“When I write, I feel really manic — I feel a lot of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Even though what I make comes out very slowly, I feel like I’m going at a million miles an hour.”

Alex Tay

Alex Tay is a British composer exploring aural trickery, musical deceit, and psychoacoustic illusions. Having recently finished a DMus at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama supervised by Julian Anderson and Malcolm Singer, Alex has made pieces which deceive perceptions of musical speed, pitch continuity and sound ontology for François Xavier-Roth, Jack Sheen, Brett Dean, the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Park Lane Group, Raymond Brien, Ben Smith and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Alex spoke to PRXLUDES about his idiomatic approach to psychoacoustic illusions, modernist compositional aesthetics, musical quotations, his “manic” compositional process, and the London contemporary classical scene.

Alex Tay, ‘After Images’ (2017), premiered by Guildhall New Music Society.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Alex! Thanks for joining me today — how are you doing? What are you working on at the moment?

Alex Tay: Great, I’ve just handed in my doctoral thesis! I can see the whole universe at once, everything is a kaleidoscope and you’re all ants to me lol. I’m Buddha. I’m in nirvana. -laughs- The last piece I’ve had to write for it was this ventriloquism opera called An Interview with a “Puppet” and his “Maker” (A Cantata in Thrown Voices), it’s such a vibe. I approached Gareth Mattey a really long time ago — two or three years ago — to write a text, and they knocked out this amazing, beautiful but dark piece. Initially, it was written as one singer playing a maker, and a puppet — ventriloquising as a puppet — but I played with it a bit, and we’ve made it now for two singers. Weirdly, it’s an interview situation; but it’s a horrible, patronising [interview], not like this interview now! We’re kind of thinking of it as like a gay male relationship, and the interviewer [as] a homophobe, like, “merrhh, what’s it like being gay?”, this sort of stuff… but in far more poetic language. -laughs- The text that Gareth’s written is really, really beautiful, even though it’s dark. The point is to portray the strange, unjust dynamics of power between characters and how those who are victims of those structures can still be willing to perpetuate those same structures to get ahead. It’s a cycle of violence.

That’s wonderful — you’ll need to let me know when it premieres! How far are you into the writing process?

I literally just finished it now! Which maybe gives you an idea of how I [work]. I think it’s very much indicative of the way [that] I’m just really slow. It’s funny to me, because I’ve written a lot of music that goes really fast — that’s like “vrrrm, vrrrm, vrrrm”, you know, like “blrrrrgh”? When I was writing this piece [called] ‘After Images’, which is a sinfonietta ensemble piece, I was reading a lot about speed — not the drug, musical speed — and [Louis] Andriessen… I can’t remember who was in the car [with him], but I feel like it’s Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, and Frans Brüggen, the recorder player. So these three (and maybe another person) were listening to some Handel, and driving in [a] car they were like “wow, this music is really fast, how fast would you have to be driving to be driving faster than this music?” or something. Then Andriessen wrote ‘De Snelheid’, which [means] “the speed”… sorry, the punchline isn’t actually that great! -laughs-

So the question now is: how fast would you have to be going to go faster than ‘After Images’? -laughs-

I suppose ‘De Snelheid’ was a good model for me. ‘After Images’ was one of my first “speed” pieces. You can think of ‘After Images’ as kind of metrically like ‘De Snelheid’, plus Birtwistle, plus Stockhausen’s ‘Inori’. The reason ‘Snelheid’ is important is because the piece gradually gets faster; I think it’s woodblocks or temple blocks going throughout, and they’re constantly doing this pulse. And there are these jump-shifts [in the pulse] until it gets to a maximum speed, and by the end of the piece — it’s a long piece — the blocks are going so fast that they start doing tremolos, and it circles back to the opening tempo. Which is a bit like Beethoven’s ‘Op. 111’ — it’s the one which people are always like “oh, Beethoven invented boogie-woogie” — [where] it’s a set of division variations where the note values get smaller and smaller, so it sounds like it’s going faster and faster, and then it goes into a tremolo and by this point he’s somehow accelerated back into his starting tempo…

And ‘After Images’ is a piece with a bunch of jump accelerations, [and] metric modulations, and it’s built on loops [that] get gradually faster and gradually faster. So it would start with a loop from 72 to 216, and then increase to from 90 to 270, something like that, and then keep going. There are a lot of tempi.

Is this phenomenon — working with speed and working with tempi — indicative of your more general compositional process?

