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Morphogenesis Interview

Morphogenesis: the creation or evolution of form or structure. A very apt name for this group. Usually employing only pure improvisation to create their music, Morphogenesis in some ways exemplify the improvising ethic. The parameters that limit what music will be produced consist only of the obvious: who the players are, and what instruments they use. Sometimes they will set out with other limitations in mind, such as a planned length for a recording or performance, and more recently they have experimented with editing, layering separately recorded tracks on top of each other to see what results.

But for the most part, the ethic remains the same. The music evolves of its own accord, rather than following a pre-composed route. It's impossible to tell how it will progress or where it will end, as it depends every time on the unpredictable interactions of all the participants. Even when planned durations are set, the demands of the ongoing music may well conspire to force an ending earlier or later than planned. Like other improvised music, Morphogenesis' creations have as much potential for going wrong as going right - this element of the unknown, of risk, is one of the attractions for the musicians, as well as for an audience who are willing to see the process as being as important as the results.

In this spirit, I haven't edited the interview transcript very much, and I've left it free of comment. Like Morphogenesis' music, this improvised discussion can be allowed to speak for itself.

EST: Can you tell me how Morphogenesis started and what you were all doing before?

Michael Prime: I'd been doing tape pieces, which were experiments more than finished pieces, just teaching myself basic techniques really. I'd been wanting for a long time to play improvised music and the opportunity arose through attending a course which Roger gave at City University, called "The New Music: Webern and After", which brought several of us together. The course wasn't orientated towards playing, it was a course in critical appreciation.

Roger Sutherland: The course went on ad infinitum. It was originally a ten week course, one evening a week, going from Webern, Varese, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, and so on, examining their major works and discussing their philosophies. But these guys just wouldn't go away. They came on the next run of the course the following term, exactly the same course, and apparently had this insatiable desire to hear more and more experimental music. So then we had the idea of meeting regularly to listen to practically everything from my record collection. It was Ron Briefel's idea to start doing live electronic improvisations. He worked as a sound engineer and had access to a studio where there was lots of equipment available.

Michael: But the first piece we actually did had a score. It was a version of Cage's piece for radios.

Roger: That was Imaginary Landscape 4 ...

Michael: But it was virtually impossible to get the score, so we decided to make a score of our own that would serve the same function. I'd been into short wave radio for a long time and had a manual which had tables of radio frequencies, and we devised a score based on these random number tables. The result was so detailed that it was practically impossible to perform accurately, but it did help to control the interaction and the spacing of the sounds.

Roger: We did two versions of that. One that was based on random numbers that was highly controlled because the timing, duration and wavelength of every sound was specified, even the lengths of the silences. Then we did a free version for radios that was complete chaos, and that demonstrated to us the importance of discipline.

Michael: There were actually eight of us doing that piece. There were two or three people who didn't become part of Morphogenesis.

Adam Bohman: I wasn't actually on the course but I'd met Roger about two years earlier at a Xenakis concert. Then I met him again at an Alvin Lucier concert at the I.C.A. He invited me round to listen to some of his records. I wasn't in Morphogenesis at the beginning but I was starting to experiment with prepared and modified instruments. I'd also been on an improvising workshop at the Cockpit Theatre and also Phil Wachsmann's course at City Lit. so I was already involved in improvisation to some extent.

Clive Graham: I didn't play in a Morphogenesis session until 1990. Previous to that I hadn't played in any group, I'd just been seriously interested in listening to all kinds of experimental music. I did work with Steve Stapleton on a couple of the Nurse With Wound LPs. I discovered Morphogenesis through meeting Roger at a La Monte Young concert in 1989, and then doing his course and then eventually joining the group about a year later.

Clive Hall: A few centuries ago I used to do things like classical music on piano and organ but I gave it all up. Then about twenty years later I started dabbling with synthesisers and going to concerts. I also went to Phil Wachsmann's evening course. Then I heard about Roger's course. After Morphogenesis had been going for about a year we started doing sessions at my house, because I had a lot of recording equipment, so it seemed like a good idea to use my place as a recording studio.

Roger: I was in the Scratch Orchestra from the time I first came to London in 1969. Then I became very disillusioned with music generally after the break-up of the orchestra, which was around 1972. I had a brief involvement with an improvisation class based at the Cockpit Theatre, and I wrote a number of indeterminate scores that were performed in a series of concerts. But after that I more or less decided that the future of music was doomed because the Scratch Orchestra had fallen apart, Musica Elettronica Viva broke up, Gentle Fire broke up, and A M M effectively cease to exist apart from a duet between Eddie and Lou. The whole of experimental music went into a state of suspended animation during that period. The last straw I think was when Stockhausen stopped doing improvisation and started using conventional notation again, which he did in Mantra. I remember seeing the premiere of that piece, and found it very depressing, after all the experiments in improvisation, seeing the two pianists perform this meticulously written score. After that I had no real engagement with music making of any kind, although I did continue listening to music. Then in 1984 I started the "New Music" course. At that time I had no idea that the course would generate a group of improvising musicians, that wasn't the intention at all.

EST: How much has the constitution of the group changed?

Roger: We're still mostly the original hard core, apart from Clive Graham joining and Fred Sansom leaving a couple of years ago.

EST: How much has your approach changed over the past five years?

Roger: Quite a lot, really. In the early days we did completely open-ended improvisations that went on for two hours. Some of these pieces had a very decisive shape, but we were basically just exploring lots of different ideas. And then we started working in restricted durations.

Clive H: At first we did this mainly for ourselves. But we recorded everything so we could evaluate the results.

EST: How did the concerts get started?

Michael: Well, actually the first piece of pure improvisation we did was at a concert. We were asked to take part in the West Square Electroacoustic Festival, which Barry Anderson organised, in the Summer of '85, and we did set pieces, like the radio piece, and Wolff's Stones, but we found ourselves having to improvise to fill up the rest of the time.

EST: Have you stopped using scores?

Michael: Not entirely. There's actually a track on the LP which is a version of a Stockhausen piece, but it's not credited because we had problems with copyright, so it's just presented as an improvised piece.

Clive G: I've never played with Morphogenesis doing a score.

Michael: Yes, you have.

Clive G: Which one?

Roger: We used a score at the Colchester gig.

Clive G: That was a very sketchy scenario.

Roger: It told people what to play when.

Adam: That is a score.

Clive G: But we haven't done someone else's classical score.

Michael: That was more of a score than the Stockhausen piece. That's just a collection of poetic phrases meant to stimulate the players.

Roger: This actually had time sections. It told players when to start and when to drop out.

Clive H: And even if we're not using a score we sometimes agree on the overall shape of a performance and follow that quite strictly. We might arrange to build to a climax and then have a quiet section with just two people playing.

Michael: But I think we've stuck with an improvising ethic because without a score you can make discoveries because of the uncontrolled things that develop.

Clive H: Also I think that improvisation can generate structures which are far more complex and unusual than anything I would be able to imagine or write down. Even if I was prepared to write it down and work on it for weeks in the studio with multi-tracking and so on the result wouldn't be as interesting.

Adam: That's right. I remember a few years ago I was playing at Phil Wachsmann's evening class. I was doing a solo piece on the prepared violin and I'd put some material on reel to reel tape as an accompaniment. The tape was all set up and I was ready to play and I had a score specifying what I'd do in each section, even the specific preparations I'd use on the strings, but then suddenly when the tape was switched on I realised something was wrong. It was half the speed it should have been. Things that should have lasted for ten minutes went on for twenty. This forced me into a situation where I had to improvise. I couldn't use the score because all the timings had been thrown out of sync.

Clive H: The thing about scores though is that we don't do it often enough to get good at it. On some occasions we have started following a score but then it seems to fall apart and the performance seems to be worth developing in a different way to the one specified in the score.

Roger: I think it's because we've become accustomed to working directly with sounds that we're experimenting with and sometimes you make timbral and other discoveries that don't fit within the score but seem to be worth exploring and so you just go with them.

EST: How unpredictable is it when you improvise? How often do you find the music settling into familiar patterns?

Michael: I think we manage to avoid that most of the time because most of us are still continually expanding our range of sounds and techniques. I still play the water machine which I developed in the first year of Morphogenesis but it sounds completely different now.

EST: What exactly is it?

Michael: Well, it's basically the kind of air pump that's used on fish tanks to which I've attached various lengths of plastic tubing and valves to produce bubbles in small containers which are then amplified with contact microphones and processed electronically. So you can control the sound directly through controlling the valve and the amount of air flow, and indirectly through the processing.

Roger: Michael's doing a lot with these sounds - filtering, ring modulation, and so on. The sounds are analysed down into more limited harmonic ranges or given harmonic enhancement through ring modulation so the sounds take on a metallic coloration. Also, reverb can alter the sound quite dramatically.

Michael: I think there's always been a prejudice in the group against using purely electronic sound. We prefer to use acoustic sound because of its richer harmonic content.

EST: How do you use ambient sound?

Michael: That started from my use of remote controlled radio microphones which you can stick on a wall or roof outside the venue and it was quite curious to start bringing in sounds from outside the concert hall. When we played the Royal Festival Hall foyer, I had a microphone just outside the entrance so as people were just coming in they'd be surprised to hear snatches of their own amplified conversation.

Roger: Also traffic noise, if it's filtered, takes on a very strange quality. It sounds more like the surge of the ocean, because you've filtered out a whole range of information.

EST: One of the things I've noticed about your music is that there's no didactic content, it doesn't appear to be trying to communicate anything. How do you feel about that?

Michael: I don't agree. I think it's all about communication. It's a language that uses sounds instead of words.

Clive H: I don't feel that way about it. I just feel it's a period of sounds evolving in an interesting way. But I don't feel communicated to by any music. It's just an abstract thing, and if I'm playing I'm not trying to communicate something, I'm just trying to shape this particular sound in a satisfying way.

Michael: I think that music that has one fixed meaning necessarily has a limited potential for listening.

Clive G: I'm not really interested in music having some kind of a "message".

Roger: I think we're mainly interested in music as a means of enlarging perception.

Michael: But that in itself is a form of communication.

Clive H: So the answer is, it all depends on what you mean by communication.

Roger: Well, it's not the normal kind of musical communication, because musical communication throughout history has transmitted itself through well defined structural forms, like symphonic form, sonata form, the concerto, and so on.

Clive H: And some people might be prepared to say that some music is happy or sad, and there might be a connection there with intonation in language, but I think that's just based on conventions which apply at the time, conventions which relate to harmony for example, so if you hear a particular sequence of chords in the Eroica you think in terms of Napoleon's victory. But if you're working in a new idiom which doesn't have these conventions attached to it then those emotional associations don't apply.

Roger: But there's a lot of feeling in our music, I think, a lot of angst and existential gloom. Some pieces have a rather catastrophic feeling, like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

Clive G: That's just to do with the kind of sounds we like ...

Roger: Yes, it comes out of stylistic influences - Xenakis, Varese, people like that, whose music is very doom-laden.

EST: How do you achieve a balance between discovering new sounds and maintaining some kind of stylistic continuity?

Roger: I don't think there's a problem there because there is a fairly stabilised instrumentation which produces a particular range of timbres. We always have gongs or cymbals, amplified violin, and Clive's amplified springs. The variable aspect is Mike's instrumentation, which is water, radio or biofeedback. But I usually know what range of effects to expect from other players, it's not totally unpredictable.

Clive H: But sometimes you suggest swapping instruments.

Roger: Yes, I do that to shake things out of gear. Sometimes that can be interesting because if I play Adam's instruments I play them in a completely different way. I play his instruments in the way I'd like him to play them, and conversely perhaps. He makes a lot more friction sounds with percussion instruments than me and cuts off the resonance of sounds whereas I like sounds to have a long decay. But I usually have a good idea of the stylistic range someone is into.

EST: How selective are you about what gets released?

Adam: I think we go in for a lot of self-criticism. If we genuinely agree that something's not very successful then obviously we won't put it on a cassette for release. I think that's one of the really positive things about the group because I get the feeling that in the experimental field, there's not really enough self-criticism. They're prepared to release album after album of very repetitive material. We do tend to reject things.

EST: The only argument I've heard against that selectivity is that by releasing a lot more material you're demystifying the musical process, whereas you're only releasing your most polished material.

Clive H: But why put out recordings of material you think isn't very good when there's probably too much recorded music already? You put out material that you think it would be worthwhile someone listening to.

Clive G: Yes, why all this emphasis on lots and lots of product?

EST: But you said that you're not reaching many people.

Roger: We don't know how many people we're reaching. How do you quantify that? Concert attendances can vary between 10 and 100 people.

Michael: I think one of the difficulties of reaching many people is that of getting air play on the radio. The situation in this country is so dreadful. We've only been played by one station in this country, which is a pirate station in Bristol. Our chances of appearing on Radio 3 are negligible. Whereas we have been played in Germany, Canada, America ...

Adam: New York, Boston ...

EST: Is this because there's a proliferation of independent stations over there?

Roger: Yes, there are stations which specialise in experimental music.

Adam: We've also been on KCR and WZBC, which is in Boston, and I think we've also been broadcast in Idaho, which is not very prestigious ...

Roger: That's where La Monte Young was born so it's got a good track record.

EST: Do you see yourselves as coming from a particular tradition? How do think you're developing that tradition?

Roger: I think we're in the tradition of electroacoustic improvisation which relates to AMM and M.E.V., but we're more involved with electronics than AMM. Apart from a few effects boxes attached to Keith's guitar, AMM have never used much in the way of electronics.

Michael: They do use electronics. They use amplification.

Roger: But it's very low grade electronics, no filtering or ring modulation.

Michael: I think we relate more to M.E.V. which always had a stronger electronic dimension. They used biofeedback, for example.

Roger: But the sounds weren't going through a mixing desk so I think we relate more in that sense to Stockhausen's ensemble where all the sounds were under the control of an engineer, which was usually Stockhausen himself. We try to avoid the stylistic imprint of one engineer by having different people doing the mixing.

Clive G: I don't see us as at all being influenced by the Stockhausen tradition. I haven't listened to Aus den Sieben Tagen for about ten years. I really wouldn't know what our heritage is.

Michael: I think most of us would agree that we relate to Stockhausen.

Roger: But that doesn't exclude other stylistic influences. Parmegiani, for example.

Adam: But they're not self-conscious influences.

Roger: That's right. I mean, I think that I was quite interested in Tibetan ritual music. My interest in drones comes out of that tradition. And the ritualistic use of percussion. My use of gongs and cymbals comes out of that. It certainly didn't come out of A M M because they don't use percussion that way, it's used more energetically and rhythmically as in jazz. I think we definitely relate to the tradition of A M M and M.E.V. but with more sophisticated electronics and more interest in the recording process itself. But I'd like to ask Michael what tradition his interest in nature sounds relates to ...

Michael: I suppose it relates to Zen and Cage and the idea of being aware of the sounds around you. I've looked for ways of interacting with the environment by using things like radio microphones and the use of the bioactivity translator which is a machine that measures the voltage potential of any living organism and translates it into sound. So in one performance I might hook up myself, which is a way of playing your own thought processes, or I might hook up a plant. Plants are more sensitive than me, they certainly seem to be more histrionic. If you think violent thoughts, you can hear the change in the plant's behaviour.

EST: How much are you able to control the biofeedback?

Michael: Quite difficult really. It's easier with myself because I can get myself into a tranquil frame of mind whereas plants seem to be highly subject to disturbance. If people are coming in and lighting cigarettes the rhythms of the plant become very agitated. It's quite frightening when you realise how sentient plants are, because I'm a vegan, and it can get slightly worrying when you listen to them for too long.

EST: How do laminations like those on the Stromatolites release differ from improvisations?

Roger: The lamination idea originated in something Clive brought along to the course. It was a book written by some guy in a South African university, where they tried an experiment which involved 4 or 5 instrumentalists playing improvised music. The collective sound could be heard by the audience over a P.A. system, but the players couldn't hear each other because they were all in soundproofed rooms.

Clive H: It was an experiment to see if the overall result would be judged as musical by the audience. The question arose as to whether the musicians were able to communicate although they weren't in direct aural contact, or whether it was something to do with their style of playing that made the layers seem to fit together.

Roger: I think that relates to Ligeti's idea of permeability in music. There are certain kinds of textures that will freely intermesh with others and don't require synchronisation. Informal textures like water bubbling or percussive scrapings will intermesh freely to produce very rich configurations. The idea of laminations is not to do a collective improvisation in real time but to have solo players laying down tracks independently, and then mixing the tracks to see what kind of structural form emerges.

Adam: But there can be live sections as well, with maybe two or three players performing against a pre-recorded track.

Michael: But most of our recent work is collective improvisation where all the mixing is done during performance, although another possibility is to record everything on separate tracks so that the result can be re-mixed afterwards. Recently, we used 24 track facilities at the BBC Maida Vale studios. Here the variables are so complex that mixing could produce totally different versions of the same piece.

EST: How important is recording quality?

Adam: I think it's very important because our music is very different from more conventional music like, say a jazz trio, because the recording is an integral part of our aesthetic. You could have a jazz trio - bass, saxophone and drums - and the sax might not be well recorded as in a lot of jazz LPs, but the quality of the music still comes through.

Roger: The quality of the timbre is crucial in our music. We're concerned with timbre more than any other facet of sound. In jazz the rhythm and the melody are paramount so if the timbre of the saxophone is a bit fuzzy you can still distinguish the melody. In our music melody comes out of timbre so if the timbre is unclear the whole rationale of the music is destroyed.

Clive H: That idea of Adam's applies in general to all electronic music. If you're playing a sound which people have a mental model of, like a particular instrument, then listeners can correct for any deficiencies in the recording.

Roger: You're not able to correct because you don't know what it's supposed to sound like. If you're doing something innovative then it has to be well recorded. A lot of people hearing our music will not have heard us in live performance so they have no preconceived idea of how we should sound. The other thing is that spatial relationships are very important in our music so you need a very good stereo image.

Clive H: I think it's worth emphasising that the recording technology relates to the creation of the music itself, and not just its reproduction.

Roger: Yes, it relates to the transformation processes. For example, as a percussion player, there are all sorts of things I can do in the recording studio.

Clive H: You can add chorus effects and pitch shifts.

Roger: You can get deeper tones through amplification and enriched harmonics, all kinds of details that you wouldn't normally hear and you can extend resonances so that drones start to emerge. You can make a cymbal sound like a giant gong. That was one of the things that threw Dave Prescott. When he first heard our recordings he thought I was using orchestral timpani and huge eight foot diameter gongs and when he saw me using these tiny instruments he was a bit disappointed. But I like the idea of making gigantic sounds from tiny instruments because it's the reverse of what you normally expect in music.

Adam: Yes, there's little relation between the physical action that produces the sound and the sound that actually comes out of the speaker.

Roger: I like that kind of disproportion. I was very impressed by Cage's Cartridge Music where there's no clear causal relation between what the players do and the sounds that are produced, because there are so many electronic variables. I used to like that about A M M's playing. They were producing these wild unpredictable sounds by scratching tiny pieces of wire or tapping various preparations because amplification and effects chains would totally alter the sound. I think it relates to a kind of Abstract Expressionistic ethic where you throw the paint but you don't control the configuration that results.

Interview February 1992 by Brian Duguid. Thanks to Roger Sutherland for help with transcription.