5 questions to Leah Kardos (Composer)

As a composer, are you inspired by other art forms? If so which ones?

I’m definitely inspired by visual elements; in my understanding they correlate almost directly to music: colour, line, thickness, shape and position/structure, texture, and depth of field. All of these things are musical concepts as well as visual ones – and, for me at least, more tangible as elements of communication when working in the studio environment.

For example, you might choose to compose a musical idea and orchestrate it for woodwinds because you know it will communicate a certain texture and imbue the music with flavour, and you’re aware that that choice brings with it emotive associations and cultural clichés; but beyond that choice and the notes/directions you give the performer, you cannot control the ambient performance environment or the proximity of the listener to the sound source. The variances in instrument build and playing technique could change the timbre in ways you didn’t expect. For this reason I see the composer in the studio production context as having the ultimate control – and like a visual artist, producing a definitive version of an artwork (in this case a recording). In the studio you can influence, control and change a performance; you can dial up the perfect EQ curve/colour, you can position the sound in the 3D listening space and give your composition depth of field. So, in the studio at least, there is definitely a very strong visual correlation and I’m definitely inspired by the potential there.

Leah Kardos (Photo by Matt-Roles)

Leah Kardos (Photo by Matt-Roles)

Do you use a computer for your work? When did you start?

Oh yes! I’d feel very lost if I didn’t have access to a computer to make music. Currently, I use Logic Pro as my go-to application for composition (rewired to Sibelius for scoring), but also occasionally Ableton Live, Reason 5, Cycling 74’s ‘M’, and countless plug-ins and virtual instruments to get the job done.

I started using a computer to make music when I was studying my BMus Degree at UQ. My composition professor showed me how to use Sibelius – it was revolutionary! Soon after that I signed up for modules in record production and learned how to operate the recording studio. This would have been in 1998/9 and the recording set up was still using tape machines, but there was a computer in there running Cubase VST. I will never forget what that little machine represented to us at that time – limitless possibilities. I remember thinking it was a miracle, and to this day I feel that way about my computers.

I use it at every stage of my creative processes: from capturing improvisations as MIDI data, to scoring, realising, experimenting, mixing, mastering and remixing/deconstructing. The computer is many things to me: a scribe, an organiser, a memory, a pseudo ensemble of players, a calculator of permutations, and sometimes an expressive instrument in and of itself.

Do you still use paper? What for?

I carry a little moleskine manuscript with me wherever I go and I use it to jot down ideas (which always seem to hit me at the most random and inopportune times). I also have a big orchestral score pad that lives on my piano stand. I used to spend time drawing dots on the pages, but these days it’s more scribbles, drawings and chord symbols.

Sometimes, just for a change, I’ll sit down at the piano and compose straight to score – the thought processes involved in that, and the decision-making that goes on in between the notes, is different to when I’m sequencing in Logic or writing in Sibelius. It’s useful, and I probably don’t do it often enough.

Does working on a computer affect the way you compose?

It definitely influences decision-making. Things like having an Edit > Undo option, or saving multiple versions of a composition – for me these options allow me some freedom to explore tangents and experiment with the raw materials.

Working with recording software has also given me a greater appreciation for the timbral and psychoacoustic properties of sound, and how they can be used to communicate ideas and feelings in a musical composition: these elements being historically outside of the composer’s complete control up until relatively recently. Sound design is a big thing for me, something that is potentially very expressive. The sound and instrument plugins getting around these days are amazing – a constant source of inspiration. At the moment I’m particularly obsessed with the stuff being made by the people at Tonehammer. They’ll make a playable expressive instrument out of anything – bees buzzing, footsteps in snow, the hum of a fluorescent light and so on. Brilliant.

Are you concerned with a possible loss of craftsmanship because of technology?

Sometimes I get a little dismayed when a new tech application comes out that makes short work of something that I studied hard to learn how to do the long way. It happens all the time, but a recent example is the Izotope Stutter Edit plug in that came out last month – it’s wonderful and yes it saves me loads of time, but it makes some of my education and hard-won skill set redundant. I used to be quite good at that sort of fine audio editing; now everyone can do it easily. It’s just the nature of technology, so you have to embrace it. The way I see it, good ideas will speak regardless of the tools used to create them. The composer/producer’s job is to make and implement creative choices based on their unique musical intuition – it’s my view that technology is just a tool to quicken that process.

Leah Kardos is a composer, producer, arranger, pianist, PhD student and music tech lecturer working in Bedford, England. Her work explores the unique opportunities for creativity that arise when working with technology applications, in contexts including live performance, studio production and film scoring. Of particular interest is manipulating recorded performances of score-based compositions to create completely new and vastly different works, focusing on timbral/textural elements and the use of production techniques to exploit psychoacoustic effects. http://www.leahkardos.com