Trevor Wishart, born 1946 in Leeds, is a composer and performer who developed (not only) sound transformation tools in his Sound Loom – Composers’ Desktop Project software package. He’s the author of the worldwide-known books ‘On Sonic Art’ and ‘Audible Design’, where he shares his extensive research on extended human voice and computer music techniques for sound morphing. He is currently ‘Arts Council Composer Fellow’ in the Department of Music at Durham University, England.

Developed computer sound morphing techniques for IRCAM commission Vox 5, for ‘supervoice’ in sound-surround, proposed in 1979, made in ’86. Subsequently developed large numbers of sound transformation software instruments working through the Composers Desktop Project . These are utilised to the full in Tongues of Fire (1993-4: Golden Nica, Ars Electronica, 1995). All these processes are described in the book Audible Design and made available on the Sound Loom

In the book On Sonic Art, Trevor Wishart discussed new musical possibilities offered by these tools, and developed notion of a sophisticated art of sound, or Sonic Art. He writes: “In the past, the quality or nature of sounds used in music was set by the technology of instrument design, and conventions about performance and musical ‘expression’. In the 19th century, european composers became increasingly concerned with ‘sonority’, through development of new orchestration techniques, and new instruments. However, a systematic approach to sound itself had to wait for the invention of sound recording and the accurate computer analysis of sounds. Studios, and then computers, also provided powerful new tools for musicians to work directly with sound.”

U.S.O. Project had the pleasure of interviewing Trevor Wishart, whom work has been recently awarded at the ‘Giga-Hertz-Award for electronic music 2008’. The ‘Grand Prize’ honored his artistic and technical achievements along his career.


USO: You’ve been awarded at the Bourges Festival, at Ars Electronica and now at Giga-Hertz, three prestigious prizes for electronic music. How are your feelings now for all these tributes about your life work as composer?

Trevor Wishart: It’s very gratifying to receive this kind of recognition from the musical community, especially as the type of music I make is almost invisible in the cultural press in the UK, where electro-acoustic composition is squeezed out between classical instrumental music and popular music.

USO: How did you begin being interested in music composition?

Trevor Wishart: I was brought up in a working class household, with no real connection with the world of concerts, or theatres, but there was a piano in the house, a family heirloom, which no-one ever played. I became fascinated by it, and so my parents agreed to let me have piano lessons. A little later, when I was 7, I was looking in the window of the only classical music shop in town when I noticed a strange book, a musical score with no notes on it (it was a manuscript book). I immediately bought one and began to write my own music.


USO: Did you choose the electronic medium and how has this affected your way of composing?

Trevor Wishart: I went to university to study Chemistry (my parents could not imagine music as a real job … my school advised me against pursuing this ‘dilettantism’) but soon changed to music. After being thrown into the deep end of Darmstadt by my college tutor at Oxford, I was writing complex instrumental music (7 tone rows with different intervallic structures + random number tables) when my father died. He worked in a factory in Leeds, and I suddenly felt my sense of disconnectedness from his world. So I bought the only tape-recorder I could afford (it ran at 3+3/4 inches per second and had a built in poor-quality mike) and went around factories and power-stations in Nottingham and Leeds, recording the sounds of industrial machinery, with some vague notion of making a piece for him. In the studio I discovered that many of my presumptions about composition were challenged in this new medium. Sounds had a life of their own which had to be respected. Preconceived absolute notions of musical proportions and musical relationships were challenged by the concrete reality of the sounds themselves. After two large early projects (‘Machine’ and ‘Journey-into-Space’) I settled on a way of working with complex materials based on the idea of sound-transformation, in the work ‘Red Bird’.

‘Red Bird’ treats its real-world sounds (birds, animals, voices, machines) as metaphors in a mythical landscape, one sound type transforming into another to create a form somewhere between music and mythic narrative. In fact the approach was suggested by reading Levi Strauss’s ‘The Raw and the Cooked’, where he uses music as a kind of metaphor for his structural anthropological approach to myth. My idea was to turn this on its head and create a contemporary myth (about industrialism, determinism, ‘freedom’ and creativity) using sound and musical structure. The sound-transformation approach (very difficult to achieve in the analogue studio) was thus partly inspired by a political idea … the possibility of changing the social world. With the advent of computers, very precise control of sound structure made it possible to adopt sound-transformation as a general approach to musical materials. I think of this as a generalization of the classical ideas of variation and development, extended into the entire spectral domain.


USO: You prefer using samples generated from vocal sources performed by you with extended techniques. Could you describe the creation process?

Trevor Wishart: Not strictly. I very often use the human voice (sometimes my own, sometimes live performers like ‘Electric Phoenix’ or ‘Singcircle’, sometimes voices from the media, or from the local community), for two reasons. On the one hand the voice is much more than a musical instrument. Through speech it connects us to the social world, and thence to the traditions of poetry , drama, comedy, etc. It reveals much about the speaker, from gender, age and health to attitude, mood and intention, and it also connects us with our Primate relatives. The listener recognizes a voice even when it is minimally indicated, or vastly transformed, just as we recognize faces from very few cues. And the average listener will be affected by e.g. a vocal multiphonic, an immediate empathic or guttural link, in a way which they will not be affected by a clarinet multiphonic (appreciate more in the sphere of contemporary music afficionados). At the same time, apart from the computer itself, the voice is the richest sound-producing ‘instrument’ that we have, generating a vast variety of sounds from the stably pitched, to the entirely noisy, to complex rapidly-changing multiphonics or textures of grit and so on. This is a rich seam to mine for musical exploration.

USO: Could you describe your musical production system?

Trevor Wishart: My musical creation process depends on the particular work. Normally I have a general idea (a ‘poetic’) for the work. For example, ‘Imago’ has the idea of surprising events arising from unlikely origins (just like the imago stage of insect metamorphosis, the butterfly, emerges from the unprepossessing pupa). For ‘Globalalia’ the idea is to express the connectedness of human beings by exploring the fundamental elements of all languages, the syllables. I also have some general notions of how musical forms work … clearly stating the principal materials is important for the listener in a context where a traditional musical language is not being used; establishing key moments or climaxes in the work; repetition and development, and recapitulation of materials, especially leading towards and away from these foci, and so on. Repetition and (possibly transformed) recapitulation are especially important to the listener to chart a path through an extended musical form. But all sound materials are different, and it is not possible to predict, except in the most obvious ways, what will arise when one begins to transform the sounds. So I spend a lot of time, exploring, playing with, the sources, transforming them, and transforming the transformations, and gradually a formal scheme appropriate to what I discover, and to those particulars materials, crystallizes in the studio.


USO: How was your experience working at IRCAM for “Vox 5”? 

Trevor Wishart: My first visit to IRCAM was the most exciting learning experience of my life. Discovering the possibilities opened up by the analysis and transformation of sounds using software, learning about psycho-acoustics in Steve McAdams inspiring lectures, and mingling with high-powered researchers bursting with new ideas. As you probably know, I was offered the opportunity to make a piece during my 1981 visit, but then the entire hardware base of IRCAM changed and it was not until 1986 that I could actually begin work on ‘VOX- 5’ , a piece growing out of the experience of ‘Red Bird’. I was assigned a mentor (Thierry Lancino), but he soon realized that I could probably manage on my own (my science background at school meant that programming came naturally to me), and I soon discovered the Phase Vocoder, taking apart the data files to discover what was in them, and using this knowledge to begin designing sound-morphing tools based on the transformation of that data. 

USO: You have been involved in software developing for several years. Why did you choose to shape your own tools? Can you tell us about the genesis and the actual development of the Composer Desktop Project?

