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Gradual Blurring

img  Tobias Fischer

Published under his Ithaca Trio moniker, Oliver Thurley's Music for Piano and Patience  was one of 2013's late, but pleasant surprises. Released in November, it quickly managed to win over everyone – admirers of William Basinski's epic tape-decay-pieces as well as fans of Harold-Budd's dreamy piano-ambient, followers of explorative sound art as well as contemporary composition aficionados. The album, only published years after its creation, even turned out to be so popular that it not only made several end of year lists, but also sold out within a few weeks of its publication, leading to a recent re-issue. The response can be explained as much by the deep, immersive qualities of the music, composed of two half-hour long excursions into the heart of silence, as by Thurley's eclectic taste and background as an artist: After spending years working with electronic sounds, he enrolled at the Unversity of Leeds to study composition, challenging his perspectives and expanding his tool kit. His time there has already yielded a variety of intriguing works, his 'hybrid composition' Network no .1 for String Quartet representing one fascinating example, and can be expected to impact his work in the foreseeable future. According to Thurley, re-visiting the approach of Music for Piano and Patience with a different instrumentation is definitely not out of the question. Until then, meanwhile, the version for piano still offers plenty of rewarding experiences for the unhurried listener.

I am curious about your path to music. What made you decide to study composition?
My path to music? That isn’t something I’ve ever consciously tried to map out… I think just having a deeply ingrained interest in sound. It’s not like I consciously wanted to be a musician or a composer … I just wanted to immerse myself in sound, and then happened to find that making that sound was just as compelling, perhaps more so. The decision to study music was the same; it was just a way of getting to spend more hours of the day listening to and learning about music. I learnt to play the guitar; started recording stuff and got interested in producing music; I discovered improvised music through jazz, and then found black metal, noise and EAI; I started listening to electronic music and then studied computer music and how to programme my own software instruments. I listened to early electronic pioneers and started playing with tape and synthesis. I listened to people like Hildegaard Westerkamp who treated soundscapes like they were music, and I discovered composers like Iannis Xenakis who treated music like it was mathematics and architecture. The problem with trying to lay out one’s listening like that is that it imprints some linear relation between the stuff I listen to, and I don’t think it works like that. I love DJ Screw as much as I love Giacinto Scelsi.

What are the benefits of a 'classical' education?
Well, I’m not entirely sure that I see myself as having a ‘classical’ education, and until recently I had never formally studied composition. My background was in music technology and later, computer music. I think I am incredibly fortunate to have had such a wide and varied education in music, it has really pushed me into some new and exciting areas! I think the most dangerous thing any musician can do is get comfortable in a mode of working. Surrounding myself in new and unfamiliar music is something I am constantly trying to do.

One of your approaches to this has been to write "algorithmically influenced instrumental music". What is that like in practise?
I don’t think it necessarily precludes a type of sound, its more a method of working. I like to compose systems which make use of different types of algorithmic or computational process that allow me to control (or at least navigate) some musical parameter. As an example, last year I wrote a string quartet piece that algorithmically generates network graphs that performers use to navigate a non-linear structure.

In the final chapter of his "History of Western Music", Richard Taruskin predicted that the end of the Western, notated music tradition was near.  What's your take on that?
I think Western music notation has plenty of problems, but at the same time it does a lot of things very well. For a lot of music, western notation is useless (I count the Ithaca Trio project in this bracket). Some music is founded upon the structures of it. Finally, some music uses what it needs and invents what is still needed. Western notation as we currently know it didn’t come into use over night. It has been (and still is being) shaped over time by everyone from Guido d’Arezzo to Xenakis. I don’t think we’re going to discard this tool anytime soon, but we might bash it about a bit more.

Music for Piano and Patience contains older pieces, "from the vaults", as you put it. Did you have to convince yourself that they were worthy of a release?
Well, in part it took some self-convincing, yes. At first, the pieces were purely personal: I was just making music for myself and to help me sleep - they’re nocturnes. After a few months of listening, I sent it to Ian – who has always been a big supporter, and I trust him implicitly --- to see what he thought of it. He liked it, and we tentatively slated it for his (then new) Tokyo Droning label. I think that the album changes a lot upon repeated listening, and as Ian spent some time with it, decided it might sit well on Home Normal. I’d be in wonderful company on either label!

Quite obviously, because of the sonic aesthetic and the use of reel-to-reels. William Basinski will be an obvious reference point for many listeners.
Yes, Basinski is obviously a close comparison, but it was actually my friend Relmic Statute who introduced me to working with tape. I think the thing I like about Basinski (particularly The Disintigration Loops series, and El Camino Real), is the whole hauntological thing that folks like Philip Jeck explore too. When I listen to Basinski work with tape, I slowly decay. What I wanted to do with Music for Piano and Patience is work with the gradual blurring and disorientation of time and memory, rather than disintegrate time.

The initial recording session was a couple of very sparse, very quiet piano improvisations. I’m not a pianist, but I knew the parts had to be circuitous and aimless. I think my hesitance to play helped keep things spacious, which helped with the layering. The parts were recorded onto ¼” tape which I spliced up into loops of various lengths.

What's the importance of patience in music for you, generally speaking?
I’d like to think I have a lot of patience to give all music. Listening is a totally different experience when you can fully surrender yourself to it and give it the time it requires. One of my biggest influences is Morton Feldman, whose later works asked a lot of his audience. His second string quartet clocks in at over six hours.

When you're working with algorithms or, as with your Ithaca Trio releases, various overlapping layers of sound, it can be hard to control the results. How do you see the balance between what you can plan ahead precisely and what happens by its own accord as a result of your work?
In short, I don’t always know precisely what is going to happen. That’s the reason for writing the piece: To experiment and find out.

Interview with Ithaca Trio by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Oliver Thurley / Ithaca Trio
Homepage: Home Normal Records

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