“I really like to explore different sonorities — different sounds that can be used with electronics and acoustic instruments — trying to get some form of middle ground between the two.” -Holly Gowland
Holly Gowland is an award-winning composer hailing from Manchester and currently working in Birmingham. Holly’s compositions maintain a focus on incorporating electronic elements into her acoustic practice, with a strong influence from her practice as a bassist and improviser. Holly has studied with Yi Xin Han, Kwangho Lee, and Joshua Brown, and currently studies with Andrew Hamilton and Ed Bennett at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Holly spoke to PRXLUDES about her blend of acoustic and electronic elements, her collaborative relationship with solo performers, and the impact of geography and local identity in her work.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Holly! Thanks for joining me today — it’s a pleasure to be chatting with you.
Holly Gowland: Hi Zyggy! Thank you for having me.
Tell me a bit about your musical background; your compositional discipline stems from your practice as a bassist, right?
Yeah. When I was fourteen, I started playing bass guitar. I was just learning that at school, really, with one of the teachers there; he was a guitar teacher, so it got to a point where he couldn’t teach me any further. While I was learning with him, the main [music] teacher at my school set up a jazz band for everyone who was over a certain standard. In that group, there was me, there was a guitarist, there was a piano player, a trombonist, and a drummer as well. The piano player was in my form group, and he also played the euphonium; he went to RNCM [Royal Northern College of Music], where he studied euphonium, and because of this jazz group I became good friends with him. He managed to get me in contact with the principal of Junior RNCM, [who] got me in contact with a double bass teacher.
Was there anything that catalysed your shift from bass guitar to double bass?
I was sort of getting to a standard on bass guitar where I didn’t really have much more to do; I wanted to learn double bass, [but] it was such a big instrument that it took a lot of convincing to be able learn it! But when I got in contact with the double bass teacher, I got told “okay, you have a year to get from your current standard to Grade 5 to be able to get into Junior RNCM”. So I was like, okay; this is going to be a lot of work, but I can do it. -laughs- In between [that] March and the March the year after, I did five grades on double bass, and managed to get into Junior RNCM.
Did you initially start composing on bass during that time, as well?
Well, my first instrument was piano, which I started learning when I was 12 or 13! I just sort of improvised on it; I would make a few pieces, but I would never write them down, usually. It wasn’t perfect. [So] at Junior RNCM, my second study was piano at the time, and they had group composition lessons that I would go to. It was also possible to do that as one of your main studies, but I didn’t have enough pieces then, I wasn’t experienced enough. So I stayed in the double bass [and] piano world for [that] first year, and then after that year I really wanted to get onto the composition course. But the composition teacher wouldn’t actually let me. -laughs- So half a year later, after trying and trying and trying… he just turned around and said to me “no one gets into a conservatoire in Composition if you do not do Principal Study Composition here”…
What an absolute load of bullshit! I’m so sorry that elitist prick had the gall to say something like that to you…
Well, he didn’t really like me… He would turn around and say “you aren’t going to be able to do anything with this”. So I went to the principal of Junior RNCM, showed her my compositions, and she overruled his decision — after a year and a half of fighting this — and she put me with a teacher called Joshua Brown. He’s a teacher at the University of Manchester; he likes his electronics, extended techniques, which is how I ended up getting more contemporary… At the time, I was influenced a lot by Satie, so everything was very tonal. People listen to my old stuff and [are] like “that’s you?” -laughs-
I completely understand that — sometimes just getting to know one person can change your style so radically.
Definitely! So, I started learning with him, and he introduced me to Xenakis. He got me to really structure my ideas; half the lesson would be analysis, half the lesson would be [about] crafting ideas. Which was great when I was learning how to do stuff, because it gave me a system. I’ve grown out of that system, now, but at the time, it managed to make me structure my ideas, develop them by doing different things to these ideas, thinking about different techniques, which is how I got into doing ensemble work. I worked with a strange quintet at one point — viola, harp, clarinet, percussion, double bass…
That’s a sick combination, not gonna lie. I’d love to hear that piece.
You can get the best results from strange ensembles, because you can explore so many different sonorities, so many different techniques. I worked with them, and I worked with another ensemble there, which happened to be [with] one of my close friends, Jerome Ness, who’s studying at RCM [Royal College of Music] now. I worked with a flute and guitar duet, and I managed to win the Peter Redfearn Prize for Composition for that — and at this time, I got into Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, as well. That’s how I got into it all.
So you discovered our little world of contemporary composition through that and never looked back? -laughs-
It’s quite a change of paths. -laughs- I learnt all my pieces for double bass to audition at Birmingham — and RNCM, and [Royal Conservatoire of] Scotland, as well — but then I decided that I really wanted to do composition, so I decided to apply for composition instead. I couldn’t deal with learning double bass any longer… partly because of the amount of studies I had to do. -laughs- That was how I got into it, really.
It’s interesting you’ve picked up on exploring different sonorities and extended techniques; has that been a focal point of what you’ve been doing as of late?
