In Conversation with Stevie Wishart

Posted Jan. 29, 2016 by Alkan Chipperfield

Stevie Wishart was FoAM’s “composer in transience” at the Brussels studio for most of 2015. Her residency emerged as a natural consequence of a long involvement with FoAM spanning several years and numerous projects, including most recently Wheel & Time(less), Candlemas Concerto, FutureFest, Smoke & Vapour, and Inner Garden. When I had the opportunity to talk with her in the spring of 2015 she was deeply immersed in a large composition that would be performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in May. Our discussions therefore gravitated around the particular challenges and musical innovations she was imminently preoccupied with at the time – which made for some fascinating comparisons and contrasts between these and the very different contexts and approaches entailed in working on a musical project at FoAM.

From various corners of a large overgrown greenhouse come sounds of gurgling and muttering, shrill clicks, hisses and buzzes, then a soft, almost subliminal droning, as though the plants themselves are vocalising their inscrutable thoughts. These sounds gradually condense into words, though apparently not of any familiar language, and are passed around from one end of the greenhouse to the other in an alternating, undulating movement: weaving, reverberating, echoing, then at last merging back together into a sustained, ethereal hum. From out of this murmur soars for a few moments a single voice singing what might be some form of medieval plainchant, before it too subsides into the slowly dying susurrus.

We are in the Victoriakas – the historic conservatory of the Ghent botanic gardens – in the last days of autumn, performing Inner Garden, a choral work specially composed by Stevie Wishart as part of FoAM’s Borrowed Scenery project. It is a kind of liturgy to the plant world, imbibed with medieval mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen’s sense of Viriditas, the luminous green force of nature and its cycles of growth and decay. Visitors drift in and out during the cool, sunny afternoon, looking meditative, puzzled and bemused in turns. The kids think it’s a riot. (Here are adults, those incomprehensible troglodytes, finally speaking a real language.) There’s a definite symmetry and progression to the work – it’s even been organised in terms of classical movements – but the flow is subtle, disguised, mysterious – possibly even to the performers themselves. Our choir is made up almost entirely of amateur, untrained singers, but this is something Stevie embraces as potentially one of its greatest creative strengths, and contrasts to the work she’s done with professional musicians and orchestras.

“If I do projects with people who aren’t so-called professional musicians, for one thing they’re going to be a load more open to sounds,” she observes. “They’re not going to have the technique, but they’re going to have the flexibility and they’re going to give me more time and be more generous with how they contribute to the project.” A few years down the track from Inner Garden and I’m speaking with Stevie at the FoAM studio in Brussels while she’s working round the clock to put the finishing touches to her latest composition, a concerto for double bass and baroque orchestra which premieres in London in just a few weeks – “by far the hardest piece I’ve done in my career so far,” she avers. In jazz terms, what the piece demands is “highly informed improvisation; or if I was thinking in a more visual analogy, I might think of it as a black and white photo and the players are bringing it into colour.”

Stevie’s loft studio at FoAM is overflowing with draft manuscripts. On the table under the skylight, amidst piles of printouts, scribbles and stickies, is a laptop plugged into a large monitor, where she juggles her work in and out of Logic as her composing software of choice. There’s a violin and a hurdy-gurdy lying at the ready and a keyboard standing to the side. This is her laboratory, auditorium, living quarters, office, and study. As the deadline looms, she’s just felt the urge to write out a whole extra part of new material for the first violin – or was that a whole extra movement? I’ve lost track. It’s almost impossible keep pace with the daily whirlwind of her composing routine, which can start as early as seven in the morning and go on late into the night. This routine is periodically interspersed with Skype calls where she discusses the progress of her work with members of the orchestra, transmitting live updates, status reports, and musical motifs between Brussels and London. And then, for hours on end, it goes deathly silent in her room. Just when you assume she must be out, the strains of a violin begin drifting down from above, as if from celestial spheres. Her lifestyle no less than her musical career seems to be characterised by mercurial leaps. Or even at times a whirligig leaving a trail creative chaos in its wake – in the midst of which, seemingly off the cuff, she can elucidate the most cogent, incisive and illuminating observations spanning music, politics, science, mysticism and everything in-between. Stevie is very easy to interview. The greatest challenge is finding a moment to fit it in.

Over the course of her compositional marathon an oft-mentioned concern has been to find ways of inducing classically trained musicians to rediscover the art of improvisation – not least because the success of her work depends on it. The players may be brilliant, virtuosic and “very involved in the creative act” of making the sound, yet generally they are “trying to reproduce as closely as possible what is written down on the page.” Scores are performed verbatim, with every note explicitly written out, “whereas in earlier times, and of course in all other music – be it music from other countries, be it rock music or pop music or other genres except for this contemporary classical music,” the ability to extemporise from the score has always been taken for granted. Yet in recent years, unless their training has specially prepared them or they are otherwise spontaneously gifted, the very suggestion that performers might occasionally look beyond the written score and treat it as a springboard for their own inspiration can induce anything from confusion and terror to outrage: “If I say anything like … ‘oh could you just listen to what they’re saying and shadow it’ – total freakout. ‘Oh my god no no you have to write it down!’”

The other side to this is that modern orchestras can be like musical production lines, whose priority is increasingly to run as cheaply and efficiently as possible. “With the orchestra the level of improvisation is going to be severely restricted because I think I only have something like one three-hour rehearsal with the whole orchestra – it couldn’t be more different from how we worked at FoAM,” Stevie says of her current work. As production companies, orchestras “want the whole thing to be organised like a military exercise.” They’re “not interested in the process at all … which means that the process is pretty unbearable for everybody. It’s incredibly stressful and [the performers] are just holding it together, they haven’t got time to enjoy it or give anything to the music much.” Which also means that Stevie is going out on a limb with this concerto, as improvisation is part of its very DNA. The piece demands to be lived through, not merely executed. She’s even invented a special notation for certain effects and techniques. “I am taking huge risks with this piece … I realised it’s a really great idea but it’s really hard … I’ve taken myself totally out of my comfort zone, which means I could be ripped apart.”

Even so, it’s impossible not to detect a certain whimsical, even mischievous glee lurking not far behind this dramatic assessment. She seems in fact to relish it as a creative challenge – which might be said to be one of the driving forces behind her diverse and contrasting musical career. Yet the fundamental challenge here is actually no different from that of Inner Garden and no doubt many of her other collaborations, however divergent their contexts: “How can I give the players creative freedom and a feeling of responsibility for what they do without losing the integrity of my musical idea.” This is “a really interesting problem to solve, and I’m hoping that I’ve solved it in this piece. There’s a huge amount of material in the score … but I think there’s a lot of areas that the performers will feel very empowered and will be able to make the music their own.”

The material “very luckily … grows a bit like a plant.” When she composes she will often start with several very defined structural ideas, but without thinking too much about how they will all come together. “Almost by chance, in that I haven’t pre-planned it, I will generally find that although I didn’t know a connecting reason for why I brought a certain set of vocabulary into a piece, as the piece evolves I’m constantly surprised – oh of course that’s going to work so well because I’ve had idea A, and that’ll make idea B.” Her skill as a composer is knowing how much to interfere and how much to let the process find a life of its own – perhaps like bringing up a child. “It’s doing its own thing and you have to know how much to step in and control it and how much not, and getting that balance is crucial to the success of the piece; but it’s a mystery to me how it happens.” The ideas in the concerto “absolutely support each other, but those ideas actually came in different ways and at different times; but luckily they add up to one big effect, which is that the piece will be about the sound of the note that resonates just after you’ve played it.”

Stevie is not particularly interested in pitch. She likens it to what happens when you overhear the voices of a conversation – maybe in a foreign language – and suddenly you hear a word you understand. “The sound of that word immediately gets lost because your whole brain is just taken over by what it means.” Similarly, it can be frustrating when “so often you get fantastic players who have forgotten what they’re actually sounding like … it means that all the other wonderful aspects of sound get overlooked.” She often struggles as a composer when players assume that a piece is going to be easy because its melodic lines are relatively simple: “no it’s not easy, it’s just that the pitch is kept simple so that you can get complexity in all the other aspects of the sound.”

In this concerto she’s interested in “all the soft sounds … the sounds that are quite intimate.” There is a “gorgeous sound” in a baroque orchestra that you only hear in the moments just after it has stopped playing, in its overtones and reverberations. Wanting to make an entire composition out of sounds like this led to the decision to have the whole orchestra play with open strings. Open strings have all the sonic characteristics that support the piece. They can produce the loudest, but also the quietest sounds with the most overtones, since they have the longest tail, the longest decay; the whole orchestra becomes “different strings of, say, a harp.” The piece is therefore virtuosic, not in the conventional sense of a flashy cascade of glittering notes, but in terms of the aesthetic potential of the overtones and harmonics. It’s virtuosic in that every single note the strings play has to be played on a different string. The composition is devised so that the “overtones literally spring out of the string.”

This is not to say that pitch has been done away with. She hasn’t gone down the path of the forced atonality of so many contemporary composers, which can be “quite counter-intuitive to listen to.” “Limiting the piece to the pitches of the open strings has actually made the piece very tonal … because the harmonic structure of the string is pretty tonal.” So for example the first movement is a “typical baroque opening for a concerto,” with a prelude and fugue; but within the logic of the piece, this is simply “exposing the sounds of the open strings.” The fugue is traditional in the Bach sense in that it has voices that follow and imitate a theme, “but it’s actually a timbral fugue – so it’ll be a tremolo then pizzicato as much as a melodic fugue.”

Another example of this wrapping of complexity within simplicity can be found in the second movement, where she introduces what she calls “pitch rows.” She has devised a sixteen-note rhythmic progression, where the harp and harpsichord play one note in the first beat, two notes in the second, and so forth up to sixteen. It starts slowly and gradually builds up until the fastest, sixteen-note beat is reached. “It’s quite an interesting effect because what a lot of composers would do is write that in a very complex way, but what I’ve done through the whole piece is keep the BPM at 60. It’s what you have in regular pop music and it works so well because you keep the beat – it’s like a heartbeat to the music – and then do all the complex stuff over the top that has to fit to it.” Similarly, the entire work is based on a very simple chord sequence – something she does a lot. “If the fundamentals are quite simple and quite grounded then it leaves you space for doing stuff over the top, which also links with the stuff we’ve done at FoAM.”

Entailed in her interest in improvisation is a keen sensitivity to the contexts of musical performances. A classical concert hall is extremely site-specific, and “tends to mean that people expect things to happen in a certain way. Whereas if you do your piece in a greenhouse people don’t come with any of those expectations – it’s wonderful. Where you do it and who you do it for give you so many ideas about what the piece is going to be.” Meanwhile, working outside of the mainstream classical music scene with amateur performers means that “there’s a huge interest in the process as well as the end result, and the process is very enriching and very creative, and the process is allowed to develop the music and inform the music, if not create the music, instead of all this [gesturing to the score].”

Leading up to our performance in Ghent, we held several rehearsals at the FoAM studio in Brussels, with Stevie as our musical director and Penelope Turner as our vocal trainer. Their tutoring styles, their entire approach to working with us couldn’t have been more different but somehow complemented each other perfectly in this context. Each rehearsal session was almost like a distinctive performance piece in its own right. We all chose a word from the vast lexicon of “Lingua Ignota”: Hildegard von Bingen’s peculiar invented language. That word became like a personal mantra, an individual tendril that entwined with the others and ran through our organically evolving work as a whole. We were becoming like plants, “creating a garden of sound, a wild garden.” It was like learning a new language; a liturgy suspended somewhere between direction and randomness, composition and spontaneity, organic and plant-like yet strangely mercurial, capriciously changing shape and form at the last minute.

It quickly became evident that there would be no clear line separating the development of our vocal technique from the invention of the compositional aesthetic. From the outset Stevie was tuning in to each of our voices, listening to how we sounded individually and in various combinations, making suggestions for us to try out, experimenting, discarding and exploring musical ideas that emerged from the practice sessions. At the same time, Penelope also took the lead in helping guide the aesthetic qualities of the emerging composition. All of us eventually, inevitably became co-creators of the work from the inside out. The piece was literally defined and continually evolved in the process of our training. Needless to say, if this approach sometimes felt a little chaotic and random that’s because it was chaotic and random. Things were constantly changing right up to the final performance – and during it – often apparently based on nothing more than spur-of-the-moment inspiration, whim, or accident. On the other hand, it also encouraged a feeling of unparalleled creative freedom. Strange growths, peculiar hisses and gurglings and murmurs occasionally swelling to rapturous screams; regular outbursts of laughter. Metamorphoses of repetitions.

Here was one of the most remarkable things: we were embracing much that in other performance contexts would be seen as undesirable and necessary to correct or discard. Our voices were untrained and “green” – so the expressive potential of their individual idiosyncrasies was explored and accentuated. Our skill level meant that we were unable to perform anything more complex than simple melodies or chord progressions – but this limitation was exploited as a creative challenge, an excuse to go in different directions with very different aesthetic criteria. Accident and serendipity were in some cases written into our very performance instructions; for example, the piece “should have a degree of sonic uncertainty and stumbling, and collision, if one or more voices say the syllable at the same time make something of this collision and continue until someone starts the next syllable.” We were exploring an edge habitat where musical forms were serendipitously juxtaposed with ritual elements in a shared communal experience; where “the link to the sounds of nature and the sounds of noise” was celebrated.

The FoAM studio – and its denizens – were instrumental in fostering the process of free exploration and experimentation that made this unusual project possible, and these qualities have remained important throughout Stevie’s ongoing collaboration with FoAM. An openness to serendipity and happy accident meant that what began as a temporary stay of a few weeks while hunting for a new apartment evolved quite naturally into a year-long transiency. As a world apart, the FoAM studio constituted a refuge not only for transitional soul-searching of the more abstract, intellectual and creative type, but also very concretely as a living space and a roof overhead for an artist in between accommodation. Stevie would often express delight on returning to her loft from one of her many sojourns, mentioning that it was not the first time that FoAM had “saved” her. From a uniquely musical perspective, above all, while many large spaces can be very tiring to be in, “this space is so unusual in that it’s fantastic for playing music. One of the main reasons why I so love being in this space which is utterly unique is that it has an incredible acoustic.” During her transiency, the FoAM studio was a creative space that allowed “many forms and functions to happen simultaneously,” with a group of people that were “very different but self-contained; the points of overlap are not too big but just big enough and they’re incredibly powerful, and whatever we are together is really useful.”