dimmerswitch (excerpt) by Daniel Figgis, performed by Crash Ensemble at the Galway Arts Festival 2012
Q & A with Colm O’Hare
Copyright ©2012 Daniel Figgis
Q: Do you always start with a blank page when composing/in construction of a piece or do you carry a store of ready made ideas? (as many artists seem to do?)
A: I regularly revisit the vast archive marked Unfinished Business! Sometimes you have to wait a while for a good idea to concretise, to find a home. I junk 90% of what I write, particularly when I stray, as we all do, into the realms of the familiar. At that point I down tools. I only present work when I know that I am, at last, hearing something that I know I haven’t already heard somewhere else.
Q: Why work, as you are doing today, in the Pearse Museum?
A: Because it’s a beautiful space to work in. I enjoy the rock’n’roll world to its fullest when that’s appropriate but when I want to create a new work from scratch I want to connect with natural growth and decay and not urban growth and decay. Outside of my roaming ad hoc/on location studio set-ups I favour Apollo Studios Dublin.
I have chosen in recent years to present live events in public spaces as opposed to traditional concert performance spaces. I am, however, feeling the pull again of the traditional venue but many of my pieces e.g. TAMPER (see photo) and THE BATTLE oF SPEEDS required these specific places.
Q: Tell me about dimmerswitch for Crash Ensemble at the Galway Arts Festival this month.
A: Crash Ensemble commissioned a piece for the full extended lineup of 10 players. I chose to further extend it. So there are 10 live performers, augmented by a further fourteen on tape who, between them, play a further 23 parts including “pigbass”, church organ, harmonium, piano, Hammond organ, Mellotron, spatula, processed brass, cello, hihat, playground swing, clock, bicycle horn and Moog Taurus 1 bass pedals. dimmerswitch is a self-regulating but faulty steam punk mechanism in hyperactive dialogue with the beating heart that is Crash Ensemble.
Q: And the live line-up consists of which instruments?
A: The live players (Crash Ensemble) are: violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, electric guitar, flute, bowed vibraphone, piano, trombone.
The world premiere of dimmerswitch is at the Galway Arts Festival 19 July, St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, 8pm. I will also give a pre–show talk with Crash Ensemble artistic directors Donnacha Dennehy and Kate Ellis at 7pm. See you there, I hope. This is a new Adventure.
An interview with Daniel Figgis, whose Crash Ensemble-commissioned work, dimmerswitch, will be premiered by the group as part of the Galway Arts Festival on 19 July 2012.
Copyright ©2012 Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland
Tell me about the piece you’re writing for Crash. Where did you get the idea for the piece?
Certain aspects had been gestating for decades. The opening feedback wall was largely recorded in 1978/1979 but not “composed” until 2012.
Why 10 instruments?
The Crash requested a piece for the full extended lineup of 10 players. I chose to further extend it. So there are 10 live performers, augmented by a further fourteen on tape who, between them, play a further 23 parts.
And the line-up consists of which instruments?
The live players (Crash Ensemble): violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, electric guitar, flute, bowed vibraphone, piano, trombone.
The “tape players” (Daniel Figgis, Vincent Doherty, Charles Baby, Arun Rao, Roxy Goggins, Jed Belly, Mona Gown, Vonnie Pocket, Ionetta Kresta Lins, Nusch Frowd, Benny Tooth, “Sport”, Maggie Sandwich, Penny Schilling): pigbass, church organ, harmonium, pitched microphone feedback, piano, Hammond organ, Mellotron, spatula, snaredrum autopan, electric bass, processed brass, protest, processed strings, fizzbass, cello, hihat, playground swing, (faulty) plumbing, Revox, clock, bicycle horn, water taxi, Moog Taurus 1 bass pedals.
What does the tape part consist of?
It runs the gamut from my earliest tape experiments on a dictaphone and a borrowed Revox, a piano improvisation as Artist-in-Residence at the Pearse Museum with my six-month old son in tow, a water taxi in Venice 2011, a local security demonstration (binlids) which I captured on my iPhone at the Cannes film festival 2010, an early “jazz kit” extemporisation at a 17th century farmhouse since demolished, to the faulty plumbing at an old family residence revisited as base camp for the completion of the programming arm of this project – a vast repository/archive/lexicon… sound memories awaiting an instrumental destination – waiting to be played as instruments. I do not quote “verbatim” in my work so a cello is as much a found sound to me as is a playground swing. Both are “catered to” in perhaps surprisingly traditional compositional process so the notion of found sound as it is normally understood is entirely redundant in my case in that the sound archive is as composed and, yes, “played” as are the live instrumental parts. That is where the very real dialogue begins.
How much freedom will the performers have?
Very little. The piece sounds very fluid, if jarring in places, but at no point does it deviate from strict tempo. The audience experiences a certain trompe l’oreille (to mildly abuse the term).
It’s often the case that the composer has to make some changes to the score based on feedback from the players. How much change do you anticipate the piece undergoing during the rehearsal process?
The dialogue undoubtedly continues at the rehearsal stage; we’re all in this together. But it feels relatively written in stone right now.
In one Tweet, how would you describe the piece?
Ah, I know this one…
‘The piece presents a self-regulating but faulty steam punk mechanism in hyperactive dialogue with the beating heart that is Crash Ensemble’
So, are you a fan of steampunk?
How influenced were you by the Crash Ensemble’s sound/style of playing when writing the piece?
You could easily lose your mind trying to second-guess the requirements of an ensemble. Elgar famously considered the orchestra to be his friends and co-conspirators and reputedly attempted to keep all hands as busy as possible. I find music-making to be a very social experience. Ultimately I wrote the piece that I needed to hear right now and this has resulted in an intriguing dialectic between what are clearly the live performed parts and the pre-recorded tape parts.
You’re well known for your site specific works. When you were writing the piece, to what extent did you think about the space/context in which the final piece would be performed?
In this case I had to forego any notion of site specificity and aim for a site neutral work, given that I have no idea when and where and how often dimmerswitch will be performed. Even the first venue came as something of a surprise – St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, Galway (19 July 2012). Each venue presents a different challenge when you introduce the tape element. My concession to what is, of necessity, a one-size-fits-all approach was a very “dry” final tape mix.
Tell me about your approach to composing the work. Where do you work on the piece – in the studio, in the park?
Both. I find a long walk in the woods is conducive to analysis. And to getting the mood and the tone and the picture right. dimmerswitch is very “forest-y” in this respect. It addresses natural decay. It is not very urban.
The composition tends to fully realise in the studio when I get together with my programmer(s). Visitors are largely welcome as I enjoy the feedback and I tend to head up fewer cul-de-sacs as a result.
Nowadays I tend to split this compositional and programming activity between my mobile set up in whatever environment takes my fancy and a more standard studio environment – Apollo in Dublin being my studio of choice.
From your other work as a record producer, working in a studio must be quite a comfortable experience for you. Would you regard the studio as your natural habitat?
I very much enjoy studio-based work. (I am equally at home on a stage, albeit manipulation of natural surroundings is my preferred modus operandi for staging.) dimmerswitch was heavily studio dependent as it comprises, in performance, live ensemble (scored) and extremely dense acousmatics.
Daniel Figgis was interviewed by email by Jonathan Grimes during May/June 2012.
The views expressed are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily the views of the Contemporary Music Centre.
Interview with Donnacha and Daniel at Trinity College, Dublin for Galway Arts Festival TV