Conversation with Richard Emsley, 17th June 2003

Gloucester Arms, London NW1

(Richard has just given me a score of the 'for piano' series)

T: -could do with switching the microphone on, that?s always helpful. Right.
So which one did Mary [Dullea] play, was it six?
R: Er, no, number five.
T: Oh right.
R: Were you at that concert?
T: Yeah... I didn?t know you wrote them all on one stave.
R: Yeah, that?s turned into a conceit - is that the word? - because when I
started writing these piano pieces I was working within a rather narrow
register. Up to three octaves, something like that. And the hands were very
close, um, and I just had the idea that rather than write for each hand, I?d
write a single line, and the pianist could sort out the hands themselves.
T: Like in these early ones?
R: Yeah.
T: So how do you get your pitches and rhythms?! (laughs)
R: Well, yeah, the whole idea of this single line I should say is that um...
there?s always this ambiguity going on- it?s notated as a single line, but
it?s actually composed as quite a lot of parts, maybe up to nine parts.
T: Layers.
R: Yeah, so if you divide up, say, three or four octaves, um, into narrow
bands of perhaps a minor third, you could get nine, ten or so, parts, each
occupying a minor third. Um, so quite strictly they?ll stick to that band.
Then the way I composed it is er, each of those parts is a real part
rhythmically, it?s independent, um, composed them, superimposed them all
on top of each other, and then derived a single line. Does that make sense?
T: Yes it does, yeah. I see, yeah.
R: So I?ve sort of hidden away the part structure by writing it down to a
single line.
T: There?s like an imaginary grid sort of from top to bottom, all the
different boxes...
R: Yeah, but then of course the- the part writing is very bare, so that you
don?t really hear it as part writing a lot of the time.
T: No, well I never thought of it as part-writing, it always sounds like-
and nor did I really think of it as a line, you know, because the pedal?s
R: Quite, yeah.
T: it sounds- I mean that piece that er- well when I heard for Piano 5, that
sounded- it really reminded me of rain, that particular performance, which
I?ve never thought about before really but now I have, that landed as a sort
of image in my head.
R: Yeah well um... With the pedal held down I?m really interested in setting
that texture or musical space so that there is this great ambiguity about is
it in parts, is it in one part, and am I hearing this as a jump between
notes of one part, or am I hearing this as two parts, and is this an
entrance of a new part, or is this the continuation of an existing part...?
T: So your procedures have changed through the pieces I guess, just
looking at them anyway. Because here you have got levels going on.
R: Yeah that one?s got three parts on one stave. And again it becomes almost
arbitrary once I?ve collapsed say nine parts on top of each other, it then
becomes almost an arbitrary decision whether I choose to notate it as one
part or two parts or three. So I then might extract out a kind of notated
couple of parts in a rather arbitrary sort of way. But I like the fact that
it reminded you of rain because the rhythms are very much supposed to be not
to do with pulsation or metre.
T: Yeah well I was gonna ask you how- are they sort of chance derived or
something? Just because of the rain thing that?s what I think...
R: Well if you think of just one of those parts, um, I?ll typically set up
some starting durations that might be, say, five seconds apart, and maybe
I?d have five, six, seven of those, and then between those goalposts as it
were I?d insert little ritardandi and accelerandi, so from two notes five
seconds apart I might end up with an accel and then a rit, so you get a kind
of bum...bum-bum...bum......bum.... And I use a computer programme that I
wrote with my own fair hands, er, to get those accelerandi and ritardandi
between the goal posts.
T: Yeah I see.
R: Then that would be my first part, just rhythmically, and then the second
part would be a copy of that, then a distortion of it, so it might kind of
move the goalposts (to continue that sort of metaphor) and it might distort
the rhythms. So you end up with a kind of aggregated accelerando and
ritardando, but it?s not a simple one. It?s a sort of messed-around one. Um,
if the piece was in nine parts, they?d typically be grouped in three parts
of three, so I?d start off with three parts together and they?d be typically
about an octave apart, and then after a while three other parts would come
in, and because those are using a different group of a minor third
bandwidth, um, you?d get a kind of harmonic shift when they enter.
T: Uh-huh.
R: Are you with me?
T: I think I?m following you, I?m gonna digest all of that
R: There?s quite a lot there.
T: but it?s quite kind of um... it?s very composed isn?t it, it?s very sort
of systematic.
R: Yes. It?s a mixture of very closely rule-bound, but then there is the
randomness of how I distort the rhythms that I?ve got. But then how do I
give notes to those parts within a minor third each? Well that?s usually
just a random sequence of pitches, using the four semitones that occupy a
minor third.
T: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
R: So I might randomly go um, you know, one four three four
Person: Is someone sitting there?
R: It?s free, yes.
T: So with numbers then?
R: The notes that crop up are fairly random, within that tight registral
T: So do you use numbers then, rather than notes then, you sort of focus in
on an area and then...
R: Well I arrived at that way of writing the notes from a sort of theory of
mine about how a piece becomes harmonically interesting or uninteresting,
and it?s to do with er really semitonal tension like a gravitational pull.
If you have notes that are a semitone apart, or perhaps an octave and a
semitone apart, and moving around within those sorts of proximity to one
another, it creates cohesion. I think that?s just something that
physiologically happens.
T: Yeah. No, it?s very sort of um... There is a sort of harmony to your
R: Yeah, I think harmonic colour does crop up, and it is- it?s kind of news
to me when it happens, I just put my procedures into operation and stand
back and see what happens.
T: It?s quite detached, isn?t it.
R: Yeah.
T: I?m sure there?s a wonderful sort of um... a major triad pops up in er
maybe six, number six or something? I can?t remember, I?m trying to
R: Is it the last movement of number two? Where it?s all on an augmented
T: Oh yeah. That?s it. Is that it?
R: That one.
T: Oh yes, yeah. So did you restrict your- restricted yourself even more?
R: Well that?s an example of the sort of... something would happen during
the course of composing it with the computer programme and in that case I
looked at it before- before I?d allocated the moving semitones so each of
the parts just repeated a pitch, as a sort of place-marker, which was a
starting point in the composition perhaps, and I listened to that and I
thought well that sounds interesting just like that, so I won?t bother
moving any of the pitches around.
T: I didn?t know you used computers, I mean, you know as part of the
process. It?s sounds very sort of um... it sounds quite intuitive your
music, but also you know quite... it?s got a kind of er....
R: Well the computer solved a lot of the problems I was having. I went
through a long period of not finishing stuff. I was writing away but not
getting where I wanted to get.
T: Is that your sort of Varese-like hiatus. (laughs)
R: Yes. The er the moratorium. Er and I think I decided at one point- I?d
always felt a bit of a problem with writing things down on paper and feeling
confident with the way I was hearing them. And I thought I would work on
some way of getting a machine to play me some music, and then evaluate it in
a more direct- just hearing it then saying that?s good, that?s not good. So
I then embarked on this, what turned out to be in fact a nine month process
of learning a computer language and then writing my own programme, because
none of the proprietary ones were- would really fit the bill. So having come
through all of that it kind of saved my life in composing, cos it was then
great, I could generate stuff very very quickly, then mess it around,
distort it, do all sorts of things with the computer, and immediately listen
back to it.
T: Yeah, the need to hear it straight away or... sooner than six months
R: So yeah I?m listening to it as part of the process of composing. So
typically with a lot of those processes I might actually compose a great
bunch of music and maybe even thirty minutes, having decided on the numbers
in advance and just typed them in, and then simply listen to it and say well
that?s incredibly boring, won?t go near that, this bit is interesting...
T: Oh that?s great.
R: And then I might decide well what if I slow that bit down which you can
also do very quickly. Er, and I often arrive at things by slowing them down
and speeding them up, arrive at a kind of optimum speed for those notes.
T: That?s a very sort of immediately strikes me as a really very painterly
way of going about. You do the whole thing and then you kind of...
R: It is like dragging bits of paint around on a surface, yeah. And in fact,
um, I?m telling you all of the juicy bits right at the start, but from here
on I?ll get steadily more boring if I?m not incredibly boring already.
T: (laughs) You can say all the information that you need in ten minutes,
then I won?t have so much to write out!
R: Well talking about that sort of Varesian silent period, um, the way I
actually got out of that and into these piano pieces was I?d been using the
computer to write what was supposed to be- what was gonna be the start of
this piece, and I had it all planned out, typed it in, listened to it and I
thought there?s far far too many notes within about ten seconds, so I
thought I?ll just slow it down, so I?ll slow it down by a factor of six so
it lasts a minute and I listened to it and out popped this really
interesting thing which is part of um- it?s the second movement of 'for
1. So that whole thing was originally about
T: About ten seconds! (laughs) Good God.
R: And it?s six times slower. And that?s really how I just happened upon
this very pared down, listening to the minutiae...
T: It?s a very- it?s a nice combination between obviously a very systematic
approach on one level and a very intuitive approach on another.
R: Yeah.
T: Thank you very much again. I look forward to playing through these
R: One thing that quite a lot of pianists baulk at are the irrational
T: Oh yeah.
R: Which are by no means as complex as some irrational rhythms you
T: Well no sure...
R: you bump into. And that?s to do with what you were saying about rain.
Simply... I find if I listen to something on a computer and it sounds right,
I?ve a feeling that the notes have to be pretty crucially in just that spot.
I find in this slow music that you get very attuned to just the distances-
the exact distances between the notes. And what notes they are is part of
that total experience. So I feel I?ve got to notate them fairly carefully.
T: You just get a more specific er recognition of rhythm, just listening to
that. So how does that- how does it vary with performers then? Do they... Do
you look for a sort of accuracy or is there a kind of a...
R: I wouldn?t claim to be able to spot er all the rhythmic inaccuracies that
go on, um... although you can spot quite a lot. (laughs) I don?t worry
terribly about that. I just- if somebody?s- it?s more likely if somebody?s
got the piece terribly wrong like they?re lifting the pedal when it
shouldn?t be lifted, things like that.
T: Is the pedal down throughout all of them?
R: Yeah. (pause) I think that?s part of- I think the pieces announce their
conceits, if you like, laying their aesthetic cards on the table, like this
is the deal with this music, and the deal with these pieces is that the
pedal is going to be held down throughout, and I think listeners just twig
that quite easily. So I?m interested in just setting up um prescriptions
about how the music is going to be.
T: Oh yeah sure.
R: So, you could think of that as painterly as well, if you like, it?s like
working within a frame.
T: Well definitely, very um- it?s very immediate as well, you know where you
are as soon as it starts.
R: It?s a WYSIWYG process.
T: A wissywig process?
R: Yeah. You don?t know WYSIWYG? What You See Is What You Get. Computer
T: (laughs) Ah, right, now I know how to spell it.
R: Yeah, capital W, capital Y, and so on... It?s usually used to do with
graphics software, um, like rendering of fonts so that the computer doesn?t
substitute some approximate version, it gives you the exact er size and look
of the font, for instance.
T: Oh right, yeah. So do you think very visually then? Or do you just see
where it takes you? In the compositional process. Do you think that?s what I
want, or does is it sort of evolution in the working procedure?
R: I think maybe I do think quite visually.
T: Because I get a strong sense of imagery out of your stuff.
R: Well, when I started it was all very much sort of to do with um- the
early pieces I liked, and the very earliest ones were pop music, um, I found
they gave rise in me to a sensation um which wasn?t visual, a musical
sensation that it seemed to be to do with um... modelling time, experiencing
time in ways that would- ways apart from the every-day way. So for instance
everyone?s probably familiar with feelings of time standing still or
circular recurrent time, things like that in music. And it can be a kind of
corporeal, you could feel you could almost see it or grasp it. It might set
up a, I suppose, a visual image, maybe a teeming surface but one that is
standing still, as a whole.
T: Mmm, I see, yeah.
R: But, visual in that way.
T: That?s what I felt when- what?
R: Well I was gonna say that the- the earlier work that I did um it was all
to do with trying to recreate that- those particular sensations that had
excited me. So I was- I think of it now as a top-down way of composing. So
I?d start with a I-want-the-piece-to-feel-like-this, and what am I going to
do to achieve that. So you?d have started with a top, an overall thing. And
then you start- well I started getting into a lot of pre-composition
planning. Um, the trouble was when you?d worked out all the plans and put
them into operation, you very often didn?t get the results you were after.
T: Yeah.
R: Yeah, that was why I was a very constipated composer during that whole
period. I think because I was working in this top-down way. So the new way
which I discovered with the computer in the piano music was really a
bottom-up way. Because I?m just starting with the units, the notes and
rhythms, um, messing those around and seeing what the top er happens to come
out like.
T: Ah yeah that?s- I completely understand. Have you retained any of that
previous sense of top-down? I mean for example, you know when you?re sort of
thinking about series like this Stills series, and so on, and another series
for Phil Thomas.
R: The er piece for Phil Thomas was gonna group together 'for piano' numbers
thirteen through to twenty four, which would have been the second group of
twelve, um, because they were all gonna be three minutes, and all very
closely related, but I?m thinking now that because they?re- they are so very
turning into one piece, I might just simply call that 'for piano 13'. It?ll-
that?ll be a much bigger one that the previous ones.
T: Oh right, yeah.
R: So not a series, just another piece.
T: You?re going all Stockhausen on us. (laughs)
R: I knew somebody would say that.
T: The higher the number, the bigger the piece.
R: Well I suppose using ?for piano? is a half-hearted attempt to do
something you?ve done more thoroughly. But you use ?untitled?.
T: Well yeah, titles...
R: I thought ?for piano? was half way towards ?untitled?.
T: Yeah, we all need an abstract title nowadays. The days when er... I like
the er...
R: I got really annoyed with having to come up with titles.
T: Yeah.
R: And also the feeling that I?ve written the piece, now I?ve got to think
about what it might- a title- what it might be about, and you think well sod
it, it?s not actually about any of these things.
T: I know. I still feel er if a title occurs which fits then I?ll use it,
but it?s very rare these days. Although I still actually agonise a lot about
whether to have something as an untitled whatever or- for example, um,
clarinet and words. It?s a piece I just did for Andrew Sparling, ?clarinet
and words? for clarinet and um speaking voice. And I did think about that
for a long time.
R: You thought about that title for a long time?
T: Well just you know, not while writing the piece, but it?s sort of running
through your head when you?re not thinking about the actual process
R: You do, don?t you, in off moments.
T: Exactly, daydreaming about... But I was gonna say I like the er the early
classical era where there?s- looking at C.P.E.Bach?s work list there just
one ?sonata? after another. Sonata, sonata, sonata...
R: I think it?s something that very much came after the Romantic period,
isn?t it, or began with the Romantic period.
T: Yeah, the curse of programme music.
R: I know there were plenty of poetic titles before then, but they were the
exception rather than the rule.
T: Mmm. Then we have everything nowadays.
R: I think you... er... We?re forced to declare our colours in a way. Your
titles- I?m not saying this is something to be welcomed but you?re nailing
your colours to the mast aesthetically in a way aren?t you.
T: I guess. And people start to say, well what?s this going to be?
R: Yes, I was sitting next to Laurence Crane during- when your piece came up
last night, and I said Tim?s gonna run out of titles. (laughs)
T: (laughs) Well, you know, I?ve yet to see... I have done-
R: Do you use numbers? Like ?Untitled Piano number one??
T: Well no but there are two ?untitled quartet?s. Um, but I don?t at the
R: Are they both called ?untitled quartet??
T: yes, but I don?t at the moment (laughs)
R: It?s like having two children and calling them both the same name.
T: I don?t like numbers at the moment because there?s a hierarchy implied of
sorts. I just stick a year after it. ?Untitled Quartet? from 2000. And
there?s another one from 2001. Which makes it confusing enough.
R: That?s a good solution.
T: I mean, because again, like all the Mozart quartets for example, Haydn
ones, they were just ?Quartet?s. Oh, ?Quartet? in E flat, didn?t you just
write something called ?Quartet? in A major? And I like that. And of course
they?ve since been numbered because of the need for cataloging.
R: But the key that they were in was quite important.
T: Well, sure, yeah, but even then you might get, you?d probably get about a
half a dozen G majors or something.
R: Yeah but then people say the early G major, or the late G major...
T: Well that?ll suit me I think. The early ?Untitled Quartet? and the one
the year later. (laughs) I don?t know, we?ll see.
Loud Person on phone: And then when you come to er the tree you?ll see a
road called Ivor Place?
T: So yeah, because I?ve been thinking about Stills as well. That?s your
next series.
R: Yes, I- there?s only been two series so far. One is the pieces for piano,
that?s ?for piano?, then I began this other series for um small groupings of
instruments called ?Stills?. And um I was beginning to think it was about
time I stopped writing just for piano although I intend to carry on writing
for piano, to do something else as well. Um, and that ?Stills? series, I
think you know, er began with the collaboration with the painter Joan Key
and you came to the very first performance at the De La Warr Pavilion.
T: July the sixth. I remember.
R: Yeah. Well Joan wanted me to use the cello, she?s a cellist herself, and
she suggested solo cello for that piece. We could talk later about how that
collaboration worked. But, um, having written that piece, um, I thought
well, I wanted- I thought I?d be expanding it into rather a lot of pieces,
and I thought well, let?s use instruments that people will easily be able to
um use for performance. So there are a stock of five instruments, um, flute,
clarinet, piano, violin and cello. And the twenty four pieces of ?Stills?
are all the possible solo, duo and trio combinations available from that
stock of five.
T: It works out at twenty four?
R: It works out at twenty five. The one I missed out was solo piano.
T: (laughs) There?s a poetry about that, though!
R: Yeah, twenty four just- maybe we?re all hung up on the legacy of Bach.
T: Sometimes it?s good to be traditional... You should have written thirty!
Let?s be decimal! (laughs)
R: (laughs) Yeah. The Euro version. So yeah, knocking out the solo piano
one, that gives us the twenty four.
T: So, how many have you done now did you say?
R: Three.
T: So there?s solo cello...
R: Yeah I planned out a sequence for the pieces using the- there is an
order- a structure involved in the way the instruments crop up in the course
of that twenty four. Um, so I planned that out and as people asked for
pieces, like the Libra ensemble asked for a clarinet and piano piece, that
turned out to be number twenty two, so they got ?Stills 22?. Darragh Morgan
asked for a piece. That turned out to be thirteen. Darragh objected
strenuously to the number thirteen, so in deference to his Irish
superstitiousness, I changed that to fourteen.
T: So who?s gonna be the poor guy who gets thirteen?
R: (laughs)
T: Well I?m looking forward to hearing it though, because the only one I?ve
heard is the cello one, and it was very um, again very sort of er striking
imagery, I remember it as this kind of [makes hand gesture]
R: Yeah, flat.
T: Yeah.
R: And it?s really- I find I?ve very much got to discover er the right sort
of space now for pieces.
T: In terms of venue?
R: No no, in terms of the music.
T: Oh I see.
R: I really like narrowing it down very much now, and so with these ?Stills?
pieces it?s a matter of finding the right way to write. And that took me a
while, to arrive at that but it was really based on the idea of
cross-rhythm. So typically you might have two parts going along, um, and
each part- well the first part would start, so I composed it as just a
straightforward periodic rhythm, maybe an attack every three seconds, then
I?d use the computer programme to more or less distort that, so instead of
ba... ba... ba... it would be more sort of ba.. ba..... ba... ba...
T: Right.
R: One hopes in an intriguing sort of way. And I?d distort the duration of
the note as well, so they kind of concertina in and out. And then the second
part would pretty much track the first part, but it would be distorted
itself, so you?re getting a kind of er... I don?t know, a bit like two
animals tracking each other and slightly getting out of step as they go
along. And that idea of cross rhythm has always been, kind of, of central
interest for me. It also goes back to ideas about time. I?m quite interested
in the way when you get cross-rhythms, you?re not looking at a single
psychological focus going along in a narrative, you?re actually fracturing
that, and you?re being forced to listen to er two strictly independent
things occurring, which can be indifferent to each other. I?m interested in
the way that subverts our formulaic way of narrowing time perception down to
just one strand.
T: Sure. You?re kind of dissipating your focus.
R: Yes. Yes. I?m always excited by things that get away from a single
narrative thread.
T: Yes I?m quite excited by that.
R: And again that conjures up a spatial er...
T: Hence when we were talking last night about Charles Ives.
R: Yeah, I think he?s a case in point.
T: That?s where it?s going, that?s the where the root of all this is in a
then, because I?m thinking that it?s a really healthy mixture of what
appears to me to be a very rhythmic way of working and also- but also
counterpoint as a definite- you know, I?m not saying you have a total
disregard for notes.
