Richard Bullen,  featured composer, discusses his writing and the thinking behind his piece for the first edition of Sound Tracks: Forest Music

1) Do you remember writing your first piece of music? What was it like?

I remember sitting at the piano (aged 4) and improvising a piece called ‘Dragon’s Mouth’. I didn’t know how to write it down, but (according to my mother) I played the same thing each time, so I must have had the whole thing worked out in my head! I’ve been fascinated by the piano ever since.

2) Are there any musicians or composers that have significantly influenced the direction your work has taken over the years?

Looking back I would say my time spent as a Masters student at the University of Birmingham was hugely significant. One thrilling experience was hearing Sciarrino’s Mouth, Feet, Sound for 100 moving saxophonists at the Birmingham ICC. Likewise Stockhausen’s Carré for 4 orchestras and choirs surrounding the audience under the inspirational direction of composition professor Vic Hoyland.

BEAST concerts (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre) were similarly captivating: being immersed by 80+ loudspeakers and hearing sound travel all around… you step out into the world again and your perception of environmental sound, its behaviour and localisation is so heightened it is quite disorientating – but fun!

3) We’ve noticed that your music frequently involves non-musical elements that create a sense of theatre and drama. Could you tell us about some of these?

My music is inherently dramatic and I enjoy exploring the relationships between other art forms, particularly theatre, film and poetry. It’s about trying to create a very special live experience for the audience, a theatre that is almost tangible. The visual element is incredibly important to me.

4) Can you tell us about any other pieces have you written where the performing space is as important as the performers in the piece?

The House of Asteria involved musicians moving around the whole building of LSO St Luke’s while the audience remained in the hall. I wanted to allow the building speak, to uncover its unique character by exploring how the acoustic changed through the corridors, stairwells and crypt. The offstage sounds, produced by the instrumentalists and the brilliant singer Lore Lixenberg, produced a fascinating, terrifying effect in the live performance, almost impossible to document!

5) What are the particular challenges of writing a piece designed to be played outside, or in a woodland environment?

Apart from the obvious metrological factors, there is the question of the unknown acoustic: I’ve not been able to hear precisely in my head how the instruments will sound in the wood, so it’s a bit of a risk. It’s outside but partly covered due to trees and branches. How will this affect the sound? The other challenge has been to try and keep the material simple enough to be effective in the setting; I’ll have to leave this to the performers and audiences to judge!

6) Would you be able to tell us a bit about how the piece evolved in your mind. What ideas lead you to create what you have written?

My starting point was the name ‘Furnace Wood’ and thinking about the heat, energy and the raw roar of the blast furnace, and how this would relate to the ‘blasting brasses’ at my disposal! I then began considering the resonance of the wood, and how the furnace is now a distant memory. The result of this rumination was a trombone ‘aequale’ which is at the core of the piece and harks back to the solemnity of Beethoven and Bruckner. To return to the furnace analogy… this is the pure material, uncovered by extracting it from its ‘ore’, as occurs in the process of smelting.

7) More generally, what sort of reaction would you expect from the audience who come to see “Sound Tracks”?

There are a couple of surprises worked into this piece – I can’t say too much about that! – but I would hope the audience find themselves immersed in a magical, unique environment of sound, both natural and man-made.

For me the most interesting aspect of this project is that by creating a musical performance in a forest, we are inviting the audience to become more attuned to their surroundings, and experience a heightening of all the senses. It is an invitation to listen more closely to the natural music of the wood.

8) What is the next interesting thing you have on the cards right now?

I’ve been commissioned by Choir and Organ magazine to write a carol for the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s going to be a completely different piece to this one, with ethereal melodic lines floating in the cavernous acoustic, but then I try and re-invent myself with every new work, and every new space.