5 Questions to Alex Paxton (composer, improvising trombonist)

As listeners, we often tend to organize artists into specific tropes and categorize their music as having a distinct “sound.” Just as we’re able to identify if it’s Katy Perry or Lana del Ray on the radio, our ears can readily identify motifs, pairings of instruments, or distinct harmonic styles within contemporary music that tell us “Those pulses are the music of Steve Reich,” and “This intonation cluster definitely sounds like something Catherine Lamb would do.”

With composer and improvising trombonist Alex Paxton, I hear infinite possibilities. Described as a “system-crasher of genre” by Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, Alex’s music takes us places we have never been before, as if we are in a glorious parallel existence. His music paints worlds that defy sonic possibilities and fuse his practice as an improviser with an array of quirky, crazy, and excessive textures. In Spit Crystal Yeast-rack, Dripping (à l’orange) written for Explore Ensemble, frenetic wind lines and a sampled drum kit transition into fluttery folk interludes that make the listener feel welcome at the party, even while sitting in the concert hall. His piece for solo trombone and orchestra, iLollipop, is maximalist heaven – think dancing, wailing trombone meets twinkling winds trying to etch their phrases in the sand, only to be washed away by something radically different.

It’s magical; there’s a “knowing” for me in Alex’s music that makes me feel like I’m at home. In the midst of chaos, Alex encourages us to use our ideas and wildest imaginations as sounding boards for the next thing, even if it’s split seconds later. His music makes me (and so many others) smile, gasp, and feel decorated like magnificent ice cream sundaes. This is where I dream of being in the (classical) music world.

Alex Paxton -- Photo by Rui Camilo

Alex Paxton — Photo by Rui Camilo

Your “manifesto” on your website is to “make magic sound stuff.” How do you go about doing that when you compose and improvise)?

I feel we live so much of our lives trapped within the metaphor of words. What I do exists in sound and feelings. “Make magic sound stuff” is as far as I am able go into that space with words/metaphors. After that, it’s just sound-feeling all the way down… maybe. Sometimes I think a lot of magic things in music have to do with manipulating time. For example, it feels like magic in the concert, but the audience doesn’t have to listen to the tonnes of hours of practice an individual has done their whole lives.

My composition craft has lots of alternative layers of improvising (composing quickly) and composing (improvising slowly), so a piece can feel like its spontaneous and can turn on a dime or blow over in the wind… but actually it can also bring all of the planned-composer-capacity stuff with it (like orchestration or complex harmonic structures).

In my work as an improviser, this takes a slightly different form, as it’s a bodily version of what I do as a composer; it takes place in the body with my trombone as an extension. I practice creativity in a way so that it is internalised by my body. The material here is not as expansive, but goes deeper. I feel that the manipulation of time here makes the magic stuff. When I practice daily, I charge each little potion of creative dream energy, which can then be called upon in a performance, if the body is willing.

You recently recorded one of your pieces, Candyfolk Spacedrum, with The Belham Primary Choir in Peckham. How is the recording going for your new album?

That session was brilliant. Aga Serugo-Lugo led the kids through the score with all the best sounds and feelings. I’m really looking forward to when its all mixed in amongst the London Sinfonietta players and a solo jazz drummer (also with infinite midi synths electronics, too)… kind of like all the best sounds in the world. Here’s an interesting recording of children singing that I like:

I’ve released three albums to date: Music for Bosch People, ilolli-pop, and Happy Music for Orchestra. And I am actually in the process of making three more new albums: Shrimp BIT baby face, CandyFolk Space Drum (including Car-Pig and a piece I wrote for me, Jennifer Walshe, and WDR Symphony Orchestra), and Big Gay Cartoon Machine (which I am calling my “jazz” album).

I like to think of my work in terms of albums/families of pieces/tracks that belong together, like a triptych of canvases, or a symphony or… an album. I love recording and capturing each of the sounds in much greater detail than most live contexts. Ideally, I would like to be making one or two albums a year for the rest of my life — that would probably sort me right out.

People have said they hear influences of John Zorn, Hildegard von Bingen, Harrison Birtwhistle, or even Louis Armstrong in your work. Who are your biggest influences right now?

Lots of people influence me right now. I’m feeling a lot of visual artists influence me at the moment. I think I could explain direct musical things I’ve done that are directly influenced by seeing these people’s work:

  1. Jadé Fadojutimi (@JadéFadojutimi on Instagram): This is the artist I would most love to connect with and I feel is most resonant, especially with my orchestral work.
  2. Ody Saban: We have been in contact briefly about a performance of Od Ody Pink’d that I did with the WDR Symphony Orchestra, which references her in the title. She told me she used to listen to Zappa when she paints.
  3. Yui Sakamoto (@groovygnome on Instagram): I love this stuff. Maybe something like this is what I am trying to do in sound… I dunno.
  4. Sculptor David Altmejd (@DavidAltmejd on Instagram)
  5. Thiago Barbalho: I love this visual doodle-improvisation-like language.
  6. Ahmet Doğu İpek: My favourite works, like “Construction Regime,” are a great example that really show what the magic of “composed” or “planned”/constructed ideas can do.
  7. Wangechi Mutu: OMG she just gets better and better.

Several aural music traditions are of constant fascination to me (actually, I think all aural traditions would be, but I only know of some). I listen to this music and think, “oh boy this feels so amazing.” I listen to this music and think, “there is knowledge and feelings contained in this music that could not only help me write better music, but could also help me decide what to have for dinner and help me love and show me how.” Music made not by an individual, but through whole communities of people over multiple generations.

For me, aural music traditions are generally the most powerful sonic magic that exists. There is so much to learn about humanity and music creation from listening to them. There is also so much to be healed and felt by them. I listen repetitively and obsessively and try to internalise as much as I can into my body. Often when I listen to music formed in aural traditions, I think, “wow this music is the most extraordinary thing humans have ever done.” I know some better than others, and I don’t know any of them well enough to play them. It is always the most extraordinary thing to hear a musical language unlike anything I’ve heard before. Labels like Prophet and Sublime Frequencies are brilliant for this kind of thing.

Alex Paxton and Ensemble Modern -- Photo by Martin Sigmund

Alex Paxton and Ensemble Modern — Photo by Martin Sigmund

You describe your work within a beautiful series of analogies: “like minimal but loads more notes like video-games but with more song like jazz but much more gay like old music but more current like yummy…” Where does the music you’re writing right now fit into this?

I’ve just taken the register from this paragraph (“yes Miss”), and it is doing all these things still…. That paragraph is still a useful way to say what my music is; I wrote it after the music rather than writing it first, so I never aim for those things. The thing I aim for is something more abstract that I haven’t really pinned down. The best I can do is say that it is “make magic sound stuff.”

This may be a cliche question, but what are your hopes for the next generation of composers?

That is a very interesting question. I hope that they will write music that is inconceivably and mind-blowingly beautiful, and also true and gives life to people and animals in a whole multitude of ways. I AM optimistic — music is going to get better and better… probably… maybe… maybe for the following reasons:

I think the internet profoundly changed the way that music and art exist right now, and that this is only the beginning; 10 years ago, you had to go to a library to hear most music that was sometimes even only a little bit weird or special. Now I can find a hell of a lot of it quite quickly. I really am totally thrilled to see what happens next.

From a “classical music” composer-world perspective, the effort to diversify the people, backgrounds, educations, and genres involved is really just beginning, so I think results will be even more exciting in a few decades time. Some Gen Z composers seem to have a totally different way of thinking about/creating art and music and the way it functions/how we listen: cyborg thinking influenced by video games, fancy internet things, and humans and technology grown in tandem with each other. I feel composers my age and older find it harder to inhabit this world so deeply because we grew up with our minds in analogue first, and then learnt to do internet. Y’know those babies that you can see trying to swipe a book like it’s an iPad? I can’t wait to hear what music they make.


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