Name: Genevieve Murphy
Occupation: Composer
Nationality: Scottish   
Current Release: Genevieve Murphy's I Don't Want To Be An Individual All On My Own, featuring John Dikeman, Andy Moor, and Marta Arelis, is available now via Andy Moor and Yannis Kyriakides's Unsounds.

[Red our Andy Moor interview]
[Read our Yannis Kyriakides interview]

Recommendations: Book: Rebecca Solnit, “Recollections Of My Non-Existence”
Music: Ogoya Nengo, The Dodo Women’s Group “On Monday”
…. And any other song that makes you feel like you can tackle the day ahead of you.

If you enjoyed this interview with Genevieve Murphy and would like to stay up to date on her activities, visit her official homepage for updates and more information.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

It’s funny actually, I must have been about 7 years old and I heard Annie Lennox “No More I Love You’s”. I was in the car and it was on one of my brother’s complication tapes. It blew my mind! I couldn’t believe music could sound like this. I was singing the intro melody on top of all the other songs that came after it and had it on repeat. I guess I couldn’t believe music could create such a feeling and it was then that I realised the power of music and how it can transport you into another world.  

For most artists, originality is 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?

My first composition teacher, David Fennessy, said “Forget about the names of the chords you are playing and just choose the ones you like”.

I believe it’s very healthy to try to emulate works that inspire you. I studied classical piano as well as composition so I felt I was climbing into composers' minds all day everyday, really trying to understand what they might have wanted. I learned Jonathan Harvey, “Wheel Of Emptiness” and at the same time tried to compose a work just like it. Looking back, I realise I did it with sincerity and genuine enjoyment that it was authentic, and already sounding like me.

I don’t believe that our creativity comes from nowhere and as long as you stay in touch with yourself, your influences will be covered in your own character. This is how art evolves, it doesn't just come out of anywhere.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

In terms of my identity, I allow all music from any country, background and time to influence me but the music I make will always have a Scottish folk sound to it whether I like it or not!

I believe very much in coexistence - allowing genres and approaches to work together. I have always been fascinated by what the human ear can interpret as “music”. The more one learns the more one can broaden their perspective of sound. Everything is music, and therefore everything is inspiring - not only from things I hear, but also from things I see. However, I never want to forget that initial experience when I heard Annie Lennox.

It’s been very hard to reject melody in my work, and I like to play with connection and disconnection through melody. I love the idea that my music can reach a person physically, not only stimulating their mind but also making their body move.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

When studying at a conservatoire we get a lot of input and pressure to be profound and original. I feel that the biggest challenge is to stay honest and to keep in touch with what you really love. Sometimes I found myself composing works that were dominated by what I should do rather than what I want to do.

I still find that if I’m composing in a busy environment I start to imagine people’s opinions and expectations. So now when I’m making a work I escape to the countryside or to a building that feels far away from people. If I feel safe from pressure I can create work that I personally enjoy and it’s very likely that if I like it others might like it too.

I love sharing my work with an audience and there’s nothing worse than making something you don't actually like, plus, people can tell!

Time is a variable only seldomly 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?

Tension, ambiguity, humour and direction are all about timing.

I like to write catchy melodies that hook the listener into the music and at the same time steer them off into a direction that leaves the listener hanging in mid air. Through ambiguity there is a sensation of feeling unsure about where we are going and if we are in fact going anywhere. Music can build tension in such an incredible way, creating the sensation that something is about to happen next to feeling like we might never get there.

I also like to use comedy in music, which is dependant on timing. A recent piece I composed leaves one musician alone in the ensemble playing random, sparse notes while everyone else watches and waits for them to finish, it’s confusing and very funny.

I have also composed works which are concentration tests used as scores. One work begins with clear direction and determination before the musicians lose the pulse, end up completely out of sync with one another until one person is left alone - tension high - while they struggle to reach the end of the piece. Once they arrive at the end the tension in the room pops into a burst of relief.

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 necessarily separate sound and composition. I allow sounds to inspire me and either I compose for them or ask them to stay as they are. For example, hearing an old voice in combination with a young voice singing a song we all know. I compose according to a specific concept and anything that emphasises my message I will use. Sometimes the sound is connected to a physical image, at times a sound sparks an association in ones mind, other moments require me to refer to a genre and therefore I would integrate a sound into a style of music, or I feel inspired to compose a concerto for that specific sound.

Often I like to combine unfamiliar sounds with familiar sounds in order to create ambiguity in pitch, genre, instrumentation and influence. Leaving aspects open creates more space for the listener’s interpretation.

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?

I often try to do everything myself! This is something I’m trying to do less of. In my recent works I composed the music, wrote the text, performed, directed, made the costume etc. and am now trying to delegate tasks so that I can focus and go deeper into one or two more specific roles.

I feel I have two lines of work: one as a solo artist creating stand alone works and the other that receives commissions for existing ensembles and composes within other projects. By working in other projects where there is a large team and I am the composer I have learned the benefits of teamwork and creative input from other disciplines. This has inspired my solo work and for the pieces I plan to direct in the future I look forward to collaborating with other artists who can contribute to the piece from their own speciality.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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?

OK. I wake up around 8.30, breakfast, dress, start to work around 10.00 at the latest. I usually spend a full day on emails and organising future projects - usually a Monday. Sometimes there is the odd meeting on other days but if the week is too fragmented I find I’m not getting anything done.

For the rest I compose, develop ideas in the studio, research or rehearse. I try to stop working around 18.00 but sometimes an idea requires more time and I go until 20.00. I only work after 22.00 when I’m reaching a deadline or premier but I actually shouldn’t do this! It’s very hard not to answer emails or pick up the phone but I often have to just block everyone out and focus on creating. If I am working on a piece and the deadline is getting closer I often disappear. I am getting better at warning people in advance about this!

My concepts always come from a personal experience and therefore I have found it hard to separate life and work. I often write things down that I hear people say, or sounds that I hear when I’m doing an everyday action. My work is inspired by the everyday and I frequently include domestic materials and subjects in my work. However, it is also important to switch off and to simply enjoy life without the constant pressure of work and having ideas. The most challenging thing is that I am my own boss, so it’s hard to tell myself when to stop working. If I find that I am only putting out ideas and not absorbing life, work becomes a burden.

On a day off, if I decide to go to the beach, I have to tell myself, “I am not working now, just simply walking along the beach”, but of course as soon as something catches my eye and triggers an emotion, this will feed into my work.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

The work “F.I.N.E” standing for “Fucked. Insecure. Neurotic. Exhausted”, composed for Nieuw Ensemble, was a breakthrough work for me. It was personal, sad, funny, articulate and colourful. I made it straight after struggling with various emotional experiences and was having therapy back in Scotland. The work was inspired by insecurity, perseverance and connection and combined a concentration test with karaoke, popping balloons, music, and a recording of my Grandmother with Alzheimer’s.

I didn’t necessarily talk about what I was going through, nor include myself in the work, it was a rather clinical piece in that sense but due to this it invited the audience and musicians to express emotion in ways that was personal to them.

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 think the most difficult thing is the desire to be in the ideal state. You can almost strangle your state by worrying about not being in the right state. The main thing is to just start, just create, get on with it, even if what you are making is rubbish. It’s a bit like when you run the tap and all this dirty water comes out. You need to keep running the tap until the water becomes clear.

I’ve stopped worrying about that now and try to just tap into whether the thing I am making is an honest interpretation of my inner world.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

My concepts are often based around psychology and disability. I always say that I find it wonderful to have an audience but if I manage to speak to one person that becomes effected by what I make then that’s the main thing.

For example, my brother is autistic and I made a work inspired by my experience of this. Someone from the audience wrote to me afterwards saying,

"Being an autistic man myself, I was struck by the warmness, the busyness and electronic elements, seemingly symbolic of the mental "short circuits" one on the spectrum can experience. Changing the world might be a daunting task but you certainly made mine more beautiful tonight.”

I think I cried reading this.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

It’s important to be honest and sincere. I find it hard to listen to something that culturally carries a lot of weight and yet it has become trendy and therefore used without fully understanding its background and what it represents. Being part of a movement is a wonderful thing in art but it’s important to see and hear the artist inside their work so that I can find their personal view in relation to their subject.

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?

I find it interesting that nobody listens on the phone with their eyes closed. Sound triggers startling sensations changing our perception of shape and colour. A radio too brings sounds of aliveness and I always try to look at something when I hear sound.

I often try to include the subject of colour in a concert hall. The idea that we “go to see a concert” has always fascinated me. Just by asking a musician to say the word “blue” brings the colour blue into the space.

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?

Basing my subjects around psychology and disability means that I include everyday experiences in my work. I want to speak to the individual and like to work with domestic scenarios and objects. I like to think of people expressing their emotions in their homes, our washing machine, sofa, bed, walls etc. are like diaries absorbing our reactions to life. I am driven by expressing specific yet abstract emotions which are relevant to today's society and try to be a voice by sharing my personal perspective in a way that is relatable.

Work deriving from a personal experience means it has an honesty behind it, a vulnerability yet openness which I hope welcomes others to share and relate to my work.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Emotions are extremely abstract things and the beauty of music is that it can go straight into the body in a way that words cannot. Words go via the mind, to be processed and understood, whereas music can connect to a person physically before they can even understand what’s happening to them.

Emotions and music have similar characteristics: they both come over and through you without your control, they are intangible, invisible, often familiar and identifiable but still not always easy to get along with.