Richard Barrett

photo by Luis Neuenhofer

Interview by Bob Gilmore
London, 15th July 2009


Richard Barrett occupies a fascinating position in today's contemporary music scene. A composer of music of immense complexity, both expressively and notationally – check out his stunning orchestra piece Vanity on NMC, or the CDs of his chamber and solo works played by ensemble Elision – he is also highly active as improviser, notably in the duo FURT with Paul Obermayer. These two careers have run in parallel for over twenty years (if one considers them separate, that is: Barrett himself doesn't – "I think of 'composition' as referring to the act of creating music and of improvisation as being one means to bring that about"). Barrett turns 50 this year, and the event is marked by concerts at this year's Huddersfield Festival, the premiere of a new London Sinfonietta commission on December 3rd, and the release of sense, the sixth FURT CD, on psi records.

I'd like to keep the focus on your activities as an improviser, but I wouldn't mind talking also about your composing life and how the two interact, the sort of thing I'm sure you've been asked a million times before! FURT's now being going for twenty years now, hasn't it? Since 1989?

Since 1986.

Oh gosh, twenty-three years. Could you imagine life without FURT?

That would be difficult. It's not just a way of working, it's tied to a particular personal and aesthetic relationship. For one thing, Paul and I are both interested not just in free improvisation but in other forms of composition, which we use in our work as necessary. The idea of a composer as being the unique and singular author of a musical work is only one among many possibilities, and FURT is one of those other possibilities. It's collective composition in a sense that I haven't come across in any other context. Which is not to underplay the improvisational side of it. It has acted as a model for other directions I've started taking in recent years, working in collaboration with larger ensembles. In the fORCH ensemble, adding six more performers to FURT, the material I was giving to the other players, I realised later on, was basically a kind of notation of the way FURT improvises.

The earliest material of FURT that I've heard is on the Live in Amsterdam CD. It does seem that right from the beginning you were concerned with this incredible multiplicity of sound sources. As such it's not obvious why that would be the starting point for two young lads wanting to get together and make music. Can you say something about that? Because that's something that seems to have been pretty much constant with FURT.

It's been constant since 1994, that's for sure, although there are a couple of experimental pieces we've done since then that go in the opposite direction. On the first day we worked together, we were recording stuff onto cassette machines, then playing it back and playing more stuff simultaneously with it. So that sense of layering was indeed there from the very start. In the early days the problem was that we were the only people who could hear all that complexity, because the sound was so low-fi. The process of getting from there to what we were doing in Amsterdam in the mid-90s was really a process of enabling other people to hear what we were hearing in the music. The philosophical standpoint behind it is that the listener is encouraged to make his/her own experience out of encountering the music rather than being told what to listen to and for, taking part in the musical process and participating in it, rather than being a passive recipient - an experience which might also vary from one listening to the next. As a listener I try to listen further into a given piece of music, even in recorded form; each time and try to discover something new about it. That new thing exists principally within the listening mind, but the seed of it is there in the music somehow. So I guess what we're doing is scattering lots of seeds!

That's very much my experience of listening to FURT. Because I find it very difficult to remember the music at all, even in the case of those albums I've listened to quite a few times, it almost instantly sends me into (let's call it) creative mode, where I'm responding to all kinds of things that happen in it and thinking, oh yes, I could follow that here, I could follow that there. It makes me actually want to play. I find that some music has that effect – it makes me want to go and do it – whereas some music makes me want to sit back and admire and study it. FURT is definitely the former!

That's the perfect response in a way, because it's how I became involved in making music in the first place, having developed whatever musical sensitivity I have principally as a listener rather than a performer, because I'm not a trained performer but a listener seduced into composition – maybe in the same way as Partch was a composer who was seduced into carpentry. Back in the day, I might have been looking at my record shelves for something to listen to and not finding it, because nobody had actually made that music.

There you go.

