Tim Parkinson is one of the most unassumingly fascinating composers at work in the UK at the moment. The surfaces of his music are often free of many of the usual appurtenances of experimental music, but his work continually upsets expectations and has a logic unlike any other music around. He has written for groups and ensembles including Apartment House, [rout], Incidental Music, Dedalus, Basel Sinfonietta, and the London Sinfonietta; and for various instrumentalists including Stephen Altoft, Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Julia Eckhardt, Anton Lukoszevieze, Tanja Masanti, Andrew Sparling, Craig Shepard, Philip Thomas, and Stefan Thut. Since 2005 he, John Lely and Marcus Trunk have curated the annual London-based concert series Music We’d Like To Hear. The following conversation about Parkinson’s trio with objects is based on the transcript of a conversation between Parkinson and Dominic Lash that took place at Parkinson’s London home on November 3rd, 2013.
The first page of the score of the piece can be found here.
DL: When did I hear it? Two thousand and…?
TP: 2010, actually. That’s when it was. You only heard it then, did you, at Cafe Oto?
TP: Oh, OK. I’m happy it’s stuck in your memory.
DL: I remember it very clearly. I remember being really stupid and being fascinated about how the rice rhythms had been notated! How did he do that?! Then I looked at the score…
TP: The rice was such a lovely discovery, in the kitchen. It does sound like a mini percussion orchestra. So I had fun just working it out. You can’t notate it. But that’s the funny thing – when we were doing Michael’s Ricefall piece the other week, then, although he says very specifically “one or two grains”, “moderate”, when we were playing I was looking around and everyone’s got a different idea of “moderate”. That was really interesting with the notation, because there’s me, in the kitchen on my own, I’m just sprinkling the rice to get this sound of this miniature percussion ensemble which sounds quite nice, but when I performed it with Manfred he was just pouring it on, so it was like this kind of rain, and I was saying, “no, it doesn’t have to be like that”, but then how do you write this down, this description, so I was saying “this is the sound you want to get, aim for that sort of a sound”. I mean how do you describe it?
DL: I guess you can just demonstrate. Old school.
TP: Yeah, oral tradition.
DL: “It goes a bit like this.” Have you done other things in this sort of vein, instrumental stuff with objects? I tend to think I’ve heard things that are more one or the other.
TP: Well yes, with this piece I wanted to combine the two, really. Me and James Saunders who have worked together for years doing tabletop orchestra, this piece came out of us two working at q-02 in the winter of 2007, December I think it was. We were there working and there was a really nice bunch of concerts actually, so there was me and James and Incidental Music and Antoine Beuger came and there were some discussions, so we played quite a lot of music, and James and I played something by Lee Patterson, it was a nice coming together of worlds. So then afterwards, typically late, after it had all happened, I thought, I should write something for that combination, with the string trio. And originally I thought not a trio, just maybe a duo, two strings and me and Saunders. But that just didn’t work, so it turned into a string trio with the two of us.
DL: The number seems quite important, the two objects mirroring each other and then not…
TP: It’s a better balance, isn’t it? And in the trio I don’t use it as a trio really, it’s really an object in itself actually, the trio as a thing. It’s entirely homophonic, isn’t it? I thought it would be almost totally crotchets as well, but it’s not… I wrote an orchestral piece around about the same time (orchestra piece 2008) which uses similar sort of procedures, but that is entirely crotchets, which I only realized after I’d written it. It wasn’t a restraint that I was consciously putting on it, at all. It’s like digital, like pixels.
DL: Who needs these other little tails on the notes?
TP: It’s just made out of bricks, in a way.
DL: That’s one of the things I was thinking about is the distinction, or the relationship, between playing together and playing simultaneously. Because they’re not quite the same thing.
TP: I wanted to make a piece where you’ve got both of these things together, and see what it means to have instrumental sound (with the inheritance of pitch and rhythm and so on ) with non-instrumental sound.
DL: Do you think it’s a relentless piece?
TP: I just made that note to myself now actually when I was listening to it, trying to remember it. And the first thing that strikes me is, firstly it’s much slower than I remember, and it’s very insistent and plodding, isn’t it? So it seems quite relentless, but then it does stop, and other things happen… but it takes its time and there’s a lot of space in it. It’s quite reduced, as my pieces go. There’s less in it; I think initially there was more in it and it got reduced, boiled down in a way. But I’m quite fond of it, it’s a nice piece I think. It seems really short to me, but it’s 25 minutes.
DL: It sort of flies by, I remember it flying by in the concert.
TP: Seems to have a shape to it, you know, it seems to go from something to… not like development, or anything, but it does seem to move from the beginning to the end.
DL: That’s something that I think it has in common with some other of your music, this kind of relationship between knowing what to expect but having no idea what to expect. So in a certain section, say, once it’s got going, you’re like, “OK, it’s doing this”, so you’re sort of expecting change, let’s say one of these quite crunchy textures where they’re moving in parallel, but you still don’t know at all what the next beat is going to do.
TP: Yeah, I like that very much. It’s one image, what’s happening at the beginning, but there’s so much variety in there I can’t remember all the information. There are certain moments which are familiar. But everyone’s got different associations when they listen. They are three-note chords, and occasionally they stray into recognisable harmony.
DL: How do you go about writing that sort of thing?
TP: There was some sort of strategy. It goes up and it goes down, and it goes up by a certain arrangement of steps, and it goes down by a certain arrangement of steps, and the distance between each step changes, so that’s all it is. You have a fixed thing, and you change the genetics, if you like, and out comes a whole different creature. They’re lines that just wander around. When I was just listening to it now it made me think of Beckett’s Quad, where they’re just marching around.
DL: Sort of running through permutations, aren’t they?
That’s something else I was thinking about, because the lines are so clear, what direction they move in. That’s sort of a metaphor, it’s how we think of music with pitch. Say at the beginning, you’re very aware as a listener that there is a shape, there is a direction.
TP: Up and down, what does it mean?
DL: But then how that kind of line or that kind of direction relates to the unfolding of the piece as a whole, which doesn’t have that kind of… but it does go somewhere.
TP: All these things seem very logical to me, the next thing follows the previous thing and it seems to make sense to me.
DL: Would a piece like this be something that you wrote more or less through, or would you have assembled the things and then come up with a satisfactory sequence?
TP: I think I did write it all the way through. I can’t remember because there was a previous stage when I was trying to do it as a duo, as two duos, and that didn’t work, and then it got rewritten and turned into this. Actually that’s really funny, when I look at that now [the opening of the piece], I can’t believe that’s only one page, all that stuff at the beginning. Some things are clearer than others, that first page it sounds like what it looks like, but the second bit when they’re going in contrary motion… contrary motion, I don’t really understand that, it doesn’t really mean as much as simultaneous motion. I don’t know, those textures that are being created there, and the whole notion of up and down, and then I think in contrary motion, when things are going up and down simultaneously, that’s too much information for me, I don’t know what that means…
DL: I think what stands out for me in that bit are those moments where you get unison…
TP: Yes, the lines join for a moment.
DL: … it doesn’t become two, it becomes one thing at that point, rather than two lines that have met, somehow.
TP: There’s some octaves that come in later on that sound unintentionally almost climactic. It almost feels like a resolution, here we are, we’ve joined up and we’re going in octaves together, but not at all really – that was how the lines found themselves. And that becomes a instance of cultural baggage. And anyway they don’t stay in octaves, and they occasionally bend out into a ninth or a seventh again.
DL: But then that comes back later, these things around the Ds and Es, where it’s really hard to hear it as three.
TP: It’s a definite object. I mean it’s not so good on a recording, but to hear that in the space, in an acoustic situation, it’s an incredibly fat sound, this huge, buzzing, round thing.
DL: Things like this, they’re almost moving towards the middle ground between the object players and the… The opening section is very clearly “music”, people play notes, but when you start doing these things you’re still very much hearing notes, but you’re hearing all these tiny things that you couldn’t write.
TP: The information’s reduced. At the beginning it seems to me like a lot of information, but of course by most people’s standards it’s not at all, is it? It’s the same thing going on, again and again and again, but there’s just so much going on in there, I find, and it doesn’t stop, so when we come to that other bit, it’s like it just steps back and allows itself to do something that doesn’t change so much. Singular. Then in contrast to dropping pieces of rice on paper.
DL: Single grains. I was also thinking about anticipation, the almost theatrical side of it is quite interesting, because the instruments you don’t know anything other than they’re going to presumably play their instruments, but you do know, because you can see the fans and you can see the glass, so that structural thing in terms of seeing a performance, I quite enjoyed that – ooh, they’re going to use that.
TP: That’s interesting, because I never thought of that initially. It became a question when we first performed it. For example with the fans, I had written to get up and turn on the fans all around the room, because I just wanted the sound to be from all around. But the first time we performed it it was in New York actually and it was like James and I signaled to get up and go and do this, and it was too theatrical – because the strings are playing, and it was like announcing, “right, here we go”. But I just wanted the sound of the fans to begin. So now I think let’s just put them all within reach, don’t make too much of a big deal about it. It’s unintentionally theatrical, because you’re looking at these people, aren’t you, but I never thought of it like that, I was just purely thinking of the sound. Somehow, you’ve got to make the sound. And they’ve got to make the sound, or whatever, they’ve got to have their stuff in front of them.
DL: But I think it does have that feeling, I wonder what they’re going to do with that. And in terms of where you are in the piece as well, you’re like, well this can’t be then end, because I know I haven’t heard anything from that yet…
TP: Yes, I suppose that’s nice, with the glass thing, because they only happen right at the very end. I didn’t think that people would be sitting there thinking, “when is he going to use that, then?”
DL: I mean, it’s not your first thought, but you’re aware that it’s for that piece. I don’t think it’s distracting, but I think, if I remember rightly, that that was a thought that had occurred to me.
TP: It should be as untheatrical as possible, really.
DL: It would be much more theatrical if they were hidden.
TP: It would be like sound effects, wouldn’t it?
TP: Foley, exactly. (laughs)
DL: One of the things I really like in lots of pieces of yours, is something which I find in common with improvised music – with good improvised music – is you get these sections which have such strong characters, and you know that something’s going on, and you know it’s going to stop at some point, but you don’t know when! And you’re going to be more fond of some bits than others.
TP: That’s inevitable.
DL: Maybe it’s not that it’s like improvised music, it’s just like music, but I feel that that tends to happen in improvisation, that things are often quite fairly clear, one bit goes to another bit, so you’re either sitting there thinking, I’m not sure if I’m so fond of this bit, but that’s alright because it’ll stop in a bit, and then when it stops you go, oh I really liked it, I wish it would come back, or there’s a bit you really like, and you’re like, I hope this doesn’t stop soon.
TP: Well, all things pass! People have said that to me before, why did you stop doing that, I was really enjoying that, why have you got to move on to something else, and then after a while it’s “why have you stopped that bit?”
DL: How do you decide… because while improvising, and I remember having a conversation with Mark Sanders about exactly this, it’s one of the things that as soon as you listen to the recording it’s totally obvious, but when you’re in it it’s totally not obvious, you’re listening going, this is good, just don’t stop doing that, oh idiot, you stopped, or you’re thinking this is great, just stop now and you don’t. But when you’re writing something it’s very different, so how do you think about those things, imagining proportions in a half hour piece when you’re composing it?
TP: With this one I can’t remember. It’s quite intuitive. Certainly nothing preplanned at all, actually.
DL: But is it something that sometimes when you hear it for the first time, you think…
TP: Yeah, that bit should be longer… or shorter. Whatever the earlier version of this is, that I don’t really remember at all… I throw a lot away, so there’s stuff that’s gone. I try and be as inclusive as possible. I don’t want to write a single image piece. There’s a history of that, I suppose, in contemporary music, and there’s nothing wrong with it at all, that’s fine, and it’s nice.
DL: This is something you’ve mentioned before, what is this whole single/multiple image thing?
TP: The first page of this is a single image – that’s it. Or, just a piece, like Michael’s Ricefall, for example – there we are, that’s it, one thing. It starts and you know that’s what you’re getting. Or a Phill Niblock piece, or that early Gerald Barry pieces where the whole thing is made out of chromatic scales. Au Millieu, I think it is. Just that notion that once the piece has started, that’s what you’re going to get. When I studied with Kevin Volans that was one of the compositional things that he had very much in mind. You know, write a piece which has one image, or one gesture. But that was the idea, you try and make a piece out of it. Feldman I believe called it “a composition etude”, where you make…
DL: Wring the most out of the material.
TP: Exactly. It’s not that every single piece like that is an exercise in stretching something out as long as possible, not at all.
DL: But a piece like this is kind of a whole load of things which would work as single images. The traditional thing to do would be to set out a few things in a very clear way, as you do, and then after a while you go, oh look, I’ve now brought them together. So you’ve got A and B and later on – have you spotted? – we’ve got A AND B. You don’t do that at all, but also things later on make sense as relating to things before.
I think also of pulsation, with the three note chords there’s an expansion and contraction kind of thing, so that’s a sort of movement.
TP: Oh yes, there’s that as well, so all these shapes are happening.
DL: It gets tighter or more expansive.
TP: Well that’s nice to hear. I mean that’s the thing, they’re three notes and if you put three notes together it’s a chord. And the chances are it’s a chord that you’ve heard before. Ears now are so… we know so much, so it’s not necessarily going to be a major triad but it’ll be something which rings true. Whether it’s consonant or dissonant. I mean there are some moments where it definitely sounds more dissonant than others, or like you say, when it kind of crunches up. But the section at the end where it sort of slows down and it’s all in minims, then you get to hear these chords more closely. And then it ends up rather poignant in a way I suppose, because you’re just spending time with these things, rather than just leafing through this catalogue and just going on and on and on.
DL: And that feels very different because you have most of the time just one voice changing.
TP: It slows down and the movement is reduced as well. The rate of change is reduced. I can’t remember, something like that.
DL: But that starts to sound like counterpoint in a way that the opening section doesn’t at all. It starts to sound like voices moving.
TP: That’s funny, yeah, because I never think of it like that at all. It’s just the same chord again, but change one thing in it.
DL: I sort of hear it like voice leading.
TP: But they’re not tied! I still think of it like take one, take two, take three, take four, you (viola) go over there, take five, put that there…
DL: But if you’re listening like that – maybe you shouldn’t be – but this relationship, what the string trio is doing…
TP: No, I don’t expect to change the inheritance of the way we think, or hear, or listen. That’s really interesting.
DL: Because at the beginning everyone’s doing their own thing but they’re all part of one thing. And then you get the part with all the Ds and Es and you feel it’s not quite so much of a three, because it’s hard to hear, and then all these different ways of playing the unison – that almost feels more threeish to me than the bit before. And then the pizzicato things, OK, that’s moving around. But then the bit in minims seems to be the only bit in the piece that works like that, where you hear it as one person doing something and the other two not, even though of course they’re all doing something.
TP: Yeah, you – (points to something) – move, but you – (points to something else) – don’t move. Suddenly that’s counterpoint! That’s interesting, isn’t it? I think of it more visually. Like 100 views of Mount Fuji or something… (But then of course if you ran them all together it would be like a film or something, wouldn’t it?)
DL: So it’s sort of another go – that’s quite interesting because we’re so trained to listen for this idea of forward movement even though it’s not moving forward. And we look at scores and we read them from left to right, and we think they go somewhere.
TP: That’s what’s interesting, isn’t it, the whole notion of up and down. What does that mean, for a start? And then moving forward, it’s inevitable even though it’s very much moment-conceived, in a way. It is moving forward, but it’s not making any progress! In the minim section they do move. It lands on an extremely recognizable chord then it feels like we’ve arrived, the old reactions to harmony, which is a very natural way of listening to things. We’ve arrived at this moment, but then it doesn’t stay there, it goes away from it, and bends into something else. And now we have to listen to this for a while. To me, it’s a shape. There’s this shape, and then it changes into that shape. But all that inclination the ears do towards the resultant harmonies of it, it’s like playing with fire, isn’t it? Messing around with that old baggage and meanings it used to have… Unintended shadows from the past occupants….