Through minimalism, electronic and classical music, English musician Roly Porter describes his very personal research. A auditory, expanded and rarefied universe, where human beings are revealed for what they are: a microscopic speck of matter within a vast cosmos.
The topic of “the end of the world”, which could be meant as a post human existence or, more generally, as something linked to the relativity of time and space, has been the focus of your solo works. I’m referring in particular to your album Aftertime (2011), Life Cycle of a Massive Star (2013) and Third Law (2015). What aspects of this theme fascinate you and how did you decide to translate it into music?
In order to continue writing music I need to cast aside my natural pessimism and embrace hope and a love for humanity. When considering current issues I find this very hard to do. When focusing on the politics and issues of your own time, it is difficult to find ways to make a meaningful contribution and process your relationship with things in a positive way. Thankfully many artists and activists achieve this every day and I am very grateful for those people. Art and music have always had a critical part to play in social change, however I am currently not one of those people.
When reading science fiction or non-fiction, when thinking about a post human universe or far distant possible futures for human life, or simply thinking about things on a different scale, as with the star project, I find that my perspective of humanity changes. This is partly a kind of escapism and could potentially be irresponsible, but when viewed from that distance I find it easier to love the human race and ignore its flaws. When seen on that scale, individual lives seem heartbreakingly small and fragile and in a strange way, against the backdrop of time and space, even the biggest travesties of our species take on some of this sense of hopeful struggle.
Each of your releases focuses on a specific image or concept related to extra-musical suggestions: Aftertime is featured by tracks named as planets and stars from Dune, the Frank
Herbert’s science fiction epic; Life Cycle is focused on the life of a star, from its birth to its (sonic) disintegration; Third Law’s title is inspired by Isaac Newton’s third law of motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction). Why did you choose those themes in particular and do you think they could be somehow connected to the idea of “end of the world”?
The end of the world is inevitable. That is neither a good nor bad thing, it just is. Whether the planet survives long enough to see the end of our Sun or whether some other event occurs first is irrelevant, it will end. I first encountered the idea of things being finite and impermanent when I read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and this, combined with the death of my Father, filled me with a morbid terror. I lived for years in a drug induced hyper anxious state where death felt imminent. I have recovered from this now and embracing this idea of impermanence and the ability to view things from a different perspective and a larger time scale was key to this. It is very difficult as a human to think outside a human-centric perspective, to imagine that we are not the centre of the universe, for example. Because of this and our short lifespans we have a skewed perception of time and scale.
Compared to Vex'd, your previous project of dubstep music with Jamie Teasdale, all your solo works feature a wide spectrum of sound materials (electronic and concrete sounds, acoustic instruments and also quotes from other works, like György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna in Third Law), and a main interest in composing an organic and complex global sound, with a resulting lack of periodic rhythmical elements. Is this change of aesthetics something you want to explain us more in detail?
Over time I found that the necessity in dance music to fit into a genre or to be functional began to impact my ability to engage with it. I wanted to create something that was it’s own world entirely, an album that was a soundtrack for a single idea that existed outside any other rules or references. I felt this wasn’t possible in the format of the music we wrote as Vex’d because people had an expectation of what it should do and we felt a responsibility to write in that form. I didn’t want to write ambient music, I still wanted to use the techniques and elements that I loved from sound system music, but shape them in a different, more organic way.
We are living in a time where technological and scientific progress has expanded the possibilities for music creation (for instance, software for music composition, possibility to work with all sorts of sound materials, availability of a huge documentation of music of every period and place, etc.); however, this developement involve a transience of devices and machines that produce sound, and also a risk of historical and aesthetical flattening of the musical sources. As a musician who lives and creates music in this on-going course of transformation, are these issues something you take into account in your creative process?
The ways in which music can be created are constantly changing, as are the ways in which it can be experienced. I can’t say whether, on the whole, these changes will be for the better or worse, but the one thing that concerns me is the pursuit of excellence. Many new technologies are designed to assist the user, to make things easier. Often we can take this help and use it to go further but if things are made too easy and creation and consumption become too fast paced I think we risk something. In order to become a truly great pianist, or cellist or whatever, hundreds of hours of completely focused work are required. Is there something innate in this process that embodies the resulting art with more value than if it is created in part automatically? Can Beethoven’s Emperor
Concerto be written by a machine, or by an untrained composer with the aid of a machine, and if it can, what does this mean?
From a personal perspective, much of the music I make comes from experimentation, particularly the sound design elements. I enjoy this and I embrace all new musical technology, but I often wonder about the actual value of what I am creating and it’s possible that my technologically reliant methods may have some part in this debate. I am always deeply humbled when I meet a player of an instrument.
Could you please give us a playlist of 5 works (yours or by other artists) that you relate to the theme of our exhibition, “the end of the world”, and tell us which are the reasons of this selection?
If Humanity does not leave the Earth and colonise other planets then there is a very high chance that it will not last to witness the end of the planet. In this case, there will be a period of time on Earth when we are gone and everything we have built will disintegrate and nature will return. There is something attractive, almost re-assuring about this thought and it is what I like to consider while listening to field recordings so I have included three pieces by Chris Watson in this list. The three music choices speak for themselves.