In Death to Kosmische you have the string quartet use a stylophone and an omnichord. In the past you’ve used an Atari 2600 games console. Is your fascination with the sound of these old electronic instruments, or with the technology, or both?
Both. My fascination with old electronics stems from my childhood. My father is an electronics collector/retailer/repairman and our house was always filled with various incarnations of electronic devices, many of them not working properly. By the time I came around the house was already full of vintage machines and this collection continued to grow throughout the 70s and 80s as we’d receive the latest device to test drive (Betamax machines, video disc players, video game consoles, etc.). I was always surrounded by these sounds so they became part of my subconscious. For me the sonorities generated by these machines feel very natural placed within an otherwise ‘traditional’ acoustic ensemble. Certain sounds have become iconic to me and I want to capture and manipulate these “icons” within a new environment. For example, the sounds from the first video games from the late 70s/early 80s: 8-bit, unrefined, gritty. When these are fused with orchestra they take on a new dimension. Or the voice: Slim Whitman sounds like Slim Whitman, Rob Halford’s falsetto scream is one of a kind – he’s done this for a long time and it’s been in my brain for 25 years. The only way to capture this very particular sound is to go straight to the source: on vinyl. I want to use these colours.
There’s also something very appealing about taking something that’s associated with a particular function and a particular period in history, and creating new contexts for it. Similarly: is there something particular about the stylophone which you like? It always reminds me of Rolf Harris.
The sound of the stylophone is so distinctive – you’re not sure what it is at first, it’s like nothing else. When it doubles an acoustic instrument it can create this kind of sinister undertone to a melody – a fuzziness. I like that it has different connotations for different people – for some it’s different aspects of the 60s – Bowie, Rolf Harris, sci-fi, retro-futurism. Some mention Dr. Who, A Clockwork Orange.
Are there other persistent sources of inspiration for you, besides early electronic instruments?
I am enormously influenced by films and directors. Hitchcock, Kubrick, Polanski, Von Trier, Lynch, Cronenberg, Coppola. I read a lot of books by and about film and film directors. I love reading interviews with directors. They describe their work in much the same a way a musician does – orchestration as it pertains to scenes, cutting/splicing, form, pacing and timing, patterns, rhythm, meter and flow. I just recently finished two great books: one on Saul Bass, the acclaimed graphic designer/film titlist (he also directed some scenes in films, i.e. the shower scene in Psycho). Definitely inspirational. The other is a book of interviews with film editor/sound designer Walter Murch.
My parents have a huge record collection – most of which are Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary and film soundtracks along with some classical records – and these were on rotation during my formative years. I still listen to some of those records to this day. Simultaneously, in the early 80s I became obsessed with MTV so pop/rock/metal had a huge impact. This continued as the 80s progressed into the early 90s and I started getting into the subgenres, experimentation and counterculture that MTV rejected.
Your compositions have an amazing sense of open-endedness and spontaneity about them, but you’re notationally precise, even in your compositions with turntables. Do you think of your pieces as ‘Improvisations’ à la Boulez? Is that a tradition you identify with?
Absolutely. It’s what I love about the challenge of writing for instruments like turntables and even drum kit. These are traditionally associated with improvisation or are part of an oral tradition (with minimal notation). I want to capture and preserve the spirit of their spontaneity while pushing their capabilities and distorting their original function – and at the same time control when and how something happens.
Essentially, the intention with my turntable scores is to give details on what and when something is to occur on the turntables in order for it line up precisely with specific acoustic material. The same way one would notate a vocal line to line up with the orchestra to achieve a certain sonic result – for me it’s the same thing. It’s not just the presence of the turntables, it’s about the turntable as an instrument – another timbre and sound source within the ensemble that is capable of very specific articulations. Gestures, dynamics, intensity, pushing and pulling tempo in sync with the conductor, changing pitch, touch, feel, vibrato – like any other instrument. I want to emphasize the textures, colours, rhythmic and harmonic complexity, etc. that can result when turntables and acoustic ensemble join forces. What the turntables can do within the framework of concert music and vice versa.
There’s a growing trend in the UK for ‘classical club nights’, where ‘classical’ music is played – either live or by a DJ, or both – and people can dance a bit and drink. Is this something you’d like to see more of? Do you think classical music needs this sort of makeover?
I do think classical music needs a new way to reach people. I also think the promotion of classical music needs an overhaul. Classical music presented in new spaces (like clubs and warehouses) has been going on for a few years. I’ve been to some really good shows in these venues and some shows that were not so good. I don’t think it’s enough to program a classical music concert in a club. As important as it is to frame art in unexpected ways, the frame is still just that – a peripheral decoration. Some of the most interesting and inventive concerts I’ve seen recently have actually been in a concert hall. That said, I think it’s a very good thing that people are thinking about classical music in new ways and pushing forward.
For more information about Nicole Lizee and her music, visit: http://www.nicolelizee.com