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 work best when I proceed from form and structure to abstraction and not vice versa. I don’t tend to ‘find’ where I’m going with a piece if I don’t already have a clear musical concept in advance. I invest a fair amount of time upfront in trying to construct some kind of conceptual framework so that I’m writing freely but not aimlessly. I used to resist ‘intellectualizing’ the creative process, and I still think there’s some validity to this resistance, not because I believe that the analytic and creative minds are inherently working in opposition, but because rationalizations of music can entail so many assumptions about what is signified by musical sound. That said, we’re often operating under these kinds of assumptions to varying degrees even when we’re not rationalizing music (think of the last time your pulse quickened at the sound of a ‘scary’ chord in a film scene). It’s more about being aware of the assumptions so that you can challenge them when you sit down to write, rather than recapitulate them in new ways.
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?
In writing Refrigeration Fan in E Flat Major, I used a recording I had made of a fan as the basis for the composition. Its key signature, tempo and running sixteenth-note rhythms are inspired by the machine sound. The objective was not to imitate but to use these sounds as musical building blocks. Once I identified the elements I wanted to incorporate, I constructed the piece around a set of repeating phrases that divide into three sections, starting in major, moving into minor, and then overlapping in the final section. This approach worked well when I was conceptualizing and writing the piece, but when it came to recording it, I found myself relying on the recording of the fan much more than I had anticipated, because I simply wasn’t getting the range and contrast I wanted with the violin parts alone. As with all the compositions for How to Listen to Machines, the music was written entirely for violins but, unlike the other pieces, I wrote many of the parts in the same register and they competed texturally and rhythmically as well in a number of places. I had intended for them to weave in and out with distinct coloring, growing and scaling back down again throughout. But what I found was that the harmonic contrast and changes in mood were getting lost, and the minimalist patterns I’d constructed only accentuated this. It was primarily a problem of depth. I could crescendo as much as I wanted in individual violin parts, but it just made the ensemble as a whole feel even lighter, because all my voices were in the upper range. So I ended up reworking much of the piece and experimenting with ways to use the recording of the fan to balance out the register. In addition to introducing it at the beginning, I ultimately ended up bringing it back in the second half of the piece to act almost like orchestral timpani and give the crescendos greater depth.
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 don’t have a formula, but because my composition process is so heavily oriented around (acoustic) violin, I find that I lean less heavily on digital tools in the early writing stages. I use technology more for cataloguing and organizing musical ideas than consciously trying to inspire them, though of course, these can go hand in hand. I imagine this process will continue to evolve because I am wary of growing too comfortable with any one tool or method. In the end, anything that composers are using to mediate their musical ideas becomes a kind of technology, whether it’s a violin or a sampler. I suppose skeptics who see digital tools as a crutch might suggest that they differ in kind from something like an acoustic instrument, but this kind of nostalgia for a ‘purer’ past is a familiar voice in every era, and ultimately I’m less concerned with the tools than what we make with them.
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 fall into the composer-performer camp, and for the moment, it’s almost impossible for me to separate what I write from how I play it. The subtlest nuances of the latter are what define my entire experience of the former: vibrato speeds, bowing articulations, the shaping of a given phrase. I collaborate as a violinist playing other composers’ music and in chamber music settings with friends and acquaintances, but my own composition process from beginning to end can be a bit of a solitary practice.
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?
I thrive on variety and am changing and revising material obsessively so my natural inclination is to open things up to improvisation. That said, I try to balance how much I’m guided in that direction by listener responses. It’s important to be able to separate how you feel about music from how others respond to it; however it’s something I continue to struggle with because of how curious I am about those responses. Finding the right balance is key. My latest composition project recruits listeners to participate in the composition process by sharing their recordings of machinery with me so audience engagement definitely remains a crucial source of creative energy for me.