“We should really look after the score, and the idea of the score, because it’s one of the only things that capitalism hasn’t taken away from us.”Luke Deane
Luke Deane is a conceptual composer currently based in Amsterdam, and has gained a reputation for some of the most technically ambitious and most interdisciplinary productions in the Netherlands. Luke describes his work as belonging to the “semi-fictional” Fourth Viennese School of Composition. He has produced works for 66,365 speakers, compositions that can only be performed in perfect reverse-time, and hypothetical duets between humans and other organisms; Luke has written operas for VR, R/C toy cars, and animated water features. Luke spoke to PRXLUDES about his interdisciplinary practice, his collaborative work and philosophy, his relationship with score and notation, and his non-binary alter ego Lisa.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Luke! Thanks for joining me today. How are you? Where are you based at the moment?
Luke Deane: Hi hi! I am so happy that you have time to talk. I live in Rotterdam, but right now, I’m sitting in Splendor, Amsterdam, which is the music studio and collective which I am part of. Splendor is a lab space independently managed by 50 musicians. It’s like a lab space! This is definitely a hub for musicians, [and] people who really want to focus on music and sound. If it was only run by artists who study fine art, it would be a lot more messy than it is… -laughs-
It’s really cool seeing these spaces pop up.
That’s so important. I spend a lot of my time at the moment hosting people, or giving other artists space and time to work on stuff. I feel that should be a natural exchange, something we don’t make enough of, actually — the idea that we can give each other support. When I studied in Birmingham, we were all playing each other’s pieces, and supporting each other; people really supported me building sculptures, or hanging things from the ceiling, or turning up to play the third piano part. We all really did that, and all these bigger things can happen — slightly more ambitious [ideas] can happen — because of that support.
From there — tell me a bit about your musical background. How has your exposure to different artistic ideas osmosed into your practice?
It’s a good question. It feels like a really epic journey, it feels like I’ve come a long way. Somehow, melody always stayed a very very important part of everything I do; but in the meantime, I basically travelled everywhere, all through different mediums, different scoring styles and aesthetics. I sort of travelled through them all — [and] melody’s the only thing that came out the other side, consistently in everything. -laughs- I put that down to having come to Birmingham and [spending] a lot of time with Howard Skempton. Howard was my main teacher, and there’s still some really pure aspect of learning [from him] that stays in everything I do. I realised the other day that although I work a lot with visual elements — I make video pieces, pieces with stage design, physical instruments, even just performative objects or text — somehow, the music and the musicality will always be the most important thing. That’s certainly what it seems to come down to, right at the end.
Of course. Whilst the path meanders, you can never shake the world you come from — or at least I can’t.
I was saying to someone recently [that] we should really look after the score, and the idea of the score, because it’s one of the only things that capitalism hasn’t taken away from us. -laughs- Nobody wants to buy the score like an instant fast-food [product]… There’s something about the score that evades being monopolised, and there’s a real strength in that, I think.
Music is also carbon-neutral a lot of the time. And we never talk about that… -laughs- So really, we have a lot of amazing things going for us in music. Although I often diverge, and end up performing in festivals, or making interactive or digital work, it always comes back to pure musical form. It just does.
I was really interested in how you see a lot of these different disciplines coalescing — what is it about the musical form that seeps its way into your practice?
I think extremes is a good place to start when discussing that. I have an alter ego called Lisa, and I make songs [with her] — I guess nowadays, you would call it a “non-binary persona”, or maybe you would say I perform in drag, I’m not sure still. When I started there wasn’t a terminology for those things. But I made a cover of a song from a musical called ‘Hello Dolly’, and in this cover I start singing, but then a photographer comes out wearing a scuba diving outfit taking pictures, and there’s a video that’s in sync with it, and it becomes a stage piece… I had challenged myself in that work, how crazy and experimental could a cover of a song be? For me, it’s still a song — I know for other people it wouldn’t look that way, but it really feels like a song.
