“I’m not so much interested in ‘changing the sound’, per se. What I’m really interested in is creating sound worlds, and sound paintings.”Jasmine Morris
Jasmine Morris is a composer, musician, and sound artist currently based in London. A BBC Young Composer, Jasmine’s work has been performed in prestigious venues such as Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tate Modern, and Westminster Abbey, and she has been commissioned by the BBC Concert Orchestra, Solem Quartet, Musicity, and Aldeburgh Festival, among others. Jasmine’s debut album Astrophilia, featuring Viking instrumentation and performances from Per Runberg, Mieko Shimizu, and the Tippett Quartet, released 28 April with nonclassical; Jasmine spoke to PRXLUDES about the conception and compostitional process of the record, her influences from folklore, Japanese traditions, natural cycles, butoh dance, and her upcoming opera with Britten Pears Arts.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Jasmine! Hope you’ve been keeping well. So you’ve got this incredibly exciting record ‘Astrophilia’ — it’s a fantastic listen. Is there anything in particular that draws you to the album format?
Jasmine Morris: I think I just do a very different thing. I like writing in [an electronic] format. I spent a lot of my first year doing string trios, piano pieces, stuff like that — and now I’ve very much moved on from using instrumentation in that sense. We had to do a lecture [at the Royal College of Music], and they were like “show us something you’ve been working on”, and you show your work to the class; everyone had, like, an orchestral piece, and I was like “here’s my weird Viking album with a creepy music video”… -laughs-
So what did they think of it? I’m so interested to know.
I felt like no one really knew how to respond. The track I showed them was ‘Hel’, [which] was more of a song, so I couldn’t really discuss instrumentation or notation. But the rest of album, the majority of it is just the viking instrumentation — so I guess it was difficult to talk about that without using technical terms that they’re used to [at the College]. I think people liked it, and were appreciative of it — but it was definitely not what they were expecting. -laughs-
The reason this album was kind of difficult to talk about in a “classical” setting was [because] it was mostly samples that were recorded by the musician, and I chopped them up and created the sound collage as I wished. It’s not as if I wrote a musical motif that reappears every [track]… There’s not a lot of discussion [at RCM] about how to electronically produce a piece. But it was interesting, and I had some interesting questions about my experience working with an artist, and working to an image. In that respect, it was helpful.
Let’s talk a bit about your compositional process on ‘Astrophilia’. You mention that a lot of the material is based on samples; are these samples that you initially composed yourself?
Yeah. I did write about 50-60% of the material, but a lot of it was improvised by Per Runberg. It really was a collaboration; I can’t take all the credit for the album. One thing I did with the “score” was explain the atmosphere of the piece, and I gave him some photographs that I thought reflected the landscape, and he would kind of improvise around his visual perception of the photograph. I would also write material that was mostly dictated by text.
It was tricky creating a “score” in a traditional sense, because although he did read Western music [notation], the instruments don’t really fit with Western notation. A lot of the instruments aren’t in a key that we’d understand, there’s some microtonal [inflections] — he’d be like “somewhere between F-sharp and A, not G, not G-sharp”, and I was just like “okay…” — I had to find lots of different ways of working around that, and I found that letting him fully improvise was a much more organic way of getting these beautiful sounds out of the instruments. He was just a single musician, so all the sounds that we hear are just produced by him. It was a real privilege to be able to work with someone who was making, playing, and had such a deep and rich understanding of the history.
That’s so wonderful to hear. Have you worked much with graphic scores and text scores?
I think for me, at that point, it was kind of a new venture. I’d acquired as much information I needed about writing in a traditional sense, and felt like it was right for me to move on a bit in terms of how I made scores. I think it really opened up the sound world, and gave it a lot of space to exist that wouldn’t necessarily be possible [otherwise]. Obviously, you could probably notate it to the specifics, but I thought there was much more freedom in graphic scores.
Absolutely — although you also need to have that collaborative connection with the performer for an esoteric score to work, at least for me.
Definitely. I think it’s really important to have that chemistry with yourself and the player before you establish that. It’s really important to think about how best the player will understand your writing. There has to be a lot of collaboration at that point. One thing I do really reject is coming up with really intensely virtuosic, and ferociously nitpicky music, and handing it to a player and expecting them to just do all of it — and when they don’t meet your standards, you’ll be like “well, I’ve written all of this and you’re not gonna play it.” I really dislike that attitude. It’s [more] interesting to write a score that opens up the player’s own characteristics, and their own musical strengths.
