EPOC: Interview with Marc Yeats

Marc Yeats is in my opinion one of the most important contemporary artists from the United Kingdom. SATSYMPH, the main topic of this interview, is one of his most important projects, which is growing and growing. As the dynamo he is, Marc has answered my questions with lot of interesting details, making this article truly worth reading!


Q) Can you please introduce yourself: who are you, where you come from, what you do for a living.

I didn’t write this, but it’s as good a précis of my background as any and saves me the un-comfortableness of talking about these things in the first person! – My thanks to Keith Evans (introduction to an interview from April 2007)

Born in 1962, an only child, brought up in London, attended a Roman Catholic school, had traumatic treatment at the hands of his father, losing his mother to cancer in 1977, when he was just 15, by which time he’d already commenced serious painting sold through private galleries, moved to Devon with his volatile father, ran a confectionary shop, experienced bankruptcy, yet all the while yearning to creatively express himself.

Instead of the expectations of his teachers for a highly gifted student to embark on a professional career in the arts, palaeontology or veterinary medicine, profound setbacks and circumstances blighted his academic advance: instead he mopped hospital floors but went on to qualify as a registered nurse for people with learning disabilities. After marrying at 21 to his wife in Devon, they both moved from Southampton to the opposite end of the UK, the Isle of Skye to give free reign to his creative vitality and verve.

His translation to abstract painting and acquisition of technical skills for a serious musical composer, while earning a living as a part-time ambulance driver, teaching the disabled and helping raise a family as a gay man, has, in just over a decade, realised more than 100 pieces, gaining credit and approbation from contemporaries, without benefit of scholastic opportunities at a college, university or conservatoire. The more remarkable for having been praised by some of the world’s most respected and innovative composers, musicians and commentators – testified by performances and prizes awarded to him by revered national and international institutions and orchestras/ensembles including those in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, New York City, Leipzig, Tokyo, together with various ensembles in Britain, Canada, Holland, Italy, New Zealand, broadcasts in the UK, Germany & Italy.

I now live and work in Somerset, England with my partner, Mark. I work as a composer and visual artist. I truly love what I do and am fortunate to be able to make a living from the work I create.

©Desiree Talbot
©Desiree Talbot

Q) Let’s talk about SATSYMPH. Can you please explain what SATSYMPH is?

SATSYMPH LLP is composer and visual artist Marc Yeats; poet, writer and context-aware media director and producer, Ralph Hoyte; and coder, composer and audio engineer Phill Phelps. We compose ‘context-aware soundworlds’ – located high quality contemporary soundscape experiences outside in the real world triggered by GPS (satellite) signals. These ‘immersive soundworlds’ (or you can think of them as ‘virtual auditoria’) can be invested with contemporary music content, contemporary music/word fusions, poetry, heritage interpretive content, or with any desired audio content. We have ‘in-house’ capacity, know-how and experience in all of these areas. The audience access this ‘immersive soundworld’ by downloading an app containing all the content and instructions needed to run it onto their personal iPhone (we’re aiming in 2012 to open out to other platforms such as Google Android). Once downloaded you go to the designated location, don headphones and navigate the virtual world with your ears whilst remaining in the real world with your feet. No, you don’t need a phone signal – the soundscape is satellite-triggered. This ‘virtual soundworld’ can be any shape or size, can be disseminated or composed so that the audience members converge in certain areas, or are ‘funneled’ in certain directions. The concept is very simple: what you hear depends on your CONTEXT – what you do and where you are!
Our latest work, ‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is a geo-located music and poetry soundscape for large-scale ensemble and voices accessed through an app downloaded to your own smartphone. What you hear depends on where you are: the soundscape responds dynamically to your location.

We chose the theme of the Greek god ‘Hermes’ as he is, traditionally, messenger of the gods, guide to the Underworld, patron of thieves, liars, of literature and poets (!), as well as of boundaries (and those who, as in this work, “travel across them”).

‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is installed in only three locations worldwide; two locations in the UK; Poole and Bristol, and Wroclaw in Poland. Here, we have sensitively composed ‘On a theme of Hermes’ into the landscape using unique layerings, module behaviours and combinations of material that work only in these specific sites.

Q) You have associated yourself with poet Ralph Hoyte and coder Phil Phelps. How was this collaboration born? As an artist you mainly work alone, how was it to collaborate with other artists?

Our history goes a little like this – but basically, we met in a pub in Dorset!
Ralph Hoyte, one of the SATSYMPH collaborators, was in on the beginnings of this new media form („pervasive‟ or „context-aware media‟) and was exploding with excitement at its potential to revolutionise the way artistic and literary content are created and experienced. A chance introduction on the doorstep of the Bull Hotel in Bridport, Dorset, after a PVA MediaLab event led to the discovery that Ralph and I were both thinking very similarly about how contemporary music and contemporary poetry were and could be structured.

In my own composition work, I was already thinking about how I could create music that you could „enter‟ at any point; that had no beginning, middle or end and could be experienced differently with each hearing. I had gone so far using live musicians and conventional methods but ultimately couldn’t capture what I was trying to achieve. In talking to Ralph about the potential and possibilities in context aware media, a whole new world of creative possibilities opened up.

Our other very important collaborator, introduced to me by Ralph is Phill Phelps who will write the codes to make SATSYMPH function in an array of technical ways, delivering the complex inter-relationships between our vision of word, music fusion, landscape, location and position. But Phill is also a musician and brings with him a great deal of creative input. Indeed, Phill composes with binary codes to build structures in very similar ways to the music and word structures Ralph and I make to populate SATSYMPH. The three of us see our interdisciplinary work as being without boundaries. Music, word, landscape, coding and the composition of all of these are fused into one process where each of us has an expertise but where the vision and creative process is shared.

Q) Can you talk about the main steps through the project?

It’s very hard to explain in words what SATSYMPH does and what our apps are like to experience – the only way to do that is to experience them for real! During our launches we have seen people go from bemused, sceptical and confused by the description of what SATSYMPH does to “WOW, this is awesome”, once they have actually tried our ‘on a theme of Hermes’ app; the transformation is extreme! With that in mind, I will now try to explain a little in words, but the best thing to do is download the app on your phone, get yourself to a park, unwrap the app, explore and be wowed out!

I’ll explain it in steps:
1. Firstly, contemporary poetry & contemporary music are composed for a very dense, multi-responsive and heavily authored environment. We, the composers, cannot determine HOW this environment is going to be negotiated by the user. This means that the music & words MUST be compelling „in any direction‟ (= „as heard in any way at all‟).

2. We record the music & words (professional musicians from the Bristol Ensemble play all the parts live & professional voice artists will be used).

3. In a very work-intensive process, the recordings are digitally processed, stacked, layered, modulated, stretched, morphed – you name it, we do it (and get very little sleep the while…)

4. A whole series of „modules‟ result from this process – modules of music, of words, of words-as-music, of music-as-words, of wordusic, of muwords (we’ll make up this new language as we go along

5. The aforesaid „modules‟ are used to populate „a virtual auditorium‟. This means we use software, which allows us to place a virtual layer over a real landscape. This is another form of composition – composing with landscape. SATSYMPH composes with music, words and landscape.

6. Once „the virtual auditorium‟ is populated and very intensively tested (even less sleep), users will be able to go online and download SATSYMPH onto their iPhone as an Apple app.

7. You go along to any space big enough to use, ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD – oh, maybe a couple of hundred meters each way, such as your local park, or the Altiplano in Bolivia (well…) – click on the app – and SATSYMPH unrolls the aforesaid „virtual auditorium‟ over your chosen space

8. Stick your headphones on, watch out for rampant llamas or big red buses, and wander, or roll in your wheelchair, or toddle, or stroll, skip, crawl, sidle…

9. What you hear depends on where you are! Repeat: what you hear depends on where you are! This is a highly complex, densely populated GPS-triggered environment. There’s masses going on. You‟’l very quickly start to think about „music‟ and „poetry‟ in an entirely different way: “Hey, look, over there under those trees, there’s a huge swell of processed Alpenhorns mixed with gremlin-like poetic mutterings, they reach a crescendo at that mound, then drop into a deep well of almost heart-breakingly intimate water-maiden-speak…” “Did you get those blobby bits of staccato next to the playground?” “I reached a cusp and then it dropped me off into infinity”. It’s an almost synaesthetic experience: words and music are placed, they become tactile objects you manipulate by your movements. SATSYMPH composes with music, words and landscape. The interface is LANDSCAPE!

Q) SATSYMPH is a huge project; it also must have been difficult to find the resources and founding necessary to his realization. How have you proceeded?

There’s a bit of a history to this!
In 2004 Ralph Hoyte idea- initiated, then, with filmmaker Liz Crow, co-wrote, -directed and –produced 1831 RIOT!, ‘the world’s first audio-play for located media in an intelligent environment’ (The Guardian) for Mobile Bristol (with Hewlett-Packard Labs)
In 2009 he undertook a 6-month Technology Strategy Board-funded residency with the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol to look into ‘The Dramatic Potential of Pervasive Media’ and became a resident member of the studio
In 2009 we met, liked what each other were doing and formed SATSYMPH.
We worked collaboratively on an Arts Council-funded scoping study, A GPS-Triggered Poetic Symphony, as well as experimenting with other GPS-triggered mobile music / poetic / literary content
An iteration of our scoping study (‘NAIADS’) was ‘laid out’ in Nov 2010 alongside the River Britt in Dorset to create a virtual soundworld for ‘countertext’ (part of the Bridport Literary Festival); we relocated a variation on this theme further down the same river meadows (nearer Westbay) for ‘audiolab’ (PVA MediaLab/Labculture) in March 2011
Later in 2010 we were shortlisted as one of four innovative music and sound projects from across the UK for ‘the UK’s most ambitious new music award’, the £50,000 PRS for Music Foundation New Music Award 2010. The proposal was to create an ambitious worldwide GPS-triggered satellite symphony. We went on to win the public vote for this award (but not the actual award).
We found ourselves with a big problem – an idea we strongly believed in and wanted to develop, and no money to undertake the research to build it. We were bitterly disappointed to not have won the £50,000! We quickly learned that the truly new and innovative is rarely understood and supported especially when trying to sell the ‘concept and vision’ of our work as we didn’t have a working model to demonstrate to people what it actually was and could achieve.
Some weeks passed as we regrouped our strength and momentum. We eventually came up with a plan to move the project forwards. In 2010 we applied to Art Council England’s Grants for the Arts along with funding from other interested parties such as PVA MediaLab, Dorset and smaller funds from the PRS for Music Foundation; we were awarded a major grant from Arts Council England in 2011. Without this financial help and the belief of Arts Council England and our partners in our concepts and ideas we would never have been able to create ‘on a theme of Hermes’. It was a long and at times, harrowing and bitterly disappointing journey to where we are today, but we believed in what SATSYMPH offered with our vision for a new way to experience music and poetry. Our persistence and self-belief won the day!
SATSYMPH became an LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) in October 2011
Q) All the 3 of you have invested lot of time and energies in order to make this project reality. How do you feel today that Hermes, the cell phone’s app is available?
We feel very proud! This is a unique piece of work, probably one of the first of its kind in the world; a large-scale, ambitious piece of invisible public art that is only accessed through a smartphone. And this is serious stuff, too. The music and poetry is very contemporary, sometimes quite abstract and hard-hitting, at other times reflective and calm, beautiful even.
So what’s unique and new about composing on a theme of Hermés? Everything!

‘on a theme of Hermés’ revolutionises the way I as a composer have to think about constructing music.

Bold claims. So why is this?

‘on a theme of Hermés’ operates in time, in place (location) and in action (the term to describe our movements or ‘actions’ through the location on a theme of Hermés is installed into). These three elements are combined for the first time in on a theme of Hermés; they create a three-dimensional time/space/action matrix. Lets un-pick these elements.

In time: We are used to music that has a beginning, middle and end. We are not used to music that you can ‘walk into and explore’ from any entry point and is constructed to have no beginning, middle or end, and may have linear or non-linear narrative.

In place (location): on a theme of Hermés innovates composing music into landscape. What does that mean?

‘on a theme of Hermés’ is made of innumerable music modules or regions – these can be loops of music, fragments, longer stretches of music, a whole gamut of sounds, textures and colours that can be overlayed, mixed and reconstructed over and over. OK, the idea of mixing sounds isn’t so new, but what is entirely new is this ‘composing into the landscape’ idea. This is where as a composer; I get to choose exactly where the sounds I have written are to be placed. This is of great significance for two reasons. One, because the musical material may reflect or resonate with some object or feature in the landscape that naturally partners it and two, more significantly, because the people who experience these sounds will describe them to others in reference to their location. For instance; “the strange subterranean voices and trombones over by that small group of bushes near the pond that emerged from the rattly percussive sounds on the grass just before the path stopped”.
This placing sounds has huge implications not only for the way that we engage with music and sound outdoors, but also for the way we map-out the landscape of a piece of music that is perceived internally, through the ears, onto an external landscape that we perceive through our eyes. Combining these two elements in this way, through these technologies is entirely original and a new kind of vocabulary is developing to help make sense of and communicate these experiences.

And finally, ‘action’. There are several aspects to this. The first is authorship. Who owns the authorship of the material? The answer is both the composer and the audience. The composer creates the music, pretty much in the conventional way – pen and paper, score, musical notation – musicians –etc., and the composer places (programmes through GPS coordinates) all this music (and we are talking about several hundred regions of sound in a large installation) into a given landscape being mindful of the relationship of sound to location and features as well as the drama and dynamic of the music in relation to the landscape area. At this point, the composer’s authorship stops. From then on, it is the individual audience member who takes over authorship as it is their movements, how and where they walk, run, roam and wander – their ‘actions’ – that determine which sounds are combined with others, how long these combinations last, when sounds are started and stopped in relation to each other; what sounds they want to enjoy more and what sounds they want to avoid, the list of combinations and permutations of possibility are endless. These relationships are complex and sophisticated and nothing like walking around a park plugged into an MP3 player listening to music tracks. This is a musical landscape that can be pro-actively explored – a ‘symphonic fantasy world’ that you can adventure in time and again, on your own or with others, each time having a unique experience. So, the audience’s ‘action’ is the interactive aspect that enables them to share ownership over what they hear and experience. This is a true participatory experience!

Back to the composition.

Through on a theme of Hermés, the relationship between time, space and action and the 3D matrix they inhabit is the new manuscript onto which I create my soundworlds. As a composer, I have never before been able to work in this way. Music has always been a linear experience – start to finish, predetermined, fixed in time, experienced in a roughly similar way by all those that hear it at that time or performance – music has been something that happens at set times and ceases to be there once the musicians have gone home. My music has never been integrated into a landscape so that it exists as one in the same thing, locked together, and never before has my music been open to others to create and build with as they please.

These are the huge, and even revolutionary challenges that await when composing music into these technologies and locations. As an artist, I am unaware of any contemporary classical composition (or indeed any other music) being composed in this way.
When we talk about developing practice for artists we often anticipate small developmental steps along the journey of developing existing or new skills. ‘on a theme of Hermés’ offers a development in my practice as a composer that I could only describe as ground breaking – revolutionary – a paradigm shift. Nothing will be quite the same again.
I see on a theme of Hermés as a new type of public art, to be experienced in the same way as any public art: It may be invisible, be located in a virtual realm, it may have no footprint and no environmental impact, but it is still accessible by the public, in public spaces. How exciting is that!

Q) What is SATSYMPH’s future?

The future is full of potential. We can work with all sorts of audio material, not just our own music and poetry and bring it alive through creative interpretation. We currently have a number of projects in the pipeline that work through interpreting and presenting heritage and history to the public via mobile apps with the advantage that we can geo-locate the information in the actual places the information relates to or where events really did happen.

One such project is with The South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership. SATSYMPH’s input over the 5yr period is entitled SatScape. Working with our partners and many local communities to develop content that interprets the natural and built heritage of the South Dorset Ridgeway, we will use GPS, and smartphone technology to create a unique soundscape experience, delivered through an app that will provide a platform for communities to cultivate pride in their own and their communities’ histories, culture and heritage. This new app will leave a cultural legacy for future generations to experience.

We are also working on a very exciting project -‘CARNYX’: A unique, permanent and utterly compelling interactive bardic / operatic experience set in real time, in hillfort locations across Wessex, accessed through your smartphone via a downloadable app. Walk around in the opera, wander through the music and words to discover its story: it’s your journey; it’s your history!

Just a taste of what is to come!

Q) Does it work anywhere in the world?

Oh yes!

Excitingly, a portable version of the Hermes experience can also be accessed anywhere in the world you choose by going to a large open space, opening the app and following the on-screen instructions. Different to the site-specific installations above, the portable version of ‘Hermes’ spreads in a radius around your position at a given site throwing up unpredictable and serendipitous relationships to the chosen location. As the app doesn’t need a phone signal to operate (it uses satellite signals) it can operate anywhere in the world with satellite coverage – that’s most places! If you have an IPhone or Android phone you can download the app at SATSYMPH

This is the QR code to take you to the SATSYMPH website to facilitate download onto your smartphone.

11) Can you tell us about your next projects? If my memory is correct (well I know it is) you’ll be part of the Olympics opening ceremony. Can you talk about it?

I have a great many projects on the go at the moment with premieres in the UK and abroad in the pipeline. But one of the biggest current projects is ‘sturzstrom’

A landslide event for voices!
sturzstrom was commissioned by the Lighthouse, Poole with support from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation as part of Coastal Voices. Coastal Voices has been granted the Inspire mark by the London 2012 Inspire programme. The London 2012 Inspire programme recognises innovative and exceptional projects that are directly inspired by the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
‘sturzstrom received its premiere on the 1st. June, underground in Beer Quarry Caves – an amazing event where I had to conduct the work wearing a head torch and glow bands around my wrists so the choir and primary school pebble players could see what I was doing with my arms in the gloom. This even got a mention in the Guardian newspaper!
The second performance was on the 8th July in Lighthouse Poole where all the commissions from the Coastal Voices project were performed. There was an audience of around 800.
The final performance is at the opening of the Olympic Sailing events in Weymouth and Portland on the 27th July, where we shall perform to a large audience in the ICCI 360˚ Arena along with a specially made 360˚ video projection of aerial footage of the Jurassic Coast of East Devon and Dorset. Working with the team from ICCI, this video material has been specially treated and edited by me to reflect the mood and activity of the music. I am hoping to be able to release the video in August.

Sturzstrom‘ is a vocal work that expresses in sound the formation and geology of the Jurassic Coast concentrating on the phenomina of landslips, mudslides and coastal erosion.

The work will be a primordial, timeless piece that reflects Deep Time and geological processes in sound, structure and process of composition, echoing the creation of the land, strata and Jurassic Coast across time. Using the power of massed choirs, it will act on communities, singers and audiences at a visceral, atavistic level, capturing and integrating their reactions to it. Vocal content has been developed and shaped in local communities in East Devon and West Dorset through creative workshops with the composer, using texts relating to the geology of the Jurassic Coast as the basis for non-narrative content.

‘Sturzstrom’ is part of the the Coastal Voices project and will look at how the geology we see along the coast was formed and how it is being shaped today, how that geology has shaped the land above and how the landscape created affects us as people.

A sturzstrom (German literally for “fall stream” or “collapse stream”; the correct German term, however, is “bergsturz”) is a rare, unique type of landslide consisting of soil and rock which is characterized by having a great horizontal movement when compared to its initial vertical drop – as much as 20 or 30 times the vertical distance. Sturzstroms are similar to glaciers, mudslides, and lava flows. Sturzstroms flow across land fairly easily, and their mobility increases when volume increases. They have been found on other bodies in the solar system, including the moon, Mars, Venus, Io, Callisto, and Phobos. More information can be found here.

My Website: http://marc-yeats.co.uk/

Thank you Marc for taking the time for answering my questions with so many details and information.

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