Name: Joanna Bailie
Current Release: Artificial Environments on NMC
Recommendations: I was in Vienna earlier this year when I discovered the work of the Austrian film maker Kurt Kren. His ‘aktionist’ films are not really my cup of tea, but I love the other side of his work. My favourite of his films is 31/75 Asyl. It was painstakingly made on camera over a number of weeks and involved Kren taking footage of the landscape outside his window using a film camera with various masks placed in front of the lens. The result is a patchwork of the same scene at different times (and during different weather conditions) that slowly builds up and changes. It’s as if several paintings by Breughel simultaneously came alive. It’s also very specifically about time and place, and that’s something I’m interested in too.
If you enjoyed this interview with Joanna Bailie, visit her homepage for biographical information and an overview of her entire work.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started composing during the second year of my music degree at Newcastle University. In fact, I’d decided explicitly to study music in order to become a composer but it apparently took me a while to get started(!) As a teenager I played the saxophone and became very interested in jazz and improvisation. I admired John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. But I think it dawned on me that I would never be a good enough improviser to make a career in jazz and so I gradually turned to a practice where I could make the most of the skills that I did have.
Parallel to playing jazz I studied classical music at secondary school. It was there that I first listened to 20th century music. I liked The Rite of Spring and the Berg Violin Concerto, I found a song by Charles Ives particularly strange, and the third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia frightening but utterly compelling. When I was twenty I arrived for a prom at the Albert Hall one minute late. Ligeti’s Lontano had just begun and it was a revelation: I didn’t know new music could sound like that.
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?
It’s difficult to talk about learning and teaching composition, whether in fact such a thing is even possible in an age where there is absolutely no common practice to speak of (as far as I’m concerned anyway). When I started composing I made some Bartok-y type things that I worked at on a piano, but I soon became interested in ‘new-complexity’ and my modus operandi had to change a bit. Yes, I looked at scores and then emulated them in the most superficial way. I was a bit in the dark about how to make and develop material, but somehow I worked out a way of managing density and texture, and how to systematically avoid tonal implications (!)
When I was 21, I went to study with Richard Barrett in Holland while simultaneously attending the sonology course at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and that’s where things began to change. Barrett was a very generous and open teacher. He already saw that despite my desire to compose like him, I wasn’t really making the music that I needed to make. He also helped in a very practical sense by suggesting ways I could make and develop material. Whenever I teach composition, I try to use Richard as my model.
Sonology was very influential in as much as it introduced me to the concepts of electronic music. I think I started thinking like an electronic music composer long before I actually incorporated any electronics into my work. Those were the early days though, when I was only writing acoustic work.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
When I first began, the whole thing about how to compose was quite mysterious. Apart from my first Bartok-y piece which was quite conservative and written in a traditional way, my early works often began with an idea of a texture and I’d have to turn that idea into real notes that I wanted to sound ‘good’ (meaning consistently like what new music should sound like). Hearing exactly what I was doing was quite hard, and there was something quite statistical about the way I worked (but not in any advanced Xenakian sense of the word).
Today the challenges are completely different. I guess I’m trying to balance and blend three separate elements: film, electronic sound and live instruments. Finding a place (and a reason) for the live music has become quite difficult. When I make all the fixed video and electronics first, I often find that I’ve painted myself into a bit of a compositional corner with regards to the instrumental parts, and then it’s a bit of struggle to get out of this corner!
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?
My workspace is in the apartment in Berlin that I moved into nearly 3 years ago. It’s quite small and it’s where the kitchen used to be before the place was renovated. It’s painted green (my joint favourite colour along with orange and purple). I just have a table with my computer, soundcard and speakers and then lots of shelves for all sorts of stuff. It’s quite neat.
I’m not sure I can tell you what the mood of the room is, it’s constantly changing according to the time of day, day of the week or where I’ve just come back from (aren’t all spaces like this?). The table has moved places a couple of times. At first I positioned it so that I could look directly onto the street. The street was interesting and slightly distracting, and the glare of the sun in the afternoon difficult to work in. Now I face a blank wall which is much less fun, but maybe it makes me more productive.
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?
I’m a bit of a night-owl. I go to bed and get up pretty late by most people’s standards and it’s a good thing that I’ve been a freelancer for most of my working life. I don’t know if I could cope with a 9 to 5 job.
I don’t really have a fixed schedule as far as work is concerned, I just try to do whatever it is I have on my plate at any particular time. I do try to remember this tip though: start each day with the task that is most difficult and requires the greatest creative input, not with admin stuff. I wouldn’t say that music blends seamlessly with the rest of my daily life — it doesn’t mix very well with cooking, eating or reading a novel! However, I do find that over the years, the musical world has become my social structure. I have very few friends these days who are not musicians or artists and so the contact that I have with people at concerts and festivals, and the enormous network that I’ve made over the years has become very important for me socially speaking. I don’t have much in the way of family (my parents have passed away, I’m single and have no children) and so this network is what I have. It’s something that goes way beyond professional connections: it contains everything from close friends, to those people you only see every five years but always have a great time talking to.
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?
Being creative is hard! And as I mentioned above, a good strategy is to start the working day with the most difficult task. It’s a bad feeling when you only have a couple of hours scheduled in which to be creative — you feel under pressure and then it’s not easy to make stuff. I work very steadily towards deadlines, which helps me a lot. I am not a last-minute person. In terms of having a really good idea or solving a tricky problem, sleep helps! Sometimes I let myself almost fall asleep while pondering a creative question and very often I’ll come up with an answer.
I also dream about art a lot and things from dreams often end up in my pieces. A few nights ago I dreamt I was in a new flat with a picture window looking out onto a busy intersection. The sight and sound of it was beautiful and I realised I needed to record as much of what happened there as possible, because I’d only be living in the flat for a limited period of time.
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?
I think I’ll talk about Symphony-Street-Souvenir (2010) since it was the first of my pieces to really deal with fixed electronics and instruments. It was a commission from the Ives Ensemble and I had been tasked with writing a work that would be an homage to the Italian composer Aldo Clementi. I decided I was going to include a tape part and I immediately thought about slowing things down like he did, but with the slow drop in pitch that comes when you change playback speed, rather than a simple musical rallentando. It’s in three movements, which all slow down over a period of four minutes or so: a symphony, a carillon recorded from the street and a music box.
For the first month or so I just worked electronically. I tried to gather materials that sounded interesting when you gradually slowed them down. It was trial and error. I started playing about with classical music, and after many attempts and a bit of tweaking, found that that the beginning of Brahms Symphony No.1 worked well. The basic recordings for the other two movements came about because I was in certain places at certain times. I was at my parents’ house for a weekend when I had a dream (yes really!) that I had to record my mother’s old falling-to-bits music box, so I did. Then I went to live in Copenhagen for two month, just a couple of blocks away from the famous Vor Frelsers Kirke. This church had a carillon chiming out all sorts of tunes many times per day. At that time, I didn’t own a wind shield for my recording device (these were the early days of my field recording practice!), and it took me more than ten attempts to get a satisfactory take of the carillon.
After gathering the three sets of material, and manipulating them in exactly the right way so that the process was both interesting to listen to and clearly audible, I began to analyse these manipulated recordings for time codes and pitches. I built the instrumental parts using these analyses — some of it was simply transcription, other bits (like the glissandi of Souvenir) were structures built on the co-ordinates I had taken from the analyses. Writing the instrumental part was then (as it is now) the toughest part of the work — trying to make something that’s playable and works with and enhances the electronic material. For the first version of the piece in 2010, I think I got this balance and the relationship between instruments and manipulated recordings wrong, and so I subsequently revised the work quite substantially.