In Conversation: Argo

In Conversation: Argo

We had a chat with Ben and Connor, the masterminds behind Argo, about their upcoming performance - Argo presents: FLOW.

Argo
Brisbane, Australia

In Conversation: Argo

We had a chat with Ben and Connor, the masterminds behind Argo, about their upcoming performance - Argo presents: FLOW.

The space in which you’re performing seems to play a large part in the music you program. Tell me about how you decide on a performance space, and consequently, how you fill it.

Ben:
It’s more a case of discovering a space rather than deciding on it I believe. We find interesting venues and look into if it would be feasible to produce a concert in them. For the filling of the venue we just look at any ideas the venue gives us and work out how we could imagine the concert looking and sounding.

Following on in that vein - what comes first, the performance space or the compositional process?

Connor:
The performance space comes first. It really does shape how the whole concert comes together, what musical textures/ensembles/ideas are appropriate/will work, an extra-musical influence, the logistics. The venue also gives each concert a unique character, which we want all the aspects of the experience to also have.

Argo prioritises performing world premieres at every concert - what are your individual writing processes? Do you come together to write in a collaborative way, or are all the pieces written separately?

Connor:
It's a bit of a mix of both. At first it starts collaboratively, and very focused on the space – we spend some time there, discuss the kind of ensembles we'd like to work with or would work in the space, the musical and textural ideas we have, spatial and performance-related ideas, like where we might place musicians, how the surround setup might interact with the space, etc. After brainstorming all the ideas we would like to work with, we begin to plan out the entire program as a whole, as a single musical journey: planning how different textures will connect from one to the next, which ensembles/performers are involved when, where we will be drawing the audiences attention towards and how sound will move throughout the space, the contour and proportions of it all, etc. From there we divide the program into more manageable sections/movements/interconnected-pieces, some to be worked on individually, and others in close collaboration. For example, for our first concert of the year Meditations, in Music for Large Spaces, a work for two pianos separated by the length of the cathedral, we worked in close collaboration - splitting off to write small ideas and sections, then working them into the work as a whole together.

In terms of my own compositional process, once I have the initial starting point for a work, be it a musical or textural idea, its context within a program, an extra-musical influence, or the premise for a commission, I improvise (on piano) to get a feel for ideas, textures and the character of the work. When I’ve collected together some material, I develop a clear structure for the work, proportioning it out and making some decisions as to tempi, keys, etc. These are all flexible, but just give some more direction to the process.The bulk of the writing process is split in two: at the piano, and at the computer. Each day that I’ve set aside for writing (I like to set aside entire days, if I am so lucky to have any), I write at the piano, pencil on paper, during the day. In the evening, I take what I’ve written that day, input it as it is into the computer, then edit it.

Ben:
My compositional process is extremely eclectic and hard to nail down. When writing for acoustic instruments I try to create emotional content without thinking too much about how it may interact with the electronics. I guess I work quite traditionally, thinking about musical ideas then writing them out on paper (with LOTS of shorthand). The most important thing to me is to have a complete version of the piece in my head that I just close my eyes and play through. Whenever I get too bogged down in finding the right notation for an idea or trying to figure something out on an instrument myself I return to this.

With a background in classical music, what strikes you about electronic music - and keeps you wanting to push boundaries related to form and genre?

Ben:
What strikes me about electronic music is the sheer power offered by the unlimited possibilities for new sounds. Every day of my life I could sit down with my computer and some gear and create a sound that nobody has ever heard before. While you may argue that a violinist might do the same thing in the way they perform, I would counter that the violinist always has a context for their creation whereas with electronics everything can be a fresh discovery to some extent. As far as pushing boundaries, I don’t really think I go out of my way to push anything on purpose, I just make the music I want to and it sometimes just happens that way, because I like things that involve some very traditional elements and some very progressive elements at the same time.

What is it about the combination of acoustic instruments and soundscapes that draws you in? What captivates you about the combination?

Ben:
I think about it as kind of like an extension of the natural world. Every performance ever has occurred within a soundscape of some kind, dictated by context, period and even the shape of the room it is performed in. For example, St John’s cathedral, where we did our Meditations concert, had an incredible natural soundscape comprised of traffic noise being warped and transformed by the cathedral’s immense organic reverberation. My work simply stems from wanting to extend and control the soundscape that acoustic instruments perform in, and create some of ideal sound world for the music to occur in. Its really captivating because it lets you evoke moods and emotions in the audience from the moment they enter a venue - you get this kind of “metamusic” in which the performance can take place.

What inspired you to start Argo, and begin programming and developing your own shows?

Connor:
Ben and I have been good friends for years, having studied music together at UQ. We’ve always enjoyed working together, brainstorming and bouncing ideas off each other, looking over each others work, giving advice and helping edit and redraft, and we came to work out that not only were our musical styles very compatible, but also that we both held some pretty similar (not to mention ambitious) ideas about many aspects of music and art. Last year we thought to test the waters on collaborating closely on something, to put together a concert experience of all our own works. So we formed Argo, to organise such concerts, to collaborate on writing and performing our works, starting off with a concert in the University of Queensland Art Museum in collaboration with their exhibit Light Play. The concert, surprisingly enough also called Light Play, was a huge success, and things have just gone on from there, this year launching an entire concert series!

What can an audience expect at Flow?

Connor:
Well we don’t want to give too much away... Let's just say we want you to "fall down the rabbit hole” with us. It’s going to be a surreal experience to fit a similarly surreal venue: underground in Brisbane’s iconic Spring Hill Reservoir. Think complex and constantly shifting soundscapes, musicians appearing from all around the depths of the reservoir’s many maze-like chambers, and music for classical guitar, electric guitar, and violin cello duo, amplified and manipulated in surround sound. Also afterwards there’ll be some cheese and wine, provided by our friends over at Musica Viva, that’ll be fun too.