A Music Redolent With Endings | Sam Smith in Interview
Kupka’s guitarist Liam Flenady recently grabbed Melbourne-based composer Sam Smith to chat about his haunting new work ‘endings, (anti)ending’ for flute, violin, electric guitar, and percussion for our concert ‘ELEMENTAL’ at the Queensland Conservatorium on 31 August. Things got pretty heavy and serious pretty quickly – which was primarily Liam’s fault – but many interesting ideas were discussed. Have a read, and come listen to the piece!
Liam Flenady: I'm having heaps of fun working on this new piece of yours for our 'ELEMENTAL' gig on 31 August. The electric guitar writing is built around volume swells, harmonics, artificial pitch shifting and reverb freezes – it is not immediately virtuosic-sounding, but is a very effective part. What was the thought behind this approach to the guitar? How did you think about the relationship between the electric guitar and the acoustic instruments?
Sam Smith: Thanks Liam, I'm glad you're enjoying it. The idea that anchored the electric guitar part in this piece was about creating varying categories of activity based around the attack profile of the instrument. Specifically, for much of the piece – through the use of the volume pedal – there is no attack at all with the material instead being presented as ghostly harmonic resonance appearing without the characteristic sound of plucked or strummed strings. I hoped this would find a poetry in the instrument that would help decontextualise the harmonic content.
I was interested in pursuing this for two reasons. The first, as a guitarist myself I think I've had a tendency to overwrite my guitar pieces, pursuing virtuosity rather than the moving simplicity of slowly played chords interacting with one another. In this respect, the guitar part is more in line with something I might have played as a post-rock obsessed teenager and I hope it captures that kind of earnestness. The second is to do with the baggage of the electric guitar and its "guitar hero" image. I was keen to avoid overwhelming a fairly fragile ensemble with anything akin to a "guitar solo."
The electric guitar has something of a post-hoc relationship to the other instruments. I imagined it pursuing its own lines of inquiry and set it firmly on its own narrative timeline (or rather several timelines – one each for the reverb freeze, the harmonic content, and the use of the frequency shifts). The extent of the timeline exceeds that of the other instruments which results in a somewhat stratified relationship between the guitar and the remaining trio. Unusually for me I also approached the harmonic content of the guitar part fairly intuitively. The alto flute part has quite a limited range of pitch material (which was developed by analysing recordings of extinct frogs) so I wanted the guitar part to be a freer element, complementing the restrictions of the flute, and lending an emotional weight to that content.
LF: Yes I was going to ask about the harmonies in the guitar part – they’re very beautiful, exploiting your retuning of the instrument, with a few microtones and a G minor triad in the middle. I know you've spent a fair bit of time looking at spectral music and your piece 'Dead Oceans' at BIFEM in 2016 was heavily based on alterations to the harmonic series. Is the scordatura here based on a harmonic series or some other principle? To me it has a referential quality; it feels like an unknown 'folk' instrument, more so than a spectral construction.
SS: Yes, my practice has had a post-spectral element to it for a few years now. In this piece, however, the only conscious reference to that tradition is probably in the use of spectral analysis to derive pitch content. I spent a while analysing recordings of recently extinct species and ended up basing a lot of the pitch material in the flute part on a recording of the last Rabbs' Fringe Limbed Tree Frog that went extinct in 2016 (you can hear it on youtube). Beyond that my approach to pitch was largely, as you say, referential.
In my last few pieces I've become more interested in using traditional harmonic elements, particularly those associated with grief, like a minor triad or adjacent steps of a minor mode, which are then degraded and decontextualised through the use of noise, detuning, or other techniques that modify and distort the sound. By doing this I feel like I'm starting to deal with memory as a musical parameter. I'm re-purposing my music at the moment as a way of processing the grief I feel about species loss, climate change and the disappearance of wild places, and I feel like memory is a key element in that process. For me, the presentation of these decontextualised, grief-soaked sonic artifacts helps conjure memory, and I think that might be what you've identified in the guitar scordatura – a G minor triad surrounded by microtonal alterations and noise, which sounds at once familiar and alien; able to pivot between characteristics of new and older musics.
LF: I was really impressed by your solo piano piece for Alex Raineri 'fading lines', which had an almost Messiaen-esque approach to time, with blocks of different material types cycling back in a way that was both constant and irregular. I was particularly impressed since one thing I find too often in works by younger composers (and perhaps younger Australian composers in particular) is a Romantic developmental formal approach, often with predictably placed dramatic climaxes. You seem to be grappling with this question of how to structure time without resorting to this Romantic model – what was your thinking in this piece?
SS: Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed 'fading lines.' Yes, I definitely agree with you here – I think we can safely expect to hear some sort of climax around two thirds of the way through a piece at most concerts these days (regardless of their idiom) and finding a way out of this model has been a big concern recently, even though it's certainly a model I have used myself in the past. I think you're right that it is a Romantic legacy, and, as with other legacies we've inherited, I'm finding it more problematic everyday. As I've started to think of my music as something that is feeling its way around the weight and pathos of environmental catastrophe, the importance or distancing myself from this and pursuing new ways of shaping time feel important. I'm more interested these days in an approach that allows me to just create a space and inhabit it for a little while without the need, necessarily, for any development or big displays of drama. It's a gentler approach I think, though it makes structure more of a challenge without a narrative focus to direct it.
In 'fading lines' I assigned each category of activity (I think I had 7 or 8 categories from memory) a defined and independent timeline for repetition across its twelve minutes. That way things appeared, disappeared and interacted with other activities despite the absence of development. Drama is still created when two or more categories meet, but a climax never eventuates. In 'endings, (anti)ending,' I haven't been so rigid, but each instrument still has its own temporal concerns. The guitar timeline in this case though exceeds the timeline of the other three instruments and results in an outro – hopefully more post-rock than romantic. Combining this approach with an abundance of returning materials (which I think have a great expressive capacity), and the grief-associated sound artifacts I mentioned above, feels like a way of creating and inhabiting strata of memory and feeling.
LF: Speaking of grief and time – the title 'Endings, (anti)ending' sounds very Beckettian in a way. It calls to mind the famous lines from ‘The Unnameable’: "I can't go on, I'll go on." And in the work itself, there seems to be this sense of resistance to some kind of impasse; a recognition of an impossibility but a rejection of it at the same time. Did you have a specific impasse or ending in mind that the work is resisting?
SS: Musically I wanted to create a piece that was redolent with endings; that felt like it could end at anytime. I joked with my partner recently that I wanted this piece to sound like it was about to finish for 10 minutes. I don't think I quite got there but I hope it still carries something of that quality. The corollary of that though, is that despite the feeling of ending, it could equally continue. I think this is another quality that's probably precluded by a Romantic approach to development. So by cultivating this sense of ending, I was also giving myself the material to continue the piece whereby any of the material could in turn pivot into new material or returning material. In terms of a specific impasse, I think in this instance I won't shy away from the extra-musical analogues: that we are facing down a lot of endings – like species loss and extinction (which are considered very specifically here by the flute material being derived from the call of an extinct frog) – but that I hope these won't be the ending. Dealing with these feelings then informed the ethos and architecture of the piece.
LF: Yes the work has a mourning quality, but through this mourning, there does seem to be a sense of hope, even just insofar as the beauty of these losses inspires us to keep going. Thanks for the piece Sam, and we can’t wait to perform it on August 31!