Name: Simon Belshaw
Recent release: Simon Belshaw's Music Machines Volume 1 is out now.
If you enjoyed this interview with Simon Belshaw and would like to find out more, visit his official website. He is also on Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
We also recommend Simon's phd thesis Generative Systems and Disruptive Processes in Musical Composition for further reading.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I have always been interested in both process and systems in music. For me, inspiration does not come from dreams of hearing a finished work, it lies in the process or construction of the work.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
When I start I don’t necessarily have an idea of how the finished piece will sound; rather I have an idea of what I want the piece to do, what process or structure it will follow.
The Music Machine project began as a series of small computer programs that explored a single idea and ran until stopped by the listener. For example, Music Machine 2 which plays a randomly generated melody over a single, repeated chord. Or Music Machine 4 which uses 25 short music cells.
Important to all of these is that the piece is different each time that it is played although it will always sound like itself.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I don’t have any preparation rituals. I jot down ideas or simply work through them whilst riding my bike until I have a clear idea of something that I want to explore further.
I will usually have a fairly well formed idea of what I want to achieve before I start work on a piece. For example Music Machine 34 which was originally composed for A Quiet Night In and first performed using melodica, midi wind controller and double bass. A Quiet Night In describe their approach as “an antidote to musical performances in noisy bars and club-type settings, A QUIET NIGHT IN provides a context for the exploration of the creative possibilities in quiet/silence.”
I wanted to write a piece that started as a fully composed piece and then stretched out, expanded and diluted itself as it progressed. It incorporates periods of silence and periods of single notes taken from the full score. This piece uses a web based score and although the opening section will always be the same (all instruments playing) the rest of the piece will always be different.
On some days the work progresses really well and on others not at all. Sometimes the struggle is more about the technology than the music. I use Raspberry Pis in a lot of my work and I have had to learn how to program them to achieve the results that I want. An example of this is Music Machine 26 where a string quartet plays a slow, sustained passage three times. During the first play through a computer records a number of clips of varying lengths. In the following two repeats the computer plays back those clips over the live quartet at random times.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Once finished I generally don’t return to it; if the piece has achieved the aims I set at the start then that is it. However, I do quite often revisited works to rearrange or create an alternative version.
Music Machine 34 has been arranged for various ensembles (2 violas & midi wind controller; flute, violin and midi wind controller; viola quartet, cello and violin). With Music Machine 30 the project took a new approach as this was the first physical machine. Adapted from a wind chime it uses a distance sensor and motors taken from PlayStation controllers to strike the bars as people approach.
Many of the Music Machines have multiple versions. Music Machine 2 is both a computer program and a physical machine. As is Music Machine 8 (which uses Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ speech) and is a computer program, a physical piece and a web based piece. Music Machine 4 has become both a web based piece and large scale installation work; during lockdown it also became a zoom piece.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
At the completion of a piece or project I don’t feel a sense of emptiness but often a sense of ‘how did I do that?’ A sense of ‘I can never do that again’, the drying up of creativity or writer’s block is one that I feel quite often.
I have periods where I don’t create and, from experience, I know that it is pointless to try. I never force it. At other times I can be bouncing three or four different pieces or projects at the same time.