Name: Dominic Murcott
Occupation: Composer, percussionist, educator
Current Release: The Harmonic Canon on Nonclassical
Recommendations: The Wild Blue Yonder, a film by Werner Herzog from 2005. Apart from scenes with a single actor talking to camera, it is made up entirely of documentary footage from Nasa of Space Shuttle Missions and diving footage from Antartica by cameraman and experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser. This footage is reimagined as a science fiction story and together with a timeless soundtrack by cellist Ernst Reijeseger it is a completely unique experience.
If you enjoyed this interview with Dominic Murcott, visit his website or bandcamp profile for more information and music.
Dominic Murcott is also a member of chamberpop ensemble The High Llamas with Sean O'Hagan. Read our Sean O'Hagan interview here.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I arrived late to composition. My first passion was playing the drum kit.
I did badly at school - a combination of nomadic home life and possibly undiagnosed dyslexia - but started teaching myself drums at the age of 14. My favourite musicians early on were Ian Dury and New York’s James Chance. Funky, angry music.
By the time I was 21 I was making a living by touring and recording half the year and teaching drums the other half. I was never particularly content just playing drums and at the age of 24 sought out dance companies to perform with. My first experiences were exciting and raw, playing at Cool Tan, a squatted art centre in Brixton and at London’s Dance Umbrella at the Place Theatre. It was several years before I felt I could call myself a composer but that was the start.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
My problem when I began was that I didn’t copy others enough and missed out on some key skills. I had started playing drums in isolation and started composing in the same way. I’ve always been autodidactic and this has not necessarily helped, but when I was 25 I was in a bad car crash and couldn’t play, so took that as an opportunity for change and went to study music at university.
There was no composition teaching as such (there were some good composers who were terrible teachers) but I managed to get my theory and contextual knowledge to a respectable level. It was only after I had left and got stuck into a PhD that I managed to finally close the circle between my personal interests and composition skills and begin making something that was both competent and my own.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
I didn’t call myself a composer until I was over 30 years old, so was facing different challenges to people who have that as a starting point. My initial challenge was finding the right combination of techniques and experience to give me some confidence.
I was lucky however, because I’m a good teacher and managed to get work at various universities quite rapidly. This pushed me to keep going and also gave me access to different communities. Over time my confidence has increased, but the sheer hard work is the same as it always has been.
I suppose having a full-time job running a composition department at a music college as well as three kids is a challenge in itself.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Being somewhat of a polymath, I learned to be a sound engineer as a part of my general musical skills. My home studio therefore is setup around a simple room with some acoustic treatment but a big-screen workstation with superb monitoring.
My current setup is based on PMC monitors with a sub that allows me to hear full range material at low volumes, powered by Bryston amps. I have a large desk that I can spread scores on, but almost everything is on screen now.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
The routines in my day are punctuated by meal times and exercise! Everything else fits around that. I have a day a week that is my composing time, and more at certain times of the year. During lockdown I became depressed and stopped composing, choosing to build synths and preamps instead, but now I do about an hour at 6am every morning and am developing a flow.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I have a complex strategy which is all about getting other things in life right in order to get to the ideal creative state of mind. I also have a more simple strategy which is that if I’m running out of time just do it!
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
This is s big question that I will try to answer concisely.
The pieces I am most pleased with are long complex works that have taken a year or more to write. The Harmonic Canon (2017 - released by nonclassical, UK), is a piece for two percussionists playing a ½ tonne custom-made double-bell plus an array of metal percussion. I did a few days of development with the US/Japanese percussionists called arx duo, where we chose the instruments and defined some basic material through a mixture of rapid sketches and improvisation. The duration of the work, two 21-minute movements, was dictated by what could fit on a vinyl release. The bells are tuned a semi-tone apart but, thanks the their computer design, share a common overtone, so all the material emerged from the actual qualities of the instrument.
Before I wrote any more notes I mapped out the complete structure, incorporating specific instrument choices and core material. I also came up with a time signature structure that meant that all tempo changes were in ratios of 3:4, 4:5 or 5:6 and could be done accurately by the players. It was only then that I actually filled in the gaps, which was by that stage, lots of fun!
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I embraced drum machines in my youth and sequencers from then onwards. Just about all my work, even for acoustic instruments, flows from paper to computer and back. Paper is always the starting point but I will move ideas from Logic to Max/MSP to Sibelius and anything else to help me get what I want from it.
I’ve done lots of research on the work of Conlon Nancarrow and I relate closely to his relationship with mechanical music making.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?
I started playing music in order to connect with people. I don’t really enjoy the solitude of composing a work but I recognise the necessity of it. I love any opportunity to develop ideas with players and will engage with them in any way that the current project needs.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Until something is performed I don’t really feel it exists. I certainly don’t know if a piece works until it is played. There is a fluid relationship between improvisation and composition that I don’t ever expect to fully understand.
Time is a variable only seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I’m fascinated by time. From the desire to meet myself or people I know at other times of their lives, to the tiny inflections that mean two notes sound in or out of sync. I wrote a ½ hour string quartet based entirely on synchronisation between players and film. It was finished in 2005 and looking back now it uses lots of ideas that have become commonplace during lockdown.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I don’t think I separate these two ideas. The timbre and the notes are not discrete ideas but appear and evolve together. I’m writing a piece for harp at the moment and it isn’t conceived for anything other than harp (but I suppose it could be adapted to something else in the future).
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I’ve done a few projects about music and other senses include an event with superstar chef Heston Blumenthal. Throughout all the work I’ve done, I’ve found the relationship with other senses to be personal and any attempt to formalise them to be somewhat tenuous.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I would like to think that I might make something that has a profound effect on somebody, that might even have a positive effect on a community that is in need of something. However I expect my art will always primarily be limited to a personal way of dealing with my own needs in life.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I don’t really worry too much about this! There is so much music out there, and so much made in the last 100 years by so many people in so many ways that there are already more concepts of music that any of us could ever grasp.