Christian Morris talks to John Palmer, a composer of both acoustic and electroacoustic music whose wide influences include Jungian psychology, Buddhism and mythology.
Tell us something about your background.
I have always loved music and any form of sound and sound making. My father had a music shop and a recording studio in our home. As a little boy I would try to play any instrument I would come across. I grew up listening to a lot of pop music and jazz – we are talking about the sixties – and I started to study the classical piano at the age of six.
How did you start composing?
First of all by playing back and trying to imitate the songs I heard on radio. In those days I had a little organ and a piano. When I started taking piano lessons I would spend most of the time improvising in the style of Chopin, for example. Nothing spectacular, really, but I always wanted to get a first-hand experience at the music I was taught in the lessons, you know the usual classical repertoire. When at the age of 13 I got my first guitar I started writing my own songs. That was 1973. Meanwhile I kept improvising at the piano. I had my first band at around that time. Initially mainstream pop, later on progressive rock. Experimental and free-jazz followed in the early and mid-eighties. In 1980 I started again to study the classical piano from scratch and in the mid-eighties I was admitted to the Lucerne Conservatoire where I also started writing my early piano and chamber music.
What was your first success as a composer?
In order to answer this question I have to tell you something about my life: I have never been in the centre of a big musical scene and I have always been working in silence following my own path as both an individual and a musician. I have lived rather isolated for many years and have struggled to make a living in many different places in Europe. I didn’t have the support of my parents and have lived more or less ‘on the road’ from the age of 18 to 20. For many years I have tussled with having to make a living with any job I could find and getting myself a serious music education at the same time. Nothing has been easy in my life and my profile is certainly not typical for a composer. Perhaps this is the reason why I measure success in terms of individual growth rather than public recognition. I am not saying I disregard acknowledgment, but I tend to feel successful, for example, every time when the aural experience of the performance has matched the imagination of my inner ear. A similar sense of ‘success’ occurs when I can clearly ‘hear’ the codes of my musical idiom in the performance of a piece of mine. These are moments when I feel very happy with myself. One of these moments was certainly the performance of ‘koan’, for shakuhachi and ensemble, by Teruhisa Fukuda and the Tokyo Comet Ensemble at the World Music Days in Yokohama in 2001.
Who or what has influenced your style?
I guess this is impossible to answer. I have gone through a lot of music in the past 50 years: from Josquin des Prez and progressive rock through to jazz, folk, the avantgarde, Indian music and Gagaku. I think we tend to absorb ideas from any music that touches us somehow. However, I can certainly delineate three parallel streams of poietic energy in my music making that has influenced my style.
The first one is the perceptual and philosophical, I mean when the musical inspiration springs from a distinct percept or a spiritual experience. In 1978 I went to a lecture by an Indian Guru in Florence and was so touched by what he said that I started reading about Eastern philosophies, particularly Hindu, and practising Yoga. Since that very moment Eastern thought has been a major influence to me as a man and composer.
The second one is an incurable passion for sound as a sonic phenomenon. I have always loved harmony, lyricism and instrumentation in traditional music be it classic, jazz or pop. Later on, some works by Boulez or Berio, for example, would attract me very much. My affair with sound as colour went off even later, when I came across electroacoustic music.
The third stream is poetry and literary texts: I love poetry and have written many texts throughout my life. Words within a poetical context can inspire me enormously, in terms of both meaning and sound, no matter how short or fragmented a text may be. In the 1980s the psychology of C.G. Jung and the thought of John Cage have certainly been a major influence. Since the 1980s Eastern and Buddhist writings in particular became increasingly important to me. I should also add the imagery of European mythology and ancient texts from Egypt and Greece.
Some of your works have abstract titles, such as ‘he’, ‘no us’, ‘there’ or ‘I am’; others come from diverse spiritual sources such as Buddhism or Norse Religion. Are titles a starting point for you or is it notes first?
‘He’ for eight voices refers to John Cage. I met him and corresponded with him a couple of times in the last four years of his life. As I heard he had passed away – I was studying with Vinko Globokar in Dartington at that time – I felt impelled to write a tribute piece for him and I did so within two days. ‘He’ is the only word I use in that text by the way. Although some of my titles may appear to be abstract, they have specific references to either someone who is very close to me, or to something such as a life-event that must have touched or shaken me particularly. ‘No us’, for example is not only a title with a broken semantic, but also a code for ‘no US’, meaning ‘no USA’: a sort of appeal to the US forces not to intervene in what later became the first Gulf War. ‘I Am’ is the title of a collection of texts I wrote during and after my visit to Japan in 2001. These short poems of a gnostic nature have been the trigger of the long acousmatic music by the same title. In other words, a literary diary now transferred onto the sonic realm.
