An Interview with Philip Venables
I met up with the English composer Philip Venables one recent evening at an outdoor bar in Berlin, where he’s been living for the last eight years. He wore a dark cap, glasses, overalls, and a rainbow-striped t-shirt. Over beer and cigarettes, and while two people next to us had what sounded from the recording like a Tinder date, we talked about politics and humor in music, the essence of violence, and getting inspiration from clickbait.
VAN: You studied natural sciences at Cambridge. What exactly did you do?
Philip Venables: I started off wanting to do chemistry, but the math was just too difficult. So I ended up doing cell biology, and then experimental psychology and neuropsychology.
Those are things that sound great on paper as training for being a composer.
Maybe not. But the numeracy part is quite related. It sometimes surprises me when composers are bad at that. I use it when I’m composing: my structures are controlled, the sections and tempi might be proportionally related, or if I’m expanding a pitch series or whatever then I might make that exponentially plotted so that the rate of expansion is very controlled. Most pieces I’ve written in the last seven or eight years have a big spreadsheet.
From what I’ve read and heard, it seems to me like LGBT issues are an important focus in your music.
They’re relevant in some pieces and completely irrelevant in others. I just did a piece at a festival that was all last week that was a video piece with the London Sinfonietta, a collaboration with the performance artist David Hoyle, who’s kind of a cult figure on the UK queer scene. He calls it “anti-drag.” His work is angry, political, and very funny. So this video piece was a kind of angry rant, which was cut up and spliced very rhythmically with the ensemble music. It was a lot about LGBT issues, gender, conformity, queer assimilation, democracy.
What was your coming out like? Did it inspire you to take an angry, political view of these issues?
No, my coming out was very gentle. I have lovely, understanding parents, and a wonderful family. But I mean, I think that these are issues that are important to a lot of people—the issue is whether you want to make that part of your work or not.
Why do you choose to make it part of yours?
Issue-based art is quite common in contemporary theater or visual arts. Less so in contemporary classical music—obviously there are exceptions. But they are issues that I care deeply about, so I don’t see why I wouldn’t want to talk about them in my work, especially since I’m working so much with text.
I also really like the aesthetic of political art. In a sense the work that I make as a composer is the loudest voice that I have in terms of my place in society; so why not use that to say what I want to say?
For the sake of argument, let’s say the political idea underpinning your piece is that gender is a spectrum. Do you want to convince people to believe that when it’s finished?
No, that wouldn’t be possible, and too earnest and didactic. It’s more about just highlighting how absurd some of the constructions are around gender, or just everyday situations of ridiculously gendered things. Like exactly the same products that are repackaged for men or women, or gendered toothbrushes. Nobody needs a gendered toothbrush! We all have the same teeth. In general that is quite an issue.
In the recordings of some of your pieces I heard people laughing out loud. How do you craft a new music punchline?
In the piece with David Hoyle, people were screaming all the way through it—which was fun, I loved that. Possibly because the language and the types of topics being talked about were quite unusual to be heard in a Radio 3 broadcast concert. There was a long discussion of sodomy, and how people in the audience should probably just try anal sex, because it’s not that bad. Or, as David Hoyle says in the video, “You’re fucking hypocrites because I bet you’ve wanted your girlfriends to stick a finger up your ass when you’re just about to cum. And it’s because of you that the Middle East is a nightmare.” Stuff like that. So obviously that was a funny piece.
Your “numbers 76-80: tristan und isolde” also had a laugh line.
In that piece the poem is quite absurdist. And so there is a funny line, which I suppose was made more of a punchline because of the juxtaposition of the intense, active, rhythmical singing, and then cutting away to a very banal line about somebody’s aunt holding a video camera. I like those cuts and juxtapositions of banal and serious, or intense, angry, and loud and then something very light and fluffy.
You work predominantly with text. What are you reading right now?
I haven’t actually been reading that much recently—not novels at least. I read a lot of plays because I was writing my first opera. Now I’m reading a Maggie Nelson book about violence, and some poetry—trying to discover poets with whom I have an aesthetic common ground.
That all sounds like it’s for your music. Do you read for fun?
No, I don’t do much recreational reading at the moment. I probably get sucked into reading online shit, just like everybody else.
In some ways the online rabbit holes are good for the kinds of work I’m doing. I just did a little piece for a gay men’s chorus in Manchester, which takes hate speech from social media about the bakers in the U.S. who have been refusing to bake cakes for gay or lesbian couples. We pilfered all of this online hate speech text and made a very angry four-minute mashup collage piece out of that.
Some of that online hate speech also crops up in another piece I’m doing at the moment, combined with text from counseling sessions with female rape survivors. It’s a much more difficult subject. I’m co-writing it with another composer whose own counseling transcript we’re also using; the piece is about her experiences. And we’ve been working with a rape counselor from a crisis center as well, to help us navigate it, because it’s obviously difficult.
How can I understand the role of the rape counselor in the artistic process?
It’s to help us understand some of the issues or outlook of some rape survivors in terms of processing their experiences, because that’s essentially what we’re presenting: multiple peoples’ experiences, but focused on one person. [She helps us] finely navigate the balance between showing victimhood and strength and resistance. So it’s not that the counselor is making an aesthetic guide for us; it’s more about the way we’re using the text and talking us through it. In a sense it’s counseling us when we have doubts about whether we’re presenting things in the right way.
I was very nervous about taking the project on, because I’m male, and the director, Patrick Eakin Young, is also male. But Laura Bowler, the performer and co-composer, was very adamant about doing it. At the beginning of the process it was difficult for us to understand how we could even take part in this project.
Would you be worried about backlash on a piece like that?
Of course it’s slightly in the back of my mind, but I think that the ways we’ve dealt with those various problems of our gender and our voices will mitigate that. It’s different because Laura is at the core of the project. I would never do a project like that on my own. Even if I felt strongly that I wanted to say something.
You’ve often expressed your interest in violence as a subject for your art. As I understand it, this means not physical violence, but rather aesthetic violence.
I’m not a fan of Hollywood blood-and-guts movies at all. I’m interested in formalized violence. I can’t think of that many examples in music, but in film and literature there are good examples. The film “Irreversible,” which is one of the most notoriously violent films, is all about a single rape experience. It’s told backwards, and everything about the way it’s done is violent. The camera is constantly in motion. The rate of cutting is extreme. If you sit in a cinema, there’s a subwoofer drone through the whole film that only stops—you can barely hear it, but you can feel it—that hardly stops until the very final scene of the film, when you find out that she was pregnant as well. So everything in the form of that film is about violence. Not just representing it, but everything about it, from the editing and the sound to making you feel uncomfortable.
Or the Ligeti piece “Atmosphères” I find incredibly violent, because of that huge fissure in the middle.
The transition from the piccolos to the basses.
Exactly. If you took the first half of that piece and the second half and switched them around, you’d have a piece that slowly, amorphously climbed from the basses through to the piccolos. That would be a completely different piece. But the fissure in the middle is incredibly violent.
In [the opera] “4:48 Psychosis,” the formal structure of the source text is very violent in the sense that it has all these different strands and material, and cuts brutally from one to the other. Which I tried to reflect in the way the music was written—going from really intense, loud, distressed singing and ensemble music to very quiet elevator music.
To me it sounds like when you say violence, what you mean is an intensification of contrast.
Maybe brutality. I’m still interested in violence [as a subject]. I will possibly be working on a new opera that is kind of a true story thing about very violent, tragic incidents…
In a lot of your music, you’ll have these beautiful string chorals that sound fairly traditional, except the suspensions go on forever without resolving. Why do you like doing that?
I guess some of it is to do with the way that I compose in a very modular format. I tend to write very much in tableaux. It’s like, a block of this, a block of that. I’m trying to avoid the kind of through-composed, rhetorical music. Though sometimes I think that’s kind of impossible.
You’re a composer and have also worked in artist management with your company Bright Ivy. As an artist yourself, what are the PR strategies you see that drive you nuts?
It comes down to programming and the contexts for projects. When contexts are really well curated, and programs fit well together, that’s good. And when they’re not you can tell. When a concert is all new commissions with no visible thing in common…you don’t know what the work is going to be like. So programming new pieces side by side is really hard.
With a lot of new music, new commissions can be a lot for the audience to process, because it’s totally new. To put four in a row is a very intense concert experience. Sometimes it may work out, but oftentimes it doesn’t. I don’t do very much programming anymore—I’m not pretending that it’s easy, because it’s definitely not. ¶