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Interview with Monty Adkins

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 rip-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.

In this interview, sound artist and electro-acoustic composer Monty Adkins stresses that originality should never not just be a personal ambition – but always inspire other artists to put their own spin on it as well.

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 recognise the sentiment of your question wholeheartedly in my own development as a creative artist. I came to electronic music relatively late. I’d studied classical music until I was 21, always knowing that the kind of sounds I wanted to make were really beyond what traditional instruments could do.  Electronic music was a real epiphany and during my PhD I listened to as much as I possibly could. The series of pieces that I produced during this time I now regard as exercises in technical craftsmanship, rather like a renaissance apprenticeship.  Don’t get me wrong, these pieces have some artistic worth and have been released (empreintes DIGITALes) but they only explore some of the things I am interested in musically. I then spent five or six years in the musical wilderness - making a whole variety of pieces that explored  some of these - such as rhythm ("Symbiont or Cortex") and instrumentality ("Silk to Steel").  I didn’t compose anything in 2006-7 as I was again trying new things, some of which worked and some didn’t. It was only in 2008 at the age of 36 (the age Mozart died!) that I started creating a series of albums that I am really proud of.

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?
When I was a teenager I was really attracted to the works of Penderecki. I didn’t really think of it in terms of originality, but perhaps more sonorous novelty that was completely different to all of the other pieces I knew. Later, John Wall’s "Constructions" were really striking for me. I found these pieces totally mesmerising and original in their approach to treating musical time. The sounds I did not find particularly novel in themselves, though they are exceedingly beautiful and expertly crafted. What I was fascinated with is how Wall had put them together. The closest analogy I can think of is that of a poet, who takes words you already know but through their syntactic arrangement makes something completely original with them. For me, it is Wall’s musical syntax that marks his work out as being original.

What's your own definition of originality?
It was with John Wall that I began to realise that sonic (or technological) novelty was really only that - a novelty. Originality was something far more radical. For me, originality requires some kind of conceptual shift in thinking about the creation of music that is not merely novel, but opens up new avenues for musical exploration that can be followed by other artists who will bring their own perspectives as well.

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?
I don’t think originality has become less important, but I think it is increasingly difficult to achieve. If you think, in general terms, that originality has often been associated with expanding the boundaries of music language in some way then to some extent, I would consider those boundaries to have been mapped out (history will no doubt prove me wrong) … John Cage’s "4’33" (silence), Eliane Radigue’s "Trilogie de la Mort" (very slow gradual change of a musical continuum of extended time-spans), Ferneyhough’s "Etudes Transcendantales" (rhythmic and notational complexity), Klaus K. Hübler’s "Opus breve" (complexity of physical actions to create instrumental sound), to Jazkamer’s "Eat Shit First" (noise) offer just a few examples of these extremes. There are of course a myriad of others. Originality is then how we negotiate new paths within our existing musical universe by drawing elements together in unexpected ways. Some of these elements may be purely musical - bringing characteristics from diverse genres together to create a new musical syntax or sound world, others however, maybe from outside the realm of music altogether as musicians draw on computer science, evolutionary biology and artificial intelligence as models for their work. Having said this, I think one can get hung up on trying to be original. Trying to be totally original in every album or work is setting oneself up to fail. In science, originality is adding 0.1% or less to existing knowledge in an existing field of study. Mapping out whole new fields of investigation as a result of a paradigm shift in thinking is often a one in a lifetime event. I think the same is true of music. There are many artists who are not radical or original but nevertheless have something artistically to say that is meaningful and resonant with their audience.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I don’t think that the amount of music being made has any correlation to originality. Just as in the baroque and classical era there are plenty of musicians creating good music today that is unexceptional. For example, with over a 1000 dubstep tracks being uploaded to Soundcloud every week how many of those are going to do something new other than rehash existing cliches? How many ambient releases are rehashing the mid-frequency biased, pretty melody and pseudo-vinyl crackle set of ingredients? As always, the best examples of these will float to the top and be recognised either now or over time. These best examples will have something about them that differentiates them somehow either in terms of artistic quality, conceptual aims or in terms of musical syntax or sound. From a personal perspective I am interested in forming collaborations with musicians who will challenge me and offer differing perspectives and then reflecting on how the results of this process can reinvigorate my solo practice. Many of the artists I am interested in are also friends, as I appreciate the integrity, craft and thinking that goes into their work. I think Alexander Schubert, Nicolas Bernier, Arturas BumsĖŒteinas, Ambrose Field, Jo Thomas, Radek Rudnicki and Helena Gough are all producing work that I think is forward thinking and provocative.

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 have recently written about this in terms of nodalism. Although I am primarily a creative practitioner, I am also an academic. I don’t consider these to be mutually exclusive. Through an understanding of models of creativity, such as those written about by Margaret Boden, or memetics (Richard Dawkins and later Steven Jan) - the idea of our brains being packed with memes (cultural ideas, tunes etc.) from our experiences and that we draw on in our music, to the functioning of the brain in cognition Donald Hebb and later John Horgan, I feel that I am able to reflect on my creative process from a more considered position. For me, these models don’t imply a completely different manner of doing things, but through knowing about them make me ask questions about why I am doing what I am doing, how I approach musical materials, my methods of processing them in the studio and how I put them together. Although this can sound overly theoretical I can assure you it isn’t. My main concern is to be aware of what I am doing and not fall sub-consciously into a method of making music that is merely a pattern that I repeat over and over.

Where ideas come from is a difficult one to answer. Sometimes they are from what I have been reading or listening to, sometimes as a result of a conversation with a friend. Other times they seem to come completely from nowhere - a kind of extreme lateral thinking from whatever I was doing at the time. I often start with this initial idea and then sketch a nodal diagram that develops ideas from this starting point. I like to be as wide ranging as possible, often bringing in literary, artistic or cultural ideas that can offer a different perspective on the form or syntax of a piece, or a different way of processing or mixing material.  Some aspects of these nodal sketches are freely associative and quick unconscious connections. Later, I can consciously reflect on these and develop further connections. All of these often form the conceptual approach to the piece and then later inform other details of the work. For example, Rift Patterns (Audiobulb, 2014) has a number of diverse influences. I was really interested in exploring the personal meaning of places but without necessarily just presenting location recordings or manipulations of these. So there are ideas from psychogeography, the writings of Iain Sinclair, Gillian Rose’s writings as a social geographer and the aesthetics of ‘atmosphere’ by Gernot Böhme. I’m also aware of other ways in which artists have drawn on places such as Richard Skelton’s Ridgelines, Simon Bainton’s Visiting Tides to John Surman’s Road to St Ives. I was also interested in working with the prepared piano. Here there are sonic links to John Cage and Hauschka and the differing traditions that these artists reflect. Classical forms (such as the chaconne in Soliloquy, track 2) also inform the piece. All of these ideas and ‘nodes’ of reference provide points of context and shape the form of the work. However, I don’t go to the level of having these nodes shape the moment to moment content of the track. Once the overall shape and conceptual starting point is decided I use these as ‘constraints’ within which to work more intuitively.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
I think this is a complex question that mixes two issues. The first is the ownership of a product. This could be a House track or a symphony. It makes no difference. There is a need to protect a producer or composer’s rights. The most unoriginal pieces can be a huge commercial success and copyright is important for these artists to make a living. I don’t think copyright really equates to originality - but merely an original work - a work that simply did not exist before. Originality is much more difficult to quantify from the perspective of ‘ownership’. Of course some artists are considered highly original but their work still builds on that of others. No work stands on its own in isolation. It always refers to something else even if by negation. Artists don’t patent their ideas like inventors, though they may patent their tools (software or hardware). I think originality is something that can be recognised only years later. Think of Gorecki’s Symphony no.3 - popular in amongst the most avant garde musical circles, Gorecki realised that to do something really radical (in the mid-1970s) actually meant to do something simple, repetitive, slow and emotive.

Our contemporary ideas of originality have their origin in nineteenth century Romanticism and the later commodification of an artist’s work. Manufacturers and artists need to protect their outputs in terms of scores, recordings or software. Our laws protecting us are again relatively recent (from the Berne Convention of 1886, the Buenos Aires Convention of 1910 to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act passed in England in 1988). All of these are attempts at the time to protect those creating work, ideas, new tools at that particular time in history. I am sure that in 20 - 50 years time we will find that technology has developed exponentially and necessitates another model.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
No tool is neutral. Everything is designed with some purpose in mind and creative practitioners can use or subvert tools in anyway they consider useful to their work. I know a number of people who maintain that to create something really original you have to program it from scratch in a software like MAX or Supercollider. I disagree with this. I think the most important thing is not to be lead by the tools but to have sufficient knowledge of as many tools as possible to make sure that you use the right tool for the right job. In some cases this does involve creating things anew. Two good friend of mine demonstrate this perfectly. Alex Harker (Ergodos) has created some amazing new tools in MAX, but these tools are always necessary due to the conceptual starting point of the piece that he wants to create. His piece "Fluence for clarinet and electronics" uses bespoke descriptor analysis tools to select, transform and playback samples from a bank over 1600 sound files in realtime. Here Harker’s tools allow a sonic richness that one would expect from months of crafting sound in a studio to be released in realtime and controlled by the performer. On the other hand, Richard Ginns (12x50Recordings, Woven Loop, Cotton Goods, ANALOGPATH Records, Twiceremoved) is able to produce sensuous enveloping textures and beautiful fragile melodies from a four-track machine and simple processing tools. Both of these artists show that it is their imagination that is the driving impetus creatively. The question for both is how to select and then use tools that will offer the sound and means they need to create their work.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I have to be honest and say that I am not driven by technological developments. As an artist who predominantly works and records in the studio, I like to think away from the computer and then realise my ideas with the tools I have. Many of the newer tools I have or have made simply allow me to do things more efficiently or more effectively than before. These tools may be software or hardware controllers. Having said that, I consider Alex Harker, who I work alongside with at the University of Huddersfield to be one of the best coders around. Some of the ideas he is currently working on in MAX are truly inspiring and I can’t wait to see how I can integrate these into my own work.

Fundamentally what drives me is interesting sound. I am not bothered by interactive tools, sensors or other such technologies to control sound. I know there are great advances being made here and a wealth of artists using these in innovative ways. However, what remains the most important thing for me is creating sounds and tracks that are interesting, new and surprising to me. Sometimes newness and being surprised can result from using or hacking the oldest of technologies. It is one’s imagination that is most important, not the 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?
I think that artists, scientists and creative thinkers have always been stimulated by originality - whether it has been called that or not. As humans, we are naturally inquisitive and this comes through in all disciplines. Whether what we propose is accepted or not is a matter often of politics and circumstance. I recently examined a PhD in England by an Iranian musician. His work was highly original in its mixing of traditional Iranian instruments and their musical idioms and more avant garde electronic music genres. In England his music could be played widely and openly. In Iran he had to play in underground venues and only advertise the concert by social media and texts at the last minutes for fear of the concert being stopped by the authorities. I think our freedom of expression is something that we often take for granted.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
There are things that I am beginning to want to do regarding the control of multiple parameters that I know can only really efficiently be realised in programs like Supercollider or MAX. It’s not that this is particularly difficult, it is just something that I haven’t done before at such a scale and so I need to learn some new tools. There are many pieces I’d like to do but don’t have the finance for. For one, I’d love to do a large immersive ambient piece for two orchestras surrounding an audience with electronics and hemispherical dome video projection.

Monty Adkins latest album Rift Patterns is available from Audiobulb, with a new full-length, Borderlands, planned for January.

Monty Adkins Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Monty Adkins