Usually the title comes first because I have a precise image or topic in my mind. When I go through a vivid percept, an intuition or a strong spiritual experience it is that very occurrence that triggers the music. The compositional process itself becomes a meditation on that image or topic. On other occasions the titles, and the music of course, may refer to specific social happenings that have caught my attention. Another example for this is ‘Transfiguration’, for trombone and electronics. This piece was triggered by the Balkan wars in the 1990s and I wrote it specifically for the virtuosity of Vinko Globokar. All in all, the music I write reflects my own journey and growth as a person. It is my own life-diary, if you like, truly cathartic in an Aristotelian sense. And this is the reason why titles are important to me.
How did you first start writing electroacoustic music? Has your approach changed as technology has developed?
In 1991 during one of my visits to the old SPNM offices in London I saw an offer of the score and CD of a piece by Jonathan Harvey called ‘Bhakti’. I bought both, went home and listened to the music. I was spellbound by the beauty of that music and by the interaction of the acoustic and electronic instruments. That was a magical experience that changed my way of listening to and thinking of music. A few months later I heard Simon Emmerson’s ‘Sentences’ for soprano and live-electronics at City University where I was doing a PhD in Composition. Both pieces opened up a new musical horizon to me. My early electroacoustic works were born in those years, for example ‘Beyond the Bridge’ for cello and electronics, ‘Renge-Kyo’, for piano and electronics, ‘Vision’, for harpsichord and electronics and many others.
I have never been a computer freak. I am in love with music and I have always perceived electronic instruments as being music instruments, a natural extension of acoustic instruments, as Marshall McLuhan would put it. In those early nineties I realized that electronic instruments would allow me to go beyond the limitation of acoustic instruments, and to me this going ‘beyond’ symbolised transcendence par excellence. I realized I could now create an extended interaction between dissimilar instruments and loved the dialectic implications resulting from such new syntaxes. I don’t think my approach has changed much as technology developed, apart of course from technical practices.
Do you find the sense of control and almost limitless manipulation in acousmatic music attractive?
At first I didn’t. I had really never liked the electronic pieces I heard in the 1980s because of their rather cold and aggressive sonic worlds, you know those synthetic sounds of pure ‘elektronische Musik’. I had to wait till the moment I heard a really good piece of electroacoustic music in order to embrace that genre. In the acousmatic genre it was the same story: when I heard ‘Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco’ by Harvey or ‘Klang’ by Jonty Harrison and other pieces by Dennis Smalley, Francois Bayle and Bernard Parmegiani, for example, I fell in love with this sonic world and its endless potential in composition. I heard what one can do with a sound, how deeply I can go into its spectrum, that is how far I can transform and transcend its own physical nature. For me this was more than an attraction: it still gives me gooseflesh! It brings me back to my consciousness. It’s like a journey into the inner-self; a very breathtaking experience. In the acousmatic tradition one speaks of ‘cinema for the ears’. But I would go further and say ‘cinema for the soul’.
But you would never consider writing only electronic music?
No. Because I love acoustic instruments as well as I love orchestral and chamber music. I enjoy the interaction between two or more instruments, this face-to-face situation, a musical dialogue that is taking place on stage. I find chamber music to be a fantastic tool for communication and an ideal platform for interchangeable relations between different musical parts. By the same token I love solo instruments and the never-ending challenge they represent because of their limitations.
I have mentioned musical interaction as a psychological force, but I should also mention the relation between sound and silence. Since the late 1980s, traditional Japanese music in particular has been a constant source of inspiration to me. I’d like to refer to the Japanese concept of ‘ma’, this amazing energy we call silence but that may also be experienced as the very origin of a sound. (I think I first realized the power of silence when I practiced Za-Zen in a Japanese monastery in 2001).
If you start listening and conceiving music that way, I tell you, it’s quite powerful! And I love exploring that within an acoustic context. Sometimes my explorations can go quite far as for example in ‘satori’ (1999), for harpsichord, or in ‘still’ (2001), for bass-flute, viola and guitar.
My orchestral works are more sound-based: in my piano concerto ‘within’, for example, the two microtonally tuned pianos (the soloist and the orchestral piano) are constantly intertwined not only with each other, but also with the two harps (also microtonally tuned), with the choir and with the rest of the orchestra. I love creating relational textures and forms in the music I write for acoustic instruments and I can’t get tired of that.
Tell us about your work routine. Do you have a place that’s special? A preferred time of day?
I have been struggling all my life in order to get a normal living condition. For many years I have been working under enormous constraint and I have seldom had the luxury to have my own space or my preferred time. So I have learnt to be able to work anywhere and at any time of the day or night.
What’s the worst thing about composing?
Having to face the ruthlessness of today’s music industry, the superficiality and hypocrisy of many publishers, festivals, ensembles, orchestras and conductors who claim they are doing a wonderful job to promote new music, but in reality they are only thinking of their own interests and of what they can sell best. This is extremely discouraging.
And the best?
I think this is very individual and I can only speak for myself. For me, it is getting in touch with a reality that is essentially psychological, and by saying ‘psychological’ I do refer to the Greek word ‘Psyche’ that actually means ‘soul’.
The soul implies what we call spirit. It is all the same reality and I think this is what consciousness is about. Being able to experience parts of my consciousness through sound is for me the most rewarding experience because I am faced with the essential questions of life, namely: What is the sense of our existence? Where do we come from? Where are we going to? Another ‘best’ aspect for me is the fact that you can communicate with people also on a very subtle and quite intimate level. I do believe that music can create a better world if people knew how to listen…
What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?
To always remain honest, authentic to what they feel inside and to pursue their dreams despite any obstacle. To cultivate tenacity and self-confidence. (Jazz and pop musicians are very good at this!). There is a Japanese saying that has always helped me going through the difficult times: “Seven Times Falling, Eight Times Standing Up”. You should always believe in yourself and never allow the others to buy your thought in any possible form.
What music do you listen to for pleasure?
The music of silence! This is true. Time permitting, I also enjoy music I can sing to. There is a lot of good music out there and I could mention many, too many names. But in any form of pleasure I always find an element of learning or discovery that comes with it, even in the most simple folk song. Take ‘Greensleeves’ for example: there are so many wonderful ways you can harmonise this apparently very simple tune. It’s quite amazing.
Tell us a little about the rest of your professional life.
I am active on different fronts: I regularly record and produce my own music. In the past two years I have produced a CD including my piano collection ‘Musica Reservata’ (1989) and the acousmatic works ‘I Am’ and ‘In the Temple’. All three CDs have been released by the Animato Records. I am now working on a new CD including chamber music with and without electronics. I equally enjoy performing with electronic instruments. I have just started a new publishing venture called Vision Edition where I can finally publish my own writings on music and beyond. This also includes educational books: the first book was published a few months ago, a manual on rhythm called ‘Rhythm to go’ now on its second edition and distributed by CE Books. More books and writings are being planned for the near future. The piano playing has been confined to studio recordings in the past few years.
What are your views on the current state of composition? Are we living in a healthy artistic environment?
If you mean the environment of the music industry, no, I don’t think so. As I mentioned earlier, I think the current situation is rather discouraging for the arts. If you mean the current aesthetics of composition, I think this has become impossible to define, at least for me. Globalization has changed our lives so much. The marketing culture has become a preponderant way of thinking and acting which worries me quite seriously. I see an increasing danger of losing our roots as a civilisation and our humanity. As a consequence I fear we are losing the meaning of art and of why we make music in the first place. I also think the segregation of art into ‘high’ and ‘low’, modern and post-modern and so forth has damaged the way people tend to perceive music nowadays. Segregation and specialization has also created a huge wall between music and the rest of the arts. For example, you will notice that in today’s parlance, and in the educational establishments of the entire planet, music and art are perceived and taught as two separate disciplines. This is dreadful and stupid at the same time. Instead of creating more cultural separation I believe we should start rethinking art from scratch. That means re-learning how to listen to music and learning how to perceive musical works in terms of qualitative criteria, rather than genre-related (contemporary or jazz, crossover, pop or classical and so forth). Education in general could do a lot more to help improving this situation.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a new piece for shakuhachi commissioned by the European Shakuhachi Association and a new piano piece commissioned by pianist Heloise Ph. Palmer for her muietic performances, both pieces will be premiered in June. I am also working on a large piece for ensemble called ‘transparency’ commissioned by the Modern Art Ensemble of Berlin. ‘Transparency’ is also the concluding piece of my ‘trans’ project that started in 2000 in collaboration with the Modern Art Ensemble. ‘Trans’ is a large chamber music cycle comprising the quartet ‘transitions’ (cl, vl, vc, pno), the quintet ‘transference’ (fl, cl, vl, vc, pno), six solos written for each instrument of the ensemble and the sextet ‘transparency’. This final sextet and three trans-solos will be premiered at the Konzerthaus in Berlin on 29th November. During this concert all the remaining trans-solos will be performed as well. In all these works I have explored virtuosity as a dialectic force in composition yet within a perceivable texture. (I must say, I have learned a lot from psychoacoustics or sound perception in the past 15 years – an area I love teaching by the way). I am ever so interested in exploring the syntactic psychology of a single musical ‘condition’, a solo instrument, as being both a solo part and at the same time a part of a larger ‘condition’, that being the chamber group.
What are your plans for the future?
Some orchestral works are being planned, but I cannot say more at this stage.
I am also considering integrating my old (and new) songs in my catalogue of works. I have been split about this for some time. You know, the question of whether it is possible for a musician to integrate contemporary composition with a more popular form of song-writing in a credible way. I have an increasing feeling that it is time I gave voice to this other part of me that has been neglected for so many years.
How can people find out more about you?
My official website is http://www.johnpalmer.org. My publishers are Composers Edition. The website of my new publishing venture Vision Edition is http://www.visionedition.com.
Recordings of my works are available mainly on the Animato and Sargasso labels. Some performances can also be seen on my website and on my YouTube John Palmer Channel.
I have both official and individual profiles on Facebook and a presence on Twitter. You can also find out more about me in my Wikipedia entry.