I don’t recall the initial trigger(s) to take up composing but there was always a strong desire from about the age of seven to put dots onto the page. Similarly, the decision to make a career appears to have been there from an early age in some form – it just always seemed to be the path I was destined to follow.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
There are key figures and key works that have become significant in my musical life – those being Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Messiaen and more recently, Jonathan Harvey, George Crumb, Anton Webern and Matthias Pintscher.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The process of composing itself is by far the greatest challenge of my career to date. Self-doubt and anxiety has often crippled my creative output for months on end. I’ve also never been a composer to repeat the same technical trick over and over in my writing. Every new piece presents a new problem to solve and each time the solution requires a different approach. Perhaps this explains why I write so slowly.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I rarely write without a specific request for a work (with or without payment) and that brings with it certain pleasures such as working closely in collaboration with a musician or ensemble to develop a specific idea or sound. The biggest challenges are always the deadlines and time-frames that often appear to get in the way of the creative flow. It seems to be a common issue amongst artists, yet I am finding more and more that these goal posts can serve as great motivational forces when hitting a creative dead end.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I’m always interested in exploring new sounds often through the combination of electronics and acoustic forces. Working with particular performers, especially those who have developed new performance techniques or use extended instruments, is really exciting because as a composer I get to try out sounds that perhaps nobody has written and heard before.
Which works are you most proud of?
There are a few recent works that have been significant for me because they represent either a change in style or in the way I approach writing. Music of the Spheres (2006) for piano and planets was a real labour of love due to hundreds of hours spent trawling through data files from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in order to find a few gold nuggets that could be turned into something of musical interest. Despite all the effort, I am very happy that performing piano alongside a sonic representation of our solar system is accessible to anyone from about Grade 2 piano upwards. Escape Velocity (2006) for accordion and string quartet is also an important work because it represents both a change in style that felt very comfortable for me but also because it demonstrates an attempt to explore and ultimately integrate two different instrumental forces into a single sound world. Fata Morgana (2007) for cello with Hyperbow, ensemble and live electronics is another key work as it represents the culmination of several years of research exploring the application of sensors and performance data in shaping and controlling the evolution of accompanying live electronics. It was also the first time I began to feel confident with my expanding musical language and with writing expressively at the extreme ends of the cello’s range. In this work, I felt that I had finally begun creating a more unified and meaningful connection between the expressiveness of the performer and the resulting reflections from the electronics through the aid of the sensors – something that has been a developing working method for me ever since.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
Not at all – I’m always grateful for a performance, wherever that might be!
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
In addition to those composers I mentioned earlier who were of most influence in shaping who I am as a composer, I would include Ockeghem, Pergolesi, Prokofiev and some contemporary heavyweights such as Schoenberg, Ligeti, Boulez, Crumb, Magnus Lindberg, Helmut Lachenmann, Unsuk Chin, Harrison Birtwistle and GérardGrisey.
As for performers, I wouldn’t say I have any favourites as such. Moreover, I just really appreciate and admire performers generally as I gave up myself after completing my undergraduate studies due to stage nerves.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There are three that are particularly memorable for me – the London Sinfonietta’s 2008 QEH performance of Grisey’s complete Les espaces acoustiques; the Sinfonietta/Royal Academy 2013 RFH performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen; and the Britten Sinfonia’s astonishing performance of Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Thethera at the Barbican this May.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
In the words of Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss”. If you don’t feel utter joy and a sense of deep passion for something, change direction and try something else. Life’s too short!
Tell us a little more about your new work ‘Morphosis’, recently premiered by Zubin Kanga. What was the inspiration/creative impulse for this work? What were the particular challenges of creating and performing this work?
I’ve wanted to work with the wonderful Zubin for many years. He’s a real collaborator and that excites me because it affords me space to try new things and to make mistakes – essentials in the quest for new methods of creating and working. Zubin knew of my work with sensors and electronics so it seemed a perfect collaborative partnership.
Much of my recent work is fundamentally concerned with this notion of meeting points – of fusing apparently opposing sound worlds; moulding, mixing and states of flux. I see my work as becoming more sculptural of late – where musical ideas grow outside of their original form, then take an unexpected turn and morph into something else, perhaps falling back temporarily to allow the electronic reflections to come to the fore only to suddenly re-emerge with a fresh direction that overwhelms all proceeding shapes. This concept of flow, of coursing and of flux is also at the base of Morphosis. Musical objects begin as simple chords surrounded only by their electronic reflections that are subtly influenced by the movement of the performers hands (the sensors being attached to the back of the hands and transmit three-dimensional movement data to the live electronics). These musical objects are presented several times as if one is looking at a single object from different angles. They are joined together by the morphing states of the electronics into what I hope is a flowing musical argument that is both visually and aurally engaging.
Working with live electronics is always a challenge but is particularly so with the addition of sensors. Speed is critical! Six channels of data from the performers hands must stream into the laptop once every 20ms. This data must be refined for musical processes. Each movement must be carefully calibrated and assigned to a particular parameter of a digital sound process. Vast amounts of number crunching are performed in tiny segments of time and any blip in the system results in either a click in sound or a fatal system crash. All this must be performed from just a single laptop that gets slower the more processing is added. As a composer, the months of computer programming can become unbearable. Many challenges emerge: Which should I write first – the music or the electronic effects? How will the sounds change if I do not fully know how the performer will try to control the sound through the sensors? How can I impose limits on what the performer will do with their hands to shape the sounds? All these questions push my creative process to the edge – something I fear yet something I crave too…. living on the precipice…. creating something new, something never before uttered…. it’s the ultimate drive….
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Southern Italy full time – writing more than I teach
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Acceptance of myself and everything external
What is your most treasured possession?
My mind – all else is temporary
What do you enjoy doing most?
Dancing 4am, hot sand between the toes, cool breeze on the skin – Italian beach
What is your present state of mind?
Buzzy and tired – it’s 4.30am!
Patrick Nunn (b.1969, Kent, UK) studied composition with Frank Denyer at Dartington College of Arts, Gary Carpenter at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, and Simon Bainbridge and Jonathan Harvey whilst completing his PhD in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music (funded by a PRS Scholarship).
He has been the recipient of many awards including the Birmingham New Millennium prize for Sentiment of an Invisible Omniscience (2010), the Alan Bush prize for Transilient Fragments (2008), a British Composers Award (solo/duet category) for Mercurial Sparks, Volatile Shadows (2006), and the BBC Radio 3 Composing for Children prize for Songs of Our Generation (1995).
Patrick’s music has been performed widely in the UK and on the continent and has featured at more than fifty festivals worldwide. He has worked with a diverse range of collaborators, including the BBC Concert Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Kreutzer Quartet, Thalia Myers, Piano Circus, Icebreaker, Ballet Rambert, Gogmagogs, Composers Ensemble and New London Children’s Choir.
Under the auspices of Tod Machover (MIT), Nunn, in his role as Hyperbow Researcher at the Royal Academy of Music, wrote two new works incorporating Diana Young’s (MIT) Hyperbow design: Gaia Sketches for solo cello and live electronics (finalist in the New Media category, British Composers Awards 2006); and Fata Morgana for cello, ensemble and live electronics. Nunn presented the collaborative process between composer and engineer in a research paper alongside Young at the 2006 NIME conference at IRCAM.
In addition to his extensive work as an educator, Nunn has recently completed two ABRSM commissions for their Spectrum series, as well as a new work for the Tempest Flute Trio. His work Prism was nominated for the solo/duo category for the 2009 British Composers Awards and Pareidolia I for bass clarinet, electronics and sensors has been shortlisted in the Sonic Arts category for the 2012 Awards. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His music is published by Cadenza Music and the ABRSM, and also features on Red Sock Records (Music of the Spheres), NMC (Prism) and the Sfz label (Gonk).
© Patrick Nunn (Nov 2012)
Photo credit: Nick Fallon