This is your composer speaking: Philip Venables

Interview by Anne La Berge at New Music Conference, 11 November 2022

Anne La Berge introduces: ‘Welcome! Philip Venables has been described by Alex Ross of The New Yorker as a composer of ferocious, dramatic instincts, and an arrestingly musical personality, and has been named one of the finest composers around by The Guardian. Their output covers opera, music theatre, multimedia, chamber music, and concert music, an eclectic range of styles and influences, plus themes such as politics, violence, gender, and storytelling, which will be a red thread in this conversation.

Extremely extreme

Philip Venables first opera, 4.48 psychosis, was the first ever permitted adaptation of any of the British playwright Sarah Kane’s work. Her work is extremely extreme. Philip collaborates extensively across media work, with artists including Douglas Gordon, drag performance artist David Hoyle, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, pianist Zubin Kanga, director Ted Huffman, and computer programmer Simon Henry, who is involved because of the extensive technology.

Philip’s work is published by Recordy and their most recent opera, Denis & Katya, with director Ted Huffman, has been called by critics ‘an intimate, hunting triumph’, ‘a monumentally event’, and some other extreme compliments. We’ll look into that as well. What I find inspiring, is that the media has found ways to compliment you on your work.’

Philip Venables first opera 4.48 psychosis

Interview Anne La Berge at New Music Conference 2022 with Philip Venables
Anne La Berge

La Berge: ‘What is a story for you and
how do you use it in your work?’

Venables: ‘Mostly and recently over the last five years, I’ve been focussing with collaborators and in particular Ted Huffman on personal histories and personal stories. They often combine this quality of debate, the source material is not fictional, but from real life. I take pieces that span the banality of real life, not from extreme events, but from real people’s lives.’

La Berge: ‘So it’s not abstract?’
Venables: ‘It’s not so much the fairy stories, exactly.’

La Berge: ‘Should we look at the first piece?’
Venables: ‘This was a bit of an accordion piece that Ted and I made for Andreas Borregaard. Normally, we start by interviewing performers that we’re going to work with, so we interviewed Andreas about his life, and he told us about his coming out with his mom. We told him we’d love to interview his mom, and she agreed. We basically made this life story in his mother’s words, from primary school through to her life now in twelve little chapters. Andreas is essentially carrying out his mother’s words. You don’t necessarily realize until about halfway through the piece that’s it’s not about him, but about Andreas’ mother, and that they’re not his own words.’

Venables: ‘That piece has its name because Suzanne, his mother, talks about her relationship with Andreas later in the piece, and how they’ve become a bit closer after his father died and after he came out. She listened to him practice when he was younger, and she says that her favourite piece he played is the Goldberg Variations. The piece becomes gradually more poignant.’

Andreas Borregaard’s performance My Favourite Piece (the Goldberg Variatons)

La Berge: ‘What do you reveal to the public that goes into the concert beforehand? For example in text, when people read about it? Because one of the magical parts of storytelling is how much you know about the story before you actually experience it.’
Venables: ‘Good question, I don’t know what the program book says.’

La Berge: ‘So tell us about how the play feels on the stage. How does it look?’
Venables: ‘It’s a very straightforward performance, he just plays and speaks. This was a lockdown piece. The clip we just heard is from the online premiere. We made a music video with Pierre Martin for this premiere before we could do the live premiere. But the piece is not a video piece, there’s no screen that sits behind him.’

La Berge: ‘It’s just him all alone up there?’
Venables: ‘The idea was to have him up there as a troubadour, which is a bit linked to the accordion as well, I suppose, going from village to village and telling all these tales. That was the model for this piece.’ 

La Berge: ‘You have text in most of your works, is that right?’
Venables: ‘Yes, I don’t write pieces without text anymore.’

La Berge: ‘Could you tell us about the order of when the text comes and when the music comes, and how that plays out?’
Venables: ‘With Ted for example, we’ll work closely together and when he does an interview in the research phase, we’ll bring up text together. We closely work together on how the music and text will interact and how text will be transmitted.’

La Berge: ‘Do you get to mess with the text? He lets you?’
Venables: ‘Yes, and vice versa. I wrote one draft for this piece that I let him listen to and he told me to do it all over again, musically.’

La Berge: ‘Tell us more about Ted. He is your main collaborator now, is he?’
Venables: ‘Yes, he’s an opera director. We met because he directed 4.48 psychosis, and since we’ve made 7 or 8 pieces together and we’ve got two more operas in the planning to make together. We have a very similar goal in the way that we think of how to use text and to create a comprehension with media, but also in the way that we think in very concrete stories and ideas, because music on its own is obviously more of an abstract language. We think of how we can combine the best of the immediacy and the best of the abstract language.’ 

“To be honest, it’s more about the stories than the instruments.”

Philip Venables

La Berge: ‘A lot of composers like to meet with players and see what their love world is like, with their instruments and with the music they like to play. Is that included in your process as well?’
Venables: ‘To be honest, it’s more about the stories than the instruments. I’m not a composer that’s working with many extended techniques or instruments. I work with instrumentalists on their instrument if it’s a solo piece, but it’s not a starting point usually.’ 

La Berge: ‘So, instrumentalists can know they’re safe with you? You’re not going to let them play for an hour on their highest and lowest note?’
Venables (laughs): ‘No.’

La Berge: ‘Musically, it’s a choice. In the composition world, sometimes the composers meet in order to extend the instrument. But that’s not your world?’
Venables: ‘There are different challenges. For example, Andreas spent months and months practising speaking and playing at the same time, which is very difficult. Especially with the accordion, because he is used to breathing with the instrument. And then for his vocality to basically sound completely arhythmic and relaxed against very rhythmic music, that was a real challenge. And on top of that, later in the piece when he talks about losing his dad, he said it took a long time to be able to program all of that into his brain in a way that it just happens on stage.’

La Berge: ‘So you go deep?’
Venables: ‘Not always, but in this piece, yes.’

La Berge: ‘Anything else you want to say about this piece?’
Venables: ‘No.’

Philip Venables at New Music Conference with Anne La Berge interview

Denis & Katya

La Berge: ‘Okay, let’s move on. Let’s discuss Denis & Katya.’
Venables: ‘Denis & Katya was the second opera that I’ve made and again, it was made with Ted. It’s a story about two Russian teenagers who ran away from home, it’s kind of like a real-life Romeo & Juliet or Bonnie & Clyde story. They ran away when they were 15 years old, and hid in a kind of country hunting cabin where there were guns. The police got involved and it was very badly handled by social services and the police itself. After three days, they died. It’s not exactly clear how, but for these three days, they were livestreaming themselves on social media as well, so there were two layers of narratives: what was actually happening in a village in Western Russia, and what was happening online. Eventually, there was international media coverage and people from all over the world where chatting with them on the livestream. So, we made a piece about internet voyeurism. We interviewed people connected to the story ourselves, and fictionalized other people from news reports and things like that. We made six characters, but never featured the two teenagers themselves in the opera, just told the story from six different points of view. A bit like a kind of talking heads documentary, where we cut quickly between characters to the next. Each of these six characters tells a slightly different story, there isn’t a clearly established truth in the piece. We only have two performers for the six characters, and they combine speaking and singing.’ 

La Berge: ‘Is the intent to kind of cognitive and sensory scramble?’
Venables: ‘No, from a dramatic point of view the intent always has been and continues to be in every operatic piece that we make, to break this one-to-one connection between character and performer, which to me is very important. It makes it much less about representation and much more about theatre of the imagination. It also acknowledges the act of making theatre, and it also allows a lot more virtuosity of a performance. These performers are switching so quickly from one character to the next. Playing with those kinds of theatrical games is something I do a lot.

La Berge: ‘So it does benefit you to keep the music clear, so that all of these other dramatics can be complex, because otherwise it would be too much?’
Venables: ‘Exactly.’

La Berge: ‘We’re going to listen to Denis & Katya, this excerpt is minute 23 to 39’ish.’
Venables: ‘This is where the action is getting a bit intense. The police are there, for example.’ 

Excerpt Deni & Katya

Venables: ‘We’re always looking for ways we can insert ourselves into our pieces as well. We always have these real text messages between me and Ted about making the piece and what we are comfortable putting in it ethically, and insert some of the comments online during the time they were livestreaming themselves.’

La Berge: ‘So it almost feels like real-time media, but it wasn’t?’
Venables: ‘I mean, you have these two timelines: the making and the research of the opera, where we were talking to journalists and media, and obviously the timeline of the events themselves.’

La Berge: ‘Heavy. About the aesthetic: can you tell us about the choice of leaving the cellists on stage?’
Venables: ‘We like to keep the instrumentalists on stage during the opera, because they are definitely part of it, and also in a practical way, because in small theatres they would otherwise go into their pits, and we don’t want the instrumentalists there. But we love the idea of the cellists forming something almost like a boxing arena that contains this theatrical game.’

La Berge: ‘And because they’re so violent with all of that bow work, it pumps it up.’
Venables: ‘There’s a lot of stereo effects across left and right and between the cello’s as well, that is quite effective in that space.’

La Berge: ‘I saw in another interview that you talked about the opera voice, and they’re singing in full operatic voice, and that is your preference. You’re in the Netherlands now, and throughout the history of this country, there has been a lot of discussion about the use of vibrato and the use of full operatic voice. Your aesthetic decision: tell us why?’
Venables: ‘I wouldn’t say it’s my preference to the exclusion of other things, because often I use a lot of speech as well, to find the full spectrum in some ways, but I certainly love the power of operatic voice. We’re trying to make work for mainstream opera houses, which in some tiny, little, modest way tries to deconstruct the traditional forms of opera within the context of that art form. Some artists are doing that by changing the voice type, but we’re not. We’re trying to challenge it in dramaturgical ways, I suppose. We’re choosing subjects that are traditional tragedies in a way, as was the case in 4.48 psychosis, and is the case in Denis & Katya, and that has to draw in the tropes of that voice in relation to those subjects, but also to try to subvert it in other ways. That’s the aim.’

La Berge: ‘It is powerful when someone is really going for it with that voice.’
Venables: ‘I like the aesthetics of political art, it can have a valuable power, I think. Especially if it’s done in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way. But most of all, I’m very drawn to telling personal life stories, and sometimes they’re my own story as well.’


La Berge: ‘What would you like to say about Illusions?’
Venables: ‘The next bit is a video piece I made with video and an ensemble with this kind of anti-drag performer that is a hero of mine in London, called David Hoyle. We first got asked to make a prototype in 2015 that was connected to the general election in the UK and it was supposed to be a message to the incoming government. And then we made a longer version of that in 2017 which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. We ended up making this piece where David shows what he does in pubs, which is just ranting at the audience and him unleashing his rage, which is so invigorating and joyous, I love it. We tried to capture that and made these different chapters about democracy, about the military industrial complex, about gender, about simulation, and various themes to do with democracy and queerness, essentially. I had all the interview footage and used these stuttering techniques, where the ensemble mimics very closely the edits of the video cut. I had six hours of interview footage and brought it down to 40 minutes, but maybe there’s only about five minutes of footage left, which then repeats. Some of the footage we got from David was totally absurd, hallucinatory almost. We also got really, really drunk while filming this material. We would just improvise.’

La Berge: ‘You don’t always create drunk or stoned?’
Venables, laughing: ‘No.’

La Berge: ‘Should we watch it?’

Fragment of Illusions

Venables: ‘There were nine players in the video behind him.’

La Berge: ‘And you were conducting?’
Venables: ‘I have been conducting, yes.’

La Berge: ‘And so what is the power of having live players in the room and enormous film with a guy really going on a rant? Where’s the story power in that, for you?’
Venables: ‘Well, I think what he says is quite compelling. And those were the polite bits in it, in a way, because he then goes on to talk about anal sex and all sorts of other things. The presence of the nine musicians has a much more physical power to it than if it was just recorded. But also the joyousness of that rage, I find it very invigorating. I tried to capture both of those things.’

La Berge: ‘Do you want to say anything about that in your compositional career, you’ve come to want to represent queerness?’
Venables: ‘I mean, it’s kind of important to me, politically.’

“I like the aesthetics of political art, it can have a valuable power, I think. Especially if it’s done in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way. But most of all, I’m very drawn to telling personal life stories, and sometimes they’re my own story as well.”

Philip Venables

Venables: ‘An example is the violin concert I made, where I talked about me learning to play the violin, based on tapes of me playing when I was fourteen and visiting my teacher who was from Hungary. Or me inserting my own texts in Denis & Katya. I always draw from my own experience, and that is queer experience. So it’s more honest than doing it the other way around.’

La Berge: ‘Yeah, we heard Genevieve Murphy this morning talk about it coming from the inside, because that’s what you know.’ [La Berge refers to the panel talk Women composers vs the classical canon? at New Music Conference, second video on this page.]
Venables: ‘Exactly, and I loved hearing her speak.’

La Berge: ‘Do people cry when they hear your pieces?’
Venables: ‘They have, yes.’

La Berge: ‘Some composers want to get people to the place where they’re moved by some kind of emotional place or confusion. Is that anywhere in your compositional goal?’
Venables: ‘I think it would be dishonest to say that it wasn’t a bit manipulative in that kind of way. I mean, obviously, the piece with Andreas does that. It’s very knowingly there. 4.48 psychosis was a very emotionally, honest, and raw piece of work.’

Zubin Kanga

La Berge: ‘Moving on to what’s going to be happening tomorrow, with Zubin Kanga, where you’re going to play live. Could you give us an insight already?’
Venables: ‘It’s also a debatum, we started to research the visual artist David Wojnarowicz, and accessed his archive during lockdown and found this tape from 1987 which he had kept from his answering machine, that spanned over the whole week wherein he lost his close friend Peter Hujar. He died from aids related illnesses. It captures about 212 messages, I think, of which we’ve boiled it down to about eighty messages. We turned the piano into a big typewriter. It plays with ideas of painting these emotional backgrounds, because the messages are so banal, in their everyday life-ness. It could be messages of checks not arriving, or from people they recently hooked up with and were calling to hook up again, or people asking them to call back. Gradually through the tapes, you can tell what happened in the aids crisis and you start to notice them thinking about hospitals and Peter’s funeral and stuff like that. The piano basically tries to paint some of that background. It’s quite a distant piece for me, it’s the opposite of that immediate emotionality that is in Andreas’ piece. This is much more held back.’

La Berge: ‘Zubin is also set up with this technology that could crash at any millisecond.’
Venables: ‘Don’t say that, it won’t crash!’ (laughs)

Philip Venables at New Music Conference with Anne La Berge interview

La Berge: ‘This is quite a challenge for you, isn’t it?’
Venables: ‘Zubin commissioned it specifically to have a technological aspect to it, because that’s the core of what he does. I don’t generally do work that plays with live electronics, although Denis & Katya was a very technique-heavy opera, but that was more about coordination. In the end, the way we found we could both flower in this process, was using this technology as keystrokes on the piano, and transfer that onto a screen. But it’s also about this huge typewriter on the stage. And of course, the story.’

La Berge: ‘It’s worth to look into these artists before tomorrow. Let’s go into the future now!’
Venables: ‘I’m next making an opera which is a queer children’s bedtime story called The Faggots & Their Friends, which is going to be a baroque musical that tells the history and the future death of the capitalist patriarchy from the point of view of singing and dancing faggots. I’m in the middle of writing that.’

La Berge: ‘So this won’t go on and premiere in Georgia in the United States, for example?’
Venables: ‘I don’t know, but probably not.’

La Berge: ‘Where’s the premiere then?’
Venables: ‘It’ll be next summer, it’s not announced yet. In Manchester. Especially these days a lot more opera companies are saying to me that operas are not viable anymore, and that we need partners on board.’

La Berge: ‘I find it really inspiring that collaboration is such a big part of your work process.’
Venables: ‘That’s why I’m working in opera, mostly.’

La Berge: ‘We as people do things together because we tell stories together.’
Venables: ‘That’s also why I don’t want to write any more concert music. From a dramatic point of view the intent always has been and continues to be in every operatic piece that we make, to break this one-to-one connection between character and performer, which to me is very important.’

Photos panel conversation by Karen van Gilst At New Music Conference, 11 November 2022

Questions from the audience at the New Music Conference panel, 2022

Question 1: ‘In the piece with David, was the elevator music also live performed?’
Venables: ‘No, that was just muzak.’ 

Question 2: ‘Obviously, you’re making works very closely with collaborators. What happens after that?’
Venables: ‘Well, for the two operas, one of which was collaborative, both of those have had productions by other people since the productions Ted and I made together, and I obviously embrace that. It’s a wonderful thing to see.’

Question 3: ‘Have they gone on to produce without you?’
Venables: ‘4.48 hasn’t had a production in which I haven’t been involved. But it has had a production where I had no artistic involvement. Denis & Katya will have a production next year in which I will just go to the show. In that sense, it’s very traditional. You’ll have a score and Ted and I try to make our productions quite synchronized on movement, music, and text. But some of that is prescribed and some of it isn’t. So we’ll see what other directors make of that.’

Question 4: ‘Has some of it surprised you?’
Venables: ‘Of course, it’s really nice, it can be great to see new ideas.’

“I’m so happy to just let that go out into the world,
and that we’re concentrating on baroque musicals now”

Philip Venables

La Berge: ‘Have you learned what you want to do in the future from seeing any of those things?
Venables: ‘Most of the new Denis & Katya productions haven’t come out yet, so I can only tell you that next year. But to be honest, we fortunately feel like what we have to see about that piece is clearly established in documentation and performances. I’m so happy to just let that go out into the world, and we’re concentrating on baroque musicals now.’ 

Question 5: ‘I got the feeling that your starting point for a new project is a certain theme. How does it work for you to create the text, and the music after that? How do you choose instruments and the music you want to use, in relation to those themes?’
Venables: ‘Usually it’s in the way that the music functions with the text in a kind of dramaturgical way. For example, with Denis & Katya, it started with the six different characters, creating six different worlds, and then cutting them up. With Illusions it started with the idea of making a stuttering piece and a rhythmic frame from the edit. So I usually start with working out what the form is and then going from there.’

La Berge: ‘Is the musical ensemble part of working out what the opera is, or can you choose musicians?’
Venables: ‘With the chamber operas, I could choose. 4.48 had twelve players and six singers, which was a bit too big for a chamber opera. We couldn’t fit them in small theatres and that was not affordable for a small stage and our company. So we wanted to make the next one portable and small and decided on four players and two singers. We were going to do a string quartet initially, but we went with the four cello players, which was definitely the right choice, I think.’ 

Question 6: ‘You spoke a lot about collaboration and I’m so into what you have to say about it. I wondered, in practice, when you’re in a room with the musicians, singers, and the director, would you say you can get some input in the direction of how the text works on the screen?’
Venables: ‘I definitely do. In all aspects. And the same vice versa, I will make a lot of concessions about the music as well, if something is not working for theatrical reasons. We very often change it. The same with The Faggots & Their Friends: Ted rejected three scenes I wrote, and I’ll just do it again.’

La Berge: ‘And that’s okay?’
Venables: ‘Yes!’

La Berge: ‘Thank you so much!’

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