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15 Questions to Steve Layton

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Same as I ever was, thanks. I'm sitting in Seattle, in the middle of one of the last great days of a great summer.

What’s on your schedule right now?

I don't keep much of a schedule. As to projects, I just finished a surprisingly long piece for flute, piano, vibraphone, and electronic sound, "What the Thunder Said". True to my working style, I had no idea a week ago that it was even in there waiting to get out. And now it's not only written, but performed, recorded, and making its way across the world on the web as we speak. Amazing... I've been listening to the good (and bad) from all over, and continuing to connect with composers and performers across the web. It's been one of my main preoccupations for some years now, and I still haven't hit the bottom of the barrel. I've also recently been working with a Chinese poet/sound artist, Yan Jun, to create a site ( that can highlight the extremely young experimental music community in China.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
There's always a crisis for some out there. To twist Charles Dickens a little, "It wasn't the best of times; it wasn't the worst of times...". Orchestras are essentially museums, modern classical is but the tiny fraction of another already-tiny and ever-shrinking fraction of the big genre "Classical", the traditional models of creating, delivering and making a living in this field are either becoming hermetically exclusive or falling apart altogether... And yet, my contact and connectivity with both other musicians and my potential audience has never been greater. Thanks to the web, I may be physically "isolated" in Seattle, but I and my music are in Zagreb, Tokyo, Toronto, Amsterdam, Istanbul. I can create and sell my music directly to my audience, no outside labels or publishers. There's a crisis only for those who expect things to always be the way they've been.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
Sometimes it means it was made this year; sometimes it simply means I'd never encountered it before. It certainly doesn't always mean "cutting-edge" or "avant-garde", at least since the last aesthetic doors were opened and we had nowhere to go but back in and around. The whole of musical aesthetics has always been there; history has not been so much about discovery as allowance. Somewhere in the last few generations we finally made the last allowance, that of any and every thing. Now all we can do is revisit, or forget and then "rediscover". I don't have any problem with either, as long as we're not still pretending we're blazing some absolutely new trail.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

We can't compose without sound, or at least the idea of sound. And time; all there really is to composition is "I am considering THIS sound in THIS time".

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Virtually every act of creation arises from some kind of initial "improvisation". What happens next can unfold very differently, mainly depending on the time the action happens in. Real, sustained improvisation chooses to stay with the initial time stream, for better or worse. Composition is asynchronous.

How would you define the term “interpretation”?
The process of making something created by somone else MINE.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?

They're pretty meaningless outside of a given culture. So it's really all about your own personal collection of cultural commitments.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
See #5 up there. All we need is an intention and an agreement.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?

It's all music, of course. But it's not all art. Both serious and popular music can be either art or entertainment. And almost all music can be entertaining. But not all can be art. That's where the distinction should be drawn.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
In life, of course. In entertainment music, sometimes. In art music, no duty whatsoever. Of course, the potential audience has no real duty to the music or musician, either. As to specific political/social art music, the problem is that the more "explicit" any work of art tries to be, the less art remains.

True or false: People need to be educated about  music, before they can really appreciate it.
People only need to learn what they feel they need to appreciate. If they have that impulse, great. If not, we can have a go at trying to wake that need, but nothing says it has to show up.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.

Only if you're not in one of those institutions! If I were a tyrant controlling every aspect of a country, and I happened to give all subsidy to the hip and new, there would certainly be great injustice for all kinds of other people in my country. Or I could try to be absolutely fair, a little bit to every single splinter and sub-splinter of the entire artistic spectrum, in which case nobody would get enough to pay even one person. At the same time, my first priority is making sure everybody is fed, has a roof over their head, and not dying too early. All we can do is trade off this for that, "maximize happiness", which will always leave someone out.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
Big-name composers and performers, living and dead (yes, why not dead performers? There are ways...). But also composers and performers who are working out of their bedrooms. Their reputations are in the work they've created, not on their C.Vs.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

I do. In fact, a couple different versions float around in my head. But they'll never get out; anything that "magnum" is by definition unrealizable. I suppose that's even one of the main attributes of their beauty... Short of that, I've always seen my whole body of work as one large "magnum opus". It's almost like each piece is a movement in this larger work, any of them capable of being juxtaposed in some meaningful way.

Different Light, Same Window (2005)
Works for Imaginary Piano (2004)
All Bright Things (2003)

Steve Layton
Steve Layton at MySpace

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