An Interview with Rob Canning

Rob Canning thinks about his music in terms of eco-systems, evolution and probability theory. He speaks on video to Michael Dungan. Originally published in 2003. 

Michael Dungan: Rob, what is your situation right now? Where do you live, what are you working on, what are you on holiday from?

Rob Canning: Holiday? I wish! At the moment I’m living in Wexford. I just moved down there and we’re living in a cottage my father has lent to us so I’ve no rent to worry about and I can just get on with my work, which is very helpful. Coming up to Dublin as little as possible, trying to avoid things. I’m working on a piece for Concorde [the Irish contemporary music ensemble] at the moment. It’s a large, fifty-minute work with live electronics and spatialization and visuals. So it’s a big work. It’s quite consuming at the moment and I’m quite sucked into the whole thing.

MD: In fact I wanted to ask you about the genesis of a particular piece of yours, The Garden of Forking Paths, which had its world premiere in Dublin last December given by the London Sinfonietta. It’s an intriguing title and it’s intriguing music, full of all kinds of sonorities and colours. Where did it start?

Interview with Rob Canning (2003) clip1

RC: I started off experimenting with ideas of indeterminacy a couple of pieces before that inCostruzione illegittima, a piece that I wrote for the clarinettist Paul Roe. I wasn’t quite sure where I was coming from, really. It wasn’t so much an idea of Cage-ian non-involvement, of chance procedures and that kind of thing; at the time I wasn’t quite sure what it was about. In The Garden of Forking Paths I was developing the idea, in that the whole aesthetic was different. It wasn’t the non-involvement idea with the performer’s choice. It was more the idea of creating something like an eco-system or a complex environment in which strange interactions can take place, ideas can evolve, and relationships are found and lost. That was the idea, of creating a complex system involving a number of environmental factors.

MD: You call it an eco-system. Does that function as the constraint that a composer needs so that the material is not too broad?

RC: Yes, definitely. I think about music very much in terms of an organism, or a number of organisms. You can make an analogy with evolution, where you’d have a number of motifs or ideas which will develop or disintegrate depending on their strength in relation to their environment. That’s an analogy that I apply to my music.

MD: So would the instrumentation in a piece like The Garden of Forking Paths have been determined from the outset, or did it evolve?

RC: It was pretty much determined from the outset, although it was somewhat pared down. It was to have had voices, but for various reasons it was pared down to that size ensemble [ten instruments].

MD: So then you’re dealing with a finite number of possible interactions?

RC: Well, no. To say there would be infinite possibilities might be pushing it, but there are definitely a very large number of possibilities. I noticed [this] when I went to the rehearsals in London with the Sinfonietta. We had three different run-throughs of the piece; each time it was hugely different, depending on something I’d say to the performers. I’d say, ‘Just think about this’, and the whole piece would tear off in a different direction.

MD: How did those rehearsals compare with what we all heard here at The Helix?

Interview with Rob Canning (2003) clip2

RC: Again it was different. I like to be surprised by my music. I found before, when I was writing music that was constrained by not having this chaotic system at work, when it was more traditionally composed, I’d go to performances and sit there saying, ‘No, no. It’s wrong, it’s wrong.’ I’d really get quite upset and I’d end up saying, ‘No, that’s not what it was about at all.’ So it’s great to go to a performance and not know what’s coming at you. Then you can be surprised.

MD: Surprised, but still satisfied?

RC: Yes.

MD: How do you work?

RC: I think in what I’m working on now, my ideas are more codified than they were in Garden of Forking Paths. When I was talking about the relationships between eco-systems and evolution, and thinking about complex systems like the relationship between things and probability theory... That’s what I’m working with at the moment. So I use a bit of computer software I’ve designed that will enable me to codify those ideas and generate some sort of micro- and macroucture onto which I then superimpose the various developmental ideas or disintegrating ideas.

MD: Are you self-taught in probability theory?

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RC: Yes! [laughs]. So it’s quite a steep learning curve. It’s all driven at the moment by my learning of the way software works, and not being constrained by commercial software packages but writing something specifically to operate the mathematical functions that I want.

