“It’s not like making a piece of work in a space where the space is just a container for the performance. The two worlds are completely linked — physically, conceptually, and in every other way. So sometimes I’m thinking like an architect and sometimes like a composer, and of course all the bits in between.” -Emma-Kate Matthews
Emma-Kate Matthews is a London-based architect, composer, musician, and researcher at UCL. Her work explores creative reciprocities between music; as constructed sound, and architecture; as constructed space, through the composition and performance of site-specific and spatialised projects. Emma’s work has been performed at London’s Southbank Centre, Barbican Centre, and at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and she is part of the 2021-22 cohort of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik scheme. Emma spoke to PRXLUDES about her upcoming piece for LSO’s Panufnik workshops on 31 March, her idiomatic spatio-sonic practice, her ideas of constructed sound and space, and her electronic albums on Algebra Records.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Emma — thanks so much for joining me today! Tell me a bit about your incredibly exciting new piece with the London Symphony Orchestra…
Emma-Kate Matthews: Hi Zyggy and thank you for inviting me to chat! The basic concept is about a train journey — some of it was even written on a train! It’s playing with ideas of perception of perspectival depth, and speed.
Without giving too much away before it’s performed: it’s called ‘A Study of Passing Objects In an Accelerating Landscape’. It draws upon insights from a historian called Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who wrote a book called The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space — he discusses how our perceptions of space and time have shifted since the invention of railway travel. He talks about a shift in focus from the foreground to the background when accelerating through a landscape, where all the detail of the objects in the foreground become smeared as your speed increases. You end up looking more towards the horizon, where the things in the distance change much more gradually. As a spatio-temporal concept, I thought this would be quite interesting to grab hold of and to see how it could be applied to the orchestra.
That’s absolutely fascinating — I’ve always taken the sensations of rail travel for granted.
There’s also the idea that when you’re sitting on a train, even though you’re the one who’s moving through the landscape, it feels like you’re stationary and the objects are moving relative to you. So I have sort of flipped the diagram slightly, which is why the title states that the landscape is accelerating and not the observer. -laughs- I tried to conceptualise the audience, the listeners, as the static observers, and the individual components of the orchestra as the passing objects within the landscape.
How did you realise these ideas musically?
The piece contains a number of spatio-sonic metaphors, starting with a cross section which cuts through the entire landscape (the music) before the journey begins. A gradual acceleration follows, where objects in the landscape pass at increasing speeds. The objects’ approach is represented by ascending and intensifying musical motifs which descend as they disappear behind us, sometimes staggered in time, to simulate the parallax of our movement relative to objects as they stretch from foreground to background. At the start, the variety and detail of the foreground colours the music. As we accelerate, this detail becomes smeared and lost: the harmonic complexity diminishes and our focus eventually converges on the horizon line. The constant horizon line exists as a 2 note sort of drone which oscillates between a D and Eb. At the end, these notes become more present, as the only constant, as the rest of the detail gets smeared & lost – when we’re travelling super fast.
I’ve also been experimenting with which instruments within the orchestra are timbrally appropriate for simulating passing objects, as in which instruments can achieve a hard attack, or a soft attack, or a slow diminuendo? Trying to represent these spatio-temporal metaphors by using what the orchestra already has to offer. [I was] also thinking about the space of the orchestra itself. With previous projects, I’ve been able to put musicians in strange places, and mess up the organisation of everything, but for this particular project, I had the very clear instruction that I can’t do that. -laughs-
They brought that rule in specifically for you…? -laughs-
Add that to the contract for me… -laughs- The first question I actually asked them was — “can I mess around with the organisation [and] layout?” — and they said “no”, for practical reasons. The layout has actually been quite a useful constraint, because it’s made me think quite hard about how I can interrogate the spatiality of a more traditional orchestral layout, and to think really carefully about how to calibrate the actual positions of the instruments with what they’re doing conceptually within the piece, as representations of objects situated in a landscape. Trying to reconcile those two spatial concepts has been a bit of a challenge. -laughs- But it’s also been really interesting, and it’s really forced me to develop some new techniques for thinking through such problems.
How has the process of working under the constraints of the LSO programme challenged you?
It’s still a very free and accommodating programme, but the constraints that they have enforced have all been very useful ones. I think about music as constructed sound and in all of my projects I’m making sound and I’m making space, together. But the LSO piece has made me get much more rigorous in terms of how to link what’s happening both physically — in terms of things like acoustic phenomena — and conceptually within the music, and how this correspondence both constructs and discusses spatial concepts.
I get that — the difference between the sonic, temporal space of the piece and what the players are physically doing.
Exactly — and physically, how it feels for the audience. Rather than assuming that the orchestra is this flat plane that arrives at an audience that’s sitting opposite — I’m thinking more about the perspectival depth within the space of the orchestra itself. an orchestra takes up such a huge amount of physical space relative to say a single performer, or small ensemble. It’s been really great to have the opportunity to work with that as a spatial condition in itself.
Do you feel like you’ve achieved this idea of artificial depth with your LSO piece?
I hope so. -laughs- I’ve not heard it in real space yet. But one of the things that I have been doing is developing a series of digital tools that allow me to simulate things in advance of their performance. I’m not saying that simulation is perfect — it’s definitely not, it’s not a substitute for the real thing — but I quite often use acoustic simulation tools to figure things out, and to rehearse ideas before I commit anything to paper. I’m hoping that what I’ve learnt from the workshops, and working with live musicians before in real spaces, and the insights that I’ve gained from the digital tools that I’ve made… I’m hoping the thing that happens on the 31st is gonna do at least a little bit of what I intended.
But I’m also completely open to the idea that I could be really surprised, and learn a whole new set of things that are completely unexpected. -laughs- One of the great things about the Panufnik workshops is that you get to test out ideas, and quite a few times I’ve been really surprised at what I thought was gonna happen, and what actually happened. Quite often, some of the more non-standard things that I was trying sounded one way in my head, but when played I was thinking “oh, wow, this is something completely new”, or the players would come back with some feedback like “I think I know what you’re trying to do here, and maybe this technique would be better for achieving that.” The Panufnik orchestral [programme] is essentially a workshop piece, not a performance piece, so there will definitely be conversations after it’s been performed about how it could be developed. It’s a really nice opportunity to take some risks!
So this won’t be the final version of the piece — do you imagine it being performed again sometime in the future?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve written it to be as final as I could get it at this point in time. I don’t feel like it’s a work-in-progress. Going into this project — and having not worked with a professional orchestra before — it’s immediately a little bit intimidating, because you think “oh no, what’s gonna happen? Am I gonna get constructive feedback, am I gonna get criticism?” But the Panufnik project is super useful in that all of the players are really generous with their feedback, and you get loads of support from your mentors. Quite often, if you have ideas for things between the workshop sessions, and you want to ask someone’s opinion — “In your experience, do you think this is gonna work?” — you get sort of unlimited help. -laughs- Which is really great.
You’ve mentioned that you tend to create and utilise digital simulations when conceptualising a piece — tell me more about those…
So there’s a range of tools that I use and make. If I’m working on something site-specific, where the acoustics of the space [are] particularly important, I tend to make a 3D model first. That 3D model either comes from a 3D LiDAR scan, or a photogrammatery scan, or I just construct the 3D model from measuring the space — depending on what’s available, and if I have access to that place. And then I do a ray tracing simulation in something like CATT acoustic or Pachyderm, which basically means [that]: there’s a sound source and a receiver, and the sound source sends out a load of rays, and the rays bounce off the surfaces of the model, the receiver does some receiving and a few clever calculations later I’m able to see how long sound reverberates for within that space — but not just as an average. It breaks it up by frequency (e.g. low frequencies might reflect for longer than higher ones). So then, that can start to inform things like the tonal range that I work with: if you get a band of frequencies that bounce around for longer, and I want to capitalise on that reflectivity, then I can adjust the instrumentation accordingly.
So that’s one tool. The other tool that I’ve been using more recently in other projects is to get impulse response recordings. If there’s physical access to the kit and the space, I quite often go in with a microphone and a loudspeaker. The loudspeaker plays a really frequency-rich sound, like a sine sweep — from low to high — or a gunshot sound. You get a recording back and then you can then process this to do exactly the same as what the ray tracing simulation would do, but in real space rather than digital space. It’s just a richer, more high-fidelity acoustic signature of the space. And that can also give you insights as to what instrumentation you might use, or what range of an instrument you might want to play with more, to capitalise on those reflections within that particular space.
I completely understand — I’d find it easier to map these things on a representation of the real space, as well. How would this model work with a space that isn’t as immediately tangible — for example the LSO piece?
For the LSO piece, I ended up making a 3D animation of a train journey, so that I could understand things like the parallax between objects that pass from the foreground relative to the background. I wanted to get a ballpark idea of things like how we pass objects in a landscape — [or] how do they pass us? How does the distance between them affect that passing, and how might that start to shape temporal events like how something might approach or leave a scene. I was playing with a few methods for animating those ideas.
In addition to these sorts of models, I’ve also been making a series of instruments at the moment that I’m just calling resonant bodies. They’re kind of like, mutant tuning forks. -laughs-
Oh my god, I absolutely love that analogy. -laughs-
I’m trying to make objects that I can strike that sound more than one tone. One way that I’m doing that is [by] modelling them using an evolutionary solver. I can set targets for things like a musical interval — a minor second, or a minor ninth, they’re my two favourites at the moment — and then I set a bunch of geometric parameters which change to work towards that goal. And then I end up with a shape that’s obviously something that I’ve programmed, but has also found itself according to the sound that I want it to make. I then get those pieces digitally fabricated, so I can get them nice and precise. That’s really fun. I’m using a piece of software called Rhino — and that has a plugin called Grasshopper. -laughs- It’s all part of a nice and neat workflow.
How far along are you with the Resonant Bodies project?
It’s been in progress for a couple [of] years. To be honest, it’s probably one of those projects that I’ll continue forever. -laughs- I’m learning a lot with each piece. There’s gonna be an exhibition in Copenhagen starting in November this year called WORKS+WORDS. I’m gonna be displaying all of the ones I’ve made up until that point. I’m also making a site-specific piece for that exhibition — which is also very much a work-in-progress — but it’s using the resonant bodies to inform musical ideas, particularly musical intervals and tonal range.
As you consider the resonant bodies to be instruments — do you see the project as forces that other people can manipulate, or write pieces for?
Yeah. I think eventually, that would be a really good place to take it. At the moment, they’re more like calibrators, in a way. In order to make the tuning forks themselves audible, you either have to listen to them on the back of your ear, or next to your ear — so you have to be in very close proximity to them — or they have to be on a box that’s got a contact mic, and then that gets amplified. But some of the newer ones I’m working on… I hope they will emit more airborne sound, so that they could actually become part of a performance in some form without needing to be amplified. There are some restrictions on sizes and materials, and I’m trying to work through that. But the idea that they could grow, and become part of a performance beyond just being calibration tools… That could be really interesting.
Going into your background and practice as an architect, was there a particular impetus that shifted your focus from architecture to composition — or was it just “I wanna do cool shit”? -laughs-
Mostly, “I wanna do cool shit.” -laughs- That’s the short answer. But music has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve always played and written music from a super young age. But it wasn’t until I did my Masters in architecture that I started to see parallels between ideas of making space, and ideas of making sound. With it being a Masters, you get the opportunity to develop a research question, [and] I thought a nice research question would be to ask: how could these processes be explored in parallel? Eventually in architecture school, you have to make a building, but you can also explore ideas of constructing space through other means, i.e. through music or sound — which is what I ended up doing, and devoted my entire thesis to that. -laughs- And then [I] got a little bit obsessed with chasing that idea through.
[I] went back into practice, stopped writing academically about it, sort of stopped making any creative work for a bit, and then thought “actually, I’ve got unfinished business here…” I was thinking [of working] with electronic instruments, or my own instruments, as a starting point — but because I’m not really virtuosic, I got to the point where I needed to work with people who could be more articulate with their instruments. So I started writing for acoustic instruments in a classical setting, even though genre-wise, my music’s not entirely “classical”…
Yeah, it doesn’t matter. -laughs- But working within a classical context, you get a certain amount of precision — that I couldn’t achieve myself — that was starting to become important for the realisation of some of those ideas. I suppose that’s where the composer label comes in. Quite a few of the projects I’ve ended up working on, you’re told “you’re the composer”, and you think “okay, what does composer mean?” Especially as a self-taught composer.
