Composing with Sounds Rather Than Notes: an interview with Andrew Lewis

 

Over the last century or so, there has been a fast proliferation of new technologies for generating and recording sound. From piano rolls and gramophones to computers and synthesizers, composers have seized opportunities for sonic exploration, with some choosing to specialise in various forms of electronic music. Andrew Lewis is best known for his international award-winning acousmatic (or purely electronic, studio-generated) music and electro-acoustic music (combining electronics – live or recorded – with conventional instruments) – but he also writes for conventional instruments alone. As Professor of Music at Bangor University and director of Electroacoustic WALES, he is integral to the annual Bangor New Music Festival which, this year, runs from March 9 – 14. His new multi-channel sonic and video art-work, Lexicon, will be presented at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in May as part of a UK tour; the work explores various experiences of and research into dyslexia and was recently featured on Radio 4’s All in the Mind.

The following interview took place at Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall on 23rd November, where Andrew’s orchestral piece Eclipse was performed as part of Welsh Panorama; a BBCNOW concert featuring seven composers both from or living in Wales (conductor Grant Llewellyn). The interview forms part of a forthcoming feature on electronic music in Issue 2 of the new Cyfansoddwyr Cymru / Composers of Wales Quarterly (enquiries to cc.cw_newsletter@yahoo.co.uk, website in development).

 

Andrew, we’re at Hoddinott Hall for BBC NOW’s performance of “Eclipse” – which is unusual in your output as an orchestral piece.

It is. Most of my music is composed in the studio and it’s very different to hand over control to players and a conductor!

Does the compositional process demand an entirely different mindset?

My quest is that it shouldn’t. But the obstacle to that is the very different way that you have to work. I never use notation in the studio except when a live performer is involved; it’s purely about listening, then shaping what I’m hearing directly. With the orchestra, ideas are translated into notation for further translation by musicians who perform those ideas. Contrary to non-Western music – or rock or jazz – notation is so taken for granted in the Western classical tradition that we hardly think about the complexities and the impact it has on the whole process of music-making. So the challenge for me is to do the same sorts of things that I would in the studio, but using this very different method.

Do you find that the audience is different – and, if so, is this because audiences find listening to music with live performers to be a different experience from listening to acousmatic music?

I do think the audience is different but I don’t think that’s because it’s a different experience –  personally I’m convinced that it’s the same kind of experience at a fundamental level. But I think there are obvious differences which make audiences feel differently about the music. For example, as you say, if it’s an acousmatic piece you don’t see anything except some loudspeakers and maybe someone wiggling faders – the term ‘acousmatic‘ comes from Pythagoras lecturing to the ‘akousmatikoi’; students who were on the other side of a screen. So it’s this idea of a veil separating what we hear from what we see and I think many people find that uncomfortable – a little bit ‘how am I supposed to get hold of what’s happening if I can’t see it?’ Which, if you think about it, is an odd way to feel about music as it’s supposed to be about sound!

– and the auditory imagination.

Yes. But I think, again, we take for granted that there are instrumentalists or vocalists, and that we’re seeing motions – let’s say bowing; we can see the energy trajectory, see the cause and feel it along with the players. It’s not just to do with the synchronisation of events but a kind of understanding; the experience of feeling together with a string quartet that ‘in breath’ as they start playing. When you don’t see that, there can be a feeling of being slightly at sea – though I would say that good acousmatic music actually takes that into account, so that there might be an acoustic ‘in breath’, leading you into an event through a sense of preparation.

Is technology itself a factor?

Yes, I think the audience feels the technology very keenly. Again, there’s a lot of technology in conventional classical music but we tend not to see it any more. If you consider the science behind the orchestra – how the instruments were made and how they work – it’s a technological marvel, but one we’re accustomed to. Acousmatic music attracts people who are interested in technology itself, not just within the art form, whereas perhaps classical music audiences somehow want to connect with tradition in a different way? Maybe actually escape from technology; get away from their computer and enter a world more connected with the past actually, in terms of its traditions.

But, as I say, I think the underlying principle’s the same – you hear sounds leading into others; things you’ve heard before returning, changing or developing. These are very familiar concepts in classical music and they also happen a lot in acousmatic music so I think it sometimes just takes familiarisation with the new sounds. And then one starts to hear these kinds of constructs and signs within the music.

Location seems important in your music – both spatially and geographically – in terms of exploring relationships between the abstract and the familiar. Is that the case?

Yes. If you present something familiar, that’s recognisable, it’s a good way to overcome alienation; it invites people to enter your musical world – and then perhaps you can present them with something more abstract. And if there’s a relationship between the abstract and the recognisable all the better because then the abstract doesn’t sound so strange but one can recognise it has roots; in a way, orientating the sound.

We’re used to hearing sounds of nature and finding that relaxing or stimulating – people even make CDs of waves crashing! I think those sounds have a positive impact on us – and we all know the stress of traffic noise or roadworks, say! So I often use the analogy of the natural world to describe the whole business of making music with sounds rather than with notes. I’ve done a series of four pieces on Anglesey beaches and Benllect Shells uses the metaphor of a child listening to the sound of the sea in a shell, a kind of simple sound transformation; the shell filters the environmental sounds and makes them appear sea-like, so then you’re imagining the sea, which seems very natural. Really, that’s what I’m doing – finding sounds, changing them and creating imaginary ideas and feelings from them.

How has new technology changed things, with mass-produced sequencers and samplers for example?

There tends to be more emphasis on changing sounds using plug-ins and various transformations – which is very interesting, but can distract from considering how one sound follows another, or the timing and pacing of sounds – which doesn’t seem so sexy or dramatic compared with using fancy plug-ins, but, actually, it’s the heart of the music-making. I sometimes think I’d like to go back to teaching students using tape recorders because your immediate necessity is to splice and edit; to explore the way that just having one sound after another changes the way that we hear them without the need for any transformation. It’s a transformation in context, I guess – transformation of memory somewhere. Which is very obvious when you’ve done it but persuading others to do it when there are all kinds of more exciting alternatives is quite hard!

What are you working on currently?

I’m creating a multi-channel sonic art work, entitled Lexicon, with video, using spoken and printed text as raw material; working with a team of experts from the Miles Dyslexia Centre at Bangor University to  explore spoken language processing. I’ll be exploring the challenges of that for people with different profiles of dyslexia, but also the creative potential that dyslexia, and a fuller understanding of it, can bring. It will feature at next May’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival and tour across the UK. I’m also working on a piece for Psappha – no electronics! – for Bangor’s New Music Festival in March and a new CD comes out this Spring, on Empreintes DIGITALes.

Many thanks Andrew.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis