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12 Oct 2021

Composer of the Month for Oct: Pete KELLOCK

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month!

The 10th CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Pete KELLOCK! As a composer with a diverse background combining music, technology and entrepreneurship, Pete’s professional experience ranges from writing software and designing electronic hardware to founding technology companies and mentoring young entrepreneurs.

Pete KELLOCK

Interviewer: GU Wei

Tell us a bit about your background. What got you into music, and what do you do now?

I think I got into music the same way I got into breathing – it just happened unconsciously from a very early age. I do remember the first time I was blown away by a piece of music, probably around the age of 4 or 5: it was the opening of the K466 piano concerto in D minor, Mozart at his most Sturm und Drang. I was sent to piano lessons around that time but somehow it didn’t click for me and I soon gave up, though I did start “composing” in the most elementary sense, finding note patterns I liked, figuring out a few basics of notation, and writing them down. From the start I hated practicing but enjoyed experimenting (“wasting time” as my piano teacher saw it …or perhaps worse, acquiring a bad habit). At age 66 that hasn’t changed much.

In my teens around 1970 I got very serious about playing French Horn (enough even to practice regularly!),  and as a student at Uni I did some freelance work in various Scottish orchestras. I completed a maths/physics degree first, but then embarked on a music degree; horn playing helped pay for that. But a year in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain had already left me with no illusions that I was ever going to be a great horn player. I was already pretty sure I should make my living some other way; also that in music my main interest was composition.

Or rather..  even then it was really sonic exploration that I found most exciting. So with my background in science/tech I veered quickly towards electronic composition, spending more and more time in the Electronic Music (EM) Studio using a huge and rather wonderful British synth called the Synthi-100:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EMS_Synthi_100

Soon I was doing a PhD in EM, working with the Synthi, multitrack tape machines, and other technology of the time. I also wrote some music for acoustic instruments – a horn sonata and other things. But I’m strongly drawn to trying to create things that have never been done before, and the potential for innovation (new sounds, structures, instruments, etc) struck me as far greater in EM than elsewhere in music. So that was my focus.

It still is, and for the same reason – the potential for discovery and innovation.  I reckon right now is a golden age of electronic/computer music, thanks to the concurrence of two things:

    • There’s a vast range of powerful digital tools …and many of them are free or low cost, which makes the field wide open to most people in a way that’s utterly different from the world of expensive analog synths, tape machines and racks of effects that were essential to most EM up to about 2000.
    • In terms of the music that can be created with such tools, I believe we’re still in the early days of EM. It’s still wide open for composers and sononauts.

What’s a “sononaut”? …a navigator/explorer of the world of sound, as a cosmonaut is a navigator/explorer of space. I coined the term because I think it describes what I described above – discovering/exploring new sonic territory rather than creating carefully-crafted finished works. Certainly I’ve done quite a lot of that kind of careful crafting over the years in works including F, Steel Breeze and Exozoologica – the kind of electronic music where the composer is also performer, conductor, sound engineer and in some sense instrument-maker. Sometimes I’ve even been obsessive about that process: around 1980 I spent a month crafting just the first chord of my work F (and it only contains F naturals!). But in general I’m more drawn to experimentation and exploration.

Another key thread in my background has been popular music, primarily rock. While I was doing my PhD, steeped in a world where the reference points were composers like Stockhausen, Boulez and Cage, I co-founded and wrote music for a rock band, Solaris. That had a totally different musical compass – our icons were “prog rock” bands like Pink Floyd, early Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Soft Machine and many more.

After coming to Singapore in 1989 I co-founded a couple of other bands, attempting to play synth despite my non-existent keyboard technique, but primarily writing. One of these, cheekily named Gwailo (the name suggested by the Singaporean head of our record label when a local member of the band dropped out leaving three angmos) released an album in 1994. It grew out of an earlier and even stranger band called Persuasian which mainly created music for local theatre productions. 

How would you describe your music, and what are your biggest influences?

Hah – “How would you describe your music?” That classic question which leaves most musicians stumped! 😂

I think most of us tend to see our own music as stylistically unique, standing out clearly from the works of others. Yet listeners often hear our music as only subtly different from earlier works, sitting clearly within an existing style or genre. Derek Sivers, who founded the music distribution company CD-Baby, once told me how for years one of his jobs was to categorize all the music they distributed by genre. They asked musicians themselves to choose a genre/category when they submitted their music, but a very large number replied “uncategorizable”. However CD-Baby’s website was set up with genre categories, so one of Derek’s jobs was to make that decision. He said that in most cases he found it easy, that usually the genre was perfectly clear to him, even though it wasn’t to the musicians themselves. I think that happens a lot.

Years later I sent Derek a link to my work Exozoologica, and was rather chuffed when he had trouble categorizing it! (Or was he just being gracious to a friend? 🤔)   I’ve always felt that I’m in a bit of a musical no-man’s (nor woman’s) land.  It’s a land that borders on and draws from known territory – the avant-garde, rock, ambient, EDM (Electronic Dance Music), Indian Classical Music, parts of the Western Classical tradition (Wagner, Stravinsky…) – but most of my music can’t be fitted into any one of those.

At least that’s how I hear it, well aware of the caveat I mentioned above. I sometimes ask people how they hear my music, and that’s often gloriously confusing. I’ll play a work like Exozoologica to friends from the rock world – they hear sections with no beat, no tonality/consonance, not even musical notes or clear pitches and come back with “Pete – that’s not music, it’s just weird noises”. Then I’ll play the same piece to friends from the contemporary classical or free improvisation worlds and they’ll respond “Nah. That’s pop music” …because yep, sometimes I do use beats / notes / consonances.

This genre-surfing isn’t a recipe for achieving musical recognition, so why do I find myself doing it? The obvious answer would be to say rebelliousness, that I just don’t like being boxed in from either end. And that is partly true: give me an aesthetic convention (e.g. EDM has to be written in 4/4 with each beat divided onto 1/16ths, or serious contemporary music can’t use consonances) and my first instinct is to want to break it to see what comes out.

Another motivation is that I think innovation often “lies in the cracks”: in other words, finding territory that lies between established styles, combining elements which may not be innovative in themselves but which have never before been brought together in a certain way. 

But the strongest reason is that I love the expressive range that comes from ignoring “genre rules”. For example I’m drawn to the emotional jolt that occurs when you follow a dense chromatic cluster with stark open fifths, or take a sweet consonant chord and rip it to shreds with distortion, or perhaps by smearing out its pitches in the frequency domain. And I love the dramatic structures you can construct using such extremes, sometimes in stark juxtaposition, even more in “morphs”, gradual processes which change almost imperceptibly moment to moment yet cover a fast sonic distance over a span of minutes (potentially even hours, though I haven’t yet gone there). 

I particularly love simultaneous opposites – e.g. textures that are extremely fast yet static (Hanging Gardens by The Necks is a great example, like a huge smooth flywheel that tricks your eye into thinking it’s static yet contains a vast amount of kinetic energy that would be deadly if the wheel came off its bearings). …or a huge raw wall of aggressive noise in which resonant peaks hint at a peaceful chord – a dominant ninth, say. Maybe it’s because I’m at my most moved by art, including music, when it causes me laugh and cry at the same time – a (metaphorical) quantum superposition of emotional states. The tools of electronic music offer new ways to do this, techniques that are not available to acoustic instruments and ensembles. And again those are relatively unexplored.

Specific influences? Where to start – Bach? Mozart? Beethoven? Wagner? Stravinsky? Shostakovich? Stockhausen (notably Kontakte)? Messiaen? Ligeti? Riley? Knussen? Saariaho? I find it hard to know what’s an “influence”, but that’s a sampling of composers whose music I love and admire. And then also: The Who, Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Nine Inch Nails, recently Holly Herndon. And Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Weather Report, John McLaughlin. The odd happy pop song too: Pet Shop Boys, Tanita Tikaram, Men At Work, Jason Mraz… Plus various other genres I listen to fairly regularly, from Dixieland to Indian Classical Music (both Carnatic and Hindustani) to Heavy Metal.  There’s deep talent and sophistication – as well as loads of tiresome trash – to be found across pretty much all genres of music. 

But to find the beauty in different genres, you have to be adaptable in how you listen. Different styles hide tuck their depth away in different corners; sometimes you only discover it after quite a bit of casual exposure and/or careful listening.

Check out Pete’s music on his SoundCloud page:

 

As a composer who is also an experienced entrepreneur, do you have any advice for young composers who are starting up their careers?

I could probably write a book on this topic, so whatever I can say here is a dusting of snow on the tip of an iceberg.

There are myriad issues, and everyone is different, so I don’t even want to frame what I say as “advice”. But here’s an attempt to summarize my own experience. If any of it resonates for you, great! If it doesn’t, please just ignore.

In terms of career, I mostly just muddled along. I rarely gave much thought to the concept of career, generally just following my nose to whatever interested me at the time and picking up opportunities to earn a bit of a living when they came along.

But I did have a few points in my life, notably as I completed my PhD in EM and thought about my first “real” job, where I weighed up the options for career paths that would include a large component of composition. I decided against them all, and I’ve never regretted that. 

Why? One thing I knew about myself from early on is that while I enjoy writing music, it’s just one of several things I enjoy doing. I also love building things such as electronic hardware (I reckon I’ve done a few hundred thousand solder joints in my life). Writing software is fun too – not always, but often. I’m also passionate about inventing, finding yourself in uncharted territory figuring out ways to make something work (composition is sometimes like that, but it’s also significantly different). And I love travel, especially in wild places. One way or ‘tother I wanted to have enough free time and money to travel widely in the world, from its major centers to its remotest corners, not in luxury, but preferably for extended periods, months or at least weeks, not a few days. And I’ve been lucky enough to travel widely, from Patagonia to North Korea, from the highlands of New Guinea to Svalbard in the high arctic.

I also recognized some things I don’t generally enjoy much. To name a few: having a regular daily schedule, doing similar work day after day for years (especially under a string of fixed deadlines), live performance (I prefer crafting music in a studio), writing academic papers…all things that I’ve accepted as inevitable at various times in my life and got through when I had to, but didn’t want as constant threads in the way “career” usually entails.

As I looked at different career paths centered on composition, I could see that none were a good match to my preferences. At best a composition career would be a very high-stakes gamble where anything short of massive success would leave me unable to do those other things. For example the “day job” of many composers is a place in academia, but I found writing up my PhD a tedious chore, so academia held no appeal (though I’ve done some work on the fringes of academia and enjoyed it). And outside the academic world, writing music is a fiercely competitive freelance field where you’re likely to be fighting to stay afloat for most of your life – vast amounts of work with tight deadlines, generally poorly paid. And I can work deep, but I can’t work fast, or at least not deep and fast (how did so many of the great classical composers achieve both?!) 

Plus writing music as a job often means working within tight constraints of style, form, duration etc. Consider for example the world of film/TV music, where it’s hard to stray far from the mainstream. Happily that has become less so over the last decade or two – film/TV music is becoming much more adventurous (I’m currently watching the Mr Robot series and loving the soundtrack, especially its most abstract moments) – but the adventurousness is mostly at the pinnacle of the profession, top movies and shows. If you’re starting out, doing regular work for say TV ads, dissonance and abstract sonic textures probably aren’t what the client is looking for. To put it mildly! 😏

Another risk of the career-composer path is that you could come to hate the thing you used to love. Some people can do the same kind of work, 60+ hours a week, for decades and retain their passion for it. Not many though. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. The feeling “I want to play a different game now!” can be hard to imagine when you’re young, but it’s worth thinking about.

So… I chose the “Charles Ives solution”: make a living elsewhere and be free to write music as and when you want to. Specifically I chose a technical path which I later transformed into an tech-entrepreneurial one. The first job I took after my PhD was as a hardware/software design engineer, that had nothing to do with music – we were creating bilingual Arabic/English terminals and printers. But the work was fascinating and innovative, and very importantly I knew I was building up skills that would help my electronic music work. And they did: after a few years of this, around 1985, I co-founded a music tech company in London, called Zyklus. We created a unique “interactive sequencer” that was used by some famous musicians (and is still used by a handful of people today):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_iZEtGzPGU&list=PLlNyzLPxRgSUvGtNOgF2MfElL0FS-u02q&index=6

Zyklus never became a viable business, but it taught me painful business lessons which allowed my second venture, muvee.com (founded in Singapore in 2001) to be much more successful.

OK, summing up… hmm, maybe I will attempt to encapsulate some of this as advice, a few bullet points that might be helpful if any of the above resonates for you. (Again if it doesn’t, please just ignore!)

