The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) kickstarts 2020 with a new monthly series for our Musings section called Composer of the Month! The second composer to be featured is PerMagnus LINDBORG, a Sweden-born Singapore composer now based in Hong Kong! He is currently an associate professor at the School of Creative Media in City University of Hong Kong.
Interviewer: Emily KOH
How did you get started composing with computers, and how did that journey bring you to Singapore?, Seoul and now Hong Kong? (Basically, a quick intro to your creative life/career.)
As a child I received piano and trombone lessons. Then at twelve I couldn’t do any more Beethoven, and started playing in brass orchestras and jazz big bands. As a teenager, I played synth keyboards in various bands, experimented with an analog four-track recording machine and recorded voice tracks to songs over two telephones at home.
At school, I loved maths and computer programming, learning Basic, Fortran, and Pascal. So I went to university to pursue maths, but found that music exerted an unstoppable force on me. I returned to playing the classics, practiced ferociously for several months and auditioned for conservatory first as a pianist, then doing more theory, studio engineering, and eventually majoring in composition. During this period my output was mainly acoustic, inspired by composers such as Sibelius, Scriabin, Bartok, but also Holdsworth and Partch.
In 1992, I heard Torstensson’s Licks & Brains 2 live in Oslo, and it opened up my ears and transformed my understanding of rhythm, timbre and texture. I explored a repertoire of mainly French and Dutch contemporary music, and I knew I had to go abroad. I spent a year in Amsterdam studying with Torstensson, followed by another year in Montreal and Tokyo, then arriving in Paris. I had only planned a stopover to play jazz, write some obscure music, and go to GRM [Groupe de recherche musicale, at Radio France] concerts, but happened to meet a wonderful and beautiful young composer from Singapore at Royaumont. Joyce Koh and I stayed in France, married, had a child, before eventually moving to Singapore in 2005.
What is sound design and how is it different from composition?
The term "sound design" was originally about building instruments, first with electronic equipment in a research studio, eventually all-digital on a laptop in the kitchen. I prefer to think about ‘designing sound as the act of selecting and shaping the means by which we then express a musical composition. There is an intermediary step – let’s call it ‘collage’ – which is the act of scripting the temporal and physical location of designed sonic elements. Labelling something a composition only makes sense, for me at least, if one considers its relationship to certain specific techniques, each with a history, such as counterpoint, multimodality, drama, rhetorics.
What is SOUNDISLANDS and how did the SOUNDISLANDS festivals start?
SOUNDISLANDS is an idea of connecting different ways of listening. It is a sound design company, and a festival of music creation and research. I had always wanted to create a meeting-place between acoustic and electronic music, between science and art, between music and mathematics - to bring people from various backgrounds together, and have serious fun.
When I was working at NTU in Singapore, there was initially support for my ambitions, and I did Si13. Then, Si15 and Si17 followed. It was not possible to do Si19, but there might be Si21. I have the energy to do a biennial event, and am looking for collaborators.
Do you approach composing music for a commission, and sonic design for a SOUNDISLANDS project differently?
These are difficult questions. A commissioned project is dependent on whom one is working for. It is wonderful to work with the same people over time, in several projects, because the creative work is much deepened. People change, the circumstances differ, one’s own predilections evolve. Pragmatically, and at technical or organisational levels, the differences between composition and sound design aren’t that important, but there is a shift in attitude from thinking of oneself as an individual creator – a composer, author, director – or as a team member.
SOUNDISLANDS as a company offers a more comfortable working situation, when we as composers or designers collaborate with public institutions or artist-teams such as architects, film-makers, dance companies, or music ensembles - they organise in similar ways.
What are some upcoming projects and what can we look forward to hearing from you in the near future?
I am pursuing experiments in data sonification. This interest has hooked me for a long time and became my main pursuit around 2013.
Sonification has an ambivalent nature, embracing utilitarian approaches such as car alarms, computer earcons, hospital monitoring systems – and artistic approaches, which is mainly the case for my work. I like to think that the fundamentals are the same, notably for its sound perception and design of musical structures.
There is a wealth of research in perception that can be tapped by sound designers, and of course the best instrument-makers always knew this. This is especially relevant in the case of ‘sonification designers’, because we explicitly refuse techniques such as counterpoint or rhetorics, and have to rely entirely on connecting two complex things – the data and the synthesis – in such a way as to make a novel thing, an output that might be truly interesting to listen to, and worthy to be called ‘art’.
Tell us about the your piece Graviton Dance that will be heard at the ACL New Zealand this year.
It is a piece that has developed in stages since 2010. Graviton Dance is a sonic Calder-mobile, which is set in action by the simplest of periodic movements: a point tracing a circle. It drives four parallel syntheses – MEKS, Modalys, additive, and something I call ‘Poisson-glitch’ – which are mixed and spatialised in four dimensions – this notion is obviously speculative, and refers to there being two superposed 3D spatialisations: one filling the large room of the installation, and another one that is much smaller (perhaps in headphones). The sound objects move between the two spatialisations while retaining other parameters. This situation is inspired by physics, where M-theory describes objects such as gravitons and branes in multiple dimensions, perhaps ten or eleven, where some are ‘compacted’. We can experience this idea through a musical metaphor.
What are different types of interdisciplinary practice?
One can identify three kinds of collaborative practice (three levels of engagement) – multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary to transdisciplinary.
Multidisciplinarity is when someone wants to expand from a core technical capacity into something new – for example, the photographer making a sound installation. In relation to teaching, I encourage students to rely firstly on the tools they are familiar with – technical principles and methods – and not try too hard or too soon to learn details in the new field.
Understanding nuances comes later on. Some people become ‘individually interdisciplinary’ when they learn sufficiently about the new field so as to communicate with those who are experts in it. If two or more such individuals from different fields team up and focus on making something outside both of their comfort zones, that is the start of a transdisciplinary collaboration.
Have you advice for composers and musicians hoping to get more involved in interdisciplinary practice?
My advice for fellow composers and musicians regarding collaboration is the same I tell myself: focus on developing your own core skills and sensitivities, seek out different musics and really listen to them, and stay humble when in conversation with experts from other fields of knowledge and expression.
Not everybody enjoys teamwork. For a multi-faceted project, such as making a film or a media installation, teamwork is normal. Doing it alone might provide conceptual consistency but it is hard to pay equal attention to all component parts, and often not practical. Working together with others, either through peer-sharing or accepting leader-delegated tasks, can help assure the production timeline is kept, though at the risk of diluting the concept.