Why should we be nominated for a BASCA British Composer Award?
Ed Baxter and Chris Weaver started collaborating in 2004, not long after we’d met. Ed had organised an experimental music festival for London Musicians’ Collective that brought together over fifty performers under the direction of Keith Rowe and Otomo Yoshihide. The performers ranged from school pupils to established artists like Jem Finer and the late Lol Coxhill. Soon after, we thought to establish a “house band” at Resonance FM out of the pool of players and the Resonance Radio Orchestra was the result.
The work we’re nominated for, “No Such Object,” was commissioned by NVA, a public art producer based in Glasgow. It was the audio component of a really vast performance piece, “Speed of Light,” as part of Edinburgh International Festival, comprising hundreds of choreographed runners in remotely controlled light-suits enacting complex geometric patterns at ground level to an audience at the top of the cliff face Arthur’s Seat.
NVA creative director Angus Farquhar, whose idea “Speed of Light” was, asked us to create the piece quite late in the day – about eight months before the event. It seemed entirely impossible, which was what made it attractive: there could be no loud speakers, the terrain didn’t allow for radio signals, the audio had to compete with wind noise on a site 250 metres high, accessible up a steep climb, in the dark… and we had to use bespoke walking sticks (which looked a bit like light sabres) to contain the audio device. Eventually thinking along the lines of granular synthesis, we decided – with the invaluable help of renowned STEIM alumnus (genius) Sukandar Kartadinata in Berlin – to make hundreds of individual synthesisers, each the size of a matchbox, which would be activated by the height of the cliff (turning on at 200 metres) and by the movement of the audience members to produce an interactive, modular composition with both predictable and chaotic formal and melodic elements. If you like, a gigantic chord would be sounded by each audience (there were seventy-odd performances) atop the mountain, framing the visuals below which took place in a natural amphitheatre. Each of the 880 components had to be individually assembled and programmed (three times, including on the day of the premiere) but the result was elegant, ergonomic and fascinating. Our only “Plan B” was to chuck it all in and hire a lone bagpiper player.
After 2012’s work for NVA, 2013 has been a lot quieter – a quite typical year really, with only one or two performances as our works tend to take a long time to gestate and develop. We’ve just premiered a new piece at Whitechapel Gallery featuring 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee, a singer of real authority – in a very untraditional setting, with Howlround‘s tape machines providing a musique concrete bed and a mass of electronic din. We are in a lucky position at Resonance FM in that we can persuade a wide range of artists to help us realise any individual piece – Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, comedian Alistair McGowan and writer Jim Perrin have been among our wide variety of collaborators. The Resonance Radio Orchestra is the opposite of those grandiose, reactionary ensembles one associates with mid-20th Century totalitarian states. It’s amorphous, inchoate, and concerned with ideas of fluidity and contingency.
Working fitfully and with limited resources, we’re not sufficiently established to offer much useful advice to aspiring composers, but a couple of things characterise our working methods. First, it seems important to us to have some sort of support structure – many young composers and performers are simply not offered any encouragement and are intimidated by the established structures they observe and the obscure rules of the game. The second thing seems contradictory: the really important thing is to develop and refine your own idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibility – concentrating on the stuff you alone want to do, the stuff you alone can do. On a practical level, we’ve received a couple of small grants from the PRS for Music Foundation, applications to which are straightforward, and commissions from Arika, who do great and very radical work, BBC Radio 3 and Sound and Music.