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INTERVIEW: Lucy Railton & Peter Zinovieff
Robert Barry , August 17th, 2016 12:25

Robert Barry speaks to Lucy Railton and Peter Zinovieff ahead of the debut of a new collaborative project later this month at Berlin Atonal

“Shall I tell him about RFG, Lucy?”

“Um… Not about me thinking it was a serious academic paper.”

“No, no. I mean about what it stands for.”

Peter Zinovieff and Lucy Railton are telling me about the structure of the new piece they’ve created together – via the medium of sweets.

“RFG stands for Rowntree’s Fruit Gums,” Zinovieff explains. “The thing about Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, if you think of the packet, it’s got a very nice coloured wrapper, and then a silver wrapper surrounding the sweets, and then each of the sweets comes out a different colour and has got a sort of glue which holds them together. So there is, already, rather a good structure.”

“It’s a starting point,” Railton adds.

The electronic music pioneer and classical cellist will be performing together at Berlin’s Atonal Festival next week. Their new work, THIS, is the result of a long collaboration, combining improvisation, electro-acoustic manipulation, as well as more traditional forms of composition with dots and lines on parallel staves. But the structure of the piece is derived neither from techno nor sonata form, but rather from “the nation’s favourite” glucose syrup-based snack.

From the early 1960s, Peter Zinovieff had begun building an electronic music studio in his garden shed in Putney. He was amongst the very first people to use a computer to control electronic sounds and almost certainly the very first person (in Britain at least) to wheel a computer onto a concert stage and have it perform a piece ‘live’. At the end of the 1960s, with David Cockerell and Tristram Cary, he created EMS Ltd., manufacturers of the very first British-made synthesiser, the VCS3. Their machines were used by everyone from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to The Who to Brian Eno to Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Lucy Railton is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music who has worked extensively with the composer Jennifer Walshe, the dancer Akram Kahn, visual artists Hannah Perry and Richard Rhys, and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva. With Orazbayeva, as well as Sam Mackay and Igor Toronyi-Lalic, she has directed and curated the London Contemporary Music Festival since it began in 2013. Before that she produced the long-running Kammer Klang concert series at Cafe Oto.

This is the first time that Railton and Zinovieff have worked together on a piece of music. We caught up via Skype to find out how they did it.

Peter Zinovieff: I think I said to Lucy, shall we do something together. Is that right?

Lucy Railton: Yeah, I think it started with, would you like to play some wild chaconnes with my electronic parts?

How did you meet in the first place?

LR: I physically met Peter for the first time at LCMF.

In 2014, at the London Contemporary Music Festival, Zinovieff and Aisha Orazbayeva presented the world premiere of Our Too, a sort of concerto for violin and computer. Was your first thought, when you two decided to collaborate, to do something quite similar together or were you determined from the beginning to do something very different?

PZ: Well, it had to be very different. First of all, the instrument is so very different and the two people are very different. It never occurred to me that it might be on the same lines. Except that I do feel that I very much like working with real instrumental sounds.

LR: And some of the ways in which you’ve used my original material is similar to what you’ve done before with the violin works, isn’t it?

PZ: Not really, no. Different techniques completely, actually.

But is there a sense, perhaps, that the techniques that you’re using now, on this piece with Lucy, have developed out of those you were using for the various pieces with Aisha?

PZ: Of course. Everything follows everything.

What was your working process, putting the piece together?

PZ: Lucy would come and stay in Cambridge and I would suggest that she gives me some really nice improvisations on various objects that I would put in front of her. This would become my vocabulary on which I would then work. So I would then work on these improvisations and extract either tiny sounds or gross sounds or long sequences or just tiny little fragments of sequences and then use those to make the bulk of the electronics. And those original improvisations would also, in a way, steer Lucy to what she would then play to my electronics. Is that how you see it, Lucy?

LR: Yes. So then in the live setting concert, the material I’m playing is derived from the very beginning of how each section is created. The source material is still evident in what happens in the live part. But it’s not wholly improvised because there’s a structure to the whole piece, and all the sections have a duration that I have to stick to. So it is quite well formed now. I’m not just going freestyle. But it’s come from an improvised starting point.

PZ: For instance, imagine that I put in front of you a hand-written book in old Russian, which is my grandfather’s memoires, and said, alright, look at this and now write a poem. You wouldn’t be able to understand a single word of it – all you would see would be the book, this old cyrillic writing, and yet there would be something which would be something which would make it different for you to write a poem about than if I put a computer mouse in front of you.

Are those actual examples of objects you used for inspiration?

PZ: Not the mouse, no. But the grandfather’s memoires. A ruler, for instance. A wooden ruler. A whole set of very varied things which should shock you into a new frame of mind each time.

LR: Like the giant tuning fork that Peter put under my head which then vibrated very deeply.

At Atonal you’ll be playing immediately before Moritz von Oswald from Basic Channel. It’s become much more common at festivals over the last few years to mix composed music with electronic music from other kinds of traditions…

LR: I guess so, and I think that it’s not only the audiences that can relate to both aspects of electronic and also composed contemporary classical music, or whatever you want to call it. But also there’s such shared interests between the makers. You can’t really talk about modern electronic composition without speaking about music from the club scene. They have to be part of the same conversation. So I think that’s why it works on a festival platform.

In some ways, looking back, what you were doing with the LCMF looks quite ahead of its time, in the way you would mix Helmut Lachenmann or Salvatore Sciarrino with Mark Fell or Japanese Noh theatre, visual artists like Ed Atkins and Tino Sehgal. What was your idea when the four of you first started that festival?

LR: The idea really was to bring together eclectic line-ups without any barriers between genres. That was just because, as festival directors and curators, we had an interest in all genres, not just within music, but in art and physical forms as well. And we knew that London would have the same interests. We really just wanted to celebrate the diversity of the city and the music scenes of the moment. It’s not a particularly radical idea, but at the time we didn’t feel that there was much of that going on in London at the scale on which we were presenting things. Now, with festivals like Atonal, it’s quite expected to have that mix. Of course, Atonal has got much more electronic music, but I think it speaks to a much broader audience than just a dance music audience.

PZ: Interesting. I was thinking about how, in a funny way, it’s exactly what I wanted to do in the 60s, in the first electronic music concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I wanted to bring in every type of composition which used electronics. So it was not only instruments and pure electronics or putting Stockhausen on, but it was tying together everybody who was in this sort of field, however vaguely – even poets.

LR: I was just thinking, Peter, your interest in the old stuff has changed somewhat, in terms of the technology you’re using, the software you’re using now. And what you’re using now is exactly what everyone in this new electronic music world is using. And Peter is doing exactly the same, but Peter’s not making techno.

PZ: That’s right. There is a limited amount of things that you can actually do with a computer, and that’s partly because, on the other end, you have to have relatively few sounds coming out which have to be directed to loudspeakers. It will be marvellous when you can direct these strands, many, many of them into a space, when we’re concerned with minute areas of a three-dimensional sound space so you can have tiny little sounds drifting across in 3D. Imagine what fun that will be!

What kind of set-up are you using?

PZ: Well, I make recordings, both air and contact, so I’ve got a lot of raw material. Then I basically sterilise the files, as it were, with Audition. The nice thing about this is that it’s got very good surround sound possibilities. Also, it’s very clean. It’s like the Photoshop of sound processing. And then I assemble the sounds together, either using Cubase of Audition. I also use Kontakt as my main output device. So with Kontakt I use two score writing programs, Sibelius 6 and 7, and Notion 5 and with these I can then control Kontakt in a lot of different ways and I can set up Kontakt to have very nice scales. So I can say, alright, we’re going to have a very nice scale of 18.5 notes per octave, and then I can take one of Lucy’s treated sections which might have been expanded or contracted and put that as one of the channels in Kontakt. And then my final score might have something like 12 or 15 Kontakt instruments playing together, but they’re all basically Lucy’s playing. There’s no sound which I use which is not derived from the cello.

Even if a listener might not immediately recognise it as such?

PZ: No. But what you can always recognise is a sort of fluctuation. So, a sort of randomness. As people are now telling me a lot, that’s why they like things like the VCS3 and other EMS synthesizers – because they were impure.

Still, you weren’t tempted to use a VCS3 on this piece…?

PZ: I don’t like them. I would love to have one though.

LR: I’ve played one, Peter.

How did you find it?

LR: Erratic. Very erratic and fun.

PZ: Oh! How did you find it erratic?

LR: Probably because I didn’t know how to use it, so the response didn’t sound anywhere near like I was expecting.

PZ: Ah, but that’s you being erratic, not the VCS3.

It strikes me how different your attitude is to, say, the Radiophonic Workshop guys who are doing concerts these days. They’ll wheel on a big old synthesizer centre-stage and play all the old hits and it’s sort of very cosy and nostalgic. But you don’t seem to be interested in that sort of thing at all.

PZ: Yes. One of the EMS advertisements was, “Think of a sound, now make it”. If I were to think of the sounds that I would want to make, I would never think of going to a VCS3. I would think, how could I do this in Kontakt? How could I write a script which would so alter the sounds that I would get it just right? Also, I suppose, in the EMS days, I never did use the VCS3. I always used the computer.

Do you have plans to perform this new piece over here?

PZ: It would be lovely to do it in the UK.

LR: We’d like to. But nothing’s set.

PZ: But wish us well for Atonal. I’m dead scared. And there’s quite a lot of work for me to do in the next fortnight. I’ve got to do one of those silver paper things which we’ve decided to add.

Silver paper?

LR: It’s not technology. It’s a concept for one of the structures in the piece.

PZ: RFG! Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. There has to be a silver paper holding all the sections together!

Berlin Atonal takes place from August 24-28. For the full line-up and to get tickets, click here