Trevor Wishart interview recorded 1995 in York. UK

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Trevor Wishart

Conversation with Jean Martin on 20 April 1995 in York in his home.

Here you can listen to the recording (Length: 1'14'00)
Wishart interview

Below is a transcript of the essential parts of this conversation (without my questions).

Music in society
What function can music have in society apart from purely utilitarian uses like making people shop faster in the supermarket? It can be entertaining and exciting like rave music, which I like very much. That is a good function for music. But if one is going to spend a year writing a piece that lasts half an hour you have to have a rather better reason than it is fun. Those are the things that concern me. I still hold to that 19th century view that art, serious art deals with those universal issues.

The act of being creative, by which I mean transcending your own limitations in some way through the use of your imagination is a fundamental, an important liberating thing and my interest in music education is to liberate other people through getting them involved in the creative act themselves.
There are two things which inform my work: one is that serious art should be concerned with with universal human values in some way and that art education should be involving people in creative acts themselves. These can be creative acts of gardening - it doesn’t matter - people transcending their limitations.

Paradigm shift
In speech we use timbre extremly articulately. Pitch and even timing to some extent are articulatory. The priorities are reversed. And that is very useful to point people into this direction to make them see that it is possible to be articulate with the other parameters.
The ideal medium is the computer, because with the computer you have complete control over every aspect of the sound. When you suddenly discover how these subtle things work that in the past you have taken for granted or you just have assumed from the way people normally play the instrument or normally sing for that matter - you take it for granted, you don’t notice them. But once you can actually control those very precisely, all those aspects of sound become significant for a composer.

Vocal sounds or material from the environment have quite a complex shape - or changing shape anyway, have a gestural structure before you begin. When you manipulate sound on a computer almost all the time I am thinking of a process which is varying through time. So I may have a sound which I am varying the position of through time, I am varying the pitch, amplitude, density. Things evolve and change through time. So that gives them a gestural structure. It also is an aspect of form which I am very interested in - the way in which things change.
One thing about the voice and the computer is that you can have a very fine control over those transformations and changes. They can become a basis for formal structure almost in the way that tonality was (because I said that I was shouted at at that computer music conference).
You can establish relationships between timbre through processes of transformation, which are somewhat similar to the relationship between the keys. They are different in another way.

We are programmed to categorise sounds. When we hear a sound we tend to think: that sounds metallic, or wollen or it sounds hard-strokes softly, we know these things. We don’t hear the sounds and then categorise them. We categorise them as we hear them. Like with seeing: we automatically see straight lines in enclosed areas. We don’t think about that. My view from my own experince - I have no scientific evidence for that - is: our hearing works in that way, because it was important to our survival at some timeto be able to recognise certain kind of things quickly. Categorisation is to do with the nature of the phenomena. You have to categorise things what they are perceived to be like, not according to the descriptive labels you attach to them.

There is a lot of play with numbers in music, which is numerology. It has nothing to do with what people actually perceive or the physical nature of sounds, but it is to do with interesting patterns, which composers find entertaining or amusing or useful in some operational sense to make a score, e.g. the Fibunacci series.
Music becomes essentially - at least in Anglo-Saxon Universities, but also in German Unis - a discipline, which is attached to the historical domain. What you do in music is: you study the history of music. It is a text-based thing. The interesting thing in the 20th century is that with computers, because we can look inside sounds, we can actually begin to ask questions where acoustics, psychoacoustics and music cross each other. Music again touches on scientific disciplines and I am quite interested in a kind of paradigm shift in music. It is more interesting for me for music to be associated with scientific disciplines in universities, so that the music department goes along to ask for its money saying: what we are doing has a relationship to science rather than to the history of culture.
I began to study chemistry at the University and I have always been interested in mathematics. I find the relationship between acoustics and music and the physics of music fascinating and interesting. Psychoacoustics, because it is in its infancy - musicians tend to dismiss it as trivial because people are still asking questions like: can you tell the difference between 400 Hz and 401 Hz, rather than: can people perceive symphonic form. It seems to me a mature discipline of psychoacoustics would be the perfect complement to the musical activity of performing and composition.
What we have traditionally organised was the properties of sound, not sounds. We used to organise the property pitch and the property loudness. There is a tendency when people go into the studio to think of sounds in the same way, that if they have a sine tone, because it has a definite pitch and loudness, it will conform to the way they used to writing music. On the contrary: it is much better to have a very complex sound, because that has many properties which can be abstracted, which can be developed. A sound should be regarded more like a phrase, or the subject of a fugue rather than as a note. That is the crucial thing.
One has to differentiate between the musical experience and the score. My view is that music is, what people hear. And what should be studied is what people hear. The actual acoustical experience of music is what is important, not the instructions for producing it, which is the score. The score is nothing more than a set of instructions for producing music. What should be studied is the structure of that acoustical experience and not the structure of the notation. We simply don’t know how music has its impact - but it does! The impact music has its to do with its structure, the relationship between the musical events. But it is not the same thing as the relationship between musical events. That is the difficulty. Once you say: musical experience is to do with the structure of musical events, you then come up with a tautology that therefore if I structure musical events in any way at all Ihave music. And that is not the case. The problem is describing what the relationship is, because music isn’t language, and we are talking about something we cannot talk about.
I appreciate Schoenberg’s setting up the Society for Private Musical Performances. I also feel, looking back, it was a great mistake, because once music is cut off from a wider public it starts to die. There is a big problem with this argument because people then assume what you mean is music must be popular or everybody must like your music. Or you judge your music by whether people like it or not. It’s not that simple. It is really to do with the fact that looking at it in a broad historical or sociological context, serious music has always had some kind of contact with the wider public whether it would be through the church or through the opera. And if you no longer have that, the music becomes concerned with things that professionals find terribly interesting and nobody else does. It is quite difficult to reestablish these links. That is one of the things I am trying to do with computer music.

Impact of computers
I would suggest that any job that can be described can eventually be better done by a computer because unfortunately any task which can be broken down and described, no matter how complex it is, can eventually be programmed. Although certain personal interactions, e.g. social work computers cannot understand. 90% of medical diagnosis can be done by expert systems.
There seems to be an intrinsic self-destructive dynamic in our society. We always want more, we want things more cheaply. It happens that the most expensive factor of production is labour. So the way to get all these things, we make people unemployed. This is becoming very clear now that businesses are becoming more efficient and exporting more. And how are they doing this? By laying off people. So the more efficient and the more rich we become, the less people have work. What is needed here is some reorientation of social values, because at the moment you either work for money and that is what your life is about or you are unemployed and valueless. Unless we can think of some way to reorient the way we think about that, we are in for real big problems, one of we are already in to. The arts and culture in general with a small c, I see as being vitally significant here. We have to reorient people’s view of life in a sense that work will be something that most people do half their time, because we have to share it out. But what will you do the rest of your life? If people’s values are oriented simply towards making money or to owning things, then they are going to have problems. If you like, in a very cynical way, culture is a thing that fills that vacuum.

Listening to music
The wealth of instrumental music is entirely marginalised. Almost all music that anybody listens to is electroacoustic. If we bracked out recordings of instrumental music, still probably most of the music people listen to is electroacoustic music, because all rock music is electroacoustic, all rave music is electroacoustic... What you are talking about is music which doesn’t fit in the afro-american tradition.
New forms of presenting electroacoustic music You could say that people going into a cinema and sitting in seats watching the screenis equally absurd. There are no performers there. What are they doing? Just looking at a wall - so this has become an accepted convention that you go along to a theatre which has no performers, no props. You just look at this image which is projected by a person in the box at the back. One accepts that artificial generation of reality. So in that sense electroacoustic music is no different.
There is still this point then. It must have seemed absurd originally for people to go to a theatre where there were no actors, no props, no human beings there and just watch that image projected on the wall. Because we got used to it it is completely acceptable. The same applies to electroacoustic music, the same difference. The way I learnt the symphonic tradition for example, was by listening to grammophon records, because I didn’t have access to them. Or I listened to the radio and that is how most people hear music. They don’t hear it with performers being present. It is interesting with performers being present, because it has this theatrical dimension, but it is not at all necessary. In most discos you don’t see anybody performing.

The use of representational sounds
The tradition in western music and in most musical cultures in fact is: representational sound is somehow inferior. One doesn’t use it. You don’t imitate cockoos in symphonies. But it seems to me in this medium it wasn’t possible to represent things. If you look at the history of painting, it is completely the opposite. The whole point was to represent things. It might be transformed and mythologised, but that was the substance of it. It seems to me now that with sound recording it is possible to represent things and transform representations. And going to the aesthetics of that: what does that mean? What is the representation of something in sound and what is ist transformation? It opens up a whole new area which we can explore. If we don’t have a sort of prejudice beforehand that that is not music. So, it is interesting that people come across these sort of things in films where they are used in a fantastical way and there is a connection with those kind of experiences. I think these connections are good.

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A few more questions

JM: What is the most important invention in music in the 20th century?

TW: Sound recording! For the first time we are able to get hold of sound and take it apart. Always in the past we have worked with this illusion, that an instruction for someone to play a note on an instrument is music, where in fact music is the experience of sound. The fact that you can take that sound apart and reconstruct it is an amazing, a magical thing. It means a complete transformation of what we consider the possibilities of music might be.

JM: Does that mean that everybody who can use a tape recorder is a composer? What is the role of a composer in future?

TW: Anybody can hypothetically sit at a piano and press the keys. That doesn’t mean to say that everybody is a composer. The positive aspect of what you are saying is that everybody can record sounds and process them on a computer, which is wonderful. That is the basis on which any musical tradition should rest: that it is accessible to everybody in the most fundamental, crude sense, that anybody can mess around in this medium like anybody can paint. For me music is organised sound. So speech is organised sound. This becomes clear when you listen to a language you don’t understand.

JM: What impact does music have?

TW: It structures response in some sort of semi-physiological way. It structures something in our physiology, something in our mental state that we find exciting or poweful or moving. And that is how it works: it structures it.

Tongues of Fire
It is unlike most of my other pieces. In fact it began simply as exploring the possibilities of the computer. A lot of the software that I use I wrote while I was making the piece. I began with some with some extended vocal sounds and I began to explore them. Only after some time I began to think: this is interesting, this is going to be a piece. Usually I am more focused than that. I already have an idea before I begin. So normally have a very clear idea, some transcending, non-musical idea. It doesn’t make the form. I usually have to have a kind of poetic idea, a very general idea and then move into music, work at it musically. So it is not, that this follows that because the idea says: this follows that. I find it difficult to work without an idea.

I am interested in the idea of the importance of myths. All human societies are bound together by myths, even the myth, that there aren’t any myths, which tends to be ours - and that these myths are a kind of way of us telling or conveying historical or sociological truths about the nature of society. What happens if society developed in a particular way over a long period of time? By telling sort of moral tales or stories or embodying them in magical or god like characters. The myth of the motor car or the myth of freedom: what do these things mean? They are mythological. I am always interested in touching those things. I think that is a point where the arts do link with peoples’ everyday experience.
JM: How is it being a composer in Britain today?
TW: Professionally speaking it is quite interesting to live in Britain because it is very close to Europe. Here - apart from the theatre - I would say the arts are not taken very seriously. There is a group of people who take them very seriously, but in general they are not taken very seriously. I have more experience going over to France and I am finding people taking them perhaps rather over-seriously. It is quite useful living in England because you can go there (to France) and breath in this sort of intense athmosphere. Then you can escape to England where nobody cares about what you are doing and just get on with it. So there are positive aspects about England. Also, I suppose one becomes more concerned about these issues how the arts relate to the world in general in a country which doesn’t put art on the pedestral. This partly to do with living in England and with my background.

JM: How do you see the relationship between music and technology and research?

TW: I’d like to see research which is always tied to accessability to composers, because one of the problems with all those institutions - not just IRCAM, but also Stanford etc. - was that you could do all these wonderful things there, but you couldn’t do them anywhere else. You could go and do a piece there, but then when you left you no onger had these tools. I would say, any tool which doesn’t run on a cheap desktop computer doesn’t exist. It is a speculative research thing.

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