An Interview with Michael Alcorn

CMC Composer of the Month April 2007

Michael Alcorn talks to Michael Quinn about setting up the Sonic Arts Research Centre, his work as a composition teacher and how this impacts on his composing, and his upcoming projects involving a newly developed interactive system of music notation.

Michael Quinn: We’re sitting here in the Sonic Arts Research Centre[SARC] in Belfast, which you were instrumental in creating and now manage. Tell me a little bit about what SARC is and what it’s intended to do.

'I think you're more of a therapist than you are a composition teacher because to do the job properly you need to find ways to draw out the things that the student wants to talk about.'

Michael Alcorn: It’s a centre that’s led by creative people primarily -- I always sell it as a bit of an oasis in the cultural desert of the engineering faculty! [in Queen's University Belfast]. We're here to try and draw out some of the possibilities for using new technologies for greater purposes. So that includes performance and composition, but increasingly it’s now drawing people from artistic areas like video, graphics and animation, and other areas like healthcare as well, which is interesting. It's [development of the centre] been fairly amorphous, which has also helped us get funding because I think a lot of people find it hard to pigeon-hole what we do. On another level, it reflects the fact that we don't want this to be a rigid organisation -- it's there to reflect the interests of the people who are working here.

MQ: How do you think the setting in Belfast affects the ambition of a project like this?

MA: Well it adds a certain degree of novelty to what we do because there isn’t really anything else like this, certainly in these islands. One of the things I find having set up SARC, is that people will ask things like, 'so why Belfast?' as if we don’t deserve to have something like this. The first few times I found that quite shocking but in another way I could see why they thought this. I think we’ve managed to start something here that raises a spire of excellence in one area inside the university. When the funding for this came through -- a massive £4.5 million -- I think it was the single largest ever grant to come into any music academic unit in either Ireland or the UK.

MQ: It’s early days yet, but what, if anything, has SARC contributed to the tradition of composition in Northern Ireland yet?

MA: I think it has brought people into the music scene here that would otherwise not be around. It has kept people here: composers like the Ricardo Climent, Pedro Rebello, Simon Mawhinney. It’s become a bit of a magnet for people who are interested in what we do here. At the same time a lot of students who are coming through here are now securing jobs in very good places and some, like Rachel Holstead for example, have transformed their thinking about music. She’s a good example of somebody who really benefited and seemed to really enjoy the time she spent here. What is important about SARC is that there’s no composition school or feeling that there’s a musical agenda being pushed. I think that’s quite important because a lot of places involving technology have a particular sort of sound. We've tried very hard to avoid that here.

MQ: You were born here and you studied here and you’ve made a career here. Do you think of yourself as a Northern Irish composer? Is that a label that has significance for you?

MA: I spent a year working at Stanford University in the mid 1990s and it was around the time that the whole peace process was starting to align itself. I think at that stage I did feel that [the significance of being a Northern Irish composer], but I don’t really anymore. I think the degree to which we travel a lot and the degree to which we feel connected to other places now causes you to lose that sort of sense.

MQ: You trained in Durham University with John Casken. What do you think you brought back to Belfast from your time there and your experience of working with him?

MA: John had studied with Lutoslawski and I felt a very strong affinity to Lutoslawski’s music. I loved the architecture of it, which was quite often hidden and yet the music worked at so many different levels. I’d have to say living in the northeast of England was wonderful. I felt a very strong affinity to the people there: they're quite similar [to people from Northern Ireland] and stoic, and are very private about what they really think about something. From him [John Casken] I learnt to what extent it is easy or possible to teach composition. In the end you’re more of a therapist than you are a composition teacher because to do the job properly you need to find ways to draw out the things that the student wants to talk about.

MQ: Did you become interested in electronic music around this time?

MA: It was before then actually. I had a tape recorder when I was 7 or 8 and I only realised a few years ago that what I was actually doing then was going around gathering recordings of things in a music concrète sort of way.

MQ: What was the appeal of that for you?

MA: I don’t know. There was certainly an element of recording anything and everything. I always had an interest in taking things apart which was probably a bad thing to do.

MQ: But were you putting them together again?

