Simon Emmerson

Simon Emmerson
(Photo: De Montfort University

Simon Emmerson studied Natural Sciences and Music Education at Cambridge (1968-72) where he first encountered electronic music. During a PhD at City University London in the 1970s, he founded the studio there and was its director until 2004 when he moved to De Montfort University. Commissions from many soloists and ensembles include IMEB (Bourges), GRM (Paris), Inventionen (Berlin), Sond-Arte Ensemble (Lisbon). Writings include The Language of Electroacoustic Music (1986), Music, Electronic Media and Culture (2000) and Living Electronic Music (2007). Many keynote invitations include ICMC2011 (Huddersfield). He was Edgar Varese Visiting Professor at TU, Berlin (2009-10) and Visiting Professor and Composer at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Perth) in 2016.

Why do you make music?

Music takes me to places I would not otherwise visit. The imagination is the most powerful tool we have – it can do (literally) incredible things. On the one hand it can produce sound and music: the imagination is a synthesizer, sound processor, spatialisation device … and much more. Then again it responds creatively to sound, too: for me music strongly conjours up a range of responses from drama to landscape – and while I am not strictly synaesthesic I do seem to ‘see’ shapes, textures and colours when I listen to any kind of electroacoustic music (from loudspeakers).

What music do you make?

Electronic, electroacoustic, acousmatic, live electronic are all terms that can be used but are getting more difficult to define. I always use technology as part of the process (see next entry).

How do you make music?

Most of the music I make is for performing musicians and electronics – usually transforming the live sound and projecting it around the performance space through loudspeakers, but possibly using studio recorded and processed sound as well. I work with people I get to know – I listen to the work they have done previously, trying to understand their strengths as performers, then I adapt my ideas and compose for those characteristics. I have never composed works without specific performers in mind and have only rarely done pieces for larger ensembles.

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

No – I think all of what I do is ‘music’ – not just musical. I have very wide taste in listening, covering all of sonic art in its widest sense. However I have a relatively traditional personal musical practice. I create largely determinate works – if there are ‘open’ elements these tend to concern choice within a given structure or perhaps a chance ordering of a given number of options. I also tend to retain a ‘beginning-middle-end’ paradigm for the overall form of the work.

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?

I tend to use simple descriptors such as ‘composer’, ‘performer’, ‘writer’ - perhaps ‘musician’, too, in a more general context. I have been described as a ‘musicologist’ when it comes to my reflective written publications – I accept this without complaint although I feel a certain distance from the term.

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

It is clear there have been profound shifts in context in recent decades. While the core of my own practice remains concert focused, I have recently ‘rediscovered’ my more experimental practice of the 1970s in the new post-digital contexts and listening spaces of the 21st Century – creating new versions of early open score works ‘remixed’. I am also increasingly interested in the idea of ‘concert-installation’ – how to create works in new (perhaps gallery) contexts that retain ‘formed’ local characteristics. I have worked on projects with Indian musicians (an Anglo-Indian version of the ensemble Shiva Nova in the 1980s) and with the Korean kayagum performer Inok Paek in the 1990s. I studied the theory and practice of these traditions – including their fraught relationship to the western score when applied insensitively – and worked extensively with the musicians in advance of finalizing the work. The technology functioned as a creative bridge between traditions. Possibly because I perceive music with a visual component (see above) I rarely feel the need for combination with other artforms – though I have worked with dancers, and video has been combined with some of my works.

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

The ability to listen in detail over quite long times – in truth my mind finds it hard to turn off the ‘commentator’ completely but the sound remains the focus of the perception throughout. The ability to listen critically is a close relative to this – to hear detail in order to evaluate perhaps to change something, to tweak a setting and listen again – or perhaps tweak a setting for a future performance. Imagination is vital – I spend a large amount of time imagining music. I keep a sketchbook in which I write down some of these musings as well as musical dreams and elaborations of musical ideas. Some land up in pieces others are let go. The ability to work with performing musicians and to accept their idiosyncracies – I do not compose from the abstract to the performance, but start with the performer and in part work back to the musical ideas. The ability to work with technology involves a range of skills from logic, patience and perseverance to creative challenge of initial apparent limitations (which may turn out not to be).

What are the key aspects of handling sound in space?...

I think very much about the spaces of sound (and hence music). Space articulates relationships. When there are performers these are initially anchored around the place they stand, but technology allows transformation and transposition – an outward prosthesis to reach out to arenas and landscapes, but also a reaching in towards the innermost detail of the sound that can be projected out to surround the listener. So inner and outer space are related more than ever through technical mediation and transformation – I find that exciting in prospect and thrilling in practice. It also creates a new set of issues we need to tackle, especially as the spaces we can address as musicians become ever more extended (possibly via internet connections). We evolved to interact sonically with the proximate agencies and physical spaces we inhabit and have not yet fully understood the ‘dislocations’ and ‘relocations’ that technology has created.

And through time?

I think that this remains one of the more problematic areas of much sonic art. The concert tradition of ‘listening to a whole formed work’ does not sit easily with the ‘gallery’ tradition of coming and going at will – although clearly some interesting hybrid practices are emerging. Keeping to the concert tradition, I believe we must trust performers more when it comes to timescale, adjusting to the specific environment, audience etc. Composers (and scores) need to leave some interpretative flexibility to the performer whenever possible. In studio work great care is needed as the composer has often heard a sound many times compared with any listener (that’s an old problem!) – and this can cause time to be structured differently. For myself I have often thought that – I am not primarily a studio composer – my studio work still rests very much on my behaving as if the sound were produced live.

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

Music and musicianship can make a fundamental contribution to the current rather agonised discourse on the future of robots, AI and human-computer relationships. Musicians must be innovative, creative and flexible to survive – but furthermore the whole area of music made in conjunction with machines both demonstrates and investigates the strengths and problems of such interactivity (in the broadest sense) and how the sharing of human and machine resources can enhance and extend our experiences in the world.