Tom Armstrong. Photograph by Francis Western-Smith

Tom Armstrong in conversation with Mimi Haddon. 1

Tom Armstrong’s interests include historical sources and their transformation, extending to treating his own music as an object of transformation. This is because Tom is not so much interested in composing out processes building on a skeletal structure, or composing into processes by getting ‘under the skin’ of an old work; he is more interested in processes of reworking and how they shape composition, perhaps through accretions, but also, particularly in the pieces discussed here, through reduction. By applying filters, in order to throw elements into relief from the silence surrounding them – like ruins treated as objects – revealing their qualities in this new context, and through repeated listenings, music becomes like architecture, like physical objects that the listener ‘walks’ around with some consciousness of their residual historical character.

Tom Armstrong and Mimi Haddon consider the nature of the historical. Is it narrow, or broad? Is it about examining forensically or considering themes that cut across musical history? What would it be like to compose out or work through the stand-out works of classical modernist composition which is already very ‘old’ in terms of current perception? Echoing reservations expressed in other interviews, around the problem of quotation, they frame this composing the historical project with an alternative postmodernism, one that de-emphasises ironic play with juxtaposed styles in favour of a more unified, albeit defamiliarised, musical surface. This music functions more as a homage to the past than as a distancing from it.

Mimi Haddon: Could you talk about your work JPR (2015), which borrows from Rameau,2 or other works that draw from historical sources?

Tom Armstrong: It’s the earliest of three pieces that have done this fully. However, previous work led in this direction. In about 2003/4 I wrote a transcription of a Syrian lute improvisation for brass quartet. A straight transcription with a few additions from me. I composed an amateur orchestral piece in 2001 based on sea shanties; I also borrowed and reworked my own music. More recently, I’m interested in processes of revision and their role in composition. The issue with the “Rameau” work, JPR, was the way that I reworked the older music. In my work previous to that there had been quite a lot of ‘clever’ things going on. I did a piece for my Dad’s 60th which was quite a serious piece, even though it was an occasional work. I created lots of serial rows, cells, generative harmonies, whereas, with the Rameau, there is no other music in there apart from his. So there is on the one hand the idea of borrowing, and then on the other hand, the idea of the filtering technique. For example, I say, I am only going to allow through appearances of the tonic chord. It doesn’t matter where they occur – whether they are on the second quaver of a bar – or on the downbeat – that’s all getting through. So that produces a lot of silence which seems like I’m rubbing stuff out – whereas what I’m doing up is setting up rules, and only letting through certain things. My approach is fairly informal, without the systematisation of composers like Brian Ferneyhough 3 or Maxwell Davies 4 who employ pre-compositional filtering techniques – it’s very much about looking at the piece and saying ‘in this particular piece, if I only allow through the tonic and dominant chord, do I get something that is interesting and aesthetically valuable?’, and if I don’t then I’ll try a different technique.

So, the Rameau was an explicit borrowing coupled with an informal technique of filtering. The final thing that makes it different is the experimental music I have been interested in in the last few years: Cage,5 Feldman,6 Brown, 7 Christian Wolff.8 Christian Wolff’s music I’ve found particularly valuable and interesting. It has a fragile quality – not at all demonstrative. It is music that you feel could break down at any moment. By contrast, my music until about ten years ago was really quite conventional in its aesthetic values. Music that is unified and organic – complex, with decoration. I’ve gradually become much more interested in music that is less demonstrative; and also in indeterminacy. So, in JPR, the pieces do line up, but there’s no split-second coordination. The three pieces line up in a loose way. The players are not having to work hard to coordinate. They are in their own worlds and their own tempos. So that gives the work a strange sound. You get these fragments that might be Rameau, while others sound disembodied and abstract. And these are combined so that you get unpredictable moments of silence; then you might get hectic activity where people are bumping into each other all the time so that the music is hard to understand; then the texture thins out again; silence; someone is left on their own at the end of the piece. So it’s a very different kind of aesthetic for me, but one that is very recognisable from the experimental tradition.

MH: I was interested in what you are saying about Wolff, and things turned around for you from not liking it to liking it; were there any particular pieces that caused you to change your mind and become attracted to the kind of fragility you are talking about?

TA: There’s a whole set of pieces Wolff wrote which are just called ‘Exercises’.9 They present many different kinds of approaches to ensemble playing. For example, in Exercise 1, the object is that the players all play from the same part, and they have a very loose rhythmical guide – a short note and a long note but apart from that a completely free rein. The idea is that at any point a player can push ahead of the rest of the pack, and the others have to decide either to catch up with them, or to leave them out on a limb, so that person has to come back to the ensemble. So, it produces a very beautiful, hazy, heterophonic effect. The instruments aren’t specified and there are a number of different recordings. They tend to use electric guitar, vibraphone, piano so you get this music where you can hear the misalignments and ‘out of time’ elements. ‘Exercise 15’ is particularly interesting; on one of the commercial recordings it lasts for 7½ minutes, then there’s another by the Wandelweise Collective on YouTube which lasts for an hour and ten minutes. The score permits very different interpretations. That’s something I’m very interested in. However this doesn’t come through in the Rameau piece. My turn towards the experimental really comes through my interest in the composer-performer relationship. About ten years ago I had an argument with a performer about interpreting a piano piece of mine, where I was trying to ask the performer to play certain sections in a particular way. And the performer turned round and said, ‘I did what you wanted Tom, but I wasn’t that happy with it; I didn’t feel I had much ownership of the piece; and I didn’t feel it was ‘my’ piece and yet you wrote it explicitly for me.’ We had this conversation about it and at one point there is this particular moment in the piece which is a real stumbling point for both of us. And I suddenly saw the passage from the performer’s point of view, and saw how the performer might shape this section very differently. And that made me realise that the piece could have come out very differently had we started collaboratively much earlier: it could have been about nuance, reverberation. As soon as I saw that point of view – allowing the performer latitude – that responsibility and freedom could change the nature of the music – that led me very quickly towards re-evaluating the experimental tradition.

MH: So, in the context of the topic of the Composing the Historical project, there are three or more layers: the material is from Rameau, but the influence is from the New York School. And then there’s also the influence of the performer as well. So in terms of drawing from ‘historical’ sources you have multiple influences coming into the piece. It’s not just the Rameau, it’s other things as well.

TA: And also Baroque music itself is renowned for giving the performer freedom. For example Louis Couperin10 devised the unmeasured prelude, an 18th century graphic notation – wonderful – the Baroque is a good place to explore that kind of relationship.

MH: And I suppose you have traditions of improvisation that you don’t see in later periods – for example the Da Capo aria where you do the first part again but differently.

TA: And in JPR there is no improvisation although the way I’ve laid out the parts (there is no score) is unconventional. I don’t use rests, I use blank bars. Each individual part is an intact Rameau composition. So all the proportions are exactly as they were in the original – it’s just that most of the notes are missing. And the reason I kept the bars blank (as opposed to rests) is that I did want to suggest to the performers’ minds that the bars might be filled with something. It’s to raise the performers consciousness a little – it can be interesting because it encourages them to reflect on what this means and ask more questions of the score, rather than taking it at face value. But I should say that to this point there has been no improvisation – just a sense of flexibility. The first performers I wrote this for were not interested in introducing new stuff – they felt it wasn’t necessary.

MH: This idea of leaving the bars empty is that something you use in the ‘Schubert’ piece Tänze (2018) as well?

TA: Tänze is one of three works in this vein. It would be good to talk about the third, which is Distant Beauties (2017), later on. Tänze is different from JPR, which was a kind of indeterminate mash-up of Rameau where each instrument is playing a filtered part from a different Suite from Rameau’s Collection Pièces de clavecins en concerts (1741). Different tempos, different metres, different keys presented simultaneously. But the performers are not free to align the music in any way – entries are instead subject to time cues. That differentiates the trios.

The thing about the Schubert piece is that there is none of that structure at all. Each of the waltzes are taken from 36 Original Dances (36 Originaltänze, D.365, Vienna, 1822) which would likely have been improvised by Schubert before being written down, and presented for two or more keyboards. The difference from JPR is that all the pianists are playing from the same score, and they can start at whatever number of Waltz they like, and cycle through the collection e.g. 15 to 36 then back to 1 and up to 14. The idea is that the negotiation of the texture  is up to the performers; the only guide is the instructions in the score.

Tom Armstrong, Tänze (score) – instructions for performers

There is a maximum of five or a minimum of one Waltz per page. Where there is more space on the page this implies more time before moving on to the next Waltz. That is one way I intervene in influencing how the texture might evolve. But, apart from that, what the performers are doing is, essentially, improvising in terms of the way they collide with each other. They are improvising a very slow canon – because they are all playing the same thing, but starting at different points.

Modernist Tom · Tanze (2018) @ Surrey 13 Feb 2019

Examples: Tom Armstrong, Tänze.
(1) Performance Surrey 13 Feb 2019 (link to Soundcloud);
(2) Performance York May 2019 (YouTube)

So Tänze is distinguished from JPR in its indeterminate aspect. The pianists decide how to negotiate the work. They could decide that each page lasts 90 seconds. I don’t specify how to work through the piece except for the simple guide at the start. So, there are greater differences between performances and with more players it can create a denser texture.

MH: So, this music – the Schubert, the Rameau – can you tell me what that means to you?

TA: The Schubert is hugely nostalgic. I got into music through piano lessons and a very good piano teacher who introduced me to Schubert. Schubert’s music is quite easy to engage with – relatively sight-readable. As a good pianist, but essentially an amateur, this material was congenial. My father was also a Schubert fan, and there’s a sense of remembering him through that music as well. This is a big driving force. With the Rameau, I didn’t know the Pièces de clavecin en concerts – the idea came by chance from Trio Aporia11 for whom I wrote these pieces and with whom I had been working experimentally with the intention that I should make a piece from the results of our experiments. I thought it would be something with improvisation but Jane Chapman said ‘come and hear us play Rameau’. They played Rameau’s Pièces and I was blown away – the music seemed free of many of the clichés of the Baroque. Jane suggested I use the Rameau as a starting point for my trio. So I went away with this idea. It was an accident – although what’s interesting about the Rameau is that it speaks to the flexibility of what the musical work might be. Some of them can be performed as harpsichord solo pieces, whereas with others you can add the viola da gamba and flute parts. So that ability spoke to the experimental interest I was caught up in at that time. The modernity of Rameau was also important – and this material is the lifeblood of the trio. So in the silences of my version, they (the players) are hearing the original.

MH: Early in this conversation you mentioned a Syrian lute transcription and sea shanties. What was your relationship to those pieces?

TA: The Syrian piece was one of my few political pieces and coincided with the Iraq War (2003). That’s the only time in my life when I haven’t voted Labour. I felt strongly that the War was terrible. I felt that what had happened was simply pitting East against West and served little if any discernible purpose. So taking Middle Eastern music and transcribing it for a western ensemble – which can’t play quarter tones – was interesting in that context. The piece was an appropriation on the level of instrumentation but I tried to intervene as little as possible in the material; for example, such harmony as is employed is generated heterophonically rather than being imposed from ‘without’. The Sea Shanties piece was commissioned by the City of Rochester Symphony Orchestra in Kent – and because of the heritage of the county – with its dockyard history – I felt that was a good source to use. And it connects to JPR because it is a kind of quodlibet12 – but the materials are layered in a finely controlled fashion and all align harmonically.

MH: How did you find the material – from a recording?

TA: From a trio of sea shanty collections. Hugill, Stan. (1994) Shanties from the Seven Seas (Mystic Seaport Museum Stores Inc.); Kinsey, Terry. (1989) Songs of the Sea (Robert Hale Ltd.); Palmer, Roy. (1986) The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (Oxford University Press). 

MH: So. What do you think Ed means by the historical? Is it specific, or open ended, or plural? What do we think composing from the historical is?

TA: It depends on your view of how music history figures in one’s upbgringing and how you feel about tradition. The music Ed selected for his Sinfonia project obviously speaks very strongly to his musical experiences, and it is further back in history than my own music. I like the idea of the historical being broad – I like broad categories. For example the post-war European avant garde are now historial, but that kind of modernism had a big input into my vocabulary. My own university training was at York University where I worked with Roger Marsh13 who is a devotee of Bernard Rands,14 who was in turn a devotee of Luciano Berio,15 so you have the post-war connection there. Then you have David Blake,16 who is more of an advocate of the second Viennese School. So just in that music department you have two aspects of musical modernism, pre- and post-war. I often thought of this as contemporary music, and continued to do so for a very long time. But only in the last ten years have I started to realise how old that music is.

MH: Yes, exactly.

TA: I think Ed is thinking of the historical in a broad sense. For my purposes – I’ve started to think about how I might do this with Webern,17 or Berio, or Birtwistle.18 Apart from the copyright problems, an issue would be the kinds of ways in which I am filtering and layering. This would have much less effect in atonal music, than in tonal music. What would be harder to achieve is the distancing effect. With Rameau and Schubert you start to get this distancing between then and now. There is a sense you are hearing something that is familiar but, at the same time, not. One is playing with history in a kind of post-modern sense. It is interesting to consider how Ed’s composing the historical seems antithetical to notions of the post-modern that emphasise the playful combination of different things. Certainly, Ed’s approach downplays quirky eclecticism or nostalgic longing for a past that cannot be recovered. And it’s the same for me – my JPR and Tänze are homages to those composers. So there is a sense of looking back affectionately on much older music. And putting this into the context of our own time but in a less angst-ridden way than one might find with a composer like Rochberg 19 (hardly surprising considering I don’t belong to his generation). This is achieved by folding the music onto itself rather than juxtaposing it with my authorial voice. For me, the notion of historical distance is important but on a more general level history is there and that raises interesting questions. There is certainly a sense of defamiliarisation when listening to JPR or Tänze yet this arises through layering the historical materials, not framing them with materials from the present.

MH: I didn’t have anything particular in mind when I asked you this question of what is the historical, but when you mentioned the fragility of Wolff, I thought immediately of Webern: similarly delicate, similarly fragile, but perhaps it wouldn’t lend itself to the same treatment because it sounds too “new”. Even though it’s about 100 years old, at this point.

TA: That’s a very interesting challenge. If I were to do that with Webern, one might have to think of a para-linguistic approach, where you are actually talking about all the ways in which Webern has been written about – but what would be more interesting is to use analyses of Webern as a starting point. So it would be what people have said about Webern, rather than his own music per se.

MH: On that topic, and in relation to this idea of composing the musicology, and also the point that a lot of post-World War II music was written in a very specific context, vis-à-vis issues of race and gender, would you ever consider doing a historical project that was informed by gender? For example, we know comparatively so little about the history of women’s music, would you ever do this as a kind of archaeological excavation of female composers?

TA: I am with a colleague at Surrey thinking of a project on creative partnerships. It’s challenging the myth of woman as muse. It’s looking at how partners support one another creatively. It might be one is a composer, and one isn’t. A whole set of different relationships in the world we live now. My colleague is an expert on Ethel Smyth20 and her partnership with one of her librettists is very interesting. It was personal and affected the librettos. There was the output of Fanny Mendelssohn21 and how she influenced and sustained her brother, Felix.22 The artistic output we are planning from it may well take the Mendelssohns as a starting point. It’s true this is a rich and deep seam. I am a composer in a university and one is trying to find ways of working informed by research. My skills are as an artist – I am not a theorist. But if you can team up with a colleague who does theorise then there are ways in which your composition can be useful in bringing elements of research to light. There’s also a lot of related work on that in the act of completion, almost the opposite of what I have done to Rameau and Schubert, where musicologists and composers might share territory in the act of finishing off incomplete pieces.

The third piece I mentioned is actually the middle member of this trio of borrowings and, because of the particular function it was to fulfil, approaches an historical source slightly differently.  

My composition Distant Beauties (2017) is based on the Prologue to the Sleeping Beauty ballet23 by Tchaikovsky24 – commissioned by Jennifer Jackson.25 Every year London Studio Centre,26 an HE institution, with their final year students, form a series of companies and each one does a tour around the UK. Jenny wanted to use the Prologue and work with choreography in a way similar to me. Mixing and matching elements of existing choreography with new choreography by her students. So mixing the historical with the new. And I was doing my usual thing with filtering the original. But there were two interesting differences. One was to do with medium. Whereas the Tchaikovsky is a lavish orchestral score, I had two instruments – flute and viola. This was my choice, partly conditioned by budget. So there is no attempt to recreate the lushness of the original. I made the whole thing thinner and fragile. Sometimes they are playing the melody together in unison, sometimes elements of the accompaniment. There are elements in Tchaikovsky that my older music had – mechanical elements. Many sequences. Also a love of rhythmic drive and patterning. The other thing that connects to my outlook is the sense of continuity. I was often, in an attempt to critique this rather conventional aesthetic  of ‘seamlessness’, getting rid of the connective ’tissue’ and presenting the ideas much more starkly. Also there was no indeterminacy to the layering because this material had to be danced to. I couldn’t obscure everything in a kind of wash of mashed-up Tchaikovsky. So what you get in Distant Beauties is a process that is akin to sculpture and etching. What I’m doing is removing bits of it to produce something new from that. My music is the finished sculpture or etching – what is left in relief. A different but related process to that used in JPR and Tänze in which it is the combination of these etched parts that is important. More unadorned than those. Either people thought it was awful or they loved it! One person’s reaction was I had ruined the music – which got me into the idea of ‘ruination’ and the idea that it could become an approach.

MH: Yes – ruins can be quite beautiful. We like to go and look at them, for example.

TA: My angle on some of this music finds parallels in Robert Ginsberg’s The Aesthetics of Ruins27 in which he writes of the importance of dynamism, that a ruin invites movement in the spectator but also that it may itself move out to meet you in some way. How you do that musically is an interesting issue. My Schubert piece (Tänze) attempts to – you are hearing the same thing, but in a different context. When pianist number 3 comes round to waltz 1 you might have heard pianist 2 play it already but very differently – so that difference of perspective has something akin to spatial movement – and, of course, the context in which you hear waltz 1 again is bound to be different because of the indeterminate structure.

MH: You are elucidating its different dimensions, like a piece of architecture. A multi-dimensional object.

TA: Exactly.