Alex Bloxham, Sound and Music intern, interviews composer Benjamin Tassie
"Ben Tassie's approach to his work has a sense of reflection on popular culture that seeks to go beyond both art music and pop music..."

One of the benefits of working at Sound and Music, which I did until leaving for pastures new in November, is being connected to the diverse, ever-changing world of new and original art music. Working on ‘New Voices’ content for the British Music Collection was a great way to hear music from composers who challenge the paradigm of art music and constantly push to create new, exciting and creative works.

I was immediately drawn to the music of Benjamin Tassie. His music draws on textures and timbres that we are used to hearing in an avant-garde electronic music setting. His approach to his work has a sense of reflection on popular culture that seeks to go beyond both art music and pop music. Benjamin agreed to meet me so I could ask him some questions about his music and the ideas that surround his work. Included is a short film made for a movement from one of Tassie’s works ‘Body’, which has just been released.

What does pop music have to offer art-music?

Art music is on the whole so rarefied, and refined. Music ought to be immediate and visceral and effecting, you ought to feel something when you hear it. There’s a tendency, through the 20th century, to move away from that. Not always, of course, (Stravinsky, or Messiaen, or even much Schoenberg is so heartfelt), but often. What pop has in abundance is immediacy. That’s what it trades in. I think the intellectual, the abstract, in music is really important, but not on its own. Maybe this is what pop has to offer.

Also, I think (for whatever reason) pop-music is more open, and more accepting of the new. With a lot of ensembles and venues, programmers assume people want the same bit of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms over and over again, but I’d say in (a certain kind of) pop there are more risks being taken, maybe. We don’t live in a museum. Music isn’t a dead thing. Pop knows this, and that’s what we can learn.

What has drawn you to work with electronic textures?

The number of sounds available is just so much greater. You can programme any sound you can imagine - can create a whole world, which you can manipulate, and sculpt, and colour. And into which you can insert other elements, as objects - the live instruments, pop sounds - they can inhabit this world you’ve made.

I like music you can climb inside of, hold up to your eye like a beautiful object. This is easier in electronic music. Your MacBook can make an orchestra of impossible sounds. Isn’t that just fun? Music should be fun.

Do you think the presentation of music can effect the musical content?

Of course. I think what’s interesting in London is this trend to present music in non concert-hall venues, which is an important step in the right direction, I think. We don’t consume music sitting in rows any more, nor do I think we should. Having said that, if you take a complex piece of 20th or 21st Century art-music, and present it in that kind of space, you can loose some of the nuance, and the fact that, inescapably, this is complex music that needs just listening to. And so of course the presentation has effected the reception of the work, how can it not?

Maybe the way to deal with this is in the type of music you write. To think about how it’s being presented. Not that you should make any compromises - it should be as progressive and weird and challenging as you think it should be. You don’t want to be always grasping for attention - always aware your audience might talk over your music, or go outside for a cigarette. But at the same time your music should keep their attention. I think this just means really that it should be good music. Good music is about that balance between almost a crude, primal expression of a feeling and a sophisticated way of delivering that content. Think of The Rite of Spring.

Yes: the environment can totally effect how you interact with music, of course. Particularly if you’re in this really stifling environment, where you cough between movements and don’t applaud until the end. What an awful mausoleum.

What do think the future holds for art music?

Of course there will always be the historic cannon, being played at the Wigmore Hall, to an audience of pensioners. But the current generation are finding new stuff, presented in really interesting progressive ways. A hundred ensembles and promoters - there’s a recent Christopher Fox article in the Guardian about this - are presenting weird music in more relaxed spaces, to a younger and more diverse audience. I think that shows the direction of art-music. It’s positive, broadly.

But there’s a limit to this, maybe. You’re taking something from the pop world - the informal venues, the way of showing your work - and you’re transplanting something alien (art-music) into that world, and you’re saying “right, we’ve dealt with that”. This is great for opening up a new audience to experimental music, or historic music, but I think compositionally there’s the implication of the need for a new aesthetic. I think musically, the future will see a new music for this new audience, these new spaces, which is somewhere beyond either pop or art music. That’s what I’m interested in, anyway - a more relaxed approach to what constitutes art-music.

After all, I think the pop world is branching out, there’s a myriad of producers who are doing weird things, with odd forms, or collaborating with people outside their ‘world’. I think those two separate worlds will meet and might make a kind of third space, where anything goes.

What’s kind of strangling art-music is this conservatism that prevails in traditional spaces, in traditional performances - the way you’re supposed to receive this kind of music: reverentially, politely and silently. That can’t last; shouldn’t last. I think the future is full, and bright, it’s just this received notion of what constitutes art-music will be different. We don’t need to define it in such conservative terms any more - like, even this word ‘contemporary-classical’, it implies you’re doing something historic, outmoded, but you’re doing it now: like trying desperately to animate a corpse, or keep the party going with a puppet show. No - I think the future of art-music is pop.

To find out more about Benjamin Tassie’s music see here:

Video credit: @SHINYsaysrelax