Sarah Hughes: Composer and Multidisciplinary Artist
Sarah Hughes composes and performs experimental music and is a multidisciplinary artist, producing work that explores the boundaries between sculpture, installation, composition and music. She is the co-founder of Compost and Height, publishing music and books on contemporary compositional practice. She’s also the founding editor of the new music journal, Wolf Notes, and co-founder of BORE, a publication dedicated to experimental text-based and graphic scores.
First off, pardon my ignorance, but what is experimental music?
Broadly, I’d say it is music that explicitly questions what music can be, that tests the limits of musicality, and explores new ground that opens up when these things are discussed, performed and listened to. Within that, the area of experimental music that I am most interested in explores the limits of the instrument through extended techniques; it uses objects, found sounds and field recording as musical devices; reduces music to its fundamental elements and explores space in different ways. It opens up music as something to be played around with and questioned.
What do you play?
Mostly autoharp and zither. I sometimes play piano, with occasional electronics and objects (polystyrene, sine tones, scouring pads, radios, rice, mung beans, pots, etc.) I also write compositions and make non-sound-making exhibitions.
How and where do different disciplines overlap in your work?
Most explicitly in a rather literal interpretation of composition as a means of placing things together. Whether it’s in a performance, score, or exhibition, there is always a concern for how sounds, objects, or events are placed within a given duration or within a certain space. How sounds relate and correspond to one another in a composition (or indeed an improvisation) is, to me, parallel to how objects relate and correspond in an exhibition space.
Performance and composition are more obviously connected. When I play scores written by other people they tend to be ‘open form’ compositions, meaning they are often open to interpretation and/or require an element of improvisation. I also write compositions in this way such that each piece is heavily informed by the performers. Obviously this is always the case in the realisation of a score, even something very tightly controlled, but with open form composition the performer acts more like a collaborator – there is a different kind of agency at play. I think that is also true of objects. They are (hopefully) animated through the exhibition process, forming particular relationships with one another and with the viewer.
What role do words / text / narrative structure play?
Words and text are pretty central to the music I play and write, for a number of reasons. A lot of my pieces are ‘text scores’ which use words as propositions or instructions, rather than traditional musical notation. There is a whole historical canon of text scores, most prominently used by the Fluxus group in the 1960s and more recently (at least from my perspective) among a group of performers and composers associated with the Wandelweiser group. Text scores can be single words, found sentences, or entire books. There are often explicit literary references or intimations of the mechanisms of language itself. At other times there are references to pop culture, consumerism, or protest.
If there is something like narrative structure involved, it is often dependent on a dialogue between performers/sounds that unfolds in real time. It’s an emergent quality that often shifts around. Having said that, I have also used structure as a sort of material in previous works, where the scaffold of the piece becomes a central element to its composition. It becomes the proposition from which the sounding elements of a score are decided upon, without any further input from me as composer.
How does your creative process differ in each discipline - where are the similarities?
As well as the sound/duration, object/space parallel I mentioned earlier, there is also the idea of translation as a generative strategy. I think of each discipline (composition, performance, exhibition making) as existing within its own language. The overlap/similarity/difference is in understanding the nuances of the language and acknowledging the occasional untranslatable term. Of course, just as musical notation is a language that needs to be learnt, as well as the musical language of certain composers, translation in this sense is also a cumulative process – and in my work this can involve both repetition and permutation.
I tend to refer to myself as a composer (rather than 'artist') and think of this term in the broad sense mentioned above, as the placing together of things. Whilst there is a more immediate link between my written composition and my performance as a musician, I actually see a more direct correspondence to my installation work, in that both are placing of things together in a visual sense, the page of the score and the space of an exhibition respectively. In this sense I consider written composition as a kind of pivot between the sonic and the visual, with a toe dipped in both.
Do you feel any pressure to pursue one discipline over another? How would you like your work to develop?
No, but there are two different cultures at work which sometimes makes things difficult. For example, I often get invited to exhibit at sound festivals that have a gallery space and recently found myself having to justify the absence of sound in my exhibition. Written compositions in themselves don’t make any sound – it is only through the performance that they become ‘sound art’ (a term I dislike). I think some written scores function even without their performance, or can be performed through a non-sound making discipline, whether it be by visual artists, writers, makers, baristas, cleaners, taxi drivers, teachers, mechanics, gardeners, etc. There are a number of scores/composers that deal with this notion of making the reading of the score its own realisation, or even present the score as a conceptual proposition.
What part does procrastination play in your process?
Not so much on the creative side – pangs of self-doubt are more of an issue there. Admin is the realm of procrastination: tax returns, emails – how many ways can be found to delay these things that have to be done...
You travelled to Mexico last summer, have you noticed any subsequent influence on your work?
Not as much as I should have allowed. My trip was half work-related – I'm employed as Curatorial Assistant at The Edward James Foundation and travelled to consult on a newly acquired archive, as well as visiting James' former home 'Las Pozas', an incredible series of concrete structures in the jungles of Northern Mexico. I have a self-imposed ban on combining my day job (interesting though it is) with my compositional/performance work as I think its important to compartmentalise in order to maintain the energy, and different mind set, that is required to do both. The trip to Mexico should have been an exception and it's only now that I’m starting to think about it in relation to my work and to process the trip in those terms.
Is your work a conversation or a monologue? Any influences or inspirations?
It’s definitely a conversation, normally three-fold. My compositions are often written as a 'translation' of my response to something. I'll give you some examples. In 2014 I was commissioned to write a piece as part of a Fernand Legér retrospective at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nantes, responding to a set of some fifty paintings. Another score was written in response to the work of Basil Beattie, and its development involved meeting with him to discuss his Janus series. I ended up writing a piece for solo double bass in response to that conversation and the paintings. I’ve also written a piece in response to Leonora Carrington’s work. This was a commission connected to her centenary in 2017 and was written in response to her novel The Hearing Trumpet. In all these cases, I am always conversing with the work in question, finding things that trigger something in me, thinking about how the work can be translated to composition without it being reduced to some form of illustration or onomatopoeia. The conversation extends to the performer/s, and at each stage the ‘conversation’ is filtered through a form of translation, with composer and performer each trying to find the best method for interpreting a different language.
What else should we know about your work - what's coming up?
I’ve not really mentioned my interest in how I think all of these things – composition, performance, installation – in relation to wider social concerns. I'm increasingly questioning how they can function as a means for thinking about social composition, and how different qualities correspond, complement, juxtapose, etc. These qualities can be visual, textural, sonic, political, historical, cultural and so on. To my mind there is a clear, if somewhat idealised, correlation between all these things, with the written composition or installation having the potential to act as a diagrammatic microcosm of a social demographic.
I’m going to be working in the studio for the next few months. I’m not planning to show any work for a while in the hope of developing something new that I’ve had in mind for a while but not had the time to develop.
All images ©Sarah Hughes
See more of Sarah’s work on her website here