Posted on Apr 17th 2011 11:48 pm
With his latest album, British sound artist Monty Adkins has been finding inspiration in the painting of Pip Dickens and art collective Brass Art, an approach that already partly infused his previous record. Over the years, he has work on various installations, scored dance projects and curated projects for the legendary GRM in Paris. Here, we talk with him about working on a project celebrating the work of Pierre Schaeffer, looking for electronic music in the orchestral works of Ligeti and Saariaho and understanding the process used by Rothko and adapting it to his own work.
Monty, you read music in Cambridge, but how did you come to music in the first place? Do you come from a musical family?
No not at all. I have no idea how it happened! I remember, like everyone playing recorder at school. Then for my sixth birthday I remember my dad asking me if I wanted a bike or a clarinet. I opted for the clarinet because it sounded unusual and exotic. I also ended up being a choral scholar, which was a fantastic musical education in itself. It all started from there. I got more and more into all kinds of music. At the time my teacher thought that music ended in 1934 when Elgar, Delius and Holst all died. Being the kind of person I am, I took that as the beginning and set out to explore what came after. Our local library was quite large and the music librarian had moved down from the Royal Northern College of Music to look after her mother. She helped me get all kinds of wonderful music through interlibrary loan. I also had the good fortune to have a friend whose dad was into contemporary music. His dad was a law professor who gave summer school classes every year in Germany – near Darmstadt. One year in the late 1960s he was in a café and got talking to a stranger. They talked most of the afternoon about literature and music. This guy happened to be Ligeti who gave my friend’s dad an early box set of the Wergo releases including Ligeti’s Ramifications and Second String Quartet. By about 13 or 14 I was bringing home huge scores of Penderecki, Xenakis and Stockhausen. To say that I was obsessed would be an understatement.
You specialized in French medieval and Italian Renaissance music, which seems quite removed from what you do now. Is it something that influences your work in any way, and if yes, how?
In my last year at Cambridge I met Ambrose Field who was postgraduate student at that time. He’d introduced me to Denis Smalley, Bernard Parmegiani, Pierre Schaeffer and a whole host of fantastic electronic composers. For me there was no going back. I knew I didn’t want to do instrumental composition anymore so chose something completely different. I thought my last year would be filling in time before I could go on and do electronic music – at that time there was only a very basic studio in Cambridge, and even though I asked, I couldn’t do electronic music for the final compositional portfolio. So, I studied French medieval music with Susan Rankin and Italian Renaissance music with Ian Fenlon. Although at first sight it might appear very different from what I’m doing now, I still feel a connection. I loved the unusual harmonies in early French music and the rhythmic organization of Italian music. I also found the sense of timelessness in early French music absolutely fascinating. Although these techniques don’t come through in any strict way I do freely use some of these ideas. Another important thing for me was how the Italian Renaissance composers were also preoccupied with science, art, literature and astronomy and thinking about them all as interlinking elements. I draw upon a lot of ideas when I’m making music. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think I’d be a different composer without having studied this music.
What or who has influenced you as an artist over the years?
Where do I start? I strongly believe that in order to do something interesting you either need to know everything about your field or nothing. Knowing a little is a dangerous thing. I tend toward the former. I’ve always had a voracious appetite for music (apart from country and western – sorry!). When I was young my favourite composers were Ligeti and Saariaho – their ability to make an orchestra sound electronic, through creating wonderful long textures totally captivated me. Looking back, I was looking for electronic music all the time – coming from a non-musical family I had no idea where to look and this was the closest I came. Later on when I was studying in Birmingham I was really into the early GRM musique concrète composers - Schaeffer, Parmegiani and Henry as well as Swedish composers like Ake Parmerud. In the past few years I’ve been listening to a lot of Alva Noto, Oren Ambarchi, Autistici, Nicolas Bernier, D’Incise, Entia Non, Christian Fennesz, Frode Haltli, Tim Hecker, Milleseconde Topographie, offthesky, Sebasitan Roux, Alexander Schubert/Sinebag, and John Wall to name but a few! Apart from music I’ve also been very influenced by visual arts. There have been many painters whose ideas and techniques have influenced my work, but one figure who is very important to me is the French artist Fred Deux – his drawings are phenomenal in their imagination and craft.
You were a member of the Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST) for a while. Can you tell us more about the group and its work, and what impact it’s had on your solo work?
I joined BEAST straight after my studies at Cambridge. Jonty Harrison took a long-shot with me. There were plenty of composers around who had worked in good studios who wanted to work in Birmingham. I came along with one six-minute track made using two Revox tape machines and an SPX90 from samples of a recorder, a pneumatic drill and some environmental sounds. I had never worked with a computer, had no formal training in electronic music, just a lot of energy and a desire to learn. BEAST was more than just a group of post-graduates working in a University. Everyone there was totally committed and worked all hours. It was an extremely vibrant and stimulating place to be. What’s more, BEAST travelled internationally, presenting concerts in Salzburg, Paris and all over Europe and the UK. So not only did I get to visit loads of great places, It was also the first time I’d heard the work I really wanted to make played over a large sound diffusion system of over fifty speakers. I can honestly say that without BEAST I wouldn’t be where I am today.
In 1997, you were commissioned a piece for a dance project by Suffolk Dance. Did having to work with movement and choreography in mind force you to approach the way you worked on that particular project differently from other projects?
Neurotransmission was a great project to work on and one that started to point a different direction for me. I’d worked on a few shorter dance projects before this but nothing on this scale. Wayne McGregor and Random dance were fantastic people to work with. Watching Wayne work and build up the choreography on the body of the dancers was really insightful – you have ideas but adapt them depending on your dancers. For my work it was to be much the same – recording sounds and having an idea of what I would like to do with them but adapting to what they suggest in the studio. Much of my work previous to this had been really detailed and moved quite fast in terms of the turn over of material. I quickly realized that this wouldn’t work in a large theatre setting for over an hour. For me the project was an important learning experience – how much information can an audience take in, especially when they have lighting, dance and sound. As a result I tried things that I wouldn’t have done before. Some worked, some didn’t, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to try them out.
You have also worked on a couple of projects for the INA-GRM, the organization originally founded by musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer at the end of the 50s. How did you get involved with them, and can you tell us more about the projects you work on, especially Projects, for which you collaborated with an impressive number of artists from around the world, from Mira Calix, Vladislav Delay, Christian Fennesz or Tim Hecker to Maja Ratkje, Janek Schafer, Douglas Benford, Scanner or David Toop to name only a few?
I’d done two projects for the Presences Electronique Festival run by Christian Zanesi before I did the Project. Symbiont and Cortex were the two projects – both audiovisual pieces. Zanesi was interested in the way I was mixing drum’n’bass alongside musique concrete techniques. The performance of Cortex at the 2005 festival was one of the strangest I’ve done. There I was playing at the GRM on the acousmonium this hyper-fast beatbox/musique concrete hybrid. At the end there were equally loud cheers and boos – it was then that I realized how far you could push ‘acousmatic’ music before it tipped into being something else. I’m still straddling this boundary. I see INA-GRM as my musical heritage – I identify with the musique concrète approach to making music. However, I’m not interested in making music that sounds like acousmatic music of the 70s and 80s. For me the exciting thing is joining all of the different things I’m interested in together into something that is a part of 21st century music making. The Project was the natural extension of this.
Did you physically get to work with all of these artists? Getting them all involved must have been quite a task, and I can imagine that curating such a project might have been quite demanding on many levels. How long did it take you to get from the original idea to the finished work?