Every piece is a bit different. What I’m trying to do nowadays… More and more, I’m feeling like I need concept. Coming out of this doctorate that I’ve just handed in, I was working with musical illusions, psychoacoustic illusions… auditory illusions, essentially. A lot of people discovered them in the 50s, 60s and 70s: -in an obnoxious New York accent- It was the boom of psychoacoustic illusions! There was oil, we was drilling for oil, it was gonna be the world’s next renewable resource! We were gonna power the world with auditory illusions… -we both break down laughing-

So a bunch of people [researched] them, and the way that I started thinking about these illusions were as behaviours that sound can exhibit. It’s quite interesting, ontologically; I don’t really understand ontology, but through my vague understanding, illusions become interesting because: just like a quotation, when a sound does a particular thing, and becomes a phenomenon you can [identify] — “oh, that’s a Shepard tone scale, that’s a phantom words illusion” — those sounds transcend themselves, they become objectified.

Alex Tay, excerpt of tempo map for ‘After Images’ (2017).

Something that’s been really great about this doctorate is that it’s given me a focus, and it’s been like “okay, you’re gonna try and do illusion x in this [piece]”. It’s not always as straightforward as that, but in that way, you’ve gotta try and find a way to [base] the concept of the piece around that. With ‘After Images’, I was like “okay, I gotta have this sick tempo plan thing” — [so] basically, I composed a little loop, like a tempo-loop, that [became] the tempo scheme of the whole piece. I don’t understand it anymore… -laughs- At the start, across five bars, it goes from 72 to 216, and the loop gets faster progressively. Have you seen those GIFs where an image zooms [in] at you and the same image comes out — kind of like a fractal?

Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about. -laughs-

At some point, since it gets so fast, what you gotta do is start adding beats. You gotta think of this 216 as being, like, one beat of a bar. So you start adding beats.

Ah, so I see the illusion now! It’s like a temporal Shepard tone…

Yeah! That’s gonna be something that stays with me [now] that I’ve finished. I think I’m quite a simple creature, and I think in some ways, in this composition world we’re in, I’m quite boring and quite conservative. I kind of sit there with a piece of paper and pen, or on Sibelius, and just write notes. I’m very interested in gesture; [moving forward] it’s about going for it, trying to find concepts for how sounds can behave, or should behave. Trying to make interesting shapes with that.

From what you’re saying, it feels like much of your doctorate was spent exploring the “how” of these illusions, and now that’s finished, you’re able to open up to explore the “why” — is that something you’d maybe agree with?

Yeah, absolutely! I think the “why” is a really good observation. It’s probably not so much an original thing to say, [but] compared to Mozart, or Handel, back in their time, they didn’t have to think so much about the “why”. Now we have to think about “why” a lot, right: why does this have to be out there? Why am I doing this? Why am I creating in this world [where] not everyone values what we do — and that’s okay, great even — but why make this, why have I gotta put this out there. And that informs “why do I have to write it in this way…”

I would be interested in knowing whether I still work with illusions in the future. I’m sure it will happen — [but] I don’t know whether I’ll be Mr. Illusion forever. I gave my thesis a title like “Composing Reality: The Composer as Illusionist”

Oh, spicy. I love it.

At the last second, I was like “oh, there’s a piece called ‘Professor Bad Trip’ by Romitelli… what if I called my thesis ‘Professor Good Trip’?” -laughs- That’d be really fun. But I just didn’t have any energy left; I think I would’ve needed to have, like, the first chapter be [on] ‘Professor Bad Trip’, and re-write my whole thesis. But I’m sure I will work with illusions in the future.

Alex Tay, ‘Jab’ (2019-20), performed by Ben Smith.

Actually, that brings us onto a good question — where does your work with illusions fit in with that of other composers who’ve come before?

I think that was one of the big things that came out of my thesis, because in a lot of ways, I don’t think I’m the most natural fit for writing with illusions. To generalise, there’s two approaches to illusion in the twentieth century; and weirdly, illusion seems to be a topic which shows the great aesthetic schism between Europe and America. If you look at the foreword to Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, it’s like “music illusions are cool, my guy…” — those are his exact words -laughs- — “…but you know, they’re just, like, things, and I’m vibin’, and I’m sur-vibin’…” They’re things for [him] to run round wild in. Whereas Steve Reich is like, music is a gradual process, the processes are the pieces and everything that comes out — all these psychoacoustic byproducts, illusory things that happen as a result of the process — that’s also the piece. He’s got a way of zooming in on everything. And I think [that] if you’re gonna be composing illusions, if your be-all-and-end-all goal is to make illusions, that’s probably [more appropriate]. For me, there was kind of a war going on inside me: aesthetically, I’m probably much more aligned with Ligeti, but my doctorate was on illusion and writing illusory pieces. If making illusions was my number one goal, I should have been going for this American experimentalist approach.

