Interview with PRS short-listed composer Marc Yeats [Part I]

Composition:Today talks to Marc Yeats, recently short-listed for the PRS for Music’s New Music Award

Article by David Bruce for Composition:Today

A few days ago the PRS Foundation announced the short-list for this year’s New Music Award. The award offers £50,000 to a creative team towards the creation and performance of a ground-breaking new work. The award seems to be attempting to do for contemporary classical music what the Turner Prize has done for contemporary art – in particular, to attempt to stir up controversy or interest by selecting projects that have a wacky or unusual approach to making music.

I spoke with one of this year’s short-listed candidates, composer Marc Yeats about his life and work, and about his ‘SatSymph’ proposal.

Marc Yeats

© Stampfli & Turci

  • Tell us something about your background.

      I didn’t write this, but it’s as good a précis of my background as any.

      Born in 1962, an only child, brought up in London, attended a Roman Catholic school, had traumatic treatment at the hands of his father, losing his mother to cancer in 1977, when he were just 15, by which time he’d already commenced serious painting sold through private galleries, moved to Devon with his volatile father, ran a confectionary shop, experienced bankruptcy, yet all the while yearning to creatively express himself.

      Instead of the expectations of his teachers for a highly gifted student to embark on a professional career in the arts, palaeontology or veterinary medicine, profound setbacks and circumstances blighted his academic advance: instead he mopped hospital floors but went on to qualify as a registered nurse for people with learning disabilities. After marrying at 21 to his wife in Devon, they both moved from Southampton to the opposite end of the UK, the Isle of Skye to give free reign to his creative vitality and verve.

      His translation to abstract painting and acquisition of technical skills for a serious musical composer, while earning a living as a part-time ambulance driver, teaching the disabled and helping raise a family as a gay man, has, in just over a decade, realised more than 100 pieces, gaining credit and approbation from contemporaries, without benefit of scholastic opportunities at a college, university or conservatoire. The more remarkable for having been praised by some of the world’s most respected and innovative composers, musicians and commentators – testified by performances and prizes awarded to him by revered national and international institutions and orchestras/ensembles including those in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, New York City, Leipzig, Tokyo, together with various ensembles in Britain, Canada, Holland, Italy, New Zealand, broadcasts in the UK, Germany & Italy.

      My thanks to Keith Evans (introduction to an interview from April 2007)

      I now live and work in Somerset, England with my partner, Mark.

  • How did you start composing?

      I loved music, especially classical music ever since I was a young teenage boy. My journey through music was a very frustrating one. I knew I had to write music – I believed that I could write music but was frustrated by my total lack of knowledge about how music worked, what instruments could do and how one wrote music down. Yet, I would hear this strange stuff – my own music – bubbling away in my head whilst feeling utterly frustrated about not being able to capture it or do anything with it in any way. For several years I despaired, not knowing what to do to bring this torment to an end.

      When I was 16 I began the long journey of teaching myself how to read and write music. It took many years. As soon as I understood something, my imagination quickly moved on, demanding new techniques to be mastered. My musical imagination was constantly running ahead of my ability to keep up with it. Again, this was totally frustrating. Eventually, when I was 34, I had a number of breakthroughs in writing my music down that resulted in my sending some of my rather illiterate scores off to various people. One of these was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Hoy Summer School that he ran on Orkney back then. Max saw my potential, took me under his wing and created some wonderful opportunities for me. I learnt much. I also realised that coming from a background where I had no musical or instrumental training, whilst not the best career start, turned out in many ways to inform a large part of the process that developed my musical voice and imagination into what it is today. As Max always used to tell me, “you are your own man”.

      I would like to think that even after my inauspicious start as a composer, if I can now write music, feel fulfilled in what I do and hopefully bring some pleasure or distraction to others, it’s possible for anyone to do it where they have sufficient passion, drive and ultimately, self belief to carry them through the inevitable hurdles.

  • Marc Yeats

    Music score of ‘The Round And Square Art of Memory’ for piano and orchestra
    © Stampfli & Turci

  • What drives your work, what are you passions ?

      Life, Love, Lust!

      Ultimately, for me, sound is magical, unknowable, sensual and part of my very being.

      Inspiration comes from life and living life – from all those experiences, from everything you sense. These experiences, thoughts and impressions are stored somewhere deep inside memory and perception. They gestate and eventually emerge, quite transformed, into a piece of music or painting. Of course, there are intellectual faculties that are brought to bear on this process too; you need to know how to use instruments and notate music, you also need to know your craft and have a sense of your aesthetics.

      Contrary to what many people think, there isn’t any direct correlation between what I’m feeling at the time I write a piece of music and what the music turns out like. A bad day or terribly frustrating week doesn’t necessarily result in music that expresses those feelings at that time – the process is a lot less obvious and a lot less ‘romantic’ than that. A commission involves certain parameters – instruments to be used, duration, occasion and sometimes a starting point or theme are suggested. These parameters create the vessel into which I pour my musical thoughts. Often, I will not know exactly what I am going to end up with; I just have an impression of a mood or colour. That becomes my starting point and from there I let my imagination, craft and the musical material itself guide me to where it best feels realised. It’s a voyage of discovery for me too!

  • You were just short-listed for the PRS for Music’s New Music Award. Tell us about your plans for the piece.

      SATSYMPH, a ‘satellite-symphony’, is a vehicle for delivering unique interactive satellite-triggered musical experiences. SATSYMPH turns the prevailing paradigm of what music IS, how it is created, delivered and experienced on its head. It takes symphonies out of the concert hall for anyone to take anywhere with a GPS signal. SATSYMPH makes YOU the person creating your own symphonic experience.

      The first SATSYMPH opus is the specially created ‘ON A THEME OF HERMES’, a 3-way musical-poetic collaboration with Ralph Hoyte (a poet) and Phill Phelps (a coder) and of course, me. The user will hear a music/poetry fusion inspired by the Greek god Hermes, Messenger of the gods, guide to the Underworld, patron of boundaries (and those who, as in this project, “travel across them”…), of thieves, liars, of literature and poets.

      But it is the mode of delivery that makes SATSYMPH so innovative: it is delivered on an iPhone and the music and words are triggered by satellite. ‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is initially written by poet Ralph Hoyte. Using this as a basis, the symphony (this term refers to scale rather than structure) is then composed. The music and words will be recorded and processed into modular ‘sound regions’. Using delivery platforms that are currently under development, coder, Phill Phelps will locate these regions into a given area, such as a large park, using GPS coordinates on a virtual map that represent the real location.

      This whole package is then made available as a software suite linked to the Apple Appstore. The user downloads the ‘app’, goes to the park, or other suitable space anywhere in the world, puts their headphones on and presses ‘go’. The iPhone communicates with up to seven geo-positioning satellites and they overlay the real space (the park) with the virtual regions. The user, by walking around this real space, concurrently negotiates the virtual space, thus creating their own symphonic experience. This is why SATSYMPH is so revolutionary. We create the content and the interactive regions, but we don’t, and can’t, determine how this music-poetic matrix is negotiated by the user.

      Compositionally, I will be writing and recording about 200 minutes of linear music using 10 different instruments, each having about 20 minutes material. The music will be of different energies, colours and textures. This will then be cut up, layered, multi-tracked, and in some instances processed to create new sounds, and then developed into modular sound regions. These sound regions may number up to 20. The sound regions will interact with each other as well as the ‘voice regions’ that Ralph will make.

      The challenge is to create colourful, intense, passionate and communicative music and words that can be combined in any number of ways, from the almost silent through to experiencing many sound regions at once, engendering a dense, ‘symphonic’ or orchestral result.

      As participants can initiate these sound and word regions in any number of combinations, we will create material that can work in a non narrative, non linear way whilst communicating an array of emotions and content that adds up to a fulfilling musical experience.


    A GPS-Triggered Poetic Contemporary Symphony
    © All rights reserved

  • Some people criticise the award for being a bit gimmicky. Do you see your proposal as integral to your work as a composer or a fun ‘side project’ ?

      I can understand that point of view and would share those concerns too. However, Ralph Hoyte, (poet) and myself are both very serious artists. Although we are using technology to deliver this project, we are committed to creating the strongest content we can. Musically, I am really excited by the opportunity this award presents because it gives me the opportunity to take my compositional ideas (as described below) onto the next level. Everything about SATSYMP is designed to enable Ralph to ‘compose musically’ with his words and the music I write to fuse with these words in new and evolving ways. But more than this, the technology enables us to deliver a new paradigm for how music can be experienced by an ‘audience’ and how that audience can control the way the experience unfolds for them. This represents a huge step forwards for both our work and is central to our development as artists.

  • End of Part I

    Part II (click here)

    Part III (click here)

    Interview © David Bruce
    Images © Stampfli & Turci


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