I can recall that feeling right back into my teenage years, when I was really not in a position to make music of my own, although I was already imagining music by that time, without any possibility of it making its way into reality. My musical experiences as a listener had a decisive effect on my own development as a human being and since then I've been trying to find some way of responding to that effect and somehow giving it back. The musical process doesn't need to end with the listener - the act of listening as a creative act can give rise to something which is more outwardly orientated.

So it's a wish to minimize the view of music as a product, in a way. I don't have the sense with many FURT pieces that they're quite finished in the usual sense – there is a very important open-endedness, they're crying out for extensions beyond themselves all the time.

Yes, their completion is an arbitrary sort of completion. What we generally do is work on some particular material, or some structural or poetic idea, whatever it happens to be, which then goes into our live performances until we have a recording which seems to encapsulate the idea as fully as we'd like it to. Then it's a finished composition. But the route from beginning to end can be very circuitous and complex. For example, the second track on the Dead or Alive CD, "Sad Fantasy", is exactly as it was performed live, and hasn't been edited or altered in any way. But having said that, you might have noticed that it incorporates a lot of material from the studio piece "Plint", which is based on prepared piano sounds which we'd produced a few months before. So our prepared piano session expressed itself in two different ways: the studio piece (which appears on the defekt CD) which involved no performance after the prepared piano sounds were recorded, which was then recycled as sound material for a live piece. On our latest CD sense, the second track is again an unedited performance, but the first track, "Uranus", had an exceedingly complicated production process. Some of it was recorded as far back as 1991; some formed part of a piece we performed several times in Holland in the 1990s; some of it derives from much more recent improvisational work; and added to that are completely constructed, studio-based elements, for example the recurring appearance of mechanical musical instruments, sometimes heavily processed but just as often not. Despite consisting almost entirely of improvised music, "Uranus" spans a composition process which from start to finish was eighteen years long.

So in a way you're revisiting your own history, the history of FURT – does the piece seem autobiographical as a result? For many composers that would yield all sorts of problems regarding consistency of language, of working methods and so forth, but this sounds like it wasn't such an issue here.

I think that's only an issue if one makes it one. One fairly recent experience of mine which might be relevant is that in 2005, having burned myself out by having locked myself away for four years and producing a huge amount of new work, I returned to two compositions from the late 1980s - one for viola, which I'd never been happy with, and one for ensemble, which I had never definitively completed. In both cases this involved both reworking the old material and adding a considerable amount of new material. In the ensemble piece (Illuminer le temps) there's a big chunk in the middle which was written 15 years after the rest. And it does sound stylistically inconsistent. But I don't think it's a different order of stylistic inconsistency than already exists within the structural framework of the piece. I think that's what you have in FURT as well; the music is (to paraphrase Ligeti) infinitely permeable, there's nothing you can't put in there. When we're making music is one of those few times in our existence when we can exercise freedom in a real and profound sense. I want the music I make to express that sense of freedom and the idea of discipline without restrictions. Whatever that may mean. I suppose a lot of the things I do are orientated towards looking at that idea: what does it mean to be a disciplined artist but to try and free oneself of any and all restrictions? And I think probably the work I do with FURT is the most extreme example of that. But that's not to say that it's some kind of emotionally detached bricolage. Its components are – to use the old word – expressive: they have a poetic value, or a symbolic value. The freedom to include anything carries with it, of course, the responsibility to make sense out of it, and for the elements of the music to enter into auditory and poetic relationships with one another which are musically significant, no doubt in different ways to different listeners.

Do you feel that you and Paul have distinct roles in any way in FURT, or are you so symbiotic by this point that it's hard to separate out those roles?

When we're performing it's often difficult to tell who's doing what.

When I watched that clip of you on YouTube performing at the Vortex Jazz Club it was actually quite hard a lot of the time to correlate the performative gesture with the resulting sound.

