Name: Angus MacRae
Occupation: Composer, multi-instrumentalist
Recent release: Angus MacRae's new single "Amulet" is out now via Nation of the Sea. It is the harbinger of his full-lengh album Vivarium, scheduled for release on September 30th 2022.
Recommendations: Brahms Op.119 No.1 Intermezzo in A Minor. One of the most simple and beautiful pieces of music I know.
Stravinsky Firebird Suite. As close to perfection in orchestral music as I think is possible!
If you enjoyed this interview with Angus MacRae and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing the piano when I was 5. My mother is a piano teacher and classically trained musician so music was always around me growing up. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawn to music, or a time when I questioned whether making or playing music was part of me - it’s just always been all around.
The main music I heard as a child was classical. I have a distinct memory of hearing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony for the first time. I don’t think I understood the significance of that piece at the time, but I remember being obsessed with one chord progression and rewinding the tape endlessly to listen again and again. I think that was the first time I realised that music could tap into something so deep emotionally.
I started creating music of my own as a teenager. I have a classical training on piano, and studied music as a degree, but I’ve always been most drawn to creating it. Even now, I am much more compelled by creating music than consuming it. When I was supposed to be playing Chopin I was much more interested in improvising and figuring out chords and patterns that resonated with me emotionally.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
Beyond the emotional reaction, it really activates my brain. I can’t resist figuring out how the music was made - in fact what compels me about most art is the process behind its creation. I find close and focussed listening really rewarding as it forces you to engage fully with the music - to hear all the intricacies.
It really fascinates me how other people listen to music, particularly my own. I’m sure the way our brains process it and how we understand it is different for everybody. I don’t really see shapes and objects but the sounds exist in some kind of space in my mind - it’s almost like I can feel the different frequencies activating different parts of my brain.
I think the only time my brain fully switches off is when I’m improvising at the piano. That’s where I can find a total flow state, where my brain isn’t focussed on process and I’m being lead purely by feel.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
When I started out writing music, my main focus was on scores. I certainly saw myself primarily as a composer whose job was to bring somebody else’s vision to life rather than my own. But I realised after a few years that I had something to say artistically and couldn’t wait around for the right project to let me express it.
At first I would just write my ‘own’ music in the evenings, still mainly focussed on commissioned work and scores. I found it hard to justify spending endless hours on my own artistic endeavours without promise of a financial return - that’s what happens when you write music as a job, it becomes entangled with money in a way that’s unhelpful creatively.
It was only really in the 2020 lockdown, when the scoring work all stopped for a few months, that I started to find time for my own projects during the day time. It was a revelation! I suddenly found my best creative energy could be devoted to it, and since there was no other work around I got out of the cycle of beating myself up about spending endless hours working on it. And I really found a creative energy I hadn’t felt in a few years.
My latest album, Vivarium, is a product of that time. It feels to me like a real breakthrough in terms of my own voice - it’s the first record I’ve made which feels fully honest to me, and where I don’t hear the influences too prominently.
The scoring work has returned now and I still keep busy writing scores for theatre, ballet and film, alongside my own work. But I’ve struck a much better balance now. My own music is also influencing the scores more strongly now - I have a bigger voice as an artist, even on commissioned work, which is the goal I’ve always been pursuing.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I have thought about this for some time. I keep landing on the same answer.
The only thing I truly know about myself is that I like what I like. That is the only thing influencing me as a listener and a creator. I listen to what I like, and I create what I like to listen to. I don’t aim for anything more than that.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I’m fascinated by the idea of music as escapism. For me, music can build new worlds around a listener in a way that not many other art forms can - I guess because it has such a strong effect on people emotionally. Creating it is also a place for me to escape to and to rekindle a childlike sense of imagination and play.
In truth, when I’m creating, I don’t think too much about what specifically I’m trying to say or think too much about who might listen to it. I am really just seeking to find ideas that excite me - chords, melodies and timbres that resonate with me emotionally on that particular day and in that particular place. I can’t quantify that - it’s as simple as saying that I just seek to write music that I like. I am just sifting through sand waiting for a sparkle of gold in the pan, and hoping that I will uncover a goldmine underneath.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I’m wary of the idea that anybody should be making music or art for the future, or obsess too much over their place in the ‘museum’. It makes me question - who are we making it for? For me, art and music should always be made for the artist creating it, and we live in the present!
I think society often puts too much leverage on the idea of originality and innovation. It can be stifling, since no art exists in a vacuum. Originality begins at the micro level and often stems from imitation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If you keep creating long enough, your habits and tastes compound into something which others might consider original.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
The piano is always at the heart of what I do, and most of my music starts there. But what really excites me is using technology to elevate acoustic recordings into something bigger - to use recording and production as an instrument in its own right.
Traditionally, Classical music has existed primarily in the concert hall, and the recording is compelled to be honest to that live space. These are incredible spaces, but they sound a certain way and require a certain kind of music. What is most exciting to me is taking the traditions of Classical music and introducing technology as another weapon in the artistic arsenal.
For example, I can choose to place two instruments in two totally different spaces simultaneously, and create aural worlds for a listener to travel through with just a pair of headphones. That has an amazing power to affect the narrative the music is creating and to be a new element of music alongside harmony, melody and timbre - all of which have already been explored nearly to their limits.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
I’m very structured. I need routine, with times of creativity and times of rest. I’m trying to get better at the rest. I really think you can train your body to be creative on cue, as long as you turn up to the same place every day and follow the same routine.
