Name: Jim Simm
Occupation: Composer, pianist
Recommendations: Le Fils des Etoiles (complete) by Erik Satie. Listen to the Christopher Hobbs recording on London/HALL. There are two editions of the score, one by Chris Hobbs, published by Experiemental Music Catalogue, and one by Robert Orledge published by Salabert (although the Salabert edition contains errors).
If you enjoyed this interview with Jim Simm, visit the soundkiosk bandcamp page or the soundkiosk homepage for more music and information.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
It was 1977 and I was 16 years old. Three significant moments came together at that time. First and second, there were TV documentaries about Erik Satie and Steve Reich. The Steve Reich was the broadcast of a shortened version of Music for Eighteen Musicians. The third moment, I was listening on the small radio set in our kitchen (Radio Nottingham) and there was a feature on the Garden Furniture Music Ensemble which was then visiting the Nottingham Playhouse. There was an interview with John White as part of the feature. I met John White eventually, in around 1990 and we met up regularly for years and talked about music, life and so on.
Up to this point, I had listened to a lot of classical, pop and rock music: Punk, Glam Rock, Prog Rock. I must have listened to Tubular Bells about 100 times. My piano teacher, Mrs Towle introduced me to Ketèlby. I played a version of In a Monastry Garden. But I then really got into Avant Garde and experimental music. The big names: Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez and so on. I discovered the British label Obscure Records and so my focus shifted away from the Avant Garde to broadly experimental music, minimalism, and a kind of Satie-esque aesthetic. There was a lot to explore and this was helped by incredible library services, both the central library in Nottingham, and my small school library. At Nottingham library they had an amazing stock of scores including a score of Stockhausen's Kontakte which I studied meticulously, Steve Reich's Music as a Gradual Process too. The library was of great help and I was able to soak up a lot of music and ideas.
In 1982, Janet Sherbourne, Mark Lockett and Michael Parsons came up to Newcastle where I was studying Creative Arts at the Poly and studying composition with Steve Ingham. There was a York connection there. Michael Parsons has been a friend ever since. Later I worked with Michael on Satie based concerts in Brighton, and over the years lots of visits to talk about music and to share our latest work.
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?
I always had a voice and I always had ideas. I never considered at the beginning that I was emulating the music of others, but I did get the sense that I was writing within various 'traditions' established by others. In my early 20s I wrote minimalist pieces. They used principles like augmentation/diminution, gradual change, additive processes, and systems.
There was never a problem with finding my own material within these processes. I had discovered Mompou and was drawn to his principle of 'a maximum of expression with a minimum of means'. There was an element of that in Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons too. Clear, direct, musical statements.
It is more to do with what John White calls the 'green light' principle. Rather than copying someone else's music, you look for what is behind that music and use that as 'permission' or a 'green light' to go ahead and use your own ideas. I would advise other people not to believe the truism that 'everything has been done' or that 'there is nothing original'. This may be seen as an urge to pursue originality with more resolve, and as an urge to understand that originality has lost its relevance.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
At first, I felt there to be an external imperative to 'have something to say,' and to have what people call 'a voice'. But this concern has faded over the years. From '82, I lost my attachment to thinking that creativity was about 'inspiration', which always seems to come with a fear of the blank page. That idea of 'inspiration' was never a concern for me from around the mid-80s.
In the late 80s I adopted an approach similar to the Italian anti-design movement of Studio Alchimia, Memphis and so on. I found an anti-modernist sonic style full of ornament and decoration, musical non-sequiturs and superfluous effects around a solid tonal, melodic content.
In terms of the idea of developing a voice, it was not only Cage's statement on this: I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry. That statement asserts a concept of a particular kind of abstraction in music, and at least the possibility of an abstract music. Cage's statement defines a particular approach to artmaking. It is one that describes Cage's involvement in another, entire, movement in creative practice. Satie defined form before content. The movement I am describing defines temporal, periodic canvasses within which content is placed, and that is the movement within which my work exists.
To explain this in contrast to my early concerns, I define the 'when' of the music, and the 'what', in a sense, defines and decides itself from a previously established sound palette. There is no longer a concern over speaking in a defined voice. The music says nothing which is not in the mind of the listener, over which I have no control, and over which I have no desire to impose any control. I can steer, but I cannot carrot-and-stick a listener into my world.
John Cage's anecdote in reference to a performance of Wagner: “I don't mind being moved; I just don't like to be pushed”. Yet, now, despite my tendency towards abstraction, all of my recent music has real world associations, if only through my choice of title, but I no longer believe I have, nor a desire to have, anything to say. So, it's a 30 year plus process from a quest for meaning to an acceptance and an embrace of a very specific quest for abstraction.
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?
I need a piano. Everything begins with the piano. Favourite pianos have been a Knight upright, a Yamaha Electric Grand, a Yamaha P-150 and a Yamaha Avant Grand N1. I now prefer an electric or hybrid piano. I need a computer interface of some kind, a DAW and Finale notation software. Despite the tech, I still compose/notate with pencil on paper first, though not always with conventional, common practice, notation.
I need to live and work in a city (Nottingham, Newcastle, London, Brighton, Lincoln). I need constant stimulation. This feeds the work. I always have radio or TV playing, always choosing music-free options when possible. If adverts occur, I pause. I cannot let my thought processes go too deep; they need constant interruption.
I need urban life even with its limitations. I have worked in ridiculously small spaces all my life. Urban, yes, but I have my limits. For a while, I tried to write music at a Yamaha Electric Grand in one corner of a small kitchen in a friend's top floor flat in Frith Street, Soho, London. The shower room was just behind my chair. Three people living in a one bedroom flat. Later, they moved to Bethnal Green and I had my own room. Much better.
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?
It took a long time for me to discover that I need a strict routine. Get all the structural things right and that leaves the rest of the time within which I can structure the work on a separate timetable. Teaching days give a different structure to a day, but I see the teaching as part of that secondary timetable.
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 do not need to be 'in the zone'. For me it is extraordinarily little to do with a state of mind. It's a disciplined activity, yes, so I need to allocate time to it, but once I've established what the project is about, I don't need a specific state of mind.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that is 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?
The process I've been using for some years now has a number of stages. I begin with content, a palette. Around 2010 I realised I had been drawn to a sound world which you could call 'enhanced diatonic'. This led me to tonalities of 8 notes within the octave. The octatonic mode (alternating minor/major 2nds) had been used widely, but I defined all of the other 8 note modes (all combinations of minor/major 2nds within the octave) from 2012, this became my sound world of choice. Once I have chosen one of the octonic modes I have the character of the composition. Within that mode I then establish a palette of binaries (two note 'chords'). The next stage is to establish a repeated rhythmic structure onto which the binaries are hooked. This will then define the length of the piece and a series of bar lines are drawn onto paper. I then use a combination of chance and discernment to place the binaries (and rests), including combinations of binaries, into the defined time/space. There is no cadence or signalled ending. Once the pre-defined bars are full, the composition is complete.
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?
Currently, I use Finale to create scores for my pieces and Reaper to record my work. Some of my work uses battery powered synthesizers including Korg DS 'games', M01, DSN12, Teenage Engineering OP-1, Korg Kaossilators, Modal Skulpt, and Gadget on Nintendo Switch.
In the 80s and 90s I used an Atari ST computer running Dr. T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer including the Programmable Variations Generator. I composed my Alternative Routes (available on Bandcamp) using the 'In Between' feature.
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 collaborate with people who work in different media than me. Chromatic Fields is a collaboration with artist Duncan Bullen which consists of an artist's book and 80 compositions, mainly for piano. Duncan's Chromatic Fields drawings are built from multiple coloured points. My Chromatic Fields compositions mostly consist of individual notes. Chromatic Fields 1 to 40 consist of permutations of the 88 notes on a standard concert piano played as single notes.
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?
Live performance is always interesting, but to me is closer to an exhibition of the work rather than an expression of it. Since 1997, most of my music intended for performance or recording has included the possibility of considerable performer's choice in terms of how to play the compositions. If this is not important, then get a machine to play it. What I want to hear is something new, something that had not occurred to me. I learnt this from Julian Haxby's performances of my Game No.7 and the 1997 Piano Sonata.
For example, it seems clear that the standardisation of the concert grand piano shadows the development of recorded music and of the notion of a definitive performance practice. Recorded music is the creation of a definitive art object. Live performance needs to be different each time.
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?
Is that statement true? Is time seldom discussed? It is true that music theory, as taught, is primarily a theory of pitch. I believe that this consideration of time is a major concern for practitioners of experimental music. Isn't Cage's 4'33” about time? Time for me is like a space, a page or a canvas. My work exists within time, although it does not concern itself with time as a concept.
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?
It seems to me that electronic music is at its most interesting when it concerns itself primarily with timbre. That is what electronic music excels at. I have always been interested primarily with pitch, which is I think what you're describing as the 'compositional' rather than the 'sound'. I have always been interested in pitch systems: 12 tone music, Hauer's tropes, Peter Schat's Tone Clock, process music. I struggle to reduce the importance of pitch when I am working with electronics, so I have to work on simplifying the pitch content to enable timbre(s) to come through. The other aspect of sound that fascinates me is the spoken voice in which the sound aspect and compositional aspects are equally important.
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?
My recent work is concerned with Sense of Place, not one of the primary five senses, but still very much a sense, that is, part of human experience. This is an intuitive connection and liminal to the point of being elusive. Very much an 'outermost border'. It is possible that this intuitive connection could be defined but, for me, definition is not the point.
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?
Heightened experience is essential, and it is within this, and in a search for this, that my work, and the motivation behind my work, exists. The question left, then, is access to that experience, and this is where the social and political aspects come in. Access to the arts was subsidised by the state in the 1970s and early 80s. It was not a matter of class, it was a matter of enquiring minds, accessible and affordable venues, and efficient public transport. These were the things that gave me access to the arts during my teens and early 20s. Good libraries too. Now, in 2020, accessibility is back in a different form. Anyone with an enquiring mind can access the information and content they need. However, Woolf's 'room of one's own' still applies.
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?
We have only touched the surface in terms of reaching the potential of listening in the practice of music and sonic art. Pauline Oliveros identified this potential in perhaps the most profound way with her Deep Listening, but even she primarily revealed, specifically, its potential and it will be for many others to continue this work. So, listening.