Celebration of Simon Emmerson’s 70th birthday year!

Simon EmmersonSimon Emmerson (Music, 1983) has had a varied and fascinating career in City. First joining our community as a PhD student in 1974, then going from a part-time to full-time lecturer over the course of two years. Simon’s most notable contribution to City and the thousands of students within its walls is founding and directing City sound studios for thirty years. In his 70th birthday year, Simon is passionately working on further huge projects, enjoying having more time to perform and compose. Reflecting back on his life in music and working on several groundbreaking projects, Simon gives advice to young musicians who might want to follow in his footsteps as well as discussing his own experience, the good and the bad, in the sector.

Read more about Simon and his fascinating life in music below:

What has been your relationship with City?

In 1974 I joined City as a research student on a (two year) PhD ‘Electronic Music Studentship’ funded by the ‘Worshipful Company of Musicians’. I was supervised by Malcolm Troup who founded the Music Department in 1975. When the studentship ended I became a part-time (1976) then a full-time lecturer (1978). I gained my PhD in 1982, and with promotions in due course, I left as a Professor in 2004. I loved every minute from start to finish.

The Music Department expanded its numbers and degree courses steadily over its first twenty years. The studio took on postgraduates from about 1979. There were no special rules for PhDs by practice – we improvised our balance of creative folio and reflective writing that I believe survives to this day. In the early years, I was also asked to teach in the ‘adult education’ department, both practical workshops and more traditional aesthetics/history classes. I think I was the only member of staff to teach on all the courses ran by City’s Music Department.


City Studio opened by Peter Gabriel

Can you tell us about your experience of setting up the City Studios?

I was asked immediately I arrived to research different electroacoustic studio models with visits to already established studios throughout the UK from Glasgow to Southampton – Durham (Peter Manning) and York (Richard Orton) were immediately relevant. The resulting studio at City was designed for both research-composition and teaching. The foundation of the Music Department was in 1975 when undergraduate (Bachelors) music students arrived. That is the date I would give for the Electroacoustic Music Studio foundation. The first ‘proper’ studio – a dedicated space, professionally connected together, with relatively high quality mixing and monitoring – was in the basement of College Building. While it was not treated for sound isolation it was remote enough from the main thoroughfares. The first sound isolated studio was built to a good specification when (in 1980) the Department moved down St John Street to the corner building opposite The Peasant pub (then called the George and Dragon). The basement of ‘223-227 St John Street’ was converted into three separate rooms: a main control studio, an ‘empty’ recording area for instruments and sound sources and a third smaller postgraduate studio that became a ‘computer music studio’ housing the Fairlight CMI – one of the earliest samplers with a very sophisticated set of control languages. There the studio remained until the Department’s move back to College Building in about 1990. The ‘new’ Department was opened officially by the Duchess of Kent in early 1991 with a further opening ceremony for the studio by Peter Gabriel in May 1991 on the day of his getting an honorary degree from the University. So (in my time) there were effectively three builds or rebuilds connected by periods of evolution.


How has the technology changed in the studios over the years you’ve been at City and how has that impacted your own compositional practice?

The core of many studios in the 1970s was a bank of stereo tape recorders, a kind of ‘flexible multitrack’ area where (stereo) tracks could be slipped in time – providing the composer had fast and accurate choreographic dexterity to switch tapes on/off at exactly the right time! This was clearly a form of performance: rehearsed with intensity – then play! The Revox tape machines were modified to have a flat top and the electronic ‘line up’ controls open to view for regular use. I also took advice on a mixing console that was flexible and low noise – and was mobile so we could haul it into concert spaces; we also bought the largest Tannoy loudspeakers for (from the outset) a surround sound quadraphonic studio. We had a couple of EMS VCS3 synthesisers and a range of microphones. High-quality 8-track recording was added in the first major restructure of the studio in 1980.

Digital arrived slowly and haphazardly in the 1980s – some early digital gear was very expensive. Multitrack digital tape for example existed but was prohibitive – and analogue remained the standard till multitrack computer DAWs developed (slowly) in the 1990s. Mastering went digital when a stereo recording system known as PCMF1 came along – effectively CD standard. There was a special sound interface to a videotape format (either Betamax or professional U-matic tapes – hugely clunky things but a leap in quality). I need not give a detailed lecture on music tech history here – the advent of PCs (Apple Mac from the start – actually we had a pre-Mac ‘Apple II’ for one research project) and Midi meant the start of networking systems – this impacted composing and teaching approaches steadily.

Simon Emmerson working in City Studios

Purely electronic synthesis came in various forms in the 1980s – most notably the Yamaha DX/TX series of FM synthesis modules. These were often used alongside sampled sounds –

Akai samplers rapidly replaced the Fairlight in the late 1980s. For live electronics we kept it simple – the rack-mounted midi controlled Yamaha SPX and Alesis Quadraverb, for example, were much used, and often instruments were combined with studio created ‘tape’ parts. City studios never got involved in the more advanced computer music programming developments – though we did have a Composer Desktop Project investment in the 1990s. I would describe the studio philosophy as eclectic and pragmatic. My own (and many research students’) interest in live electronics and mixed work (with voices or instruments) meant that we had a stream of visitors – some of the best contemporary music performers in the UK and beyond, all of whom performed the new City work often at the annual Electroacoustic Music Festival.

The studio area increasingly became a ‘multiverse’ with a main studio – used extensively for the undergraduate sound recording course with visiting lecturers from the industry and the BBC, as well as for mixing and mastering the final productions of composition work – and a number of high-quality computer-based studios for postgraduate and research use. Then there was added a computer music lab for class teaching as the technology developed.


Tell us the most positive or rewarding experience you’ve had in your work.

I would not like to cite a single example! The remark of Arnold Schoenberg (in the Preface to his Theory of Harmony) – “This book I have learned from my pupils” – is true for me, too. Teaching is learning – without my students, I would not keep up nearly so well with important changes in approaches to music making, and it would be more difficult to develop new ideas and skills. Especially for music composition, teaching is about enabling individuals (and groups) to find their voice. And what their voice says is profoundly rooted in both space (place) and time (history). So over the years I have had great discussions with students on topics such as ‘what is ‘live’/’innovative’/’elitist’/’popular’?’ – indeed I have changed my mind about all these – or better to say my views have steadily evolved due to the encounters and discussions of teaching. Then there is the symbiotic relationship with the changing technology – sometimes helpful and liberating, sometimes frustrating, always challenging.

This question cannot pass without reference to the supportive and stimulating environment that we inhabited at City. Around me were gamelans from Java, Bali and Sunda, African drumming, north Indian music classes, English and European Folksong, Far Eastern Music – the world’s music in theory and practice. Then there was psychology of music and, with external support, music therapy. Computer and technology applications were embedded throughout. Traditional western art music performance was strong through the relationship with the Guildhall School – we had so many really excellent singers and instrumentalists, and of course other (non-electroacoustic) composers on the staff. It was also a reflective department – that is the ‘theory’ was strongly related to practice – in musicology, ethnomusicology, psychology.


What are you working on now in your 70th birthday year?

My new clarinet, bass clarinet and electronics piece Wind Clouds Showers for Heather Roche was premiered at my ‘birthday season opening’ concert at City in February. I am now at work on a new acousmatic (studio) piece Near and far at once for BEAST in Birmingham – alas as I write this their festival is postponed until the current virus crisis is over. That will be a ‘big’ piece for their largest multi-loudspeaker set-up. I have plans for further ahead but I never name projects until a performance date is set! I am enjoying having more time to compose and perform.


What do you think about the artistic landscape in the country, how has it changed over the years you’ve been involved with it?

Another very big question! If I keep to the electroacoustic area – I think we were some of the first composers and performers to create new spaces for presenting work. In the early years the relationship of music to technology was quite new to the public (whether concert-going or not). From around 1978 we presented public concerts at City with high quality multi-speaker presentation for live electronic and tape music. I include amplification as a live electronic process – we had vocal and instrumental groups that worked with these resources. This became an annual ‘Electroacoustic Music Festival’ that, throughout the 1980s, attracted a good audience and often brought the press critics in. That has clearly changed over the years as technology has permeated every corner of the field – and provoked some wonderfully creative and contrary reactions, DIY and circuit bending, turntablism and so on.

The greater access to music-making technology has changed many relationships. There is still a role for the studio as an institution. Home studios empower the individual but we still need to get together for sharing the result in a suitable high-quality environment. The need for a supportive if critical community, especially for composers studying their craft, is stronger than ever.

The recognition of the contribution of women in the past, as well as greater opportunities for the present and future, has been a vital development – but there is still a lot to be done. In the later 1990s there were the ‘Linz debates’ – sparked by some jury members of the Ars Electronica festival prize shifting focus away from what they heard as ‘academic’ electroacoustic music. The long-term effect of this debate has (I think) been positive. There has been a wider range of practices – from installation, improvisation, noise art, sound art – and many more – now swirling around our students and professional world on a much more equal footing. This is undoubtedly supported and encouraged by the internet-enabled world of connected centres – much flatter than the hierarchies of western music history. That said the process is ongoing and there remains a basic underlying tension between (some forms of experimental) ‘popular’ and ‘art’ music aesthetics.


What has been the biggest challenge during your time at City?

That is a difficult question. A creative challenge was the steady increase in student numbers. I welcomed this opportunity of opening out, but it brought many resource, accommodation and organisational challenges. Organisational includes educational: how to teach larger numbers to a standard you hold dear can be challenging, but by and large we had good allies in high places that helped. Our accommodation was at times uneven but did steadily improve in quality and scope. Soundproofing and technical specifications of spaces and equipment – not just music studios, but for orchestras and gamelans – was not considered so outrageous alongside the budgets for science and engineering. Looking back on it City Music’s team did very well to weather the storms as the new century approached – and the world of student fees was first suggested.


What advice would you give to young musicians that want to succeed in the music field?

Remaining true to the calling of music is a ‘true cliché’ – the word ‘succeed’ is perhaps ambiguous. Quality, success, happiness, satisfaction have a complex relationship. Most musicians I have known seem to believe they could not do anything else – sometimes hidden, sometimes very clear to see, there’s a passion for the subject. Sometimes alumni come up to me and say ‘sorry I’ve let you down, I’m now an accountant’ – I always reply that I am profoundly happy that they made that choice – providing they are too. And most also add how much they enjoyed the music course that they did – exactly so! In fact, there are no rules, no guidelines, no instruction manual for beginners. I have often said that music is the proper subject and object of all rational enquiry as well as being the most universal and important social activity for the human species – a society that excludes it from a school curriculum does so at its extreme peril.


Postscriptum: with the exception of Professor Malcolm Troup who celebrated his 90th birthday in February 2020 I opted to name no colleagues – while not strictly too many to name, I felt I didn’t want to exclude anyone. But – if you ever read this – you know you are all there in these answers – so many thanks to you all!


Simon Emmerson
March 2020


Simon’s albums are available on Spotify!

Dreams, Memories and Landscapes      

Spaces and Places     

Points and Pathways