The Project was a really unique piece. To say I collaborated with all of those wonderful artists would be a slight overstatement – much as I would love to, though a number have become good friends since the project. When Graham McKenzie (the Artistic Director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) and I started to discuss how we might put together a project to celebrate the 60th anniversary of musique concrète in 2008 we wanted it to be something unusual – not just another retrospective concert. For me, the really interesting thing about Schaeffer’s work was not just about one particular line of musical thought, but all of the other areas of contemporary electronic music into which his ideas have seeped. So, I came up with the idea of asking sixty sound artists to take part in essentially a huge 60-minute party piece. I started in February 2008 by asking all of those participating to contribute one short recording of an object, environment or short improvisation. I then made all of these available on a server and invited everyone to process one or all of these sounds in what ever way they wanted. Some like Janek Schaffer processed all of the sounds. Christina Kubisch processed Mira Calix’s recording of a herd of cows to produce the aptly named Kubisch Calix-Cow Kanon. In June 2008 I took all of these materials to the GRM to mix the piece not having listened to any of the material before I got there. It could have been a huge disaster, but the material was so varied and wonderful the whole process was really fast. I didn’t process the sound at all, apart from very limited transposition to fit materials together in similar harmonies – all I did was edit. I set myself the rule that I had to use a fragment of every sound or processed sound submitted. In the end I mixed the whole hour-long piece in 7.1 surround in a very intense week-long residency.
Was it an ambition of yours, as a sound artist, to work with the Groupe de Recherches Musicales?
In a way it was, though not for the way you might think. I was more interested in working alongside people like Christian Zanesi. He’s an amazing person with a very open approach to music. For me, it is less about the institution and always about the people.
Your previous album, Five Panels, was based on paintings of Mark Rothko. How did you get the idea for that album, and were the tracks based on particular paintings? Were you interested in the minimal approach Rothko had to his work?
In 2005 to early 2008 I didn’t write much – mainly finishing off projects that had been sitting on my hard disk for too long. For a while I’d felt that my music was technically fine, but what I was doing wasn’t really me. In retrospect I see the works up to this point as exploring all of the things I’m interested in and trying to draw them together in some way. For me Five Panels was my fons et origo – a new starting point. I was reading a lot about Rothko and Barnett Newman at the time. I was particularly struck by Newman’s writings in which he said that previous to his painting Onement I – his first really minimal picture – he’d been filling the ‘void’ in his paintings with marks and gestures that functioned like actors. I felt that much of my work has unconsciously been doing the same. Like Newman and Rothko I wanted to get more out of less. In a talk I gave in New York in 2010 I likened it to the difference between taking your audience on a rollercoaster ride in a piece, or letting them actually explore a space you’ve set up. None of the tracks on the album were based on particular paintings. None of my work influenced by visual art has done this. I was more interested in seeing how Rothko’s techniques could be used compositionally to produce work that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. What I took from Rothko is the idea of working in layers, building a piece up by superimposing one layer on another. The pieces immediately stop working in a teleological manner (building up to a climactic point). What I was interested in is how Rothko let layers show though by thinning his paint whilst others are thick and opaque. In Five Panels this is the main way of working. Anywhere between five and twelve layers of material were created and put into the computer. The compositional process then became one of mixing and balancing these layers – allowing some to show through, some to disappear, others to take over completely.
Both Project and Five Panels were nominated for the 2010 Qwartz Awards, and you have, in your career, received a number of awards and prizes for various works. Does that kind of recognition matter to you as an artist?
When I was young winning composition prizes was a way to get noticed and opened up a number of opportunities – often travelling to studios and meeting people. The Qwartz nomination was exactly the same – I got to meet Philippe Petit and Guiseppe Ielasi – two composers whose work I’ve long admired. I suppose that the bottom line is that early in my career winning lots of prizes gave me confidence that what I was composing was of a certain quality. Now I’m more confident in what I’m doing I don’t need that external validation. I’m more interested in people enjoying and listening to my work than a small panel of people rubber stamping it.
Your new album, Fragile.Flicker.Fragment, released on Audiobulb, is based around work you have done with visual artists. How did you work on the tracks? Were they collaborative efforts with both music and visual art being created together, or are they more reflections on existing works?
