He's a modern classical composer, but stands firmly outside the classical establishment. Nigel Humberstone crosses the border with Steve Martland
"The classical music world is just defunct as far as I'm concerned — it has no relevance to me, it's not what I'm part of, and it's just unfortunate that if you're caught in this category you're termed as 'classical music', whereas I have no hand in it whatsoever." This is Steve Martland talking, confirming his reputation as a controversial and outspoken character who the music critics just love to hate. Reviewers have found it easier to comment on his dress sense and physical appearance (Martland is a body builder) than to examine the politics and passion behind his music. He is, however, an undeniably talented alternative modern composer. His works never seem to fit in — they question authority, morals and tradition. Confrontational is an apt description.
Steve Martland's musical background derives from his time spent studying composition under Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague and with Gunther Schuller in the United States. This in turn led him to compose his music for, and collaborate with, less mainstream groups of musicians, like the Dutch 'street orchestra' de Volharding (Shoulder to Shoulder), the British jazz orchestra Loose Tubes, and industrial post-punk band Test Department. Countless pieces of his work have been choreographed by dance troupes and toured throughout the world.
Other projects in Martland's varied career have included video theatre work (Terra Firma) and the BBC-commissioned Albion, both featuring the result of a collaboration with the writer Stevan Keane. As well as writing for film projects, Martland directed the video for his single 'The World Is In Heaven' from the the song cycle 'Glad Day' (FACD306) which he wrote for ex-Communards singer Sarah Jane Morris. His one-hour documental homage to his former tutor and composer Louis Andriessen, entitled A Temporary Arrangement With The Sea was recently screened by the BBC.
With such a polymorphic portfolio, how does Martland categorise himself? "Well — just as a composer. But it's like being an artist who is an abstract painter and who has to constantly be talking about Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th century in order to talk about what he does. I'm a composer really — who does different things. But I'm not a classical composer 'cos I don't write symphonies or classical pieces; no sonatas or concertos — which is what classical music, by and large, is. This makes it harder for you because you've got to be determined to know what you want to do and somehow make it happen. You haven't got the availability of these great institutions that already exist. So you have to rely not on the fixed ensembles and orchestras but on musicians and groups that want to play your music. I rely a lot on students, and it's much more interesting to be on the fringe. And the fact that I'm ostracised by the classical establishment and the critics suits me — I don't care really. It's all to do with an elitism that goes on — some cultural standard, that they think of as inviolable, is being protected."
This independent nature of Martland's attitude is reflected in his choice of record label to reproduce his works; the sadly defunct Factory Records. Whilst unsure of the eventual outcome he is adamant to steer clear of the so called 'classical recording establishment'. "I'd prefer to stay on Factory if there's going to be a new Factory, but I just don't know who will be kept on the label. I'd prefer to because it's Tony [Wilson], and because it's Manchester, and also because it's not a major label — although it would be owned by a major. But it's not a classical label like Decca, who imitated Factory when they put out more trendy composers like Michael Nyman. But they're just motivated solely by the money that it might make, not because they thought it was an interesting idea.
"I don't know what it is about this whole classical establishment, it's partly to do with the way you dress as well as the things that you say, as well as the music. There has been an ongoing debate about Gorecki and John Taverner, and this 'new' music which is selling huge quantities of CDs. People say it's commercially motivated wallpaper whilst others defend it. A recent letter to The Guardian defended it by saying that it's not a question of 'syntheticity', but that you can become so conditioned to listening, so attuned to one type of culture, that if another type of culture comes along whose criteria is different from the one you're used to dealing with then you immediately say it's trash and simplistic. You compare it to the one you know rather than taking it on it's own terms.
"But it's so typical that the new audience and the classical critics are unaware that some of this music has been around for 25 years. I mean Steve Reich and Philip Glass were doing their minimal thing in lofts in New York during the '60s. And it was avant-garde pop underground that were their audience and always have been. Those people interested in alternative things knew about Arvo Part in the '70s and the Gorecki (Third) Symphony when it first came out eight years ago.
"I think it's great that a lot of people have heard of Gorecki now, but it annoys me that it's been taken over by the classical world, when it was always an underground thing. I mean Test Dept, played it in the early '80s on their eastern european tour, particularly in Poland, (Gorecki is Polish) where they played it to the audience before they performed."
Maitland's most recent recorded offering is 'Crossing The Border', a strident score for 26 strings (eight violins right, eight violins left, four violas, four cellos and two basses).
"'Crossing The Border' was never written for recording. It was written for two schools in Scotland who never played the piece; there were all sorts of scandalous reasons why that all fell through. We recorded that before it was ever played live and in fact we didn't rehearse it, which was a big risk. I had never written for strings before and didn't know most of the string players — we ran through it with them sightreading completely, and only then did we know it was going to work. It tells you an enormous amount about the ability of string players in this country because their sightreading ability is absolutely phenomenal. To record something before it's ever been played is very unusual, but there was a great atmosphere and such a good performance that I don't think it will be bettered for a long time." For this recording, as with the majority of Martland's work, the facility used was Church Studio, a popular studio amongst live ensembles.
"The great thing about Church is that it's a nice room with a relaxed atmosphere, so you feel good about doing it. The building is a restored church and the recording space has got a virtually perfect acoustic for this type of music and is very good for strings without a doubt. But it was also luck that on that particular day there was a certain type of moisture in the atmosphere or the players were standing a certain distance from the walls that gave it this great resonant sound. There were only two double basses on that recording but it sounds like eight."
Martland's choice of producer has remained with John H. West, whom he rates as one of the top classical producers in the country. "I first came across him when we did 'Babi Yar', and I knew nothing about him then. We decided on the night of the performance in Holland that the orchestra were being deliberately obstreperous and felt they weren't going to do it properly. So we decided that we weren't going to do it because it would be a complete waste of money, and John West, who looks like this marine with cropped hair and boots, said 'Nobody's asked me — I'm the producer, I make the decisions!' He just said that he would make it happen because that's his job — and he did, he ran the whole thing, the conductor was like a puppet. I've never seen anything like it — it was a remarkable achievement really.
"The idea behind the sleeve notes for 'Crossing The Border' was to draw the plan of how each piece was laid out when we performed it and where the instruments were. Because each piece is different, and although it's quite unusual information to have on a CD, I think it's interesting for someone to see. Most people don't know how an orchestra is laid out — in fact many composers find it hard to remember where the trombones are in relation to the trumpets. Another thing was that right up until the 1930s, or even a bit later, in a symphony orchestra the violins, cellos and violas were in different places. But of course now it's all violins on the left and cellos on the right.
"I don't know why they moved them [violins] all together, but the reason they were separate before was in order for the counterpoint to come out. Because with people like Mahler the second violins are as important as the first — so it's easier to differentiate the two if they are separate rather than en masse. In 'Crossing The Border' it's all different — I've got violins left and violins right because there is endless hocketing [a medieval technique in which a melody is broken up with short rests] between them. Well, it's a canon, which canonically repeats so you need to hear it stereophonically."
Considering that Martland composed the works, how easy is it for a producer to step in and understand what is required? "Well — once it's written it's usually faithfully played as you've imagined it. You can make miscalculations which you'll correct in rehearsals, but a good producer will spot my intentions — for instance the opening chord of 'Babi Yar' which John West instructed the orchestra to play really loud."
Most people aren't aware how classical recordings are made, so what is the general procedure? "The first thing that happens in the morning is that all the microphones are set up — the engineer has been told what instruments are playing and what the layout is. Generally there'll be one over the trumpets, one for the saxes and one over the keyboard. The bass guitar will go direct into the desk and also have a mic in front of it. Then a stereo pair at the back for the ambience of the hall — and that's about it. Then whilst you're rehearsing they're doing the balances so that when you do the final run through it's all balanced — it's balanced from the producer reading the music and knowing how it's supposed to sound. He wants to be able to hear all the instruments in the ensemble. You never change the balance — well, I will never allow the balance to be altered. Once the level is fixed, that's it and it's up to the players to balance themselves.
"I like a recording to be a mixture of being pretty spontaneous and naturally balanced. Both John West and I prefer long takes, and the musicians prefer that because they feel that they're getting into it. But what you'll do is make a take of 'x' number of bars within which there may be a few mistakes. John West will then tell the players that there were certain mistakes in, say, bars 5 and 6, but the rest was OK. So you go from bar 4 to 7 and he'll edit it later. With my music being very sectional it's easier to record that way, but you have to overlap in order to get good edits."
This will be seem very disconcerting to many people who might regard classical music as 'real music' recorded in 'real time' by 'real musicians'. "But this is how all classical recordings are made," insists Martland. "I was told that during two 3-hour sessions, you do roughly 100 separate takes. For 'Babi Yar' there were 99 edits, which apparently is the average for 30 minutes of music. So it's quite scientific and it's also really intense; the pressure of recording like that."
All takes are put onto DAT, to be subsequently edited together using an AudioFile system. "John West just records to DAT tapes and marks the score up for which ones he's going to use. Then he can give those tapes and the score to an editor who understands which takes are to be used.
"Sound Tools is an alternative, which I used to edit 'Crossing The Border' for a piece used in the True Crime series. We used it to extend some bars by cutting and splicing and inserting extra bars.
"The days of analogue are over — I mean the only people who are still behind the times, or refuse to acknowledge the new technology, are film directors 'cos they still use Nagra machines then lay that off to film, and it's losing generations constantly. With the film [A Temporary Arrangement With The Sea] we'd recorded and edited to DAT, but then had to transfer to the Nagra for playback whilst filming. And in the end they used the Nagra recording when the film was edited — it's so pathetic. They don't care about the quality of sound on film, that's the problem. Generations are lost, and on the film there's wow and flutter because it's massively compressed by the BBC before it goes out as well."
The recording of classical music is, relative to that of pop music, an extremely brief affair. As Martland points out, most recordings will be finished within a 2-day period consisting of four 3-hour sessions. Obviously the painstaking work lies with the scoring and writing of a piece. So how does Martland go about this daunting task? "To write the music does take time," admits Martland cautiously. "But I'm pretty paranoid — I'm terrified that I can't write music anymore. Everytime someone approaches me for a commission I get absolutely paranoid and turn everything down! I'm so terrified of accepting anything 'cos all of a sudden you've got this enormous responsibility to do something, and you know it's got to be good because their expectations are high. So it's a horrific feeling, and you shouldn't be worried by that — but you can't help it, 'cos you do want to write something that's better than the last piece. At least that should be your ideal.
"For instance," he explains with an almost apologetic smirk appearing across his face, "'Patrol', the string piece that I recently wrote for the Britten Quartet, is 30 minutes long and it took me only two weeks to write. However, I did spend most of the year thinking about it. It may have taken only two weeks after I'd got the music paper out and started writing the first bar to the end — but for some time prior to that I'd been sketching it out and working on it 'cos everything must be fixed and worked out in my head. Once it was all there it took only two weeks, but I was getting up at 4 o'clock in morning.
"I can write very quickly once everything's worked out — but it takes a long time, or rather I like a long time to think about a piece, get ideas, work things out and come up with sketches. It somehow germinates in your head and it's completely fixed — and only then do I start writing. A lot of people don't work that way - they start blank on page one and work through.
"I still work at a piano, which can be odd when you're writing for strings — you have to imagine the instruments in that sense. 'Crossing The Border", which is almost 30 minutes and for 26 strings, took" — at this point Martland breaks into hysterical laughter — "about 10 days really, which sounds bad, but it did take me months of working out, and I do have piles of sketches.
"I do keep everything, although some of it bears no relationship to the finished piece because another process takes over when you're composing. Even though you might have worked out exact lengths of sections with relationships of 3:2 for the pulses, and use a calculator to work out the mathematics of it all so that it's absolutely proportioned, when you come to write the piece you deliberately put mistakes in or mistakes come into it without you knowing about it. And I think that's a really creative thing that's meant to happen.
"So it's actually impossible to say 'oh, there's 27 here and there's 18 beats here and that's an exact relation 'cause I can hear it'. There's a blurring of those things and I think that's what art is in that sense. You know, it's ambiguous, as if all the formulas and things that go behind it have been put under water, and all the ink's run — but there's still a strong plan there that you can hear. But all the minutiae has been blurred over.
"I remember when I took the pencil score of 'Babi Yar' to Louis Andriessen, he saw this page of notes and said 'this is far too accurate', and he started rubbing things out randomly. It was amazing, and he was right of course — suddenly you've got to put dirt on it. Which is one of the problems of composing with computers, because it's so easy to work out proportions exactly and have everything quantised."
Sceptical as he is of computers, Martland has worked with them, and has recently bought a Macintosh — primarily for accounting and writing, but also for music. "On all the stuff I've done for film I've used a computer — Cubase on an Atari. I've written a few basic ideas down on paper and then played them in with the keyboard. The trouble is you end up working in this endless 4-bar sequence. You might like to throw in a 5/8 between every 4/4 bar but, with a computer, you quite like the sound being played back to you, and you no longer have to hear in your head or struggle at the piano with the musical ideas that you've got because you can immediately hear the playback and think it's fine. Working with the piano you become much more self-critical and really work at getting a sound — at least that's how it works with me."
"The whole idea of music with film interests me — not writing film music but rather thinking of an idea for a film whereby, as a composer, the music works with the film.
"It's very succesful the way that visuals and music work together, especially with classical music — take for example the use of Elgar on the British Steel adverts. But you can corrupt that — which I tried to do in Albion."
Albion was Martland's 1988 contribution to the BBC-commissioned Sound On Film series. Directed by Peter West, the film examined the retrogressive attitudes of Thatcherite Britain; more specifically it was about about how history — or a particular view of history — was being used to create a myth of England, which was then used to justify the social and economic policies of Thatcherism. Singer/actress Sarah Jane Morris appeared, and the music of both Test Department and Loose Tubes was featured. "It was a deconstruction of the way that certain music had been associated with certain ideas, such as 'I vow to thee my country'; the old school song of Eton which was turned into a First World War jingoistic hymn about sacrificing yourself. The tune that was used was pre-existent — it was Jupiter from Holst's Planets Suite.
"Music is so stirring, and it seemed that that song justified the slaughter of the war. So, in Albion, the idea was to take that tune — which in itself was the innocent victim of manipulation — and put new words which would make you look at something significant today. And which would also re-dignify or invest the tune with an authenticity that it originally had. Stevan Keane wrote the lyrics — it was about the homeless."
Martland is currently in the early stages of development of another project for television. "Instead of writing operas — it's a way of trying to work visual imagery with music."
1993 looks set to be a busy year for Martland. Because of the diverse nature of his work, with its use in film and dance, he finds himself constantly on call. April will see the first performance in this country of 'Crossing The Border', at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra (it received its world premiere in Gdansk, Poland on 10th October 1991). Martland will also be conducting Gorecki's Harpsichord Concerto as a prelude to the evening. 'Crossing The Border" has also been choreographed, and will be premiered as a ballet at the Netherlands National Ballet.
'Patrol' is being performed by the Smith Quartet this summer. In November Martland is to be the featured composer at the Rotterdam Confrontation Series, for which he is writing a new piece to be performed by his band. On top of all this, Martland has been appointed as the Composer in Residence at Salford College of Music. "As Composer in Residence I have to go up there three days a month, and I have a free reign really. It means that the students, particularly the final year students, will have access to me on an individual basis. I'm also instigating certain projects that everyone's involved with. There'll be discussion seminars about things like aesthetics, notation — or anything controversial. Then 'composers workshops' where their pieces, or bits of them, are played in front of the other people and we discuss them. So that's very good experience — as well as the keep fit routine that I'm going to introduce. They think I'm joking!"
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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