Welcome to my very first Podcast. I was delighted to be invited by Sound On Sound magazine, a journal I’ve subscribed to for many years now, to explore a theme that had meaning for me. It led me to thinking about where I am situated today and how I actually ended up here. What were the tools and circumstances that took me on this journey, and how, with the advent of technology, did my handsome and very capable computer somehow get left behind?
How I discovered John Cage, when I was 11 years old
And so, I begin by telling the story of how I discovered the music of American composer John Cage when I was just 11 years old. Not because I was some kind of child prodigy, but because of an inspiring music teacher who was keen to open up these young minds whilst still fresh and impressionable!
Rather than repeat what I talk about in the Podcast, I thought it would be interesting to offer a visual accompaniment to many of the things I speak about. Listen to the story of how a chance encounter on a London Tube led to seeing scores by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen for the very first time, and how these colourful sonic maps caused me to rethink what music could be.
The mysterious little metal boxes
Interestingly, I would not have attended performances of the choreographer Merce Cunningham, were it not for the fact that Cage had composed the music. Sitting in the theatre at Sadlers Wells I couldn’t help but marvel at the gentlemen sitting in the orchestra pit, seated before a huge table, that was completely covered in wires and little metal boxes. This was David Tudor, a virtuoso interpreter of postwar avant-garde music and for whom Cage directly wrote works for. Indeed, Tudor premiered some of Cage’s most seminal works such as his legendary silent piece, 4’33” in 1952.
A favourite quote from Tudor, with reference to Cage’s interest in indeterminacy and chance in composition, has always been the following:
“The moment you see a relationship between sounds, there is an intellect at work. Sounds have to be free. You have to release them. If you constrain them retailing them to each other, the more fool you“
Working with Merce Cunningham
And jumping through time, you might imagine how it felt for me when I ended up at The Barbican Theatre in June 2005 performing music to EVENT by Cunningham, alongside John King, Philip Selway of Radiohead and Stephen Montague. After the first show, I nervously approached Merce as he sat eating a salad backstage, and said what an honour it was to have this opportunity to perform music for him. He looked at me, smiled, reached out with his hand, gently touching my arm and said in his soft voice…’Are you Scanner? I love your music so much’ and at the point I wanted to just hug him forever and tell him I loved him, or just blissfully melt into the ground. Instead, I cooly smiled back and said thank you.
And now, back to those very boxes that intrigued me from Tudor. Later on through the wonders of the internet, I discovered that they were homemade frequency modulators, amplifiers, oscillators, filters, all housed within these anonymous boxes. They could not simply be bought off the shelf! It was this relationship with these unknown tools, and this fascination with electronics as a means to composition that really inspired me.
Discovering the wonder of Eurorack
Discovering Eurorack modular synths back in 2008 whilst visiting my great friend Stephen Vitiello in Virginia, USA, led me down a road from which I have never returned! Not that I blame him of course! I immediately thought, now if Tudor were around today, this is what he might be using. And, as the years have passed, my fascination with ever more eclectic and bizarrely named instruments has grown. I proudly use the Mroztronium Grackler, Macumbista Benjolin, Lorre-Mill Double Knot, Ciat-Lonbarde Cocoquantus 2, SqrtSigil exFriend, Ellitone Farm Detective in my works.
In the podcast I share a live performance using some of these tools and improvise, trying to explain what’s happening. And that’s really the joy. I can rarely anticipate what the results will be, and returning to the very same instruments the very day might reveal something again completely different.
Dinner for Two with Hainbach
This was best experienced in my Dinner for Two with German artist Hainbach, where I responded to his invitation to perform live with rather a risky idea. Rather than simply play our instruments from afar, since he’s in Berlin and I’m in the UK, why not really push the sonic envelope. And so I suggested that we have a dinner together and amplify and process every aspect of it, and to my delight he immediately embraced the idea.
Making music from food and drink
So, viewers sat back and witnessed my pouring my fizzy drink into a glass where a hydrophone (a microphone designed to be used underwater) picked up all the sound. And listened to the sound of knives and forks running through different electronic processes. I even wore a white shirt and tie in tribute to Cage, Cunningham and Tudor, and created a Making Of video to offer more context.
And so, I hope you will enjoy listening to the Podcast. It left me wondering whether to continue this into a series of future broadcasts too, but am not sure if such things are of interest to listeners or not, but let’s see. It’s early days yet! Thanks again to Sound On Sound for giving me this wonderful opportunity too!
Listen to it here It’s also also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts!