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Composer Spotlight: Maja Palser

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Interview conducted by Jake Adams, 6th May 2021. We sat down with composer and sound artist Maja Palser to talk about her work, the influence of rock music and performance in public spaces.

I’m a sound artist mainly interested in the making audience-focused, immersive, concept-based pieces that facilitate multi-sensory experiences in various settings. I’m particularly drawn to interdisciplinary collaborations and public art, striving to take contemporary music out of the concert hall and into the public realm.

Could you just tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Well, it’s an interesting time to ask this question because I’m sort of in between things. I’m a composer, but I’m at a point where I’m not sure whether I am happy calling myself a composer anymore. Maybe more of a sound artist … or just an artist! Also, I’m just about to finish my PhD, so that’s another transitionary period I guess. I’m a composer finishing a PhD, but also redefining what I’m doing at the same time – I guess that’s the closest description. What would you describe your interests as a musician as?

Well, I’ve always been really interested in experience (I always hesitate to say Art as Experience because it’s actually the title of a book, but it’s a really good book so maybe it’s not a bad thing to say that …). I guess I’m really interested in how music, and the combination of music and other artforms, creates an experience, how it is experienced and how the contexts in which it takes place changes the experience. More recently I’ve become particularly interested in public art - incidental experiences where you don’t plan to see something, you just happen upon an event. I became particularly interested in the feeling of awkwardness I often experience in concert halls (my musical background is more centred around rock rather than classical music). I’m interested in how the ritual and the implications of the concert hall can put people off and how you can trick people into experiencing things that they wouldn’t voluntarily go to.

Sounds great! This next one is always a tough one; why did you decide to become a musician?

Well, musician is actually a good word, because I always wanted to be a musician, or an actor or something similar. I always really enjoyed how these types of experiences (watching something, listening to something) take you out of your, maybe, slightly shitty life situation. It was always an escape route for me, and I always felt that I would love to do this for other people, and make them feel good, or understood. I never thought I would become a composer; I actually didn’t know you could become a composer, because I always thought that composers died out in the 1900s or something! I was quite surprised when a teacher of mine, with whom I spoke about maybe wanting to do music, or becoming a jazz pianist (although I was a pretty terrible pianist), essentially said you’re not really good enough, have you considered composition? So I guess that’s how I landed here.

Maja Palser & Andrew Bolton - Linear Expansion (2019)

I’m glad there’s someone else who didn’t realise composing still existed as a job!

What has your involvement with the Arc Project been, and how have you found the experience?

So far it has been one project, for which I wrote a drum kit piece, working with Andy Blackwell – I think it was actually the first project? It was great, very stressful but that was mainly my fault as I had many other things on at the time. I really like the focus on collaboration. I really miss that aspect. In most cases when you’re asked to write, you just have to write for something/someone. You barely interact with the performer until the rehearsal. I was also almost involved with another project, the interdisciplinary project, which I was super excited about because of its closeness to my interests – sadly it didn’t end up happening. But the main aspect that I love is definitely the focus on working together which I think especially as a composer is a rare occurrence. Maybe the thing I struggle the most with is being asked to just produce something and turn up with a finished work, without having anyone to bounce ideas off – so I think this is really refreshing!

It’s interesting, what you’re saying about being asked to write a piece and going away to write in isolation because that’s almost the ‘normal’ idea of what a composer does. Do you find that, through collaboration, you achieve a more fulfilling piece? Yeah, I think I do - because the process to me is more fulfilling, and it makes me more confident, which affects how I feel about the end product. As I mentioned before, I come from a background of playing with bands, and the way we used to write songs in the band was someone would have an idea and we would end up improvising on it and developing it. If I could, I would always write that way, but obviously it doesn’t work like that! It is definitely something that makes me feel more comfortable, being able to communicate with and bounce ideas off a group or individual whilst the process is ongoing, not when it is ‘finished’.

Going back to the piece you composed for the first concert, for drumkit, in terms of your history with rock bands, have you ever worked with a drumkit in a ‘classical’ setting before? How did you find it?

I thought it was great. I’d not done it before but I had planned it, and hoped I would be able to use it for a long time. My dad is actually a professional jazz and rock drummer so I've always felt a bit hesitant to approach him with something that is "classical" because he doesn’t work with this style of notation. In that sense it was really great to have this opportunity (and there was a very strong jazz influence on the piece, I revisited all the old recordings that I’d been listening to all my life, Art Blakey and Buddy Rich for example).

Wow. Could you name some musicians that have influenced your perspectives on music and the style that you work in?

Yeah, where to start … I think the rock musicians I was listening to as a kid still have a huge influence – they’re probably still my major influence. In terms of ‘classical’ music terms, I think one of my most enduring influences is Morton Feldman. I just love that, sort of, resistance to impress, in a way? - going back to what I said about experience, where music is not one focal point but creates something bigger, it is about space and being. The very long pieces that just don’t really do anything dramatic or spectacular, they just ‘are’, were a very real eye-opener for me. There are also a lot of non-Western influences; I am very interested in Raga, Gamelan and Turkish classical music. Actually, a lot of the rhythms I used in the drumkit piece were Turkish modes, I think anything can grab my attention if there’s something different about it!

Maja Palser & Marega Palser - Passage (2017) If you had to pick one of your works which you are particularly proud of, which would you choose? Why?

Wow. Can I pick two? One is a typically classical piece, in that it is a solo piano piece, it’s very short – about four minutes – with very few notes, but it’s actually my most performed piece, and it is one of those pieces that I really like. I guess I like it because I feel that – going back to the process we talked about earlier - I enjoyed writing it. I see other people enjoying it so I think it was a success, because it works on all of those levels. More recently, I have been trying more installation-based performances; I won’t name any, but there have been a couple recently that I feel are more what I am about. I think those are my favourite pieces now because I feel that I am finding my voice.

Which areas are you interested in exploring more in the future?

As I already mentioned, I am really interested in the possibility of taking music out of its ‘shell’, out of the concert hall and bringing it to the public. I’m very interested in public art and how people interact with it. Finding contexts and places for music to be encountered, I suppose is the answer. And of course, that also impacts the writing process, especially if the performance is not in a concert hall you have to consider the acoustics and what works in the new environment. I spoke to a friend a few months ago who works a lot in hospitals, also a guitarist. He works for an organisation called Music in Hospitals and Care, and he goes in and plays in the ICU. It was really interesting to talk to him about that because what is acceptable in the context is obviously very sensitive. I thought that was great, because that’s a group of people who don’t get to go to concerts very much, and I’m quite interested in the concept of surprising people, helping them discover something new.

So, is it primarily performance in public spaces, rather than going to play in, for example, a factory, that you are interested in?

Yeah – I’m interested in both. It definitely started as performance in a factory, or a warehouse, but then I thought that I’m still not quite there yet. I like that it is an alternative space, and it isn’t in the poshest area of town, but I still want to push it further. I have been watching some really great videos of public performances of ‘classical’ pieces – there’s a great video of a piece by Ligeti being performed in a Berlin train station, and it's so great how people react! – but also of performance art pieces. I’ve actually worked myself in public, I just love it and find it extremely satisfying to just watch people and how they react to it – some hate it, others love it, some are confused. I’m attracted to its diversity. It is very lively, there is always more of a response than just applause and a congratulations. Instead, you get the whole gamut of ‘my god, what is this shit’ to ‘wow, this is amazing’, which I like.

And perhaps the surprise factor forces people to have a stronger reaction, because they haven’t got the expectation of what’s coming that the program gives them?

Exactly. I like the idea of walking down the street and seeing performances, the fact that sometimes it will be the same for days and then suddenly it will change to something new and weird and you just have to stop and watch. And I like how it brings people together and starts conversations. It is a bit of a pipe dream during COVID but it’s definitely what I’m interested in doing a bit more in the future.

Something to aim for when the world returns to normal. We’ve spoken a bit about collaboration, do you have any musicians or artists in different mediums with whom you are interested in collaborating in the future?

Wow – all the ones with whom I have been working recently pop into my mind. There is actually someone with whom I have worked in the past that I would like to work with again, because it was a very good experience. She is a dancer – actually my auntie, but it isn’t nepotism! I had never worked with a dancer before and I have not worked with a dancer since; maybe I should say I would just like to work with a dancer again, and maybe that particular dancer … The interdimensional Arc Project that almost happened was also very exciting, I was going to work with a drag artist. I think any medium or musician that is ‘out of the box’ and unusual, I would like to work with – something that you can’t do every day!

Maja Palser & Vahag Hamalbashyan - Gravitation (2016) If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would you choose?

Definitely somewhere in public (obviously), any interesting public space really! A city that I loved when I visited was Istanbul. I really loved the atmosphere in the streets, there is a lot of street life and street performance. I was there in summer, so maybe that influenced the atmosphere, but it did seem that people live and congregate a lot on the streets. So, I guess that kind of place would be an exciting place in which to do something.

What projects have you been working on recently?

To be completely honest, not much apart from my PhD. My most recent project was a piece for the gamelan ensemble and six viols. It is a fairly weird piece, because it’s quite long – about fifteen minutes - and I am very aware that viols detune within about five minutes, so I decided to incorporate that into the piece. It is based on the gamelan structure. Since the premiere was cancelled, I have never actually heard it, and I don’t know if I ever will, so in a way the project is still ongoing. In fact. there are still parts that need to be rewritten and workshopped, so it is definitely ongoing.

Finally, if you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money?

Maybe donate it to the Arc Project! I would probably donate it to other great music projects and environmental agencies. I would also probably learn to drive and buy a car, which is ironic since I would donate to environmental causes! But yeah, mostly boring stuff, I would give some to family and friends. It all depends on the amount of course!

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