Saturday 29 April 2023

Stop Motion Music: Edinburgh-based composer Neil T. Smith chats about his new disc, exploring the smaller-scale works he has written from the last eight years

Neil T. Smith
Neil T. Smith

Edinburgh-based composer Neil T. Smith has an album out, Stop Motion Music on BandCamp. His debut album, it explores works that he has written in the last eight or so years. In that time, Neil has written either large-scale orchestral works or smaller chamber ones, so economic necessity has meant that this, his first solo disc, explores the smaller-scale works with performers Carla Rees (flute), Delia Stevens (vibraphone), Simon Roth (drums), Justyna Jablonska and Duncan Strachan (cellos).

Neil T. Smith - Stop Motion Music
The main work on the disc is the title track, Stop Motion Music for the intriguing combination of three flutes and vibraphone. This had its origins in a long-ago conversation with a friend who ran his own ensemble, and they talked about the idea of putting small speakers in a vibraphone. The friend totally forgot about the conversation, but with Neil, it stuck. He is also a flute player and had written a flute trio in 2012 as well as playing flute in other ensembles. This suggested to him the idea of combining the flute with the purely mechanical silvery sound of the vibraphone. It is not a narrative work, but a series of scenes.

For the recording of the new disc, he was just doing the fundraising when COVID began, so the plans involved considering what music could be recorded with a minimum number of people. This means that for Stop Motion Music, flute player Carla Rees has multi-tracked the three flute lines alongside vibraphone player Delia Stevens. Carla Rees plays a Kingma System flute, which has a full quarter-tone capability (on a regular flute quarter tones can be uneven). This capability came in very useful when multi-tracking Stop Motion Music. The work is a single piece, some 26 minutes long, but for the convenience of listening Neil has split it into four tracks.
Neil enjoys the challenge of writing solo and small-scale works, and when writing something from your own imagination, enjoys the fact that you choose the approach to the piece, and the instruments are chosen to reflect that approach. With purely solo works, he likes that challenge of creating counterpoint in its broadest sense; there is technically only one line, but movement can suggest more, which can lead to a lot going on in the piece. And he quotes as an example his piece for solo clarinet, Strange Machines from 2014 (featured on Jonathan Sage's album, Strange Machines from Dark Inventions) where there isn't just a single melody line, but this made to be part of a larger structure. The result can sometimes be a busy and challenging work for the player.

The oldest piece on the disc is Scaffold for Simon, written for drummer Simon Roth. Manual is for two cellos, Justyna Jablonska and Duncan Strachan, and the name comes from the fact that it uses just the hand, no bowing, with all sorts of manual effects on the cello including harmonics and multiphonics. This work is influenced by the music of Helmut Lachenmann. Neil studied in Germany and his teacher was Caspar Johannes Walter, a cellist and composer who has written cello works which involve harmonics and multiphonics. Walter, whom Neil describes as an interesting guy, is interested in both mathematics and music, and he linked Neil to Lachenmann's work. So that Manual is influenced by both Walher and Lachenmann.

Another work on the disc, The Music Lesson is written for harp, but the harpist speaks as well. The harpist on the disc, Esther Swift, has performed the work before and she uses a microphone as the spoken element needs to feel quite intimate.

Progressions of Memory is for solo Baroque flute. This came about because the flautist on the disc, Carla Rees was looking for new works for the Baroque flute. Neil had played the Baroque flute when he was studying at York University. He had been able to borrow one and experiment with it, though Neil admits that he was not brilliant, there is lots of technique to learn. When writing for the instrument, Neil tried to find something that interested him. One area was over-blowing, he loves this effect on the Baroque flute where the results are quieter than on a modern flute. He was also interested in the Baroque repertoire and the piece is a result of combining the two, as it references a Handel flute sonata. It could be played on the modern flute, but Neil feels that it bears the hallmark of the period flute.

Recording session for Neil T. Smith's Stop Motion Music
Recording session for Neil T. Smith's Stop Motion Music

He does not feel that he wants to prescribe what the listener might take away from the disc. But with each work, he wants to go reasonably deep into that particular subject, and perhaps push the particular ideas used in the work further. So that in Scaffold for Simon, he experiments with saying what he wants with grooves, rather than notes and rhythms. He likes to think that each piece takes the listener somewhere new, deeper into what that piece offers. The different pieces go to different places, and he hopes that listeners to the disc can feel that.

The only programmatic work on the disc is The Music Lesson, which alludes to the subject of abuse within music lessons. The issue of sexual abuse within music lessons has been rumbling in the background for a long time, but no-one had written a piece about it. It is an important topic, one that Neil had hoped to consider for a long time, and the piece tries to explore it, however obliquely.

Neil has described his style thus 'Creatively I feel like I'm somewhere in the North Sea: floating in between Germany and the UK'. He did his first degree at York University and then in 2010 went to study in Germany. In Germany, he felt British, but in the UK he felt a bit German. Also, he points out that what new music is, is constantly changing in both Germany and Britain, adding that there is more plurality in the German contemporary music scene than sometimes people think. Also, the new music scene in the UK is now expanding and changing.

As regards his style, he thinks of each piece as a new, deep experience. And for him, the particular material is not the most important factor. He is not interested in tonality in its traditional sense, he always undercuts it. So, sometimes his material is tonal yet it is part of a process that is beyond tonal, whereas in Scaffold for Simon he uses grooves, and Stop Motion Music is more abstract.

He enjoys using dissonance and microtonality because with them he can shape the music in different ways. He uses the example of concrete and the plasticity of the material as compared to wood, where you have to work with the grain. Sometimes he does the musical equivalent of making collages with wood, but his preferred working material is the plasticity of concrete. He is also interested in rhythm, and a lot of his other pieces use polytemporality. There is a little of this on the disc, in Scaffold for Simon and Manual, though polytemporality is hard to achieve with just one player.

For the Stop Motion Music disc, he was in charge of the project side of the recording as well, organising as well as being responsible for the music. For the multitracking, he was concerned to create click tracks that were not metronomic so ended up speaking all the cue numbers! The whole recording project required a detailed level of planning and he learned lots. It was interesting and empowering, but also very time-consuming. And once the recording was finished, he found that promotion was time-consuming as well. Every stage took time and took him away from composition.

It was the advent of the music notation software, Sibelius, when Neil was in his second year of high school that really to him interested in composition. He was learning the flute, and once he had access to Sibelius he wrote 'all sorts of crazy pieces'. Composition began to drive his interest in music, before that he had been a somewhat reluctant flautist. He only really considered being a composer when he was in his last year of high school. He first went to York University, where the course covered something of everything. It was a very practical music department and Neil's studies encompassed composition, new music analysis, playing new music as well as playing in the chamber orchestra and new music ensemble, along with those experiments with the Baroque flute.

It was really good training, doing lots of different things. Looking back, it is tempting to think differently; he did spend a lot of time absorbing things and not focusing on what was compositionally of interest. He feels that it was only after he stopped studying in Germany that he could focus on what he wanted to write.

Neil T. Smith (Photo: Stefan Beyer)
Neil T. Smith (Photo: Stefan Beyer)
In Germany, he found that it was common and acceptable to study for a long time, whereas in the UK we have something of an obsession with youthful brilliance. And he wonders how many youthfully brilliant British composers have managed to improve between the ages of 30 and 50; he feels that the pressure destroys them a bit.

His work combines composition with teaching and more academic pursuits. He did a musicology PhD at Nottingham University; he could have done a composition one but the challenge was how to exist financially. For his doctorate, he wrote about the composer Mathias Spahlinger, a German modernist associated with Helmut Lachenmann and Nicolaus A. Huber. After his doctorate, he went to Maastricht, Centre for the Innovation of Classical Music. Currently, he teaches at the Open College of the Arts and at Edinburgh University.

He is currently working on what he describes as a music-driven puppet show. There will be music all through the piece, with a puppeteer and two musicians, though they all have to sing and the musicians are part of the set. He calls the piece his first major move towards music theatre. But he is also asking himself what next, compositionally.  He and his partner had a baby nearly six months ago and this has rather changed the rhythms of life. He rather likes a routine, and this has all changed with the baby, going to bed early and getting up during the night. With Summer coming, his teaching at Edinburgh stops, and he has more time to think about. There are ideas for a work for piano and ensemble and another for piano and electronics.

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