How did you find navigating that compositional landscape when you were doing your doctorate?

My idea of what was aesthetically “good” changed a lot when I started at Guildhall. One of my favourite things about Guildhall is that it’s very aesthetically diverse, especially in the composition department. I was a student of Julian Anderson and Malcolm Singer — that’s one aesthetic (very broadly) — and then you’ve got Amber Priestley, Laurence Crane [and] Paul Newland, which is a another (again, super broadly). I don’t think I’m being inaccurate in thinking that side is influenced by American experimentalism, and Cage. Sylvia Lim (‘Reframe’ is a stunning piece) is there, Cassandra Miller and James Weeks were there for a while. There’s all sorts of different people there.

When I was a naive little boy, and I came into Guildhall, I’d just come out of Cambridge — where it’s a very conservative environment. I’ve got a lot to thank [Cambridge] for, I have a lot of skills — they gave me my very particular set of skills, perhaps (Liam Neeson is terrified of my contrapuntal prowess!) — but also an aesthetic bias. And I came to Guildhall and I was like “what is this LaMonte Young, urgh…!” — and now I think it’s great. Another comparison would be James Tenney’s ‘For Ann (rising)’… he was doing the cool parentheses before anyone else, a true icon. -laughs- I love pieces like ‘Critical Band’. Horațiu Rădulescu shits on ‘Critical Band’ — which is a just intonation piece by Tenney, it’s a beautiful piece — but something that Rădulescu says is, like, God doesn’t tell you what molecules are in a raincloud. [He] says about Tenney — which is problematic — [that] “it’s not totally music, you understand, it’s a theorem”. Also I think Tenney heard this and was like, that’s fine lmao, I’m just gonna keep doing my thing. Stockhausen says something kind of similar to Rădulescu, to paraphrase: the difference between an experimental physicist and a composer is [that] one is more inventive.

I completely get what you mean — it’s having the artistic license outside of just demonstrating a phenomenon, right?

I think that’s right — I hope I’m not rubbing anyone up the wrong way when I say that. I think that aesthetic is more comprising [of] composition as a demonstrative process — especially with James Tenney. Another difficult thing about writing with illusion is that you have to be able to nonverbally communicate an idea clearly. I’m not saying you can’t do that in a modernist European aesthetic, but I think it is harder and doesn’t necessarily make as much sense? The modernist aesthetic is invention: you gotta do this with material. [But] to completely contradict myself, to say composition-as-demonstration is a purely American thing is wrong, as well, because if you think about Bach, the form of the fugue… that is absolutely a demonstration.

I couldn’t imagine Rebecca Saunders making a kind of illusionist composition-as-demonstration piece, in the way that Tenney might. There’s a great lecture about how she writes ‘Skin’ — one of my favourite pieces ever — [where] she talks about composing all these duos, and then chopping between them, mixing them up, dispersing them through form.

But it’s still interesting that you’re able to merge these worlds together. I don’t know about you, but I personally just can’t get into writing process music.

Really? -laughs- I used to feel that way as well. When I was a teenager, I was really into [Reich’s] ‘City Life’ — it was great; oh, it’s groovy. Then I went to uni and people were like “urgh, Steve Reich? Disgusting”, so I was like “yeah, same”. But then [at] Guildhall I got really into [Reich’s] ‘Drumming’… I think something that’s great about [studying with Julian Anderson] is that he is very good at making you listen very widely. He has his tastes, but he will point out a wide array of aesthetics and styles that you should be listening to. I came in and he was like “do you know ‘Drumming?”, and I was like “no”, and he was like “you should.” -laughs- Then I got to know ‘Drumming’, and I got to know ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, and what fascinates me about [them] — and this is maybe why I write the fast, detailed music that I do — is the microdetails that emerge from the phase-shifting processes. Basically, all I would say is I am looking forward to applying these ideas in a more general way.

Alex Tay, ‘Georgimorphosis’ (2021), performed by Raymond Brien.

One thing that has struck me about your work is how you tend to utilise quotation in quite a direct and overt way. I’ve heard this in both your piece for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, ‘Witherbud’, and your piece ‘Georgimorphosis’ for Raymond Brien; how do you tend to approach the use and abuse of musical quotation?

Yeah, yeah. I like the way you’ve phrased that, in relation to “using and abusing” quotations. To be honest, before starting my PhD, I was very reluctant to use any quotations, or found objects, or anything; partially because I found the use of the word “found object” to apply to quotation to be a bit, like, douchey… I didn’t think it was necessary. It felt like branding, or a marketing tool, to be like: “oh, I’m doing this thing, but it’s actually kind of new, guys!” I’ve gone a little bit back on this now.

Having thought about it, I think there is a difference between using quotations and found objects. Found objects can refer to recorded sounds, or sounds outside of the classical canon, but I guess where people use it to refer to quotations from repertoire, or something, there’s [an] implication… I suppose, first of all, there’s a question of sample size: the “selection area”, or selection size, that you’re using. [György] Kurtág talks about using sonority from Beethoven’s Lenore Overture No. 3, and he’s like “I’ll take that first chord, and that’s the first chord of ‘Stele’ as well.” I suppose you can say that [with] his found object, the first chord, if you think about the selection area, it’s quite small — [but] also, if you look at Adès’ ‘Arcadiana’, there’s a bunch of found objects there of different sizes and varying guises. So I think that you can argue the difference between quotation and found object [is] that [found object] is like “I’m writing with this”. Maybe it’s just me misunderstanding what [a] found object is. I think Finnissy talks about it a lot better than I do. -laughs-

So in terms of these two pieces — did the approach you took differ with each of them?

I wrote a chunk of ‘Georgimorphosis’ first, and then I wrote ‘Witherbud’, and then I finished ‘Georgimorphosis’ by putting a bunch of Sciarrino-esque inserts in. It all comes back to my research, and this point on communicating. The point with those pieces was to make material illusorily transform into objects that people knew, and for those things to slip by, and for you to go “what?”: to simultaneously recognise that it is the piece, but also [that] it’s something else — for you to recognise the traces of what happened before.

Franco Donatoni has this concept of rilettura, which is like a re-reading of material; it’s essentially a bit like theme and variations, but more modernist. So you take a chunk of material, you read it again, and you subject it to various processes. What Donatoni was trying to do was non-directed and kind of Cageian — transform and transform the material until it’s something, and then the piece stops — there’s a double bar line for when the commission ends. The difference between that and ‘Georgimorphosis’ is [that] it’s pretty goal-oriented, and you’re hitting one quotation at a time. My point was that I wanted people to be able to hear “okay, we’ve hit some Handel now”, but I wanted them to be able to trace the lineage of the material back to when it was Ligeti… going from Ligeti to Handel. There’s an Escher drawing called ‘Verbum’

I’ve actually not heard of that before, and I really feel like I should have.

It’s like a hexagon. There’s a bunch of tesselations: on one side there’s frogs, on another size there’s lizards, fish… -laughs- The shapes tesselate and morph into each other. So I wanted to do that with ‘Georgimorphosis’. It’s such a silly concept — taking various George composers and mingling them into each other. It is fun, it’s whimsical. But it all comes from this idea of communication. I’ve tried to do things like this before — because I was being very snobbish about working with quotations, or found material — [but] I found this idea I heard a few different people say, something like: “why wouldn’t you work with found quotations? Because everything sounds like everything else…” I found it very cynical. Maybe they wouldn’t think about it this way, but I found it very defeatist.

I’d say that’s a defeatist attitude. Not everything’s been said in every context, you know?

Yeah, and I mean what they’re saying is true, but why not just try, you know? Laurie Spiegel talks about this a bit and how she thinks its slightly a shame that everything’s sampled nowadays. But coming from the other side, the pro found-objects side — maybe what [they’re] doing is quite hopeful, because it’s embracing the fact of reality, and really they’re just running with it?

Coming back to this idea of communication, I’ve tried to do these illusory transformations [and] metamorphoses before. The problem is [that] there needs to be some form of recognition. If you’re listening and the transformed material’s not distinct enough from its surroundings, what happens is you’re just like “that’s just material transforming” — there’s no spark moment, there’s no trigger in the mind of the listener. And then there’s no illusion because “that’s just a thing that happens.” That’s just an event. Whereas if you have an Enescu [or] Telemann quotation — even if it’s very obscure — and it’s gone through these more modernist processes, and transformation, what happens is [that] you start with something recognisable, it goes through some sort of messy modernist tesselations, and then you come out the other side and it’s like “this is a dirtied, messied, something!” Maybe [you] don’t recognise the exact quote, but [you] can tell that it’s something… It’s anachronism. You’re relying on anachronism to trigger recognition, and for that to spark in the mind of the listener.

Alex Tay, ‘Witherbud’ (2021), performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

So let’s talk about ‘Witherbud’, then. I know you directly used Bach quotations in the piece; did your use of the Bach also follow the same ethos of anachronism — “we recognise it, then you screw it up”?

Yeah, that’s exactly it! I like that: “I recognise it, then you recognise it, then [it] screws up…” To add upon that — for the concept of ‘Witherbud’, Brett Dean had set us this brief that was about lockdown, and cycles of lockdown and release. This is really bad, but: I went on Google, and I typed something like “Beckett, coronavirus…” -laughs- I didn’t type [that], but I might as well have. I challenge any composer to tell me they haven’t done this when they try and think of a concept for a piece. -laughs-

I found this quote that said something like: “for what is this shadow of going in which we come… …if not the shadow of purpose, of the purpose that budding withers, that withering buds, whose blooming is a budding withering.” He makes this linguistic Möbius strip out of these concepts of coming, going, shadows, waiting, withering, and budding — which is where the title of the piece comes from. At the same time, I was working quite a lot with the infinity series — which is a tone row (not serial) made by Per Nørgård. I used five notes of Bach’s royal theme — from The Musical Offering — to make an infinity series. There’s quite a lot of writing on how to do this — you can look at his article from 1975 called ‘Inside a Symphony’, there’s also a book called Fourteen Interpretative Essays… I think there’s a website he made, as well, but I can’t remember! I think you have to find it on the Wayback Machine. -laughs-

I have so many questions. -laughs- How did you create an infinity series out of a Bach theme?

There’s a book called Gödel, Escher, Bach [by] Douglas Hofstadter, which is all about strange loops, and paradoxes, that sort of thing. [Hofstadter] talks about this “eternally rising canon”, which is part of The Musical Offering that Bach [composed]. It’s pretty awesome, it modulates up a tone each time. And [Hofstadter] worked with a guy called Scott Kim to do a Shepard tone version of it.

And I was like “okay, cool” — so for the opening of ‘Witherbud’, I used [this] five-note cell to make an infinity series. What I was trying to do was mirror this process of withering and budding; essentially, you have this interplay between this series — some of these intervals condensed to the nuts and bolts — and the actual quotations, and having them grow into each other, and out of each other, and morph between each other. At the same time, I added a Risset rhythm as well. A Risset rhythm is an illusion that is [like] a rhythmic analogue of a Shepard tone scale: a Shepard tone is a scale that always seems like it’s rising infinitely (but it’s not!), and a Risset rhythm can either accelerate infinitely, or decelerate infinitely. It’s kind of the basis of ‘After Images’, as well; it’s the basis of a lot of my music from the past six years.

That’s fascinating — so how did you utilise the idea of the risset rhythm in ‘Witherbud’?

What I was trying to do there is use the Risset rhythm to distort the theme. If you make that theme go faster and faster, you get to a point where — like a rocket going into outer space — what happens is [that] a rocket gets to a certain point in the atmosphere, and then bits fall off the rocket so it can go faster or whatever. If you’re gonna speed up a theme, or any melody, there’s a point where bits are gonna fall off. You’ve either got to jettison some of the pitches, you might turn a few into grace notes… All these processes in order to compress a theme. So what I do at the start of ‘Witherbud’ is I start with this eternally rising canon, and that gets faster and faster, gets compressed, and becomes the royal theme — which is the main theme of The Musical Offering. And at its fastest point, it morphs into my infinity series, and that kind of goes a bit nuts. So in a nutshell, [that’s] what happens over ‘Witherbud’. I wasn’t sure what the withering was, and I wasn’t sure what the budding was… but one of them is one of them. -laughs-

It’s like you’re applying these illusory processes to the found object — so in a sense, that makes it a lot easier for the audience to pick up on them, and thus you’re able to reckon the process-centre with the modernist European aesthetic!

You’re bang on the money. -laughs- I think that’s something that touches on the way I generally work when it comes to composing.

I saw this interview with Tom Stoppard, and he was like: I’m interested in loads of different things, and they come together, and I end up writing about all of them and they glob into one thing [that] becomes the piece. I don’t know if I’m the same or not, but I can definitely relate to feeling like that. I wrote a piece called ‘Ghoulish Airs’ for the LSO Panufnik scheme, ages ago in 2019. I had a bunch of pieces [with] illusory processes. I think loads of stuff came in [with] that piece. There’s a lot of technical apparatus, and everything kind of comes into conflict and crashes into each other, and what comes out is the piece. I’m prone to using a lot of things at once, and the things that happen at once weather each other for better or for worse: and what’s born out of the collision is the piece.

“When I write, I feel really manic — I feel a lot of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Even though what I make comes out very slowly, I feel like I’m going at a million miles an hour.” Alex Tay, in conversation with PRXLUDES

In terms of your compositional process, since we spoke about how you tend to write slowly but write very condensed material… How do you think your compositional process impacts this approach?

I think ‘Jab’ is a good piece to bring up here. I wrote that over a year and a half. I was feeling quite bitter at the time, [as] a bunch of stuff had happened in my personal life. The piece was a really nice commission from the Park Lane Group; they were really nice, and they got me paid even though the piece couldn’t get done because of covid. I was really lucky — in a way, it really worked out — I wrote this mammoth piece that was supposed to be a six-minute commission. [But] it all just sprawled out. I think when I write, I feel really manic — I feel a lot of adrenaline coursing through my veins. What comes out is indicative of how I feel when I’m writing; I don’t know necessarily why. Finnissy says something like “when you’re composing, you don’t know who you are, what you’re doing, what you had for lunch…” — you’re in a state where you just are writing. Even though what I make comes out very slowly, I feel like I’m going at a million miles an hour.

Wow. The way I write is kind of the opposite — I tend to write very quickly — but I totally understand how manic the process feels. It’s like you’re on another planet.

So I was writing this piece that was very destructive and bitter, and then I played it for Julian — he was like “look, let’s just hear a MIDI version of the piece” — and I ended up with my head in my hands, like, “oh my god, I hate this so much…” And he was like, just have another go. -laughs- And then the rewrites took me another half year. But it was really useful, because he was like “is this what you really want to hear?” Because it was a solo piano piece, we were able to get really into specifics — just asking “is this something you actually want to come out?” — with all the details, again and again. I was lucky to be able to have that educational experience. I’m really proud of ‘Jab’ — I wrote it through once, and I wrote it through again. Formally, gesturally, it stayed the same, but I redecorated the interior.

I think composers have a tough gig. Just writing a piece is hard enough — or at least that’s how I feel — just writing something that you vaguely have interest in is difficult enough. And then you get people going like “ooh, well, you didn’t think about the implications of x, y, and z, ooh, doing that in this day and age, so you are aesthetically and morally the worst.” — and you’re like, dude! It’s hard enough for me to just get it out, and you’re coming at me from all these different [angles]? Or maybe I’m just a sensitive little baby. -laughs-

No, that attitude is completely justified. -laughs- Would you see your writing process as linear?

There are lots of composers that work non-linearly. I’ve been better at it recently, but I do more naturally go from A to B. I think someone asked Birtwistle (RIP) if he writes bits first, and he was like “no — by going linearly, I’ll come up with something more interesting afterwards than what I planned initially.” Sometimes I feel like that, but sometimes I feel like I’m a bit more non-linear, as well.

So, as a final question: you’re quite active and well-known in the London & Asian British contemporary music community. Where would you place yourself with regard to your contemporaries?

I guess it’s interesting to think about the London scene at the moment. What I find quite funny is that it’s not uncommon for people to mix me up with Alex Ho. -laughs- I feel that I’m very different to a lot of Tangram composers — although I’ve loved getting to know them, because Rockey [Sun Keting] is wonderful, they’re [all] so wonderful. The Tangrams — of which I am a big fangram -laughs- — for them, cultural identity is quite central to who they are artistically. And there’s a beautiful lineage there, I love what they’re doing. But when I see what they’re doing, I look at myself and I feel strange — because compositionally, I’m very Western, I’m very European.

In my normal life — which I’m distinguishing from my compositional [life] — I’m culturally at odds. I’m second-generation — I was born here, but my mum was born in Taiwan, and my dad was born in Malaysia… My Mandarin is very bad. -laughs- But culturally, I was brought up in the UK, [but] when it comes to compositional lineage, I think about my musical training and who I am artistically. Apparently, my grandad was an unlicensed eye surgeon, which I think is a great phrase. -laughs- That’s who I am on the inside — an unlicensed eye surgeon. That’s how I’d describe what I do, compositionally.

Alex Tay, ‘Bloom (2017), performed by Geraint Ballinger.

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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.