Trevor Wishart: There are two main reasons. The first is poverty (!). Most of my life I’ve been a freelance composer, and being a freelance experimental composer in England is seriously difficult! When I first worked with electronics you were dependent on custom-built black boxes like the SPX90. The problem for me was, even if I could afford to buy one of these, I could not afford to upgrade every other year, as University music departments could. It became clear that the solution to this would be to have IRCAM-like software running on a desktop computer. A group of like-minded composers and engineers in York got together (in 1985-6) as the Composers’ Desktop Project, and began porting some of the IRCAM/Stanford software to the Atari ST (The MAC was, then, too slow for professional audio). We then began to design our own software. The second reason is that creating one’s own instruments means you can follow your sonic imagination wherever it leads, rather than being restricted by the limitations of commercially-focused software. You can develop or extend an instrument when you feel the need to (not when the commercial producer decides it’s profitable to do so), and you can fix it if it goes wrong!


USO: Can you tell us the Composers’ Desktop Project genesis?

Trevor Wishart: The original ports onto the Atari ran very slowly: e.g. doing a spectral transformation of a 4 second stereo sound might take 4 minutes at IRCAM, but took 2 days on the Atari. However, on your own system at home, you could afford to wait … certainly easier than attempting to gain access to the big institutions every time you wanted to make a piece. Gradually PCs got faster – even IRCAM moved onto MACs. The CDP graduated onto the PC (MACs were to expensive for freelancers!) and the software gradually got faster than realtime. The CDP has always been a listening-based system, and I was resistant for a long time to creating any graphic interface – much commercial software had a glamorous-looking interface hiding limited musical possibilities. However, in the mid-90s I eventually developed the ‘Sound Loom’ in TK/Tcl. (This language was particularly helpful as it meant the interface could be developed without changing the underlying sound-processing programs). The advantages of the interface soon became apparent, particularly its ability to store an endless history of musical activities, save parameter patches, and create multi-processes (called ‘Instruments’). More recently I’ve added tools to manage large numbers of files. ‘Bulk Processing’ allows hundreds of files to be submitted to the same process, while ‘Property Files’ allow user-defined properties and values to be assigned to sounds, and sounds can then be selected on the basis of those properties. There are more and more high level functions which combine various CDP processes to achieve higher-level functionality.

USO: How did you develop your skills in programming algorhythms for the spectral domain?

Trevor Wishart: I studied science and maths at school, and did one term of university maths (for chemists). Mathematics has always been one of my hobbies – it’s beautiful, like music. When I was 15, my school organized a visit to the local (Leeds) university computer, a vast and mysterious beast hidden in an air-conditioned room from where it was fed by punched-card readers. I wrote my first Algol programs then. I only took up programming later, as a student at York, when Clive Sinclair brought out his first ultra-cheap home computer. I taught myself Basic, graduated to the other Sinclair machines, up to the final ‘QL’ which I used to control the sound-spatialisation used in VOX-1. Later I graduated to C. Martin Atkins, who designed the CDP’s sound-system, and Miller Puckette at IRCAM, from whom I picked up some useful advice … but I’m still only a gifted amateur when it comes to programming!


USO: Could you explain us your preference for offline processing software instead of real-time environments?

Trevor Wishart: Offline and realtime work are different both from a programming and from a musical perspective. The principal thing you don’t have to deal with in offline work, is getting the processing done in a specific time. The program must be efficient and fast, and understand timing issues. Offline all this is simply irrelevant. Offline also, you can take your time to produce a sound-result e.g. a process might consult the entire sound and make some decisions about what to do, run a 2nd process, and on the basis of this run a third and so on. As machines get faster and programmers get cleverer (and if composers are happy for sounds to be processed off-line and re-injected into the system later) then you can probably get round most of these problems.

But the main difference is aesthetic. If you’re processing a live-event, you have to accept whatever comes in the mike or input device. However precise the score, the sounds coming in will always be subtlety different on each performance. So the processes you use have to work with a range of potential inputs. The main problem with live music, is you have to be the sort of person who likes going to concerts, or is happy in the social milieu of the concert. And many people are not. This can be changed through, on the one hand, education, but, more significantly, by making the concert world more friendly to more groups of people, and e.g. taking performances to unusual venues (I’ve performed in working mens’ clubs, schools, and so on).

Working offline you can work with the unique characteristics of a particular sound – it may be a multiphonic you managed to generate in an improvising session but is not simply ‘reproducible’ at will, or it may be the recording of a transient event, or a specific individual, that cannot be reproduced at will in a performance. Moreover, the absence of performers on stage might seem like a weakness, but it has its own rewards. Compare theatre and film. A live performance has obvious strengths – a contact with living musicians, the theatre of the stage etc, but you’re always definitely there in the concert-hall. In the pure electro-acoustic event we can create a dream-world which might be realistic, abstract, surreal or all these things at different times – a theatre of the ears where we can be transported away from the here and now into a world of dreams. Electro-acoustic music is no different to cinema in the respect of its repeatability, except that sound-diffusion, in the hands of a skilled diffuser, can make each performance unique, an interaction with the audience, the concert situation and the acoustics of the space. Divorcing the music from the immediacy of a concert stage allows us to explore imaginary worlds, conjured in sound, beyond the social conventions of the concert hall.


USO: What are your thoughts about the spatialisation issue? 

Trevor Wishart: In the 70’s I worked in an analogue 4-track. But then the 4-track technology died. Since then I have been cautious about using any spatialisation procedure beyond stereo, as I don’t want my work to be dependent on a technology which might not last. I’m also concerned with the average listener, who will not go to a concert, or a special institution with complex spatialisation facilities. Most people will listen to music on headphones or domestic hifis. So the music must work in this context. With diffusion, however, I can expand the stereo work, using the diffusion process to reinforce and expand the gestures within the music. My current piece will probably be in 8-tracks, partly for aesthetic reasons, – it is based on recognizable human speech, and I would like the speech ‘community’ to surround the audience – and partly because 8-track is, perhaps, future-proof, being essentially 4 times stereo! I’m excited by the multichannel spatialisation systems being developed at the moment, but I would like to see the development of very cheap, high quality loudspeakers, to make these technologies accessible to smaller (normal) venues, and to composers like me, who work at home.

USO: How should your music be performed (by you or any other sound artist) in live context?

Trevor Wishart: With the pure electro-acoustic works, the (stereo) pieces should be diffused over many stereo pairs. I provide basic diffusion scores if I am not diffusing the pieces myself.


USO: What do you think about the structural approach in music composition? Do you think it could be helpful to shape tools for computer aided composition in order to speed up the composer’s work?

Trevor Wishart: Absolutely essential, there is no music without structure. But computer-aided composition is something for commercial music and film, where we don’t want to stray from known pathways, so we’re happy to encapsulate those in an algorithm. For art music, I want to hear how another person shapes materials in order to bring me a musical experience. I’m not interested in hearing the output of an algorithm, though, of course, algorithms might be used on a small scale to help shape particular events.

USO: Is your academic career helped you to expand your knowledge about your way of composing?

Trevor Wishart: Yes. Because I was studying Chemistry at Oxford, when I changed subject to Music it was into one of the most conservative music departments in the UK, But I’m glad I was therefore brought into contact with music from the middle ages to the early 1900s and taught about the many different approaches composers have taken to organizing their materials, over hundreds of years

USO: In your music is there any technical or inspirational reference to composers of the past?

Trevor Wishart: I don’t think so. OS, should I say, not yet .


USO: What are your near future projects?

Trevor Wishart: My present project, a 3 year residency, involves recording the speaking voices of many people across the community in the North East of England. I have recorded in schools, old peoples’ centres, pubs and homes. I wish to capture people speaking naturally, and to collect together a diverse range of vocal types – different ages, from 4 to 93, gender, and sheer vocal quality. My intention is to make an electro-acoustic piece of about one hour, in 4 ‘acts’, which plays on both the uniqueness of each speaker, and on the common features of the voice we all share. The piece must be comprehensible to the local community, particularly to those people whose voices I recorded (few of whom have any special interest in experimental music!), but also to an international concert audience, where I cannot assume that the listeners will understand English.