For this album there were a number of different approaches due to the different artists involved. With Brass Arts there was a clear concept from the beginning for the visual component. They left me to respond to their work having given me some ideas of the kind of soundworld they wanted. With Pip Dickens some paintings were already finished and some were only half completed so the latter became more of a collaborative process. The important thing about these works is that they are not just illustrative of the paintings. Just like Five Panels, I am more interested in understanding the technique and motivations of the painter/artist in order to develop a soundworld and structure that really reflect the artwork. In some cases this produces a way of approaching sound that is rather different – for me part of the collaborative process is precisely this type of challenge.
How long did it take you from the inception of the project to its completion?
I started Memory Box in the summer of 2009 and finished Torn Mosaic just after Easter 2010, so just under a year.
The music on your latest album often has quite a dreamy feel, which comes through the music itself but also through the sound you use. Was that a conscious effort when you started working on this record?
I didn’t set out to give the album a dreamy feel but I can understand where you’re coming from. I think this feeling comes from two things: as a choral scholar I sang three times a week for six years in a beautiful 12th century church. For me as a kid it was huge and had a quite awe-inspiring sense of space – the reverb alone was about five or so seconds. I remember very clearly feeling completely enveloped by sound in this building. I often imagine my music in this kind of space – Suspended Edges has a clear musical association with its use of the organ; Ode transforms a close intimate recording of me playing accordion into a vast mass of sound that envelopes the listener; and Forensic Embers opens with a deep bass – perhaps unconsciously reminiscent of the low 32” organ pipes, and ends with multi-tracked clarinet in a similarly expansive space. The other thing I like doing that could give a dreamy feel to the music is to create a sense of impossible physicality in the instruments and sounds I use. Memory Box and Ode are good examples – the tracks start off with straight recordings and then they slowly get more and more processed until you realize that there is no way these instruments could make these sounds and then you’re in a completely different space.
How did you get to work with Audiobulb for this project?
I’ve published a number of albums on Canadian and French labels and really wanted to release this album on a UK-based label – one where I could be more involved in the process after the music is finished. A friend of mine, Finn McNicholas (Ultre) has a couple of wonderful releases on Audiobulb and he suggested I get in touch with them. I was a little unsure as Finn’s music is more pop-oriented than mine. Nevertheless, I sent an almost final draft of the album to David at Audiobulb who responded really positively within a few days. I think that this is the really great thing about this label – on the one hand it’s quite eclectic, but everything is also just a little quirky in a really interesting way. You listen to Calika, Ultre, Autistici or :Papercutz and you know there is something original going on. Unlike other labels that become known for a certain style Audiobulb’s ethos is all about exploration in all its guises. The other reason I was keen to get involved with Audiobulb was because of the quality of their artwork and final product. This is something that’s been really important on all of my previous releases as well. If people are still going to buy a physical product they need to know they are getting something special – beautiful high resolution artwork and well mastered audio. Oliver Jones produced some fantastic images and Dominque Bassal is a mastering engineer who I’ve worked with for over five years now and have a really strong working relationship with.
You name painter Pip Dickens as one of the main source of inspiration for this album, and with whom you are working on a number of projects. How did you meet her and how did the idea of collaborating come up?
Internet dating – almost! I was looking on the internet for contemporary artists who have found inspiration in music. There are a lot of synesthesic painters out there painting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Charlie Parker saxophone solos, but I found a real empathy with Pip’s approach – that of looking more at the technique and process of the music in order to create something original in her paintings. Her Multilateral series based on the Bach’s counterpoint techniques are unlike any paintings I’ve seen. Anyway, I decided to send her an email just saying how much I liked her work and explained a little of what I was doing. After a couple of emails and her realizing that I wasn’t an internet stalker we decided to meet up. Luckily she’s based only 25 miles from where I live – not that I knew that when I first contacted her. When we met we talked for hours about her work, my work and our ideas. It was clear from the beginning that working together would be something really worth trying. Pip had a big retrospective exhibition coming up and as a first step we worked together on six paintings with music. Since then our collaboration has blossomed. One of the important things about our collaboration is that the art and music both come from the same wellspring but remain independent artworks. The audience can look at the paintings or listen to the music and they make sense on their own. However, when you bring them together there is an amplification of certain themes, ideas and techniques – the result is more than a sum of its parts.