It sounds like you’ve managed to establish a wonderful collaborative process — how did you first get involved with Per?
It [was] done in a very eclectic way. My mum is also a composer, and she was working on a project with Per. She was telling me about what they were working on, and I was really fascinated by the idea of working with a Viking musician. I’m really intrigued by folk tradition, and folk instruments — particularly ancient traditions. From there, I got in touch with him and said “I know it’s a lockdown now, but I really want to create an album for your instrumentation — would you be interested?” And he was like “okay, I’ll do you a favour and do reduced rates, but could you buy me some horsehair for my bows that I’m gonna make, that are produced by this really specific horsehair manufacturer somewhere?” -laughs- So I sent him that across, and then sent him the scores. And it turns out I sent him the wrong horsehair! It was a very unusual way of interacting with a musician. It was really fun… like working with an actual Viking. I had a great time. -laughs-
What instruments did you and Per end up using on the record?
Quite a lot. [Per] had a selection of reed instruments. He had some lutes, a tagelharpe, a traditional Viking violin, cow horns, a lur, and a series of recorders and whistles, and bagpipes, things like that. I had a very rich palette of sound to work from. They were all such unique-sounding instruments; it was kind of daunting for me to write for them in a way that shows them off at their finest.
That’s such an awesome array of sounds — that could be an album in itself. What made you want to manipulate these sounds electronically?
I’m not so much interested in “changing the sound”, per se. What I’m really interested in is creating sound worlds, and sound paintings. I find that electronically, that is probably the easiest way of achieving that; you can create an orchestra of those reed sounds, just in whatever software you use. I find that there’s infinite possibilties in stretching and manipulating sounds in a way that stays true to their original sonic qualities. I didn’t add any distortion, or reverb, or anything like that; I just let the sound be, and patch them all together to create a collage. The only real “writing” to be had was when I was writing the melodies for two of the tracks — and the string quartet. [That’s] very much a traditional piece — and a lot of the string writing later on is traditionally notated — but all the viking material is freely notated.
That’s fascinating. As a whole-album unit — how did that juxtaposition work for you, between the tracks featuring Per and the string quartet?
I didn’t want it to feel like “this is a violin piece supported by three cowhorns”, or whatever. I wanted the album to feel very homogenous within its own sound world. It was important for me that everything was cohesive in each track. I started by writing the string music, and then when I spoke to Per I was more able to think about how I’d manipulate the viking instrumentation around it — so it would interweave, and come into the foreground, and disappear into the background — so it’s much more ingrained into the music. What is really important for me, when creating electroacoustic music… It’s in my stylistic preference to merge the two, as opposed to having two distinct sound qualities. I’m really excited about the album release. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m really grateful that nonclassical are helping me make this happen.
Tell me a bit about the music videos — how directly involved were you with them? Do they have any relation to the notational material, or are they more concerned with the album’s concept and narrative?
They’re much more closely related to the narrative of the music. I really like working to an image — so I thought providing the two videos would be a nice way in which you can visually connect to this concept I’m trying to portray musically. [For] ‘Hel’… the singer was actually my mum, and I said “you have to look like a witchy creature from the Nordic cosmos”. She took that on really well. -laughs- It was really, really great to work with her. She’s been a really influential figure in my life, and has always been there to guide me with my music. So when I was working on the album, I asked her if she wanted to sing on it, and she said yes… She got locked out of the house, and she only had the keys to her recording studio. And I was like “okay, this is your opportunity to record the vocals…” It was nothing to do with me, I promise, but somehow it worked out! -laughs-
I’m loving this method-acting approach to artistic collaboration. Though I can’t lie, I’m just a tad scared. -laughs-
Yeah. Sorry, mum… -laughs-
“I’m not so much interested in “changing the sound”, per se. What I’m really interested in is creating sound worlds, and sound paintings.” Jasmine Morris, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
So ‘Astrophilia’ has such a strong connection to Viking and old Nordic folk traditions. How much of an influence do folk traditions play in your artistic practice?
I think I mentioned earlier, I’m really fascinated by folk traditions. I really like old folk instruments. It’s really important for me to work with these instruments, and it’s such a shame that we’re losing these ancient traditions; it’s a rare opportunity for me to do so, and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to do that again. It’s really important that we think about, and reflect on, where our music comes from: our journey from folk traditions to now.
For pieces that I’ve written that don’t follow that tradition, one thing I immediately think of is musical structure. For [my] string trio, ‘Karakuri’, I was inspired by the structure of machinery. There’s this tradition of puppetry in Japan called karakuri — I think it was in the sixteenth or seventeenth century — Dutch merchants would bring clocks, watches, guns and stuff to Japan, and they would integrate these new inventions into their community in a really unique way. I thought it was really interesting how they used that for “ceremony dolls”. It was all wooden machinery — they’d use very simple physics to create a very advanced robot, [or] an ancient robot. I think they’re really spooky looking, but I was nevertheless fascinated by “why a doll to serve tea”, and things like that. -laughs- I was interested about using machinery in a very natural way, that doesn’t use springs, or man-made things… Just using gravity, and pre-existing forces, to create an advanced robot.
That’s fascinating; how did you realise those forces musically in the piece, both in structure and in instrumental textures?
I thought about how reactionary the machinery was: how when one thing was triggered, it would trigger this [other] thing to spin around, and that would make something else go off. And so I tried to manifest that musically by making the instruments react to each others’ material. Musical passages would trigger another musical passage, or would cause another piece of musical material to change, or repeat itself.
Like each instrument in the string trio is a cog in a machine.
Yeah, I’d say so.
I’d be interested in seeing if and how you applied that approach for larger forces — I remember you composed a piece, ‘Crystalline’, for the BBC Concert Orchestra?
Yeah. ’Crystalline’ was a brief — I think it was “new beginnings” — and I thought about what a beginning means, structurally. I was very interested at the time in geological cycles, cycles of life. I started thinking a lot about how crystals form, and I was fascinated by the idea of something that we consider to be so beautiful — a crystal — to come from dead lava, solidifed lava. The piece is reflecting on the structure of that.
I had four main musical components, it was something like: lava, shards, crystals, and… something else. -laughs- It starts with the lava, and as this very low, bubbling motif builds up, we get emergences of these other sound-bubbles. I had motivic material for [all of them]. I was inspired by the idea of something new to grow out of something that’s died, basically. Again, it was very reactionary: so once something had died in the orchestra — oh, that sounds bad… -laughs- — once some musical material had died in the orchestra, crystalline material would emerge from it, if that makes sense.
So you’ve recently had a piece ‘Hitogata’ premiered by the Solem Quartet as part of their ‘Beethoven Bartok Now’ series. Tell me a bit about the process and inspiration for the piece — I heard it was performed alongside butoh dancers?
Yes. There were four other dancers who were performing in the style of butoh. There were artistic influences, and reactions to the music that was going on, but they were directed by Ellen van Schuylenburch. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be actually there for lots of the rehearsals, so I wasn’t very involved in the choreography process — but it was really interesting to see, because I had no idea what to expect. Originally, they weren’t going to have dancers, so when the Solem Quartet were like “we finally managed to get this to work, are you happy to be working with dancers?” I was like “that’s amazing”. It was a real treat to be able to see dancers react to my music, bearing in mind the traditions of butoh dance.
It was an ongoing concert, so there were no stops — they’d invited composers from Trinity Laban to create thirty-second transitions between the Beethoven, Bartok, and my piece — so there was no gap. It worked really well. They wrote music inspired by the music I’d written, so everything came round in a full circle. It all came together really nicely.
What was it about butoh that inspired you?
I was reading this book called Kazuo Ohno’s World: From Without & Within — [Ohno] was one of the founders of butoh dace — I was really fascinated by his way of thinking. Butoh is this dance form that emerged after the Second World War, and it’s an accumulation of a bunch of different forms: tango, neo-dadaism, surrealism… It’s a really fascinating art form. Traditionally, the dancer covers themself in white paint, and it draws the heat away from their body, so they start trembling. It creates a really unsettling dance tradition. It’s very much focused on the infinity of bodily gestures — one gesture can take one space over a much longer period of time — and I was really interested in manifesting that in the music. It was kind of like a theatre piece. In one of Kazuo Ohno’s workshops, he said to his dance students: “don’t look with your eyes, see with your hands, feel the space with other parts of your body”, and I thought that was [both] really spooky and weird, but also really fascinating, and I thought about how I could integrate this into the quartet.
Wow — that’s both an unsettling but intensely mesmerising concept. How did you end up utilising the quartet to convey Ohno’s words?
In the first movement — which is called ‘Nonseeing Eyes’ — they all face away from each other, or they close their eyes, and they play without visual contact. Obviously, a string quartet is very reliant on [not only] the chemistry between each person, but visual guidance, where someone leads and the others [follow]… So I wanted to eliminate that quickly, and see if they could find other ways of keeping together — musically and in spirit — without relying on their eyesight. That’s just one example, but I try to continue that throughout the piece.
You also performed live electronics in ‘Hitogata’ — what was your contribution with regard to the electronics?
The electronics used different musical material from the quartet. It was mostly sounds that I’d made on this thing that I use called the Strega, which is like a synthesizer. I kind of wanted to create a homogenous-sounding piece that melds electronic and acoustic sounds, and I wanted to create this feeling of blurring the two sound worlds, so you can’t tell what’s electronics and what’s cello. There’s highly distorted cello passages and highly distorted electronics, and I wanted them to cross over and create this one, very charged sounding music, where the origins weren’t clear. It’s kind of like the electronics were a reflection of the sounds of the quartet, but slightly more heightened, I guess.
Do you see your practice as an electronic artist informing your compositional process for instruments?
I don’t really see myself to be an electronic artist. I guess it can be interpreted in different ways; [but] now that I’ve been working more with electronics, it’s becoming more apparent to me what I’m searching for, in my own voice. I still feel like I’m extremely far away from what I actually want, but I guess that’s the journey of a composer. -laughs-
So what’s next in the pipeline for you?
I’m doing a Call for Scores for Riot Ensemble next year, so that’s the next thing that I’m doing. And I’ve been composing an opera for Britten Pears! I’ve got Kieran Rayner, Sian Dicker, Mimi Doulton, and Holly Teague [singing] on it. They’re amazing singers, doing really well at the moment. I’m really happy to be working with them.
Tell me about the concept of the opera — what can we expect?
It’s a retelling of ‘Animal Farm’ — in a very different setting. There’s no pigs in it at all. -laughs- It’s told from the perspective of Boxer, who [in this version] is a local girl, living in the countryside, hoping to find a way out of where she lives and find a job that respects her rights as a female employee, as someone who is looking to find a company who is respectful of the environment, and has good moral standards. There are lots of companies now that promote themselves as being that, when actually they’re the same as any other capitalist industry.
She goes from working for Mr. Jones, working at his catering service — who, originally in the novel, is the slobberly farmer who is drunk all the time and mistreats the animals — to work for Manifarm Lifestyle, [which] is run by Napoleon. The whole arc of the story is her navigating her way between these two industries: basically, a rock and a hard place.
How have you found the process of working with the opera singers and with Britten Pears?
We’ve had really great feedback on the opera. We’re still in the process of rehearsing and stuff. The first two concerts have been sold out, but they’re trying to arrange a third one — so when that date’s been released, I’ll let you know.
Musically and aesthetically, what’s the format of the opera? Is it a traditional concert setting?
So it’s just singers! It’s a parade style opera — so each scene occurs in a different room. You’re being led through each space by an usher, and each room has an electronic sound-world tape of just the singers’ voice; so instead of using an orchestral sound, I’m using an orchestra of their voices. Each room has a specific vocal sound — so the first room [consists of] breath, the second room is a nasal sound, vocal fry, something like that. A magnified perspective on each sound quality.
I’d really like to find an empty car park, or a locker room storage thing, where you get to walk into all these different rooms. That would be the ideal environmental setting for the opera. It’s not meant to feel like a concert setting. The audience isn’t supposed to be a fly on the wall; they’re fully immersed, and kind of become characters within the opera. The role of the usher [is] to give them props, and make them feel like they’re a part of what’s going on in the scene.
Stream and buy Jasmine’s latest album Astrophilia below, available now on nonclassical:
Jasmine’s upcoming opera ‘Animal Farm’ with Britten Pears Arts premieres at Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, on Sunday 12 June – book your tickets at:
More of Jasmine’s work can be found at:
- Kazuo Ohno & Yoshito Ohno, Kazuo Ohno’s World: From Without & Within, Wesleyan University Press, 2004