Simon Atkinson

Simon Atkinson
(Photo: Simon Atkinson)

Simon has lived and worked in Leicester since 2000, where he is Principal Lecturer in Music, Technology and Innovation at De Montfort University. He is a member of the Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre, and for many years led the Music Technology subject at DMU. Initially trained as a ‘classical’ musician, he quickly became engaged with contemporary music and his work is primarily in musical composition made possible through digital technologies. However, he has worked in a diverse and eclectic range of artistic projects, mediums and contexts over the years. He is also committed to making a contribution to the wider understanding and appreciation of contemporary music, particularly electroacoustic and experimental electronic musics. This influences the thrust of his scholarly work, as well as forming the impetus behind past work in concert production and promotion, cross-art form collaboration, and community arts projects. He was a founding member of the Scottish acousmatic group invisibEARts and he co-directs the AHRC and UNESCO-funded Electroacoustic Resource Site (EARS) project. Recent work includes a commission for Society for Electroacoustic Music in Sweden, a cycle of works called interiorities that explore lowercase aesthetics, a commission from Dirty Electronics for a noise-based piece made with a prototype of the Mute Synth II instrument, and a commission from INA-GRM in Paris. He has also developed a long-term collaboration with live-digital dance practitioner Kerry Francksen with whom he has presented a series of collaborative intermedia events.

Why do you make music?

Music is important to us emotionally, psychically, socially. For me, it is has always proven to be the way amongst many for spending time engaged creatively that most stimulates my imagination. I hope that when things are succeeding musically, what I do offers something imaginatively stimulating to listeners.

What music do you make?

For such an apparently simple question, the answer is quite complicated. I use digital tools, and therefore make digital music. I try to use technology as an enabler, to allow the possibility of creating music that couldn’t come into existence any other way. In terms of genres and categories, I have some background in making acousmatic music, but prefer to conceive of this as a listening situation rather than genre, and I have spent several years very consciously exploring creating music that resists or questions or straddles received categories (noise, lowercase etc.). Normally, the music I make is intended to be listened to over loudspeakers, or can only be listened to over loudspeakers. Sometimes I have made music for some specific context e.g. dance, installation, theatre, intermedia etc. Oh, and I have a job in a UK university, so my stock response should be that I make electroacoustic music. Whilst helpfully aspiring to be inclusive of everything, this term doesn’t get any less problematic as time goes by.

How do you make music?

I use computers to explore sound – generally recorded sound – to which I listen, re-listen, imagine, re-imagine, organise, re-organise. I am becoming increasingly interested in the idea of exploring how technologies might suggest new processes for enabling collaborative processes within music and with other arts practitioners. Speaking of process, it’s perhaps worth acknowledging a probable modernist influence in that the ‘how’ of music-making can often be the priority for a creative process, and will sometimes be specific and individual – idiosyncratic even – to a particular piece or project.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

Normally, my default is that it’s all music. There have been some fairly clear-cut exceptions, however; for example where it isn’t ‘music’ because it’s ‘sound design’ (for a specific context or project) or because the contribution to an installation piece isn’t an obviously musical one. More recently I have been working on collaborative work which we’ve called intermedia (which certainly goes way beyond ideas of the musical ‘work’); but this is quite a problematic term, not ideal.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engineer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

Composer; occasional performer; sometime sound diffuser. Not a technologist, engineer, hacker, coder; in fact, I made a very conscious decision many years ago (for better or worse!) not to become a composer-coder, musician-programmer etc. … Composer is a problematic term in its more archaic, prosaic, Romantic, hierarchical etc. connotations, but I’m not aware of any less problematic alternatives being suggested we might replace it with.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

I am probably of a generation that experienced a pronounced ‘opening out’ of musical exposure, opportunity and influence. I don’t have a sense of canon, and – unusually, perhaps, for digital music – don’t have a strong sense of genre-position. I might well be the product of a postmodern cultural context. But does the music really sound like that; how so? So, I wear eclecticism, catholic tastes and influences and open-mindedness as something of a badge of honour, but there are no consistent specific patterns of how I might be influenced by other musics. In fact, perhaps more tangible are influences from literature and visual arts, which have often tended to influence the initial poetic ideas that led to a musical project. I have embarked upon a now long-term collaboration with a movement practitioner, who is developing what she calls ‘live-digital’ dance, and is very frequently developed in technology-rich contexts with multiple live or fixed media image projection.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

Imagination; listening skills; sensitivity; adaptability; concern for listener/audience; poetic / aesthetic judgement; ability to judge evocative potential of sounds…

How do you engage critically with digital music?

The term digital music might seem to imply something like an open network, ease of exchangeability, reproducibility etc., but to be critically engaged seems to me to require to get as far into the specific and precise context of the practice, in order to best understand it. Certainly, I think we must consider the specific human characteristics of any digital music practice in order to critically engage with it, not only be concerned with how the sound sounds, or conceive of it as code, 101010101110 made audible, or whatever.

To what extent is there a digital music aesthetic, and what might it be?

I suspect the answer to this question remains complex, but has probably changed significantly since the first edition of this book. On the face of it, it would be less controversial to claim that all music is digital (means of technical exchange). At such a high level, if there is such thing as a digital music aesthetic – which I am somewhat sceptical of – it’s likely entangled with music-as-commodity, cultures of consumption, economic exchange, capitalism… In the sense that there are distinct digital music practices, it is probably more fruitful to investigate a specific area of practice that makes some claim, or attaches some significance, to an aesthetic stance within its discourse.

Paradoxically, it might be easier to identify clear aesthetic positions in areas defined by their oppositional, antagonistic relation to the idea of digital music, anti-digital, post-digital etc.

What philosophical or critical theoretical ideas from the past century are important in digital music today and why?

The phenomenological tradition in terms of focus on perception, the experiential, music-as-experienced. The model of ‘new musicology’ or ‘critical musicology’ where the study of the musical object is informed by, or initiated by, a critical socially and politically engaged ethos. The threads of work that reassert music as being to do with our embodied and bodily selves (paradoxically for a book about digital musicians?) and being meaningful and situated beyond notions of ‘works’; and many other cultural and social ideas associated with postmodernity.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

It’s perhaps become rather a cliché to couch music made possible through digital technologies with observations on constant and all-pervasive change? In the current political and culture climate, I wonder whether it might not also be useful to consider not universals, but anything resembling constants around artistic ideas and notions of value in this field – alongside the breakneck speed change, which we can probably take as read!