Interview: Julian Day

julian_portraitI recently spoke with Australian composer Julian Day, one of the winners of our commissioning project. We will be giving the world premiere of his piece Father at our upcoming concert on May 11, 2013 at Salle Pianos in San Francisco. We talked about the inspiration behind the piece, his massive synthesizer collection, stuttering CDs, and the process of eating one’s own flesh. – Dan VanHassel 

Dan VanHassel: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background as a musician?

Julian Day: I came to music from both pop and classical. I’ve always been very interested in pop music, and my father was actually a singer and an electric guitarist in a band, that was his main activity. So I grew up with the idea of pop and rock in the household. There were always keyboards and guitars and that sort of thing lying around. But when I was in my teens I really rebelled against the whole family tradition of rock music and got into classical music unexpectedly and I went off to study composition at university. It wasn’t that I came through studying piano for twelve years or something. It was from just being a big fan of listening to music and also being quite a big fan of radio. Actually that’s one of the other things I do in my career is host a new music radio program this been going on for some years now. We’ve managed to pull quite a few big name composers on the show like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. We even got Elliott Carter on the show 2 months before he sadly passed away.

D: Wow so that was one of his last interviews!

J: Yeah. So I guess all of that adds up to an interest in things like transmission; the idea of how things transmit through the air, amplification and the way things can distort, the differences between hearing things live and hearing them on headphones. You can hear in the piece I wrote for Wild Rumpus [Father] elements of all of those things in that work.

D: You said that Father was in a lineage of other pieces that you have done. Can you talk a bit about that?

J: Well about 10 years ago I started doing my radio show, and being late night in the studio every week, you get to know the technology very well. I’d often be sitting there playing CD, and having to cue them up, and always getting those little snippets of sound at the very beginning of a CD or a record. Often when you’re cueing a CD you get that classic stuttering CD sound, as you’re trying to find the exact point you want. Also, because I was cutting together a lot of interviews and putting together montages of peoples’ pieces and voice, there was a lot of treatment that I was doing to them and their work to put to air. So I started making creative works out of the little off-cuts and the techniques of trying to find the right cue point on a CD. Over the past ten years I’ve been building a body of works where I might take little fragments or a sample of something, it could be a fragment of a classical piece or a hip-hop track, or something a little more obscure, and finding ways to treat that. Whether it’s stammering through using a CD player or treating it through different processes on the computer, and I try to build acoustic relationships to that when put in a live context.

Listen to excerpt from Sextant[audio:|titles=Sextant|artists=Julian Day]

For instance, Father is not too dissimilar to a recent work that I did for amplified string quartet and soundtrack, where the soundtrack was from the final ten seconds of an unfinished quartet by Schubert. I put that through a bunch of different filters, and the quartet was effectively skipping their way through various elements of the Schubert. This was also evident in a few other pieces in recent years where live musicians are interplaying with this pre-recorded, “damaged” audio.

D: So is Father based on some other piece like the Schubert quartet?

J: Actually, this was a bit of a departure in that sense, because the soundtrack [in Father] is actually my own piece. I wrote the material that you are hearing through the speakers, and I guess “damaged” my own music.

D: These sampling techniques you mention seem related to those used in hip-hop or electronic dance music. Is that an influence on you?

J: Well it comes out of three things. Being interested in that kind of music; I grew up listening to a lot of electronic music, and a lot of sampled stuff. Also it came just out of necessity. When I first started working in radio, and before that, I just didn’t have that much gear and I needed to find some way forward to make my own music, and these low-fi techniques were just what I had in front of me. The third thing is, a bit of a critique on the classical music canon, especially when I’m using snippets from classical music. I’m trying to treat classical music as less of a fixed score or a fixed object in the canon, and more something that has a bit of plasticity that you can play around with. I feel that sometimes in the classical music world that people can get very stuck on trying to either honor the work so much that you have this authoritative Beethoven recording or performance, or you’re trying to get back to this authentic performance practice, and not feeling like you can have any agency as a creator and as a listener. It’s just trying to treat recordings as a way to be very fluid about what’s out there.

D: But in our piece you’re actually doing this to yourself! Is this some sort of snake eating its own tail?

J: (laughs) A little bit! The word that comes to mind is “autophagia”, it’s when octopuses eat themselves for instance. Even biting your nails is a form of autophagia where you eat yourself.

D: (laughs)

J: It relates a little bit perhaps to the programmatic element to the piece.

D: Right. Can you talk a bit about that?

J: Yeah, I felt a bit naked putting that in the program note, because it’s a fairly personal story. Basically, my father died a long time ago when I was in my mid-teens. It was a very tragic thing – a very haunting thing – that I’ve only really been able to process over time. My father was the person who basically got me into music. He taught me his songs from his band. He bought me a drum kit and a little Casio keyboard. He was very supportive in that. He even bought me albums by Schubert and classical composers, even though that was nothing like his own taste. So I’ve always wanted to try to reflect on my feelings about my father in my music. I guess that side of things came to me while writing this. In a way it is a kind of a tribute to him, or bringing up the memories of my father from years ago. You don’t need to know any of that to listen to the piece, but those were the kind of things going through my head when working on it.

D: Well, the piece is definitely very evocative even if you don’t know the program. But knowing what’s behind it really gives it an added layer of depth.

J: Yeah, it’s kind of like a little requiem movement for my father. I could actually envisage this becoming part of a set of pieces that deal with the memory of my father, and what I owe to him in a way. And I guess the piece has a sort of classic “sadness” to it, it’s a slowly descending passage. We so often associate these descending patterns with sadness, if we think back to Henry Purcell for instance, and all of those slow laments that are built on a ground bass. Basically what happens on the soundtrack is a kind of sequence that’s designed to keep repeating itself but forever keep sinking lower and lower. There’s a little “mistake” in the sequence that keeps transposing it down further, so you could eventually go right down below the registers of all the instruments. But I just decided to let it pool, and let it become a blurry puddle on the floor, and maybe that whole process suggests a sense of lament or sadness.

D: Let me ask you about how you created the soundtrack. You do a lot with analog synthesizers, and you also have the “An Infinity Room” project. What is your relationship to synthesizers?

J: I love synthesizers. As I mentioned earlier, my first instrument was a tiny little ten-note keyboard that my dad gave me. I’ve collected maybe 50 or 60 synthesizers now, maybe even more. I do a lot of installation works with them, as well as performances. What I’m trying to do with the keyboards is to treat them as found objects, it’s kind of in the Marcel Duchamp tradition, where you take something and do with it what you can do and maybe comment on it in some way. I usually compose just playing around on the keyboard. It might emerge into an “Infinity Room” piece, which is usually very immersive and drone based. Or in this case it might emerge as a work with other instruments. I have a very simple approach to playing keyboard and finding little patterns that I like, and in this case it really was just finding a pattern that could eternally regenerate itself. From there on it was a very simple process. I made that into an audio track from the synthesizer, and then “damaged” that through a few different processes, like stretching it out, giving it a bit of a distorted treatment, and so on.

D: Your description of your process reminds me a bit of some of Brian Eno’s work, particularly in Discreet Music and some of the other early ambient works. Is he an influence on you?

J: Yeah, I love Eno’s work. One difference perhaps is that Eno’s ambient idea is to be quite static, staying still in one spot. What I like to do is to use that type of material, but to give it a bit of a journey, going from one state to another. For instance, in Father it’s starting up very high and going very low. In other pieces it might be shifting from one sort of sound to another, so by the end of the piece you’re in a very different state from the beginning.

D: That’s your classical music teenage rebellion! You want to have more of a through-line through the piece.

J: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.

D: You’ve spent some time in the U.S., attending the Bang on a Can festival, and you’ve been commissioned by the MATA festival in New York, but you live in Australia. I wonder what are your impressions of the American new music scene vs. that in Australia?

J: The scene in the States is insane, it’s so active and busy, there’s so many amazing ensembles, composers, and artists. It’s no exaggeration to say that in the last 50 years at least, America has taken over the crown of where most of the new music innovations have been taking place. 100 years ago it was largely Europe, and the last 50 years it has largely been the States. Not exclusively; there’s been some amazing things happening all around the world. But it’s hard to ignore the impact that American music has had on the rest of the world.

I think that Australia and the States have a lot in common with their music scenes. We just have a much smaller one.  There’s 23 million people in Australia, and twelve times that in the States. So whatever scene we have is always going to be smaller. We have an interesting position in the world because we’re buffeted by a few different forces. There’s the Western tradition; we were colonized only a little over 200 years ago by the English, and in the last 50-100 years there’s been a much stronger American influence. So we all speak English, and it’s a very Westernized country. Yet, we’re right next to Papua New Guinea and near Indonesia, and we’re a bit south from Japan and China. We’re basically a Pacific country, so we have this huge Asian influence too. I get the sense that we’re probably not a million miles away from some of the artistic developments that have happened on the West Coast of the States; looking a bit less to Europe all the time and maybe more to our own backyard.

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