My day starts with a cycle up the canals of East London to my studio in Hackney. I always plan and prioritise what I need to do the night before, so I know where to begin in the morning. I’ve put to one side the romanticised idea of the unstructured artist who only writes when their muse chooses to visit. I really think routine, ironically, is the most freeing and liberating tool artistically.
The morning is my most productive time - when I have the most energy, and some exercise first thing helps that. I usually get around three hours done and I aim for no distractions in that time. You have to create a flow state and that means getting all the neurons in your brain working to the same goal. You can’t have half of them distracted by emails or WhatsApp.
I’m trying to work less in the afternoons. It can be difficult to have the discipline, but I honestly think 3 hours of focussed creative work every day is about right. I read once that Roald Dahl worked three hours a day and he certainly didn’t have a shortage of work to show for it.
I try to spend the afternoons on planning and meetings. Planning is often undervalued as creative work. I get a lot of thinking done when I’m cycling or running, working through problems. I’ll always end by writing few lines about what I achieved and make a plan for what to focus on tomorrow. That routine tells me it’s time to switch off and rest, so I have the energy for creating tomorrow morning.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
My creative process is always evolving. My ideas usually start at the piano, but for my latest album, Vivarium, most of the ideas started with sound and texture.
I began writing it in the first lockdown, in 2020, when I couldn’t get out to my studio. I just had a laptop at home and a hard drive full of unreleased recordings I’d made over the previous couple of years - pieces I liked but couldn’t quite make work. I began to take fragments of these recordings and reinvent them, by building elaborate chains of effects, sending the recordings in and seeing what came out the other side. This was a really exciting new way to work for me - all of the sounds were derived from the original pieces but the results were often surprising and exciting.
I began to loosely structure these and then use them as the creative inspiration for new pieces, building and recording new layers. I eventually got back into my studio in the middle of 2020 and when it was possible I had instrumentalists in to record new melody lines and solos. The pieces were constantly evolving and the structure took a long time to pin down.
But this is by no means typical of my process. I recently wrote a ballet score and all of the music for that originated at the piano. Almost the entire score was sketched out at the piano first before I began arranging and orchestrating, both for acoustic instruments and electronic. The advantage of that approach is that I can work through musical knots before I start recording - to really refine the music. But it’s a less reactive approach, which can sometimes be exciting.
I’m not sure what my process will look like for the next music I create.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I love creating music both solo and collaboratively. Collaborations keep me inspired when my own creative well is drying up.
I’ve made a couple of EPs collaboratively with the incredible Ukrainian violinist and composer Natalia Tsupryk. We each work remotely, initially recording a fragment of an idea and then passing it back and forth, each building new layers in the music and tweaking its structure. There is a really exciting push and pull to this way of working - like we’re both crafting the same piece of clay - nobody quite sure of the other person’s vision, but somehow still finding a common goal and language.
I also just find it hugely inspiring to react to other people’s creativity, it is a constant injection of fuel, and that back and forth can propel collaborative projects forward much faster than solo ones.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
As I mentioned, the music I want to create is escapist, and doesn’t seek to comment on society or politics. I think I’m in a fortunate position to live in a society, and have a position in it, where I don’t feel it’s my place to comment. Plus I am most interested in music which appeals to the senses, rather than the mind.
The role of music in society is huge and varied, though. It can absolutely be political and create social change. Music can be a solitary or shared experience - it can bind cultures and societies together or speak to people on an individual level. It really is quite phenomenal to me the power that music has in our world.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
I’m convinced that music, and particularly creating it, is like a daily dose of therapy. I think the music I write helps me engage and express emotions that I’m not very good at articulating otherwise. It means the music I’m most drawn to writing is often melancholic, but I don’t think it reflects my nature as a person. Creating music which evokes those feelings in me helps me to understand them better and mean they play less of a role in my everyday life than I think they would otherwise.
My wife thinks I must have all sorts of angst bottled up that I’m not telling her about, but in truth the music I create provides the catharsis to those feelings, by bringing them to the surface often.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
The two are doubtless intrinsically linked, not least because the idea of music is surely just a human invention to quantify something that must have a scientific basis.
But I’m not sure whether science can improve our understanding of music. It can perhaps rationalise it or quantify why it has the effect on us it does. Perhaps it can also be used to design better systems to mimic the effects of music on people - to figure out the perfect musical combinations for maximum emotional resonance in people. But at that point, does music die? I would say it probably does. Science can explain the interaction of frequencies in sound but not the reason why those frequencies, when ordered correctly, can form complex narratives in the minds of their human listeners.
What can music reveal about science? Perhaps that there are parts of what it means to be human that cannot, and perhaps should not be quantified scientifically.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I actually don’t think that they are inherently that different. They are appealing to the same need - to feel something. That’s true of most aspects of our lives - it seems to me all we are really pursuing is to feel. And more often than not we want to feel good (the most subjective of words).
Caffeine and music both heighten our feelings. They often make us feel good. Mundane tasks don’t make us feel good. In fact they often tip the scale towards negative feelings and increase the craving for a counteracting dose of ‘good’ feeling. Music has such a strong cathartic power it’s no surprise that it’s been called ‘medicine for the soul’.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
There is certainly a mathematical reason why certain combinations of frequencies are appealing to us, and why certain sounds speak to us emotionally (and across the whole spectrum of emotions). But what I can’t understand is why these sounds in isolation mean almost nothing, but in context with other sounds can create complex emotional narratives and real physical reactions that almost nothing else can.
But … do we need to know why? I’m sure the answer feels much more prosaic than the experience of music we all feel. Could it diminish that feeling to know why? Aren’t the most exciting and intriguing parts of the world, or our universe beyond, still shrouded in mystery and possibility?