YouTube is not particularly well correlated anyway because sound and vision aren't always very well synchronised, but in live performance sometimes it can be difficult to work out what's going on. In fact in our last performance, which was only a couple of weeks ago, there was a moment, Paul was telling me afterwards, when he was looking over at me and thinking, Why has he gone so crazy? And I wasn't actually doing anything at that moment. What had happened was Paul had about six different stuck loops on his keyboard, which he wasn't aware of until he thought he'd stopped playing and then everything stopped apart from this ongoing malfunction. But, you know, "transcending the malfunction" is one of our watchwords, so we found our way out of that one. Still I think it becomes increasingly apparent, now and again at least, that ... well, Paul's musical origins lie in playing the piano and mine lie in playing the guitar, and I think that the residue, if you like, of plucked string sounds and struck string sounds is still quite important. I find myself often being emotionally attracted to plucked string sounds, no matter what instrument they come from.

There's a very nice piece on ... isn't it on OMNIVM? There's one that is basically plucked strings sounds - there's a lot of what seems like hit or struck zither. Yes, the second track, "obliged".

That's right. That was a little box-shaped instrument with strings on it that we found in the gamelan orchestra at Durham University, where we'd gone in with a DAT recorder and fumbled around in a very un-Indonesian sort of way. I think our instrumental background shows itself to a certain extent in the kind of sounds we prefer to use. Apart from that I think our opinions on things are sufficiently close that it's often not easy to tell who's doing what - we're constantly trying to please each other or conversely to irritate each other. There's always a kind of dialogue going on in the music, but it's between sounds rather than between Paul and me.

To ask a slightly naïve question: in a performance, so in other words in an improvisational situation, what percentage of the sounds you make at any given moment do you feel you are really in control of? And to what extent is there a 'I think I know what that note is going to sound like but I'm not sure' aspect to it?

That varies, and the variation is the important thing - when we go into the performance we both have large numbers of banks of sounds, some of which are extremely familiar to us and some of which might be having their first outing. Sometimes it's a case of 'I think I know what's going to happen if I do this, but I'm not entirely sure,' but there also needs to be a place for 'I know exactly what's going to happen when I do this.' Those different degrees of uncertainty are part of the aesthetic mix, so to speak. We develop the kind of reactions which act to incorporate whatever happens, however unexpected. It often happens that if one of us does something really stupid we tend to emphasise it rather than to try to pass it off as unimportant - to really concentrate on it.

Give me an example of something really stupid.

When something that is not only unintentional but actually unwanted takes place - something inappropriate, although I suppose it's difficult to give an idea of what might be inappropriate in a context like this. For example, moments when everything accidentally stops - the way the whole system works is that we both have keyboard instruments of our own but there's a third computer that sits between us which is controlled by both of our keyboards - sometimes we might both decide to stop everything at the same time because each of us is listening to something else that's going on and wishing to concentrate on it and then I might find it was actually me who was making that sound... the music stops, we're both thinking oh my God, everything's broken down! The ensuing silence might be so short that people in the audience might not even notice it was there, but in expressive/structural terms it might be the cue for a total change in direction. I mention that now because it happened a couple of times in the Amsterdam performance last week [at the Bimhuis, July 2009] - it was, I think, even for us, an exceptionally energetic performance, which didn't really let up very much for 50 minutes or so, but when it did of course the effect was cataclysmic and the effect of a silence of half a second within that kind of turbulent, constantly changing texture is so much greater than it is if that's a regular part of the musical syntax. But I think that's something which is worth further exploration. I was alluding earlier on to the attraction of hyper-minimalism as well, and I think it might be time at some stage to make a further exploration of that way of looking at music because clearly it presupposes a different kind of intensity in the listeners' concentration - no less intensity of course.

I'd like to ask a couple of things about the more performative aspects of your concerts. Not really being much of an improviser myself, how do you prepare yourself for one of those concerts? Do things like nerves affect you adversely or positively? or, say you're not feeling very well or you're in a bad mood. I mean, do those kind of human issues come out in what you do?

