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Interview with Michael Begg

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

To Michael Begg, there are more important qualities in music than originality. As he explains in this interview, it is not so much a goal, but a process - and his new album World Fair more an accurate representation of his current interests than an original work.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

I have never aspired to originality. Without any kind of context it seems a largely meaningless proposition. Growing out of one’s influences and evading the charge of being derivative would seem more aligned to my experience.

In 1982, as schoolboys, we played a local hotel in the village. Deryk on bass, with a big chorus pedal, me on guitar with a Watkins copycat, an Amdek flanger and a big Peavey reverb on the combo. We didn’t get paid on account – so we were told – of windows being broken while we played. The main thing I recall, however, is being approached in the toilet by someone who, in mid piss, turned and asked, “Why are you such a fucking Cure rip-off?” I shook myself dry, zipped up, and muttered, “We like The Cure”. So, emulating is something that had to be addressed, and this is what I mean by evading the charge of being derivative. Its not the same as striving to be original. Curious as it sounds, it comforts and satisfies me more to think of making a contribution, something to add to the top of the heap of work created by so many souls, than it does to set out with the aim of producing something original, stark and alone.

I am not at all sure I have found “my voice”. I am much too tenuous as a character, too vulnerable, for that to arise. Rather, I have found, over time, a process that works for me. A long, long process from which arises, eventually, if I’m lucky, a work that seems complete and contained. Any aspect of originality comes from a long journey towards acceptance of the process of production. Inspiration, for me, is not ever a “eureka” moment. It comes from long, slow cooking, persistent disappointment met with bewildering arrogance and bloody mindedness. Somewhere in that journey the alternative voices, the strategies, the external influences all peel away until you are left with nothing but your own predicament and no known means or method of covering up the kernel of the project. It is yours and yours alone. The only mechanism you have left at the end of the process to address any kind of resolution to the project is your own internal inventions born during the process. That, I suppose, could be said to be an original voice emerging with an original piece of work. However, experience also tells me that decades will pass and then you’ll accidentally hear something you listened to in your bedroom as a child and it’ll hit you like a fist, “That’s where I got that idea”.

There really is very, very little that can be said to be truly original. There are at best characterful responses, and creative cocktails, and investigations of process. And they are all incredibly interesting in their own right.

Did you ever hear Eno talk about this? He put forward this nice illustration of standing two paintings side by side. One is an original Jackson Pollock, whilst the other is a faithful and painstakingly accurate representation of the Pollock painting. On one hand, there is nothing original about the replica. On the other, however, regarded in terms of process it may be utterly fascinating. Whilst the original was executed in a frenzy, the replica would require an incredibly thorough and ingenious process to replicate the expressivity of the original.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
I think I speak for the better part of a generation of British musicians when I say listening to the John Peel show, night after night, from 1979, when I was 13, and on into the mid 80s opened all of our imaginations to a bewildering range of possibilities. Again, it wasn’t originality itself that drew me in. It was more to do with being attracted, hooked, or obsessed with what it was that was being said by individual groups, rather than by mere virtue of its originality.

Somewhere into that chaotic period came an introduction to Brian Eno’s Discreet Music and, subsequently, the full EG catalogue. Tuxedo Moon, who still haunt me in inexplicable ways on account of Special Treatment For The Family Man, came into view for a while, as did Popol Vuh, who could be so magical one moment, and so maddeningly hippy-ish the next. I’d love to say there were more outré names that would allow you to locate the connections to my own work – but really it was mostly just bands, bands, bands. Each doing their own thing. Each adding somehow to the pantheon. Each informing the spirit of angular singularity and bravado; The Banshees, Killing Joke, The Fall, The Nightingales, Felt, New Order (whose Movement album remains in the Mysterious Act of God category) Lowlife, Einstuerzende Neubauten, The Raincoats, Ivor Cutler, Throbbing Gristle, Birthday Party… just so many.

Thinking retrospectively – as it was not something that ever occurred to me at the time – I think I was always drawn particularly to artists and works that were somehow adding to a tradition, or to an existing body of work in music and other mediums. I mentioned The Cure earlier, but they were great for this. Interviews always referred back to literature and cinema. Somewhere in a box I have a couple of letters I received from Robert Smith in 1980. I had asked him about some of his lyrics and this led to a brief exchange about Albert Camus, Sartre, Kafka, even Mervyn Peake. All very mawkish now and reported here with quite a blush on my cheeks, but at the time, it was vital, and directed life itself. You see, one felt very lonely and isolated in the Scottish suburbs living only on a diet of music and hill walking. It nourished me immensely to know that there was some kind of lineage, a tradition that transcended means and forms of expression and reached back into history. To be a small part of that seemed, and still seems, much more useful and positive than situating oneself outside of everything.

And then there was the introduction to the Velvet Underground which just tore everything apart. Again, there was the constant referencing back to other artists, other media – clear lines of avant-garde sensibility, questioning, exploring. A whole ecology spanning Afterhours to the Black Angel’s Death Song. Its almost embarrassing that their explosive contribution has yet to be superseded. They still sit on the top of the heap.  I developed a sense that art could be divided into east and west, and that I, an Edinburgh boy through and through, was part of a tradition belonging to the east. Where the west coast of America – and Scotland – was a sociable, melodic affair, the east coast, whether it be the Velvets New York, or Josef K’s Edinburgh was uptight, anxious, well-read - culturally framed by Kafka, paranoia, isolation, ennui. We all wore second hand suits, and couldn’t form the conceptual borders between fine art, music and writing. Or drinking and petty crime, for that matter. It was all part of the whole. We thought we were immortal.

What's your own definition of originality?
Because I have come to think of originality as a process rather than an objective I have to conclude that originality defines a territory equidistant between surrender and madness, and is achieved by a miracle of balance and an exertion of pure will. Originality arises as a sense of accomplishment at the end of the process and remains for so long as it takes for you to re-examine your contribution and begin to hear the original sources sneaking through again.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Whether something is interesting or not is of much more importance. It doesn’t have to be entirely original, does it?

I have to confess that the older I get, and the more involved I become with the inner twists of my own journey, the less time or attention I find I can offer to external voices, the work of others. My circle of influence is actually very, very small. Embarrassingly so, I imagine. In my youth I cast a wide net and listened to anything and everything, and devoured every book on every shelf. I was insatiable. However, I was always very poor at being able to quickly decide on the value or quality of the work. I made some dreadful errors of judgement. Now, it seems the axis has changed, and from a small canon gathered closely about myself I just dive, or sink, deeper and deeper into this pool of my own making. There is perhaps only a small handful of artists – in the broad sense - that I actively follow. But I cherish them and am devoted to them utterly. Curiously, I also feel compelled to keep them secret!

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
The main challenge at the moment is time. Time to allow the process to take hold and take me ever deeper. I have formalised my own education and am quietly learning music theory, quite literally on my own, and in candlelight. I likened this process to slowly opening the lid on a box and finding that the box was full of ice cream. And that the box was the size of a house. And that the task of eating all of this ice cream was going to be sublime, delicious and would kill me.

Coming to a very primitive understanding of the science of composition – particularly early foundations of polyphony and the development of the credo, and later evolutions towards challenging texture and clusters of tone – has enabled me to sense a unity for myself somewhere far off down the line. A place where text is weighed, syllable by syllable, against tonic, tone, harmony and silence. For the time being it is only a remote possibility that I’ll ever reach that destination. World Fair is the first step. And already I can see how clumsy it is. That’s ok. It feels original in that its my own journey and I am consumed by it – but, really, you can draw the lines from it back through Ligeti and back, back, back to Thomas Tallis and John Dowland. Not that I would dream of drawing comparison, but they are the touchstones for me just now. Is that original? The journey is, for sure. I think. But the result? I don’t know if it's an original piece of work. It is an accurate reflection and sincere enough representation of the period of time in which it evolved.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
I think I have been pretty exhaustive on my outlining of the process here. I have learned not to order the ideas, or place them in any kind of hierarchy. It feels like an indulgence sometimes but I seem to thrive on folding all the ideas together and resigning before them. This is the part of the process that is surrender.

So, for World Fair I had been reading this book called “From Eternity To Here” because things like time travel, infinity, and the limits of the observable universe had always been alluring – as they are for everyone – and I wanted to find a way inside that. So, here was a relatively lightweight book that could introduce me gently to the second law of thermodynamics and the conceptual development of entropy. At the same time I was stumbling across a lot of articles and photo essays on architecture, optimism and the psychological manipulation of populations into consumers led by fragile concepts of self and desire. So, a lot of Edward Bernays, Freud, Adam Curtis, photographs of rockets and buildings spinning like planets on the sites of the old World Fairs, and the beautiful, beautiful Chrysler building. Into this mix fell my early efforts to pick up music theory, which sent me hurtling into the 16th century – throughout which the western style seemed very much centred on a kind of melancholy brought about by advances in science. The high water mark of this being, I suppose, Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell.

So, I surrender and let of the elements talk to each other. This is the madness that accompanies the surrender. A narrative emerged in my head where a string quartet specialising in laments and hymns is transported from the 16th century to the abandoned Cloud Club in the upper floors of the Chrysler Building. Rumours of the avant-garde and advances in science drift up through the air to their sealed chamber where they continue to compose. So, their drive to create devotional work centres not on God but on entropy and the second law of thermodynamics.

It is from this kind of free form association that pieces slowly emerge. The last six months feel more like archaeology or restoration than actual composing. By this point it seems to me like the thing already exists, has always existed, and just needs to be somehow recovered. There is only one single moment with this or any recording that comes without struggle or doubt and that is the moment when I listen to the playback and know that it is finished.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I work increasingly with a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments and tools. Acoustic instruments don’t change very quickly, but the electronic/computer toolset evolves at a maddening pace and whether I like it or not I accept that for each record I do the toolset is completely different. It's no guarantee of being able to make an original or sincere contribution but it does at least mean that there is nothing there for you to rest back on or over which to grow complacent.

I won’t be the only one to have observed the trend for curated events that seek to combine the electronic avant-garde with more traditional chamber instrumentation. This tends to see the classical artists coming over to the electronic side and contributing what they can. This always seemed unsatisfactory to me. Part of my reason of committing to sharpening up my understanding of theory, scores, notation and so forth was a real attempt to meet the tradition half way and give as much as I took.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
In terms of technology? None at all. Technology is just a tool. Too many people still allow progress to be governed and determined by the functionality and affordances of the tools they have to hand. People should spend more time questioning the limits of that affordance. Technology is an expression of power, and politics in the broadest sense.

Of much more relevance, and still a source of great warmth and humility for me, was when I came to understand that musicians, on the whole, like to say yes when you ask for help and engagement. It really makes you feel pretty buoyant when others come on board with their talent and work with you to get something out of the mud. It makes the work more real, somehow. More tangible. And it increases conviction. So, yes. People provide a much more fruitful point of departure than technology.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
The construct of a cultural landscape is, in itself, problematic because it suggests an infrastructure, a hierarchy, a societal model and, by extension, an expectation for conformity. Everybody would like to see the arts robustly funded, but once you have seen the processes involved in applying for these funds it is clear that there is a model of expectation for the actual work you are expected to produce, and the timeframe in which you are expected to produce it. As for the current cultural landscape it fills me with nothing other than disgust and fear. I retreat, now more than ever before, into isolation.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Well, as suggested above, the extension of my reach into ensemble pieces would be beautiful. Fortress Longing would work well with a large ensemble, and World Fair is actually a chamber piece in thin disguise – albeit a chamber piece with a devastating wash of killer guitar thrown into the middle of it. The technical aspects of anything tend to be easily surmountable, but the money, of course, is something different. There is very little of it about and when it does surface it goes to folk with a much higher profile than my own.

It is time, however, that is the main obstacle to my own progress. The process is fragile and it takes a great deal of effort to lift, drop and then regain the required degree of concentration. But you need to drop it in order to get out of the house and pull some money in. And a single lifetime is simply not enough these days. The information age is very, very good for revealing to us how much there is to know, and where all the interesting connections come about. But it's not so good at yielding the time to consume and digest and assimilate all of the information, let alone respond and contribute. This lifetime is not enough.

Michael Begg Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Michael Begg / Human Greed