Maybe it’s also a bit [of] post-Cageian thinking; continuing to explore what material of music can be, whether that would be the musicality of a thought — the movement of a thought — a physical movement on the stage, or the movement of sound through the air. I know dancers also think a lot about things like harmony, consonance, and dissonance, for example — and that exists completely outside of what we see as a harmonic construction in music — but the two ways of thinking about harmony are still very related somehow.
The same principles apply, just in a different medium. Consonance and dissonance exist everywhere…
Absolutely. I guess that’s maybe why the medium often changes in my work. It’s because I see it as fluid, I like to see it as being fluid. The discovery of new mediums is just going fur-ther in what the material of music can be, that’s what it is. Even in [commercial] cinema — even in the most controlled medium, where everything is painstakingly lit — in the end, you’re still looking for this musicality. Directors that I really love — I feel that they’re still looking for this.
I’m not sure if “musicality” is the universal term — maybe that’s because we’re both musicians. Is much of your interdisciplinary work collaborative?
Oh, yeah, I’m very collaborative. I think you can see in my work, as well, that I work best with other people. I always have. Me and Richard Stenton were awarded the Composition Prize in Birmingham [Conservatoire] for our duo — and it was the first time it had been awarded to two people, for a co-composition. I’m a great believer in co-composition. I see a lot of collaboration where people stay in their discipline, and I don’t understand that. I feel that at a certain level, when artists collaborate with each other, the most exciting things will happen when anything goes. I like to feel that the people I’m working with can get into the score, and shake up the notes, as well; if I’m to have an opinion about the lighting, if I’m working with the lighting designer or something, then they should certainly have an opinion on how the music is moving. It’s sort of weird how interdisciplinarity is now really common, it’s really normal, and that’s a great, great thing. There’s a lot more collectives in the art world [now], as well, which I find really hopeful. I did a lot of collaborations where I’ve brought lots of people together just to see what would happen — that’s what collective work is about.
I completely understand — I’m of the same mindset! Do you see some of your collective work as having almost a curatorial element, in that respect?
I mean, I did one project called ‘DEEPFREEZETV’, which was a livestreamed experimen-tal TV show. This was before covid — we did a big show with a live painter, and a pianist… we had some kids on the show, [we had] a set designer, lighting, all kinds of things — but it worked because it was so chaotically put together. We all had our ideas, and we merged them all together into a very free happening. Actually, in that project, [a] very weird thing happened; because I’d been producing it so carefully — and really wanting everyone to feel like they had full creative space and license to come and do it — in the end, all I had to do was stand at the back door and make sure nobody came in. I got to read one text in the middle of the show, but that was it. Which [was] wild, because I put so much of my thought process in, but it was the first production where I hadn’t been running around involved, it was the first one where I stood [on] the outside and got to really enjoy and appreciate something that happened.
I also worked on Gaudeamus’ ‘Screen Dive’, which is a website full of interactive [composition] works. I built the website and helped a lot of the artists with the programming, and with developing their work. Me and Maya Felixbrodt worked on that together, and we were curators. I don’t know if I fully understand what curation is, still, but my work isn’t in that website, and I built it and helped the other artists put their work in. So maybe that’s what curation is.
I don’t think anyone goes into curation knowing exactly what “curation” is. It can mean a multitude of different things.
I have met curators that have a very, very deep practice, though. Being put in that role for the first time really did make me question what my values are, really. And I think that ‘Screen Dive’ could have been one of these hyper-digital, hyper-consumable art object things, and instead what came out was that it was a highly anarchistic, quite punk sort of art object that everybody made. I think that’s reflective of my curatorial aims.
Tell me a bit more about your work with Gaudeamus. How deeply are you involved with them?
