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Composer Spotlight: Desmond Clarke

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Interview conducted by Jake Adams, 26th August 2021. We sat down with Desmond Clarke to discuss his work with video scores, temporal variation and visual art.

Desmond Clarke (b. 1989) is a composer, performer and artist based in the North of England. His work has been performed and exhibited extensively around the UK and the wider world.

Throughout his multi-disciplinary practice, Desmond’s work unpicks the relationships between underlying processes and their resultant forms at micro and macroscopic scales.

Recent projects as of 2021 include an ongoing series of works using both fixed and live-generated video scores to explore the boundaries and overlaps between notated and improvised music. His recent visual work, largely borne out of the 2020 lockdown, focuses on exploring the limits of legacy printing hardware with modern algorithmic processes to create structures and forms that articulate the friction between order and randomness found in the natural world.

First, could you please tell us a bit about yourself, your interest as a musician, as a composer? As a composer, I’m interested in a lot of different things. I do a lot of performing, I’m an oboist and I used to do a lot of free improvisation. I got really into that sort of playing, using the instrument as a sound-producing object, so my interests as a composer are heavily vested in that. Through that, I’ve ended up developing a lot of interesting notation, and working on a lot of pieces that use videos for scores (Of which The Arc Project has performed quite a few, which is absolutely brilliant!). So that’s one side of my approach to composing, and in parallel to that I use a lot of mathematical processes. I’m really interested in exploring forms that are the result of really simple processes that then grow and generate these big beautiful structures. So, quite a sound-focused and process-focused way of composing.

Why did you decide to become a musician? I’ve always liked music (that helps). When I was a kid, I had a tape of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and I just found it incredibly captivating. I couldn’t get enough of it and my dad bought me some CDs of more Russian music. It was the best thing I’d ever heard. Not just heard, but it was the thing I engaged in the most out of all the things in my life. Even then, it was about the richness of the sound. The orchestration in that and Rimsky-Korsakov is so gorgeous. When you listen to it, you don’t really hear instruments, in a way, you just hear these beautiful composite sound masses. I was into it a lot as a child and then I started learning the oboe which I really took to. Something about sound really turned my brain on and I’ve been hooked ever since. Could you name some musicians that have influenced your perspectives on music and your style? I think in a way those are two different questions. Influencing your perspective on music is one thing and directly influencing your style is another. For example, I did my undergraduate dissertation on Kurtág and his music is an enormous influence on my thinking about music but not necessarily on my actual writing of music, though I did write pieces that pastiche his style. There is also a lot of influence on my style from minimalist composers like Philip Glass. I love Philip Glass. I think early Philip Glass is really amazing music. Not so much late Philip Glass, but the early works are absolutely incredible, really hard-edged, clean and like nothing that had ever come before. I find that really inspirational in terms of process. I like Kurtág, Ligeti, Feldman and Lachenmann from a sonorous point of view, and from an organisation point of view, I really like Xenakis, Philip Glass and Nancarrow. For me, it’s the coming together of those things - the really rich sonorous side and the really clean, mathematically-designed structures. I also really like Beethoven, Bach and Monteverdi but that’s a different kettle of fish, I suppose. I find it interesting that you’ve mentioned the minimalism side, because the works that you’ve been doing quite recently, at least connected with The Arc Project, have all had a minimalist edge to them.

Definitely. The last two pieces I’ve done for The Arc Project have both been phasing pieces like Piano Phase or the tape pieces, except that I’ve done the phasing acoustically. Because you’ve got the video scores, you can control that micro temporal variation in real time which is obviously hard for the players but is a really interesting thing to explore and is something that I’m looking to take forward. I think minimalism gets a bad rep in contemporary music circles. I know it’s very successful but I think it’s influence is understated. Ligeti liked Nancarrow and Steve Reich but it’s not very cool in music departments.

Desmond Clarke performed by Lucy Havelock and Alex Norman - Bright Waves (2021)

And the idea of the video score is interesting as well because it is something that appears free if you were to stretch it out. If you just put it out as a normal score it would be completely in free-time, completely aleatoric but the fact that you’ve got the notes moving off the page, makes it almost more controlled.

Yeah, I think so. The thing about free-time when it’s on a page is that we have no rhythmic information at all, and that players, at least in my experience, even if you’ve got lots of events very close together, still end up taking their time and it’s very difficult to get that sense of rhythmic pressure. There are exceptions to that, for example there is a Stockhausen piano piece, Klavierstücke X, where it’s to be played as fast as possible except for these long pauses and that’s got this very intense sound to it, but most of the time it’s difficult to achieve that level of rhythmic urgency. If you give them the video score, though, it tells them exactly where an event should occur, and they have even less agency than if they’ve got a very clear notated score. They’ve just got to do it at that point. I do worry about taking agency away from the players but I think it’s just a different way of working and there’s different types of freedom that the players can exercise.

How did you get involved with The Arc Project? What have you done with us and what’s your experience been like?

It would’ve been a call for participants that you put out. I think I very first got involved as a performer?

Yeah, I think so. For Thomas Hardy.

Yeah. I first did that as a performer but obviously that project has been postponed and hasn’t happened yet. Since then, I’ve just applied for everything that you’ve put out. I’ve had a few performances postponed during lockdown and I’ve had some time to kill so it’s been a really good way of continuing working, connecting with players and finding stuff to do, when most of the connections have been cut - people have been pushed away. It’s been a really really positive influence in my musical life over the past couple of years for sure and I feel like I’ve really made the most of it. I’ve really enjoyed both performing and composing, and it’s been a real lifeline in terms of my musical life. It’s been a very positive experience for me and it’s a really great thing that you’re doing.

Here’s another tough one, if you had to pick one of your works that you are particularly proud of, what would you choose and why?

It’s always the next piece, the piece I haven’t heard yet. Every piece has a new idea in it in some sense. Every piece is either going further than the last one or exploring something new. That process of hearing the new thing and seeing where I can go from here, that is the really interesting thing for me. I wrote a guitar quartet back in 2013 which explored very free rhythms, microtonal tunings for guitars. The guitar quartet has commissioned me to write a sequel to that piece which is much longer and uses a different set of microtonal resources. It was going to be performed in December but it’s been postponed because of COVID. That piece is full of ideas and I don’t know how they sound yet. They’re really interesting ideas to me and so I’m really looking forward to seeing how they sound. In my head, that’s one of the most exciting pieces I’ve ever written. Of course, after the fact, maybe it won’t be but at the moment I think it is, I think it’s really really interesting. For me, it’s always about trying out the next thing and seeing where we go.

Desmond Clarke - Music for Miniature Landscapes (2014)

I love that as an answer. As a composer where you’re constantly moving forward onto the next one, you don’t realise what came from the previous works until you look back, I find.

I was at a lecture given by Lachenmann at IRCAM a while ago and, describing his process, he said that you put loads and loads of work into designing the system for a piece, all the processes and all the relationships and material and you think “I could get at least three or four pieces out of this”. Then you write the piece and you think “What should I do next? Should I continue to plum those resources? No, I’ve done that and now I’m going to create a whole new set of things”. I think it’s quite similar to that feeling in the sense of always wanting to push forward and see what’s the next logical step or the next step that suggests itself, be that logic, emotional or sensuality that’s leading you but always looking to take the next step forward.

You’ve talked quite a lot of the things you’ve been working on at the moment and kind of jumping off the idea of moving forward. Do you have any particular areas that you are wanting to explore more in the future?

Well, it’s the same areas that we’ve already talked about, but taking them further. The piece I did for the ensembles project was a very simple 8-part canonic phasing piece, I’d love to do that sort of process again but expanded for a small orchestra. There’s a very similar piece that I’ve written for string quartet which hopefully is being recorded sometime soon and similarly I’d love to just take that and make it a sinfonietta piece that has all these multiple time continua going at once. Those were the style studies and now I want to do a piece that combines those ideas in a much more dense and sophisticated musical fabric. I’m always a sucker for doing something very simply and that means I have a lot of pieces that are just like tests in a way which aren’t necessarily that musically interesting. They are, in a way, but they’re not complete statements in a sense, they’re distilled ideas. I like that but you also want to do the piece that’s taking those ideas and then saying “this is what I can do with them” rather than demonstrating an idea by itself. I’ve built a toolbox of stuff over the last couple of years that’s quite interesting. Now, I want to write that meaty piece where I put it all together and see what I can build with these tools. So if you want to commission me for an orchestral piece, please do.

Do you have any people that you particularly want to collaborate with in the future, anyone in mind?

I’d like to collaborate with whoever is reading this. Please get in touch. I’d really like to do an opera based on a Jeff VanderMeer book. That’s who I want to collaborate with, I want to collaborate with Jeff VanderMeer on the libretto for a multimedia opera.

If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would you go?

I saw a trailer for a documentary about Katie Melua performing at the bottom of an oil rig, down under thousands of feet of water. That sounds pretty cool. Just somewhere crazy like that. There was another gig under Tower Bridge, I think it was, in the voids where the bridge opens up inside the hydraulic system or on the International Space System or something like that. It doesn’t even have to be anywhere ridiculously remote, just interesting performance spaces, I suppose. I’d love to go into an industrial space, like inside a gasometer or something like that, that would be cool.

It’s interesting that as a composer interested in processes and mathematics, you’ve chosen very industrial and working places.

Yes, but then again actually, I had an idea a long time ago with some friends of mine to do a performance on a boat in the middle of a lake for a week. If I was to live in nature for a week and do nothing but everything was a performance. You’d obviously be eating and sleeping but you’d also be improvising constantly. I suppose really I’m just interested in getting out there and getting outside the concert hall.

As well as the stuff you’ve been doing with The Arc Project, what projects have you been involved in recently and what have you been up to?

I’m working with an oboist in the department, Niamh Dell, who is a fantastic contemporary oboist and used to work with Ensemble Modern. She’s doing a PhD in contemporary oboe performance and I’m working on a piece with her which draws on the same video score stuff that I’ve been working on with The Arc Project. Actually, some of the work that I’ve been doing with The Arc Project has fed into that project, so that’s been really nice. I also did another piece for a duo in America called SANS; duo for saxophone and guitar, again drawing on this shared performance practice that I’m building up. One of the pieces I did with The Arc Project, a collaboration with the dancer Erica Mulkern, has now been given funding by Sound and Music to develop into a more substantial piece, so that’s a really good example of a relationship being set up by The Arc Project and turning into something more substantial. That’s a really great thing that’s come out of working in this way.

I’ve also been doing a lot of visual art. All of my music is basically algorithmic music and the algorithms that you use to write algorithmic music, there’s nothing that biases them specifically towards sound. Obviously, you have to think about sound when you’re writing the algorithm but the general process themselves aren’t necessarily sonic, they are just maths. They apply equally well to physical structures as they do to aural ones or visual ones. So, I’ve been making a lot of art by applying those processes in visual rather than sonic domains, which has been a really interesting counterpart to the music. In some ways, this way of working actually lends itself more to visual art than it does to music, but I still love making music more than I love making art!

Jewel Boxes, algorithmic visual art by Desmond Clarke

Final question - if you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money?

I’d probably buy a big ol’ warehouse somewhere and turn it into a giant, permanent installation that’s also a performance space. It’d be like the Turbine Hall but for multimedia performance art. I would use it for my own stuff, I would have gigantic projections, sound installations and performances but it’d be great to also then invite anyone who wants to come and use that space. Much like the generous spirit of The Arc Project, you’re inviting people to do this work. It’d be great to do that but with hundreds of millions of pounds worth of resources.

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