“Rather than “the system is the piece”, the system is creating something which then I may or may not feel free to change and adjust. It became more of a balance between the abstract and the process.” -Patrick Ellis
Patrick Ellis (b. 1994, London) is a composer currently based in the UK. His works have been performed across the UK and continental Europe, as well as Malaysia, Australia, and the USA. Patrick studied at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Royal Conservatoire of The Hague; his work has won the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Composition Prize and the Philip Bates Trust Audience Prize, and his pieces have been performed by ensembles such as Orkest de Ereprijs, the New European Ensemble, and the Residentie Orkest. Patrick also writes shoegaze and dream pop-inspired guitar music under the alias Vallé. Patrick spoke to PRXLUDES about his background and education in the UK and The Netherlands, his compositional process, and his records as Vallé.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Patrick! Tell me a bit about your background; how did you first get involved with composing?
Patrick Ellis: I started learning the trumpet at the age of 9, and then a bit later was playing in the secondary school jazz and wind bands. Being surrounded by an encouraging department and likeminded peers, I began considering venturing into music more seriously in some capacity in my early teens.
My first real involvement in composition began when I was around 15 years old. At the time, I had recently bought myself a Yamaha keyboard, and was beginning my studies for Grade 5 Theory and GCSE Music. As part of the latter, you had to write two compositions as part of the curriculum anyway. When we were at the stage of making some “practice” compositions, I thoroughly enjoyed the process and was encouraged further by positive feedback from my teacher, as well as peers in and outside of the music class.
At school, there was a choice between two softwares: Sibelius or Cubase. I preferred the latter at the time, as my method for writing involved drawing in the pitches on the piano roll and then adjusting the length of each of them to determine their note value – it was a very digital way of doing things.
Was there anything particular that made you want to pursue composition?
When I finished secondary school and began my A-level studies at Alton College, I realised that my practice routine and abilities as a performing musician were not to the same level as some of my peers. In turn, I began to prefer writing my own music much more, over performing works be other people.
The music department at Alton College was really good, and the two teachers — Martin Read and Pande Shahov — were also composers. There had been generally a strong cohort of other student composers in the department. Prior to my studies, Laura Jurd, Hannah Dilkes and Richard Hames — who is now part of Ensemble x.y — were all music students, each who now have some involvement in contemporary music. During my time there (2011-13), there were several other students who were already pursuing and/or interested in composition: Lucy Hale, Alexander Ling, William KZ Hearne, Jess Holland and Dan Cippico — the latter whom is now based in Birmingham.
Having supportive tutors and a strong community made up of other composers really encouraged me to pursue composition further, and having an ad-hoc music group called the Composers Ensemble, which was made up of composers and a few instrumentalists who had been persuaded, it was very much a case of “writing for what there was”.
That’s still an incredibly fortunate experience. I’ve come across some of those names before — it’s a really small world.
Definitely, it’s all intrinsically interconnected — you attend a concert, festival, course, scheme or a networking event, and you’re bound to meet someone who shares a mutual connection.
I remember you said in an interview with Emily Abdy that people tend to find their way into composition/contemporary music through one of three avenues — rock music, film music, and experimenting with your classical instrument?
Yeah, that’s right. Funnily enough, when I was doing some interviews for my master’s research, one of the composers/interviewees, Laurie Tompkins, mentioned that his own interest and involvement in contemporary music stemmed from his fascination with left-field intros, outros and interludes that can sometimes be heard on various albums by even some of the more ‘mainstream’ rock bands.
This was also the way that I got into contemporary music, things Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, and the second half of John Frusciante’s first solo record — ‘Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt’ — became the gateway to appreciating the avant-garde and experimental music.
How would you say your style evolved when you first arrived in Birmingham? Was there anything in particular you absorbed from your time there?
In my first year, I primarily studied with Ed Bennett. Perhaps my most important lesson that I learnt from him was to really focus on my ideas; to be more consistent and coherent, to really narrow things down just a few fundamental things. Prior to my studies in Birmingham, a lot of my music had so many unrelated gestures stuffed in single movement pieces. At first, it was rather daunting to limit my ideas, but it has since become a core trait to my own music.
Going in to my second and third year, I began to pair down my music – writing sparser textures with a lot of sustained notes, somewhat akin to Morton Feldman and the Wandelweiser composers Michael Pisaro and Jürg Frey, but admittedly with a much more naïve execution. Seán Clancy, my main tutor at the time, had been taking found data, objects and materials from non-musical sources and translating/repurposing them into musical parameters for his own concert music (e.g. Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football). I found this approach really intriguing and began to experiment with these ideas in my own work, finding new ways to create different structures and materials.
For the final year of my bachelors’ degree, I switched my composition tutor to Andrew Hamilton, who from the get-go encouraged me to loosen up the way that I wrote music. Over the course of the year, his teaching helped me to put more work into the musical material and its surrounding parameters, as well as making me more aware of how to pace material – i.e. when to repeat, alter/develop or move on to another gesture. Maybe to some that might seem rather fundamental, but at the time I felt that my music had been bogged down by a lot of systems that the listener could not really perceive without a score and a lengthy, tangential explanation.
I took on the attitude that I wasn’t going to be super strict about my ideas; using it as a means to develop something. Rather than “the system is the piece”, the system is creating something which then I may or may not feel free to change and adjust. It became more of a balance between the abstract and the process, using the two together. Basically, I became less picky about things with Andrew. That was really important.
I guess it’s the development from “process music” towards “process-informed music”, in a sense — allowing yourself to take artistic agency rather than relying on pure methodology?
Exactly! From my fourth year in Birmingham, I began to tell myself “I don’t have to have my music completely chained to the system or the process”.
How did that develop when you started studying in The Hague?
During my studies in The Hague, my writing became increasingly more about using the material as objects and the medium/occasion/ensemble to influence the piece, rather than imposing a removed idea on it. In general, I took the shackles off, but if I did use a process, then I would try to relate it to musical-based parameters; the instrumentation, the duration, the pitches, etc. It stopped being, “I’m going to use the date of birth of the performer to decide the number of notes in this piece”, and instead became “What are the ranges of this instrument? Can I build and develop a progressive underpinning from this?”.
In my experience, the more you learn about the forces you work with, the less you need to rely on processes.
There are still many fantastic composers who use processes as an integral part of their work – Tom Johnson, for example – but they are still informed by the context and medium that they are working with. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s [a] maturity thing, but you do begin to realise or learn from issues that were in previous pieces.
What were the similarities and differences that you found between Birmingham and The Hague — at least in terms of new music?
At the time, both of the Composition Departments had really strong communities, with many inspiring student composers.
During the early years of my studies at Birmingham, there was Maya Verlaak, Luke Deane, Andy Ingamells, Ryan Probert, Richard Stenton, Paul Zaba, and Fang Fang who were in the more senior years of the department at the time and actively involved in putting on events and encouraging the younger students to get involved.
In my year for undergraduate there were only two other composers (Robert Crehan and Wilson Leywantono). We were a tight knit group and over the four years we sort of grew together as composers and individuals. Comparing this to The Hague, my year group was full of eight composers who each had different compositional backgrounds. Some had studied their bachelors in The Hague before, but the majority hadn’t – there was someone from Brazil, someone from Ireland… everyone was coming from different angles and we each had different research projects. I think each of us respected each others’ work, but the influence on each other was much more passive.
Was that reflected in the general new music culture of The Hague, in relation to what’s happening in Birmingham?
From my own experience in The Hague, even first year bachelors’ instrumental and voice students had an appreciation for performing contemporary music. There were a lot more students from around the continent, compared to Birmingham, where the majority of the students were from the UK. Perhaps music education in a lot of mainland Europe has more of an infrastructure to teach younger students about contemporary and experimental music, but it could also be because it was The Hague.
Martijn Padding once said at a talk he did when he visited Birmingham, that in a lot of composition departments at conservatoires or university are like mini-cults in the corner of the building, while in The Hague, contemporary music and composition are integral parts to the whole institution. It’s interesting [to look at] the cultural differences. The infrastructure in The Netherlands supports contemporary music a lot more, there are so many ensembles. Comparing the UK and The Netherlands, there is a difference in how they perceive “the arts”, or value [in] the arts.
I’ve noticed there’s some degrees of melodic and harmonic fragmentation in your work; is that a conscious decision you take in your writing process?
Yes, and I think that largely came from elements of popular music. When I was younger, a lot of the classical and modernist music that I was listening to at the time, had slow and subtle development, which then I didn’t appreciate or resonate with.
The fragmentation in my music also comes from an obsession with details; I’ll write some initial material, and then make various permutations of it… I’ll take a fine thing and expand it [in a certain way]. That was very much the thinking of ‘Unfolding Chamber Piece’ – working stage by stage, block by block, getting each element right to how I thought it should be at the time. I think that’s a good example of [my] fragmentation.
Does your approach to fragmentation tend to change with the forces you’re writing for?
There’s pieces like ‘Ruin’ for large ensemble and ‘Components’ for orchestra that are generally a bit more flowing with the material. Both do have elements of fragmentation, but I changed my method slightly for those pieces. ‘Unfolding Chamber Piece’ was much more [to do with] event by event material and interlocking parts, with all of the instruments working as a unit and changing their material together.
My orchestral piece, ‘Components’, had a different method. It was about making a lateral foundation, and then building more flowing gestures and textures over the top of it. For the project, I was assigned a large array of instruments that was based off of [Sofia] Gubaidulina’s ‘Offertorium’, which included five percussionists, two harps and a celeste, alongside large brass, string and woodwind sections. The former selection were used mostly as the lateral foundation for the piece, while the rest of the orchestra acted as an overlay.
The foundation of the piece consisted of combinations of two progressions – each were five chords – and I used every permutation of those twice. There was also cyclical time signature progression [as well]. Part A would be [written] on the time signature I wrote it as, but Part B would be bumped to the bar before. They matched up every so often, but for the majority of the progression they were playing against each other. That was the foundation, and over the top [I was] occasionally pairing the strings, the brass and the winds with the underpinning, but deviating from it be transforming those into short gestures that resembled swells and quick ascending/descending passages. Sometimes, the percussion or core would leap out of the flowing and free parts, and vice versa. That piece was less [to do with] prominent fragmentation, but it’s still definitely there.
It’s more subtle, but it doesn’t mean it’s not paramount.
Yeah. I think ‘Unfolding Chamber Piece’ was very much [overt] in terms of its fragmentation, but ‘Components’ and ‘Ruin’ were much more of a hybrid between the prominent fragmentation and the use of a more systemised underpinning, with the former being the flowing textures over the top of the foundation.
The piece ‘Shrouded: Together and Against’ — which I composed for Psappha Ensemble’s Composing for… scheme last year — was taking that idea of that foundation, but building a slowly changing, cyclical [motif], and used that to [show] the way the material develops and changes. For example, you would have four [or] five bars of material, [which] would repeat, but for each repetition the first bar of the previous cell would be omitted and a new bar would replace it at the end— this recurred over the course of the whole piece.
Something that really stood out to me about ‘Shrouded: Together and Against’ was that I ended up hyperfocusing on the subtle change of material, since you’ve stripped everything back and you’re just using one register. Was that part of your intentions with the piece?
Yes, it was, although I think in a lot of my music I focus on a select number of parameters. As you said, when you have more focused parameters, then it is easier to perceive changes in the material, which ‘Shrouded’ was done by using cyclical structures and slowly shifting repetitive material.
The use of the lower register actually came from an earlier solo piano piece that I wrote for Fumiko Miyachi that was part of a project during my final year in Birmingham. It too used the lower register exclusively, but it instead focused on two contrasting materials that were juxtaposed and developed throughout the piece for around fifteen minutes.
I’d be interested to know if you’re inspired by fragmentation from non-musical sources? The piece you wrote for Orkest de Ereprijs comes to mind…
With ‘Ruin’ [for Orkest de Ereprijs], I was inspired by two different non-musical sources. The first of which came about during a lesson with Martijn Padding where he mentioned that the sketch material I had written had a melancholic quality to it and reminded him of a ruin. I took this idea further by ‘disintegrating’ elements of the musical material (i.e. detuning the bass guitar string after it had been struck).
The second non-musical source came from an elegy titled, ‘The Ruin’, which is an 8th or 9th century text that depicts a ruined city in England (disputed to be Bath). Being written prior to the great vowel shift and [the] Norman invasion, the poem was written in Old English (Anglo-Saxon English).
Even the language itself contributes to the fragmentation — old English is so different to the language as it stands today.
Definitely! I liked the idea of using a language that is the ancestor to our own, but is no longer commonly spoken. Rather strangely the surviving manuscript of the elegy was partially burnt in a fire several centuries ago, so even the text itself has been fragmented.
However, I wouldn’t say that ‘Ruin’ is a work that is solely about fragmentation, but inevitably that will be perceived due the nature of the material and the choice of text. I myself have always seen the piece as an exploration with different timbres through the disintegration of material, and the relationship between the foundation in the electric piano and vibraphone, with the short gestures and swells in the rest of the ensemble.
I remember you wrote a piece for a festival in Dublin? Tell me about the approach you’ve taken with ‘Around the Clocks’; it’s quite different to some of your other recent works.
A friend of mine from my studies in The Hague — Robert Coleman — is the artistic advisor for Kirkos, a contemporary music ensemble based in Dublin, Ireland. Last September, they put on a festival named Biosphere, that showcased different artistic responses to climate change and the negative effects of global warming. Robert had approached me a few months prior to the performances, and intrigued by the idea behind the festival, I sent over a proposal.
Each piece that took place for Biosphere had to adhere to a set rules: outdoors, have no printed scores, and relate to climate change in some way. I had this idea of having the ensemble travelling around the city and performing in front of different public clocks over the space of 24 hours.
To relate it to global warming, I took the average global temperature from the past 24 years, tying each year to a clock [in Dublin]. For each movement/clock, the average temperature [of each corresponding year] determined the number of seconds subtracted from five minutes — so over time, the movements in general get shorter, with the record year for the highest global temperature being the shortest movement, and the year with the lowest being the longest in the piece.
As there we were prohibited from having printed scores, I opted for one chord and gave a suggested starting orchestration. The idea was that the musicians would deviate from the starting orchestration as the temperature increases and when the length of each movement got shorter. Aesthetically, it was quite a drone-based piece. It was something that I wouldn’t do regularly, but it came about from the brief and the limitations that were set out for me.
Why do you think you ended up taking that particular approach with the piece?
When I write more process-driven or conceptual pieces, I tend to have preference for working with data, stats, numbers, and/or found structures, rather than [looking at] a performance art, stage, or theatrical realisation of the idea. Apart from the performers — and the person filming —people didn’t really perceive [the full picture]. Passers-by would have most likely only caught one of the movements, and they would have never bumped into another one. So only the musicians were the only ones who were perceiving the piece during the performance. It was only when I received the footage and edited it all together that you could see the piece as a whole.
The performances for each movement took place over the course of the week. Most of which was fitted around the musician’s schedules for the other performances in the festival, but it did include a night vigil that took place between 10pm and 6am the next morning. Afterwards, Andy Ingamells and Seán Clancy were performing their piece ‘This Is About’ on the beach, and they had mentioned that the ensemble was all tired because of my piece. It’s kind of crazy that they were performing during the early hours, but they were so dedicated and really made the piece come alive.
It’s almost allegorical for the way people perceive climate change — not seeing the bigger picture, but only one element.
I’ve never thought about it in that way, but that’s a very good point.
So, whilst you’ve had all of this more concert-focused composition work, I’ve heard you’ve had a shoegaze project named Vallé on the go as well?
Yeah, that’s right! Vallé began when I was 18, after I had bought an audio interface to use for home recording purposes. In the spring of 2013, I uploaded a few standalone tracks, before releasing my first four track EP that summer. Back then, it wasn’t really a “shoegaze” project, as I wasn’t really listening to that kind of music at the time. Then and now, I have always considered Vallé as a “side project” that exists outside of my concert music.
How did your records under Vallé develop moving forward? Did you intend to keep it as your own “thing”, or were you looking to collaborate as part of the project?
After three EPs and a two track release between mid-2013 and mid-2014, I took a break from Vallé for about a year and a half. I don’t really remember why I had a hiatus, but inevitably, when I did finally decide to go back to it, some of my approaches, influences and ideas about Vallé had changed.
In 2016, I put out three releases: An album titled ‘Album’, an EP called ‘Ep’, and a single named ‘Single’. Compared to the earlier Vallé material, there was a lot more reverb and other effects featured on these releases. I wouldn’t say it was heavier, but the production was certainly fuller. At that point in time, I was a bit more public about the project — previously I would just release them, but not make any posts about it on my personal social media accounts. Going into the following year (2017), I was looking for new ways to approach Vallé and one of the avenues that I hadn’t really explored was collaborating with other people. Up to that point I only saw Vallé as a project that I would do everything for – the writing, recording, releasing, etc. – everything apart from the cover art on several of the releases. The first foray into collaboration and working with others was on a track named, ‘Dc’, which Dan Cippico played the bass guitar on. Later that year I released the fifth Vallé EP, ‘Castle and Woodland’, which featured several collaborative tracks – working with Sam Leith Taylor, Peter Bell, and Dan Cippico.
When I moved to The Hague towards the end of that summer, I took another hiatus, largely because it was a new environment. I didn’t have my own place to live until mid-October, despite arriving in The Netherlands at the end of August. I was fortunate to know enough people to sofa-surf for the first seven weeks. But as you can imagine, I did not get much composing done in the first part of the term, and subsequently I spent the rest of the first term feeling a bit disillusioned.
After arriving back in The Hague after the Christmas break, I was looking for ways to get out of my writing block and so I decided to return to Vallé by recording a track a month over the course of the year, resulting in the album, ‘Twenty Eighteen’. I had initially planned for the album to not be a collaborative effort, but a friend of mine — Shannon [Latoyah Simon] — asked me if she could play guitar on one of the tracks, so I said “yeah, of course”. To make things more consistent, I then approached Dan Cippico, Peter Bell, Sam Leith Taylor, and Luke Deane to also collaborate on a few tracks with me.
I noticed you released ‘Twenty Eighteen’ gradually over the year rather than in full; would you say it was a conscious decision to challenge traditional album cycles?
I wouldn’t say that it was to challenge the way albums are usually released. It was more from the standpoint of doing things slightly differently; rather than shoving 10-12 tracks out in the open at once, why not write and release one each month? Admittedly some of the ideas were drafted several weeks prior to their release date, but for the most part they came together within the month they are named after. To date, ‘Twenty Eighteen’ has been my largest Vallé project.
Do you have any more collaborations as Vallé lined up?
Peter Bell and I had been talking about integrating him into Vallé as a full-time member, but I quickly learnt after a few attempts that I wanted to still have creative control over the recorded output. So instead, the two of us agreed to set up a new breakaway project that focuses on live performances instead of recordings. It hasn’t fully taken off yet, but we did a performance at the Ideas of Noise Festival last February with composer and vocalist Georgia Denham. We were billed as Vallé at the time, but we now refer to this project as Open Union, which is going to be an electric guitar duo that performs works by other composers and ourselves.
Do you see Open Union as maybe a way to bridge these two facets of your work — your concert works and your records as Vallé?
Definitely! At the moment, Peter and I are still working out where exactly Open Union will sit between these facets, but we do know that we want to be working closely with ourselves and other composers that we approach to make new work. Neither of us are proficient guitarists, so we shall be focusing more on exploring timbre and open forms through effects pedals, programmed patches, improvisation and interpretation.
Patrick’s work can be found at:
- In Memory of Lucy Hale (2021)
- Pink Floyd – ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ (1967)
- John Frusciante – Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt (American Recordings, 1997)
- Morton Feldman – Triadic Memories, performed by Aki Takahashi (1981)
- Seán Clancy – Forty Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football (NMC Recordings, 2014)
- Sofia Gubaidulina – Offertorium, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1988)
- Old English Poetry Project – The Ruin | Anglo-Saxon Poetry (c. 900-1000 CE)
- Andy Ingamells and Seán Clancy – ‘This is about’ (2019)