“I’m interested in pursuing things to their logical ends, to the furthest you can push a concept, or idea.”Marcus Rock
Marcus Rock is a British composer based between London and Birmingham. With a background in film-making, Marcus started pursuing composition seriously in 2018. Marcus’s compositional output concerns the exploration of the similarities and differences between internal and external processes; he is currently a Britten-Pears Young Artist 2022-23 and a London Symphony Orchestra Panufnik Composer of 2023-24, as well as alumnus of Cheltenham Composer Academy 2021 and 2022, and has worked with ensembles such as Quatuor Bozzini, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Fidelio Trio, Rowland Sutherland, players of Chineke! Orchestra, and Fenella Humphreys and Mahan Esfahani, among others. Marcus studies at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with Seán Clancy, Andrew Hamilton, and Edwin Roxburgh, and was previously tutored by Colin Matthews and Mark-Anthony Turnage facilitated by Britten Pears Arts.
Marcus splits his time between Birmingham and south-west London — where we caught up over drinks and discussed a manner of things including his unique internal and external compositional categorisations, synesthesia, active listening, and working alongside George Lewis…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Marcus, thanks for joining me today! Tell me about how you became a composer — I understand your background was initially in film?
Marcus Rock: I did film for one year in Cheltenham [University of Gloucestershire]. Before that, I studied film at college; before college, I did Sixth Form, before Sixth Form, I did school. I ended up putting about seven years into subjects I’m not even interested in now, but it allowed me to get to where I am.
I liked film, I was interested in film, but by the time I was in my first year, I realised that in order to succeed in film, I had to rely on a team of people — editors, sound people — and everything had to be perfect. I was doing writing and directing, and I had a feeling that as a first year, a lot of people were more interested in having a good time. I couldn’t exercise the level of control at that stage that I thought was necessary. So I thought “what’s the one thing I can have complete control over?” — and that’s composition. Everyone has those experiences in life where they make decisions, so that was one of the things that happened.
Was there any moment that made you interested in composition, in particular?
The element of perfect communication. It was knowing that you could write something down, and somebody would look at that… I always imagine this idea of somebody writing a dot on a piece of paper — just a circle — and someone else pointing to it and asking “what is that?” I know it sounds quite stupid, but it’s something I think about all the time — simplicity — I find that present in music notation. And in the field of composition, [that] somebody writes the music and somebody plays the music… it’s simple, and it works.
I get that — do you feel that simplicity gets lost in the medium of film?
This idea of auteurship in film is completely a lie. It’s impossible to be an auteur in film, because there’s so many moving parts — there’s so many decisions that have to be made that a director can’t make — of course, there’s a vision, but it’s a shared vision. A film is collaborative. Music is also collaborative, but the line of accuracy is much higher with music. There’s a definitive way that music can go.
There is always room for interpretation in performance, but that doesn’t change how the instructions are laid out.
Yeah. The notes, the pitches, the rhythms, the tempo… you know what should you expect to hear. Edwin Roxburgh was telling me that “the notation is the interpretation” — and I never understood that, and I still don’t completely understand it. But I’m getting closer to that way of thinking — that we create the interpretation, and the musicians express [it] through that. You know, there’s various ways to play a triple fff; it can be bow speed, it can be intensity, aggression… Each instrumentalist has to find a way to interpret what’s on the page.
Going on from there — how did you then get involved with composition?
I had to drop out of university before being accepted to conservatoire, because of how the timelines worked. I spent a solid year teaching myself notation. I had some lessons in theory, I worked quite hard, I wrote submission pieces for conservatoires — they were not good pieces… -laughs- But I wrote them quickly so I could submit for auditions. Luckily, I had a few offers, and I chose Birmingham. They offered me a scholarship, they supported me. I like Seán Clancy very much. There was that feeling there that I really liked, so I chose them.
I always commend people who are initially self-taught composers; it’s such a hard discipline to get into.
It requires a certain level of dedication. No-one’s telling you to do it, no-one’s forcing you to do it. So you have a different kind of respect for it, because you haven’t been doing it for that long. You’re the one making you do it, so you set yourself standards, and then you get used to that.
How do you feel the environment in Birmingham has shaped your work?
It’s shaped it, mainly, through my interactions with Seán and Edwin. In some ways, they’re diametrically opposed; but in other ways, they’re similar in that they’re very committed. You can place them. I like to look at their work, take elements from what they say to me, and incorporate it and explore it in my own work. But I’ve always had a clear sense of what I wanted to do: write the best music and hear it.
Most people think that the perfect music is a balance between intellect and emotion. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pursuing things to their logical ends, to the furthest you can push a concept, or idea. By doing that — by splitting these things up — it gives me a focal point into the work. But the most important thing is providing an intra-textual context to my work. Most modern composers don’t do [this], and it’s very hard to get into the work, to understand the context of the work. [Many] people have one or two names for a piece — you see the name, and listen to the piece, and there might be a correlation between the piece and the piece’s name. But when you might check out some other works, it’s not very easy to gather a context on how the composer views their work.
So the first thing for these phenomenological categories is giving an intra-textual context to my work. Everything else is secondary to that. And [as] I continue to write, there will be a network of pieces that are all interconnected, through these lenses. That way, if anyone is interested, there’s a map to the work. It doesn’t mean you have to understand the map to understand the work — but if it is necessary for a listener to look into it, there is a reason behind it. That is why I did it.
Quite similarly to how people make “maps” of albums in niche subgenres. -laughs-
Yeah. The different categories allow me to explore different things, or the same thing from a different angle. Starting from nothing, it’s good to know what you’re trying to achieve. And these categories — internal and external — [are] both very specific, but very broad. Any piece that anyone writes can be placed into one of these categories, whether it’s programmatic [or] absolute, whether the composer’s focusing more on manipulating certain parameters or trying to express an emotional thing. For me, it helps a lot to anchor what I’m doing.
Let’s explore that a bit more — tell me what you mean by “internal” work, both aesthetically and conceptually…
[With] internal experiences — when we talk about phenomena and how we sense things — there’s an intellectual thinking process, and there’s a feeling process. The emotional process of [how] feelings arise is completely different to how thoughts arise.
Thoughts are usually dealing with the past or future; unless you’re meditating, or you’re literally sat there thinking “I am thinking right now”, your thoughts are referential to what [you] just did, or are about to do. Whereas emotions are really only ever present — you feel them right now. You can study (or you can be aware of) the way that those emotions arise, where you feel them in the body, and the nature of them — and with thoughts, you can look into them a bit more — and they [do] combine, but when you think about it, there are differences. A lot of people disagree with me on that, and that’s fine. -laughs- A lot of people say that they’re the same thing, but for me, when I look into how I experience the world around me, they are quite different processes.
When you write a piece that it’s in this “internal” world, how do these concepts translate into the aesthetics of the piece, or the compositional process?
For emotions, it’s completely intuitive. I don’t have a clear idea of where I’m going. I might have an emotional feeling, or an impulse to just write what I want. I go about writing the piece in that way, and the structure is a result of that process. A lot of people say that there’s no structure if you don’t think about it, but the structure is resultant; it’s an emergent reaction to that intuition. I kind of discover the work while I’m writing it.
With thoughts, there’s different categories within that: there’s concept-based, [where] I have an idea I want to map onto a piece; but there’s also processes of ideation and audiation, the internal musical perception. I’m a synesthete, so I have a sensory relationship and stimuli to sounds. There are times when I have flashes of something that I then look into, and I continue to explore. It just depends on what the stimuli is, what I want to do with it, and what that means in the context of the piece.
In contrast to that — what does “external” mean for you?
“External” is more to do with events, more to do with certain parts of my life — or certain parts of anyone else’s life — with a story or feeling that combines emotions and thoughts. Because that’s how we live, that’s how we experience the real world. There’s more linearity to these things. It’s a way for me to combine elements of thoughts and emotions. With internal experiences, it’s very hard to track the temporality of these things. It’s hard to track how long an emotion lasts; when you have a memory, that memory is corrected in some way every time you revisit it. With these extrinsic episodes, there’s more of a solidity with certain aspects of how I’m treating the music, which I think is more grounded.
As you’re developing a piece from these base concepts — how do these ideas manifest themselves?
I never allow the context to shape the style of music I write, I feel like that is always going to be emergent. I might want to explore certain timbral characteristics, or extended techniques, in a chamber of thought piece; because they might represent a certain concept. Whereas with the emotional side, I use all the capabilities I know to express something. So it’s like I go the reverse: I [either] use something to express something else, or I use that thing to explore what that thing is. It depends [on] how true I am to the concept.
In my string trio, ‘Transient Frameworks’ [ed. for the Clements Prize for Composers 2021], it’s all about different textural characteristics, different landscapes shifting between each other. For that piece, I had to stay true to the concept. Whereas with emotion pieces, there’s nothing I’m staying “true” to; it’s just a constant exploration, a constant journey.
There’s something very interesting you said during the Cheltenham Composer Academy Composium last year, about your piece ‘Melody II’ — that you wanted to detach concept and write intuitively. How does that process fit in?
It’s focusing on melody. The good old stuff. What I hear, and what I feel. And it simplifies down to just those two parameters. There’s no intellectual [baggage], there’s no needing to prove I’m a good composer, there’s none of that. It’s just melody. I have three of them — my most recent piece for #birminghamnewmusic also had a focus on melody. So, looking away from these processes, and just writing. Not feeling like I have to prove anything, because hopefully I prove things in other categories.
“[I] might hear a line, or texture, and the more I become aware of that, the more I look into that. I constantly go over and over on that idea, and magnify it; and that’s where I extract the orchestration from.” ~ Marcus RockTweet
Tell me about the larger-scale work you’ve done with Thallein Ensemble and Britten Pears Arts. How do you reckon these ideas with orchestration?
So far, the larger stuff I’ve [written] has come more from the chamber of thought — these processes of ideation and audiation. I’ve been really interested in this idea of sound images, and transcribing sound images. When I was looking deeper into “how do I come up with ideas, where do these ideas come from”… [I] might hear a line, or texture, and the more I become aware of that, the more I look into that. I constantly go over and over on that idea, and magnify it; and that’s where I extract the orchestration from.
With this recent Britten Pears commission — the piece that’s being played in June — it’s the first time that I’ve had more than a month to write a piece. And so because of that, I’ve been hesitant, and purposely not sketched anything. The sketching process is all being done in my head: I come up with an idea, I hear the idea, and I don’t write it down — which forces me to fixate on what that idea is, and to bring it more into focus before writing it down. In this way, I might see or hear a sound or texture, and it’s less a “melody” — but [rather] these short transfixions of textural activity, that I then have to capture in my mind, or my ear, and bring down onto paper. And by doing that, I find that the result is much more interesting. This is what I was doing [at] Britten Pears: I was hearing things, and just writing what I heard.
Do you feel like the act of active listening shifts your compositional process?
Perhaps I wasn’t listening very much before. But this process is gonna lead me to something that I find much more interesting — where the sounds are really something that you can see. There’s a clarity of orchestration; you can pinpoint every single sound, everything can be heard in a texture. You can see a vertical alignment of fifteen or sixteen players, and each player is a soloist. That is what I’m obsessed with at the moment.
Do you feel that people need to understand your internal and external processes to truly “understand” your music?
People seem to have a misconception that they need to understand this in order to enjoy the music. For me, it’s a way of generating material, and that’s it. When I hear other peoples’ music, I have my own internal perceptions based on my own individual neural network. Everyone perceives music differently, and that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to understand any of what I do to enjoy what I do, and I don’t feel like I need to see purple in Messiaen’s music to enjoy it. I enjoy various different kinds of music for my own reasons.
Of course. I also didn’t realise you were a synesthete until today. -laughs-
Yeah, yeah. It isn’t strict: there are colours and there are textures, but I might get a different reaction to the same thing. It’s not like “C is green”, or whatever; it’s very much contextual. Apparently, Liszt was synesthetic; people think Debussy was. Scriabin definitely had something going on. -laughs- A lot of people probably are, but they don’t attach anything to that.
Tell me more about the piece you wrote for Thallein Ensemble — I understand it’s inspired by the work of George Lewis?
We were asked to focus in on his work for the concert, because it was [for] his Honorary Doctorate. I looked into some of the processes in his music, the commonalities — and I found [that] this stream-of-consciousness improvisatory form, this self-referential form, would be perfect for this idea of streams. The piece I came up with was ‘Latent Streams’. Different musical influences would present themselves of their own accord; they were more of a subconscious examining of the musical consciousness. In that way, it still fits into my outlook, but it also relates to George’s music; he has similar things going on in his own way. The process was quite intuitive with that piece. An amalgamation of everything; multiple things interacting with each other.
From what you’ve been doing with all of these forms — how do you see the progression of your work developing in the future?
I want to create a neural network of experience that can be mapped; that there is depth to, each piece there’s a context to. I also want to go into improvisatory, performative stuff — but I want to prove my worth in this field before going out and doing all of that. I want to really nail down this notation, this “serious composer” thing, before I start going on stage and being wacky. That’s a completely different side of my personality that isn’t really explored. I’m mostly introverted; it’s hard to catch me in a group. -laughs- But there is that side there, that I’d like to look into at some point.
That’s fascinating — I didn’t know you were into improvising.
I’ve been doing some freely notated pieces called ‘Death Drives’ — a series — which deal with minimalist, repetitive structures. I have a piece out for two pianos, [and] a piece for two vibraphones. The notation is really quite different to the specificity and accuracy I look for in my other; some durational stuff, some aleatoric stuff. So I want to branch out a bit, diversify — but before I do that fully, I want to continue with this network of pieces that are little shapes, little universes that relate to each other intra-textually.
Do you, or have you, done much performance or free improv?
No, I don’t. I performed once in Wigan when I was 17. We had a piano in the house, and I remember thinking “I should see where I’m at”, and see if music was a thing I was interested in. This is actually what pushed me away from music… I sent some recordings, and they accepted me. I had ten minutes to play; and for five of those minutes I decided to improvise, and for the next five I composed a piece — but I composed the piece not [with] notation, but through constant repetition I’d learned.
I did the concert, and it went well, but I didn’t like the reaction; I didn’t like everyone’s eyes on me. There’s an intensity in performance where everyone’s watching you. And after the concert, when people were congratulating me saying “well done”… I didn’t like that awkward feeling. It drove me away from music for four or five years, and I went off into film.
Since that point, I’ve not been on stage, I’ve not performed at all. But maybe performing in an interdisciplinary way — being on stage with a microphone, talking to musicians in that way — is more of an in-point than me, sitting at a piano, banging out some notes.
Marcus’ work can be found at the links below:
Learn more about how Marcus categorises his compositions:
- US composer and electronic music pioneer recognised with top university award, Birmingham City University (2022)