute + a set of tubular bells – the wealth of possibility was mind bending. I had sacrificed notation for total control of the musical Soundscape – painting in the finest detail – cutting to a thousandth of a second. Studio production is a part of composition. I availed myself of it. The studio gave me a music of phase control – and the Phase music as the fourth research area and a the fifth – that of the Music for Strings, Electronics and Percussion, which is now my second largest area with 31 albums. All the while these techniques are feeding into my collaboration and they, are feeding back, into all of this.
Jim Tetlow – my first collaborator is a professional graphic artist and can produce anything I can imagine and a lot I can’t. Together we produced album covers for our work together – my many works with others and about 40 titles of my own on Bandcamp as downloadable albums – that people can and do buy- better yet for people to just explore. It has taken me years to pick up all the pieces – still falling back down to earth from my creative Big Bang. The whole publishing project now runs to well over one hundred titles. I asked what music was – and set out to find out. I discovered a music quite distinctly other – a music just so.
I wrote a guide to the music for musicologist Tom Hewitt, for his PhD that will include my work, and it is far too long to reproduce here – so I will just give a pointer to a couple of items from each area – as Dear Frances invited me to do so.
So – a very short guide to (some of) the music.
In the Drum music area – my second album ever – also Dm 2 – ‘Five Sonatas’ – a Very, very early album – but it is the distillation of 25 years of performance practice – the first 5 of eventually 10 Solo drum sonatas. I chose the word very carefully – as an endorsement of a technically demanding – technically advancing solo display piece.
And just for contrast – a recent percussion piece my – 6th inventions for Djembe – Dm 24.
My choice for a Metal Percussion Album MPm 4 – is my Collection centred around the Sonata for Tuned Metal no. 1 – a riot of metal sonorities. It includes my Work Kollapse which makes a interesting contrast.
For a Phase music [Phm] choice I pick my Beriom 1 – 3 Compositional Studies after Berio for Six Trombones – Phm 9.
A piece from the Music for string, Electronics and percussion [MSEP] stable – If you have the time to take a look is the Cello suite in 8 Intonations ‘Never Not Actually Arriving’ – MSEP 17.
Lastly an Electronic music [Em] choice – this is difficult – my largest area of work – I think I’ll go for the pieces I wrote for Coventry Cathedral – for the reconciliation – atonement Ceremonies – my Coventry Canticles – made from the voices of bells [hence Canticles – for voices – of atonement] – Em 26.
Just one choice to represent all the people I’ve worked in collaboration with – Ohh harder to pick than the Em choice. I will go for a ‘Wenninger Broadhurst’ piece since many of you will know Markus – a Wind Genius not of this Earth. From our 12 albums together I choose No. 12 ‘Neble B & C.’ A series of pieces in 3 groups. Neble A – B and C – on two albums. Try to the 13 minute flute Solo that is Neble B – a very close collaboration!
The big news now, since I started to try and write this about six months ago – and just coming through, is that The British Library asked me [I have to hear myself say it ‘Asked me ?’] – for a copy of the music – all 126 albums and 60 odd volumes in collaborations. They insist, a security I could never otherwise have – for the National collection. You couldn’t make it up. I wish my parents were still here to see it.
Who are your favourite musicians / composers?
Oh where would I start – where would it end ? It would be six times as long as this whole interview – a book length subject in its own right.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
London, RAH, the Proms, summer ’93 it must have been, just before I finally got to University that October. Hans Werner Henze was premiering his Requiem. I met him afterwards, then as a young artist, but bubbling over with a passion for modern music. I was an evangelist for modern music and bored my friends rigid with it. Including the poor woman I’d dragged with me. Wild about meeting my hero – somewhere in the RAH backstage – he introduced me to an elegant middle-aged woman standing next to him. ‘Mahler’s Grand Daughter’ – he said gruffly – Marina Mahler daughter of Anna, My knees gave. Like a gibbering idiot all I could say – ‘you’re not !’ Taking her hand I mumbled – ‘Flesh of his flesh.
There was a Proms picnic afterwards on Hyde Park and he asked me to join him – which indeed we did. As if it couldn’t get any better – as I was leaving, he stood up and gave me a shallow gentlemanly bow. That can never be equalled for me. The day I met my Greatest Living Hero. They say don’t meet your heroes – but he has never disappointed me. He was my Beethoven.
What do you consider the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think it was Jonathan Dove who in his MTA interview said ‘write the music you most want to hear’ – that we write the music we most want to hear I think is valid and true to a point. For myself I would add two favourites of my own coinage. ‘Be your own academic’ – try to organise your music in such a way that you convey your intentions and subtleties. I think most young composers are very good at that with websites recordings, concert notes etc. Which leads to – ‘Be world ready for when the world is ready for you.’ I hope I shall be. I hope I am.
What is your idea of perfect happiness ?
Walking in a vast, English parkland, where I leave the world behind – on a hillside looking down to a lake, not a building in remotest sight. The early summer sun is low, its light plays on the grass and through abundant trees, lighting their leaves from above. I live right beside such a place now. Sometimes I have often felt, ‘If there’s nothing more – let this be it.’
What do you enjoy doing the most?
I enjoy so much – driving in the country with a friend. A favourite café – tea and a bit of a scone (I am diabetic – can’t have a whole one). Enjoying music, my passion in life, performing and creating it. Thinking a problem through. Observing the progress of physics – since I was a child and with great interest – but all I can do is observe. It is a very interesting time to have lived in Physics and music. What a survey of recent times. I also love reading history and seeing how it all fits together. Rome, Vienna, Christianity and Islam and though the course of that – music. I am lucky to have been a very small part of what I love the most. People often say ‘May you live in Interesting times’ – I do – I have.
What are the special pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Well, I’ll you tell you when someone asks me – I’m fine with this – don’t need it to make a living that way – all my works are recorded (my gold standard) – I found my own voice in music – worked with some wonderful people. What’s not to like? So lastly – I would like to thank the Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) for inviting me to become of those ‘Names’ in the Meet the Artist archive of interviews.
(photo courtesy of David Dhonau)