Interview Helena Gough


Das Gespräch fand am 16. Dezember 2012 in Goughs Privatwohnung in Berlin-Neukölln statt.


Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein



When you were playing the violin and studying composition, there then came a point when you became interested in the machine.


I really didn't have any interest in the machine. When I first started working with a computer I couldn't type, and I had various embarrassing situations where I was in the studio and I didn't know that you had to switch on not only the screen but also the ‘thing’ under the desk. I was completely clueless. I had no real curiosity about the machine itself, but I was curious about what I had heard. I had listened to some musique concrète, Parmegiani, François Bayle, the classic old-school composers, and it was exciting and like a new universe to me. I also had various frustrations from writing instrumental music - pencil, paper, notes and all that. You are dependent on someone else, and usually dependent on multiple people. There’s finding a space, finding rehearsal time, finding musicians who are open-minded, finding musicians who want to play something more than once. If you get something played just once you should be incredibly grateful. And then that's it. It's done. This I was getting really unsatisfied with, and I had ideas that I didn't know how to notate. When I was shown this other way of composing, where you work directly with sound like a potter with clay, where you actually sit with sounds, with a direct response from the sound to what you are doing, this was what appealed, this was what was attractive to me.


This was in England?


Yes. In Birmingham.


Are you from Birmingham?


No, I am from London. I lived in London for eight years then in St. Albans until I was eighteen. It's a small city just north of London, once the capital of Roman England. Then I moved to Birmingham to do a music degree. At that point I was playing violin, and I was still really enjoying playing in a string quartet, but I knew that I really didn't want to be a soloist. I had the idea that I wanted to specialize in composition. But I didn't really know anything about studio composing or about computers.


So you had listened to some pieces, there was the idea of working with the sound, and then you come to the studio and you are like a blank sheet of paper ...


... a stupid blank sheet of paper, that's what I felt like. (lacht)


I wonder if a blank sheet of paper can be stupid. (lachen) What you do now is not so much musique concrète. When did you become more interested in the artificial, the electronic side of sound?


From the start to where I am now, for me that is a really long process with changes that evolved quite naturally but quite slowly. When I started making my own recordings I wasn't so interested in this bird song/car sounds world. I had been to concerts where everything had a certain type of sound, and I was interested in variety, but I wasn't interested in the clichés that I heard so quickly. So I started focussing on what other sounds there were that I could record, that are still in this world, but somehow different. So I made a lot of recordings of domestic sounds, started recording food, like burning nuts and seeds, how they pop and crackle. And porridge in the morning - it really sounds like volcanic lava when you record it. I know this sounds kind of geeky! Then I started recording anything with fans, like fridges, and ovens, and ...


... computers ...


... computers, and washing machines, anything with interesting vibrations and a rich texture. Most of the things were very detailed and internal, and I think these kind of sounds suggested a certain of working to me. And from there, partly because of my computer ignorance, I developed a way of working that was very much hands on, cutting things up and layering them and mixing and eq-ing and not so much processing at first, because I didn't really understand it and when I did I thought, ugh, that sounds horrible, I don't want everything comb filtered ... So this way of mixing and layering and kind of going around in circles, bouncing things down and cutting them up again, this continual, vertical composing, led to something that sounded more and more electronic, without me having that as my aim. And what I have been doing since then is working with an archive of sounds that I just keep going with. Now I do a lot of processing, but a lot of the sounds were acoustic at some point, sometimes instrumental, sometimes domestic field recordings, but I have been working with them for ten years. That's how I got to this kind of sound, I just developed this process of constant recycling.


So would you say, that after piece after piece, and year after year, and sound generation after sound generation there is still something left of those crackling seeds?


With additions. My first album actually has some violin sounds in there, like some of the pitched material, taken from me playing violin. On the second album there is, as you saw, Peter Evans, the trumpet player, and George Cremaschi, the bass player, and both of them came to my studio. With Peter Evans, I played at a festival on the same night as him and he contacted me and said, oh, it was great, it was really great. And I said, no, yours was great. (lacht) So we had a kind of mutual appreciation, and he was in Berlin one time and I suggested that he came to my studio. So he basically just did some improvising for me, and I used that as source material. And George, again we played a gig in the same place, and then later he was here in Berlin. With him I actually had more specific ideas because I was a string player, so I said: I really want you to do this and this. So it was a little bit more directed. I did bring new things in every so often, and I recently started playing around with synthesizers, just digital software synthesizers. But still, it is really keeping going with an archive. Having said that, my next album uses just cello sounds. I am not using anything apart from processed cello. So that is a departure because I am not going to use anything from my archive.


That was your idea?


The idea of working only with cello sounds came from me, though the connection to the cellist came through a commission. I like the idea of making a break - it’s not that I am never going back to those archived sounds, but saying, I have this collaboration, I have a possibility to work with an instrument whose sound I really love, I am really curious to see how far away I can go from the cello sound and still have it fit with something that is identifiably a cello. And I like having restrictions. Almost all of the compositions on my first solo album were made using just two or three source sounds.


So when a piece is called Condensed Milk there must be a can involved?


No. The titles aren't literal. I never refer to any of the sources in the title. But there is something that just comes from a feeling that I get from the composition. This composition had a liquid quality that was not quite liquid, that was thicker than liquid.


It could have been.


It could have been, but I make a point of never referring to the source sounds. And often, by the time I get to the end of things, I couldn't tell you what the source sounds were. I really don't remember. On the second album a lot of the source sounds were already many generations on from their origins.


It is forgotten.


It is forgotten and I really don't care enough to keep track of it, because it would distract me from going with whatever I am doing.


You don't have to be your own musicologist.


Someone else can do that.


When people were working out sketches on paper it was part of the documentation of a piece. When you go the Paul Sacher Stiftung you will find what composers wrote on paper. But Brian Ferneyhough told me, that when he started composing at the computer, he stopped making and saving sketches. And musicologists now ask him for sketches, saying they couldn't analyze the piece without. Anyway. I wanted to ask something else. It has to do with coherence. How coherent is a piece for you, from beginning to end.


I think I still have some kind of classical tendencies. Like when I make an album I really think of the compositions as things that coexist. Not necessarily as strong as being ‘movements’, but they are parts of a whole, and though I want them to have their own identity, I also want to have them a place within the album.


And is there something like a grammar or syntax for a piece? How do you organize sound? Or is there maybe even a masterplan for the form?


No.


Not at all? You start at the beginning and then you go bit by bit by bit?


The closest I get to planning is that once I have, say, a first composition for an album, I then have a feeling for the characteristics the next composition might need. And then when I have three it is really clear that, say, number four needs more space, number four needs more calmness, number four needs less bass sound, I am more focussed on higher frequencies. That is really the closest I get to planning. Whenever I have tried to plan something, it doesn't work. As a person I am very neat, I am quite controlled and careful and organized. I kind of like that somehow with my music it is very, very intuitive. And sometimes I sit down at the beginning of a day and either nothing happens or suddenly I have this thing in front of me and I don't know how it got there, it is not conscious all the time. But I think this comes from working this way for ten years - processes that I was aware of when I started are now subconscious. I don't have to bring them to the surface and say: OK, now I am doing this. It just happens very naturally.


When you say, number four should be calm, there might be a certain atmosphere. Is there nonetheless an emotional aspect to this music? Is this, for you, emotional music? As a listener I find it very emotional. Even though it sounds cold and controlled. Still there are things like this enormous melancholy that I fall into.


Absolutely. I really hate this association that anything made with a computer has to be dead and soulless and algorithmical. I really care about what I do, and I put all my time and energy and love and everything into this work, and there is no way I could produce this for it not to be apparent in the music. And I don't see that the music would have any relevance if the music didn't have any meaning. Of course, I leave a trace in it of myself. I don't want to create a specific emotion. I don't want it to be like Wagner, telling people to cry at this point and weep here and roll around on the floor. I don't want it to be directive or manipulative, but I want there to be the possibility that people will feel something and respond in their own way. And it is always the same: I get quite different reactions. Some people find it slightly scary, others find it very calming. It is not that I am aiming for something specific, but I definitely want there to be emotion. I want people to feel the hairs on their arms stand up. I want all that. I love that.


You are saying that as a composer and as a listener.


Yes. I love the intellectual side, the moments where you observe more from the mind, where you are thinking more about the construction. That also is really important. But I don't want that to be the only thing.


That is not saying anything against algorithmic composition. That is a legitimate way of making art.


Yes. There is something that I feel is really important to say often, particularly from my experience at the university, where often when you had a viewpoint it was necessary to try to prove that it was right. I really don't agree with this. I feel I can have my opinion about what I do and someone else can have a completely different opinion and that is great. I can also believe that what I am doing has to be emotional, but something that is very calculated and dry is equally valid. I don't think that things that are different have to cancel themselves out.


Ideology seems to be very important at the university. I remember being in my twenties and it being very important that I convince people of my beliefs. It is like a mission.


I have no desire to argue or to convince. For example with friends who are not very involved in experimental music, I am always really cautious to not push what I do on them, but let them express a curiosity. And at that point I can say, well, I am playing a gig, come along, and this is what to expect. For me this is the right approach because what I do is not everyone's taste and that is fine.


Do you feel that you are talking to things, when you are recording them? Do you feel you are making contact to the objects of the world? This has to do with the idea of mimesis on a very general level. When you tell me about the fan of the refrigerator, I have an image of you crawling behind the refrigerator in order to put the microphone there and really grasp the object. Is it about making contact? Or is it maybe just about the characteristics of a particular sound?


I think a bit of both. I mean, at first it was more about the beauty and the quality of the sound, but the more I have come into this studio regime, the more I am looking for contact. Most of the time I am on my own with a screen in front of me, then I am at an airport, then I am rehearsing in a concert hall in a dark space on my own, and maybe somebody talks to me after the concert, but it is very lonely, this existence. So working with string instruments and the two people I asked to improvise for my last album, that was very much getting in touch with them, with their way of playing and with their instruments as well. So I think that is something that has come more recently. Perhaps I was doing it when I started but I don't think I really thought of it like that.


You don't feel that with your music you are, at least not on a conscious level, reflecting technology, your near surroundings. It is not consciously about that?


Hmm.


I mean when you make domestic recordings ...


Well, I think, in a way. Like with the domestic recordings I was definitely making a reflection and expansion of my immediate environment. OK, so I am in this shitty student house - what is around me, what is interesting, what is rich, what is beautiful in this not so obviously beautiful environment? I guess I was trying to point out to myself and to others that in these seemingly mundane situations there are interesting, complex sounds.


And talking to musicians, you can tell them: I want you to play this. And they will probably even play that. In a dialogue situation there must be something like a resistance. It might be weak, because after all the musician is probably basically willing to do what you want, but you have to make him do it. You have to talk to him. You said you were lonely, not lonely in the sense that you have no friends, but is there a desire to get back into dialogue. Did you want someone to laugh with. The computer doesn't laugh.


No, the computer doesn't laugh. And I don't like computers very much to be honest.


Still?


Still.


But now you can type.


I can type and I know how to switch it on. (lacht) I am as fluent as I need to be. But what was the question?


The question is really just, were you looking for a situation where you are back into dialogue with a musician?


Yeah. Not so much in terms of the finished results, the compositions themselves, but to have other people as part of some kind of starting process, like some springboard to what would eventually happen, this I was really into. And the people I worked with, Peter and George, I liked both of them as people. I was excited by the sounds that they were making, and I could see that there was a connection somehow between what they were doing and what I was doing, and I was interested to see if that was mutual. When it was, it was really nice to have someone come in and give the energy to my starting point.


Did they try to play Helena Gough music?


I don't think so. No. They really have their own identities. And as I said, with the double bass I had more ideas about specific kind of sounds that I wanted, but really they did their own thing.


And then you took what you liked to do your own thing.


Yes.


So you took the goughy parts.


Well, sometimes. But I also took the parts that didn't immediately tell mewhere they would lead. The less obvious parts, perhaps.


Do you throw away a lot?


Oh yeah. Between my first and my second album there was a period of nearly four years. As I said I have this recycling process, and this recycling process involves making a lot of stuff. And 95 percent of it, I think: hmm, that bit is only OK, that bit is only OK. I don't actually trash anything, I put it into a folder, and then I try again: this bit, this bit. So I am very slow but I also generate a lot of material, and I make a lot of music, and I really care about the quality of attention. I care about the quality and I don't want to do anything but the best I can do at that moment in time. So when I get to a point where I say, actually I could do better or there is something more, then I keep going further until either I know it is exhausted or I have got to some closing point.


When you play live, are you spontaneous?


At moments. But I am more un-spontaneous than spontaneous. The way I play now is that I have folders I use for live performances with different kinds of sounds in it. A folder "drones", a folder "textures", a folder "gestures", a folder of compositions, a folder of rejected bits from compositions and material loosely related to compositions. Before I play a concert I arrange a loose structure, so I have blocks that are really, really micro-composed. These I couldn't possibly do live, spontaneously.


How long are these bits?


For a while I had a rule that I could only play three minutes of a composition before I have to turn it into something else. Now I am not so strict, so if I really feel that I want to play half of a composition then I do, but I have never performed a whole composition in a live performance. It is always a bit of something, and then I have to find a way through a transition, and then maybe I have something else that is related to this first block of composition, and then I find a way to another block. So I have control over how quickly things change or whether I just want to add layers or whether I want to finish quicker. So it is somewhere between improvisation and composition. It is a composed structure with flexibility, and some aspects of improvisation.


Do you transform what you have "on tape", so to say?


No. Only EQ. Lots of EQ on every track I have. Otherwise I have a MIDI controller. I am fading things in, stopping things suddenly, and always tweaking EQs. When I started I tried doing some processing and quite quickly it felt like I was only doing it because that's what you do on a computer, you twiddle parameters. And at a certain point I realized, this isn't adding anything really. So I stopped doing that. I had so many sounds that had all the qualities I needed already.


When we met in Norberg we talked a bit about very high and very low tones. Is the spatial dimension of any importance to you? Do you feel or imagine a space.


For sure. I really feel like I am working with space. And I don't mean a ‘real’ space, but a space in which I create a horizon or an event that is really close, or a fast movement or a slow movement, or something that is in the distance or has the feeling of thick texture. For me this is as important as the time aspect.


So there can also be narrow spaces, claustrophic spaces, all kinds of spaces?


Yes.