“I really want to acknowledge the fact that when you amplify something, or when you use electronics, it’s not a direct representation of a given thing. It’s admitting the fact that everything is lost through this medium and composing sound is a way of falsifying, creating a new musical reality from that truth.”Finbar Hosie
Finbar Hosie is a Franco-British composer currently based between Strasbourg and the UK. Finbar’s musical outlook is phenomenological in nature, and explores deconstruction of gestural identities associated with sound, texture, and physicality, and seemingly contradictory musical forces. Finbar studied at Brunel University London, Strasbourg Conservatoire, and Académie Supérieure de Musique de Strasbourg (HEAR), under Tom Mays, Daniel D’Adamo and Annette Schlünz, and his work has been performed by ensembles such as Broken Frames Syndicate, Ensemble L’Imaginaire, and most recently collective lovemusic, with whom he tours and performs regularly as their electronics artist and engineer. Finbar’s works and installations have been programmed/performed throughout Europe, the UK and the US, and he is a laureate of the Diaphonique Franco-British fund for contemporary music.
In February 2023, Finbar Hosie and collective lovemusic embarked on a tour of the UK performing their Heart of Light concert, featuring the world premiere of Finbar’s piece ‘The Hyacinth Garden’. Following their London performance at City, University of London, we sat down with Finbar and talked about his involvement with collective lovemusic, his approach to amplification, juxtaposition, deconstructing sound gesture, and creating “driftwood music”…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Finbar! Hope you’re doing well. We’ve just heard the London premiere of your fantastic piece ‘The Hyacinth Garden’ by collective lovemusic; tell me about your approach to composing the piece and your use of text within it?
Finbar Hosie: I already knew I wanted to especially work with text as a formative aspect the year before, after I saw their concert at Musica Festival Strasbourg, where whilst playing Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’, Emiliano Gavito [Lovemusic’s flutist] delivered the text in such a bold, audacious voice. I knew I had something I could exploit in that; I really wanted to bring this performative aspect to it too, that I hadn’t gone into completely before, but that I knew they do very well.
The idea was [to take] specific vignettes of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ — one side of it is this critique of post-war British society, and modernism, and everything that comes with it. And the other side is transposing that to a chaotic, slightly absurd modern take of this. I chose specific vignettes that interested me — especially trying to focus on the dark comedic aspects of it that I quite liked, but I never quite read that much [into]. I spent a lot of time reading it, and reading papers on it, things like that; there’s a section [about] an incompetent clairvoyante, there’s references to the myths of Hyacinthus and Tristan and Isolde.
Another theme that comes up quite a bit [is] water — water as a giver and taker of life. Obviously, that links up with themes of the hyacinth garden — the water of the Thames, pollution, water as a spreader of disease… and water as a sign of hope at the end. [It’s] the only passage that is fully recited at the end of the piece.
That’s such a wonderful way of breathing life into an older text. Aesthetically, how did you hone in on these themes?
I think composing this piece, I really thought of everything as amplification. Every aspect that I wanted, I knew how I wanted it to sound before I knew how I wanted it to be realised. For instance, the mic is used as an instrument in itself, some sections of the electric guitar [are] used without amplification at all. Then the second layer of that is the text, and [its] interaction with that, for instance [in] the “clairvoyante” bit: there’s sections where it’s a computer-generated mix of text from various fliers of psychics, basically. I generated a patch that spat out this jumble of about 20 different fliers. There’s a site where some guy collects these… -laughs-
I really want to acknowledge the fact that when you amplify something, or when you use electronics, it’s not a direct representation of a given thing. It’s admitting the fact that everything is lost through this medium and composing sound is a way of falsifying, creating a new musical reality from that truth. If you start from the point where you have hardly anything to start with, and then you build out from there, that’s a nice way to develop.
Is the way you utilised electronic elements in ‘The Hyacinth Garden’ similar to how you usually approach electronics in composition?
