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Music for Flexible Contexts

img  Tobias Fischer

Much of the music published under the modern classical umbrella these days tends to be instantly pleasing, lavishly orchestrated wallpaper. The same can definitely not be said about Ichneumonidae, the latest release by Toby Driver. Equally the soundtrack to a ballet and soon-to-be-released dance film as well as a stand-alone piece for electro-acoustic trio, it constantly challenges and confounds the listener's expectations, taking surprising twists and turns as it moves through three densely scripted scenes of electrifying musical suspense. Already its underlying concept, named after a family of wasps, is anything but light fare, revolving around the topic of "parasitism in three stages". And yet, there is plenty of beauty to discover here as well, especially in the quiet, dreamy passages, when the interplay between Driver's guitars and synths, Timba Harris's stringwork and Russell Greenberg's delicately brushed percussion reaches its emotional climax, this is music of great intimacy and mystery. Ichneumonidae could easily do without a programmatic foundation. But the conceptual approach is never a crutch here - knowing about the darkly glowing narrative unfolding underneath only adds to the intensity of the experience. 

How integral are concepts for your composing process in general?
It’s only something that I’ve recently begun approaching from the concept side first. In the past, the lyricist I’ve most often worked with (Jason Byron) has fit his own narratives to music that I’ve presented to him, but with Ichneumonidae as well as the last Kayo Dot album, Hubardo, the concepts came first. I feel that working this way definitely produces ideas and results that would not have come up the other way around, and that’s actually quite exciting to me. One thing I have to mention, though, is that I look at Ichneumonidae as more of a synaesthetic exploration, where the music is trying to evoke the shapes and movements of parasites more than it is their process (although that’s in there as well), and I think the choreographer, Ms. Morinaga, shares this perspective. As far as the parasites’ process is concerned, I look for the deeper truths such as symbiosis and conquest, and think of it as a spiritual symbol rather than as a scientific curiosity. Hubardo is the same, too – there’s a superficial story that symbolically expresses something much deeper.

What are the particular pleasures of a project like this compared to your work with Kayo Dot?
The two main things are, firstly, seeing something on a page spring to life in congruency and secondly, the music is quiet, which means in performance I can actually hear every detail! When you play with an extremely loud band, there are always elements that you can’t hear from your place on the stage (until you get to the point where you’re playing nicer venues and have your own front-of-house engineer and that kind of thing).

What are the musicians for Ichneumonidae bringing to the table from your perspective?
Ichneumonidae is the first piece I’ve ever written that was transcribed in true classical fashion – that is, it was written out 100% specifically. In the past, when I’ve done non-rock music (in my projects Tartar Lamb or In The L..L..Library Loft), I was still writing for the members of my rock bands, who, although classically trained and fantastic in their own right, were not the type of musicians whose strongest suit was their exactitude in reading an insanely specific chart and being able to passionately render the music that way. With those guys, the way I worked was always to have fragmented and flexible charts, and then work out timing and phrasing in rehearsals as opposed to on the page. Ichneumonidae was different because I wanted to do something that I could write out 100% specifically, without any flexibility. The musicians in the ensemble are guys that I’ve been working with for the past couple years and through working with them on other projects, I knew that they had a more classical and faithful approach to score-reading, and also had the technical ability to perform the music correctly as well as the aesthetic, grace, and personality needed to express the sound with empathy. My ideal, when it comes to the interpretation of a piece, totally depends on the piece. I still create music in flexible contexts, and sometimes that’s what’s needed. But because of my experience working on Ichneumonidae, I’m extremely interested in doing some more music that requires this combination of an understanding of my personal language and aesthetic, and the ability to execute the ideas without compromise.

In which way have electronic means added to the palette of the composer, even in a mostly acoustic environment like this one, do you feel?
In the way that they’re just another instrument, are beyond contemporary, and shouldn’t be seen as simply a juxtaposition. Composers have been using electronics for more than half a century now. I think often in live presentation, unfortunately, it’s difficult to present electronic elements in a way that matches the acoustic elements. But I think that entirely has to do with boring shit like budget and resources. Speaking of those things too, maybe the most exciting way that electronics have added to the palette of the composer is that they are something composers can use at home, in perfect fidelity, with basically zero regard to budgetary constraints. When you’re a composer like me, who gets no funding for anything, being able to have the option to use electronics as opposed to an unaffordable additional violinist (for example) is crucial to the production of new works.

The arrangements on Ichneumonidae have a twisted fluidity about them, moving from one surprising constellation to the next with astounding grace. What was the writing process for the music like?
Thanks! A lot of the parts were based on photos of different parasites that Ms. Morinaga gave me as visual inspiration. I tried to shape the sections of music analogously to the way these things curled, undulated, and swam through blood. Fortunately, the development of parasites is very stage-oriented, and so nature has already set a timeline that the architecture of the composition was able to follow. Another thing, which is probably going to sound childish, but hear me out ... I was also sonically inspired by the soundtracks to the Metroid franchise of video games. Anyone who’s played any of these games (especially the later ones) probably will get what I’m talking about. The Metroid games also have an intrinsic parasite thread running throughout all of them. I don’t think Ms. Morinaga knows about this, but it’s a guilty secret I’m not ashamed of.

The video and dance elements appear to be inseparable from the music in this case. How do you see the relationship between image and sound – where do they tend to enhance each other, where do they tend to get in each other's way?
There’s a really great museum in Astoria, New York, called the Museum of the Moving Image, and in one of their exhibits, they give you the opportunity to apply different clips of music to scenes from famous films to show you how the sound completely changes the feeling you get from the scene. I think it was through this exhibit that I realized that any possibility of combinations works in its own way, there’s no right or wrong application, and the decision about whether you like it or not comes later. Maybe the only time that image and sound get in each other’s way is when those pieces haven’t premiered that way, allowing the audience to imagine their own relationships; when someone else’s visions are applied later, they can really conflict with what the audience originally had in their mind’s eye. In the case of Ichneumonidae, presenting the Official Soundtrack before the film is ready does create that potential situation, for the music, but from the other way around, the first time the film is presented, it’ll have this soundtrack and for the film viewers the music should be inextricable from the images. I think it’s cool to offer both potential situations.

Interview with Toby Driver by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ichneumonidae on Bandcamp
Homepage: Kayo Dot