Interview at the Tokafi music magazine — January/February 2014 by Tobias Fischer

One of the things that make your work stand out is how naturally it bridges and oscillates between the worlds of improvisation and composition. With regards to your natural interest in both aspects, why do you feel, is there still such a divide between listeners of contemporary composition, sound art, electro-acoustic music and improv? Although listening habits are converging, there nonetheless remain borders and prejudices which should long have become obsolete on paper. 

The divide, —as you say— between the listeners of the areas that you’ve  just mentioned, in a certain sense, it exists. It’s kind of rare that concert goers of the above areas mix together in a consistent manner, —except occasionally— as listening is heavily codified. Perhaps, the mainstream mentalité of segregating and dividing everything in safe marketable boxes and genres, seems to have also a grip on the adventurous side of music. I would also say, that usually the listeners themselves play this “game” of segregation consciously or unconsciously. We can also add to the mix, a certain amount of pretense and competitive attitude that prevail in our narcissistic culture. I guess, when listeners are kind of just consumers of sound (it’s not uncommon these days), either swallow everything and anything in a voracious, consumerist way, or they just create a listening zone that they are comfortable with —and that’s it!

But since music is an experience that has to be lived, —even the recorded music— it means that contains the unknown, it is a potential peripeteia with the ability of transforming us —if we allow it. In that sense, listening becomes what actually it is an activity, it is praxis. And in that way, music is more than sound as sound. It goes beyond listening and it’s only then that actually becomes a transformative experience. Music then starts listening to us!

Of course, someone cannot follow the above areas with an exact and equal interest for all, but the important is an aspect of genuine curiosity, mixed with respect and unselfish appreciation of the music itself. I’m sure there are inquisitive listeners like this out there. Sometimes, it happens that they are musicians themselves.

I remember seeing in a Franscisco Lopez’s concert at ICA back in 2003, in the audience, the composer Jonathan Harvey. Jonathan Harvey with a blindfold! And in another occasion, in a concert of Luigi Nono’s music like...sofferte onde serene... and A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida at QEH in 2007, the excellent improviser John Butcher was in the audience!  

At least formally, you still seem to be making a distinction between composition and improvisation. Tell me about the way the two combine to shape your own language, please?

Certainly, I make a distinction, cause they are indeed distinct practices themselves even if they overlap in certain ways. I used to view them more closely connected in the past, but as I’m getting more involved and engaged in both of them I’m sure they are not the same, but they overlap to a certain extent. 

To begin with, improvisation is mainly a performance art-form, this is how I see it. It’s about making music in the moment, through the activity of playing. It’s aim is not to create a finished and polished composed piece of music that someone can repeat in performance, but to engage in a genuine dialogue. In other words, setting the conditions of a continuous feedback loop between the players. At its best, improvisation it’s a really concentrated and focused activity that works with the unexpected, the unforessen and the immediate.

The kind of improvisation that I’ve got in mind, creates a heightened sense of listening between the performers themselves, and the surrounding sounding environment. It’s not about being novel all the time —or for the sake of it— it’s about being present and concentrated while playing, absorbed in the becoming of the music. What I find really genuine about improvisation is a transparent aspect of tacit knowledge that is involved in many levels. In an improvised session, you’ve got a tacit awareness of what is happening at this particular present moment, but also an awareness of the overall shape of the music and its trajectory as well being perceptive of the sensation that permeates the performance place. I find all these aspects of improvisation intriguing, fertile and thought-provoking for my own artistic practice.

Now, talking about composition, Morton Feldman once said that he used ‘concentration as a guide’ for his music, and in that sense, composing is a kind of performative act. I find this a rather subtle and refined thought, and closely relevant to my practice in composition, both in notated and electronic music. It has also been said in the past, that composition is the ‘art of transition’. And transition in music is closely connected with questions about form and shaping —primarily— sound and time. In improvisation, form has an emergent quality as it usually comes through an interaction between more than one participants. As I’m interested in thinking about this emergent, instantaneous quality of form and shaping, also in composition, there is an overlap and exchange of insights between the two practices regarding the aspects of ‘transition’ ‘structuring’ and ‘form’. When form does not appear as if it was imposed into the music but happens as if it was actually emerged, then music becomes a living entity. Even sudden changes can have this emergent quality, even in a kind of moment-form. It comes from being really involved and perceptive with ones materials.

Composing for me is a matter of how to infuse with creative energy someone’s chosen material so that sound reveals itself, not only as sound, but as spirit. It is how another dimension of ourselves and the world around us can be reached through sound. If this sounds kind of lofty, let it be, as there aren’t other words for it! 

Ultimately someone works to be surprised as Paul Valéry nicely once said.

While some improvisers enjoy adding one new collaboration after another to their portfolio, you conversely seem to enjoy building long-term relationships with select artists – such as, for example, Wade Matthews. Does that mean that you can not disconnect the players from the music and that they are always intricately connected in your oeuvre?

It is the musicians that give life to musical instruments and therefore the important thing is who is playing! But music is made by the whole personal qualities of someone, not merely by a certain dexterity and musicianship. So, I do have an inclination for long-term relationships as music can become more personal, more intimate, while at the same time being daring. Another aspect of me favouring long-term collaborations is that once there is an experiential opening in the encounters that occur by circumstances, music comes closer to ones life. And I find collaborations coming from this attitude very enriching and fertile in many levels.

In addition, this is not music that asks from musicians to play or execute a pre-defined role, so it’s vital that a bond and a genuine relationship between the musicians might occur. After all, music is such a fragile entity that needs our whole selves, for it to come into full fruition.

With Wade Matthews —that you mentioned— I have worked closely in a couple of projects like Enantio_Dromia, Parállaxis, (both with Dario Bernal-Villegas) and Numen (a duo project),  as well touring together in Spain in 2010 and of course recently, Garnet Skein with Javier Pedreira. We are really good friends with Wade and I believe this can be heard in the music that we make in our enjoyment and pleasure of doing so. I have also learned a great deal working with Wade Matthews and it’s always a rewarding and fruitful experience working with musicians like him.

I would like to add that I’m also interested in establishing the same kind of long-term relationships and collaborations in notated music, and I’ve got the privillege to be engaged in a couple of compositions with some extraordinary musicians out there —to name just a few— like Chris Cundy, Jason Alder, Wilfrido Terrazas, Philippe Brunet, the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet, in which the spirit of collaboration is really alive, outside the usual confines and the machinery of the mainstream concert-circuit.

In which way has the mere existence and possibility of electronic means changed composition in general, do you feel – and how has it changed your approach in particular? What has the dimension of sound, particularly electronic sound, added in terms of the age-old tension between timbre and composition?

The appearance of electronic instruments —hardware and software— with the addition of recorded-sound directed composition —primarily— to a more immediate level in which the composer is also the performer of his work.  Composing with colour, nuances, texture, other types of gesture, in short with the microscopic and macroscopic dimensions of sound, became more apparent with electronic music. It appears also that as we were coming more and more closer to the aural with these electronic means, at the same time composing came —in some ways—  closer to practices like painting or sculpting for example in their immediacy and perceptive attitude with one’s materials. I see this as a fascinating paradox. It’s also evident and well-known that the adventure of electronic music (live and in the studio) has influenced in many aspects the course of instrumental music, and how we think about material and form as well as bringing forward other kinds of forms in music making.

Personally, my overall approach changed in several ways : sound obtained an interior life itself and the realization that I’m interested primarily in its elusive quality. Also, the immediacy and intimacy of working with electronic instruments and sound itself, makes possible a form that comes forward as if it was occurred in a natural way. It’s this suggestiveness, ambiguity, this abstract plasticity in which a particular and special state of sound can be achieved as a mixture of the external environment and states of mind, internal worlds.

Regarding your second question I would say that the apparitional quality of music becomes more explicit once someone pays attention to timbre and allows texture, colour, nuance, transitory and fragile acoustic phenomena to become components of the overall form. Since we started thinking in terms of sounds rather than only notes we became more aware that nearly all sounds exhibit timbre and pitch height, but not all of them a clear sense of pitch. With electronic sound it became apparent sense that sound itself could be transformed and composed even before the actual composing process.

Speaking about timbre, it’s a strange uncertain world indeed that cannot be systematised once and for all, and that’s why is a really interesting world to work with in composition. Working with timbre makes you to think in terms of register or tessitura —a term that I usually prefer. For me the shaping both in notated and electronic music takes place on thinking about aspects of registration and the transfigured capacity of sound. I’m interested in those black flowers and obscure vegetation that exist and bloom in the depths of sonic matter.

In a similar vein, I'd be interested in your opinion on the question of equipment. How do you rate the importance of the tools used to create music versus the musicians using them?

Someone needs quality equipment/instruments to work with, at least in a competent way, but obviously it’s the musician that makes the music. Otherwise, its like having an incompetent air-force pilot with a versatile aircraft or the reverse situation. But what is an instrument actually or equipment is up to the musicians to decide, so it depends on what actually someone wants to do, the important is what someone does with this or that equipment.

Ultimately, it is the musician that makes equipment and instruments speak. But it seems that there is also some kind of technological fetishism with one way or another, regarding musical or sound equipment, some people getting thrills of technical specs and new updates or when talking about code/patches. It’s like being an organist and the artistic horizon begins and ends with stops/mixtures/mutations. A narrow horizon indeed.

Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay once asserted that "writing for electronics requires the same knowledge as writing for orchestra". What are your thoughts on that?

I’m not aware about the context of this phrase so I’m not sure if it’s very clear to me. The orchestra is a special kind of instrument, that has a long history and development which means there is involvement of knowledge on many levels. The studio is also a special kind of instrument. Knowing about writing for orchestra can help someone in certain aspects when is making music with electronic means, but I’m not sure if this is required —it depends. Having a good grasp of orchestral works or studying orchestration can definetely give someone an understanding of music’s multidimensionality and the complexity of the different layers involved.

Personally, I have orchestrated a number of piano pieces by Messiaen, Berg, Beethoven for large orchestra, while studying orchestration privately with Dmitri Smirnov. I acquired since a new understading on the notion of the musical instrument, which has helped me whatever I do music-wise. Finally, electronics is part of the musical instrumentarium for many decades already –even within orchestral pieces.

You've said that your most recent release Garnet Skein is particularly close to your heart. In which way?

That’s right. I consider it as one of the best releases by Aural Terrains so far, as it is a very colourful and solid, with rich vocabulary and at times really evocative sound-world with also great playing from all the three of us. I find that communicates something beyond the music, it contains a special atmosphere, it’s a garnet!

What made the sessions to the album so fantastic?

It’s a privilege to be able to work in a truly independent way and play with like-minded musicians who also see a strength and liberating force in music outside the mainstream and commercial music-world. We recorded the album at Wade’s personal studio in Madrid in August 2013. I remember that we did the sessions in the mornings and we played/recorded until the music was still sounding fresh, then we were going to eat at Mr Salva’s place with his very tasty Spanish food, while the conversations amongst us were already very intriguing alongside the Mediterranean sovereign sun. 

Returning back to the studio was spent mostly to listen in depth to the recorded music and doing also some editing. At the same time, the music itself was thought-provoking so the listening was followed by more conversations regarding aspects of playing, responding, form, vocabulary, at some point I recall that we were discussing about painting and artists like Mark Rothko, Kurt Schwitters, El Greco, Rembrandt, and what art is all about today. I also remember having a great afternoon talking with Wade about his book on Improvisation with the title IMPROVISANDO: La libre creación musical. Even if it is written in Spanish, I feel like I’ve read it after that afternoon. It must be worth reading by all those interested seriously in improvisation.

These recording sessions were special to me as I felt they contained a true spirit of dialogue and surprise amongst us, and a certain camaraderie. I felt like we were going beyond the usual react-react approach in improvisation to the essence of dialogue which is  “a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us ” as the physicist David Bohm has put in his text ‘On Dialogue’.

And let me not forget the Genmaicha tea that we were having in our breaks, between the sessions.

Garnet Skein was recorded live, but it seems to have been a session without audience. How did this influence the music? 

There was not enough space to invite audience which I don’t find a bad idea even if I prefer playing without an audience in a studio. Working in a studio brings a special concentration so you can play undistracted “moment, the moment in and out of time”, as T. S. Eliot would have said. I find that the music gains in intensity, depth and detail. Working in a somewhat extended period of time in a studio there is a continuum between the sessions and what you do in between them. It has a totality which I fond very much.

It’s different with a live performance, when you’re in front or surrounded by an audience. For me a live performance it’s more like an event. It has a uniqueness that relates to the performance place and the audience. There is a totality in that as well, but as an event. That’s the reason I’ve got an inclination not to perform very often, it needs to be special in some way.

Garnet Skein, like almost your entire catalogue, will be published on your own imprint Aural Terrains. What has the importance of the label been for you? 

The label started through a need to release music by me and others within an autonomous and independent spirit. Its emphasis is on the transfigural capacity of sound and it focuses on electroacoustics, composed and improvised music. I see the label as part of an artistic vision that motivates and generates collaborations, performances, and releases, so in that sense it’s not just a label it is actually a milieu.

What is the importance of networks, communities and friendship for you? 

I find the words networks and communities rather superficial for a couple of reasons. True friendships and truly artistic bonds are difficult to be made therefore worth trying and being open for them. It was Aristotle who wrote that “friendliness is considered to be justice in the fullest sense. It is not only a necessary thing but a splendid one”.

From reading your newsletters and updates on Facebook, I'm under the impression that you feel very strongly about the wider impact of what you're doing. Can you tell me about your perspective on the role of the artist and the role of the arts, please?

If you say so. The capacity of the Arts to transform us and make us more experientially perceptive and aware is almost always operating as a field of resistance, responsibility, liberation, renewal and understanding of our inner and outer worlds. It does not stop to the production of a book, a piece of music, a film or a picture as it resonates in us and through us. There is strength and wider implications in art that’s why has been tried to be neutralised, commercalised and become an entertainment kind of thing, mere decoration, a safe area with moderate qualities. Art makes us to remember ourselves, while entertainment it’s about forgetting ourselves.

So, the artist seems like having a difficult role. No? But a privileged one…as well…

Even experimental music these days often tends to try and lower the threshold for audiences. Your music, on the other hand, does not try to suck up to the listener. What's the importance of staying 'inconvenient' to a certain degree?

Thank you. I’m not making music to ingratiate the listeners as I’m not offering “easy-chairs for the ears to lie back” but the possibility of transgressing their own boundaries and perhaps experience that the transcendent is immanent.


The Spirit of Surprise

Interview with Thanos Chrysakis