Strictly speaking, with electronics, what I normally work with is recording sequences of tactile manipulation of small objects — 70% of the piece is that. Another part of it is also something new that I never really did before: I recorded [some] quick improvisations on analog synth, and I put that through a Max patch. With those different aspects, and the dialogue with the instrumentals, I looked to juxtapose the fully precise and fully mechanical with the completely imprecise, and completely uncontrollable. Most of the time, it’s the electronics that take the part of the “less mechanical” aspects of it. A lot of the sounds are pretty musique concrète sort of stuff… sequences of manipulating stuff. At the end of the day, in the electronics I’ll try to maintain the human aspects left from my own improvisation and search for sound, during these recording sequences.
I really wanted to make a piece that is incidental — that you just walked in on something that’s happening. The piece just has this internal motor to it. That was the place of the lights, too — to really push that along, and have this mechanical inner working to the aesthetics.
That’s fascinating; and so how did the instrumentalists of lovemusic fit into the equation?
Through listening, and developing material. With lovemusic, we did several sessions of improvisation; I directed and recorded [them]. I listened to one hour maybe seven times, over the course of two or three months. And then it’s a question of how you want it to sound — as opposed to what effects you want to create. I like the fact [of] letting the sounds breathe for themselves. There’s this Morton Feldman quote that I love so much: “the tragedy of music is that it begins with perfection”… I think it’s so important to let sounds breathe, and work more on how you want to present them, and how you want them to dialogue with [each other].
Tell me about your relationship with collective lovemusic, both as a composer and as an electronic artist; how did you first start collaborating?
I did a piece with lovemusic two years ago. We completely clicked, both personally and musically. It was so nice working with them; we have the same view of how musicians and composers should work together, and how there can be a complete give-give in both directions. Everyone’s open, and learning — every stage of the compositional process, they’re there, always accessible, and always open to new ideas.
We did this piece — ‘Rhinoceros’ — and they wanted to commission another piece [of mine]. At that time, I’d finished [my] studies, and they also needed someone for sound engineering work, and a bit of admin. It’s so nice to be able to put in to an ensemble in a different way, as a composer; a lot of people don’t do it enough I think, it’s humbling. You learn so much in aspects that you just never see if you don’t work with an ensemble in this less sexy side of things. -laughs-
Tell me a bit about your working relationship with lovemusic — how have they impacted your performance practice?
We’ve got a really nice working relationship. When we start pieces, they’re always so inquisitive about what they can bring to it. They always have propositions that are so rich — you come thinking one thing, and they come up with something you’d never thought of.
So in this concert, there [was] a mic under the table in front of the stage that works with peak amplitude. I take attacks, and I basically filter everything, choose which layers or aspects of the music I want to set off the lights. That was general basis; and the other side of it features timers which are set off and synced with the electronics. Those are the two levels of how that works. It creates a certain coherence; and in terms of the themes of the pieces, it’s quite nice having this visual aspect of light and darkness.
Have you taken this performative practice on tour with them before?
No — we did a gig in the UK back in October, and we were in Berlin in November, [and] we did a couple gigs in France. But this is our first week-long tour. And then we’re going to the States in April; we’re going to play the piece in nienteForte festival New Orleans, then Brandeis, and then Harvard. So that should be cool!
How has working in this way impacted your compositional lexicon, and how you’re looking to develop in the future?
I suppose I’ve been using less and less real-time electronics in my pieces in the last four years — but playing pieces like Sasha Blondeau’s ‘Sortir du noir’, it’s really like a complete duet between the electronics and the cello. [I] definitely miss out on aspects that I lost when I chose not to do so much live electronics; but then at the same time, when you’re doing rehearsals, you have different time constraints. It’s all things you take into account. I think it’s important, too, for ensembles to have a place for people to do the electronics; it opens up space for piece that you would never be able to play without someone who [can] look after that aspect of it. In terms of mental charge of the musicians, it alleviates quite a lot. It’s also the kind of piece I couldn’t have done if I hadn’t gone to IRCAM and sorted it out with Sasha himself! You’re definitely more implicated that way, musically and technically.
“I think juxtaposition is something that I use quite a lot. How much can this thing I’ve heard before change what I’m hearing right now; to what extent can you use something as simple as possible that plants a seed, and how that can change.”Tweet
Much of your work has a strangely folk-inspired feel to it. Tell me about your musical background, growing up in both the UK and France; is this folk influence a conscious thing?
On my mum’s side, the whole family are musicians — all in bands, all [playing] different types of music. I really grew up around that. I started playing guitar when I was quite young, then banjo and mandoline. I never really had any contact with classical music, and even less [with] contemporary music. I moved to France, when I was 11, then later on I started studying [my] Baccalauréat. The programme that we had was really great; we had a great music teacher at the time, he was blasting us [with] Wozzeck, and I’d never heard anything like that before.
Were there any particular moments where you realised “this is what I want to do” with regards to composition?
Pierre Jodlowski came to [our] school. There’s a thing in France where high schoolers who are studying music for Baccalauréat choose their favourite piece out of a selection; he came and presented a piece, and the piece he presented was ‘Time and Money’ — I’d never seen anything like that before, especially [such] a performative piece with video and sound. And then, I had no idea why, but I was like “I wanna do this, I want to compose!” — I didn’t even write music at the time, or read notation, or anything like that.
I did [a] degree in the UK — I went to Brunel. And that was really great, because the UK system is very sort of pick-and-mix [with] what you want, and take what you want out of it, which was perfect at the time. Thinking back, I [was] like “yeah, I want to be a composer”, but I had no fucking idea — so it was great. We were doing conducting, free improv, music realisation… It was really rich, and what I needed at the time.
And then I went to Strasbourg — and I really needed the French system. [It] was definitely more, not-to-say rigorous but, I feel like it holds you to account a bit more [with] what you’re doing…
People call you out when you’re lazy?
No, I wouldn’t say that. It goes further… -laughs- Maybe more focused.
So that was amazing. I was lucky to do quite a lot of Max/MSP and real-time stuff quite early on, and coming to France, I really did all the montage, in the very french, very “acousmatic” tradition, that I never did at all before. Through the teachers, I had that aspect of picking and choosing what you take from each person — there’s three teachers at Strasbourg, and each of them had something different to offer. But at the same time, no teacher imposed their own aesthetic outlook on things, even though they’re [all] strong musical personalities.
Let’s talk more about your aesthetic concerns. You mention that much of your compositional process revolves around the deconstruction of sound gesture, and sound-as-gesture; what does that mean to you?
I’d say it’s to do with the perception of references; what you hear when you hear a sound. I think it’s really important that each sound exists in and of its own — that each sound has its own language in itself. I definitely take away as much as I can [from] sound references, and build it up from the ground. If you think about what is organic, natural, and what is artificial… [For example] walking down the beach you find wood in two forms: a piece of driftwood and a wooden board with nails. You feel that the board has a distinct purpose for which it exists and its form is dictated by its purpose, the nails have a flat side to be hit, and a sharp point to pierce the wood. The driftwood’s appearance, on the other hand, will never show the mechanisms of every wave that formed it, or even where it came from. I want to make driftwood music!
With regards to the connotations of these references — what’s an example of how you’ve found ways of deconstructing sound in your practice?
I suppose with ‘Deltas’, I really wanted the challenge of breaking down a sound world which is as incredibly harmonically and rhythmically connotated as blues music, and folk music more generally. How can I boil this down to this reduction, this spent product of the music. It’s the kind of music I was playing when I was growing up — folk, blues, Irish music, things like that. It’s something that’s generally connotated, but also personally, and I really wanted to see how far I could get from that; to isolate what I wanted to isolate musically and timbrally, like a faint memory of how this music would sound if I forgot it existed.
I already knew I had to do a piece for flute and piano for Ensemble l’Imaginaire — they did the curation. So I was like: well, if you juxtapose doing something that’s blues-inspired, trying to isolate the richness in that sound, without the harmonic connotations that come with it — how do you that with a piano and flute duo, which is such a classical format? I thought of the whole piece, and the instruments working together with the electronics, as a giant washboard. You have these reactions: like a washboard, you can stick loads of cymbals [on], you’re playing with the fumbles, all these little bits and bobs united by gesture. So how do you unify these instruments into a “meta-instrument” that has its own workings?
So I guess the next question would be to ask how you unified them!
Funnily enough, the electronics are all solely washboard and banjo recordings! Although if you listened to it, you would not know at all. In terms of the flute and piano. I did a rhythmic analysis of Robert Johnson’s “out-of-rhythm” playing — this warped swing that he has in his playing style, which is really interesting. I found a logic, a certain metric modulation, that was completely coherent between one rhythm and another; so [he’d] stop and start on a different rhythm which seems completely off-the-wall, but if you listen further, it’s exactly the same as something [else] in a different context. And also the guitar and banjo style, the “clawhammer” style — the push and pull technique you get on the banjo. It was [about] extending that, and linking the two musicians through this, and through themselves — left hand, right hand — how I can desynchronise these movements in a naturalistic way.
I tried to search for sound that distills that timbral richness that you find in blues. Most of the time, it boils down to harmonic connotations, and pastiche; but I think blues music, and folk music, has such a rich collection of sounds that you can really exploit. I don’t think of my music as particularly harmonically focused — but my interest came out of this distillation of the sounds themselves… trying to phenomenalise them.
Of course — it’s like the juxtaposition of looking at one source through another, and how that makes us view the source differently.
I think juxtaposition is something that I use quite a lot. How much can this thing I’ve heard before change what I’m hearing right now; to what extent can you use something as simple as possible that plants a seed, and how that can change. In ‘The Hyacinth Garden’, I’ve got this narrative that runs through it of me walking around my parents’ garden, trying to record some crickets — in view of using it [as] electronics for some other piece. I really liked the search of intimacy that that represented, and how I can juxtapose that as an underlying narrative through the piece of the different themes I explore from T.S. Eliot.
I’m also aware you’ve done some installation works recently — how has your practice adapted to this environment?
Yeah — in ZKM in Karlsruhe! I’ve got this quite long-running installation at the moment called ‘Infinite Yield’, that I’ve been working on for a while. It was set up in Strasbourg, in this old toll both — which I quite liked the idea of. It’s a really old 19th-century building — it was a public toilet at one point! — [but] now it’s a mini-gallery. The installation takes real-time stock market data, which then sets off various musical events; there’s video to it, too, of various clips of guys working in the City during the 2008 financial crash, clearing out their desks. Or a documentary explaining to kids to how invest money. Very absurd financial videos like that.
The sound aspect of it is 100% recordings of coins: coins that are hit, and stretched out, so it sounds like a bell — very spectral interactions that reference the ringing of the bell at the start of the end of the day at the stock market — and then also real-time granular synthesis. So that was all set up. It was on 24 hours a day, real-time, streaming from the stock market. I like to work on generative aspects; and it’s a nice scope to be more overtly political in my work, which I quite appreciate.
Is being politically or socially conscious in your work something you’re looking to develop in the future?
As musicians, I don’t think it’s possible to not be political. We’re so at the mercy of politics, really. Because it’s always been like this — composers work being maintained by kings, queens, nobles et cetera — and now it’s art funds, and governments, and patrons.
At the point that you depend on your music, and the independence of the art you produce is dependent on politics. Real art can only really be dependent on real funding, or economic independence. It’s a complete privilege to say you’re not political.
Finbar Hosie and collective lovemusic are currently preparing for a tour of the US – you can catch them at the following dates:
- 16 April 2023, 7pm – Dixon Concert Hall, New Orleans, LA
- 22 April 2023, 2pm – Slosberg Recital Hall, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
- 29 April 2023, 8pm – Paine Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Check out more about Finbar and his practice at:
- Frederic Rzewski – ‘Coming Together’ (1971)
- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)
- Morton Feldman, “the tragedy of music…”, quoted in a May 1976 interview, published in Studio International (November 1976) pp 244-248.
- Sasha Blondeau – ‘Sortir du noir’ (2016)
- Alban Berg – Wozzeck (1925)
- Pierre Jodlowski – ‘Time and Money’ (2004-06)