Yes. I don't know. I have the feeling they play more of a role than they should do in my life because I didn't really do very much performing in public before my thirties. I was occasionally doing things before then but I'm still not used to it. I guess I'm not going to get used to it now. I don't think it's at all appropriate to be too complacent about sitting in front of an audience and saying, yeah, we can do this. The music always turns out better if we're constantly on the edge of thinking it isn't working. Luckily our technical set up is sufficiently cranky that we can often spend the entire sound check sorting out technical problems, and then what happens in the performance is such an outpouring of relief that everything does actually work that this sense of release is expressed in musical terms. But that's not a very efficient way of achieving musical expressivity.
When a performance hasn't worked it's generally been because we haven't made the personal connections strong enough - in a sense it's chamber music, depending on an extreme sensitivity to the smallest body-language cues, which of course is one reason why Paul and I are using MIDI keyboards rather than laptops.

Do you have a sense that the changes in technology over the twenty-something years that FURT's been going have fundamentally altered what it is you do, or not at all, or partly? How would you characterise that?

Certainly they did at one point, because when we started off we had a room full of guitars and trombones and pianos and cassette machines. Then we discovered Casio samplers, which were basically toys - each one had a Walkman plugged into it which would be constantly playing cassettes we'd prepared for the purpose, some completely predictable and others basically random. When at the beginning of 1994 we started working at Steim, which is where "Terminal v2.0", the first track on the Live in Amsterdam CD was recorded, then it became possible to think in high-end audio terms and to aim at the maximum possible clarity in the textural complexity that we were working with. But I think it was very important that we'd been through that lo-tech phase to get there. The experience of playing Casio samplers through guitar effects pedals and the like still exercises an influence on the way we work now. We're not making the kind of electronic music that comes from experiences at IRCAM or any of those posh places, but from a pathway which has gone through and beyond the lowest electronic music technology there is.

When you improvise with other people, other than Paul, is it a radically different process? I mean you have some people you work with fairly regularly; are some people easier to work with than others on an improvisational level?

Yes. What one tries to do in any given improvisational situation is to try and contribute to the composite identity of the group one is working in, and that ideally should involve everybody in that group shifting themselves one way or another towards an imagined centre of gravity - everything that everybody does should be different from what they would do in other contexts. Sometimes that centre is very difficult to find, and sometimes you have to try and find it in the course of a fifteen-minute set - the music becomes "about" finding the centre rather than exploring outwards from it. Sometimes something can happen which creates that composite entity almost by magic, like when Paul and I first got together, or when I first worked with Evan Parker, in 1994. Then again, the trio with Evan and Michael Vatcher, both of whom I'd often worked with before, took until its third concert for this to happen, from my perspective at least.

Is that then a process, as you described it earlier on, of finding the kind of music that those three of you together can do that is distinct from what you would do with somebody else? Is that how you would judge the criterion of success in working with somebody? A sense that you have actually identified some area of activity that is your own?

With the proviso that it doesn't have to be as conscious and explicit as that. But when I look at it afterwards, that is the process that I can see was taking place. I'm not really interested in the kind of improvising which needs one to react in exactly the same way to every situation one gets put in, because that, to me, makes the collaborative composition part of it less important and I think group improvisation should be as un-egotistical a thing as possible. So in other words, to think of oneself as merely, I suppose merely is not the word, but as a component in a composite entity rather than being an independent entity in oneself. Although of course the presence of the centre enables one to move outside it and use it as something to ... to continue that analogy, to orbit around, and it's possible of course to leave it completely and go off in another direction.

Your position as an improviser is pretty rare, bordering on unique, in that I can't really think of any other composer who has invested so much time and effort in the improvisation world, in terms of the contemporary scene. Two questions from that: one, do you feel that this has led to any career issues, either in your mind or in other people's perception of you, positively or negatively? You know, like wow! he can compose all this music and yet he can also improvise! or, he can't be very serious as a composer because he also improvises! Or is that not an issue?

That's the first question? I don't know. I don't really think in terms of career issues - when FURT emerged we weren't thinking that we'd be travelling the world and playing concerts in the Bimhuis in Amsterdam and everywhere, because at the outset we were two blokes having fun with a load of instruments in somebody else's house. What interests me is to try and put myself in a position where I can pursue those musical pathways of investigation which I think are the most important at any given time, or the most potentially fruitful. But I'm quite aware that the outside world might not see it like that. It's a major problem that improvised music and notated music usually take place in different places and in front of different audiences. Actually one of the reasons why I was attracted to move to Amsterdam in '93 was that it's one of the places where the flow of people and ideas between notated music and improvised music is least problematic. Anyway, in 2002 I was doing the premiere of a piece called Blattwerk for cello and electronics with Arne Deforce, which was partially commissioned by the Musica Festival in Strasbourg. This was the first time that I'd brought to a "straight" music festival a piece which involved a rather significant amount of improvisation. Compositionally it was an important stage for me to have reached, as well, because what happens in the course of this piece, to cut a very long story short, is that it begins completely notated and it ends almost completely improvised. In between those two points it gradually moves from an emphasis on notated material to a point where the notated material pretty much drops out completely. There are three elements involved in that: there is notated material, which is always precisely notated; then there's improvisation which is not notated at all - that's where I use the infinity sign in the score to emphasise the fact that between the notated passages there should be no restrictions on what can possibly happen - then the third element is a partly-autonomous computer program, which is constantly sampling what the cello plays and reconstituting it and throwing it back out of four channels in different ways. It starts off doing that with composed material and ends up doing it with improvised material. So one of the ideas here is that somehow the music develops its own consciousness as it goes on. This transition from notated to non-notated performance is something that I think has a very audible dramatic and structural significance. The director of that festival had been negotiating with me up until a short time beforehand on commissioning a new orchestral piece for the next festival, but the fact that this one contained so much improvisation decisively changed his mind on that, so the commission got cancelled. Luckily it was taken up elsewhere so nothing was lost in the end, but I was surprised, I suppose, to find that doing something which to me is as natural and as connected with my other musical activities as improvising, can still, in certain quarters, have a really negative effect on people's opinions. The festival director in question is now in charge of IRCAM, so I guess improvised music doesn't get much of a look in there.

The second part of my question is that, given the very obvious differences between composing and improvising – I suppose the most obvious being that when you improvise you're almost always doing it with other people rather than as a solo thing, whereas composition by definition is just you and your score – are you aware of ways in which one feeds the other? More specifically, in what ways do you find your composition has learnt from your improvising activity, if it has?

In every way. The situation was unresolved in my mind until quite recently, and working on Blattwerk did a lot to clarify matters. I don't think of myself as doing two different things. I think of "composition" as referring to the act of creating music and of improvisation as being one means to bring that about. I think there must be very clear stylistic connections between what I do as an improviser and what I do as a composer of notated music. But conversely, there's also the fact that I don't want to use improvisation to do things which sound like they were composed. And I don't want to use composition to do things that sound like they could easily have been improvised - if I have a particular kind of musical vision in mind then it's also clear what kind of process, what kind of strategy, needs to be used to realise it. In the past few years my notated work has developed more audibly systematic features, like canonic structures for example - things that could not possibly occur within an improvisational context. And on the other hand I'm attracted to forms which belong to an improvisational context, which would be impossible to reproduce any other way, not just details and micro-unpredictabilities which wouldn't be possible to write down because the notation would be too complex, but also ways of developing a structural approach to improvisation which is as rich as can be achieved by notation. Improvised music is often criticised for structural banality, arising from the inertia which can result from a structure being "negotiated" by several people simultaneously. For example, the slow buildup is regarded as one of the clichés of improvised music. One way of dealing with that issue is to say that it's not a cliché, that's just what improvised music does, it's part of the context. Another is to try and develop the structural possibilities of improvisation, to take so to speak a compositional approach, which works with memory and anticipation in a complex and multidimensional way. I'm not saying this is unique to me of course. I think that all successful improvised music is functioning on that kind of structural level, whether consciously or not.
Looking at things from the other side, I think it's pretty obvious when you listen to my notated compositions that I'm at least as interested in the way that improvising musicians deal with the instruments I'm writing for as I am in composers who write for those instruments, if not more so. Most of what to me is the most interesting, innovative thinking in music at this point in history is coming from musicians who are primarily involved in improvised music. To me that's where the centre of gravity of new music is, it's somehow shifting in that direction.

How long have you felt that way?

It's been dawning on me for a long time, because I think it has a great deal to do with the way that computer technology has become a more flexible way of making music than it used to be. I think improvised music is idiomatic to the electronic medium in a clearer way than it is to any other performing medium. When you're working in most musical media there are decisions which the medium takes for you: instrumental ranges, for example, or the capability of some instruments to mask others because their dynamic range is much wider, all of those orchestrational issues. For me the compositional focus which is given by the performing resources is the starting point for the musical material, and a deeper and deeper contemplation beginning from that starting point eventually results in the composition itself. Now if you're working with electronic resources, of course, you don't have that focus given to you to start with - it's not even limited by your own imagination, because you can also build randomness into it if you want to. That's the opposite of trying to work out, for example, what a violin and piano might possibly have in common with one another that would enable a notated composition to be written for them. One possible answer to that lack of focus is precisely free improvisation: the decision isn't made by the medium so much as by the necessity to react to the moment, to create the next moment. Also, if I'm playing the music myself, I also feel that I don't want it to be the same way from one performance to the next - each is to some extent part of a single ongoing compositional process, maybe like Evan Parker's music for solo soprano saxophone. Like Stockhausen's moment form, it dispenses with beginnings and endings and implies that musical creation is more continuous than the "pieces" it's generally packaged into.

As you mentioned Stockhausen there was one thing I wanted to ask you about him: do you feel that Stockhausen's intuitive music, some of which I've been listening to lately for the first time, has been a contribution to the world in which FURT lives? It's clear how you fit in quite nicely, if with some distinctions, alongside free improvisers, but Stockhausen wasn't fond of the term free improvisation and liked to think of it in quite different terms. Has that been important to you, given your sympathy with Stockhausen? One of the earlier FURT pieces, "ULTIMATUM" on defekt, is dedicated to Stockhausen, and so is one on your latest album.

I think Stockhausen's intuitive music is based on a rather traditional model of what a composer is and does, but in a context which, taken to its logical conclusion, would have involved dissolving the role of the composer altogether. Clearly Stockhausen wasn't prepared to do that. And he had a group of people around him who had been following him on this course, from Kontakte to Prozession, to Kurzwellen, and so on, who eventually almost didn't need to be given any instructions in order to enter that world and make Stockhausen music. I think the recordings of Aus Den Sieben Tagen made between '68 and '72 represent one of the pinnacles of achievement in improvised music, but at the same time Stockhausen's presence seems to have been necessary to bring that about. It was in a real sense Stockhausen's work, but it wasn't only Stockhausen's work, it was also the work of those people who had been developing that collective musical language over the course of the previous decade or so, without whom he couldn't possibly have entrusted those aphoristic poems to anybody. The "score" isn't the only, or the most important thing; there's also the performance history, which played as central a role in Aus den Sieben Tagen or Sternklang as it does with jazz standards. It's significant that after a short time he decided to go back into completely notated music and pretty much stayed there for the rest of his life. Personally I have no problem with taking that next step, not to be "the composer" any more.
An issue that often comes up in discussing my notated music is that of virtuosity, even if the music is not virtuosic in the sense that Paganini or Liszt might be, but it requires an attention to detail and a technical ability on that kind of level. When we started FURT, on the other hand, we were very decisively anti-virtuosic, wishing to create a situation where virtuosity was no advantage. But somehow, as FURT has developed, this anti-virtuosity has somehow mutated into a virtuosity of a certain kind: primarily perhaps of listening, of being able to listen and respond at a speed which most music doesn't demand of performers, within a musical context which is at least as complex as anything that could be notated. The only difference, I suppose, is that this supposed virtuosity is no use for any other music!

I find, admittedly having only seen FURT on video and not live, that virtuosity quite expressive and exciting, but I think you're right that there's a difference between that and seeing somebody playing Liszt. In FURT's case it has more the sense of a feeling of fluency and being able to do a lot, without necessarily drawing attention to itself. I think we tend to forget these days that Paganini and Liszt wanted to look fabulous, brilliant, and to have all the women admire them, that was part of why they were playing in that way! But I don't quite get that feeling with FURT, it's a different kind of thing.

Or it's a total failure to achieve just that…!

It's a sense of being dextrous and fluent in a particular idiom, rather than showing off.

Well, there is a certain self-effacing aspect to it as well. But in order to make the kind of music that we could feel developing under our hands, we had to develop certain techniques in order to achieve it. And one of the important aspects of that is to work with electronic instruments that it's actually possible to practice with. Because that's something that's often missing I think – the idea of instrumentalism is missing from a lot of electronic music. I'm aware that I might sound old-fashioned when I say that, but this music probably wouldn't work without the
peripheral-vision body-language interactions characteristic of chamber music, and to achieve the requisite degree of fluency you need to be interacting with the computer in such a way as to be able to get anywhere on the instrument at any time, just as you can with a piano or a violin or a trumpet. A great deal of the live electronic music that one hears these days is either taking place at a very slow pace or is based on intervening within automatically-generated material, whereas I prefer to think of an instrument as something that doesn't make a sound until you play it. I like to think of that as a forward-looking way of dealing with electronics in music. The skills required to play Liszt aren't different in kind from skills which have been developed for all kinds of musics all over the world and all through history. I don't think that one should throw them away lightly but rather try to find a "radically idiomatic" direction in which to take those motor-ear-coordination possibilities. This is one of the ways I think musical thinking and practice could continue to develop and search outward. Which also is an old-fashioned way of thinking about things!

Possibly FURT is more closely tied than one might think to classical tradition in that sense. You think about your performative presence. People are used to looking at live musicians after all, and in all kind of genres, and I don't know that that is going to simply disappear. It's something that's quite basic to the enjoyment of live music.

Yes, I should have said that. As a performer you're very sensitive to the audience, and that can only be a sensitivity to those same subtle "cues", because it's not like people are throwing tomatoes at you. You can tell a sympathetic audience from an unsympathetic one. That has a very strong effect on me as a performer. Maybe the development of a professional performing technique involves an ability to be able to rise above that and ignore it if necessary. That's something which I don't really think I have.
One thing I feel strongly about with live electronic performance is that at some stage the laptop screen has to go. I don't like having it there. I don't really need to see it all the time, only sporadically, but because it's in front of my face my eyes are drawn towards it as they might be to the TV screen in a pub. Whether you're looking at it or not, you can see it but the audience can't, which creates a barrier. People come up afterwards and say, what were you looking at when you were playing? And I feel like saying, I was trying not to look at it! But it was constantly staring me in the face so I couldn't do anything about it.
I realise that in saying that I'm returning to a traditionalist view of what an instrument is. But before we throw away all those traditional skills in our enthusiasm to embrace technology which is evolving faster than musical thought, we should ask ourselves whether there isn't something there worth taking along with us. It's important not to get seduced into thinking the music has developed more than it actually has, because in many ways it hasn't, quite the opposite. The whole area of electronic dance music and its offshoots has produced work which is in many ways very sophisticated, while remaining quite rudimentary in others.
It's interesting that when Busoni was writing about the future of music a hundred years ago, he identified the possibilities of electronic music as for example being able to make finer microtonal divisions and more complex rhythmical relationships than was possible with acoustic instruments. But of course with the majority of electronic music that exists now, on the one hand the rhythms are more consistently binary than any music in the entire history of the world, and on the other hand the question of microtones is hardly ever even approached. Perhaps then my approach to electronic music is maybe taking a bit more seriously what somebody like Busoni, whose thoughts hadn't been affected or deflected by the industrialisation of that technology, might imagine to be its potential.

photo by Matt Brown

Thanks to Richard Barrett for additonal editing. Go to: See also other interviews of related interest with Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, Radu Malfatti and Horatiu Radulescu.