Interview with JCP Davila for Margen magazine (Spain)
1 - How would you introduce your music to a Spanish audience? Would it be a key for it Louis Andriessen's aesthetics or the frequent presence of a high rhythmic energy (which includes rhythm machines)?
When someone asks me what kind of music I write I always answer by saying that I'm concerned with dealing with three aspects of musical experience , the sensual or physical, language and idiom, and time perception. That doesn't clarify much about how the music sounds, one can label it 'classical underground' which I sometimes like because it's like burrowing a path underneath the mainstream, or I could describe the form which it usually takes, which in recent years has been longer works where the form slowly evolves either in fragments or as an organic flow. I love playing with scale - going between very fine detail (articulated in fast tempi) to the slow shifts of the macroscopic structure.
I guess the connection with Louis Andriessen's work is there in some way still. I came to live in Holland because of his music, attracted by the bold forms, the clarity, and the emotional impact of his music. It's not so much the rhythmic writing which used to be one of our arguing points (we have a different conception of rhythm) but rather the conceptual rigour and the non-dialectic approach. (To clarify this point on rhythm: The difference lies in the fact that Andriessen rhythmic structures are like clocks, articulating the clear harmonic structure which is the main engine of the music. Sometimes the rhythmic drive in his work is an image of pure energy, sometimes just measuring time. He used to tell me all the time in my work that the rhythmic complexity is at odds with the simple harmonic structure I usually go for. Though in my view, it is the fact that the harmonic architecture is pushed to the background that the refined rhythmic complexity can be perceived. Space is created in the foreground for small detail to come through). In this sense rhythmicity, tempo and scale play an expressive role in my music to the extent that I like to think that musical matter is solely defined by speed and rate of change.
2 - Would you call your music corporal (rather addressed to the body), or abstract (rather addressed to the mind)? I know this question might be simplistic but, anyway, I would like to know your view.
Actually, both definitions are important to me. It would not be enough to have one without the other. To reduce sound to just information or just physical stimulus doesn't bear thinking of.
In terms of how I view repetition , which plays an important role in my work, there are direct connections with both the mind and the body. The body in the connection with pulses and beats and the mind in the connection with memory and obsessive patterns. Again, it's a question of scale, of hot and cold, with some of my music the performer has to be slightly detached in others completely engaged. It is also a question of interpretation of what is corporal and what is abstract. As a fan of Spinoza, I would say they are very much connected.
3 - The pervasive (and not always worthless) culture of pop music ; does it play a role in your aesthetics? What is your opinion of the more exploratory part (or the part closer to "contemporary" music) of the pop spectrum?
Much of my work is influenced by popular culture, in fact I think that culture itself is an important aspect to be taken into consideration. Where the music is performed or consumed, by who, with what money, under which umbrella of culture does it belong. I think I'm interested in the grey area of culture where the music doesn't conform to any particular norm. Typical 'contemporary music' also often conforms to a norm that is accepted as 'high' culture by certain institutions (usually academic) which is to my mind as bland as much 'industry' produced pop music. It is the idea that music is a social commodity that is used to define the cultural aspirations and identity of a particular social group rather than expressing something unique in itself.
So I love music that slips out of these nets, music that doesn't conform to the standards set by any institutions, because it is conceived with a certain creative energy that is vital and communicates itself in the music.
There is a lot of originality and exciting work being done in the 'song' and 'dance' form of popular music, and I'm often influenced by these sounds, techno, drum'n'bass and hip hop, these are the sounds that I feel at home with. But I would never be satisfied just working in these genres, partly because I wouldn't be able to write a song or a house hit that would make an impact in the industry, and partly because I would not be creatively satisfied to work with such a rigid forms. Composing for me also means turning conventional forms on their head.
4 - Could you, please, explain or describe, in non-technical terms, rather analogically or metaphorically, the three pieces in your only CD so far?
On the Unsounds release are three pieces written roughly around the same time. They came out at a time when I deliberately wanted to reinvent the language of my music, or rather focus more on certain qualities that were there already. All the pieces started with abstract ideas about the relation of the linear to the vertical and ideas about time and space. They all have a certain unfolding process that was very much influenced by my involvement in middle-eastern music, specifically from taxims (maqam improvisations).
In more general terms:
a conSPIracy cantata (the longest work on the CD at 45') came out of a collision of two worlds, the world of shortwave number station transmissions , basically spy communication on the radio, and the political machinations and rituals of the ancient oracle at Delphi. The underlying theme is that of cryptic communication, and hidden power structures. The source material of the transmissions were in themselves a big influence in how communication is structured and reduced to its basic essence . What was also inspiring was that they were already pre-loaded with tons of atmosphere. The Delphic oracle text which is used and deconstructed in the piece, is a two line verse given by the oracle encouraging Pesistratos to seize Athens and establish his tyranny there, by alluding to the fact that the people are like fish waiting to fall into his fisherman's net. The piece also has a strong theatrical element which is clear when we perform it live. The element of waiting - listening - and reacting is very important, the relation between the three musicians (two singers and piano) and the electronics has a strong significance.
hYDAtorizon (for piano and sine waves) is inspired by a word of Parmenides (a pre-Socratic philosopher) which describes the world (and people's minds) as rooted in water, an oxymoron in fact because not much can be rooted in water after all. The piece has a zen-like nature.Four small speakers playing a constant signal of sliding sine-tones are installed inside a piano where they create sympathetic vibrations with the strings. The piano picks out single notes from this slow flowing harmonic stream.
tetTIX , the last piece on the CD is a piece for voice, insect sounds and drum machine. It's meant as a light , sensual piece, atmospheric and slightly tongue-in-cheek. An electronic garden of Eden - a drum machine calls out to its fellow rhythm machines in nature - homoptera - hymenoptera - orthoptera - heteroptera - a song of mating and territorial definition.
5 - How are philosophy and politics ingrained in your music?
I think politics can't be avoided in music, since it is a social activity, though I don't think music in itself can express anything political. I find it important to be aware of the political and social circumstances surrounding one's music - from what sort of people you work with to where your music is heard and by what social group. For instance I don't like the idea of writing for orchestras, partly because they are symbols of 19th century hierarchical structures (in fact orchestras ARE completely hierarchical). They have a certain audience and are performed in concert halls that supposedly represent the higher cultural values of a society, where in fact it often comes hand in hand with some kind of subtext of wealth and power. The music itself is then limited to communicating through the body of this old-world view.
6 - And, how is your music ingrained in (your) life?
On an ideal level I think music can engage people on many levels , it can form bridges between our coded emotional responses and how we see ourselves. It also shows us paths of liberating ourselves from one particular world-view , by creating for us other possible universes. This is unique for music as it works on both an abstract and emotional level. For me it's important to have the feeling that I'm creating something that I haven't made before - going down an new avenue with each piece. To have the feeling that I'm not quite sure about what I'm doing - to be slightly out of control - otherwise composing would become a very mundane activity in my life. After I finish a project - I'm always think " how did I do that" and before I start on a new piece I think " how the hell do I do this". It's important to feel excited on all stages of the music's creation. As far as how music is ingrained in my life - I have to make an effort to keep a balance and not let it take over all my time - after all it's only music.
7 - Greece; what would you point out in its culture as important for you as a musician?
As someone of Greek (Cypriot) origin - growing up in another country - I romanticized certain aspects of the culture - especially the richness and diversity of the folk culture as a way of finding my identity in an Anglo Saxon world. After I left school - I travelled with my violin around Greece - inspired by a cross between Bartok and Laurie Lee (a writer who travelled around Spain with his violin just before the Civil War broke out) . In that time I became acquainted with the traditional music and especially studied the influence of the Ottoman/Byzantine culture on it. I starting going deeper into the Anatolian classical music and started learning the Ud which I picked up again when I went to Holland. The very refined melodic tradition with the richness of the modal and rhythmic structures was a deep influence for me. It gave me a new direction to set sail to having fed in my teens on western Avant Garde music - I found myself slightly outside western culture - and looking in - which was an inspiring vantage point. Having said that - two Greek composer served as a role model for me when I just started to write music - Iannis Xenakis and Jani Christou ( I had a record of Nomos Gamma by Xenakis when I was 12 which I used to play all the time).
8 - Is it possible to talk about a musical evolution (perhaps with stages or differentiated styles) in your career?
Having written very freely in my teens - influenced by whatever avant garde composer I had just discovered - I found it difficult to compose again at university after I came back from the very grounding experience of being exposed to the oral tradition of Greek folk music. I felt slightly alienated from so called 'contemporary music' especially in the academic environment of university - and it took me a year to start composing again . I suppose the liberating and exhilarating feeling I had when I discovered avant garde music in my early teens - and the excitement of composing in general suffered in a very opinionated and dry academic environment.
It was the realization that I didn't have to write contemporary music but just music that gave me the inspiration to write 'No One's Filming' (when I was 20) which was inspired by an idea of imaginary film music to a non existent film. The piece was selected for an SPNM festival in the South bank in London and it was broadcast on the radio - the review in the Times simply said that the piece was 'long on space and short on content' which was intended as derogatory, but now I have come to accept that indeed that is the nature of my music. I try to empty the content and increase the space. At that time I was into blocks of music which didn't necessarily develop into other blocks but was edited together like in a film.
When I moved to Holland and started studying with Louis Andriessen - I guess I was influenced by him and tried to make more mileage out of my material, that is write single idea pieces, more monumental structures. I had some commissions for theatre and dance at that time which opened me to the worlds beyond concert hall music. It was three collaborations with the maverick music-theatre/composer Dick Raaijmaakers which inspired me to explore much deeper the possibilities of electronics and combining it in music-theatre in a conceptual way. This experience inspired me also to follow a more intuitive way of composing - which was that you would start exploring an idea without necessarily knowing what you were going to do with it and trusting the process would lead you somewhere you wouldn't have conceived before you started. Anyway - I started working with electronics much more, and using strange combinations of sound worlds.
Then after a period when I was writing a lot of dance and theatre music - I had an urge to reconsider the musical grammar that I was using at the time and see if I could not take it a step further in the radial direction, find what was necessary and ditch what was not. I sometimes think that it takes a few years to put into practice a change in direction that one imagines is possible - one's whole taste and discrimination has to come round to the new way of imagining. At least that's how it felt at the time. I went to Greece to be alone for three months to reconsider everything - I was trying to write a long and complicated fantasy piece which was not working out - so I decided just to write something smaller scale and work on the musical language. I wrote three pieces - YDA ( piano and sine waves) , PHO (quartet and sampler) and the groundwork of SPI (the conspiracy cantata) . This set me going in a more minimal direction , where I became conscious of the space in the music and stretching the material as far as I could.
At the moment I working on a 80 minute piece for Orkest de Volharding (a 15 piece brass band ) called SCAPE. Which will be with video (chronophotography) and live electronics which explores this play of space, scale and time much further.
9 - Improvisation - composition; what are, in your praxis, the intriguing dialectics between those two poles, for many people (or so it seems to me) mutually exclusive?
Improvisation and composition are not in fact very different , but are at the same time mutually exclusive as you say. Improvisation is communal composition in real time . An elegant term was coined by Misha Mengelberg :Instant Composition. For my own taste - I like to keep the two worlds apart - I've never really found a satisfactory way of ever incorporating improvisation in a composition or of controlling an improvisation without restricting it path. I could not do without the thrill and intense listening of improvising and on the other hand the concentration and precision of composition.
Improvisation can produce the most unexpected and wonderful surprises that you could never conceive of if you tried to organize rationally on a score. Because improvisation is the ultimate form of chamber music - the outcome really depends on the individuals who you play with - it is such an intense social activity and depends on so many complex 'human' factors that one cannot match in compositional work.
I've experimented in some pieces especially in music for dance with random processes, using multiple random CD players , a way of structuring unpredictability . This is something in the John Cage territory - a way of opening up the normal hierarchy of composition - but still it does not compare to improvisation in the way that improvisation incorporates the complexities of the musician's personalities.
10 - Could you locate your improvising activity in the general field of improvised music? - Perhaps you could give references (artists, styles, works).
My improv activity started on the violin , coming from jazz/folk style to completely free style, then ditching the violin and my own restricted technique for the computer/electronic based improvisation. As a violinist I played in various ever-changing groups that included: a trio with Tristan Honsiger and Joe Williamson ('Telemetric Snitches') the Raj Mehta collective (an 8 piece band including the usual Amsterdam free improv scene). In the time when I was playing midi-violin/sampler I played in the first MIMEO concert (8 piece electric improv group with Keith Rowe / Christian Fennesz) and now that I play just laptop - I play a lot more regularly with various line ups.
There is an ever growing scene in the last years in Amsterdam around what is known as Kraakgeluiden which is an ever changing electro-jam sessions happening in a squat (OT301) every week. In the last couple of weeks for instance I have played in three main set ups: a festival in Bern, Switzerland with a beautiful quartet Cor Fuhler, Marko Ciciliani and Anne le Berge (we will definitely record sometime in the future) . 2 concerts with a turntabilist DJ kypski , supporting the US scratchers Faust and Shortee, and with a ongoing music/dance improv group with the musicians Andy Moor (electric guitar) and Daniel Shorno (live-sampling). With Andy (Kletka Red/ the Ex) I have a very fruitful musical relationship , though we come from different backgrounds , we play a lot together and run the label Unsounds.
11 - Do you think your music accepts being called new, original, or even the denigrated epithet "avant-garde"? Does it transcends the past? Is there a continuity with one or several traditions?
There's a saying (I can't remember who said it) that there are two types of artists - beavers and foxes. A beaver is someone who digs new paths not knowing where they'll lead - they are the real pioneers (Partch, Xenakis ,Cage). The foxes steal from the environment around them - they take what suits them from here and there - they like to recombine things (Stravinsky, Berio, Kagel). Of course everyone has a bit of both in them, but I think I'm more of a fox (though I'd like to be a beaver). I like to think that composition is putting together disparate sounds or musical languages that don't necessarily belong together. In that sense I think my music has a very strong link to the past - I like to recontextualize material and languages from the other cultures displaced in time or geography. As an artist I have a lot of sympathy for and in a deeper sense I feel my roots do lie in the agvant garde as you put it - the avant garde of the early part of the 20th century - and the avant garde agenda is still relevant now as it was at that time (though with a certain loss of innocence or naivete).
12 - How do you view the future evolution of your music?
I feel as though my music will evolve along the path of greater use of technology to replace the traditional ‘score’. More freedom for performers with more flexible technology that would create coherent but unpredictable music worlds. I’d like to do more full evening works involving various media, in that sense I’m learning quite a lot at the moment with my current work with visual and theatre artists. I hope to be able to continue close collaboration with like minded artists. I think the future of music does lie is in more collaboration between various media.
13 - Are there any plans for other record releases?
At the moment there are various projects I would like to release, but I haven’t quite made my mind up what. There’s an upcoming work called CHAOIDS which is about 60 minutes long for electronics and three instruments, which is quite intense and very polyrhythmic. Each part is playing in a seperate and flexible tempo but is all very pulse driven. It’s quite an abstract piece though - I guess I’ll have to see how it goes. In 2003 I plan to do a work for Lyra (kemence) , live electronics and ensemble which will be a kind of lyrical work which could also work well as a CD. Also I had thought of doing a purely electronica CD sometime in the next few years with some of the material I have been working with in an improvised context. Also the current work SCAPE which I described above could be released on DVD with other works by Isabelle Vigier and Joost Rekveld - the two visual artists I’m working with at the moment.
14 - Your multifarious work invites a proliferation of describing notions : lyricism (and mechanicism), heteroclite and contrasting elements, (polystilism ?), a certain slowness or static quality (but also pulsating rhythms), multi-layered levels of discourse, all-encompassing sound sources; Where do you think the richness of your music lies?
Your descriptions are quite precise, though the elements might seem unreconcilable lyricism/mechanicism ect. I like to keep the contrasts side by side without synthesis. Also I think what you describe as the ‘richness’ comes from the fact that I don’t feel as though I compose from one particular cultural standpoint, but it’s constantly shifting. Accepting the fact of a split musical personality.
15 - Finally, please, tell us about your work(s) related to theatre, dance and multimedia. What do you find appealing in these arts and what do you give to them?
The fact that one has to deal with the question of what the function of music is in relation to theatre dance or film makes it inspiring to work in these forms. But to be a fruitful collaboration the other media has to come towards music and vice versa. I’ve worked a lot in dance, a medium I very much like though it usually depends on the choreographer. Last few years I made a few full length pieces with Leine and Roebana (one of which was performed last year in Madrid - with live virginal music based on William Byrd). My most fruitful collaborations have been with Paul Koek and Dick Raaijmakers with Theatergreop Hollandia , a quite experimental theatre group who often replace psychological acting with a kind of musical acting to an extreme degree. Next year we will be working on an idea of mine with the working title The Strange Death of Baruch Spinoza. It will be for actors, singer, harpsichord, percussionist (playing glass, paper, and wax) and live electronics, and will probably be made on location in a muscle farm in Zeeland with everything taking place above a thin layer of water.