I really like to explore different sonorities — different sounds that can be used with electronics and acoustic instruments — trying to get some form of middle ground between the two. [My] clarinet and tape piece that Will Hammond performed — ‘Rapport’ — that was focusing on the harmonics that were coming from the feedback, and then using those within the clarinet; getting this middle-ground between the two of using the same notes sometimes, or bringing out harmonics that you wouldn’t necessarily hear most prominently. I’ve explored a lot of extended techniques in the past. I try and use the instrument to its full potential as much as I possibly can; that may be techniques, or it may be range, or whatever it is, depending on the instrument.
With the viola piece I’m writing right now, I’m trying to explore artificial and natural harmonics a lot; the violist [I’m working with] is absolutely insane at playing those artificial harmonics. That’s another branch; trying to explore what your performer’s best at, if you know your performer’s going to be. -laughs-
Do you see a lot of your work as performer-centric? Is your performer the basis of your sonic exploration?
This really depends on the instrument. For example, if I’m using the bassoon, I need to know the bassoonist, because of how that instrument works. It’s always interesting to hear other people play your pieces — if it wasn’t originally written for them — because a lot of the time, they play it incredibly differently to how you expected it to be played. -laughs- But I do like to know the performers before it’s played, so I can inform them exactly how I wish the premiere to go. I actually had two clarinettists play the clarinet and tape piece; even though there was similarity, their interpretation of phrasing, even dynamics, were insanely different. Because everything’s quite subjective; like, what does ‘p’ and ‘f’ really mean? It doesn’t mean anything unless there’s some form of understanding within yourself of what they mean…
There’s something so wonderfully Lucian Freud about that — these intimate explorations of the self, almost like a portrait of your performers…
I wrote a piece that was including movement, as well. That was for trombone. I knew my trombonist beforehand, and it really helped to be able to grasp the full potential of what the piece could be [through that]. Even though he understood the notation that I used to explore the movement in conjunction with the actual notes, it really does help sometimes to be able to speak to them, to be able to tell them exactly what you want. Just to make the small, minor differences that can make a difference to the piece when it’s performed.
How much of a role does improvisation play in your practice — be that when you’re writing for yourself, or writing for other people?
That’s quite an interesting question. Like I said before, I started out on piano; I would improvise and then write down ideas that I thought were interesting or coherent. But these days, it does depend if it’s more of an acoustic piece or an electronic piece, how I would “improvise”, in a sort of sense. If it was something I could actually play, sometimes I would sit down at the piano, or figure out ideas that I like, and then go to my computer and write [them] down. I always have a page with written notes of how I want to structure all [of] my ideas, and I normally have a page of some form of noteheads, or extended techniques. Of course, I experiment with these beforehand — sometimes I’ll sing the ideas [before] I write them down, or I’ll improvise at the piano. With [Mirror, Mirror] in particular, I experimented with different techniques that could be used on the double bass. That came a lot from ‘Tetras’ by Xenakis; there was such a massive difference between his percussive ideas and his more musical ideas — if you would call them “musical”… -laughs-
If I’m writing an electronic piece, sometimes I’ll just slot the ideas into different places and see if it works; but normally, that’s more to do with the visual, as I can actually see the samples — how they look in comparison to each other in the grid — so I can sort of sense how it will sound. I suppose it’s a different form of improvisation… It’s more testing and seeing [if] it works!
I guess it’s more of an automatist process. It depends whether you see that as improvisation or not.
Yeah. You never know until you actually play it.
Do you see your compositional process of working with electronics as different to your craft for acoustic instrumentation?
I definitely use different software. I could never use Sibelius sounds in electronic music. -laughs- It would drive me insane. To be fair, [that] reminds me of a piece that Andy Ingamells did for Sibelius and Orchestra…
I’ll need to look that up!
It made me laugh so much. He had his computer and he would be editing the different ideas on Sibelius, and the orchestra would play it. -laughs- At least he got nice sounds from Sibelius! Which is why I tend to use Logic or Ableton. [When] I write electronic stuff, I tend to use Ableton or Logic, which I suppose makes you think of composition in a different sense, just with the layout. I always try and explore the different sonorities, even if they’re just samples, or if they’re actual instruments — try and use them in a way that’s coherent.
I think working with electronics more makes me think more in a timed sense — definitely when writing it down. I will write [it] out as a timeline, rather than a specific metronome mark, or time signature, like I would do with acoustic music. Even though there are some similarities — because I like to explore similar aspects [within] the two — even the layout of how it’s displayed makes you perceive it in a different way when you’re writing it. So there are some differences; but that’s been better for me, because it’s made me slow down my process a lot more, think about the ideas, and not rush ahead too much. It’s really helped me to be able to see all the ideas very clearly separated, rather than as one.
So tell me more about this viola piece you’re currently working on…
I’m working with a violist, Ynyr Pritchard, who’s studying at The Hague. He’s also a composer — he works with electronics a lot — so I worked with him a lot when we both attended Junior RNCM. He can sight-read extended techniques, which really helps me, because it’s managed to speed up the process a bit more; [and] he’s just very interesting, because he thinks of everything [in] a compositional sense. He definitely thinks about the piece before he plays it — which I’ve always found helps with a performer — if they analyse the score, it really helps bring out the piece.