[Gaudeamus] is a contemporary music festival in Utrecht that’s been going for seventy-five years. I’ve made a few pieces for them. I brought a virtual reality opera that I made there — many years ago, when I first arrived in the Netherlands, I made an opera that featured only remote controlled cars that could sing to each other, and that was a family opera that was performed there. I also made a water feature — a working water feature — out of a french horn. So I’ve worked with them quite a few times, and I really support their goal of working to maintain a space where extreme experimentalism in sound and music can be put at the front.
That really reminds me of the contemporary scene in Birmingham.
There’s certainly a strong link between Birmingham and the Netherlands. Something I al-ways found really moving in Birmingham was that they were really focused on making great music — from many different angles. But I don’t think that making great music will necessarily bring you huge financial success or acclaim; I think that more often than not, composing is a very solitary research, and you get to find the most amazing things about music in quiet spaces — in quiet, un-busy spaces without political expectation.
It’s interesting you mention these spaces being apolitical — where do you feel the relationship between music and politics lies within your own work?
I could say something very ptolemic now — that music only participates in politics, but I’m still not sure if it is inherently political. I can see that it becomes political in its use — it participates in politics, it participates in our lives — but there seems to be something [else] about it. I’m a teacher, as well; I’ve just taught a lesson today, and I played a bit of Bach, and a bit of Haydn, and there’s an inner world there, and an inner stillness that seems to go beyond a lot of those things.
I’ve always been of the mindset that music is inherently political, but only because everything is inherently political — it’s about whether you choose to associate with the political side.
Maybe that’s, again, the thing about the score. The score is really weird, because the score isn’t the music, it isn’t the performance, it isn’t even the rehearsal… the score is something else. Once you put the score into practice — or once the score is performed, or activated in some way — then a whole bunch of things happen. It’s very complex thing [when] scores come to life. I feel like in Birmingham, they did allow us space for that.
“We should really look after the score, and the idea of the score, because it’s one of the only things that capitalism hasn’t taken away from us.” Luke Deane, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
What’s your relationship with your own scores? How do your ideas fit in with your notational practice?
I think it’s interesting; [a while ago] we were talking about graphic notation. I went on Radio WORM in Rotterdam and talked about improvisation; we were talking about graphic notation, and I was saying that in some cases, graphic notation was a lot less open than traditional notation. And then we were like “yeah, let’s talk about that some more, that’s quite provocative”… -laughs- Because [graphic notation] is visual, you know, you have to make an interpretation of it, and it’s concrete, in a sense, because it’s there — it’s visually there.
I’ve had a strange relationship with scores, I think, because I’ve done a bunch of mixed media work, and some things don’t require a score in the same way. I have these books I’ve been making, that are notebooks that have been chopped into three horizontally — and they generate pieces of music. They’re like those children’s books you get where you make a story by [putting together] different pages…
That is so cool.
So you see, weird things happen with the score. The score is not the performance. It’s the measure of how exciting a piece of music is to witness, or to experience; that’s always gonna be a measure of a good performer. But great scores also have this weird consciousness about them. That’s one reason why I made these books; because I’ve been hearing a lot about machine learning. All kinds of talk about machine learning, and artificial intelligence, and training these giant AIs with an external GPU, or having these massive language models… and I was thinking, the most interesting things that are coming out of these machine models, or neural networks, have a certain randomness — like a direct randomness. They say something really random that just sounds exactly spot on. And that’s when we get surprised — “oh, it’s conscious!” -laughs-
That’s the thing — we tend to apply patterns to things that may not necessarily be there.
Exactly. Is it just really high-brow madlibs? And I think it probably is. It’s really complex madlibs… Like, Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ — a score like this can generate a potentially infinite number of variations depending on the number of performers. These scores have got so much to teach us about external consciousness. Or Alvin Lucier, ‘I am sitting in a room’ — the most amazing thing about that piece is that Lucier had a stammer, he had a speech impediment. And so the piece sort of came about as an embodied response, or reflection, or healing of his own physical disability. And now other people perform it who don’t have a speech impediment — it’s performed by all kinds of people — and the subtlety of everyone’s speech gets transformed into a layer of music. For me, that piece has transcended him as an artist, and it’s gone out into the world and it’s lived, and that’s really exciting. That’s what I think the score is capable of doing.
So is there a difference between your scored work and your non-scored work?
Pieces that I’ve worked on that are not scored… they’re fixed. They’re done. It’s not like someone can take them and make something of it themselves.
I get that completely. It’s either a set of instructions for people to realise, or it’s something you realise yourself — and you can’t really have both, even if you perform your own score.
That’s absolutely right. History tells us there will be an even better performance at some point, by somebody who’s really gone into your mind and realised and found something even you couldn’t see, because you were blindsided by your own relationship with the music. It’s beautiful to hear other people perform your work. It’s the greatest, most wonderful privilege we have as composers — to hear other people play what came out of our heads.
Of course. I still remember the first time I had a piece of mine performed…
You have that feeling that the work had left you and taken life in the world, in other people… That’s really amazing. Also — just to come back to the idea that the score hasn’t been stolen by capitalism — in fine art, when people make physical work, it can be sold by the artist and then purchased by somebody else, physically, and they physically own it. [But] music is ephemeral. It slips out of your fingers, and other people start playing it, and then it’s all too late, and everyone’s humming it on the way home, and it can’t belong in that way. It can’t be ascribed value other than the physical value of what it is, to listen, to play.
Exactly. And having something physical, or something tangible, is always great to look back on when considering your development as an artist.
I can tell you, I’m still developing so much, considering how long I’ve been doing this for. Howard said to me when I was studying that “it’s not in your nature to settle”. And shortly after that, I discovered that I had an alter ego. I find that very interesting — that I spend a lot of time in between two genders, in between two personas… Very non-binary, in a sense. We did (me and Howard) have a discussion about how there are a lot of aspects of music that are non-binary, in their essence.
Tell me more about your alter ego, Lisa. Does anything in particular spur her musical direction?
I think somehow, Lisa has a lot to say, so it makes sense that there are lyrics. There’s always this edge of experimentalism in the songs, where they could spiral into something very performative, or experimental. I think that’s the edge Lisa really wants to stay on. She has a lot of opinions and feelings about things, and she’s a lot more able to share them than I am.
Does she function as a conduit of sorts?
Lisa can always say it. That’s absolutely right. But when Lisa steps onto [the] stage, she sometimes says all kinds of things I did not think of before, let me tell you. -laughs- A lot of feelings, and thoughts, and all kinds of expressions come out. I always felt it’s about transparency for me. There’s something also to do with non-binary artmaking that becomes about transparency, because if you want to connect to that, then you’re necessarily negat-ing what the world expects from you when you were born — and when they were raised. People discover these things about themselves a lot earlier now, but for me, I was 23 or 24… it’s quite late already. I hadn’t been in the queer scene at all, and then suddenly it was happening to me all at once. It felt like quite a big thing.
I think it’s interesting that a lot of queer aesthetic centred around alien personas recently — I’ve seen a lot of “alien art”. Part of me is like “oh, it’s so hard to be more than one gender, it feels like so much to process — I don’t want to be an alien, as well, I’m not ready for that!” — and there’s always been an aspect of queer culture that’s about sexuality, as well. It all gets complicated and messed up in the same sphere, and that is hard… Especially when it’s primarily a gender feeling.
I know Lisa’s recently recorded a new record, as well?
Yeah. It’s [coming out] late September; I got a test press of the vinyl yesterday, so I’m taking it home today to listen to. There’s something incredible about having the physical feeling [of vinyl] — you have records at home, and people come over and you select one from the shelf, you put it on and there’s an experience of shared listening. It absolutely is a performance, having a record, and it’s deeply different to having a digital file. There’s a physical performance when you drop the needle down.
