Young British music pioneer Nicholas Morrish (1989) has a fascination for the delicate microworld of analogue sounds: delving into obsolete media like gramophone discs to rediscover their unique qualities and inner life. He approaches his own artistic practice with the same reflective attitude, never settling for what’s a given in the world of new music.
“I started out improvising, playing in bands, playing classical music as well, but primarily jazz and rock music. I’ve been writing music of some sort for a really long time, but I didn’t really know what a composer was. Composing was just something that I did.” Following on from conservatory and postgraduate education during which he wrote several large scale pieces, he decided to radically reinvent himself around four years ago: “I turned around and felt the need to really reappraise everything. I asked myself: What is my relationship with sound, with harmony, with noise, with instruments, with electronics? I am trying to forge a personal connection with these things rather than just accepting what was in front of me.”
One of the things he ended up discovering was a love for the hidden and underappreciated qualities of media. Seeing media not just as carriers, but as resonating bodies that have a quality and a life of their own. For his piece the traces that remain, for example, he uses a gramophone spinning 78rpm shellac gramophone discs that he made himself, containing field recordings of the surface noises of the records themselves, as well as industrial and organic sounds that play a role in the manufacturing of the records. “I tried to invert the relationship between content and material, by listening to the detailed worlds and stories beneath the surface of the shellac discs, and let the ensemble play what would normally be the discs’ musical content. I really wanted to try and bring these different concepts into a shared space and to see what would happen when they rub alongside each other.”
Morrish is quick to point out that working with obsolete media such as gramophones is not a nostalgic concern for him: “The reason that I’m working with analogue media is there is so much sonic potential. My experience of digital media is often that microdetail is flattened out. Whereas what I love about these machines is that they do unpredictable things. They have a sonic ecology that lives and breathes. And when it comes to obsolescence: we tend to forget media and instruments that still have so much potential. I want to bring those sounds back into the performative space and to give them the time that they need to communicate with us.”
To lay bare the qualities of the sound, Morrish likes to work with simple, clear structures that slowly let different materials come together and follow their own trajectory. “I want to really pair down the materials and see what is there. To take acoustic structures or behaviours that we think we know or understand, but then make space for nuance and details within them to emerge and unfold.” Take for example his piece Life of Lines, in which various instruments form a sort of braid, intertwining and enlacing delicately over time. “Really what I’m trying to do is to bring out the fine-grained details of the sounds themselves.”
Recently his tastes and explorations have driven him towards experimental electronic music. “I listen to a lot of electronic music by composers that don’t sit so comfortably within the framework of new music. People like Eliane Radigue, Toshimaru Nakamura, Akos Rozmann, Sawako, Taylor Deupree and Richard Chartier.” And his media explorations have turned him to unpacking film as well. “I’m particularly interested in the close-up. Fixed film in which expressive content emerges out of almost imperceptible action.”