I feel in many ways that I have to defend the idea of using computers to compose music. There seems to be some reason that it has to defended! But I think the important thing, the strongest thing, is to act as a human filter. That’s always the driving force when I’m working that way. I might get something that will output a load of numbers, a load of information, and I have to interpret that. And the way you assign the various values to various numbers, and you have to make it audible, you have to make the processes come forward. That’s the real trick to it.

MD: And does that mean that if something sounds better but involves compromising the system that you’ve set up, will you compromise the system?

RC: Certainly. That’s something I find in Stockhausen’s music. The system can always be interrupted if it needs to go somewhere else. Something crazy could just be landed right in there.

MD: So that’s summer 2003: you’re working on a piece and it’s governed in some ways by probability theory and by the software that you’re designing yourself. So how far is that from what you did when you were composing The Garden of Forking Paths?

RC: It’s very different in some ways. The way I was thinking about music in those terms, was of setting up a number of possibilities. I could say, ‘If such-and-such happens, then you will start playing that’. And so on. It takes over your whole mental functions, just trying to keep in mind what could happen: if that does happen, thenmaybe that will happen which will cause what…? Processing that information is really quite bad for your head! So, defining that information in terms of an algorithm which can then let the computer deal with that sort of processing, and then I can concentrate on the actual details: what the motifs represent and how they evolve.

MD: How complicated a score is it then for the performers? In the case of Forking Paths for the Sinfonietta: the fact that instructions which you gave in attendance at rehearsals would make such a difference, suggests that the score is quite open?

RC: The score is open. But they have very strict sets of... they have little mobiles of musical fragments that they move onto at certain key points. And those key points may be a cue from another performer when they have finished their process, or certain lines running all the way through which are completely composed. And they will always be throwing something into the mix, which will change the direction in various ways.

MD: So it means that it’s a piece that will be different every time?

RC: Yes.

MD: How did you first encounter indeterminacy? What is its appeal for you? When did it first grab you?

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RC: Well it’s hard to say exactly because I didn’t really come at it from the whole Cage, Lutoslawski, Stockhausen side of it. I came to music quite late. I’d played in bands before and listened to a lot of jazz. So it always seemed unnatural that music was always going to be performed in the exact same way from the score. I suppose then, when I was in college, I discovered John Cage, Lutoslawski and this kind of composer. Also, people whose music I’ve come to enjoy more recently like Evan Parker, the London school of free improvisation, Barry Guy, and Mats Gustafsson. So [initially] it didn’t come from this side [from the 1950s]. But it’s only now -- since I’ve started thinking of music as an organism with evolution and probability theory -- that I’ve been going back to look at Xenakis and how he works.

MD: But free improvisation: you never felt like going that way?

RC: Well, I do. I work with my laptop, processing, as part of doing some free improvisation with Paul Roe [the clarinettist] when we work together. We’re starting to do a lot more now, with a group which I’m involved in. So that is another direction that I’m interested in going. But the real trouble at the moment is designing an interface with the laptop where you can actually react and interact spontaneously. So I’m spending quite a lot of time building various patches that will allow me to interact in a more instantaneous kind of way.

MD: You’ve mentioned Cage and Lutoslawski and Stockhausen, and indeterminacy and chance principles, and we’ll come to jazz in a moment. But are there other composers whom you relate to in particular? Or because in some ways, intellectually, you reject the score because everything is written out and is intended to be performed much the same way each time, does that mean that that whole area of classical composition is slightly outside your view? Or is there a deep love of Wagner hiding somewhere?

RC: I’ve got gaping holes in my knowledge of musical history because I only really started getting interested in music when I was about seventeen. I did various things first and then went to university to do my music degree and found myself with all these people who’d been playing fiddle since they were four and knew all the repertoire. So it was one of those degree courses where I was totally intimidated by all that was going on around me. I didn’t know what was going on. So I just focused in, at that stage, on contemporary music and contemporary music analysis -- well, all music analysis. So that’s quite a strange way of coming at things, i.e. coming at composition from a more analytical background. Probably quite unhealthy.

MD: And yet you were working with something that was very alive. I think that, certainly in Dublin, new music audiences are divided[between those with a traditional classical background and those simply interested in anything new, with RTÉ’s Living Music Festival and the London Sinfonietta concert at The Helix, for example, drawing both]. Do you see yourself ever addressing the National Symphony Orchestra’s audience on a Friday night?

RC: What I find interesting about the audience in Ireland at the moment is that it is definitely developing, through the work of all the ensembles that are out there, like Crash and Concorde. There’s something going on now, and there seems to be a lot more willingness on the part of the audience to try something new, and I’d like to try and embrace that as much as I can. I suppose I feel that I’m always making compensation in my music for the fact that I’m not a virtuoso on any particular instrument, that I haven’t got this great grounding in the western canon. I feel like I’m always looking at the audience and thinking, ‘how can my ideas embrace what they know already?’ And coming from different areas... there’s a large movement of people who are interested in contemporary electronica: noise music, new glitch music and this sort of thing. And the levels of complexity that are at work in some of that music are definitely breeding a new audience that could be swayed if there were a few links made.

MD: If the programming is right, perhaps.

RC: Yes.

MD: What about your own background? What about jazz and when you played in bands? Was there a lot of music at home?

RC: No music at home. I’ve come from a very unmusical background, apart from my father playing the harmonica when he’s got a few jars on him!

MD: And school?


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RC: School... What really started me off was when I was seventeen and I joined the Irish Youth Choir. We performed Bach’s B minor Mass, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and a piece by Gerard VictoryThe Stolen Child. And that was the first time I actually saw a composer and realised that they weren’t something from a different planet. That was just before the Leaving Cert [second-level state examinations in Ireland]. So then I took up classical guitar very quickly to get up to my Grade Six for the Leaving Cert, so it was a real panic to get everything on board. And then straight off to university [the University of Wales] after that, bluffing my way into a music degree! They decided, since I’d come all the way from Dublin, that they’d give me an interview and not just their tests. I ended up getting quite an eccentric lecturer who liked to talk about Frank Zappa, so that was my way in.

MD: So that degree course -- particularly the history and the analysis of the western canon as you call it -- must have been a serious eye-opener. Everything new.

RC: Yes. I was absorbing a heck of a lot at that time and still am, really. There are still so many gaps. I feel like I’m constantly struggling to keep up to date.

MD: But you have an appetite for it?

RC: Yes, definitely. I have found myself listening to less music lately. Well, I still listen to music, but I find myself listening to Xenakis as wallpaper music by sticking it on and walking around, doing the washing-up, whatever. The actual act of sitting down and following a score and focusing is something that I don’t do as regularly as I should do. But I think it’s something... I’m not sure how healthy it is to be listening to Xenakis at full belt as you’re making the dinner!

MD: It depends who you’re feeding, I suppose! A last question: you’re still in your twenties. How do you see, generally, the future of Irish new music over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years? If you’re a lifelong composer, what do you suspect may happen in the next little while? What do you hope will happen?

RC: Oh, I can’t really talk generally about the whole. I can talk about how I see myself developing. For me, anyway, I’m quite influenced by technology. I see the way real-time processing of sound is happening now very instantaneously, and the way that that can be incorporated with real time visuals, all interacting. Systems that can run completely haywire, out of control, are something that are quite attractive to me, and bringing in a lot of other media. Obviously you’ve got to be tasteful, not to do it to the detriment of what’s going on. But I think, specifically now, there is potential for a huge new format of concert. And I think I’d like to try and go down that road.

MD: When is the premiere of your new piece with Concorde?

RC: The fifth of October, and it’s to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the double helix. So there’s lot of DNA information in there, processing, amino acids and things, which will be interpreted by the music as various ideas, and visuals of cells dividing, viruses mutating and so on. I’m not quite sure how it’s all going to come together.

MD: Will it be self-explanatory or will you give an introduction, perhaps?

RC: I think I’ll have to!

Rob Canning was interviewed on video by Michael Dungan at the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 14 July 2003.