C:T talks to Marc Yeats, whose SATSYMPH was recently short-listed for the PRS for Music's New Music Award
Marc Yeats - Some Music for Hermés (extract) - Dirk Amrein
Marc Yeats - Pagan II (extract) - BBC Phil / Maxwell Davies
Marc Yeats - Round And Square Art of Memory (extract) - BBC Phil / Stott / Brabbins
Tell us something about your background.
I didn’t write this, but it’s as good a précis of my background as any.
Born in 1962, an only child, brought up in London, attended a Roman Catholic school, had traumatic treatment at the hands of his father, losing his mother to cancer in 1977, when he were just15, by which time he’d already commenced serious painting sold through private galleries, moved to Devon with his volatile father, ran a confectionary shop, experienced bankruptcy, yet all the while yearning to creatively express himself.
Instead of the expectations of his teachers for a highly gifted student to embark on a professional career in the arts, palaeontology or veterinary medicine, profound setbacks and circumstances blighted his academic advance: instead he mopped hospital floors but went on to qualify as a registered nurse for people with learning disabilities. After marrying at 21 to his wife in Devon, they both moved from Southampton to the opposite end of the UK, the Isle of Skye to give free reign to his creative vitality and verve.
His translation to abstract painting and acquisition of technical skills for a serious musical composer, while earning a living as a part-time ambulance driver, teaching the disabled and helping raise a family as a gay man, has, in just over a decade, realised more than 100 pieces, gaining credit and approbation from contemporaries, without benefit of scholastic opportunities at a college, university or conservatoire. The more remarkable for having been praised by some of the world’s most respected and innovative composers, musicians and commentators – testified by performances and prizes awarded to him by revered national and international institutions and orchestras/ensembles including those in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, New York City, Leipzig, Tokyo, together with various ensembles in Britain, Canada, Holland, Italy, New Zealand, broadcasts in the UK, Germany & Italy.
My thanks to Keith Evans (introduction to an interview from April 2007)
I now live and work in Somerset, England with my partner, Mark.
How did you start composing?
I loved music, especially classical music ever since I was a young teenage boy. My journey through music was a very frustrating one. I knew I had to write music – I believed that I could write music but was frustrated by my total lack of knowledge about how music worked, what instruments could do and how one wrote music down. Yet, I would hear this strange stuff – my own music - bubbling away in my head whilst feeling utterly frustrated about not being able to capture it or do anything with it in any way. For several years I despaired, not knowing what to do to bring this torment to an end.
When I was 16 I began the long journey of teaching myself how to read and write music. It took many years. As soon as I understood something, my imagination quickly moved on, demanding new techniques to be mastered. My musical imagination was constantly running ahead of my ability to keep up with it. Again, this was totally frustrating. Eventually, when I was 34, I had a number of breakthroughs in writing my music down that resulted in my sending some of my rather illiterate scores off to various people. One of these was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Hoy Summer School that he ran on Orkney back then. Max saw my potential, took me under his wing and created some wonderful opportunities for me. I learnt much. I also realised that coming from a background where I had no musical or instrumental training, whilst not the best career start, turned out in many ways to inform a large part of the process that developed my musical voice and imagination into what it is today. As Max always used to tell me, “you are your own man”.
I would like to think that even after my inauspicious start as a composer, if I can now write music, feel fulfilled in what I do and hopefully bring some pleasure or distraction to others, it’s possible for anyone to do it where they have sufficient passion, drive and ultimately, self belief to carry them through the inevitable hurdles.
What drives your work, what are you passions?
Life, Love, Lust!
Ultimately, for me, sound is magical, unknowable, sensual and part of my very being.
Inspiration comes from life and living life – from all those experiences, from everything you sense. These experiences, thoughts and impressions are stored somewhere deep inside memory and perception. They gestate and eventually emerge, quite transformed, into a piece of music or painting. Of course, there are intellectual faculties that are brought to bear on this process too; you need to know how to use instruments and notate music, you also need to know your craft and have a sense of your aesthetics.
Contrary to what many people think, there isn’t any direct correlation between what I’m feeling at the time I write a piece of music and what the music turns out like. A bad day or terribly frustrating week doesn’t necessarily result in music that expresses those feelings at that time – the process is a lot less obvious and a lot less ‘romantic’ than that. A commission involves certain parameters – instruments to be used, duration, occasion and sometimes a starting point or theme are suggested. These parameters create the vessel into which I pour my musical thoughts. Often, I will not know exactly what I am going to end up with; I just have an impression of a mood or colour. That becomes my starting point and from there I let my imagination, craft and the musical material itself guide me to where it best feels realised. It’s a voyage of discovery for me too!
You were just short-listed for the PRS for Music's New Music Award. Tell us about your plans for the piece.
SATSYMPH, a ‘satellite-symphony’, is a vehicle for delivering unique interactive satellite-triggered musical experiences. SATSYMPH turns the prevailing paradigm of what music IS, how it is created, delivered and experienced on its head. It takes symphonies out of the concert hall for anyone to take anywhere with a GPS signal. SATSYMPH makes YOU the person creating your own symphonic experience.
The first SATSYMPH opus is the specially created ‘ON A THEME OF HERMES’, a 3-way musical-poetic collaboration with Ralph Hoyte (a poet) and Phill Phelps (a coder) and of course, me. The user will hear a music/poetry fusion inspired by the Greek god Hermes, Messenger of the gods, guide to the Underworld, patron of boundaries (and those who, as in this project, “travel across them”…), of thieves, liars, of literature and poets.
But it is the mode of delivery that makes SATSYMPH so innovative: it is delivered on an iPhone and the music and words are triggered by satellite. ‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is initially written by poet Ralph Hoyte. Using this as a basis, the symphony (this term refers to scale rather than structure) is then composed. The music and words will be recorded and processed into modular ‘sound regions’. Using delivery platforms that are currently under development, coder, Phill Phelps will locate these regions into a given area, such as a large park, using GPS coordinates on a virtual map that represent the real location.
This whole package is then made available as a software suite linked to the Apple Appstore. The user downloads the ‘app’, goes to the park, or other suitable space anywhere in the world, puts their headphones on and presses ‘go’. The iPhone communicates with up to seven geo-positioning satellites and they overlay the real space (the park) with the virtual regions. The user, by walking around this real space, concurrently negotiates the virtual space, thus creating their own symphonic experience. This is why SATSYMPH is so revolutionary. We create the content and the interactive regions, but we don’t, and can’t, determine how this music-poetic matrix is negotiated by the user.
Compositionally, I will be writing and recording about 200 minutes of linear music using 10 different instruments, each having about 20 minutes material. The music will be of different energies, colours and textures. This will then be cut up, layered, multi-tracked, and in some instances processed to create new sounds, and then developed into modular sound regions. These sound regions may number up to 20. The sound regions will interact with each other as well as the ‘voice regions’ that Ralph will make.
The challenge is to create colourful, intense, passionate and communicative music and words that can be combined in any number of ways, from the almost silent through to experiencing many sound regions at once, engendering a dense, ‘symphonic’ or orchestral result.
As participants can initiate these sound and word regions in any number of combinations, we will create material that can work in a non narrative, non linear way whilst communicating an array of emotions and content that adds up to a fulfilling musical experience.
Some people criticise the award for being a bit gimmicky. Do you see your proposal as integral to your work as a composer or a fun 'side project'?
I can understand that point of view and would share those concerns too. However, Ralph Hoyte, (poet) and myself are both very serious artists. Although we are using technology to deliver this project, we are committed to creating the strongest content we can. Musically, I am really excited by the opportunity this award presents because it gives me the opportunity to take my compositional ideas (as described below) onto the next level. Everything about SATSYMP is designed to enable Ralph to ‘compose musically’ with his words and the music I write to fuse with these words in new and evolving ways. But more than this, the technology enables us to deliver a new paradigm for how music can be experienced by an ‘audience’ and how that audience can control the way the experience unfolds for them. This represents a huge step forwards for both our work and is central to our development as artists.
You are a visual artist as well as a composer, is there a relationship between your work in the two fields? Does one influence the other? Tell us how you feel being active in two distinct areas.
This question and the following question are totally linked for me. The strong relationship between my work as a visual artist and composer is not easy to articulate but its effects are felt throughout my work. These two creative forms are closely linked by techniques and constructions developed over many years of practice. My compositions often influence new approaches to painting, just as techniques in painting have influenced my musical development. As Sir Peter Maxwell Davies once said of my work “you can hear the brush strokes”.
Although I am interested in surfaces represented in sound, colour, form and texture, my work is further influenced by a fascination with layering, geology and erosion. The work, both sound based and visual, is primarily inspired by landscape – but this fascination gravitates around representing landscape in terms of molecular and primal energies rather than recreating what is seen.
When beginning a new work, the end result remains a mystery – it is a true journey of discovery. I believe this approach to creativity ensures spontaneity, movement, energy and a degree of poetry
As well as surface and layering, recycling is central to my compositional methods (I like to be a green composer!)
I work acoustically and electroacousmatically. My electroacousmatic pieces use combinations of digitally altered acoustic material alongside newly created digital sounds or sounds harvested from field recordings that are then processed, multi-tracked and manipulated in various ways. This array of production techniques creates new sound-worlds and textural combinations.
New works are also originated by recycling existing pieces of music through changing contexts and relationships, transforming this material into something quite new. Many of the acoustic pieces I write find their starting point from within other pieces of music I’ve already written.
I am fascinated how altered contexts can radically redefine the way musical material feels and sounds. Transplanting different layers, voices or strands of music from one piece to another, altering tempi and dynamics, transposing, inverting, and then letting those strands sound out together; all of these methods fascinate me.
Like the music, my paintings are often produced in series, each painting being influenced by the former. Sometimes I will paint two or three pictures at the same time, each sharing the same starting point, layers and processes until something happens to make me want to separate them and explore them in different ways. In music, the recycling of material ensures that there is a ‘genetic’ connection between all the works – sometimes up to 15 individual pieces may be connected in this way. They are like sons and daughters, cousins, five times removed. With this ‘genetic’ material comes history, characteristics and content. In music, as with people, the way this genetic material is ‘lived out’ determines the character and make-up of the person or piece. This can lead to very individual outcomes.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
The music I compose is a battle between two musical trains of thought. Although both would be described as atonal, one is more expressive and colouristic with pronounced harmonic references, the other, monolithic and atavistic in its extremes of register, colour and form. The confrontation between these two musics results in a fusion that engenders a personal approach to structure, colour, timbre and dialectic. This fusion can be seen as the working out of two strands of musical thought filtered through transformations that originate in the techniques of abstract painting. The rules of this fusion and transformation may elude the listener somewhat, but the resultant drama, be it passive or active, should be direct and communicative.
The genesis of this compositional approach stems from two main areas.
Firstly, my initial experiences with music which fell between the warm nostalgia of the English Pastoral School, with composers such as Vaughan Williams, Bax and Morean making a large emotional impression, and its diametric opposite, my excitement with the avant-garde expressionism and experimentalism of the 60s and 70s.
Secondly, being a landscape painter, my work with colour, form and texture impacted directly on my thoughts about the construction and content of music. As my painting developed away from the representational into the abstract and my repertoire of techniques grew, so did my conviction that I could develop a personal compositional language by exploring these techniques in a musical context. Now, both musical threads are transformed through my ‘painterly ear’ to assimilate what feels like a personal, natural and unselfconscious outpouring of sound.
It is worth mentioning this genesis, as on first hearing, the music may sound arbitrary, improvisational and sometimes chaotic. This is not the case. It is clear that the music does not operate within the logic of number series, motivic development, Fibonacci-based proportions, functional harmony, magic squares, tone rows or any of the usual gamete of compositional techniques.
There is another kind of logic at work, a personal logic that has its roots in my experience of the techniques and processes of abstract painting. This compositional logic originates from inside the music itself rather than being imposed from the outside upon it. The surface of the music - what you hear - reflects the many processes, some systematic, some intuitive, that have gone into its creation. This surface is the music; its own context, self fulfilling and delighting in the visceral nature and quality of sound for sounds sake in the same way an artist can relish a particular combination of colours or surfaces as complete in itself. In my work, the relationship between musical objects is the result of a constant process of assimilation where the inherent energies and context of sound objects dictate the destiny and role that each inhabit and exhibit. In short, the sum of the parts influences the outcome of the whole.
This is the nature of my music - the sound of it – and it is the guiding principle for its realisation.
Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?
As I have described, painting would be first and foremost, but for me, painting and music are just a way of understanding the world around us whilst trying to communicate a sense of that perception to others and indeed, oneself.
Existence is full of mystery, paradoxes, joys and disasters and I hope my work reflects these experiences, too. And, I can’t say that I always ‘understand’ what I do, not on an intellectual level, but sometimes I can feel what the work means but cant articulate those feelings. I can speak about the techniques of construction, but that isn’t what the music ‘is’. I digress.
The second biggest non-musical inspiration would have to be the landscape. As a young boy, it was a passionate, sensual interest in landscape that drove me to paint and express what I was seeing. It was this passion that later fuelled my need to compose.
What is your musical philosophy?
Try to create beyond the confines of your imagination.
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?
That is impossible to say. As I have mentioned previously, I am drawn to experimentalism and also to the English pastoral school – an odd combination! I can however tell you who my musical heroes are. Joseph Haydn, for his fecundity, wit, energy and constantly renewable imagination and inventiveness. Charles Ives for his amazing experimentalism and ability to write music of the greatest expressive power ranging from the most delicate intimacy to near cacophony. He was years ahead of his time and I admire that. And finally Xenakis, for being raw, energised, atavistic, and not afraid to build music inspired by science and other disciplines. For me, he is the most original compositional voice of our time.
There are of course many other types of music that I love, Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Dillon, The Prodigy, to name a few. But to be honest, I listen to very little contemporary music – rightly or wrongly, as I don’t want to be influenced by it. I want my musical ideas to be generated from either within my own work or from external, non-musical inspirations. So I listen to a great deal of music from other eras. But perhaps my most frequently listened to music, purely for self indulgent pleasure remains the work of Vaughan Williams, Bax, Holst, Morean and others.
What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?
Not very whacky, and probably been done, but not by me! But I have a notion to take a musical strand – a line or instrumental part from each of the, say, ten pieces I have composed recently (those that have the ‘genetic’ connection as described earlier) and, with a little re-organisation, create an ensemble piece that brings them all together simultaneously, at different tempi and without a conductor. I like the thought of reuniting these voices after they have been on their different journeys, brought back together through a family reunion. Like most family reunions, it will be a mixture of fun, tragedy, comedy and argument, and if you’re lucky, a little illumination and beauty, and all this operating with a good-sized dose of serendipity. Now all I need to do is find an ensemble brave enough to take this on!
Which work are you most proud of and why?
Probably ‘The Round And Square Art of Memory’ for piano and orchestra, commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic, with Kathryn Stott at the piano and Martyn Brabbins conducting. The work was premiered as part of the Piano 2000 Festival at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Kathy, Martyn and the BBC Phil pulled out all the stops and gave a stonking performance and for once, the piece got rave reviews in the national press. I love writing for orchestra, it enables me to paint with sound as it offers the widest palette of colours to draw upon. I’m proud of this work because it was big, Martyn described it as ‘epic’, but within its heart their remained an intimacy of communication that would emerge from the very dense and virtuosic orchestral textures. It’s not perfect, and if I were to compose a piece for piano and orchestra again, there would be many things I would do differently – not surprising ten years on, but at least it’s a work I can still listen to and not feel any twinges of embarrassment about!
What does the future hold for you?
We will have to wait and see – fingers crossed for SATSYMPH, of course!
But closer to earth . . . .
I have recently become Composer-in-Association with Manchester Pride, which is very exciting.
This years Festival includes the world première of “schlick’s approximation”, for clarinet, violin & piano, It will be performed on 27th August by the ensemble CHROMA. The performance will be at the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, at Manchester University at 1pm.
My trio for flute, cello and piano, Strange Geometry, commissioned by Trio IAMA (Greece) is to be premiered in Cyprus (Nicosia / Shoe Factory) on the 10th November 2010 and later performed in Berlin at BKA Theatre on the 7th. December 2010.
There are a range of other premieres in the pipe-line happening in Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Taiwan, and Malaysia with 'orare' (2009) for bass trombone and piano (dedicated to Dirk Amrein and Jürg Henneberger), and Conversational Geometry (2009) for amplified acoustic guitar, tenor trombone and piano (also dedicated to Dirk Amrein and Jürg Henneberger). Conversational Geometry will be recorded by Swiss Radio on the 17/12/2010 at Gare du Nord, Bahnhof für Neue Musik Schwarzwaldallee Basel, Switzerland
Closer to home, October 2010 will see the premiere of 'rhêma' (2010) for harpsichord. Commissioned by BBC Radio 3. First performed by Mahan Esfahani, Leeds, October 2010. Subsequent broadcast on BBC Radio 3 scheduled for early 2011 (dedicated to Mahan Esfahani) duration circa 10.5 minutes.
Later this year the world premiere of 'shadow, and the moon' (2009) (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, marimba, piano) commissioned by Kokoro (dedicated to Errollyn Wallen) - duration circa 19 mins. – will take place in Dorset.
Also to come, itunes and Amazon mp3 will be hosting albums of my work for download.
There are a number of exciting and innovative collaborative projects that are coming to fruition as well. All in all, a very busy and active year!
Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced