All Collisions End in Static: the Music of Linda Buckley

All Collisions End in Static: the Music of Linda Buckley

Bob Gilmore interviews leading young composer Linda Buckley who divides her time between Berlin and Dublin.

In My Mind

One of the things that grounded her in the face of all this thrilling musical diversity was an involvement with electronic music. She produced her first electroacoustic composition, Androgyny, at the age of eighteen, as a result of studying at the Ennis Composition Summer School with Michael Alcorn. ‘Earlier on when I had experimented with composing for piano I always felt that it was quite limiting, it wasn’t really expressing the sounds that were in my mind. Michael taught me the program Csound, and I remember being very excited about the possibilities. Suddenly I felt that I could recreate these sounds that I hear in my mind very clearly’. The piece was written for violinist Darragh Morgan, using samples of violin sound and some fairly straightforward processing. Through it, she developed a sense of being able to experiment with sound, an attitude that has remained with her ever since. She tells me that she feels a real connection to the world of electronica; many of her friends are involved in this form of music-making too, so there is a kind of community. She feels a kinship with her composer colleagues in Dublin’s Spatial Music Collective in that, with electronic music as a kind of given, there are nonetheless ‘many other strands of music going on in their lives; the different worlds we inhabit blur into each other’. She likes electronica artists like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Autechre. But the labyrinth of present-day software and hardware does not in any sense negate the appeal of acoustic instruments. ‘The electronic music experience in my life has definitely influenced my acoustic writing and vice versa’, she says. I think of acoustic instruments as sound-making devices in a way. Even my orchestration I almost think of as additive synthesis; you’re combining all these timbres to create a new timbre’.

In her 2004 composition Do you remember the Planets? (which can be heard on Contemporary Music from Ireland, Volume 6), for example – a musical meditation on Pythagoras’ belief in the ‘music of the spheres’ – the electronics are used as an extension of the acoustic sound of a solo viola. Much of the viola material was conceived first, and then transformed electronically to create an aural shadow; the piece is full of the rich, granulated, glitchy sounds that so appeal to her. At times the viola sound is subject to distortion, bringing out what she calls its ‘raw, aggressive’ characteristics which, typically, are played off against the pure, ethereal sounds of natural harmonics and their electronic transformations.

In the more recent Stratus for ensemble and electronics, commissioned for the Crash Ensemble in 2006, she tried a different approach: wanting to create a dense, complex texture, she analysed (with the help of the computer) a sample of a trombone glissando, and mapped its harmonic spectrum onto the parts for the live players. The pre-recorded part is based entirely on the trombone sample, and the live musicians play, as it were, the inner detail of that sound, as though they were viewing it through a microscope. The piece is one of her most fascinating, with throbbing low bass tones and instrumental colours high up in the acoustic spectrum. Her description of the piece in the programme note reads: ‘Low-level blankets of cloud, interwoven layers competing amongst the obscurata. Close up everything is without focus. The shape is perceived from afar’.

She has done several pieces for instruments and electronics together, and about half a dozen purely electroacoustic pieces, with intriguing titles – ill met, la lai de la concrète, Drowning in Colour, Stratus, Stop what’s started, Seek. They’re all good, with a confidence in handling the medium that makes all manner of sonic adventures possible. My personal favourite of these, once I recover from the heart-attack-inducing opening sonority which catches me out every time, is Stop what’s started, which began life in 2006 as a piece for saxophone, cello, double bass and playback, but which she reworked the following year for four-channel playback alone. This piece, she says, has much to do with her ‘other life’ away from Dublin: that in Berlin, where she often spends the vacation periods when she is not teaching at Trinity College. Stop what’s started ‘is definitely connected to staying out all night in Berlin and going to noise gigs in squats – quite underground, raw and visceral.’ She made it by means of a working process she sometimes uses, that of generating electronic material ‘very intuitively’ using the programming environment Max/MSP. ‘I sometimes have a “jam” in Max’, she says, ‘very much absorbed in the moment, and then later edit the results closely’. The piece is in two contrasting parts, the first noisy and industrial, like a consort of malfunctioning chainsaws that nonetheless prove to be surprisingly harmonious, and the second gentle and hypnotic, like distant organ music on the threshold between sleep and waking, giving way to a surprising, quasi-chaotic conclusion. And then there is Seek, her most recent purely electronic piece, which is all about ‘drowning in sound – like diving into a sea of lush microtones’. It was composed for presentation by the Spatial Music Collective and is based on a single violin line which is expanded with microtonal deviations throughout the speaker array. Some enterprising label ought to issue all her electronic pieces on CD – this is an exciting body of work that marks her out as a leading figure in the younger generation of Irish composers working in the medium.

There’s Someting Liberating and Anarchic About It
Buckley’s involvement with electronics can be heard in a different context in her work with the Berlin-based noise band die Oktoschlocks, of which she is a member, and with which she performs as often as time and circumstance permit. Die Oktoschlocks are everything a Berlin noise band should be, as you can hear in the examples on their MySpace site (but don’t be a wimp like me – turn it up). This is a scene populated by bands who have hundreds of metres of cable connecting their equipment, and who talk about things like ‘oi!core’, ‘teknoise’ and ‘dark listening’. The high decibel level is part of the language, but the music is only chaotic up to a point; I wonder to what extent the fact that all five members of die Oktoschlocks describe themselves as ‘composers’ is responsible for the high degree of coherence in their totally non-notated music. ‘It’s been great fun to play with die Oktoschlocks’, Buckley tells me – ‘there’s something liberating and anarchic about it. We played in Venice last year and caused a bit of a stir with our hardcore noise!’

While she loves the culture of Berlin, with its fascinating juxtaposition of symphony and squat, Buckley feels that now is an incredibly exciting time to be in Dublin. She is an active participant in the Dublin scene, and recent works have been commissioned by a great many Irish musicians and ensembles, including the Crash Ensemble, the Fidelio Trio, Natasha Lohan, Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea, the Rothko String Trio, and others. It is difficult to know quite how her music will develop from her impressive achievements thus far. In works like Fall Approaches, and in even more recent pieces like Q for female voice and electronics and Fiol for string trio, all premiered this year, Buckley engages with an area of experience that new music is generally shy of, which, simplified and reduced to a single word, I’d call ecstasy. Not the drug-induced euphoria of dance music, but exultant, heightened states of being that are the product of an excitable sensibility, of an emotional response to the world that sees the bright places of life as clearly as the dark. A line from the text she set to music in Q (by the thirteenth- century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad, known as Rumi) reads: ‘Become the sky./ Take an axe to the prison wall./ Escape./ Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour.’ The music, a gradual crescendo over twelve minutes, perfectly captures the poem’s uplifting description of rebirth through love. Take ten-second samples at random from Q and we might be listening to an unknown laptop artist in a squat; to an extract from a multi-million dollar pop album with rich, sensuous vocals (Björk? Goldfrapp? don’t ask me); or to a computer music demonstration in a university. In Linda Buckley’s world all these musics collide and end in static that is as delicious as it is energising.

Published on 1 September 2008

Bob Gilmore (1961–2015) was a musicologist, educator and keyboard player. Born in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, he studied at York University, Queen's University Belfast, and at the University of California. His books include Harry Partch: a biography (Yale University Press, 1998) and Ben Johnston: Maximum Clarity and other writings on music (University of Illinois Press, 2006), both of which were recipients of the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP. He wrote extensively on the American experimental tradition, microtonal music and spectral music, including the work of such figures as James Tenney, Horațiu Rădulescu, Claude Vivier, and Frank Denyer. Bob Gilmore taught at Queens University, Belfast, Dartington College of Arts, Brunel University in London, and was a Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent. He was the founder, director and keyboard player of Trio Scordatura, an Amsterdam-based ensemble dedicated to the performance of microtonal music, and for the year 2014 was the Editor of Tempo, a quarterly journal of new music. His biography of French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier was published by University of Rochester Press in June 2014. Between 2005 and 2012, Bob Gilmore published several articles in The Journal of Music.

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