Using found sound, samples and vocals, long time collaborators Quinta, Caroline Weeks, Rebecca Waterworth and Alice Eldredge might defy the popular definition of a chamber group, but if you prefer Goethe's description of chamber music as a musical conversation, then Collectress will no doubt inspire and delight. Themselves informed and inspired by living performance, Collectress fight the modern instinct to flock towards the safety of the studio. The Brighton-based four prefer to live their music through live performance, only recently committing their passion to a recording with their debut album Mondegreen on Peeler Records. The experimental chamber quartet, have worked across many mediums including film, dance and installations with the National Portrait Gallery, Penguin Cafe, Philip Selway, Partick Wolf and Secret Cinema and continue to explore and expand their repertoire to include all the facets of creative expression.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
We’ve all played and made music since childhood in various forms but we met in 2000, at quite a heady time in Brighton’s music scene, and immediately began to make music in the intuitive, improvisatory way we do today. This approach came very naturally and without any particular planning. I think it’s fair to say that our environment and a shared passion for making and exploring was more of an inspiration than any particular artist or idea. Keeping the music vital was very important to us; each show we played saw us adapting our music, improvising, creating new for both ourselves and our audiences. We rarely played the same set twice.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
Well, our first serendipitous meeting, but since then there are a few miles stones of note. In 2009, galvanised by a few exciting commissions, we formed what is now Collectress. In 2013, we were delighted to receive a PRSF Women Make Music award, a moment of recognition which not only helped financially but gave us a great sense of forward momentum and confidence. The following year, we decided that it was time to bring together a collection of material and produce an album; Mondegreen was made.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
These are probably divided into the practical and the artistic. For a band like ours, finding adequate space and time can sometimes present significant challenges. We’ll certainly be neither the first nor the only musicians to crave a dedicated studio space filled with our own instruments, red-light-ready, with enough time to make the most of it. Though each of us has busy lives outside the group which can be a bit of a challenging juggling act, we like to think it’s this very thing, this flexibility, this space to wander and come back, that enriches what we make when we do meet.
We’d like to expand the visual side of our performances, which can be tough without a proper budget. But according to the old necessity and invention chestnut, we usually find a way and enjoy that it makes us become more resourceful and creative!
Compositionally, we are at a very interesting point, having just released Mondegreen. Launching music formally into public space like this can turn a mirror onto your process; make you interrogate what you’re trying to say in different ways; make you see yourself from the outside. An album starts a conversation, and with that, somehow, comes responsibility. We always try and stretch ourselves musically, and releasing records feels like a good way of doing that; it makes you move from the half-finished to the complete and makes you say ‘this is me’.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
Practically, a cup of tea! More seriously, we work quite collaboratively and it is this process of collective development which is perhaps our defining principle. Some pieces come from playing freely or with an idea as a group. Others are spawned by each of us individually - in a moment of procrastination, a way of thinking through something else in life, or a very conscious, musical reaction to balance existing material – and then brought along in various stages of development – from a full printed score to a line drawing and everything in between. But no matter what the origin, we start and continue to develop things by playing together!
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
There is generally no premeditated division, more a response to the material itself. Sometimes you can will a finished, structured, composed form, which just doesn’t sit right and grows much more effectively with a freer improvisatory approach; at other times an idea which emerges in improvisation becomes reified in a structured composition later. Maybe it is useful to think of it as a continuum: some composition takes place days, weeks, months or years in advance of a performance or recording, and some take place instantly.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Intimate. Although ideas for pieces and even whole compositions might originate in the abstract, the real work happens in the particular space and time of performance. Paraphrasing Evan Parker, there are things you can control (your choice of strings, technical practice, plans to play particular notes etc.), but this is the starting point. Once you actually sit down and play, it’s about listening and responding to the sounds emanating from your own instrument and others as they bounce around the room. In a small group like ours, the effect of any particular space is amplified to the point where major changes can occur. This might just mean playing something badly, at worst, or inspiring 20 minutes of previously unimagined music, at best.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
While we’re prepared at the least to be suggestive about our music-making process, we have in general let the music largely speak for itself during performances. How an audience member perceives what they hear is unique and depends on so many things, most of which are beyond our control. If it means something to a listener to understand compositional processes or musical structures, they’ll likely find a way or have the skills to access those things. For another listener, it could be the narrative or pictorial quality which engages them, and they’ll find themselves on a different tack. Just as context affects each of our performances, a listener will bring a set of feelings, experiences, observations, specific to that moment. We like it that way. You can’t make people find meaning in something unless they’re moved to be invested in it somehow, and we hope we make music that permits that, that lets audiences in. Probably there is a quality to acoustic instruments and to music made through collective improvisation that is open, live, generous, even exposing, and there is certainly a sense of transparency in this on its own, with no need for us to shout about it.
In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
Each of us will necessarily hear music according to our own experiences and judge it according to our own tastes. Musical perception is unique, and dependent upon how we’ve individually processed what surrounds us culturally. Inasmuch as these judgements are contingent on our own specific pasts, our creative decisions are also shaped by them. Certainly, the Venn diagram of our musical tastes, influences, and knowledge, finds lots of overlap! We have different points of view artistically, but lots of common ground and we trust each other’s instincts.