Capacious Composition: An Interview with Rebecca Lee

David M Bell speaks to composer, musician and sound artist Rebecca Lee about her Composer Curator 2019 supported project, Sherds, and working as a composer outside musical institutions.

Making music under her own name and as Bredbeddle, Nottingham composer, musician and sound artist Rebecca Lee works well beyond the expected confines of contemporary composition to produce works with a strangely unsettling beauty. With new Bredbeddle album Steps on the Turning Year now out on Bezirk Tapes, David Bell spoke to her about combining seagulls with The Watersons; composing an opera inspired by an archaeological dig; and how she finds working as a composer outside musical institutions.

‘I’m really interested in making and thinking about music and sound from as many perspectives as possible,’ says Rebecca Lee. ‘I’m constantly shifting position, materials and context. I feel like I need to do that.’ It’s a trait that’s obvious from a quick glance through her CV: in the last decade she’s produced works for the National Trust, Nottingham Museums, a Lincolnshire community radio station and numerous contemporary art organisations; projects which have entailed collaboration with academics, archaeologists, historians, amateur and professional musicians, and artists. She’s also performed in live, semi-improvised duos with the percussionist Samuel Rodgers and the oboeist Marie Thompson; co-led an arts-based youth group in the National Forest; established a contemporary music group at Nottingham’s Primary Studios; and tutored the Collegium Musicum viol consort. Even as a teenager, she says, ‘the band I was in was always about more than recording or gigging, it was about finding different places to do things, ways to change what a gig was, ways to combine lots of ideas.’

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Bredbeddle performance at To and Fro, Primary, 2018. Credit Jim Brouwer

Such a capacious approach serves Lee well, and despite the challenges of working with and for such an eclectic array of funders, collaborators and musicians her work has a powerful, singular voice. Nowhere is this more evident than on the two hour, double-cassette Steps on the Turning Year. This is Lee’s second album as Bredbeddle, an identity that allows her ‘a kind of space, or state of mind for making and not thinking too much about it; having a sense of humour, being a bit more myself’. As on 2017’s Stackes, the album is built entirely from samples spanning Lee’s eclectic musical interests, including snippets of works that have been important  at different stages of her life. They’re matched unconventionally via Lee’s keen ear for rhythmic, melodic and timbral quality. ‘Across the different types of music making I do’, Lee tells me, ‘I kept feeling like I was hearing similar textures, or arrangements of chords, or just phrasing or movement. So in the viol consort music I play, I’d hear an arrangement of a chord in some William Byrd, or notice the particular sound of viols; and then hear something similar in a piece of improvised music I later made with a friend. So the motivation for Bredbeddle was to join the dots between quite specific musical moments - maybe feelings, or types of gesture or idea in the music.’ Guiding this ‘is a sense of some kind of narrative; a kind of soundtrack to something. That’s partly why I combine field recordings and music I think - thinking about the end of [the Stackes track] Furst, for instance, there’s a recording of a performance I did with a friend in a church in Lincoln and the train goes by. So there’s a kind of window on to something external, something moving, music in a place, things perhaps given a new backdrop’.

The result is remarkable. There’s the soft roll of mallet on cymbal. A flute and bassoon leading out of a dense morass of sound. Calling seagulls. The Watersons, locked in a loop then freed to sing the demise of General Wolfe. The drone of a viol. Robert Wyatt cut up such that his already too-human voice becomes almost unbearable. Sometimes you want it to stop—it’s simply too much—but then a new consonance forms, or you catch onto a rhythm previously unimaginable, and you want the moment to last forever; satiation giving way to appetite in an instant.


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Steps on the Turning Year Cassette sleeves. Design Anna Peaker

Although Lee stitches the works’ disparate sources into a coherent whole, you can practically hear where and how she ‘joins the dots’ by using ‘a cheap DJing app, pressing the back button on a CD player (so I can only ever loop the start of a track if it’s on CD), and balancing the needle on a borrowed turntable’. It’s a technique honed for its effectiveness rather than resulting from a fetishization of technology, but the possibilities and limitations of the technology clearly shape the work. They also allow for an extra dimension to live performances, in which Lee is ‘committed to CDs and LPs staying in their covers and cases, so when I pull the next thing out to use, I have to handle the cover. I want the audience to potentially get a glimpse of this too. This for me is about retaining as much of the meaning of that thing both for me and for the source material more generally.’

Where so much work built around samples seems effortless, Lee’s making audible (and visible) of the joins allows the labour of musical production and listening to come to the fore. This is a theme that’s also implicit to much of her work under her own name, and was explicitly addressed in 2018’s instructional score Making it up, this moment of June, commissioned by Radar at Loughborough University. Informed by Allan Watson and Jenna Ward’s academic research into how emotional labour shapes the contexts in which music is produced, the score instructs performers to listen to each other in a variety of ways, while also prompting reflection on how that listening functions. The debut performance, which featured trained and untrained musicians performing together, was full of joyous accidents, apprehensive missteps and tentative workings-through; an interrogation, rather than a celebration, of listening, understood as work.


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'The Ensemble Who Are Making It Up'. Martin Lewis, Maria Marshall, Robin Chapman, Lilith Yu, Theema Numanit and Frank Abbott. Credit, Claire Davis

Making it one of a number of works that Lee has produced in a contemporary art context. In 2016 she was commissioned by the artist Yelena Popova to produce the soundtrack for the video work This Certifies That, and she’s been a regular collaborator and workshop facilitator for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in rural Northamptonshire. Her studio is at Primary in Nottingham (a predominantly visual arts organisation), and much of her work has a strong visual element, often realised through collaboration. Although Lee admits she used to ‘stubbornly refuse to think too much about the visual side of things’ she’s more recently embraced them. Making it Up…’s score is beautifully designed by Blue Firth; Steps on the Turning Year is wrapped in an infinitely looping sleeve designed by Anna Peaker; while the micro-opera Sherds involved elaborate staging, bespoke furniture, a sound-emitting sculpture, and costume. Engaging with other approaches to art has also influenced Lee’s compositional methods. ‘I use ways of making from writing and the visual arts’, she says, ‘and rather than these just being ways of marketing the musical work they can influence the sonic processes too.’

Sherds is Lee’s most ambitious work, and makes clear this reciprocal relationship. A collaboration with the artist Nastassja Simensky, it was commissioned by In-situ with further support from Sound and Music, Arts Council England and Jerwood Arts; and consists, as its subtitle suggests, of ‘five verses on six sacks of earth’. Less obliquely, it uses the micro-opera form to tell stories of and unearthed by an archaeological dig at Malkin Tower Farm in Lancashire, undertaken to further understanding of the lives of the landless poor in the area during the seventeenth century (among whom were the infamous Pendle witches, who lived in and around the area).


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Sherds, at Nottingham Contemporary, Alison Coper and Nastassja Simensky in foreground. Credit Reece Straw

Influenced by ‘forms of writing that can hold different voices’, Lee tells me that the work was consciously written for ‘musicians with very different backgrounds’ (improvising trombonist Sophie Cooper, experimental bassoonist Bobby Cotterill, Kelly Jayne Jones on amplified objects and electronics, operatic soprano Caroline Trutz, psychedelic neofolk singer Alison Cooper, and Lee herself on viol). The result is strikingly original. Dissonant intervals are used liberally, while the timbral potentials of the instruments—scraped viol, bassoon multiphonics, the thrill of contrasting vocal ranges—are carefully explored as if being discovered for the first time. Instruments interact in unusual ways: not many operas feature a lively, semi-improvised exchange between trombone and amplified rock. Gentler moments are interspersed throughout, too. Long, undulating tones weaving in and out of each other, with nods to the site woven in: vocal harmonies are built from chords made by the wind blowing across the site. (And could that rock be some contraband shrapnel from the dig?)


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Sophie Cooper and Kelly Jayne Jones perform in Sherds. Credit Reece Straw

The work’s fragmented and rhythmically varied quality captures something of the rhythms of site. Rather than uncovering a coherent history, partial slices of different eras and timescales imbricate one another. As with Lee’s ability to combine works from different contexts without obliterating their particularity in Bredbeddle, here she and Simensky sought to ‘have all of the historical moments/events present at the same time without blending them’. It’s successful, and a highly effective way of capturing something of the spatial and temporal complexity of an archaeological dig, in which the social, economic, ecological and geological relations of various moments in history collide at a particular place at a particular moment.

The libretto enhances this sense of worlds colliding by interweaving the perspectives of flora and fauna, geological formations, and the diggers themselves. A five-hundred year old hawthorn tree sings of the dry stone wall close-by. A curlew flies over, seeing things beyond even enhanced human perception, but knowing nothing of the unusually high prices of silage that summer. Student archaeologists wonder if a fragment of pottery they’ve retrieved from the soil’s depths could have been used by Demdike, the most infamous of the Pendle witches.

There’s humour as well: at one point the ensemble persistently sings ‘bastard trowel’, reworking the frustrations of a weary archaeologist. At another moment, the frustration turns to wry hope as a refrain informs us of the discovery of ‘Something like a pipe, something like a fragment of milk bowl’ before adding that ‘Some more of it would be helpful.’ Funny though these moments are, they also ground the work in Lee and Simensky’s interest in labour: Sherds has clear roots in the hot, frequently frustrating dig itself. The production of history, like the production of music, is hard work.


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Alison Cooper, Caroline Trutz and Nastassja Simenksy in Sherds. Credit Reece Straw.

And so what of work for Lee herself? I ask how she finds working as a composer across such a variety of partnerships. ‘It means I have a chance to see music from many different perspectives’, she says. ‘I get to work with different people and build up what is hopefully rich set of quite live ideas from the people and situations I’m working in—I’m not at risk of having too fixed an idea about the ways one should do things. I’m regularly thinking about music or sound alongside non-musicians, either as collaborators or audiences, which I think is often far more interesting than doing it with musicians.’ More bluntly, she notes that ‘the variety of projects means I can earn more...sometimes it really is just about getting paid, which is—or should be—fine.’ 

But there are drawbacks too. ‘I am constantly doing about five different projects or jobs, and whilst the outcome is this hopefully rich set of overlapping perspectives, each sector uses its own language and has its own approach. With larger institutions, you have access to the chance to make work in a really exciting context, but there’s no way that they will be shifting how they work in order to accommodate you or the work. So there’s an imbalance: their inflexibility means you have to be additionally flexible. Negotiating all this means spending a lot of time understanding other people’s perspectives on what I do in order to be able to work with them.’ And here, these very practical concerns become pressing artistic questions. ‘This means’, Lee continues, ‘that I sometimes lose sight of what my aim was in the first place. By always shifting in order to earn money, or to explore new things, I worry that it’s not actually clear what I do to the rest of the world and that I’m going to forever be flitting around the edge of things, rather than being really involved with a particular scene or being taken seriously.’

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Rebecca Lee performing in Sherds. Credit Reece Straw

This is a tension that many working in music (and the arts more broadly) will recognise: the need to market oneself through coherent biography while also being flexible enough to respond to the varied needs of funders and commissioners. It would be cruel optimism to pretend that Lee’s music transcends this conundrum, but it certainly demonstrates the great pleasures and sonic possibilities which come from and emerge through the working through of multiple traditions, methods and collaborations. Here’s to future steps across many more turning years.

Rebecca Lee was part of Sound and Music's Composer Curator 2019 cohort, which supported the development of Sherds.

Steps on the Turning Year is out now with Bezirk.

A new version of Sherds, produced for Radiophrenia in 2020, will be broadcast again on Montez Press Radio on Thursdsay 23rd September.