“When you’re always made to feel like an outsider, you start thinking ‘well, fuck you, I’ll go and do my own thing’.” -Si Paton
Si Paton is a composer, improviser, bandleader, performer and academic currently studying a PhD at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Having been involved in projects such as Selectric, Apocalypse Jazz Unit and Phame, Si is known for his unique and bold approaches to composition and improvisation. Si spoke to PRXLUDES about his most recent large ensemble project, his musical philosophy, influences, collaborations and work with experimental music festival Thinking/Not Thinking.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Si! Tell me a bit about your most recent project. How do you feel about it and where you’re taking it at the moment?
Si: I like to pretend I’m not seeing it as my magnum opus, but at the back of my mind, I kind of am! -laughs-
Like you don’t want it to be a big deal, but you feel like it is?
Yeah, it very much feels like this is, like, the main bit of my PhD — this is the big sort of centrepiece, and everything else I’m writing is outside of that. But the last big project I worked on before my PhD, I thought that was my magnum opus, and the one before that was as well, so I’m sure there’s gonna be something equally batshit ambitious that I’m gonna do afterwards, and I’m gonna be like “yeah, I can feel this is the one!”
I guess it goes back to my fascination with large improvising ensembles, and I guess large ensembles kind of outside of the orchestral context. It very much draws upon people like Butch Morris and his practice as an improvising conductor, Anthony Braxton and a lot of his Ghost Trance Music — like a lot of large, mixed ensembles with jazz musicians, classical improvisers — Cobra by John Zorn… I guess with those sort of people — less so with Zorn — but more so with Braxton, Butch [Morris], they kinda started somewhere in the jazz tradition, but kind of also exiled from it in a way, because it wasn’t quite in line with the more conservative elements of…
The jazz canon?
Yeah! I guess why I resonate with them is because I have a weird relationship with jazz, having studied it; I can play it, but [I have] all these other influences and approach that at times isn’t compatible with what a lot of other people I know are doing.
Also having this background in rock music, and a focus on composition where — I feel even though [I’ve] gone away from the classical tradition, there’s still a weird kind of a link with that — you can create these sort of systems and ideas, you can have rock musicians, jazz musicians, classical, whoever, and hypothetically they can all approach it with a level playing field.
I get what you mean! You’re not trying to partition, categorise yourself, or fall into a specific trope or canon with what you do…
Yeah. And the other reason is the idea of community, like, you see 20 people all on stage together, and it feels like they’re all part of the same scene, they’re all part of the same thing. Even if they’re formally trained, and have a music degree, or if they’re self-taught, you know that they all have this sort of understanding of each other, and their approaches. This idea of scenes and community, especially from a DIY perspective — which is another very important part of my upbringing — was kind of a main interest at the start of my PhD; in having these influences and knowing these people from different from scenes, I feel like I’m trying to create my own scene out of them.
So you’re bringing influences in from different scenes, but you don’t consider yourself in any of them?
I don’t feel like I’m not in any of them, it’s more I’m on the fringes of them. I think I like the idea I’m part of these scenes, even the [contemporary] composition one, but what I do seems to draw away from [all of] them a bit. There’s definitely been, to be honest with myself, a lot of asking “Where am I, what exactly is it I represent? Who are the people and what are the approaches that have value to me, and how do I create a musical community out of that?” I think that’s what I’m trying to do, but fuck knows at this point. -laughs-
How does your background in those scenes — the math rock scene with Selectric, with your collaborative projects — feed into that musical community?
In short, how did I get to the point where that’s what I’m interested in? -laughs- Let me take you back to when I was a Zorn fanboy: one of the things I really liked about Zorn was his use of [his own] community, this idea of someone that — though I think he has a music degree — really cut his teeth in the [New York] downtown scene, working with improvisers. I don’t think he even took up the saxophone until he was like, 20; I think he took it up so he could start improvising. He started creating this loose community of people, and one by one it sort of grew. He started playing a lot with people like Eugene Chadbourne, eventually breaking into the no wave scene and incorporating that language into his work, then he’d bring in some of [New York’s] really skilled jazz musicians, eventually he’d go back to the formal classical music styles, and writing for those musicians. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s been like, that, for me, but when you’re always made to feel like an outsider, you start thinking “well, fuck you, I’ll go and do my own thing”, and then you come across people whose approaches you really like, and you enjoy playing with.
I think with the core lineup of Selectric, I think only one of the members [Agata Kubiak] was from the same uni as me; there’s only a few people from UWL [University of West London] that I’m still in touch with. Everyone else in Selectric I think I met one by one; Tom [Kenworthy], the guitarist, I met at a jazz gig, and he recommended Leo [McCulloch] and [Tom] Bush, you know, those sort of things. I think through Bush, I got introduced to a lot of the London improvisers — I guess there’s like 60 branches of improvisers — but he got me in touch with a bunch of them; there’s a guy called Rick Jensen (I still play in his band, Apocalypse Jazz Unit, sometimes), who’s doing a lot of great things, he curates a lot of improvised gigs at New River Studios, which is the only cool place left in London… -laughs-
So I’d moved out of London at that point, but I was still travelling up to play gigs with Rick and few of the AJU people, as well as my own projects. I did do a project called Pack of Wolves which I guess was a large ensemble thing. There was this band that was a big influence on me [at the time] called Black Eyes — they were fucking brilliant — so I did a kind of big band tribute of that; most of the Selectric people were involved in that, a few other improvisers I’d been playing with, a few people I hadn’t played with who I wanted an excuse to play with were in that…
Did you manage to keep crafting that kind of scene when you moved to Birmingham?
So moving to Birmingham, I initially thought it was gonna be different, that the people I meet at the beginning would be like “Yep, that’s my gang”, but it’s not. It’s taken me around 3 years to find a bunch of people that I’m happy with and like working with; it feels different, there’s been a lot of trial and error. It’s very Birmingham Conservatoire-centric, which is both a good and a bad thing! -laughs- I don’t mean it in a bad way — I’ve managed to take advantage of a lot of things being based there that I wouldn’t have been able to [otherwise] — but, like, there are a lot of people there from very similar backgrounds, and if you’re working with people that have had [similar experiences], how much shared knowledge can you really say you’re capable of if everyone’s from one place? I’m trying to figure out how to create scenarios in which these different experiences can come in.
I understand that. It can be a double-edged sword sometimes.
But also, being based in Birmingham, what I’m doing now is very location-based. When you think of DC, you kind of think of Dischord, and how a lot of that was based there; when you think of New York, you can think of the no wave scene and how a lot of that was based through being there. I guess I wanna do something like that in Brum, if that makes sense. I think people move in and out of Brum all the time, so these things change anyway.
Does wanting to create a community in Birmingham feed into the projects you have going further afield?
So that’s one of the ideas, but also now that I’m playing with Jessica [Phame], who’s based in Los Angeles, and I still have these London friends who I wanna play with, and figure out how to keep that all going. I’m sure it’ll get bigger — there are people from other cities, such as Glasgow or Amsterdam, who I wanna do stuff with as well — so I’m trying to figure out how to make all of that happen, too.
The community we’re a part of is small enough but connected enough that we can play with people from all across the world!
I mean, I’ve managed to make a band with someone from LA work out, so… -laughs-
Tell me more about what you’ve been doing with Phame. How did that collaboration come about?
I first met Jessica at a conference I went to in Porto, called Keep It Simple, Make It Fast. That was sort of around the time I was seriously considering doing a PhD, and I guess doing these conferences was kind of my way of treading the waters, seeing if it was my environment. And actually, at that moment, I was like “yeah, this is definitely my tribe — I was chatting the biggest load of shit and these people get it!” -laughs-
So I met Jessica at that, though I don’t think we spoke at length; we met again — after I started my PhD — at a conference in Bolton called Punk Scholars’ Network. KISMIF happened in Porto again two years ago, and that was where we really got chatting; where we were like “yeah, let’s form a band”. I don’t think either of us knew how it would work, or what we were gonna do, or what the concepts were, but I think we were just like, “you seem cool, let’s play music together”. She has a background of cutting her teeth in the underground punk and DIY movements, but she also has a background in classical guitar and composition, she lectures at UCLA and does a lot of punk and subcultural studies there; she’s fucking cool, basically.
I’d definitely like to see you guys sometime.
Yeah, she was meant to come over to Thinking/Not Thinking this year, but… We were meant to play in Belfast, I’m super gutted about that one.
We did do something at Punk Scholars Leicester, though. We did something at New River in London, a gig Rick [Jensen] put on, and we did something last summer at the Conservatoire. Part of it is as a duo, but we bring collaborators in too. Emily Abdy played with us last summer, we did something for CODA (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire), it was the first time we did something with compositional elements, [as] before then we’d just been improvising. That was a fucking weird show, because an hour before we went on I found out my uncle died.
Damn. And then you had to play a show…
Yeah, it was such a weird feeling doing a show like that, it was crazy. I can remember totally smashing my bass during it as well, I had all these kind of weird emotions happening. It was strange, but I’m kind of glad I had that experience; when you’ve been playing music for so long, you don’t get that many new experiences, [but] that definitely was one.
Yeah. I’m sure it’s cathartic.
Yeah, we were playing in the corridor, and there were, like, a couple other concerts going on. They saw me going really at it, and all these kinds of people came up from other things, and they were like “what the fuck’s going on?” -laughs- A couple of them digged it, a couple of didn’t get it and thought it was funny, a couple of them fucking hated it. It was great.
Tell me about your process for the Gillberg Variations…
I’d describe it [the piece] as ‘acoustic grindcore’… I think that work is me at my most John Zorn ripoff. It was actually one of the first things I wrote that I wasn’t playing in myself. You know how like even the most ambitious pieces have this really small, miniscule ‘challenge’, like a really small question attached to this big, grandiose thing; in that one, the question was simply “Can I write a piece of music where I’m not one of the performers in it?” It feels like for most composers it’s the other way round; with me, maybe because I got so attached to music, I do have trouble watching other people play it and not really being one of the elements, which is why I’m always playing bass in stuff. I don’t know. Maybe I’m more of a control freak than I realise.
I mean, composers are notoriously difficult to work with…
Even Butch and Zorn are total megalomaniacs, and they’re like my fucking heroes!
So that was sort of the idea, and through that, it was sort of like “what can I do with that?” And I wanted to do a chamber music thing, but maybe it just came from listening to too much Zorn; he [Zorn] had this idea of writing these really short, miniature things, and most of these pieces aren’t even a minute long — some of them are eight seconds long — Bush from Selectric was in it, Rosie Turton was in it, all from the experimental jazz, London improvisers branch.
Looking back at that work — it’s 23 pieces — some of the [compositions] were really good, some of them were less good… One of them was fucking terrible, I was trying to experiment with a twelve-tone concept that didn’t really go anywhere. It’s weird; I don’t think I thought when I was writing it that “this is my magnum opus”, I think that approach, I was like “this is just something I wanna do, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not the greatest thing in the world”.
Did you perform it in Birmingham at all, or was it more of a London improvisers thing?
Funnily enough, I did perform it in Birmingham once, I roped some students into playing it. There was this one section where there was this long note, and they all had to hold it, sort of saying “you just play that note until I cue you”. I made this joke that it would only go on for 10 seconds, but it could go on for three hours… and one of the musicians said “Yeah. No it’s not”.
I don’t know what happened, but during the performance, my brain just went “right, you wanna fuck with me?” -laughs- So what I did was, I walked off the stage while they’re still holding the note — I’m just going like, keep going, keep going — walked around the audience, did a little zigzag, went in a circle, came back to the stage, went like “okay, we’re gonna change the note now…” and then walked off again like “nah, just kidding”. I think I kept it going for like, five minutes, just cause, I don’t know, that comment triggered something in me! That was a great performance.
You’ve been organising events under Thinking/Not Thinking for the past few years now. Does the work you do with them reflect the ideas of community you mentioned?
Thinking/Not Thinking very much feels like a reflection of my practice. Like, talking about this idea of community, it’s quite good to have this platform to be able to foster this community, to start to help establish it. Thinking/Not Thinking’s not the only way, but it’s a good way to draw the battle lines, so to speak! -laughs-
Specifically, how it began; in 2016, I was at this festival in Portugal called Milhões de Festa. It’s great, there’s this stage by a swimming pool, it’s fucking crazy — I thought I was gonna die of heat exhaustion when I was there, but with awesome music and everyone in swimming suits, that’s probably a good way to go out — they had people like Ho99o9, Sons of Kemet, it feels a bit like ArcTanGent by a swimming pool.
That is so my jam.
Yeah, it was a really good vibe. I remember there was this amazing moment where Sons of Kemet played, and straight after them was this group called Marshstepper — who did this quite intense, harsh noise thing — what I really liked about that sort of contrast was this kind of brightness, this almost joyousness completely evaporating into this darkness and nihilism; I loved that contrast, it was timed so perfectly, everything was great about it.
I got introduced to this journalist, who was sort of saying how you wouldn’t be able to get a festival like this in the UK, because a lot of the UK music scenes are much more segregated than in Europe, cause there’s, like, more people; which means there are less chances to collaborate cause you’ve got enough people in your micro-scenes already. I definitely saw that as a kind of “Okay. Challenge accepted.” -laughs-
So [Thinking/Not Thinking] initially started off as a London thing. I did it in London for two years, both as kind of all-dayer things, with no money involved, and they worked really well. I had some amazing bands play; I had Blue Crime from Amsterdam — they were great, still got a lot of time for them — [The] Sweet Release of Death from Rotterdam, which is just the best band name ever… Parachute for Gordo, Salt the Snail, Death and the Penguin, Quitter — really good songwriter, lo-fi kind of Scottish indie vibes — a lot of those two years, Kenny [Quitter], Krystian and Joseff [Twisted Ankle]… a lot of that was actually, weirdly, me returning favours, because they gave Selectric gigs in Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff, so I was like “well, yeah, I owe you guys gigs”, and they played and killed it. This was after Selectric split up, [and] I’d made all these links during the band, so I was kinda worrying that I’d got these contacts I can’t do anything with; so it was also a way to keep those bridges going as well. And — obviously, I won’t see them much, but — I’ll still hang out [with them] if any of them are around or on tour.
That definitely sounds like a great time!
Those two years were very good, brought a lot of great music, a lot of people were really into everything… Yeah, by the second one, I’d lost a lot of money on it, turnout wasn’t as great as I was hoping; I remember waking up the next day, basically hungover as fuck, being like “yeah, it was a lot of fun, but if I wanna keep this going, I’m gonna have to really make a lot of changes”. I’d already moved to Birmingham by the second one, so the obvious thing was to move the festival [up here] — which was kind of a shame, because I loved putting gigs on at New River Studios, but… you just gotta do what you gotta do — I thought I could get something good happening in Brum, and I think I had a better chance putting [something like] that on in the grassroots scene, actually making it an [event] in the calendar.
I think Birmingham and Digbeth are a lot more open to those kinds of things; from my experience, the London scene can be kinda segregated…
So in a way, that journalist proved me right! -laughs-
Last year was the first year I did it in Birmingham. I turned it into a weekend instead of an all-dayer, I applied for funding with the Arts Council, I actually had money for an assistant! The person who did it was this songwriter called Bryony Williams, who was also on the bill. [We had] Robocobra Quartet from Belfast — so pleased to get them over, I talked with Chris about doing something with them since the Selectric days, so I’m really please I got to do a show with them — we brought over another Amsterdam band called Spill Gold, brought in Reciprocate (basically the New River [Studios] house band!), some popular Brum bands played such as Dorcha, Yr Poetry, Bryony [Williams], even some conservatoire people such as Anna Olsson, the Post-Paradise guys… It’s a shame, cause the plan was to keep that momentum going for this year.
I know you put on some events outside of the festival as well; when did that start?
I started around June [last year], just to try and keep some awareness outside of the festival; I think I put on three gigs, and the plan was to do another three outside the weekend, but they all got cancelled, and the festival got cancelled as well. In a weird way, I was kind of thinking of taking a year off of it anyway, so it’s weird how sometimes these decisions are made for us. -laughs-
Si’s work can be found at:
- Butch Morris – from Derek Bailey’s “On the Edge” (1992)
- John Zorn – from Derek Bailey’s “On the Edge” (1992)
- Anthony Braxton – 12+1Tet at Biennale Musica (2012)
- Anthony Braxton – Ghost Trance Music, Composition nos. 193 + 228 at Dal Niente PARTY (2019)
- Black Eyes – Cough, full album (2004)
- Marshstepper – full live set at Saint Vitus (2014)
- Blue Crime – live at 3voor12 Radio (2016)
- The Sweet Release of Death – Kitty Swim Club, music video (2016)
- Robocobra Quartet – You’ll Wade, live on BBC One NI (2018)
- Spill Gold – live Meduse MagiQ session (2017)
- Quitter – Every Day You’ve Lived, live at Airthrey Cottage, Stirling (2018)