Creating a state of ambivalence

Neil Luck in conversation with Marat Ingeldeev

How can you maintain an identity as a musician and at the same time work with different media such as film and the visual arts? Is this diversity an indication of dilettantism – as something positive! – or a way of relating to the elusive concept of the experimental? Theorist Marat Ingeldeev in conversation with British composer Neil Luck about his work with amateur groups, British folk song, humour and his own position within it.

Marat Ingeldeev Neil, how do you usually present yourself to the uninitiated audience?

Neil Luck I normally describe myself as a musician, but I find it quite hard to delineate what I actually do, so I tend to use simple terms. I sometimes use ‘experimental music-theatre’ as a descriptor of the work, which I find useful to get people in the right ballpark, but it’s also a term that I’m not so fond of!

MI Don’t you think the term ‘experimental’ is thrown around so much nowadays simply to distance oneself from the more mainstream music? Can it capture the richness of what artists like you do?

NL Generally, I don't think it's a wholly clear term. Most people don't have a good explanation of what experimental is, but yet it is one of those terms that seems to quickly position work in a universe that's connected to the alternative, the underground, the non-commercial and the weird. So, it is sometimes useful for better or worse. I don't think it's particularly connected to the origins of that word anymore though for most people.

MI Your website says ‘Neil Luck is a musician’. Nowadays, it wouldn’t be uncommon to refer to oneself as an ‘artist’ when the creative practice is rather interdisciplinary in nature, such as yours. Where do you draw a line between being a musician and an artist?

NL I do work in a lot of mediums; I use music, video, radio, text. I also perform and I organise projects. But at the moment I am latching onto the definition of a musician mostly because I know so many great artists who trained as visual artists or dedicated their lives to making film, drawing or painting. There's a craft there which I really respect, and I know that I haven't spent the same amount of time as them. When I'm working with mediums outside of music, I feel like a dilettante (I quite like feeling like that), so I am unsure about simply declaring myself as an ‘artist’.

MI Speaking of feeling like a dilettante, in your article describing your experience at the 2022 edition of Oberammergau Passionsspiele, you mentioned the concept of amateurism being of interest to you. What draws you to such ideas?

NL There are two things that can be separated to some extent: working with amateurs and a sort of aesthetics of amateurism, which can be but are not necessarily connected. I find working with so-called ‘amateur’ groups very exciting: the idea of potential element of the unknowable, or the ‘unpolishedness’ of an amateur performance, and a particular type of energy that one can find in such a performance is valuable to me. A kind of playfulness is allowed. People are there to enjoy themselves rather than out of obligation, so it’s often possible to be more open, playful, collaborative, daring and risky in an amateur situation. In some institutional sense, there is less at stake. But I also think it is possible to work in this way with ‘professional’ performers too.

This often translates into my work which lacks the certain polish of a professional performance or things that audiences might traditionally look for in new music. For example, Musarc choir, who I work with a lot, has mastered this intersection between a mixed-ability level of singing with a rigorous and radical aesthetic sense. It feels wrong to describe them as an amateur choir, but they are mostly non-professional singers. I also try to implement this working process with my own group Arco: we rehearse in a very playful way. When people come to our rehearsals they are often surprised how unprofessional we seem, but it’s all about generating a certain energy and a certain collaborative approach. This is our way of dismantling what is at stake in a more institutionalised setting.

MI This reminds me of another British composer Alex Paxton who is also fond of the concept of playfulness. He has worked a lot with school children as a music teacher, but also collaborated with them in a number of professional performances. He finds composing with children, their playfulness, spontaneity and lack of embarrassment very fun, flexible and rich.

I know that you also had some projects with school children. What’s your experience of working with them in an experimental music setting?

NL You’re right, I used to work a lot with children. I’ve led many school projects and devised a lot of interactive family work with arts institutions like Tate Modern and Tate Britain, for example. I actually think Alex is probably much more natural at getting stuff out of kids than I am. Despite the richness of the child’s imagination, I sometimes find kids' behaviour more predictable or shut down than when compared with adults, especially when their friends are around. Whereas, I found that working with adults, particularly after work in the evening, loosened up, and perhaps after they’ve had a couple of drinks, you can really get the weirdos to come out and some mad stuff can happen. It becomes like primal scream therapy. That’s the kind of energy I am interested in—complicit danger.

MI Shifting gears a bit, earlier this year, you mentioned feeling as though you were at a crossroads in your creative practice, almost as if you were repeatedly producing the same work. What led to this sentiment?

NL A moment of self-awareness and change was partly precipitated by the coronavirus outbreak. As I went back to shows after the pandemic, I observed that structures reverted to how they had been operating before. I’m aware it could sound cynical, but beyond inspiring and more underground endeavours, the mainstream return to live performances often felt like a step backward in working processes, programming approaches and resource distribution. The reaction to the pandemic was this certain type of cultural conservatism: a thirst to reclaim audiences rather than the broader rethinking and redistribution that many like-minded peers had hoped for. This feeling has perhaps abated a little now. At the time, however, I wasn't sure I wanted to create my work in the same manner. It didn't seem appropriate. This coincided with a time when I was entering a new decade of my life and preparing to spend most of the year in Germany for an Akademie Schloss Solitude residency. All these factors resonated with one another and catalysed a certain shift in how I thought about making music and my role as a musician.

MI I know that the experience at the residency provided fresh perspectives and influenced your creative process. Can you share what happened during that time?

NL It was a great opportunity for me to step away from the relentless conveyor belt of London project production. I went there after a year and a half of working on big, long, weighty pieces, and my intention was to do almost the opposite: to develop more of a studio-based practice, similar to how a visual artist might continuously develop a body of work which at certain points coheres into a performance or into a piece—something that’s less specifically project-based. For almost 10 months, I was following a particular line of artistic research and coming up with numerous small outcomes that together amounted to something greater. This allowed me to find a different rhythm, moving away from the structure of producing ‘masterworks’, definitive statements, or concrete scores. It prompted me to view the production of material not as reinventing the universe each time, but as emerging from a continuous stream or an accumulated approach to artistic labour. The residency further reinforced this approach, offering much potential for collaboration with artists from various disciplines, such as poets and filmmakers, and from different parts of the world. It was very eye-opening, ear-opening and rewarding. It changed my perspective on what was actually interesting to me.

MI Which production methods of yours have changed because of this experimentation?

NL While I was there, I worked more intuitively and shifted away from heavy multimedia contexts, focusing instead on working outdoors. I performed more as a singer and played 'organic' instruments like leaves, twigs, and branches. One thing I'm increasingly enjoying is the concept of evolving a composition and performance process in a ‘back-and-forth’ manner. Not worrying about achieving a finished form immediately—something that can be composed, tested in performance, revised, or even repositioned and recontextualised. Jumping ahead of your questions, Marat, the latest EP Five English Folk Songs, which I developed together with Mimi Doulton, certainly came about through this process.

Another thing I am enjoying these days is a reappropriation of my own material. For the piece I am currently working on for the Colourscape festival in the UK, there is a lot of new material in there, but it's also connected to some of the things I was working on in Germany, including a film project with visual artist Monika Czyzyk. This upcoming performance might even end up in the film from which I am borrowing much sonic material. There is a lot of self-cannibalisation, and I am embracing the idea of everything that I am doing being connected. A lot of people do it, certainly a lot of visual artists. Composers often go, I think, from piece to piece, project to project, but working in this interconnected way allows me to better explore depth as well as breadth.

MI Do you think the way new music institutions commission pieces and their emphasis on originality impede musicians from working in this more interconnected, studio-based approach?

NL In my experience, I would say that’s often the case. I am not spoiled with commissions at all, but I try to maintain a balance between projects that are commissioned and projects that I'm self-directing or building from the ground up. Commissions are great, but in many ways they can be really stifling. The commissioning structure often demands something new, quite particular and bespoke. It seems like it’s quite particular to contemporary classical music. I am not sure it works in an entirely similar way necessarily in other artistic disciplines.

MI In our previous conversation, you also told me that one of your recent interests lies in exploring the concept of 'Britishness' and British folk traditions. What draws you to this subject?

