Composer Spotlight: Zygmund de Somogyi
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Interview conducted by Jake Adams, 27th September 2021. This is the second interview in a collaboration with Zygmund de Somogyi from PRXLUDES. We sat down with Zyggy to discuss their background in punk music, working as an outsider in the western classical tradition and what led them to create PRXLUDES.
Zygmund de Somogyi (b. 1996, London) is a British-Filipino composer, artist, and performer based between the UK and Germany.
Zygmund’s music explores highly expressive themes of escapism, reverie, and interdisciplinary performance, with their nonclassical background and punk rock upbringing greatly informing their practice as a composer. Their work has recently been performed and workshopped by ensembles such as Quatuor Bozzini, Fidelio Trio, Thallein Ensemble, and Tresonant. Zygmund has released three studio albums, and written music for ThinkTank Planetarium, OSO Arts Centre, and Chris Hadfield’s Rare Earth.
Zygmund is the founder of online magazine PRXLUDES — with the goals of giving young composers the opportunity to talk about their work on a public platform, and fostering a network of young practitioners of new music from across the musical landscape. They are currently pursuing a Masters at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, studying with Ed Bennett, Edwin Roxburgh, and Howard Skempton.
Photo credit: Leah Becker
JA: So first could you tell us a bit about yourself as a musician, what your interests are and what your background is?
ZdS: Sure! My name is Zygmund de Somogyi, most people call me Zyggy. I’m a composer, artist, performer, and curator currently working in London, and I’m also the founder and director of online magazine PRXLUDES. My musical background predominantly comes from playing in punk bands and jazz ensembles, and then from there discovering electroacoustic music at Leeds University. Then after a couple of years living in London I decided to move to Birmingham and start composing properly at the conservatoire. I guess I haven’t really looked back since. In terms of what I’m interested in, I’d say I feel like I’m a bit of a storyteller — I like using music to convey a narrative, to depict things that might be in my head or somebody else’s head or just depict scenes that outside of the musical medium I might find more difficult to express. In a sense, the reason I started to make music in the first place comes from the idea of being able to communicate in a way that I couldn’t with words, and a lot of that is down to my childhood and traumas and things. But I guess that’s a starting point.
JA: I guess following on from that, what made you decide to become a musician?
ZdS: I originally started making music when I was learning the piano as a kid. I wasn’t great and when I was in school, as much as I had a lot of artistic people around me, I don’t feel like I was really encouraged to follow that path. Music for me was an intensely personal thing. As an autistic child I found it hard to communicate a lot of the time and I’d find it hard to express myself and express my goings on in the world. Music seemed like both a perfect escape from the world for myself and also a way through which I could communicate outside of having to conform to a specific mould, whether that be words, visual media, or anything of the sort. I found myself gravitating towards it.
Because I wasn’t really encouraged in any particular direction I was able to kind of find my own way and ended up playing in some punk bands — I’ve still got a skate-punk band up in Leeds called High Visions who are doing really cool things. And then following on from that I chose to start improvising on the piano whilst I was in Leeds, as well. That was mainly for myself. It eventually came to this point where I felt like I needed a way to fully realise my own expression outside of writing teenage angsty songs, or putting a band together, and without the promotional baggage you have in a band -— worrying about the marketing and the branding and the press — and I just wanted to be like ‘well, how can I focus more on expressing my true artistic self’ instead of having to worry about building a brand the whole time. That’s what eventually drew me into composition, and why I took that leap of faith — having no real acoustic compositional background, barely any knowledge of notation — and just went to Birmingham and did a masters anyway.
I’ve got to say Birmingham were incredibly supportive of me. I came in knowing virtually nothing and I was immediately surrounded by people — both my tutors and my peers — who all actively took an interest in what everyone was doing, who all encouraged experimentation and gave us so many professional opportunities during COVID. They really pulled through for us and that’s one of the reasons I’m able to feel comfortable pursuing my artistic goals today.
JA: Do you think that coming from outside of the western classical tradition and coming into it as an adult rather than as a teenager or as a child gives you a different perspective on the culture?
ZdS: I definitely think it does. I think because I’m an outsider and I’ve not been so involved in the culture I don’t know how everything is run from the inside, but I feel like I am able to come in and almost instinctively notice the kinds of problems, or injustices, or little goings on that maybe if you are more immersed in the environment you won’t see. I think that goes for anyone who feels like an outsider — they notice these things and they notice the inequalities that plague the industry they try to enter. I don’t think that’s an especially ‘me’ thing, I think that’s anyone who is coming into contemporary music from a nonclassical tradition. I think it is just easier to notice that way. But on that note, I think that the same time there is this push, especially if you look at what is going on in London right now with Cafe OTO and you’re looking at all the composers that are coming through — particularly from places like Guildhall — such as Maya Caskie or Mathis Saunier. Even while I was in Birmingham, you had people like John Bence or May Wong. There’s so many people who didn’t necessarily grow up in the classical establishment coming into composition and offering new voices and new perspectives. And there’s a growing acceptance and growing inclusion of women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, working class people, those with disabilities, and neurodivergent people — which is so fucking important. I think whilst it is very easy to come in and see the inequalities straight away, it also provides me that kind of impetus to see when the way that diverse voices are slowly starting to be included as well without having that baseline of the ‘old white guy who writes symphonies’ which sadly is very prevalent in the mainstream consciousness.
JA: Being an outsider in a tradition is very punk, which is funny considering where your interests started. Do you think this has affected you artistically as well?
ZdS: It must have. The big thing that I learned in Birmingham was how to notate in a way that I could communicate with my performers. I see notation as a language first and foremost, and learning Western notation for me was a bit like learning German or learning French in school — it wasn’t something I was entirely familiar with but you learn the basic grammar, the basic vocabulary, the basic lexicon, phrases you can use. And from there you can utilise it to communicate. And notation was what I struggled with first, and then from there as I learned how to do it I learned how to work more solidly with performers. I think that’s the big take away I took from Birmingham, as well as the professional development. I think I already kind of had an idea of how I approached music aesthetically, it just so happens that I didn’t know how to communicate those thoughts and those ideas. So I think coming into contemporary music — I don’t want to say one is ‘held back’ by the classical tradition, but when you do an undergraduate, then a postgraduate, then a PhD and you are surrounded by an environment that teaches you classical ‘greats’ and ‘this is how we look at contemporary music from this angle’, I think operating slightly outside of that means that it is easier for me to develop my own voice, in a sense.
Funnily enough for the chamber opera I am currently working on, I did show it to someone and the first thing they told me — and this is something I didn’t even realise at the time — that my melodies sounded very jazzy and my harmonies used a lot of jazz-influenced chords and I didn’t even notice that I was doing it because that’s just how I write. It’s intuitive. And in a sense, I think being able to write intuitively then come back to it… I think this is a general point rather than a ‘me’ point, that the more you expose yourself to things outside of your traditional background or culture, the more you will pick up, and the more unique your voice will become as you osmose all these ideas and techniques. For a lot of composers I know and some who I’ve covered on PRXLUDES, the interesting backgrounds came following the classical training, whereas for me it was the other way round.
Zygmund de Somogyi - Haze (or a forest on Pluto), performed by the Fidelio Trio
JA: That gives us a good segway. Could you tell us a bit about PRXLUDES, what made you want to start it and what your aims were with it?
ZdS: I started PRXLUDES as a magazine in June of 2020, halfway through the first COVID lockdown. It started out because I knew no-one in the contemporary music world, and I thought it was important for me to get to know the different perspectives that my peers and the people around me were able to provide in this situation where I couldn’t communicate with anyone or see anyone. At the same time that gives them all a public platform and gives readers the ability to follow me along that journey. Now I feel like it’s getting to the point where it’s becoming closer to a resource or location that really celebrates new music and celebrates composers that don’t come from the ‘traditional’ institutions or background — the ones that don’t get all the funding and attention from the elites, or the ones that don’t write for orchestras that get written about in The Times. The perceived outsiders that I don’t consider to be outsiders. I want to give that voice to contemporary music because it’s imperative that we give a voice to the spaces that operate somewhat outside of that tradition, and the spaces that operate slightly outside what gets all the funding. I find that to be the most interesting part of contemporary music, and so I wanted to find a way to give that a voice on par and at the same level as the voices that are amplified by the institutions, the classical elite, and the cultural gatekeepers.
JA: That is really cool. So, could you name some musicians that have influenced your perspectives and style?
ZdS: It’s really hard to say because who I listen to and who I take inspiration from all the time… I do have a list somewhere on my website of all the people that have inspired me and who I admire. And that list is massive! If I went through each one of them we’d be here literally all day! I guess I can name people who are inspiring me right now.
So I’m really inspired and I really take a lot from the work of Neil Luck who is a London based composer who is absolutely fantastic and who I believe is a genuine revolutionary in every sense of the word. I’ve also gotten into J Frisco who are an all-woman jazz trio who do a lot of improvising, do a lot with electronics, do a lot with just pushing the boundaries of genre. Their saxophonist Lara Jones is doing some really cool things at the moment. And I’m also really into Emily Abdy — a composer and close friend from Birmingham who is absolutely fantastic — her orchestral work really pushes the boundaries of what an orchestra can do and what an orchestra can be. She’s got this EP called ‘not getting any’, which I think I’d describe as if you gave a band like Joanna Gruesome control over an orchestra and said ‘write something classical’. But it’s still got that incredible, youthful, almost bedroom-punk energy that I’m seeing as well in bands like Meet Me at the Altar, who I am also really into, or even rappers like Machine Gun Kelly.
So yeah, there’s a lot that is influencing me right now. But I tend to listen to loads of different genres. I see classical music as just one facet of what I do and one facet of what I listen to. I find the music of living composers to be much more poignant and much more intriguing to me than the work of the classical ‘greats’. I don’t exactly know why that is — it could be because they’re people I might know or they are people whose stories are still being told, where the artform is a living, breathing entity rather than something static on a page.
Zygmund de Somogyi - Altschmerz: a salient scene reflected, performed by Quatuor Bozzini
JA: Here’s a tough one. If you had to pick one of your works that you are particularly proud of, which would you choose and why?
ZdS: Does it have to be finished?
JA: No, not at all!
ZdS: Fantastic. It’s a tossup between two at the moment. Both are not in finished states, both I am hoping will receive premieres next year. So as I mentioned, a lot of my work tries to tell stories, tell narratives, communicate ideas and themes that resonate with different types of people outside of the written word or outside of visual art, mainly because that is how I communicate. And so the two works that I feel like I see myself being defined by over the next year or so both channel this theme in different ways.
I’m very interested in online folklore — as a kid I was quite a shut in, I didn’t really go out much, I spent a lot of time online. Those became the folk tales that I am inspired by because that’s what I was exposed to — it’s almost a separate culture that exists alongside the physical space. And so I’m really interested in giving those stories a cultural standing that has the same weight as stories in the traditional folk tales, those we tell ourselves and pass down through the generations. So going on from that, one of the works that I would choose would be a suite that I have written for concert orchestra which is based on a story from the SCP Foundation collaborative fiction series, which is one of the largest pieces of collaborative fiction in the world — all based online. It takes the story of a tree of life that is destroyed through human experimentation which eventually causes the end of the world. I’m using that as an allegory for the most recent IPCC report on climate change. So that’s one that I am hoping will see some life very soon, but I can’t say where or when yet.
I’m also in the middle of writing a chamber opera which is a semi-adaptation/retelling of an indie psychological horror video game called ‘OMORI’ which is developed by Omocat, and was released in 2020 in the height of that really grim lockdown. The opera’s storyline recontextualises the story of OMORI, and my experience of playing it in January 2021, as an allegory for the mental health of young people during the COVID pandemic. I read a horrible, horrible study which said that 7% of seventeen year olds had thought of or attempted suicide in the last year. So I took that, I took my own experiences, and I took my friends’ experiences, and my own experiences playing this video game and amalgamated them into a chamber opera. And hopefully that will see some life soon as well.
So if I had to choose a work of mine that people should listen to, I would say one of them, but I don’t know which one and neither of them are released. If I had to choose one that’s out, I guess I’d go for ‘Altschmerz’, which is my most recent string quartet, which was workshopped by Quatuor Bozzini. That was a string quartet that was created entirely within 31-tone equal temperament, the idea being that you are hearing this harmonic structure that feels familiar, yet unfamiliar, at the same time. I’m trying to create something that exists outside of our traditional twelve-tone harmonic foundations, but doesn’t exist outside of our emotional foundations.
JA: That’s great. I find it interesting that the three pieces you’ve mentioned there were a suite, an opera and a string quartet which are all very core within the western classical tradition, but the way you talk about them you are bringing something very new and modern. Do you like that contrast between something that is very established and something that’s current?
ZdS: See, to me, they are not established at all. I don’t see them as established because I didn’t grow up with them, I wasn’t exposed to those formats very often. So because of that I feel like I can offer my own spin on them that I wouldn’t have if I had that training and I was intimately familiar with all of these mediums. I was in a LAB session with Michael Wolters a few months ago and I showed him a bit of my opera, and he said “you know, I’d be really interested to see what you wrote if you knew nothing about opera”, because I ended up looking at a few operas and really getting into it around the time of writing this opera. And I remember thinking like “why do you need to look at opera to write an opera? Why do you need to know the established form to write something in the established form?” Which is quite interesting to think about really. I guess because of that lack of knowledge… I know a lot of people get quite angry about that idea of someone coming in, essentially not really knowing or giving respect to these forms, and doing them anyway. And whilst that might piss some people off, I think it’s most important that there are people that do that. Not to say that everything in the past should be discarded, but there need to be people who push it forward, and sometimes being bogged down by tradition… Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people. To be bogged down by that is limiting.
Zygmund de Somogyi and Oli Kinsella - Viridian
JA: I’m going to use that quote somewhere! So, is there anyone you would be particularly interested in collaborating with in the future?
ZdS: Maybe this also comes from the fact I didn’t come from a classical background, but I see collaboration as composition. The idea of the composer being locked up in their ivory tower writing their masterpiece, that’s all dead. Even if you do write a score, you still have to show that to performers, you still need to realise that in a way that will create an experience for an audience. So in a sense the collaborative process is not just stopping with the composer — it’s composer, performer, conductor, audience, critic even. But in terms of how I’d collaborate with people, I like the idea of bringing in people from different disciplines. I actually wrote and semi-directed a short unfiction series last year with a few people from the Experimental Performance department at Birmingham Conservatoire, and I found that collaboration to be absolutely mesmerizing because everyone had a different approach to artistic output and artistic process. And because of that we were able to create something that wouldn’t really exist outside of the mediums that we used and outside of us all together, and I think that was also really important.
I guess as a collaborator I want to find people who don’t have the same background as me, who don’t have the same training as me, who don’t know anything about what I do. At the same time, I want people whose disciplines I don’t know anything about; I’ve found a lot of inspiration in meeting composers who’ve dabbled in audiovisuals, live electronics, and performance art such as James McIlwrath and Neli Pantsulaia, and through working with theatre-makers such as Ariella Como Stoian. There’s a visual artist I met recently called Mrudula Kuvalekar, and she did an exhibition in Kingston a little while back. I know next to nothing about visual art, and I know less about poetry, and she does both. So I found the manner in which she worked and the manner in which she asked me to interpret her work fascinating because it’s not something I’m versed in. But that connection gives me a new perspective on my work and vice versa.
JA: Bit more of a fun one. If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would you go?
ZdS: Nice. I’ve got so many answers to this. There’s this church in Kaliningrad in Russia (Königsberg Cathedral) which looks really cool, and it’s where Immanuel Kant is buried and there is a little park there. It would just be really interesting to go there, for a start. I’ve always been interested in parts of Europe that are off the beaten path, that people don’t really know that much about, and Kaliningrad is one of those for me. But secondly I just like the idea of performing my music in places I wouldn’t usually find myself. And that’s what I find so interesting about cross-cultural collaboration is that you are exposed to a new culture and you are exposed to a new way of thinking through that.
JA: Have you got anything exciting coming up?
ZdS: A lot of it right now is boiling down to having a lot of things in the pipeline, but I can’t really say anything officially yet. My current project has been writing music for London-based theatre company Distracted Rat; I’ve written a vaporwave-inspired soundtrack for a play we’re premiering this weekend (29-31 October) as part of London Horror Festival, which we’re incredibly excited for! In terms of my more conventional composition work, I am working on a piece for hardanger fiddle with Psappha in Manchester as part of their ‘Composing For…’ scheme, which is wonderful. I had a chat with Clare Salaman the fiddle player recently and she’s fantastic. I threw some crazy stuff at her when I first chatted with her, and she was so open to anything I wanted to do and however I wanted to interpret the idioms of the hardanger fiddle. I’ve also got a guitar and ronroco project with a close collaborator of mine Oli Kinsella. We did the premiere of some of the pieces we wrote at CODA Festival this year and we are hoping to turn that into a full album at some point in the future. And in addition to all of that, I’m also writing some kind-of acoustic punk type songs with Alex Fell, the drummer for High Visions. And those are just the things I can talk about!
JA: Cool. Last one! If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money?
ZdS: Invest it in the artists I care about. You know who you are.
Zygmund de Somogyi - Portrait and a Dream: Concealing
The list of people Zygmund admires: www.zdscomposer.co.uk/people
Information on the performances of To Be A Bat: space.org.uk/event/to-be-a-bat/
Guardian article on youth mental health crisis (trigger warning for suicide and self-harm): www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/21/uk-17-year-olds-mental-health-crisis