New Voice: Sam Salem

Sam Salem

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Sam Salem (b. 1982) currently resides in Manchester (UK), where he completed a MUSM in Electroacoustic Music Composition in 2007 and a PhD in Composition in 2011 at the University of Manchester.

Sam’s work is focused upon the sounds of urban environments: each of his pieces focuses upon a specific geographical location. His music aspires to illuminate and explore the hidden musicality and beauty of his geographical subjects, as well as his own relationship to his environment as both a source of inspiration and musical material.

He has undertaken a number of creation residencies at institutions around the world, including Ems (Stockholm, 2013-14), La Muse En Circuit (Paris, 2012-2013), Technische Universität (Berlin, 2012), STEIM (Amsterdam, 2011-12) and Musique et Recherches (Ohain, 2011). He has also been nominated and awarded in a number of international composition competitions, including: Concours Luc Ferrari (2012, Winner), Luigi Russolo Competition (2012, Audience Award), Metamorphoses (2012, Nomination), Competition Destellos (2012, Nomination), Joensuu Soundscape Composition Contest (2011, Third Prize), 11th Musica Viva Composition Competition (2010, First Prize ex-aequo) and Musica Nova (2010, Honorary Mention).

Sam is co-director of the Distractfold Ensemble, and currently teaches at Canterbury Christ Church University. 


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

As a child, I was fascinated by a micro-cassette Dictaphone. It belonged to my dad, and I remember frequently hearing the sound of his dictation. Of course, his (tape) voice was always entirely incomprehensible to me, and I used to smuggle the mysterious object out of his desk drawer… I would record household sounds, my own voice, my sisters, and the cat, before stealthily returning the recorder. 

I really have no idea what his secretary must have thought. To my dad’s credit, I don’t think that he has ever asked me about it. Is it possible that no one ever noticed the difference? That both of our voices were incomprehensible (and indistinguishable from each other) to whoever had the task of eventually decoding them? 

I also remember: my mother’s voice drifting up to my bedroom, as she sang to herself… and crying as a baby (my parent’s harried faces / the knowledge that I didn’t really need to cry).

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Having grown up in a small and somewhat grim city, I really had no clue as to the existence of  electroacoustic or contemporary instrumental music as either a genre or an activity until quite late on. When I eventually discovered electroacoustic composition in my early twenties, I knew immediately that it was what I wanted to do. 

As a boy, I was very influenced by the surge of (predominately) British electronica in the mid to late ‘90s, particularly the Warp label artists and their ilk. To my ears, they sounded very much as if they had arrived, fully formed, from a parallel universe. 

To return to the question, and thinking about the kind of music I write these days, I would say (in no order of preference) that I am, or was recently, influenced by: 

Hildegarde Westerkamp, Eliane Radigue, Luc Ferrari, Bernard Parmegianni, Scott Walker, David Berezan, John Chowning, John Cage, John Wall, Jon Hopkins. All the Johns. 

Having said that, I am probably most influenced by the work of my peers: I sincerely believe that there is more good music being produced now than at any other point in history.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

My working process can be pretty… complicated! The process is a loop, an act of sculpture: gathering and shaping materials, reflecting, adjusting. I write as much as possible, as frequently as possible, and compose continuously, from piece to piece. 

My compositional process can be both time and labor intensive. For example, my most recent work, The Fall, took around two and a half years to complete. Of course, every piece is different, and I think my preferred gestation period is around 3-4 months… but there was something about The Fall… it was an adversarial presence in my life for a little while! 

My process begins with recording. I travel to a location and make field recordings for a week or two (or preferably 3 or 4). This first step is already very important to me, along with the idea that the location should be unfamiliar. 

I travel with no preconceived notions of what I’ll find. I drift around, following my ears. It’s a way for me to be in the moment, concentrating on the present. This always results in the capture of something that seems rare or serendipitous, and gives me the sense that life is surprising, if I remember to pay attention. I love this part of the process: listening, in silent reverie. 

I’ve recorded in New York, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and most recently Stockholm, and written self-contained pieces using the materials gathered at each location. This is also very important to me: the idea that a location delineates the musical vocabulary of a piece. The challenge, and excitement, comes from finding (and exposing) the piece within my recorded materials. All these fragments of locations / strangers / events are also fragments of the past. There’s something very beautiful about exploring these fragments, which feel very distant in the studio and inhabited by ghosts… 

Next, I edit and catalogue my materials. I’m very interested in extracting information from my recordings (beyond the anecdotal!). I use digital analysis to extract spectral information, which I often re-synthesize into textural material using digital or analogue re-synthesis. I also like to work with the “behavioral” information within recordings… I annotate shapes, transients, rhythms etc., abstracting the form of a particular sound and recreating it using different materials. I then go on to create sketches, which develop into larger passages and… well, I loop around in the process for around for 3-6 months, until a piece pops out. 

To answer your original question, I do use a computer! I also use field recorders, microphones, analogue filters, effects and synthesizers, and a range of software. The contrast between working inside and outside the studio is important and very necessary to my compositional practice. 

Electroacoustic music is a technologically facilitated medium, but I’m not really too interested in exploring purely technical ideas. I love the possibilities that technology affords, and I believe in craft and skill, but I am not an engineer or technical researcher. However, I would like to push the electroacoustic medium, and the use of field recorded sound, to its limits (and then perhaps a touch further).

Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.

The piece that I would like to present is the first movement of The Fall, which is titled Too late, too far. It was constructed entirely from recordings of Amsterdam. The program note and link are below. I hope that you enjoy it. 

Too late, too far (2014) 

“I like it, for it is double. It is here and elsewhere.” Albert Camus, The Fall 

Too late, too far is part of a larger work entitled The Fall, composed between 2012 and 2014. The compositional process began during a residency at STEIM in December 2011: Amsterdam was the source from which I collected the materials for this piece. 

I think now of the unwitting owners of actions contained herein: the cyclists and joggers of Vondelpark, the man on a bridge who offered a bike for a cigarette, the swans calling across the Red Light District, the choir of Sint-Nicolassbasiliek, and the countless others, long since dispersed but not forgotten: shouting, singing, laughing, swearing, clapping. I think also of the creaks and rhythms of rocking boats, of passing trams, the ubiquitous bells and horns, the rain, wind and lapping water, and the 5:00 AM fireworks on New Year’s Day. I consider these materials as fragments of sound, but also, now, as fragments of time. Sometimes their shimmering light is obscured, sometimes it is revealed. 

This work, “peopled by bad dreams” (and the occasional good one), balances somewhere between loss and hope: after more than two years of work, this is its final character. 

Too late, too far was premiered during the Distractfold Ensemble showcase at the 47th International Summer Course for New Music, Darmstadt, 12th August 2014.

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