‘I think that the hardest audience to engage with is probably the classical music audience who arrive at everything with so much baggage.’

MA: No, I wasn’t. I think I was just fascinated by the musical equivalent of taking a photograph of something. I was very interested by the sounds that things made -- the pitch, the nature of them. I remember being on a farm as a child and there was a machine that powered the milking plant, which produced a drone. I remember standing on so many occasions, singing in tune and out of tune with this thing -- just to hear this beating effect. I think it was all the peripheral things that gradually lead me to somewhere different. I see these as being equally important in my [musical] training as [my lessons in] piano and later in brass instruments.

MQ: What were you listening to at the time?

MA: My two older brothers were incredibly interested in progressive pop music. That was probably my way into classical music, believe it or not. I was hearing the likes of Keith Emerson playing Bartok -- I thought it was amazing and then went to listen to Bartok. I became very interested in synthesised music and was always interested in new timbres.

MQ: It’s probably fair to say that for a general audience when they think about electronic music, if it is progressive rock then it’s actually more palatable to them. But if it emanates from somewhere else, particularly somewhere that smacks of academia, then it suddenly seems a much more sophisticated and complex proposition.

MA: I think there’s a certain amount of myth surrounding that. In reality many of the young kids today jump across these things so easily and readily. The hardest audience to engage with is probably the classical music audience, who arrive at everything with so much baggage. It’s quite understandable. What’s probably wrong is that we sell this as electronic music, whereas I think it needs to be sold as sonic art. When you use the metaphors that arise out of areas like film and sculpture and present it as something akin to that rather than chamber music, [audiences] find it easier to understand what it is you’re talking about. The most extreme versions of what we’re describing are still to me the most rewarding listening experience: sitting in a room without the visual distractions of musicians, listening to sounds that are stored on tape and meant to be realised and performed in the space through multiple loudspeakers is for me the most exciting, most challenging listening experience.

MQ: There seems to me a concern in your own music for writing for these two artificially separated traditions: the acoustic and the electronic. Tell me first about Crossing the Threshold, which is a piece commissioned by the violinist Darragh Morgan.

MA: That’s a good example. I see a lot of differences between what people write on manuscript paper and what you might splice up with a piece of tape. There wasn’t really the language to deal with the common issues in the two sorts of music, so in many cases you became a bit of a split personality. A lot of composers are different people according to whether they’re approaching instrumental music or electroacoustic music. Crossing the Threshold was really the first occasion where I felt everything was swimming in the same stream. We experimented with a very loose bow played underneath the body of the instrument. So everything you hear is all about the violin as a resonator. I did a lot of work with those sounds and then used them to actually drive an algorithm for notation, which was unusual for me. So the spiky nature of some of the noise-like sounds actually generated qualities that I liked in the pitch material. Then I’d take that information and rework it by hand, but basically I was connecting sound output into some sort of algorithm for generating pitch material.

MQ: How do you compose?

MA: Very slowly. I look at some people who're churning out numerous works per year. On one level I think, 'Wow, that’s amazing'; on another level I don’t think I’ll ever get the time to do this. I also need a lot of time to think about the things that I do.

MQ: Students now have access to cheap laptops and ubiquitous software programs. In a way making music is much more democratic and accessible than before. Do you see your students moving towards or being aware that they can create their own personal sound world rather than emulating what’s gone on before or around them?

‘A lot of composers are different people according to whether they’re approaching instrumental music or electroacoustic music.’

MA: With research students who are composers, that’s really why we’re here, to help them go on their own journey to where they want to be. I think it does take them a while to get to that place, wherever that is. Sometimes they don’t do it 'till after they leave their studies. I felt that was the case with myself -- somewhere at the back of my mind was this feeling that I’ve got to show my manuscript to somebody before I could unleash it on the world. But I think increasingly students can actually find their own little bit of space somewhere. If they’ve achieved that by their third year of PhD study then I sort of feel they’re on track. I find I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

MQ: Well in a sense they’ve come from a more sophisticated electronic background than even you did when you first arrived here as composer-in-residence in 1989. And of course they’ve grown up with a commercial expression of electronic music in dance music and club music. Do you see any of that finding its way into what they’re doing?

MA: Well, they [the students] are so aware of the boundary with the dance music scene and electronica, where that starts to extend just that stage further. I feel that even in the sort of music that overlaps with the electronica, it’s important for them to take risks. I’m always asking them to demonstrate where the risks are in what they write -- what is novel about what they’re doing.

MQ: Have you found anything that the students have brought from that kind of commercial music background informing or pushing you in a different direction?

MA: Yes. There is a sort of a glitch thing that I’ve gradually come to be interested in. Some of the sound materials in Synapse and inCrossing the Threshold have that digital edginess to them. I feel that comes out of some of the glitch in electronica that they listen to and want to compose. But I’m still looking for a certain degree of resonance all the time.

MQ: One of the things that computers do allow for is increasing sophistication and complexity, and your new work, Leave No Trace, you’ve described as a technical nightmare.

MA: In Leave No Trace I decided to explore this idea of notation in real time. So the players have each got a laptop computer in front of them and there's a wireless network between their computers and my computer. I have a graphics tablet, the sort you might use as an architect, and I have a system on the surface of the graphics tablet where I can generate music in real time when they play. The pen on the surface of the tablet triggers the electronic sounds as well, and again those are mainly preconceived materials that I trust, and I know that those will trigger fragments of musical material on their screens that I can also trust. So as I move around the surface of this the piece that's being created in real time, if I don't touch the surface there's nothing to play. Years ago when I was a student in Durham, John Casken talked about the feeling of composing with pencil or paper. It was almost like the piece was being played in slow motion, as you get caught up when the spirit is really with you and everything is coming quickly and you're getting your ideas down and you feel as if it's happening in slow motion except it's being realised as sound inside your head. With this piece, as soon as I rehearsed it for the first time in Madrid in November I had this similar sort of feeling -- that you were making connections between things that you realised were possible musically because it happened in real time. On one side it feels as if it should be a bit like improvisation, but on another level it's not because I can change the dynamics collectively for the entire group. So they can move from a quiet passage to suddenly playing very loudly together with a level of synchronicity that you'll get in fully notated music. So we've built an entire software environment that we've called e-score, electronic score.

MQ: How big can a project like that become?

MA: Well the next piece I’m writing is for Ian Pace, the pianist. We’re going to wire up some additional sensors onto him as well so that his heart rate and other things are actually driving the piece. His emotional engagement with the piece will affect the generation of the future piece, which is kind of interesting. But I’m hoping in the autumn or early New Year to have a big ensemble piece using this. It all comes down to the level of artificial intelligence around how the composer, or whatever my role is, interfaces with the rest of the musicians. So it’s as if there’s an engine inside the computer, which understands the relationships between what’s possible. It’s important it’s not random, so the reason why I use this graphics tablet is because I know, for example, I could go from a quartet playing harmonics very quietly to them playing glissando very loudly on the instrument. This could happen in my [conventionally composed]music anyway, so all this tablet is doing is allowing me to tinker with the proportions of the ordering of those things.

MQ: But is it only you in control in that environment or can other performers determine the direction of the piece?

'Sitting in a room without visual distractions of musicians, listening to sounds that are stored on tape and meant to be realised and performed in the space through multiple loudspeakers, is for me perhaps the most exciting, most challenging listening experience.'

MA: With these pieces it’s only me [who controls the environment]. We did a little experiment with a master’s student here a few years ago. We handed out PDAs to members of the audience so they could actually interact with the musicians; it was chaotic. For me that doesn’t really hold a lot of interest, that sort of audience participation, but as a compositional tool, this is incredible. So I imagine that this will inform these three pieces that I want to write, but it might also become a compositional tool because I could imagine at home having the ability to do a first pass on a score.

MQ: So lots to look out for in the future.

MA: If I could get rid of a lot of my administration to find more time then I think so. I feel I need that tension between working with what the university requires and demands of me, and the time constraints that if offers in terms of composition.

MQ: Character building.

MA: Exactly.

Michael Alcorn was interviewed on video by free-lance music journalist Michael Quinn in the Sonic Arts Research Centre, Belfast, on 21 March 2007.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.