Conversation with Richard Emsley, contd.
T: (laughing) -it?s moved sort of
R: (laughs) Radical shift.
T: There we are, we?re on now. It?s running now.
R: I feel inhibited now. (laughs)
T: (laughs) Your wild beast of our brains is running wild.
R: Well if you follow the notion that you just expressed about a sort of
blind evolutionary process, um, that would mean that what we fondly term as
knowledge we?re somehow inventing for ourselves as we go along. As we evolve
blindly, we?re bringing into the equation what we call knowledge as we go
through life. So that would be a rather bleak way of looking- just taking a
neo-Darwinist view it?s a rather bleak materialist atheistic view.
T: Well it?s a religion now.
R: Well, somebody might suggest, well, what is actually happening is we?re
evolving towards some sort of absolute standard of knowledge like we were
talking about Plato, there is some absolute knowledge of the universe, or
knowledge of ourselves, so it?s not a blind evolutionary thing, we?re
actually getting closer to that.
T: The idea of progress.
R: maybe it?s too comforting.
T: Well you can?t help but think, well once we?ve got to that, then what do
we do? Does this search for knowledge just evolutionarily of its own
volition just switch off?
R: What the Buddhists think of as Nirvana. You arrive at that ultimate
point of self-knowledge and you- they?re not very forthcoming about what
actually does happen, but, I think they believe that you dissolve in- you
become part of the universe. Very sort of fluffy way.
T: A selflessness. Well, do you feel a sort of kinship with that kind of
R: Well, yeah- when I?ve- I didn?t discover Zen Buddhism, the ideas in that,
until I was in my early thirties, and that was quite a bombshell because it-
I was suddenly reading ideas that crystallised all those half-thoughts you
have for ages and ages.
T: Yes, yeah.
R: You?ve been bumbling around looking for something to conform to your own
ideas and not finding it, and the suddenly discovering Zen was that thing
for me. Um, I think it was bound up with the idea that we use language to
think with and yet language is a human invention, or has arisen through
simply human evolution, so in that sense we?re trapped within the concept of
T: That sounds quite Wittgenstein.
R: It is, it is, yeah. Er, and so I think some of the ideas in Zen are
critical of a language based and a conceptual- a concept based approach to
living. And they?re saying let?s have a critique of language, let?s put it
in its proper place and claim other experience which Wittgenstein said is
that experience outside of... you know, beyond what we can speak of.
T: Hmm, have you read some Wittgenstein?
R: Um, actual Wittgenstein I?ve only read small bits of, because it?s pretty
tough meat. I?ve read quite a few books about Wittgenstein, things about
Wittgenstein. Yeah I... he?s kind of a comforting philosopher for artists
because he claims this territory er for the arts or for religion and so on
and for morality, it?s what he thinks is beyond er... what can be spoken
about. I?ve got certain problems with his starting point that thought is
language. I think he starts from the idea that whenever we think we think in
language. Although he must be defining the word ?think? in quite a closed
way when he says this.
T: Does that um... disallow thinking sort of visually then?
R: Well that?s what I?m a bit puzzled about because I think for him there
were lots of areas of experience beyond what he groups as thinking and
talking, so when he uses the word ?think?, he?s using it in a way that?s
associated entirely with language. So, what was it you just mentioned?
T: What? Thinking visually?
R: Visually. Well maybe he wouldn?t term that ?thinking?.
T: Right, oh I see.
R: So if a taxi suddenly veers off that road and crashes towards this table
would that be a... would we be thinking ?hang on, a taxi is...?? (laughs)
T: Well, no I was sort of thinking more... bringing it back to what we were
talking about your um- about the way in which we think about pieces, working
from the top down or bottom up or whatever, um... I feel I think quite...
vaguely er... about pieces that I?m about to write. It?s this kind of thing
that I then try and-
R: Well I think one thing that?s valuable about the arts is that we use all
of our attributes, so we think in a way that Wittgenstein would have defined
?thought?. Maybe in a conceptual, logical, language-based way. But then when
we?re making art we?re involved in a tactile way, in an emotional way, in a
imaginative way, visual way,
T: Hmm, yeah.
R: Smelly way...
T: It?s drawing threads together.
R: Somebody- I don?t know if you know Steve Holt, he claimed that one of the
things about the arts is the way that it involves all our ways of
T: Oh right. The way that we experience art?
R: Well I find, just to particularise it, say, when I'm writing these piano
pieces, just for an example, if I listen back on the computer to something,
um, as I sort of experience that and evaluate it, there a kid of huge
wealth, a richness of- I?m being emotional, I'm being rational, I?m being
tactile, or sensual
T: Yeah, I can identify with that. I find that when I?m in a piece I see
analogies for it all over the place, various situations or various points of
reference, I think ?that?s like what I?m doing now.?
R: Yeah. And then the other big thing that I didn?t mention was that I?m
being musical as well, I?m referring back to the history- my whole musical
experience up until now. So it?s actually quite an incredibly rich
R: I think it?s- I always find as a composer when I?m asked to talk about my
work, um, I often begin by saying I feel very uncomfortable being asked to
talk about my work because words just don?t go anywhere near the richness of
what?s going on.
T: Well, quite. There has to be a way in, really.
R: If you think society... because we?ve got words screaming at us from
every corner, you can?t avoid that, the media as well, it?s set up this
false notion that we can exhaust the meaning of everything in words.
T: That the truth lies in the words?
R: Yeah. And it can?t.
T: Yeah, yeah. You?re one of those people who instead of delivering a
lecture on your music you?d simply play some. (laughs)
T: Programme notes as well.
R: Big problem.
T: The idea of just putting in some kind of... I mean that one that I did
yesterday for example, just a... it was notes that I?d made to myself after
I?d listened to that piece myself, you know, at some stage.
R: I like that.
T: And I just jotted them down and I thought, well let?s keep those. Because
not having heard it myself in a long while I sat down to listen to it and
all this stuff was coming at me, so...
R: I thought that was an excellent programme note
T: Oh great!
R: because it was very very short, it was concise, and you said all you
needed to say, you didn?t set out on a great dissertation about things.
T: Well some of it was I felt quite esoteric, but I included it
regardlessly. As, you know, as a- it?s not always necessary that things are
immediately understood even if they are language. Just put it in there are
something to generate... bounce off ideas or something.
R: There?s one of the American er late nineteenth century... I think it was
Emerson, one of the people Charles Ives was interested in, um, who came out
with the thought that trying to be consistent is just a..
T: Oh yes, Emerson on consistency.
R: Yeah. And if you get hung up on being consistent you?re just er...
R: Try telling that to a philosopher, he?d get in an awful tizzy.
T: Or some composers!
R: Dare we say. You think some composers operate in that entirely conceptual
T: Um, I should- yeah, almost undoubtedly, but I can?t- I wouldn?t like to
start thinking of anybody.
R: I suspect it would be pretty unfair to point at composers and claim that
they were doing just that.
T: Well, it?s a sort of um... It?s an interesting thing though about
consistency because some composers are quite- have quite a kind of eclectic
output, each piece is very different, and er some composers like you I
think, this ?for piano? series has a sound to it, it?s definitely... it?s
T: So that?s a kind of consistency in itself. A continuity in a way of
R: That's very different from um logical consistency.
T: Yeah er- oh what you mean within a piece? In terms of the actual
composition of a piece?
R: I suppose I was thinking about composers who might feel they can exhaust
the entire meaning of their work er in a verbal account of the work.
T: Oh I see, oh right.
R: In the way that conceptual art seems to consist of just the concepts.
T: Right. So there?s no need to listen to the piece now that I?ve explained
it so thoroughly.
R: Yeah. And a piece of conceptual art, somebody did the ultimate by just
writing up the ideas on a piece of paper and sticking it to the wall, so
there was no actual physical art there, just the concept. That?s definitely
not the sort of art that interests me.
T: Well, no, that?s pushing music out the door.
T: It?s very demeaning.
R: Do you think maybe for instance some of the er the ?Brit-Artists? um...
the importance of their work seems to boil down to an interpretation of the
work that could be put into words.
T: I can?t-
R: And the physical reality of the work counts for very little.
T: I... Some, yeah, but there?s a lot that I like at the moment, and also a
lot that I dislike as well, but I mean, my suspicion is that?s from a-
that?s coming from an academic origin, I think because composers suffer from
that as well, this um... explanation of your work, this justification. We
live in an age of accountability.
T: You know, be it budget or be it pictures.
R: I think we do- Sorry what was that?
T: No, just be it budget - money - or pictures. ?Why a B flat? What?s the
point of that??
R: Maybe it?s because we have to watch these terrible news programmes on
television all the time where journalists are pestering these politicians
about how you account for this and that.
T: They?ve turned the tables on us.
R: Yeah. I think that?s why um... it?s important for us composers to lay
claim to spaces of experience that there?s just not any worry about giving
accounts like that.
T: Well I think it?s clear you know that people like- people who?s music I
like anyway like you and so on, are doing- are obviously all operating in
certain arenas, and its justification is coming out of itself, just having
experienced it for a while. And, you know, the first time I met you I didn?t
think ?go on then, what?s it all about then?? And then think ?ok well done,
I?m on your side.? (laughs)
R: If you had I wonder whether we?d be sitting here now. (laughs)
T: (laughs) I might have been but I don?t think you would have been!
(laughs) ?I don?t want to be interviewed by him, he wants a thesis!?
R: Which is probably exactly what I?ve given you over the last hour.
T: Well, yeah but you know, you?re- the future of your budget doesn?t depend
R: What you?ve just said er... would then introduce to me the notion of er
value. Because if we?ve started off by saying let?s rule out of court any
sort of conceptual, verbal accounts of what we?re doing because we don?t
find that particularly valuable, would there not then enter the question er
some sort of absolute artistic value, in other words, is this a good piece
of music or is it a bad piece of music? So that if I was sitting next to
Laurence during your concert last night and the two of us might have had
conversation between the pieces along the lines of ?I didn?t think that was
a terribly good piece?, ?I thought that was a lovely piece?... and so that?s
more the sort of thing us composers do talk about.
T: Well yeah, yeah.... I?m just gonna put a coat on.
R: Yeah, yeah. That?s something that if I were interviewing you, because as
I read you- yeah, ok, turn the microphone around.
T: Well it?s an open arena.
R: (laughs) I?m interested in er your idea of life in the everyday world is
something where things just happen. A lot of what we find in life is stuff
just happening. You know, three Chinese people have just arrived outside the
T: yeah I was just thinking that! There?s stuff going on in there, cricket
inside the pub, conversation over there.
R: Who knows what might happen.
T: And all of the traffic.
R: Well if you er celebrate that idea and you build your pieces on just that
idea, um, would you lay claim to the notion that particular pieces of yours
had any value beyond the value we might find in people just bumping into us
on the street? And if you walk down a street and er different things happen
to you, that?s by definition a very prosaic everyday experience, is that
just the sort of experience you would want a listener to find in your music?
Or, because it?s a piece of music, is it for you establishing some sort of a
value that transcends that everyday sort of experience.
T: Well, um...
R: In other words could just anything happen in your pieces?
R: Ah! I think that?s the answer there.
T: No, or it, you know-
R: And it?s a big question with Cage, isn't it.
T: Well exactly. I don?t open the doors wide enough. And er Cage- you know,
I?m far more of a closed- I mean you?re operating within a minor third,
(laughs) I?m a little bit wider than that, but Cage is maybe a football
pitch, but still it?s-
R: I suspect even Cage would say no, like you just said no.
T: Well I feel with Cage it?s a sort of er... discipline is the sort of-
R: It?s more to do with the performance of pieces.
T: Discipline of some sort is the other side to the balance of ?well, let?s
just do anything?. That?s- it?s an openness to anything but I think that?s
where- that?s where I feel the- he um gets cross when the element of
discipline in whatever is lost.
R: Yes, if during the performance of a Cage piece at which he was present, a
drunken member of the audience staggered onto the platform and starting
chanting ?England, England!?
R: Would that have been ok by Cage?
T: Well I er did hear a story about um... something Cage had done which was
for a Merce Cunningham performance and there was an open element to it, and
um, I can?t remember where I read this, or whatever, but Christian Wolff and
whoever was around at the time performing decided that they should sing some
political songs and that this would fit within this openness, and Cage was
R: Well I?ve heard John Tilbury say that despite his putative openness, Cage
resisted students performing his work, he very much favoured his chosen few
experts for performance and you know that really begs the question about his
T: Well, in terms of performers that?s just performance practice, which is
the same for anything I feel, if we were talking about...
R: So Cage is actually creating a space with boundaries to it.
T: Definitely I think.
R: So he wants to observe randomness- radical randomness but within the er
boundaries of that space.
T: Yeah. I feel.
R: Why did he insist on the boundaries, do you think?
T: Er, because it?s a form of focus really. Because if your openness is
encompassing er, you know, everything, you have to focus in....
R: So does that mean he was interested in the experience of somebody
consuming art, experiencing art. So he was interested in sitting somebody
down in the auditorium and saying, now you are gonna witness art, even if
it?s a very random art?
T: Well, I suppose, it?s putting things in a frame, isn?t it. Just- it?s the
Duchamp wheel. It?s putting it in an arena where you would actually pay
attention to it.
R: I suppose the thing to compare it with is the Happenings in the sixties.
T: Well, yeah.
R: Which would be much more radically open to literally anything.
T: Well, yes, the Happenings are a sort of, if you like, mannerist
consequence of these kind of slightly more disciplined in somebody?s mind
things that Cage was doing earlier on. I don?t know, it?s a speculation, I
don?t know the exact history of Happenings.
R: Maybe this is er... maybe this cuts quite deep in the human psyche. We do
insist on boundaries all the time. You know, if you wanted to have a wild
sexual experience with somebody, you?d say ok I want a wild sexual
experience, but then if they went beyond the boundary of what you?re
T: Well what?s your definition of wild?
R: Yeah, you have set up boundaries even if there?s going to be wildness
within the boundaries.
T: But we all live within certain er... we all have boundaries. We live with
certain expectations, and certain...
R: I saw something-
R: This isn?t relevant at all really... I was just watching television the
T: It?s still going.
R: Is it still going?
T: Yeah. I hope we haven?t just wiped, let me just stop it for a second.
R: Is that a minidisc?
R: How much time can you get?
T: Seventy six, or something, minutes.
R: do you use both sides or is there just one?
T: Just one side.
R: Like a floppy disc.
R: Is it going now?
T: Yes. Just thinking about what you were just saying, with that two piano
piece last night-
(End of recording)