Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?
Desmond Clarke: I’ve been a musician all my life – and have always composed music as well as performed it. I grew up in Manchester, playing in youth orchestras, before coming to study in York, where I was a student from 2007 until 2016 (undergraduate through to doctorate). I’ve always been interested in science and mathematics, and over the years my work has become increasingly focused around mathematical and algorithmic processes (though that is not to say that it isn’t also conventionally poetic or expressive as well). I’m also an improviser, electronic musician and digital artist – all of which feed into my music.
SC: Can you describe your recent work to us?
DC: RECORDARI is a work which has a huge number of different influences, and brings together a lot of different strands and musical traditions. Working closely with Carmen Troncoso, the recorder soloist, has been a fantastic experience, and the piece which has come out of it is a substantial (22-minute) and complex web of associations and implications. The main preoccupations of the work are the history of the recorder (and by extension, the history of music?), and the way we respond to history, story, and memory in our own present. This is the second complete performance of the work – the fourth or fifth if you include the performance of individual movements – prior to which Carmen and I had been meeting regularly for about six months . It is a pleasure to see a work develop and grow, to have the time and space to try things out and let things influence each other. The result is unlike any of my other recent works.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
DC: In general I prototype the structures and processes which I use to compose using software (most often pure-data). For this piece I developed several simple algorithms and processes, which are used both in the composition of the written work and in the electronic transformations of the recorder sound. In addition to this, the three medieval songs featured in the work provided sources of material and dramatic context.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
DC: It depends on the work. For this particular piece, I have worked very closely with Carmen, and the piece simply would not exist in any form without her. In most cases I know the performers I am working with, but I wouldn't say it's necessary for every work to be a collaboration. Having a “sound in mind” is an interesting question – I find myself less and less prescriptive when it comes to certain aspects of technique and interpretation. I provide performers with a set of structures and materials, the precise realisation of which I am increasingly leaving open. That's not to say, though, that there are no wrong answers!
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
DC: Process-based. The music is often superficially complex but is it almost always grounded in relatively straightforward structures and processes. The first movement of RECORDARI is a good example of this.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
DC: A love of sound, and of structure. A fascination with how we apprehend and transform the structures and processes of the world around us.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
DC: I think Lachenmann is probably the “greatest” living composer – I haven't heard anyone since Feldman who has such control of the living tissue of sound. I love Mark Andre and Kurtág for the humanity of their music, and (perhaps controversially) I think Philip Glass was a visionary, at least in the 1960s. These are all old men – I mention their names with the caveat that the music I actually listen to most is the huge upswell of incredible instrumental and electronic music written by the younger generations of composers, for example the amazing music coming out of New York via the Wet Ink Ensemble.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
DC: I think a beer (or ten) with Feldman would be a pretty fun evening, judging by his reputation.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
DC: This is difficult, because I'm always looking for new music to listen to, but some pieces which I return to again and again for a variety of reasons are:
Rimsky Korsakov : Easter Festival Overture (the first piece of music I ever really loved, age 10 or so. I still do!)
Kurtág : Stele
Beethoven : E-major Piano Sonata Op. 109
Lachenmann : Accanto
Schubert : C-major String Quintet D. 956
Feldman : String Quartet no. 2
Messiaen : Éclairs sur l'au-delà...
Grisey : Les Espaces acoustiques
For just one, maybe the Feldman – a piece which contains universes.
SC: …and a book?:
SC: …a film?
DC: Synechdoche New York
SC: … and a luxury item?
DC: I have become dependent on my bean-to-cup coffee machine.