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

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

[Part II]

  • You are a visual artist as well as a composer, is there a relationship between your work in the two fields? Does one influence the other? Tell us how you feel being active in two distinct areas.

      This question and the following question are totally linked for me. The strong relationship between my work as a visual artist and composer is not easy to articulate but its effects are felt throughout my work. These two creative forms are closely linked by techniques and constructions developed over many years of practice. My compositions often influence new approaches to painting, just as techniques in painting have influenced my musical development. As Sir Peter Maxwell Davies once said of my work “you can hear the brush strokes”.

      Although I am interested in surfaces represented in sound, colour, form and texture, my work is further influenced by a fascination with layering, geology and erosion. The work, both sound based and visual, is primarily inspired by landscape – but this fascination gravitates around representing landscape in terms of molecular and primal energies rather than recreating what is seen.

    Marc Yeats

    Marc Yeats
    Movement from
    Oil on mounted board
    53.94 x 48.43 inches
    © Marc Yeats c/o Stampfli & Turci

    Marc Yeats

    Marc Yeats
    Movement towards no.4
    Oil on mounted board
    36.22 x 48.03 inches
    © Marc Yeats c/o Stampfli & Turci

      When beginning a new work, the end result remains a mystery – it is a true journey of discovery. I believe this approach to creativity ensures spontaneity, movement, energy and a degree of poetry.

      As well as surface and layering, recycling is central to my compositional methods (I like to be a green composer!).

      I work acoustically and electroacousmatically. My electroacousmatic pieces use combinations of digitally altered acoustic material alongside newly created digital sounds or sounds harvested from field recordings that are then processed, multi-tracked and manipulated in various ways. This array of production techniques creates new sound-worlds and textural combinations.

      New works are also originated by recycling existing pieces of music through changing contexts and relationships, transforming this material into something quite new. Many of the acoustic pieces I write find their starting point from within other pieces of music I’ve already written.

      I am fascinated how altered contexts can radically redefine the way musical material feels and sounds. Transplanting different layers, voices or strands of music from one piece to another, altering tempi and dynamics, transposing, inverting, and then letting those strands sound out together; all of these methods fascinate me.

      Like the music, my paintings are often produced in series, each painting being influenced by the former. Sometimes I will paint two or three pictures at the same time, each sharing the same starting point, layers and processes until something happens to make me want to separate them and explore them in different ways. In music, the recycling of material ensures that there is a ‘genetic’ connection between all the works – sometimes up to 15 individual pieces may be connected in this way. They are like sons and daughters, cousins, five times removed. With this ‘genetic’ material comes history, characteristics and content. In music, as with people, the way this genetic material is ‘lived out’ determines the character and make-up of the person or piece. This can lead to very individual outcomes.

  • Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

      The music I compose is a battle between two musical trains of thought. Although both would be described as atonal, one is more expressive and colouristic with pronounced harmonic references, the other, monolithic and atavistic in its extremes of register, colour and form. The confrontation between these two musics results in a fusion that engenders a personal approach to structure, colour, timbre and dialectic. This fusion can be seen as the working out of two strands of musical thought filtered through transformations that originate in the techniques of abstract painting. The rules of this fusion and transformation may elude the listener somewhat, but the resultant drama, be it passive or active, should be direct and communicative.

      The genesis of this compositional approach stems from two main areas.

      Firstly, my initial experiences with music which fell between the warm nostalgia of the English Pastoral School, with composers such as Vaughan Williams, Bax and Morean making a large emotional impression, and its diametric opposite, my excitement with the avant-garde expressionism and experimentalism of the 60s and 70s.

      Secondly, being a landscape painter, my work with colour, form and texture impacted directly on my thoughts about the construction and content of music. As my painting developed away from the representational into the abstract and my repertoire of techniques grew, so did my conviction that I could develop a personal compositional language by exploring these techniques in a musical context. Now, both musical threads are transformed through my ‘painterly ear’ to assimilate what feels like a personal, natural and unselfconscious outpouring of sound.

      Marc Yeats

      Marc Yeats
      Cliffs near West Bay, Dorset 1985
      Oil on canvas
      16 x 12 inches
      Private collection
      © Marc Yeats c/o Stampfli & Turci

      It is worth mentioning this genesis, as on first hearing, the music may sound arbitrary, improvisational and sometimes chaotic. This is not the case. It is clear that the music does not operate within the logic of number series, motivic development, Fibonacci-based proportions, functional harmony, magic squares, tone rows or any of the usual gamete of compositional techniques.

      There is another kind of logic at work, a personal logic that has its roots in my experience of the techniques and processes of abstract painting. This compositional logic originates from inside the music itself rather than being imposed from the outside upon it. The surface of the music – what you hear – reflects the many processes, some systematic, some intuitive, that have gone into its creation. This surface is the music; its own context, self fulfilling and delighting in the visceral nature and quality of sound for sounds sake in the same way an artist can relish a particular combination of colours or surfaces as complete in itself. In my work, the relationship between musical objects is the result of a constant process of assimilation where the inherent energies and context of sound objects dictate the destiny and role that each inhabit and exhibit. In short, the sum of the parts influences the outcome of the whole.

      This is the nature of my music – the sound of it – and it is the guiding principle for its realisation.

  • Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

      As I have described, painting would be first and foremost, but for me, painting and music are just a way of understanding the world around us whilst trying to communicate a sense of that perception to others and indeed, oneself.

      Existence is full of mystery, paradoxes, joys and disasters and I hope my work reflects these experiences, too. And, I can’t say that I always ‘understand’ what I do, not on an intellectual level, but sometimes I can feel what the work means but cant articulate those feelings. I can speak about the techniques of construction, but that isn’t what the music ‘is’. I digress.

      The second biggest non-musical inspiration would have to be the landscape. As a young boy, it was a passionate, sensual interest in landscape that drove me to paint and express what I was seeing. It was this passion that later fuelled my need to compose.

  • What is your musical philosophy?

      Try to create beyond the confines of your imagination.

  • Marc Yeats

    Marc Yeats
    © Stampfli & Turci

    End of Part II

    Part III (click here)

    Part I (click here)

    Interview © David Bruce
    Images © Stampfli & Turci


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