NL Since my teenage years, I've held a genuine interest in folk music, particularly the folk music revival of the 1960s in England. This aligns closely with the concept of amateurism, and the ostensibly non-commercial. English folk theatre and other performative traditions—like dressing up in wild homemade costumes, Mummers plays performed in pubs and streets, Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, Punch and Judy shows, mystery plays—are inherently amateur and community-oriented spectacles. They possess an immediacy of expression and element of danger. While they often encompass concrete stories and actions, they're also laden with symbolism and arcane meanings. This rich soup of material, often manifesting in a raw, bawdy and popular-entertaining manner, really appeals to me. It's for these same reasons that I chose to write about Japanese Kabuki theatre as part of my PhD.

Example of a Mummers folk play from The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey in 1836 © Robert Seymour

MI Has Brexit made you consider these ideas in a new way?

NL One of the reasons I’ve come to it in the last few years with a bit more energy is because the concepts of Britishness and Englishness have become pertinent and problematised through the process of Brexit. There is a sense of a conflict between old-pride and new-shame. We are 60 years behind the US in dealing with our colonial and racist past. It’s started to churn up more and more in the British consciousness. Also, the relations with our European neighbours have been affected because of Brexit; when you announce that you’re British, often people’s reactions are ‘I am really sorry’ or ‘Oh god!’

But my interest and what I want to explore really springs from a deep ambivalence in me: one part feels that shame acutely, but another part feels like it can function apart from that. I am not a monarchist or a royalist at all, and I’m very aware of its transgressions, but when the queen died, for instance, I did feel a twinge of some emotion because she was a symbol so inextricably embedded in the national consciousness whether you like it or not. The same thing goes for the idea of Britishness. There are many things about the nation that are difficult to reject: it’s a beautiful place, there are plenty of great people here, and there are of course beautiful folk traditions that I love. This sickly, uneasy and I think not uncommon ambivalence is what I am interested in.

MI Lately, more musicians are blending their local or ethnic musical culture with their artistic practice, especially focusing on traditions previously overshadowed and deplatformed by Western dominance. Do you think this fascination with the concept of Britishness can be considered by some, especially those who don’t know you, as a flirtation with the right-wing sentiments?

The Lion's Part performs a Mummers folk play at the start of the new year 2020 on Bankside in London © Neil Luck

NL My approach is not uncritical. Many of these traditions I am interested in and admire are essentially part of a white Anglo-Saxon experience—and I am a white English person. I’m aware of that, and that it has the potential to be interpreted in a wrong way, especially when it is represented more literally. I’m trying to be open to embracing the ambivalences and problems of working with these types of materials in an honest way.

MI That makes total sense! How did these ideas influence your recent EP Five English Folk Songs which you created with Mimi Doulton, as you mentioned earlier?

While I was on my residency, during this moment of crisis, I was particularly interested in composing music that deliberately steered clear of digital technology, video and amplification. These things were big parts of my language, and I wanted to challenge myself by writing music that was more resilient and anti-technological. I got in touch with Mimi Doulton—a British soprano who lives in Stuttgart—and asked if she wanted to collaborate. I proposed to develop some vocal duets for her virtuosic and highly trained voice, and for my rough and completely untrained voice. So again, a tension between the professional and the amateur.

An idea I had been contemplating was to use the form of folk songs and traditional vocal techniques. We started inventing traditional British singing techniques in a way that wasn't just arranging of folk songs or an attempt to hijack a folk tradition I’d observed from afar. But rather to invent one’s own traditions. It is also a recognition that what we normally regard as traditional and ‘ancient’ in English folk practices is often a construct of revivalist practices in late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was around the time of the industrial revolution when so many traditions were ‘brought back’, rethought and collected in this anti-industrial reclaiming of the past—it’s kind of interesting and gross. Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams were both doing that with their folksong collecting and setting: middle-class guys going into working-class areas, writing down folk songs in Western music notation. That became the text for a lot of people for a long time. There is something really appropriative and problematic about how it’s mediated and how traditions are formed. On one hand, it’s repellent, but on the other, it’s exciting and attractive to me as it makes me question what is a folk tradition, what is a folk song. It is something which can develop and change with different purposes and meanings in different times. The idea of inventing our own vocal traditions came from these impulses.

MI While crafting your own take on English folk songs, you must have drawn from some original material. What sources did you and Mimi use for these songs?

NL I originally wrote four pieces, but then added a fifth one when I felt the collection was asking for something extra. They could be seen as technical exercises or sonic ideas that are explored, but the pieces also reference other practices in quite oblique ways. One piece is based on an antiphonal plainchant practice. Another one sounds obliquely related to animal calls or more distantly Ainu Rekuhkara, in which two female singers sing into each other’s mouths. Another piece is based on a masonic ritual using tuning forks and metal. There is one piece which explores a leaf-blowing practice I developed in Stuttgart. Mimi found a miraculous way of singing with it as well. The last piece is intentionally supposed to sound like it’s based on a British folksong, set in the style of Benjamin Britten, but it’s a completely invented song about a real poltergeist haunting in the 1970s.

We created these five pieces, and then we performed them several times developing the set along the way. The EP features studio recordings alongside some live recordings from a performance we did at Cafe Oto in London. The latest development of these five pieces involved a collaboration with Ensemble Ascolta in Stuttgart. For this rendition, I composed additional parts for piano and percussion, transforming it into a 20-minute concert piece, which has now become my favourite version. So now there is an EP, a set for two voices and an ensemble version that’s fully scored out and fixed. It’s a good articulation of the more organic, studio-based approach that I mentioned before.

ARCO performs Neil Luck's Live Guy Dead Guy as part of the Kammer Klang series at Cafe Oto in London, 2018 © Dimitri Djuric
ARCO performs Neil Luck's Everything is Churning and Opening at the Colourscape Festival in London, September 2023 © Visual design and photography Monika Czyzyk

MI What's your perspective on writing pastiche music and referencing various styles and genres? For instance, in your 2020 EP Unmeasured Preludes you seemed to be influenced by the unmeasured preludes of the French harpsichord tradition.

NL I try not to over intellectualise my own writing process, but whenever I use something in a referential way, like some jazz harmony, romantic music or a baroque keyboard style, it is entirely sincere and honest. I know these things can trigger a particular emotional response or even be read as humorous in certain contexts. For me, it is often a tool of drawing the listener in. In my pieces, something will then push them away again: there is a constant attraction and alienation. What I am not interested in is seducing people through using pastiche or trying to have a simply nostalgic effect. I have used stuff more ironically in the past, but I am for sure less interested in that or a satirical approach now. Unmeasured Preludes came from a genuine admiration of French harpsichord music and wanting to embrace the idea of writing pastiche unironically. In fact, that has got me through a barrier of being cautious of music which sounds old. I suffered early on with people reading my music as a kind of parody.

MI It’s fascinating, because your work always manages to balance elegantly between irony and sincerity for me. How do you achieve this?

NL I never set out to write ironic or comic music, but I do like being humorous. I'm well aware that there's humour in my music and it seems totally natural to me. The presence of humour and levity within concert music is somehow still read by a lot of people as inappropriate or not serious: if it's there, then it must be ironic or parodic. For me, it just feels like part of the fabric of communication. Literature doesn't have a problem with this, film doesn't have a problem with this, but somehow music does. I'll be honest, it can frustrate me. Although there are subtexts and contexts to the work, I try to write my music quite intuitively. This is just how it comes out. The idea of having a definitive message or theme is something I can't do, because I just feel so confused and curious about everything all the time. I try to create a state of ambivalence in my work where it can be read in multiple ways, or there are conflicting ideas in there, or it opens up space for people to maybe project into. In October 2022, I presented a work at Cafe Oto, which is just me reading a poem and inhaling helium from a balloon. It's interesting listening back to the recording, because there is laughter all the way through. For me, it was a super tragic performance, but actually people laughing was totally fine, because it made the whole energy uncomfortable, which is kind of exciting.

Cover photo shows Neil Luck © Sisi Burn

Marat Ingeldeev
Marat Ingeldeev is a writer, researcher and performer based in London, UK. He co-hosts the podcast violet snow.