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British Composer Award for Innovation – Trevor Wishart

As part of this year’s British Composer Awards, hosted by BBC Radio 3 presenters Andrew McGregor and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, we were delighted to present two composers with Gift of BASCA Awards. These were given in recognition of contributions to new music throughout their careers.

Trevor Wishart was presented with a British Composer Award for Innovation in recognition of his commitment to innovation throughout his musical career. With a particular focus on translating the human voice and natural sounds into music through the use of technology, Wishart is a pioneer of sonic art and the winner of numerous international award. Having written extensively on the topic of sonic art and computer music he has created a number of original software tools for musical composition and is a founder member of the Composer’s Desktop Project.

Ahead of the ceremony, we had a chat with Trevor to find out about his career to date and what advice he can offer to composers.

How do you feel about receiving the British Composer Award for Innovation from the composer community?

“Surprised, and happy that my work is being recognised.”

What has been the most pivotal moment in your career to date?

“An invitation on to the IRCAM induction course in 1981, where I learned music programming.”

Your work as a free vocal improviser has pushed so many boundaries – what drew you originally to the voice?

“Just as a baby is especially responsive to anything resembling a human face, we all seem to have the same instinctive reaction to the human voice. Hence, using the voice as your sound source connects very immediately with audiences. A complicated multiphonic on a clarinet might be interesting to a small group of music specialists, but a complicated multiphonic in the voice connects emotionally with anyone (even if they’re just terrified!!).

More generally, the voice is a very special sound source. Unlike other musical instruments, you can change the spectrum (the sound colour) of the voice from moment to moment. In fact, that’s what happens as we speak. This makes it a particularly exciting (and difficult) source to work with in the computer studio.”

As a key creative programmer for the Composers Desktop Project, what drove you to develop the community?

“The Composers Desktop Project has always been a cooperative venture. It grew out of a group of composers, all pupils or associates of Richard Orton at the University of York. Its chief inspiration was poverty. At the time it originated, computer music could only be made on mainframe computers and, for various technical reasons, in only 4 places in the world, the only place in Europe being IRCAM in Paris. Not even the University of York could afford such a computer, never mind us composers. But we realised that the computer programs would run on one of the new desktop computers then emerging, and decided to port lots of the software to machines we could all afford and use at home.

I’ve always been committed to freely (or very cheaply) available software, as you can only develop a music-making community if you share the tools with other people, just as traditional composers share conventional instruments as their common sound sources.”

In your opinion what are the most exciting advances in music making right now?

“The ability to animate and control a multidimensional space of sounds originating from anywhere at all, from conventional musical or dramatic performance, events in the real world, and purely synthetic sounds, and to move seamlessly between all of these.”

What advice would you give an aspiring composer and sound designer starting out today?

“Stick to your artistic goals. Don’t be distracted by the lure of fame or fortune. Learn to use as many sound musical tools as you can, then stick with them, master them. Get your work performed abroad. Support for experimental work is uncommon, but at any particular time, there is usually some country or region which has decided to support new work. You need to be able to move from place to place where support is forthcoming.”

Where do you personally find creative inspiration?

“From many, many sources, but particularly from events in the real world and from pure mathematics.”

A BBC Radio 3 exclusive broadcast of The British Composer Awards 2018 is available to listen to on BBC Sounds here.