Was the choice of writing for viola predominantly influenced by knowing him, or was there anything else that drew you to the instrument?
I’d written a few things for Ynyr Pritchard in the past, therefore I definitely wanted to work with him again. I much prefer the sound of a viola to a violin a lot of the time. To me, it has a lot more potential; you can really hear the harmonics come out, because it’s more of a middle-ranged string instrument, but you can also explore the lower range as well. I wrote a string quartet for my portfolio — ‘Cottonpolis’, which I handed in [last] May — which had a lot of harmonics in it, and they sounded amazing when he was playing them.
So I thought: “okay, I really want to focus on the different forms of harmonics on the viola”. I was just walking around town — and as you do as a composer, I [was] thinking the whole way about composing — and I just heard a tram go past. It made this very interesting harmonic sound as it went around different corners. So, as a composer does on a casual Friday night at 10pm— partially because I went to go the day before, and every single tram between Birmingham and Wolverhampton was down, trust my luck — I sat next to the tram tracks and I recorded a lot of tram samples, I recorded a lot of train samples. And I got home and I had a lot to edit. But I’m trying not to make it too obvious [that] they were trams; I’ve applied a lot of overdrive, a lot of distortion, I’ve made them a lot clearer by EQ’ing them a lot. It sounds like a lot of harmonics [or] feedback.
What made you focus on the sound of trams? Outside of them sounding cool, obviously. -laughs-
The transport industry in Manchester is quite important. I always try and embrace where I am, and where I’m from, in most of my pieces. We have an awful lot of transport industry around Manchester — even if they’re incredibly slow, and often quite dirty. -laughs- But it did create some interesting sounds. I was sat near a curve in the track, [and] could hear it screeching as it went around the corner. Weirdly, I seemed to have figured that a lot of trams work in some form of third.
That’s so interesting; how did you manage to translate that into the viola part?
I tried to create the harmonics that were actually coming out from the tramlines. I transferred them onto the viola, and I put them side by side a lot — I’ve played with this third in the viola [that] repeats quite a lot — but if I put the harmonics side by side, both the viola and the tram… You can barely hear the difference between the two. It’s insane; when I first started writing it, I put it side by side with the exact note. It starts on a C, and it is so perfectly in tune — this C, from the tram — and the viola is playing the exact same pitch [as a] harmonic… You can hear the vulnerability in the note. It really plays on your mind as to which one’s playing, strangely. It definitely made it a bit difficult for me to edit, sometimes — wind and harmonics can resonate at the same frequency.
That really reminds me of my undergrad in Leeds — when I was studying the work of Pierre Schaeffer.
Yes! I’ve listened to that piece [‘Étude aux chemins de fer’] quite a few times. There was another piece that used the train [sounds]; we were in [a] seminar the other month, and Colin Riley came to speak. He’s about a ten-minute drive from me; he’s quite a local person, from my side of Manchester. I found it really strange when listening to one of his pieces, because the train line that is literally there… -Holly points out of her window- He used samples from it, and applied different electronics to these samples that he got from the train. So I loved what he did with that — how he used different filters, different effects, really got different notes to sing out — and the speech that he used in it, as well, made it feel more realistic. Of course it would apply to me a bit more — since it’s so local to me — but I loved what he did with that. It provided a sort of accompaniment, in this piece, as well. I’ve also listened to Schaeffer’s piece a lot; I thought it was just [so] intriguing to hear these sounds come together.
What is it about those kinds of field recordings that interests you?
Musique concrète is definitely something that has influenced me a lot; sometimes, it really [makes] a lot of music a lot more personal [to me]. Even a lot of pop music nowadays is using real world sounds — even if it’s just at the start of the piece — of course, there’s a big music scene here, in Manchester, and I can always think of Oasis songs including speech, or sounds [from] the real world. I think it brings a sort of personality to a piece; you can hear where people are from. Even if there are similar sounds in the rest of the world, you’re not going to be able to get the same sounds from a different bend in the tram track. There’s only this one bend. The tram horns that they use are different in [other] countries. It brings things a lot more personal, in a sense; even if it is being explored from a different area of the world, it can give [the] piece an identity and nationality by using these sounds. Schaeffer’s piece is completely different to what Riley did — and that’s purely because of the different sounds that are being used. You can sense that [Schaeffer’s] not from this country.
I’ve genuinely never thought about musique concrete in that way before… It’s fascinating that you’ve linked these ideas to geographical and local identity.
There’s been a lot that we’ve looked at this year, especially with Seán Clancy. Luc Ferrari did a piece about a day at the beach in France — ‘Presque Rien No.1: Le lever du jour au bord de la mer’ — and with that, you could tell that he was somewhere European… You can hear people speaking French, you can hear all these farm animals. In some parts of the world, you wouldn’t necessarily find sounds like this. Even though acoustic music I’ve written has a form of personality — the string quartet I wrote includes pieces from Oasis and Coronation Street — I think it has a different form of personality. It’s definitely more direct than something that was written with ideas in [mind]. With electronic sounds, you can hear it directly; you can hear the personal approach.
More of Holly’s work can be found at: