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Interview with Will Montgomery

img  Tobias Fischer

I would like to return to a quote I used when reviewing „Non Collaboration" and which I found in your article for the „Extract" book/CD set: „I'm curious about structure: I like my pieces to develop an internal logic through which the question of 'what happens next' is uncertain, only making sense to the listener retrospectively". As a composer, of course, when you're at work, there is very often NOTHING BUT the question of what happens next. How do you deal with this seeming contradiction?
Yes, it's fair to say that 'what happens next' is crucial. But I don't want the focus to be on the act of composition. Rather I hope the listener may experience some uncertainty at first, giving way to a feeling for the structure of the piece that may only become apparent after the event. It's about pushing at the idea of a plausible continuation. This puts pressure, I hope, on the listener's experience of time in the piece. I'd like there to be a feeling of structural integrity but for that structure to be quite elastic, challenged by a series of miniature crises. I'm in favour of a kind of active listening that I think is sometimes discouraged by electronic music. I was interested in some of the minimal electronic work of the lowercase/ microsound/ laptop genres of the turn of the century but felt that a lot of it suffered from a becalmed, passive quality - perhaps a debt to ambient, which as a genre is completely played out.

...and I think you're succeeding admirably in that! I am again listening to your first album "water blinks", for example, and find myself listening to it as if it were the first time even on repeat listens. My questions was, however, rather pointed towards the act of composing itself. To phrase it more bluntly: How do you achieve your aim of a suprising yet "plausible" continuation?
It's trial and error. I work quite slowly, trying out different sequences of sounds together. I move them around, process and re-process, trying lots of options until it begins to feel right. Sometimes I leave tracks for quite a while and then return to pull them apart and rebuild them. Quite often I build a piece around a sound that ends up being removed late in the process. It's important that the pieces develop their own internal momentum. This grows, I hope, out of the sounds themselves and the relationships that develop between them. All this is true of my core musical work - ie water blinks and non-collaboration. The work based on field recordings often uses very little processing so that's more a question of placing sounds.

Would you say that you're mainly choosing sounds for their timbral qualities or for functional purposes within the framework of a particular piece?
A bit of both: I'd say that timbre is one of various qualities that can make a sound appealing or 'functional', whether on its own or in the context of a piece of music. I often start with a pool of sounds I'd like to use. Timbral qualities may be among the things I like about those sounds. But then those qualities might change as I further process the sound, trying it out in different ways in various contexts. The precise shape and duration of the sound is crucial: a file that's several minutes long may sound best in context when only half a second or so is flashed past the listener. Not choosing is often more important than choosing. If something feels surprising, though, and it keeps doing so, I stay with it.

Where do these sounds come from? Are they snippets from field recordings, manipulated samples, etc...?
Most of the sounds on non-collaboration are versions of sounds made by Heribert Friedl on his Hackbrett. There are a couple of  processed field recordings but the rest are sounds that I made independently - processed samples drawn from various sources. On Water Blinks I use some analogue synth sounds alongside the samples. My Legend collaboration with Brian Marley is completely different: 10 differently processed versions of the same short reading. Some recent material, some of which is online, gives more prominence to field recordings - these are usually eq'd, sometimes drastically, but not otherwise manipulated. My piece on Compost & Height is made from a series of unprocessed water sounds; another on Touch Radio is made from machine sounds that have been eq'd in various ways – and then turned into a composition by layering and ordering them after the event My piece on the Elephant and Castle area of south London uses heavily processed field recordings as well as sounds that have been gathered with contact mics and a vlf receiver. In that one, which has to do with social housing and modernism, I was trying at times to communicate the abrasive texture of concrete.

Referring to your statement that "If something feels surprising, though, and it keeps doing so, I stay with it." - does this imply that your technique involves a lot of re-evaluation and requires a lot of time for you to arrive at the results you are looking for?

Yes, I live with the pieces for quite a while and come back to them to change small or large parts of them. I usually get comments from a couple of people too before I move to the 'final' pre-mastered version. It's slow. The Elephant piece developed over three years, though my encounters with it were very intermittent.

When you put "final" into inverted commas, does this imply that you hardly ever consider any of your pieces "finished", even after the CD's been printed?
I used inverted commas in that case because it was before the mastering stage. I definitely consider those works finished after the CD's been printed. That's why I've hardly ever performed this work live. I don't see the point in reconfiguring the work in performance – it's unlikely to improve it. I don't expect people to be very interested in a performance at which I do nothing more than hit the space bar. I've experimented with Ableton but never felt very comfortable in that environment. The Elephant piece features still photography, which brought a different dimension to the audio when I presented it in public. I may do more of that. I'm not sure that avant-garde music, for want of a better term, has to be improvised to be viable. Some people seem to think so.

Whom in particular would you actively approach for these comments and in which way have their ideas shaped, e.g., an album like "Water Blinks"?

It's just a couple of friends who know me and my work well. One is known as a musician, the other is not. With non-collaboration Heribert Friedl made some useful suggestions towards the end of the process. With Legend, Brian Marley's responses to various drafts were helpful. With all of them, Peter Cusack's ears at the mastering stage made a difference. However, none of this input has a 'shaping' effect: the kind of response I'm looking for at this stage generally has to do with small details of pacing and eq, and with overall 'feel'.

Elliot Carter once remarked that he thought it important that a composition offered enough pleasure and challenges to engage him long enough for him to finish it. With your writing process a long and slow one, can you relate to that point of view?
I'm not sure about 'writing process', which sounds too composerly - the interaction is always with the DAW interface. I can relate to the idea of a mixture of 'pleasure and challenges' in the process of making a piece. I do find myself worrying at a problem until I find a way round it. But I wouldn't want to present that process as a kind of code-cracking exercise. It's often really important, I think, to be learning something new about the software as you work - that way you can let the unexpected in.

Are you actively using software to create ideas you wouldn't have come up with yourself - i.e. through chance operations?
I don't do this in an 'active' way if you mean using specific randomising operations. However, like many people, I guess, I do sometimes play around with plug-ins looking for new sounds. It's comparable to twiddling knobs with analogue gear, I suppose. Chance can definitely play a role in arriving at a particular sound but the decisions about the placement and shape of the sounds have nothing to do with chance. I guess I like there to be a stage of openness - of not quite knowing what will happen - followed by a stage of conscious shaping.

Speaking about „Legend“, how did you even find out about Brian Marley's text? „Tolling Elves“ doesn't seem like the kind of magazine a lot of people would have a subscription to ...
I'm a reader of contemporary poetry, which I also teach, and Tolling Elves was one of the most interesting things around for a while: beautifully printed short texts combined with great artwork on a single sheet of folded paper. Brian was active on the small-press poetry scene in the 1970s and Thomas Evans of Tolling Elves asked him to contribute a new piece when Brian returned to writing a few years go. Brian was an admirer of my earlier musical work and he initiated the collaboration. So he sent me a copy of the text and suggested I took on the Legend project.

What made Marley's original text so interesting to you?
I like Brian's text, which is playful and witty. However, it was the idea of doing something with the human voice rather than the detail of the text itself that appealed to me. The core idea that I took from the text, which goes back to the original photo, is that of emptiness. I also liked the idea of a baton-passing project that is realised in different media by different people working in very different ways. So Rhodri's photo was the starting point for Brian's text. And that, in turn, was the seed for my realisation of Legend. The next stage will be made by a video artist.

Was there a difference in working with the human voice compared to field recordings or more abstract sound sources?

Yes, because one of the imperatives was to almost disguise the vocal qualities of the source audio. I fairly quickly decided that I didn't want any individual words to be available to the listener. It's a kind of translation project. The rhythm and dynamics of Brian's reading are still faintly discernible in some of the versions. I spent a long time processing the material in different ways. However, I always used the same plug-in as the final step in the processing chain in order to give some textural coherence to the piece. One reviewer suggested I was just 'fucking around' with Brian's voice but it was a lot less casual than that. The ten iterations of the piece are arranged in a sequence that moves from lower to higher tones, so there's a progressive lightening of the sound that echoes the text's theme of emptying out. The last 3'52" piece is a filtered recording made in the space in which Brian had read - it captures the hidden low frequencies that lurk unheard in urban spaces. It's the final hammering of the idea of emptiness.

The original work was actually a combination of lyrics and an image. So did Rhodri Davies' photo have an influence on the album in any way?
It was the notion of emptiness that appealed across both text (which is prose, not lyric poetry) and image. I did spend a long time working with software that converted images into audio, trying to find a way of coming up with an acoustic version of the image, but I wasn't happy with the results.

You mentioned Brian marley responded to your first drafts of the material – what exactly were his comments?
He gave me a completely free hand and I made no major changes to the work based on his remarks. Like a lot of people he found some of the tones quite harsh. I tamed some of the wilder frequencies at the mastering stage but it's still not (and not meant to be) an easy listen.

Does that mean, then, that a collaboration should not just be about pleasing each other, but foremostly about taking the other where he/she would not have ventured on his/her own?
In my case, both of my collaborations have really been non-collaborations. Hence Heribert Friedl's title for our album, on which I ended up removing Heribert's contributions or processing them beyond recognition. With Legend, I worked independently, wiping out almost all evidence of Brian's original reading. Some might say there's a certain violence going on in both cases. I'm not sure I could deny that, though it didn't feel like that. The material from Heribert and Brian was certainly essential to the final pieces – that work wouldn't have existed without their contributions. In both these non-collaborations I was in intermittent contact with my non-collaborators and they commented helpfully on minor details when they heard the final work. I don't know what would have happened if either Heribert or Brian had hated the end results.

Each track clocks in at 3'52, the length of the original reading – how important is form in your work?
The idea of each track having the same duration was specific to the demands of this particular piece, which was based on successive versions of the same material. It was important to present 10 versions on the same thing. To answer the wider question about form is hard to do briefly. The best response is probably to say that many formal decisions depend on the specific nature of the material. That applies both to the acoustic characteristics of the audio and the ideas at play in the piece. The 'conceptual' element was more present with Legend than with my musical work: that's why I ended up working with all those tracks of the same duration. In other pieces, questions of duration and development tend to emerge from the material at hand.

As you've outlined, a lot of your material is subjected to a high degree of processing. So what's the appeal of pure field recordings to you?
There are sounds that one encounters in the environment, whether urban or rural, that simply cannot be replicated electronically. It's not just about the foreground sounds. A particular idea of space is communicated in innumerable ways by a field recording. You can hope to encourage fresh ways of listening - and thus, perhaps, fresh ways of being in the world - by exposing people to this kind of material. Choices made about editing, microphone placement and so on mean that the field recording can never pretend to be an objective representation of a place. The best recordings, to my mind, are quite 'auteurish'. They urge you to listen to the world through someone else's ears, hearing things in ways that are significant to the recordist and which can become significant to you. Also, I like the proximity of spontaneously occurring natural or environmental sound to some kinds of music, whether improvised or composed. I've been stimulated by the percussive patterns of running water; the warmth of machine sounds; the enveloping low frequencies of a pedestrian tunnel under a train track. These are all things that I've found close to home in London. I really admire the way Toshiya Tsunoda, for example, makes wonderfully strange and unexpected recordings in a quite delimited area near his home in Japan.

Where do you see your work going from here?
I'd like to develop the Elephant piece further: find different venues for it. After that, I want to develop the compositional ideas on Water Blinks and non-collaboration – the ideas around time and the relationship between fragments that I mentioned earlier. Another aim is to do more field recording, perhaps using such recordings to realise a text score - that would add another dimension to the work. I'm also working with a couple of artists on a piece that explores a site on the Thames estuary, but that's at a very early stage.

By Tobias Fischer

Will Montgomery Discography:
Water Blinks (Selvageflame) 2005
Non-collaboration/ w. Heribert Friedl (NonvisualObjects) 2008
Legend/ w. Brian Marley (Entr'acte) 2009

Will Mongomery / Selvage Flame

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