Sarah Angliss: Getting Creative with Ancient Instruments, Electronics, and Robotics

Marc Henshall | 16/07/2020 Sarah Angliss: Getting Creative with Ancient Instruments, Electronics, and Robotics

Ancient acoustic instruments offer much in the way of texture and timbre that is often overlooked. Few composers think to incorporate these historical wonders into truly modern productions, but that's exactly what British composer, Sarah Angliss does on a daily basis. Her unique blend of ancient instruments, electronics, and robotics has earned her a reputation as one of the most creative modern composers for film and theatre. Parallel to this, her live performances that often play heavily on the ingenious use of robotics are quite the spectacle. To learn more about her work and creative process, we spoke with Sarah as she explained what makes her (and her performances) 'tick'.

You're known for your unique blend of ancient instruments, electronics, and robotics. What inspires you to work in this way? I'm curious, in particular, about the robotic element of your work. Do tell us more.

I want the audience to be drawn towards the sounds I'm making - and to the ways in which they're created on stage. There's a limit to the sounds I can make when performing solo on acoustic instruments as I only have one pair of hands. A few years ago, I tried to tackle this by shifting to laptop samples, loop pedals and so on. However, this turned out to be a pretty impoverished means of communicating with an audience. My performance lost that tight coupling between gesture and sound that exists on Theremin, keyboard, percussion and other acoustic instruments. I think that coupling is highly significant. It generates an intense, shared focus in the room as everyone can sense how the performer is making and shaping the sound.

That's why I opted to build simple machines that could take on some performing duties instead, machines like my robotic carillon. These play algorithmically, so they're making the most of the laptop, but they're physical objects that perform in the room. The audience sees the beaters moving as they hear music being spun at lightning speed. I use these instruments as riff generators while I perform theremin, voice, keyboard or another live instrument on top. 

The Ealing Feeder, for example, is a carillon that plays at very fast tempi, creating a haze of metallic sound. My machines creak and shift slightly as they play, so no two performances are the same. I think their slightly shonky motion also gives the performance a sense of jeopardy. You may be wondering if they'll make it to the end of the show. Together, these qualities give the sound and the performance a real-world richness that a sample library can't match.

Whenever possible, I'm keen to closely mic the instruments to give people a hyperreal experience of the airborne sound. Optimum mic'ing - something I'm still figuring out - enables me to balance and combine delicate sounds, for instance, small bells and clavisimbalum. And I haven't abandoned the laptop - far from it. I also use the graphical sound processing language Max extensively in my compositions and live performances. Max controls the robotics on stage. It also augments the live sound of the acoustic instruments. I like to use it to repeat live sounds and pull them around like liquorice, for example, to create a sense of status or time dilation. 

Despite using many modern electronic techniques, there's a timeless quality to your work. It appears, to me at least, the use of ancient instruments helps this, would you agree? 

I hope so. I've always had a twin interest in ancient instruments and electroacoustic techniques, and I feel they live very well together. Ancient instruments such as the clavisimbalum, carillon and viol have such a fine and delicate sound. That's one reason why they went out of fashion - they couldn't be heard in larger, louder ensembles. Traditionally, these instruments always relied on 'playing the room' - they sounded best in a more reverberant acoustic - and I suppose I'm augmenting whatever acoustic we're in with electronics. Mic'ing and electronic processing enable me to balance their volumes so they can be combined to make otherwise impractical ensembles. They also enable me to emphasise certain sonic qualities.

I love working with early instruments as they have a richness all their own - one that's cultural as well as sonic. The clavisimbalum is a fascinating example as the sound is hard to pin down geographically or temporally. This sonorous, lightly damped ancestor of the harpsichord is essentially a cimbalom or psaltery with a keyboard attached. When I play it, audiences have wondered if the sound is from Russia, France, Iran or Japan.

I love combining new techniques with ancient timbres - it helps to create a sound that seems timeless. These instruments have such sonic richness and often look so extraordinary, they really can't be matched by any sample library.

When it comes to composition, many composers have a process (or at least a way of working that suits them). How do you go about putting a composition together? 

I start by imagining the piece. I might mull it over for days, on and off, in the background, before I record or notate any sounds. Even if I don't know the nitty-gritty of the musical phrases, I often have a keen sense of the feel of the piece and its arc. Then I tend to home in on a particular sound that feels like the sonic essence of the piece. I spend a lot of time extemporising on instruments and recording variants of the sound I'm after until I find something that feels right sonically. I'm open to surprises as very often, I stumble on a sound that's much more promising than my original intentions. The same goes for any processing of raw material. I imagine transformations in my head then spend a long time experimenting to see where it might lead.

It's only when I've worked out the soundworld that I really start to work in detail on the structure and anything that needs to be notated. And slowly, the thing grows. I'd say I'm very much driven by sonic complexity - the stratified, shifting timbres of a piece - rather than harmonic complexity.

Every piece I compose feels unfinished until I've performed it live or put it in front of an audience in some way. It's always very instructive and humbling to see how listeners respond to music. When did they seem captivated - where did the music leave them cold? I feel this road testing in a live situation is essential.

Composing for theatre or film often feels very different. How does your approach change when scoring for film and theatre compared with say, an album or live performance?

When I'm creating works for my own performance, the music is foregrounded, and I can go wherever my imagination takes me. In film or theatre though, the sound and music must work in ensemble with all the other elements: dialogue, movement, scenery, lighting and so on. Thus I need to be a good ensemble player, leaving certain grand ideas at the door if they don't contribute to the intentions or needs of the show.

Sometimes theatre music is partly functional - covering a lengthy scene transition and drawing the audience into the next scene. Other times, it acts as subtext, supporting the mood within a scene, sometimes undercutting it. I love how a certain kind of music in the middle of an upbeat scene, for example, can subtly plant in the audience's head a sense of foreboding. Is that awareness shared by the characters in the scene, or are the audience one step ahead of them? I find these kinds of musical questions fascinating. The most exciting film and theatre projects are the ones where the score feels like another character, albeit a supporting one.

Do you have a particular stand-out piece you're particularly proud of? If so, what makes this work special to you?

At the moment, I'm very proud of some work I did for Amulet, a contained horror film directed by Romola Garai which made it to Sundance 2020. Romola gave me the perfect brief, which was to write music that could have come from the twelfth century or the twenty-first, featuring female goddesses intent on vengeance. I worked with two female singers Sarah Gabriel and Melanie Pappenheim and together, we found a vocal sound for the goddesses - one that was influenced by Nordic kulning (eerie songs to call back the cattle). I think this may be the first horror film out there where the daemon is conjured by a contrabass recorder - an instrument that is unexpectedly brilliant at multiphonics. I have no idea what people will make of the score (the film is coming out later this summer), but I know it has an identity all its own. 

I'm also very proud of my composition and sound design for The Hairy Ape, Eugene O'Neill's expressionist play about the shock of modernity (1926). This played at The Old Vic, London, and Park Avenue Armory, New York. Richard Jones directed it, and we agreed we wanted something experiential - a soundtrack that felt right for the period but left the audience feeling overwhelmed by the machine. We had a health-and-safety issue with the first iteration of the opening cue. It was so startling - metal on metal - latecomers got a bit of jolt as they were trying to find their seat. So we had to put a subtle roll on the front of that, an early warning so people didn't fall over the balcony. One of the noisiest scenes takes place in the stokehole of a steamship where the men have to shovel coal into boilers, policed by a foreman with a loud klaxon. That was very difficult to rehearse as the actors genuinely found it a nasty experience, even at rehearsal room volumes. I asked the historian Robert Dowling how the show had been made to work in the 1920s, before the advent of amplified theatre sound. He told me the cast used real boilers and coal on stage (presumably not lit).

Lastly, looking to the future, in 2021, you're set to work on a collaboration with poet Hannah Lowe entitled "Buying the Wind". What can you tell us about this collaboration?

The seed for this piece was something I'd spotted in Edward Lovett's 1925 book 'Magic in Modern London'. Here, Lovett recorded sailors in London nailing a coin to the mast or dropping a coin into the water to vie for a good wind. Lovett also noted that there were women' selling' wind to sailors on the north-east coast of England. They would sell it in the form of string, tied with knots which the sailors would undo, one by one, when they needed a good sailing wind. I've seen this superstition of 'buying wind' mentioned in Newfoundland too.

Starting with this seed, Hannah and I are trying to create a suite of pieces that explore our island's porous, elemental borders: wind and tide. We want to celebrate those people, artefacts, ideas, dreams and dreads that have arrived on these shores, through our elemental borders. At a time of great anxiety, I see this as an expression of something positive. I want to change the conversation about our identity as an island nation, seeking affinities between those migrants over millennia who have made it their home.

Technically, this piece is a departure for me as I'm writing for a vocalist and string quartet plus live electronics. I'm very keen to mic up the string players, so any electronic augmentations feel seamless with the live sound. And the live instruments mustn't feel amplified in any way - I don't want this to feel like a mic'd up piece but an acoustic piece, performed by violins, viola and cello with otherworldly properties. So this is all about delicate work with string players and mic'ing. I'm working with a superb British quartet The Kreutzer, and of course, I also need to consider how to mic without putting any undue stress or marks on their instruments. So there's going to be a lot of head-scratching later on this year when we get together for our first workshops.

Another ongoing conundrum is how to compose for acoustic instruments, electronics and Max patches in a reproducible way. My long term goal is to make electroacoustic pieces, with live processing, where the score can be picked up and played without me. I would love it this piece travelled on the winds, so adventurous string quartets anywhere in the world with a mics, Max, a laptop and a PA could give this piece a try. 

This has been an ongoing question for me: how to embed live processing instructions and patches in a score. It's a conundrum I'm also trying to unpick with Giant, an electroacoustic chamber opera I'm writing. Of course one of the essential ingredients is a sound engineer who knows how to get that transparent 'is it mic'd or isn't it?' sound. I'm lucky to have been working with engineer Zoe Milton on Giant, and her mic'ing skills are second-to-none.

Marc Henshall

Marc Henshall

Marc forms part of our Pro Audio team at Shure UK and specialises in Digital Marketing. He also holds a BSc First Class Hons Degree in Music Technology. When not at work he enjoys playing the guitar, producing music, and dabbling in DIY (preferably with a good craft beer or two).