Introducing Stop Motion Music

In advance of the release of his portrait CD, Stop Motion Music, composer Neil Tòmas Smith spoke to Dark Inventions directors

2 months ago
Time to read
About 4 minutes

Neil Tomas Smith

Stop Motion Music is out 9 March 2023

Martin Scheuregger: Your new disc is called Stop Motion Music, named after your work for 3 flutes and vibraphone. What is the significance of the title?

Neil Tòmas Smith: I came to the realisation that there were no pieces I had written in which I felt I had done ‘too little’ and maybe quite a few in which I felt had done ‘too much’, or had not made the most of the material. The idea of Stop Motion Music was to try and stop and focus in on what the music could be.

There was also a tangible connection to a piece for two guitars I was writing, which has now become Stop Motion Music 2. This pieces uses delays, i.e. an effect that repeats the sound of the guitar at a set rhythm. Here, I thought a lot about the delays being a kind of snapshot of the guitar that is repeated, and the music a collection of snapshots, rather like stop motion animation.

I have always loved animation – when I was younger I had a video of some of the whackier things Aardman did in the early days – and this felt like a good opportunity to pay homage to that.

MS: The hands-on aesthetic of Aardman might be more evident in your work for two cellos, Manual, which uses some unusual techniques. How did you come across these?

NTS: I’m not a cellist, so in this piece I had a lot of help from many performers. In fact quite a list of cellists: Esther Saladin in Frankfurt, Jessica Kettle in Glasgow, and Atzi Muramatsu in Edinburgh; and Duncan Strachan and Justyna who you can hear on the disc. It was through asking them lots of questions, and them offering up their own ideas, that the piece was shaped.

The original spur was the idea of not using the bow to make the instrument sound so that the movements of the hands on the instrument are brought to the fore. There are certain passages in which the hands of the players move in opposite directions, or shift between opposing each other and being in sync.

It is obviously difficult to sustain sounds when there is no bow, so part of the challenge was finding different types of resonance through the use of the fingernails. These are even used almost like tiny bows to rub against the string towards the end of the piece.

It should be said, as well, that when I studied in Germany I was exposed to a lot more of Helmut Lachenmann’s music than I would have been in the UK. He’s an incredible composer who has built a compelling musical language out of extended, noisy techniques (though his latest pieces do not use them quite as much). This music is very different in many ways, and the techniques are not Lachenmann’s own, but there is definitely some influence there.

MS: Another German composer is the influence behind the final piece on the disc, Progressions of Memory.

NTS: Yes, this piece is an extended consideration of a few bars of a Handel Flute Sonata in E minor. I play flute…

Christopher Leedham: Yes, you have played with Dark Inventions many times!

NTS: Exactly, and I have sometimes struggled a little with the repertoire that we as flautists are expected to perform, particularly that of the nineteenth century. Often, it would never really do it for me as music. I envy string players and pianists on this score!

I never doubted how worthwhile the Baroque repertoire was, though, whether Handel, Telemann or Bach (senior and junior). Revisiting this Handel was a way of exploring this connection, while also reinventing the piece’s sonic character. The piece is dedicated to my flute teachers who gave me so much musical input for so many years.

There is a Dark Inventions connection elsewhere in the disc, too, with percussionist Delia Stevens working her magic on the title track.

CL: Progressions of Memory is for Baroque flute. Was this an instrument you were familiar with?

NTS: Not really. I played one gig on it at the National Centre for Early Music with the University of York Baroque Ensemble. Coming from a modern flute, the instrument is very straightforward as long as you remain in D major, which most of that concert mercifully did.

I did write this piece with instrument in hand, though. So in some ways it is a document of my exploration of its possibilities, coming from a position of little proficiency. In some ways, however, this ‘learner’ position raises more compositionally interesting ideas. You can become too used to your familiar instrument and it can be hard to come up with new ways of working. The Baroque instrument was different enough to present some creative obstacles.

CL: Dark Inventions are releasing your virtuosic clarinet piece, Strange Machines, to coincide with the launch. Is there much overlap between this work and your new CD?

NTS: Yes, there are some common threads and some differences. Strange Machines is more openly virtuosic than any of the works here, though they are far from easy. But my interest in creating counterpoint in works for solo instruments can be seen in Progressions of Memory, while both Manual and the piece for clarinet explore competing feelings of musical time (what you might call polytemporality).

Stop Motion Music the piece takes my exploration of quartertones a little further. The end of Strange Machines is a long melody that uses these, as much for expressive effect as to comply with any tuning system. The flutes in Stop Motion Music are a kind of chorus, with the quartertones contributing to an other-wordly musical landscape.

MS: Thanks for talking to us!

NTS: A pleasure.