Composer Spotlight: Owen Russell
Updated: Apr 9, 2022
Interview conducted by Jessica Bosworth, 7th February 2022. We sat down with Owen to talk about his work, from exploring the interplay of improvisation and meditation to his work with electronics.
Owen Russell is a composer and jazz trombone player from Horndean, Hampshire. He has recently made his submission towards an MA by Research in Music at the University of York, under the supervision of Professor Martin Suckling. Owen’s recent practice towards instrumental composition explores the possibilities of using Buddhist meditation in music. In multiple collaborations through 2021, he used a variety of improvisation techniques which utilise awareness, so that the performers could co-create music alongside specific sensations which they perceived. Additionally, Owen writes electronic music where he also involves improvisation, but instead within his compositional approach.
Thank you again for agreeing to be interviewed for our composer spotlight! It would be great to start off with you telling us a little bit about yourself.
Hi, I’m Owen, I’m a composer first and foremost but I also play the Jazz Trombone. I’ve studied music for four years at York now, for both my undergraduate and masters by research. At the moment I’m thinking about my options going forward and looking at possible ways to continue on to a PhD, but things are a bit up in the air.
Brilliant! I’m sure you’ll tell us more about your PhD interests later, as I’m really interested to hear those. What are your main interests as a musician?
As a composer, I think my interests have generally been constantly shifting. I’ve been interested in modality, microtonality, improvised music, intuition-based composition, using both staff notation versus text notation, acoustic music, electronic music, and so on. I enjoy exploring lots of different approaches to composition like that, although I think my music tends to still have a relatively similar feeling – I think generally because I either stick to modal sounds or even if I don’t organise them with functional harmony, it still sounds very similar. Recently, within my masters, I’ve been composing music that involves awareness and meditation. I decided on this because buddhist philosophy and practice is something I have personally wanted to explore for a while. I explore, within it, how musical improvisation, which I was already familiar with after my experiences with jazz, might be informed by variations on techniques of mindfulness meditation.
Wow, that’s really interesting. So, with the meditation aspect, is that reflected in the musicians playing the music that are quite meditative as they play, or is it focussed more on your audience being more meditative?
I think within my masters it was more towards the musicians, and a little bit towards me as well. Along with the instrumental music, I wrote quite a lot of electronic music on the side, and the approach I used towards making that tends to be quite intuitive-based, not necessarily meditative. I think its definitely geared towards musicians – maybe I’ll start thinking about the audience and all of those sorts of different roles in the future but for now it’s just musicians.
Brilliant. So, why did you decide to become a musician?
Well, I didn’t really decide, it just sort of happened. I was encouraged to start playing trumpet when I was seven or eight years old, and later on in school my music teacher noticed I was doing quite well and encouraged me towards composition. I started to learn more and more and to lean towards pursuing music for the rest of my education. I was also really interested in maths and physics but I decided by the time I was going to university that I would just go with what I enjoyed more, and what people tend to notice me for. Now that I’m at the stage where university is almost over and there aren’t any obvious choices going forward, I’m slightly struggling to figure out my identity in terms of being a musician and a composer, but I think once I’ve figured out where I’m going next year it will be fine – I need time now to think about it and decide what I’m going to do.
It’s those crossroads that challenge you to think about exactly where your musical value is and where you can find your musical meaning, I suppose. It’s fascinating. What has your involvement with the Arc Project been, and how have you found the experience?
I’ve written a couple of pieces for the Arc Project so far – I’m mostly involved as a composer, although I would like to eventually start performing again, because I haven’t touched my instrument for such a long time! I wrote a piece in 2020 for solo guitar, which I had never written for before, which was a lot of fun, especially learning to understand the possibilities of the instrument, and I’d love to explore it more in the future. I also wrote a piece last year with you (Jessie) and Ellie for violin, harp and electronics, which tied into my masters as well. I could think about how I could incorporate ideas from folk music, and this piece also started my exploration into how improvisation and meditation could be in together with modern music. I asked that you both see an iterative process where the material from the beginning was ornamented and fragmented and lost in a blur of improvisation. It was quite an experiment and I think it worked out really well. Then I altered and added things here and there with electronics afterwards, and that was a lot of fun to work on. I hadn’t felt that fulfilled in collaborating with other people before and I’m looking forward to working on more similar projects in the future.
I think from a performer’s perspective, the freedom you gave us is something you don’t often get – you gave us our beginning idea and then allowed us to explore freely, which was really refreshing. Also, the idea of meditation, just trying out these ideas and allowing your brain to take you wherever the music goes, it felt very liberating.
I’m glad you feel that way because it makes a big difference, hearing back from performers about how it is a good thing. With the piece that I wrote for Chimera at the end of last year, one of the players came up to me after the performance and just mentioned how interesting and inspiring the piece was, which was really lovely to hear and pushed me to keep writing stuff like this. It’s not that I haven’t tried experimenting with my breadth before but this is definitely something completely different for me, as before I tended to write in a more atonal, microtonal style, so doing things like text notation and improvisation was a bit far-fetched to begin with. Now that I have learnt how positively it has been received by performers, it motivates me to keep going with it.
I really enjoyed the process so please carry on! You created the framework within which we could express ourselves, and it was lovely. So, following on, could you name some musicians who have influenced your style and perspective on music?
As far as my perspective goes, I think right now (and across my masters) I have been inspired very heavily by Pauline Oliveros and her attitude towards music-making and meditation. Specifically, I love how inventive her sonnet meditations are, and how her body of work researches the nature of us as social beings and provides an environment in which anyone can do that same research for themselves. That’s something I am just beginning to explore for my own background as a musician aswell, not being a committed Buddhist myself, which is something I want to be eventually, which I need to think about now that I have the time. I’m also a huge fan of Éliane Radigue. I think her compositional approach is fascinating and her music is quite astonishingly beautiful. I only wish I could find the patience she must have for composing incredibly delicate and contemplative music – I struggle to keep my attention on things for more than a few seconds or minutes sometimes, which I think comes through a bit in my own electronic music, which can sometimes be a bit crude in comparison to her style. Similarly, I’ve been reading into Feldman these past few weeks, finding myself intrigued by his commentary on the mid- to late twentieth century contemporary music ecosystem, and the relinquishing of control that was the general trend at the time.
So that blurring of roles between performer and composer, making them both creators …
Yes. And Cage as well, of course
If you had to pick one of your works that you are particularly proud of, which would you choose and why?
I think I would choose Shallow Waves for 3 Winds. This is a text-based piece that uses a breathing/note pattern, which rotates around three performers. It’s quite heavily based on meditation and ties heavily in with my masters. It was very satisfying to collaborate on this with Rosa, Faye and Myles, and the sort of practice we formed together of learning the piece orally illuminated a lot for me in retrospect. I think this is probably the most I’ve ever tried to yield away from interfering in a piece. It’s such a different experience composing in that way with other people, where you have a lot less control over the outcome. I felt much less inclined to attach myself to whether or not the piece sounds good, or to worry about whether it would stand out or hold an audience’s attention, which is something I struggle with a lot. This might be in part because the piece wasn’t performed publicly. Whilst watching the performance of another similar but larger piece of mine which Chimera performed at the end of last year, called Ocean Waves, I still felt a lot of that anxiety so I have a long way to go, but I guess I’m proud that I took that step and tried to collaborate openly.
Following on from the idea of giving performers more freedom, leaving pieces slightly more open-ended, which areas do you wish to explore more in the future?
I think the possible positive social impact of the kind of music I was writing, and the kinds of collaborative processes that I was starting to engage with are things that I would really like to start exploring more. I want to feel that my music makes a difference for other people, more than just writing things which I think sound cool, or are fun experiences – not that there’s anything wrong with that on its own, but as I mentioned I’m very inspired by the community building and healing work that Oliveros is doing, and I want to start thinking more about it. I also want to start working with ensembles using instruments and notation systems which I am less familiar with, especially the different compositional approaches of Javanese Gamelan, which I began exploring last year up in York, getting to know more about the ensemble and the traditions behind it. I would be very intrigued to learn more about this in the future, if I go back to York.
And I suppose, especially with gamelan, that idea of everyone within the ensemble collaborating together, is something I particularly loved about it when I was part of the ensemble. And just as a side note, a lot of the time some of the compositions you can create with the gamelan will have everyone’s voices within them – again, you provide the framework and they contribute towards that.
Yeah, there is a lot of contemporary gamelan work that I need to look into. I’ve only seen a few works that are close to the composers at York, and concerts which Sekar Petak put on whilst I was still studying.
So, thinking about ensembles, musicians, performers, composers, and the range of worlds within music, who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I think mostly, just more of my friends. I know a lot of people who I promised I would collaborate with and never have, just because I’ve never found the time. Now that I do, it would be a great time to start talking with them about making music together. As much as I would like to get my confidence up and meet new people, I think I am generally best at collaborating with people who I feel comfortable talking at length about music with. Once I build up the confidence a bit more, it would be great to branch out, meet new people, and start collaborating with them. If I go back to York, I’ll work with Sekar Petak as well.
That also feeds into the idea you mentioned earlier, of writing music that makes a difference and creates a community in which you can meditate together, heal together, and encourage each other.
Thinking in terms of location, if you could perform anywhere, where would you go?
I had a fantastic time performing with my own jazz group. Right before lockdown started in 2020, we played in a small, cosy basement in York, and that kind of quiet, warm and welcoming atmosphere, knowing your friends are watching you, was really wonderful. If things open up again soon, I’d like to do more things like that. Otherwise, just a spectacular natural place, like a canyon or a mountain.
That would be incredible. I could imagine doing something near streams, in dales, or something like that. So which projects have you been recently involved with?
Most recently, it would be best to talk about my electronic music, because that is something I’ve been doing alongside my instrumental work for about two or three years now. Doesn’t seem like it’s been that long but it’s been a great time! I have been working on an album recently which I’m hopefully going to release within the next two or three weeks, once I sort things out. It’s not as research based as the sort of instrument based music I’ve been doing recently, but it’s something that I really enjoy doing, just making cool sounds, nice sounding music … It’s a place for me to be the composer I was, when I would just write all the stuff I wanted to write, and people can hear it and I’ll feel great about myself! I’m still devoting a lot of time to what I’m going to do next and there are a lot of composition schemes and applications that I need to think about and apply for. And my PhD, which I think will probably be along very similar lines to my masters – more to do with the social aspects of music, perhaps looking into ethnomusicology as well.
Great. About the album, you said it is a collection of cool sounds which is pretty exciting. Is there a theme to the album?
Most of my electronic music is ambient music, but it isn’t really in the same sense. It feels a bit stereotypical to say that it’s not really within a certain genre, but it’s just sort of its own thing. I’m just generally playing with synthesisers, finding what I think sounds cool, either making a palette texture or just some interesting melodies, making either an atmosphere or some kind of piece with a direction. I’ve named all the pieces to do with the ocean, and beaches, things like that, and I guess the music does reflect that, but I tend to write my titles after I finish the piece, so it’s less to do with what the music is actually about. Within the music itself, it’s all made with a modular synthesizer, which is something I’ve wanted to work with for a while, and a bunch of similar reverbs and other digital effects.
And have you discovered your preferences in terms of those sounds by pure experimentation?
Yeah, it was mostly pure experimentation. I think after I’d been using the same instruments and things after a few months, I got the hang of things, and started to create the sounds that I wanted to hear, rather than just playing around with different knobs and figuring out what might sound good here. But I think I kind of liked that in-between place, where you’re not totally, completely unfamiliar with what you’re using, so you have some idea of what’s going on, but you’re also not completely in control – there is an element of unpredictability when you discover sounds and create them at the same time, and it’s fascinating to do.
Absolutely. To be able to find what you enjoy and what could achieve your musical goal, but to allow it to shape itself , must be really freeing. As a side-note, do you find, when you approach an album or set of pieces, that you prioritise the process, or are you more motivated by the outcome?
I think both? The process is generally very relaxed, it’s not as though I’m writing some serial music, where everything has to be in the right order – I just open an instrument up on my computer and noodle around for a bit until something sounds good, then I’ll carry on and write a piece with it. Strangely enough, I think this kind of music I’ve been writing is the most similar to the music that I write? Because with a lot of the instrumental music I write, I tend to just not like it a few months after I finish it. For some reason, it is easier to not hate the electronic music that I write. I don’t know whether that is to do with the process or not, I haven’t figured that out, but it’s very interesting.
I love the phrase ‘just noodle around’. So, with the album coming up, are there any details you would like to share about where it might be published?
It will be on my Bandcamp page, in the next couple of weeks!
Amazing. And, finally, which five items would you take with you to a deserted island?
Any five of the many books I’ve been either meaning to read or meaning to finish for far too long – that way, I’d have no choice but to read them. For example, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Essentially, just a bunch of Buddhist texts, and a couple of composition manuals. There’s also one called Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding, by Margaret Wetherell, which is really interesting – I used it for my masters, but only got half-way through.
Great. I’m just thinking, we need to add a sixth item onto that – some musical equipment so that you can create something after you finish the books! Thank you very much for talking with me today!