R: (Laughs) It?s the rain.
T: I thought I felt this little drop...! (laughs)
R: Richard Emsley?s notes keep falling on my head. (Laughs) So from that do
you mean there?s a discipline involved, a rigour...?
T: Yeah but I mean just in the way that you were talking about how... for
example that one where you only use... the last part of ?for piano 2? when
it?s just the same pitches. It?s very... it just becomes almost pure rhythm
as well, obviously there?s a harmonic colour going along but it?s a very
rhythmic approach primarily.
R: Yeah actually that?s quite pertinent because with the piano music- with
?for Piano 13? I use that very idea and turn it into a kind of bell piece.
Um, so I had um seven parts about a minor third- typically a minor third
apart, it was very close, and simply the first one was I think an attack
every two seconds, um, and then all the others- the first stage of
composition, the other six parts would be with that, just one chord
repeating, but then I slightly distort all of them so they?re getting
slightly out of step with each other. So you get this (sings) in what I find
a delightful- like listening to church bells.
T: I?m looking forward to November, I can tell you. Phil didn?t have any
objection to being ?for piano 13? did he? (laughs)
R: No he didn?t. (laughs)
T: So they evolved then, the ?for piano?s? Is there a-
R: Certainly they?ve- yeah the piano music evolved to that using repeated
notes rather than notes that creep around in a semitonal way to create
bell-like sounds. I suppose that?s then translated into the ?Stills? pieces
which also use repeating notes. They don?t sound so bell-like, not being the
piano, but er... Yes, I?m into that way of writing, very much, now. In fact
the pieces for Phil are going to um... I?ve written six already which are
all bell-like, um, they?re quite close to each other, they gradually distort
one to the next. Then I?m interleaving those six with five quieter pieces
which are more in the lyrical vein of the earlier ones.
T: Oh right. So it?s gonna be another kind of suite.
R: Yes. Yeah, it?s a bit like a suite.
T: Fast movement, slow movement
R: It?s a very old idea, yes! (laughs) But, hey! (laughs)
T: Nothing wrong with that either. But that?s what we were talking about the
kind of er what it does to time. That sort of um
R: Well if you stand listening to church bells ringing it?s a sort of
transfixing experience.
T: It is, isn?t it.
R: You know, fixing. It?s sort of to do with, er, something still and
static. I don?t know why those things fascinate me particularly, I suspect
they fascinate a lot of composers. And you can get philosophical and um...
talk about the way human thoughts have often been attracted to something
beyond our immediate experience, beyond appearance, which kind of stands
beyond, a kind of eternal static, like Plato?s Forms.
T: Yeah. A constancy.
R: Yes. Something timeless, eternal. I mean that idea?s cropped up so many
times in human thought.
T: Hmm, yeah. (pause) There must be something in it then!
R: (laughs) There must be something in it! In er thoughts that you find in
Indian religions, um, the idea of the... is it the Atman and the Brahman, a
kind of still spirit that you find in each of us, but it?s your contact with
eternal and with something beyond our material existence. Phrases like
?motionless behind the flux?. I came across that in a book on Indian
thought, and thought ?That could be a title.? (laughs) ?Motionless Behind
the Flux?.
T: You?re a good man for not using it as a title though.
R: You wouldn?t like that.
T: Well, yeah, it?s um... I?d prefer it as a programme note.
R: Well, yeah, to summarise all that,. there does seem to be this interest
in er... stillness and something static and fixed. And a lot of um... a lot
of our powerful experiences, religious experiences, maybe drug-induced
experiences, um, strong emotional experiences, poetic... they?re often
coloured by a sense of something still and unmoving.
T: A fixity.
R: Yeah, and emotions are like the way food sits in your stomach. They don?t
go anywhere much, they just overtake you. Unlike rational thought which is
always chattering away going from step to step.
T: Absolutely, yes, yes.
R: That?s another thing that I?m interested in is getting away from er...
I?m interested in art as a non-conceptual experience, so you?re getting away
from mental chatter, and the clutter of conceptual thoughts.
T: I?m with you there.
R: (laughs) Good on you, mate! Shall we celebrate that with another pint of
T: That would be fantastic, I?ll put it on pause. By the time you come back
we?ll have run out of-

(End of first half)