This interview took place online on 14 August 2020 between City’s Head of the Department of Music, Dr Ian Pace, and BMus graduate Toby Edwards.
Ian Pace: I’d like to welcome Toby Edwards. Toby graduated from City in 2018, since which time he has been working on a series of music projects, one a band with Felipe Airey-Franco and Tom Overton, who graduated the same year as him, the other an experimental free improvisation collective he co-founded with Jamie Turner who graduated from City the year before, all while working out what was to come next which will be a masters’ at Goldsmiths starting this term coming.
Toby, welcome back. Your time at City was somewhat more recent than with some others who have been interviewed, and so I imagine many things still remain quite fresh and vivid – what are your abiding memories from your study with us?
Toby Edwards: What’s stayed with me the most from my time at City is certainly the modules and lectures, which is all thanks to lecturers, including yourself! I think it would be difficult not to vouch for the quality of teaching and teachers at City, they are all so passionate, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable about their subjects and clearly very happy to be teaching them! The breadth of learning you can give yourself with your module choices at City is something to be envied, take advantage of this!
I remember speaking to friends on other courses at other universities and they’d often say that their lectures are boring and they often not bother to go, but for me that was never once a thought – I consistently found myself gaining so much from the teaching at City that lectures were something to look forward too, even when waking up early!
Special mentions to the Christmas Cabaret and also to the City University Experimental Ensemble, it introduced a completely new manner of playing music to me, as well as being an all around fun, meditative, relaxing, invigorating ensemble to be in! I’ll forever be thankful to Tullis for it. (You can even spot me in the banner photo above during a CUEE rehearsal).
IP: What were amongst your early musical interests before beginning undergraduate study?
TE: Before joining the course at City I had actually done my first year of study at the University of Kent, I was unsatisfied with the course there and looked into the possibility of transferring and City were happy to take me.
Before I went to university at all, I was interested in, but not exceptionally knowledgeable of, soul, jazz and classical, as a listener of all three and performer of soul and jazz. A fan of learning James Jamerson basslines, learning more about playing jazz, listening to Shostakovitch, but of course going to a university to study music busted this right open. I was rapidly introduced to a far greater variety of music than I had ever been before and my interests developed, deepened, and I wanted to learn more about more. Part of my reason for leaving Kent in favour of City was the lack of variety in Kent’s module choices at the time, which City provided to me more than amply.
IP: Which modules did you take at City?
TE: In my second year I did the core module Analysing Music, then my choices were: Instrumental and Vocal Composition, Music Traditions of the Far East (which I was lucky enough to be on during Prof. Steve Stanton’s final year of teaching), Historical Performance Practice, Music, Fascism and Communism; and Popular Music Now.
In my final year I chose to do two major projects, a Dissertation on Debussy’s relationship with Japanese art and his music, and a Composition portfolio which explored indeterminacy in composition and performance. My chosen modules were: Debussy, Orchestral and Instrumental Studies, and Electronic Dance Music.
IP: I remember your dissertation on Debussy and Japanese art well! What attracted you to that sort of area in particular?
TE: The Music Traditions of the Far East module had introduced me to the Japanese art traditions and philosophies the year before, which continue to be a love of mine today (I have an Utamaro print from the early 20th century on my wall above me as I type!)
I can’t remember when exactly I saw them, but I came across a series of photos of Debussy and Stravinsky in one of Debussy’s studies, in one of these photos (which I’ve attached), you can clearly see two ukiyo-e prints: a copy of Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa, and a portrait of a woman I couldn’t identify. Seeing this led me to read about Japonisme, the Parisian centred fascination of Japanese art and culture in the mid to late 19th century. Japanese art was well loved, well collected, and influencing visual art significantly. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, and many other impressionists and turn of the century artists collected, praised and in some cases, directly included their ukiyo-e prints in their work.
Debussy was the same – the cover of the orchestral score for his orchestral work La Mer was an abridged copy of The Great Wave and a set of three piano works entitled Estampes, referring to ukiyo-e prints are the direct evidence of his inclusion of Japanese art in his work, I wanted to see if the connection went further than titles and front covers, so I went ahead and started reading, and some time later, I’d finished a dissertation about it!
IP: Tell me some more about your experimental free improvisational work, and how that developed with your City colleagues?
TE: I joined the City University Experimental Ensemble (CUEE) in my second year, I had never freely improvised before, but Tullis Rennie is excellent at getting everyone into the right mindset for it and introducing the mode of playing to the ensemble. it didn’t take very long for me to fall in love with free improvisation, which is surely thanks to all the work Tullis does for CUEE, and all my peers in the ensemble too – ensembles are great for learning and socialising!
Tullis gave us excellent opportunities to perform, with the annual CUEE performance at Iklectik near Waterloo and performances during the rest of the year as part of City’s concert series. We worked with a variety of composers for performances, such as Cath Roberts, Sam Andreae and Michael Finnissy.
It’s in the ensemble that I became friends with Jamie, who after graduating would go on to study a Sound Art masters at LCC. For his masters’ exhibition he wanted to have a live performance of his work: a book of haikus which he composed for music making, for which I was recruited. It was there I met the rest of what would become the collective Subphonics. In my experience the process of working on improvisational is very different from working in any other genre: a much more iterative process, with lots and lots of thought and discussion between playing sessions as you’re not working from scores, or typically from anything that is particularly musically prescriptive. We’ve improvised using sections of books by Zamyatin and Woolf, from how we felt on a very hot day, from using an old English folk song, often one of us may just start playing then we go from there. I find it such a joy to work in such a creative and group-focused manner and wholeheartedly recommend free improvisation and CUEE.
IP: Toby, thanks very much for your time and fascinating thoughts! Do you have any links relating to your work or anything else which interests you, which you would like to share?
TE: Subphonics has just released its first sort-of release: a collage of out recordings from our first year and a bit together as a collective, which I think well demonstrates what I’ve said about the joys of free improvisation and can be found here: