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Interview with Richard Sanderson

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, improviser and Linear-Obsessional-label-founder Richard Sanderson describes how the fear of not being considered original enough caused him to prematurely end projects in the past – and how laughter can be considered the appropriate response to truly original music.

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 first started making music with two friends in Middlesbrough in the mid-70s, aged 12/13 - we played whatever happened to be around – my Dad’s piano, a cheap guitar, an old Boys‘ Brigade drum, whistles and tape recorders. Although we had visions of wanting to sound like our heroes (Can, Hawkwind, Tangerine Dream) by a combination of complete musical cluelessness and extremely unsophisticated instrumentation we accidentally produced something that sounded quite original! All the music was improvised on to tape- the actual production of sound was much more important than the methods, or the results. We found this very exciting and honestly felt that there was an audience for this sound (There may well still be, I still have the recordings and have toyed with issuing them on Linear Obsessional). My own development has been hesitant and halting, I used to have a great fear of not being seen as „original“- and would abandon projects even when they were quite successful - this particularly applies to my periods in punk and post-punk bands. It was the rediscovery of freely improvised music, and the London scene of the 80s in particular that galvanised me into doing stuff again. I was fascinated by the concept of virtuosity within improv, and initially I played toys as a way of sidestepping the issue.

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?
The first records I bought for myself were electronic – The Doctor Who Theme (at an exhibition at Middlesbrough Town Hall) and „Popcorn“ by Hot Butter. The synthesizer immediately struck me as a machine for making original sounds. Before that, the first record I was aware of that sounded very different from anything else was The Rolling Stones‘ „We Love You“ on radios on my way to school in the 60s – it’s mocking tone the reverse of the rest of the music you’d hear at the time. Another memory is of my Dad listening to Jazz on Radio 3, and hearing something by Company with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker- sometime about 1976. What struck me most was the amount of space in the music, and its refusal to communicate in any easy way. I’ve been fascinated by awkward customers ever since.

What's your own definition of originality?
The unexpected. Very original music actually makes me laugh - not mocking, but in delight.

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?
At the moment I value it very much. The trouble is in finding something which is original, but also rewarding to listen to. For example I have a CD of sounds recorded with a microphone inside the mouth of the artist – it’s certainly original in concept and sound, but not actually very interesting beyond a few minutes …

I’m pleased to say I still get sent recordings (demos if you like) to Linear Obsessional that are startlingly original to my ears.

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?
A few years ago I started seriously investigating the world of Netlabels and Creative Commons (this lead directly to starting up Linear Obsessional recordings) and I eventually found myself overwhelmed by the sheer mind-bogglingly enormous quantity of material. For all I know there may be some astonishingly original and exciting work in there, but we’ll never know because, understandably, there is nobody prepared to work their way through it all and filter it (yes there are a few exceptions, but its still a mammoth, thankless task).
I still think there’s some mileage in the idea of collage, jamming one style against another, but not in a lazy sampler/mash up way, but by physically playing it - for example Mike Cooper’s mixing of Hawaiian music with noise aesthetics, or Kev Hopper’s band „Prescott“ which takes some of the tropes of progressive rock (the electric piano sound, tricky time signatures)- but then throws in frustrating micro-loops and twangy spy-theme guitars. In terms of free improv the saxophonist Martin Kuchen impressed me enormously with a performance that was genuinely experimental (in that he looked unsure of what was going to happen!) and, unusually in this genre, rather touching, without recourse to melody.

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.
I haven’t written anything new for many years! – the last was a short song for my old post-punk band Drop which had been asked to reform and play a gig. I decided I ought to write a new song for the group – but I found the process agonisingly difficult – I eventually came up with about six lines of text and a fairly simple chord sequence. The resulting song was about writing songs –in fact the last few songs I’ve written have been about the process of writing songs! Apart from that, the only music I have made has either been improvised or traditional English folk tunes. I play my melodeon in both contexts. Traditional music is a fascinating area for a discussion of originality of course! As the music – the tunes –are all by definition unoriginal, it’s the way that they’re played that makes them stand out – and I’ve seen some spectacularly original musicians playing „Brighton Camp“ in pubs.

Somewhat bizarrely I find being commissioned to create music for a specific purpose can help push me into making more original work (to my ears). I’ve been lucky enough to have been asked to create soundtracks to films. The latest is a „folk-horror“ film which allows me to really explore the two areas I work in and love most (folk and free improv) and find connections …

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 walk a lot – and that’s when I tend to think about ideas for music. As an improviser it’s not so much music I think about, so much as ways of making sounds – for example I’ll imagine a certain fingering on the squeezebox and what it’ll sound like – or a new way of amplifying it. If I’m lucky I might have time to try it out.

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’m very interested in Creative Commons as a way of freeing music up a bit – nearly every release on Linear Obsessional has a licence which allows others to manipulate or remix the work and release it themselves, as long as due credit is given to the source. I’m always surprised that very few people have taken advantage of this! But in a sense it allows musicians to recognise the originality of a work and to actually take it in a different direction.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
In my own music I play a melodeon, which is a kind of button accordion that through the way it is designed is actually pretty difficult to produce discordant sounds with – it naturally plays melodies. So I was very interested to see how I could use this instrument in „non-idiomatic“ free improvisation. It’s quite hard! A piano accordion with its ability to play clusters or drones for example would be much more suitable. So by making the task more difficult for myself I hope I’m managing to come up with results that are, at the very least, interesting.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I don’t think I can answer that question as I have little interest in technical developments. I have a set up that works for me - and any changes will just be in refining it and making it work more reliably! I have no interest in using a computer for live performance – I use foot pedals, and basic ones at that!

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?
Obstacles – almost certainly listening to too much music. When I started out in bands people would tell me that I sounded like Kevin Ayers or The Seeds or something, and I’d never have heard of them.  Then I’d go and listen to them and realise I did, purely by coincidence! Then I would get paranoid, and panic that I was sounding like somebody else. In retrospect I think was quite damaging to my own sense of originality. The trouble is I love listening to music and I’m unlikely to stop!
A cultural landscape that rejects the notion that one type of music is superior to another would certainly be conducive to originality.
Not having much time can actually really help  –if you only have a few minutes a day to actually work on stuff rather than just think about it, then you tend to use that time very creatively…as opposed to sitting around waiting for inspiration.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I have a vision of me playing an improvisation where my foot pedals work properly and do exactly what I want them to!

Richard Sanderson Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Shaun Downey

Homepage: Richard Sanderson
Homepage: Linear Obsessional Records