Friday, 22 June 2018

Composer of the month: Mark Slater

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
Mark Slater: I am a pianist by trade and got into composition during my days at the University of Sheffield. From there, I continued my studies in composition with a focus very much on how improvisation can be built into the process composition and subsequent performances. At that time, I was writing some complex, dense and challenging music (much of it quite bad). Throughout that time, I was interested in technology and how sound could be captured and manipulated. Fast forward a decade or so, my compositional activity is now generally divided into two types. One is about writing music for the concert platform, often involving single instruments or single types of sounds. The other is studio-based in which I take on the role of composer-producer (most recently as part of the Nightports project).
SC: Can you describeyour new work to us?
MS: Flourishes as the Fruitis for vocal ensemble (SSA) and live electronics. It is based upon Bach’s Chorale no. 170, which appears in Cantata BWV62 and explores ideas to do with time, history and technology. The singers are asked to perform a version of the Chorale that is 13 times slower than the original (or, at least, an arrangement of the original, which we recorded a while back in York). While they’re performing that, the electronics part is sampling and time-stretching their voices in real-time, so we end up with several layers of beautiful, immersive sound. Time-stretching fascinates me because it lays bare some of the microscopic detail in sound that we normally miss.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
MS:The compositional process, for me, usually starts when I’m no way near an instrument. The first seed of the idea is usually a fleeting moment – perhaps a question about how I might make a certain sound, use a piece of material or technology, or maybe a memory about a sound I’ve heard someone make – while I’m walking to work or maybe on a run (most likely somewhere outside, anyway). Invariably the initial idea for a piece is small; either a single sound or a single way of manipulating sound. The pieces I’m writing at the moment tend to have a very simple underpinning, which then guides the rest of the practical work to get the piece written. In this case, transcription played a large part of writing the material (because of origins of the piece), which also determined the structural design of the work. After this stage, a large part of the work of writing is programming the computer system to do what I need it to do (and then testing that to make sure it’s reliable in performance).

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
MS: Knowing the performers and their sound is absolutely essential. The initial idea for a piece comes from the musicians – how they sound, what they’re interested in, what would work for them in the broader scheme of their current work. Composition is sometimes talked about as a very solitary affair with ideas appearing as though by magic, granted by some kind of benevolent external force. That’s completely at odds with how I see composition (the word is too narrow, anyway). Bringing a new piece to life is fundamentally a collaboration, which is at its best when the composer and performers work together to craft what the music should be. Or, at the very least, the composer should be writing not just a piece of music, but this piece of music for theseperformers. 
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
MS: I work in a wide range of musical contexts, so the specific sound of the music I make is determined, fundamentally, by the people I’m working with. But while the ‘surface’ of my music changes from piece to piece or project to project, there are some common strands that run through it all. My music shifts from stable to unstable, beautiful to erratic (sometimes in the blink of an eye); I also explore the dialogue between the predictable and the unpredictable, the familiar and the unfamiliar. So, these are states that interest me (as opposed to particular sounds or a soundworld).  
SC: What motivates you to compose? 
MS: Working with musicians. Working with musicians is risky and rewarding in equal measure. When I set out to collaborate with musicians, it’s never clear what will emerge (or, indeed, if anything will at all or how good it might be). And that is entirely appealing. If that moment of collaboration is not risky, then nothing new is being made. The point of working with musicians (and, for me, composing) is to drive one another to make something that we haven’t individually done before. That challenge motivates me to embark on the next piece. And, if done right, it should lead to something interesting to listen at the end of it all (which must also be the point in doing this).
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
MS: I recently completed a project with pianist-composer Matthew Bourne. I admire his energy, fierce technical proficiency, ability to adapt to whatever or whoever he’s working with. I also admire Jürg Frey because of the focused and highly refined qualities of his approach to composition, which demands a similar focus from the listener. And Mica Levi, possibly for similar reasons: focused, refined, powerful sounds, draws upon a wide range of musical types.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
MS: Though I really do love beer, I’m a bit too pragmatic for this question! Can I go to the pub with someone still working instead? Whoever it is, I’d want to find out about the very domestic aspects of how they work: how they work day to day, how they find the motivation to keep going, how they capture and remember their ideas, how they play with their material. 
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
1.  Bach, Preludes and Fugues(I know it’s more than eight and I’m cheating, but I’m currently obsessed with playing these)
2.    Bill Evans, The Tokyo Concert
3.    Debussy, String Quartet in G minor(op. 10)
4.    Beethoven, Symphony No. 7
5.    Cage, The Perilous Night
6.    Mozart, Requiem
7.    Cardew, Treatise(this would keep me occupied for a long time)
8.    Reich, Electric Counterpoint

Out of this list, it’d have to be Bach (particularly as I’m getting a piano to take with me).
SC:…and a book?:
MS: Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller… (or Invisible Cities)
SC:…a film?
MS: Can I take The League of Gentleman series 1-3 boxset instead?
SC:… and a luxury item?

MS: A Steinway (with some gaffer tape, screws, nails, Blu-Tac…)