Hurricane Zoo is a darkly comic new opera with text by Hunter S Thompson. Encapsulating the zeitgeist of the 60's counterculture, Thompson's alter ego, Duke, uses a mescaline trip to rage against the failed promises of the American Dream. The opera will be premiered in 2018, with experimental performances in London in 2017.

Text: Hunter S Thompson, Music: Benjamin Tassie, Film: Michal Babinec, Soprano: Donna Lennard, Flutes: Laura Beardsmore, Viola da gama: Liam Byrne.

Photographs from RADA solo set 19.11.2016 by Carla Rees

Music video for body [four] by Shiny

Third music written for the sampler

the scene

I argue that we need a new art-music. It has long been publicised (long been bemoaned) that classical, and contemporary-classical, music is in its death throes. Alex Ross calls it the ‘vanishing from the radar screen of mainstream culture’ - concert attendance is down, the parlour is deep. And yet this lamentation is coupled with a response: the notably London-centric scene disseminating art-music in non-traditional spaces (groups like NonclassicalMulti-storey, and LCMF). There persists a hunger for challenging music, just not in fusty concert halls, to polite applause. A look at the pop world compounds this: in popular music there is an increasing trend for progressive timbres, forms, and collaborations, with musicians such as Arca, Sophie or The Knife typifying this shift. Indeed, much has been written about the way in which ‘fringe sounds’ are increasingly commonplace in pop (in this Dazed article from earlier in the year, for example). Inquisitiveness and progressiveness, then, remain fervent staples of the new generation, however the world in which these characteristics exist has moved on. The new world is digital, it is gratifying with an immediacy not before known, and traditional means of disseminating art-music (if not the music itself) are outmoded within it.

As a cartographer, then, surveying the current landscape, we notice two trends: pop is getting weirder, and those seeking their art-music fix are emancipated from the confines of the concert hall.

photo credit: Dimitri Djuric, from We Break Strings

photo credit: Dimitri Djuric, from We Break Strings

the problem

What interests me, compositionally, lies beyond these trends: not a pop-music utilising peculiar sounds, nor an ‘old’ art-music presented in a new setting, but rather the potential for an aesthetic beyond either - a ‘third music’ exploiting the complexities of this nuanced new world. Current paradigms are inherently problematic. The tendency in the classical world is to displace, wholesale, art-music into pop spaces. Chris Mayo, in We Break Strings, describes it as, ’giving a non-classical audience their classical roughage for their diet’. Similarly, in pop the paradigm is to borrow something of the ‘otherness’ of art-music in a pop setting. Think of Cage’s prepared piano sounds in Aphex Twin’s Drukqs, for example. Whilst displacement certainly restores something of the latent ‘alternative-ness’ (the oddities) of contemporary-classical music, the fact remains that we are listening to classical music as pop music. Similarly, in pop, the ‘other’ is necessarily sublimated by being transplanted into an existent world. I argue there is the potential to go beyond this: to make a liberated ‘third music’ in a landscape beyond historic divisions of genre.

defining a new aesthetic

The ‘third music’ is necessary, inevitable. In Gabriel Prokofiev’s 2014 Radio 4 programme, ‘Who Killed Classical Music?’, Ivan Hewett argues, ‘perhaps [this new classical scene] is going to lead to a different kind of pop music’. In other words, that an emergent scene within one world will necessitate an aesthetic beyond the ‘other’ from which it borrows. Working within a new cultural architecture, with high-art and popular-art no longer mutually exclusive, new-music should utilise both the unflinching rigour of art-music, and the corporeal immediacy of pop, transcending either: think, Xenakis with a Macbook.

This new aesthetic must remain uncompromising, certainly: steadfast in what Thom Andrewes calls, ‘that palpable proximity to the horrifying world of crossover classical banality’. Similarly, Igor Toronyi-Lalic argues, ‘you don’t have to dumb down the message. It’s actually the most challenging stuff that works the best’. Insofar as the pop context de-neutralises that which otherwise sits cloistered in the university or recital room (with its associated hierarchies), the music’s challenging aesthetic is heightened in a pop setting - ‘divorced from all the academic stuff – you look at it on its own terms and it’s so strange.’ This should be exploited. Whereas the current paradigm for presenting an historic canon in a pop setting accepts a compromise – the music gains in immediacy, however loses some of its subtleties – the aesthetic of the ‘third music’ should be for this new means of consumption. It should utilise its complexities.

photo credit: Dimitri Djuric, from We Break Strings

photo credit: Dimitri Djuric, from We Break Strings


Really, then, the ‘third music’ represents a shift in the ideology around new music. As Thom Service said in his 2010 Sound Lecture, ‘new music is really an ideological conceit, one that’s concerned with a perceived relationship between musical material and social or political situation’. Art-music is not dead. Rather the rigid ideology around it (as a music that ‘resists one side of society – the commercial, the populist, the meretricious, the false’) is dead. The paradigm of consumption is shifting, and with it generic boundaries are being dismantled. Pop is the new art-music. Space and presentation, more than ever, inform our reception of a work. There must be a new aesthetic to suit this new landscape. This is what I aim for in my music,

the anatomy of melancholy

podcast for Sound and Music

Composer Benjamin Tassie, dancer Luke Ahmet (Rambert Dance) and Liam Byrne (viola da gamba) talk to Sound and Music about their collaboration, Body ahead of its premiere at Wilton's Music Hall and Wilderness Festival 2015.

spheres interview

What appealed to you about working with film / music?

A picture doesn’t say a thousand words. That’s nonsense. Music doesn’t saymuch either. They keep their mouths shut. They do both suggest things, though – we can infer from them, they instil a sense of something, an atmosphere. They don’t instruct, they can’t be precise, they lack the requisite language for specificity. That’s what appeals to me: there’s space in there. Space to manipulate, to lead this way or that without precisely saying ‘this is the way, follow me’. That’s not to say image and music lack narrative, that they lack content – just that they go about communicating that content differently. It’s the difference between the word ‘sad’ and a sad melody, or a melancholic image. The latter are all the more effective for being indirect in their directness; for being, not saying, what they mean. Music and image make us feel something – they don’t ask. Combined, then, music and film (specifically abstract film) ought to be the manipulator par-excellence the ur-instiller. This appeals to me: saying without saying.

What approach have you taken to this collaboration?

I had a finished film to work with. Natan Rifkin (my collaborator) had a completed four minutes when I came to write the music. This was entirely liberating. The work, as I saw it, had been done – all that was left was translation; translation from the image into music. Feet up, then. Time for a cup of tea… There’s responsibility with asymmetry, though. The need for sensitivity and an understanding of what is already being said. I’ve tried to be sensitive throghout: I think Natan’s film is delicious, that it’s clear and evocative, and so I’ve tried to write music equally delectable, suitably sensual. For me the most important aspect of the collaboration is that the film and music need absolutely to work as one, to be two parts of the same thing. I think we’ve done that pretty well.

How has working with film / music shaped your creative output?

The film dictated almost every aspect of the music; the shape, the colour, the durations, the sound-world. In that sense it gave me a framework within which I could construct the music. The most obvious example is that the film’s various cuts and changes of place or image necessitated a change in musical content. To this end I planned the various sectional durations and began writing music to fill them. In terms of colour too, in terms of a general atmosphere, the film dictated the manner in which I worked. Because the film is about night, about electricity, about the urban, so too my music needed to be urban, to suggest the nocturnal. The film is at times fragile, delicate, and so in my music I use a deep electronic bass, a distinctly urban, modern, electro-acoustic palate, contrasted with delicate interwoven melodies, with soft instrumental colours. The film, then, was the mould into which I could pour my music. It happened to suit the type of music I write (that’s why I chose it), and as such it legitimised the use of these sounds – it lent them necessity.

What do you feel your project is trying to communicate? 

Natan’s film is sultry. It’s abstract, to do with colour, shape, layers of image. I suppose really it’s about night; specifically night in a city. It’s about movement too, about journeys, about time passing, about nightfall as transition - in particular, it suggests to me a step through the looking-glass: people, places, things half-seen. There’s a host of latent narrative there. Nothing really happens in the film: it’s to do with place and time, to do with the feel of things. My music, then, tries to communicate something of the heft suggested by these images – tries to push one’s mind in a direction. I wanted to suggest the giving over of oneself to sensation, to night’s pleasures, to the feel of it, the weight of the night air; to communicate the city, this idea of the organic in the urban. I think, basically, it’s all about the moment, and in particular that moment at night when you’re alone, and when you see something quite beautiful. 

SCHWUH-EEET for Tetractys Publishing

Before beginning the piece I had been thinking a lot about the bodily, about how we relate to sound.

I had been thinking about the strangeness of our concert tradition, also; the sitting still, the predominance of historic timbres, how at odds it is with contemporary culture. How crystalline things have grown; how set. The Knife say, ‘Everybody is always desiring already imagined things’.

I wanted to go beyond these categorisations, to go beyond the existent. Moreover, I wanted to bring an element of the bodily, the visceral, into the concert hall; to make something entirely new (something beyond existing divisions of genre). I wanted to play upon these dichotomies, this strangeness. Dance music seemed an obvious starting point, conceptually. 

In movement, in the club (in bedrooms) we have grown free; in art-music there’s such control. Dance music therefore offered a space wherein the bodily could be explored through sound, a space in which things might be freer. There’s a connection here to the historical also; to playing on the historic predominance of formality, heightened when juxtaposed with this present dichotomy. This seemed interesting: the dance music of the past, so formal, set against that of today, so free, and in the concert hall, again so formal. 

And so, to use the dance music of the baroque, to reframe it, to bring in elements of electro-pop, to use timbres at once familiar and unfamiliar, ideas from different worlds within the same world – that seemed like a funny sort of thing to do. There’s a dialogue here, friction: the corporeal meets the intellectual, the progressive sits with the conservative. In music we can have these conversations. 

This is not borrowing. One world is not supplanted in another, rather they sit within an entirely new architecture; jostling. That is what I mean by the work. That it attempts to charter a new landscape, one beyond contemporary-classical or electro-pop formalities; that it utilises dance music to explore the bodily within the intellectual; that it is a work of contradiction, energy. Mostly, though, I hope it is a work which is fun – that the hedonism, the corporeality, of dance music might meet the inventiveness of art-music, and that it might do this in an entirely new sort of landscape.

SCHWUH-EEET is available through Tetractys Publishing []