I actually have a real gramophone that I inherited from my grandma and grandpa, that plays shellac discs… very wobbly, weird sound. It doesn’t even have a horn, it just has a little resonating disc. There’s something so unbelievably performative about that object. It’s quite loud, as well — too loud for indoors, it’s really for dancing to — so when I put it on, the music just explodes out of the windows of my apartment, and people on the street walking by are [looking] up. It’s so performative as a machine, they gravitate towards it. -laughs-
I mean, a gramophone isn’t a sound you don’t hear organically anymore, right? It almost functions as its own instrument…
And I think also — and this is research I’ve followed [that] has been described as controversial in the past — that the upper frequencies above the range of our human hearing do play a deep role in the way that we listen to music. Obviously, in digital reproductions, frequencies above 20,000Hz aren’t reproduced, but with a gramophone, they absolutely are. There are all kinds of upper partials [that are] interacting with each other, creating different tones, subtones, everything — and there’s something about digital reproduction where that’s completely gone.
There’s a great composer who I love called Tsutomu Ōhashi — he wrote the soundtrack to Akira — [and his] ensemble is called Geinoh Yamashirogumi. It’s an ensemble which is very fascinating, because it’s super like the Scratch Orchestra, but in Japan. There are a lot of non-musicians involved — doctors, philosophers, writers — and they play this crazy mix of traditional Japanese music, electronic music, and contemporary [classical] music. [Ōhashi] is a scientist — a brain scientist — and he wrote the soundtrack to this film, and he was always saying “I always like to think about the brains of my listeners when I’m composing”, which I thought was an incredible statement. -laughs- He’d done some research on the hypersonic effect — which is about studying gamelan recordings which are reproduced with and without supersonic frequencies, and whether peoples’ brains react differently to these two things. I’m very interested in these things. I believe we will discover that those things play a much bigger role than we see now.
I mean, if you look at infrasound — for example — there’s already scientific research proving that has an effect on people. It’s not the same, but the principle remains so…
I think that’s amazing — and also, the idea that we might have a future where our ears are much more sensitive than they are now, and more evolved than they are now. Part of my work is involved in speculation, [and] speculative fiction — [such as] making an album that’s supposed to be listened to by people who have genetically altered [or] CRISPR’d ears, that can hear up to 80,000Hz… Why are we all making music within such a narrow band, a narrow frequency band? Maybe there’ll come an age when we have amazing ears, and suddenly there’s a whole new genre of music that can exist. -laughs- I love thinking about these things, even hypothetically as just a thought experiment. I love that.
I mean, has it been done yet? If not, that’s one for the idea books. -laughs-
You know that Goodiepal [Gæoudjiparl van den Dobbelsteen] — composer and somewhat outrageous figure — was kicked out of the [Royal] Danish Academy because he taught an electronic music class which was about composing music that future artificial intelligences would enjoy listening to.
Wait, he was kicked out just for that?
I think he was kicked out for a bunch of other things, as well. -laughs- The way he tells the story, he was teaching that class [then] — and if you think about it, that was over twenty years ago, and that would’ve seemed ridiculous at the time — but with machine learning now, and Spotify auto-generating music algorithmically, that class might be the most relevant study for some fields. -laughs- But I think that’s [what] I find interesting. Experimentalism will always have that freaky edge.
That’s what I love about experimentalism — there’s no ground that’s too unholy.
Yeah, exactly. And the best experimentalism happens when everyone’s barriers are broken down. I have great love for these free improvisers, who just arrive on stage semi-naked, screaming or falling down, or there’s some problem with the lighting [that] turns out to be all part of the performance… I love moments where everything seems like it’s going wrong, and everyone’s very confused. Those moments are the best moments in art — when everyone’s inner flaws are showing.
Lisa’s debut record, Footsteps On The Wall, is releasing in September 2021 – you can learn more about the record by following Lisa on Patreon:
More of Luke Deane’s work can be found at: