JOE SHAW - 14.05.2019
(SD) Hi Joe, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start by talking a bit about your work and career in music so far. You’re originally from Sheffield, and recently completed a Composition at the RNCM in Manchester under the supervision of Larry Goves. You’re also an accomplished electric bass player and active performer in a rock & pop style. Tell us about your different ventures, and what you’re trying to achieve overall as an artist.
(JS) Hi Shaun, thank you for having me. At the moment I'm working on a number of commissions for Sheffield based ensembles, performing a lot as you've mentioned and teaching a little too. I hope to achieve more of the opportunities I've been lucky enough to have so far. After an extraordinary experience studying at the RNCM, I feel I'm now in the process of discovering what really makes me excited about composition and the path I'd like to take as a creative artist.
(SD) And what is it that really makes you excited about composition at the moment?
(JS) Over the last few years I've discovered more and more interesting relationships between the way I perform as a bass player and how I compose, despite the stylistic differences. I'll be starting a set of studies soon to establish a stronger connection between these two areas of my practice.
(SD) Interesting. Because yes, the genres of music you explore in the two different disciplines are completely different… should we be expecting some new compositions featuring electric bass then?
(JS) Absolutely, it's been on my mind for a while now.
(SD) Great - there’s definitely a shortage of repertoire that needs addressing, and so many possibilities in terms of what can be done with an electric instrument.
So we’ve programmed the World Premiere of your piece ‘Medicine of Fire’ for our upcoming concert on June 13th, and we’re really happy to be working with you once again. What can you tell us about the piece in terms of influences, concept, the inception of the piece, and the artists that you have collaborated with in the composition of this piece?
(JS) 'Medicine of Fire' began when I saw an exhibition of Cai Guo Qiang's 'Unmanned Nature' at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.
Cai is a Chinese artist who primarily uses gunpowder as his tool for creation. His craft involves various lines of colour being carefully distributed onto large sheets of Japanese hemp paper to create a full image. The works are prepared over period of months but are fixed within seconds when the fuse is lit and the canvas ignites. This fascinated me and I was hooked from the minute I walked in the room.
In my piece, both performers navigate their way through an aural canvas of fixed material which is transformed according to certain instructions. Modifications to tempi, score navigation and interplay between the performers are the life blood of the work. The saxophonist for example has to distort the material with the use of multiphonics, breath tones and an octave pedal.
(SD) Sounds fun, and a very interesting source of inspiration. So you use modules / boxes to notate the fixed material, and how do instructions change from one performance to the next?
(JS) Yes that's how it works, unlike the original version which was notated more conventionally. When revising the work I began to feel that the material waa being restricted by its own movement through the piece. My tutor Larry Goves suggested that the piece needed to be freed from itself and allowed to inhabit a new form of expression.
This is where the alternative idea came from. By separating the material into modular strands with less constraints and more opportunity for improvisation, it actually got closer to my original concept and influence from Cai's artwork.
(SD) Yes, absolutely makes sense. Do you envisage the instructions for score navigation always being the same, or changing from one performance to the next?
(JS) The navigation between the modules must be different with every performance, and of course the interpretation of the text instructions will differ too. What binds the piece together more objectively is the sonic relationship between the core material of both the Saxophone and the electronics.
(SD) Ok, so you perform the electronics part yourself… I’m interested to hear about your process when creating the electronic sounds, and a bit more detail on how it interacts in performance with the saxophonist.
(JS) Initially I set myself the challenge of creating the entire electronic part from one sample sound of a small fire burning, which is then manipulated according to the different text instructions on my half of the score.
(SD) Ahhhh so directly linked to the original source of inspiration / concept - nice! What can you tell us about the visual aspect of the piece? You collaborated with visual artist Elle Bulger on this… what can we expect from this element of the piece and how does it relate to the overall concept and the interaction between saxophone and electronics?
(JS) I wanted the visuals to provide a more literal representation of the title and the concept, also with influences from Cai's method of painting. Whilst the music plays around with abstract ideas of incendiary material, process and destruction - the visuals show it happening for real, both involved with and separate from the performers.
(SD) Nice - really looking forward to seeing it in action! So, moving on...
The music industry, and the nature of the music we create, is moving so quickly with developments in technology and the growing power of social media. What are your thoughts on how recent developments in Western society have effected the creation of new contemporary music, and do you think certain aspects of our discipline have become more or less important / engaging to a modern audience? And does this have an effect on how you approach composition?
(JS) Me too! It will be an interesting challenge to incorporate all of these elements.
I feel the subject of technology and music will always be a double edged sword, and we can only take responsibility for how we respond to this on an individual basis. Not so long ago I would have been more concerned about how an audience will perceive what I do but the more I discover what I truly want out of my own music, the more I question this notion.
Recently I saw a fantastic interview with the American Novelist, Paul Auster. He spoke about how in his youth, he was so pre-occupied with making works that could be perceived as beautiful. He went on to say that what is more important is exploring your ideas as much as you can and as a result they'll have their own beauty. I like to think this is a good model for creation.
(SD) Well put! Are there any current trends that interest / inspire you more so than others?
(JS) Hearing Ligeti's music was one of the main reasons I became a composer, and his music has come back to inspire me again recently!
As far as trends go, I'm just keeping my ears open. I'm listening to a lot more electronic music of late, I find aspects of production really interesting.
(SD) I absolutely share your admiration of Ligeti’s music; though I can’t say he is a main reason for me being a composer, he’s definitely shaped how I’ve been working lately. He has had such a huge impact in general really… I wonder whether his love of jazz had any influence on the desire for improvisation in your work, especially in this piece? Or does that desire stem from elsewhere?
(JS) I think this actually came from being an improviser myself in rock and blues playing, rather than from Ligeti's music. I don't play jazz at anywhere near the same level as some of my friends, but I'm getting better!
(SD) Fair enough! Haha yes… that’s another discipline altogether!
So to wrap up this conversation… you’ve been with us since the start - I believe you were actually the second composer to respond to our first call for scores back in 2016. What are your thoughts on how Kinetic operates, what our initiative offers, and what have you have gained from the experience?
(JS) I'm very happy to be involved with Kinetic again this year. The concerts so far have given me a chance to have works performed in spaces that they might not not have been otherwise. Crucially for composers, Kinetic events are a great opportunity to network and create new artistic relationships in Manchester and further afield.
(SD) I’m really glad you see it that way - that’s exactly what we try to provide. I’m really excited to see how ‘Medicine of Fire’ turns out, and I hope it proves to be a valuable experience for you too. Finally, - do you have any upcoming activity you’d like to plug apart from this? I believe that Medicine of Fire will be performed at the European Saxophone Conference this year? Exciting stuff!
(JS) Yes we'll be performing the piece on the 13th July in Zagreb as part of the conference and hopefully again in the future. Thomas Plater commissioned this work originally for his 3rd year recital at the RNCM, and the fact that he is as enthusiastic about the piece now just as he was then is very encouraging!
(SD) That’s excellent - definitely a great place to have your music exposed and I hope it presents new opportunities for you in the near future.
Thanks for speaking with us Joe and we look forward to seeing you very soon!
(JS) Thanks Shaun; I'll see you at the concert!
You can listen to a recording of Joe’s ‘Medicine of Fire’ below. The World Premiere will be taking place as part of Kinetic #3 at LEAF on Portland Street. Tickets available at https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/kinetic-manchester, and you can express your interest at our Facebook Event Page - https://www.facebook.com/events/217555979017333.
You can also watch the video of Joe's 'Ephemeris' for solo piano from Kinetic #1 at the Wonder Inn, back in December 2016, performed by Daniel Portal.
To learn more about, and keep up to date with Joe's work, please see his website at .