    • Think of your career path as a process of discovery, not planning. The world is complex and fast-changing. So are we – our passions are often conflicting and some will change over the years.
    • Experiment to discover what you find fulfilling – be happy to weave around doing lots of different things, taking opportunities and diversions. 
    • Evaluate work options on two main criteria: Are you contributing to the world (creating value/joy/fulfillment for others) and/ or do you absolutely love the work itself in the moment (ref: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow)?
    • Or… is the work you’re doing getting you closer to one of the above, e.g. are you building skills – or reputation – or a bank balance – that will help you move on to work that meets one or both those criteria? That’s also fine …for a while.
    • Work like crazy at whatever you’re doing, at least sometimes. If you’ve never worked 50 hours on a stretch, or put in a 100-hour workweek, or had days where you didn’t find time to eat till midnight, I reckon you haven’t lived fully. On the other hand, if you find yourself doing that kind of stuff regularly for years on end, you’re not living well either (and may not live long! 😱).  Everything in moderation – including moderation.
    • Stay lean. Use money to buy yourself time to do what you love or value – e.g. time to write the music you want to write – not to acquire stuff (a fancy house, say) or status. 
    • Ask yourself if “composer” is a useful label for what you want to do in music. To me it conjures up an image of entering notes in Finale, and that feels rather old-fashioned (let’s not even talk about manuscript paper!).  Is the music you want to create even about creating pattens of notes? Are you happy to create works that exist in a single final form, open only to subtle (albeit important) differences in interpretation? The world of music creation is changing fast: look at the “instruments’ sold by companies like Native Instruments or 8DIO (some more compositional assistants than instruments) or at what Brian Eno is now doing with things like Scape: iPad software that the user can interact with, leading to music that is  part-Eno, part-user… who is the composer in such cases? To get a sense where this may be leading as more and more AI is introduced, spend a couple of hours making images at artbreeder.com and imagine the equivalent in music.

I could add a dozen more such points, but enough. Less is more. And this might be too many already.

Bottom line: when you look at the world and ask yourself what would make it a better place, does “more music” jump into the top slot? Personally I’d have to reply: “Not even close!”  There’s already vastly more music in the world than any of us can listen to, and on the other side of the coin there are desperately-serious problems facing humanity: climate change, risk of global warfare, and myriad others.

So I can only see two reasons to spend large chunks of our lives creating music: either that our music brings joy/fulfillment to others (ideally to large numbers of others, though intense joy to a small number is pretty good too), or that the act of creating music brings great joy/fulfillment to ourselves. If you love it, do it – even if you never get paid for it.

If you disagree with these ideas (or even if you agree with them), I’d love to hear your view: petekellock@gmail.com .

I’m very intrigued by the Poikilophone and impressed with the expressive possibilities it offers. Could you tell us more about it? How does it work, and how do you hope to use it for your future projects?


I’ve posted nine videos that answer this better than I can here. Here’s a link to a quick 2-minute “highlights” video (see above) plus a playlist for all nine. The vids labelled #7 and #8 are explanatory – I say a little about what I’m trying to do and explain a bit about how the Poikilophone (“Poik” for short) works:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsl30HMc3yU&list=PLlNyzLPxRgSXfNF117OqenEUb2-7cWx6r&index=1

I’ll summarize a little of that here, but first let me back up a bit. Since 2015 most of my work has been in Max/MSP and its derivative Max for Live (i.e. Ableton Live). After a few previous years of creating music by painstaking crafting – notably Exozoologica – I was ready for a change, more interested in exploring sound and creating music by writing code than direct manipulation.

Initially I spent a few years pottering around with Max and M4L (Max for Live), doing lots of online tutorials, getting myself up to speed on various DSP (Digital Signal Processing) techniques and other learning. I went through the tutorials at probably the slowest pace anyone ever has because I kept going off at tangents, trying out my own little experiments, following my nose into numerous little corners, all with no thought of deadlines or agenda. (I was also doing a lot of non-music stuff during this time.)

Then in 2018 I seemed to hit my stride with Max. It came together during a 3-month trip to Greece with my amazing wife, Pearl. That trip was a great “digital nomad” experience. I put together a portable version of my home studio: my MacBook plus an extra screen (and an iPad as a third screen), a 2-octave ROLI Seaboard Block, small speakers and headphones, lots of accessories – all in a backpack weighing under 10kg. We travelled through different parts of Greece, finding rooms with a table large enough for me to set all this up. Once we got a place, we’d spend a week or two there and I’d alternate between long walks in the hills and coding stuff up in Max. I got a lot of work done (while Pearl read a lot of books) and we both got pretty fit!

The main output from that trip was a system for exploring stretched tuning – an exercise in auditory exploration rather than composition, which also forced me to build my own rather unusual additive synthesizer. Lots of other experiments followed, things I labelled “particle synthesis and “subtractive harmony”, some work building on top of FactorSynth by JJ Burred, and other things. In the middle of this I also did an ambitious project with Robert Casteels, Dirk Stromberg and others, developing an interactive algorithmic composition called Time Snow which was presented at the Dhoby Ghaut Arts Centre in 2019. In Time Snow almost everything – harmony, melody, rhythm, even melodic expression (portamento / vibrato) is created algorithmically, with a core of permutational maths that took me a couple of months to devise and code up.

Locked down in 2020 I initially spent a lot of time – and quite a bit of money – exploring the world of commercial plugins (VST/AU) etc. I’ve long held the view that innovation in the private sector is often as interesting and advanced as in academia, at least in the field of digital media. As always I try to to spend my time innovating, doing things that explore new territory, and part of that is getting a sense of what already exists; otherwise you risk re-inventing the wheel.

And then in December 2020 I got hold something which set me off in a radically new direction: I bought a “BBC2” controller from Swedish company TEControl. This is a MIDI controller that senses 4 things: breath strength, bite, head nod (moving the head forwards and backwards) and head tilt (moving the head from side to side). I already had a couple of ROLI Seaboard Blocks (4 octaves combined), a strange rubbery keyboard that senses up to 5 control actions: you can glide the pitch from note to note, do vibrato by wiggling your finger like a string player, use aftertouch pressure and other things.

So I quickly knocked up a simple software synth in Max/MSP which allowed me to combine the ROLI and the BBC2, a system that maps about nine independent “control dimensions” to different sonic parameters. As I started to improvise with this I began to realize the expressive power of the combination, using the BBC2 to control articulation/dynamics, the ROLI to control pitch, and combinations of them both (plus a foot pedal) to control timbral elements.  I started to feel I was onto something rather special – the most expressive electronic instrument I’ve ever played – and dreamt up the name Poikilophone (from a Greek root meaning varied/diverse/motley).

I had actually built something a bit similar way back around 1981 when I was doing my PhD. Since my earliest days doing electronic music, I’ve felt there was a crying need for more expressive control. In certain ways the Theremin and Ondes Martenot still seem to be the most expressive electronic instruments we have, and they’ve been around for almost a century. Even back in 1981, I felt it was downright shameful we hadn’t surpassed those, let alone achieved the expressivity of a violin or sax (with the ideal being the human voice, for all its limitations the most expressive “synth” of all).  So I created a keyboard device, the Glissboard, with many similarities to the ROLI (it had a zone at the rear where you could glide, apply vibrato, etc), and I devised a little breath controller (it’s not hard to build one; the first breath controller for electronic music dates back to at least 1938).

The combination was unusually expressive even back in 1981 and I used it in my work Steel Breeze. But of course things have moved on a long way in 40 years, and this new incarnation using the ROLI plus the BBC2 takes it to another level. (By the way, if you’re wondering why there was no progress during the 40 years in between, I’m rather mystified too. My one and only Glissboard was destroyed in a fire in 1983 and I never got round to building another. But I’m surprised no-one else explored this path.)

At this point Poik exists in three main forms, one with the ROLI and two without. In the latter two I use the BBC2 with a MIDI controller ring, the Genki Wave from Iceland. You can see these versions in vids #2 and #3 in the list at the above link. One is mapped to a piano sound – piano played without a keyboard!  The other uses a complex synth plugin along with some West African drums.

To summarize what Poik is about, I’m taking off-the-shelf hardware controllers plus some third-party software plugins (mostly effects) and writing software to combine them in various ways. Some of my patches, e.g. the version with the ROLI, operate at the level of direct note control. Others are more algorithmic, generating note patterns, as well as controlling timbral elements. Even in the versions which operate at the note level, the software turns out to be quite complex, much more so than I expected – for example the version that uses the ROLI has at least a dozen sub-patches handling all kinds of nuances of the control behavior. It’s a fascinating challenge which mixes musical instinct with technological problem-solving in exactly the way I love.

So… for the foreseeable future my main work will be Poik. I have a long list of ideas for developing it further, refining the current versions and creating new ones. I’m also playing it in improvisations with some friends and as part of a project with Lynette Quek, Prashanth Thattai Ravikumar and Dirk Stromberg sponsored by NAC under their Arts x Tech Lab initiative.

I’m not planning to make Poik into a commercial venture – I’m giving away the software to anyone who’s interested. Already one guy, an American based in Thailand who got in touch after I posted the videos, is up and running: he acquired all the third-party hardware/software components online, downloaded my software, and after a few email exchanges had his own Poikilophone. I’m hoping to find a handful of others interested in doing that.

And beyond that? I don’t know. As I said, I don’t believe in planning too much.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. 🙏  Don’t hesitate to get in touch (petekellock@gmail.com) if you’ve any comments, questions, suggestions, points of disagreement – anything!