You seem to have a particular affinity for visual artists, and working in relation with paintings or video. Do you see this as an extension of your work as a sound artist?
I think affinity is the important word here. Having had a classical music education and studying around some now very famous contemporary composers whilst I was at Cambridge I found the emphasis on pre-compositional planning and their whole approach to making music somewhat alien – not the results, I still listen a lot to this kind of music – just the emphasis on process. I’ve always read a lot about painting, sculpture and digital art and installation work and found this hands on physical way of making art that valued intuition and empirical thought much more akin to my way of thinking. When I’m talking to and working with a painter or a video artist, there is a shared vocabulary – with Jay Payne who did the video for Remnant there was an emphasis on the slow transformation and manipulation of long lines of material and colour with very little abrupt editing. With Pip, we often discuss the translucency of layers – allowing what is beneath to show through, multi-perspectival approaches to our work, the use of detritus and other found objects in our work, smearing and wiping off of layers, the opacity and saturation of colour – or sound through filtering or EQ – many different things. I think this comes in part from Schaeffer’s work in the studio and the concept of electronic music sculpting sound in space. For me, I have to work with my materials in order to see the potential of the sounds. I don’t want to impose some pre-determined structure on my sounds – it wouldn’t work.
Over recent years, you have been experimenting with more minimal musical forms. Do you see this a natural evolution of your work as a musician and sound artist? How do you see this evolve in the future?
On the one hand it is a natural evolution but it is one that has taken some time and a lot of experiment to come to fruition. The base layer for Five Panels No.5 was actually composed in 1997 so there has always been that minimal element to my work. But the real change came in 2006 when I quit my job in England and moved to New Zealand. Although I’m back in the UK now the events around this time had a big impact on me and I questioned everything. As a result I did a lot of musical experiments that never saw the light of day. The Five Panels in 2008 were the first real result of this re-evaluation. Regarding the future – I don’t have a long-term plan, but I do want to continue to explore more live performance avenues. My next project involves me playing clarinet both multi-tracked, improvising and with live electronics.
You are quite heavily involved with the GEMdays Festival, which takes place every year in Huddersfield. Can you tell us more about the festival?
The sixth GEMdays Festival was held this year in February. I run it along with a friend Pierre Alexandre Tremblay – who played bass on Five Panels. Over the five nights we try to cover acousmatic music, laptop improvisation, audiovisual work, live electronics and circuit bending/live coding. The aim is to bring an eclectic range of musicians to Huddersfield. It’s an intense five days – we do workshops with the artists, pre-concert talks and then the gig in the evening. For me, this year’s festival was the best we’ve done with Alexander Schubert/Sinebag who runs the Ahornfelder label over from Germany, Sam Pluta from the USA and Anne La Berge from Holland. Next year we’re hoping to notch it up another level with John Wall, Miguel Carvalhais from the Portuguese Cronica label, and Annette Vande Gorne from Belgium.
What’s next in your diary?
I’ve just got back from Stockholm playing in a live electronics duo with Paulina Sundin. It was the first time we played together but we found a real empathy in what each other was doing. So we plan to continue that in August when I’m back in Stockholm. In May and June I’ve concerts in Belgium and Argentina. I’m also working on a substantial new collaborative project with Pip Dickens based on Japanese Katagami stencils that is being showcased at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival this year and then in Kyoto.
Email interview April 2011. Thank you to Monty Adkins and David Newman