Interview with Alec Snook
Simon Dobson is a man of many disciplines. To date his musical career has found him out front as a conductor and composer, then behind the scenes as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist. On occasion all those disciplines combine, often with the London-based Parallax Orchestra, with whom he has worked on shows for rock and metal bands. The last year has seen a return to solo composition, with his second artist album MDCNL, released by Lo Recordings in May 2021, delivering five substantial musical statements including the single Quiet, Pls. Here he gives Arcana the lowdown…
In the making of your new LP ‘MDCNL’, was your hand forced to change recording styles/techniques due to the on-going pandemic?
Yeah, pretty much everything about the way I work had to change. Until last year I’d mostly worked to commission, one nail biting month to another, but with ensembles not meeting there were no commissions and no conducting work. I’d been looking to move away from that for a while if truth be told and so I got into production.
What is your relationship with electronic music composition as opposed to the more ‘traditional’ orchestral music that you trained in?
Other than loving listening to it and being a huge fan of it, my relationship with it is super new. This was pretty much the first time (other than demoing stuff at home to later be recorded) that I’d produced music electronically…which is pretty weird, actually. Being a composer and a conductor is obviously a bit of a ‘musical control freak’ thing and there’s more control to be had in the production of electronic music and all the infinite variations it contains. I’ve always been a fan of acts like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin though, I feel like all roads were going to lead me here at some point.
Do you feel that instrumental composers have to work harder to create a narrative or tell a story?
Maybe. Telling a story is hard regardless of the forces you’re writing for. I feel like the world of electronic music is just a language with more words or a shelf with more paints, though.
Does taking a more electronic focussed ensemble on the road appeal to you?
For sure. I love the idea of making electronic music live (and I do have some well tekkers plans up my sleeve), but for the moment getting over the panic of being ready to perform again in ANY way (having not played for the longest time in my adult life) is the first thing to tackle.
When writing and arranging for guitar bands, what shifts in focus or strategies need to take place?
Big talk. Firstly, I’m always aware that in those work situations whatever I write is always beholden to someone else’s music. It’s only ever there to back it up and enhance it, so sometimes it’s hard to let go of ego and be utterly cool with stuff getting chopped or dissed if it’s “too far out” (it never is). Secondly, I generally only arrange for acts or a style I’m into (for example metal), that way I can throw myself into it and have fun as a composer/arranger.
Do you feel more pressure when collaborating with another band/artist? Or does it give you a freedom to step away from pieces that weren’t initially conceived by you?
If I’m working for an act or an orchestra I’m well into, I’ll obviously want them to think that my work is rad. So, I work hard at that shit for sure, but yeah, if I don’t have that sense of total ownership of a piece of music it is easier to be subjective about it.
What order of priority do you give to your orchestral work; the film scores; and the contemporary music arranging?
Honestly, music is my life so there is no strict priority order. I love the orchestral arranging work because I know I can add sheen and value to someone’s creations (plus metal/orchestra stuff is literally the funnest job ever, and the culmination of how I grew up loving heavy music but being classically trained). Film score stuff is new to me but again a very specific discipline and super fun; and contemporary composition is often solitary and hardcore but utterly fulfilling. I basically throw myself right into anything I do – ‘cos it’s music, and music is rad.
If you could work with one film director on a project, who would it be and why?
Either Werner Herzog or Wes Anderson. I know these two are miles apart, but they always have music that I absolutely love. I love the fun, quirky thing with Wes, I reckon I could give that a good crack, and I love the abstract serenity and epic emptiness of Herzog film scores; I’d love to write some weird soundscapes with a string quartet for whatever mad thing it is he does next.
Which other contemporary bands/artists, past or present, are you finding inspiring at the moment?
Anna Meredith (obvs, as always), Olly Coates, Colin Stetson, Steve Reich, Brian Eno (of course), Radiohead (for ever and ever), Matt Calvert, Mica Levi, Esbjorn Svensson, Tigran Hamasyan, Grace Lightman, LYR... you know, the normal bunch.
What other projects do you have coming up this year, whether studio or live?
I’m currently working on a big orchestral gig with my London based crew, Parallax Orchestra. This is a live gig with a band, but I can’t say anything about it just yet, safe to say I’m currently buried under a mountain of orchestral arranging. I’ve got an interesting contemporary commission on the horizon in collaboration with my mates LYR, and I will also be writing a sax quartet for my friend Andy Scott‘s group Apollo.
Oh, I’m also involved in a long-term project working with a local beekeeping start-up called Pollenize, writing generative music based on real time data sets coming out of beehives in Plymouth where I live. Other than that, who knows, MDCNL2 maybe…
Simon Dobson’s MDCNL is out now on Lo Recordings, while a new remix from Human Pyramids of Quiet, Pls has been released today (30 July 2021). You can hear that in the Soundcloud embed above.