I think a lot of the stuff that I’m doing now is crossing over. There’s the LSO project [in] which I’m very much the composer — but there are other projects that I’m working on [where] the boundaries between composer, performer, sound designer, acoustic consultant, architect… -laughs- I end up wearing lots of different hats in the same project. I think that’s where I want to be as a practitioner. My research talks about this idea of spatio-sonic practice: it’s a word that I use quite a lot to describe projects where spatial ideas and sonic ideas are inextricably bound together. You couldn’t separate the two out. It’s not like making a piece of work in a space where the space is just a container for the performance. The two worlds are completely linked — physically, conceptually, and in every other way. So sometimes I’m thinking like an architect and sometimes like a composer, and of course all the bits in between. That’s exactly what I want to be doing. -laughs-
How does your practice develop depending on the types of forces you write for? I’m reminded of the piece you wrote that was released on NMC…
Ah yes, we recorded it in Henry Wood Hall with LSO players. That was one of the projects that Colin Matthews organised for us when the first year of Panufnik was postponed — he worked really hard to get us this project to keep our brains working, [and] lift our spirits a bit.
With the ‘Remote Overlap’ piece… The difference is [that] it’s a recorded piece. The people recording it were the only ones who actually saw the performance of it. So the recorded format became an interesting part of my thinking when I was composing it.
So the final product in this case would be what was on the record?
I suppose there’s no reason why it couldn’t be performed in the future. But when thinking about the record I was developing ideas of directionality, because I only had the left and right of stereo playback to play with — and was trying to think about instruments that had the capacity to create either the sense of a point in space, or the sense of a plane in space, or a defining region of space. To begin with, I wanted to use bowed crotales to represent a plane, but then Neil Percy explained that to bow two at the same time would be quite difficult — because you have to steady the top to be able to bow it — [and] that bowed glockenspiel would be much easier and sound better, also because it has a straight edge, and it was and it did!
With the bowed glock, I wanted to create a plane of space, like a blanket of sound, that was not particularly directional — [something] you couldn’t locate in space. I wanted the piano and clarinet to exist as different voices, but similar, with the ability for them to be located far apart from each other on [a] common plane. The idea with that [is] that they’re trying to get closer, but they can’t — with moments where they sort of overlap, but they never actually touch and it breaks apart again — but the bowed glockenspiel keeps a kind of datum. So you can locate the two voices relative to each other, rather than floating in non-space. When we were recording it, I tried to be quite careful about where the musicians were in relation to the microphone, so that those effects could be heard in the mixing. The sound engineer David Lefeber was really, really good at making sure that my acoustic requests were respected. -laughs-
Out of curiosity — have you explored these phenomena with solo instruments?
A few things — not all of them are online though. There was one piece that I did for solo bass clarinet, as part of the Royal Academy of Music’s 200 celebration. I’m rewriting bits of that, and that’s gonna be re-performed in a secret location. -laughs- But there are other pieces like that that I’m working on. Something that’s true for all of [my] pieces — but particularly solo pieces because they’re easy to focus on — is that whenever they get performed, I always inevitably end up reworking them, and getting a bit obsessed with each one. When it goes to a different venue, then I end up tweaking things, because I think “oh, what worked here isn’t gonna work there”, and so on.
I’ve [also] recently had some ideas for low-range instruments and I’ve been playing with something bassoon-ish. I’m also working on some more percussive stuff — because I’m a drummer as well — playing with cymbals, and the resonant bodies, it’s all feeding into each other. So the solo instruments on my mind right now are: bass clarinet, bassoon, and assorted resonant percussion. -laughs- I’m trying to tease out the interesting timbral aspects of each one.
So you’ve mentioned you’re a drummer, then, as well?
I only started playing drums maybe six years ago. It’s one of those things where I just thought “I’ve always wanted to play the drums, I’m just gonna learn.” I’ve been doing the grades, and exams, and stuff — I think it’s quite useful to have a bit of structure, especially when you’re busy with other stuff. [I’m] hoping to do Grade 7 later this year. [I’m] playing in a jazz organ trio, which will start gigging again when our guitarist recovers from a recent bike accident. I play electric bass, as well. There’s an afrobeat band, that I sometimes play with. It’s really fun. -laughs- So lots of facets, musical facets.
Wow, you’re absolutely full of surprises. -laughs- Speaking of different musical facets, you released an electronic record — ‘Far Flung’ — a while back; how did you utilise your spatio-sonic approach with the record?
So one of [a few] things I was trying with ‘Far Flung’ was the position of the microphone relative to the sound source. I was running around my flat, playing clarinet in the bathroom, recording it in the kitchen… Much to the amusement of my neighbours. -laughs- That relationship (between instrument and mic location) was quite interesting. Rather than doing it digitally in post-production, I thought it’d be quite nice to try it at the point of recording, and see if you could get stuff that’s a bit more subtle.
I also did a lot with my binaural microphone, which is called Michael. He’s a really good listener. -laughs- He’s very supportive in all my projects. The good thing about the binaural microphone is that I could do things like set up a sound source — whether it was another musician, or a loudspeaker — in a space, and then walk around with Michael. He hears it how we would hear it — his 2 microphones are each located inside ear-shaped mounts which sit head-distance apart, and some clever things happen with phasing — so the location of the sound is really precisely mapped in those recordings (at least for stereo playback). I was also playing with convolution reverb effects. I was talking about impulse responses earlier: if you’ve got an impulse response of a space, you [can] convolve it with a sound in something like Ableton, and then you get the effect of how that sound would [physically] sound in the space that you’ve got the impulse response for. It’s quite dependent on how the impulse response was captured in the first place, but it at least gives you a sense of the geometry and materiality of the space. You can start to evoke ideas of spaces without having to physically go there.
And once you’re able to truly emulate a space without being physically present, all kinds of possibilities open up…
Totally. One of the things I was trying to do in [my] recorded work is play with this idea of uncanniness — playing with fictional spaces. You can quite easily simulate an impulse response of a space that doesn’t exist, or only exists digitally. I don’t know how much of it you can actually perceive without me saying to people in advance “listen out for this”, or having a story that’s attached to the work… -laughs- It’s another idea that I think will come into my next solo album — which is also in progress. Those digital tools at least allow you to play with non-physical spaces, and I really like that as an idea. It makes sense for the format.
You’ve also released a companion remix album to ‘Far Flung’ — do you feel like the idea of bringing in external artists contributes to this idea of digital space?
I think so. Everyone who we asked to do a remix… They’re all really different, they’ve all got completely different approaches, and completely different practices. It’s quite humbling, actually, working with others: when you give somebody your music and you say “okay, do what you want with it”, and they come back with something that’s super personal — that obviously started with something super personal to you. It’s really nice to see just how varied everyone’s responses were.
Ben McDonnell, for instance — he’s also doing research about sound and space-related overlaps — seemed quite interested in the more spatial concepts. But then there were others who seemed more interested in how and where it gets played back: Dampé, who is very involved in the club scene, played with more of the rhythmic aspects — I imagine so that it sounds good in the sort of context where he would likely play it back. So everything from Ben’s more conceptual response, to Dampé’s more practical response [of] how [it’s] gonna sound in a club: it’s all relevant, it all adds to the spatial story of the work.
So now I’m curious as to whether one of these remixes has been played in a club…
I don’t actually know! It has been played on radio, but I don’t know if it’s been played in a club. I would like to know — maybe we should put the question out there. If anyone’s reading this… -laughs-
Tell me a bit about some of the exciting projects you have in the pipeline…
One of the projects I’m working on is with _Underscore Opera, which is Leanne Vandenbussche and Rosalind Parker. Leanne is a scenographer, and Rosie is an opera director — and they got in touch with me in the early stages of the project to understand how they might be able to work more creatively with the space at Moseley Road Baths. We’ve just finished an R&D phase where we were getting acoustic measurements from the space — some of them quite scientific, some of them more intuitive — and we’re now in the process of looking over that data (for lack of a better word!) It was really interesting, because we did some really scientific measurements, and then we did some workshops with members of the public — people who are not acoustic experts — to get their insights in terms of “what do you think of the space, how does it sound?” Literally sounding out the space with members of the public. We’re now trying to figure out how these insights might inform the final performance — which at the moment doesn’t have a set date, but it’s likely to happen this summer.
That sounds incredibly exciting.
We’re also worked a bit with B’Opera, which is run by Zoë Challenor, an opera singer who set up a group for babies and young children to be able to make operatic music. She was helping us with some of the tests that we were doing last month. We put her up in the balconies and asked her to make some strange and beautiful noises… -laughs- I’m [also] doing something for Brighton Festival called ‘Witness Stand’ with two artists called Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, who are based in Australia. They’ve asked me to make a piece for Shoreham-on-Sea — on the river Adur — and that’s gonna be performed on the 15th and 27th of May.
Catch Emma-Kate Matthews’ upcoming piece at the LSO Panufnik workshops on 31 March:
Check out Emma-Kate Matthews’ upcoming projects with WORKS+WORDS and Brighton Festival:
More of Emma-Kate Matthews’ work can be found at:
- Wolfgang Schivelbusch – The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space (2014)