Emergence Collective is a veritable supergroup of Sheffield based musicians, composers, researchers and academics. Taking influences from folk, jazz, early music and contemporary classical, their performances are completely improvised, creating a hypnotic kaleidoscope of sound. We asked them to tell us a bit more about their approach to making music and what inspires them.
You’re all involved in a number of interesting projects – tell us who is involved in Emergence Collective and a bit about their other musical endeavours, past and present.
Zeb Budworth – I’m a composer.
Rob Bentall – I’m a composer, sound designer, performer, and academic. So, a bit of everything really. Most of my composition/sound design happens in the world of performing arts – I write music for theatre and dance productions. I sometimes do solo performances with a nyckelharpa + electronics setup. I also lecture in electronic music composition at Leeds Conservatoire, mainly focusing on avant-garde areas like Musique Concrète, which I have been doing ever since I completed my PhD in Sonic Arts in 2015.
Tim Knowles – I was previously a member of nu-jazz upstarts Beyond Albedo and music/poetry crossover project Genevieve Carver and the Unsung, and now lead and compose for the Tim Knowles Quartet. I lecture in a diverse range of subjects (e.g. performance, jazz history, folk musics) at the University of Sheffield Department of Music, and am in the final stages of an ethnomusicological PhD research project on public participatory music making (i.e. open mics, folk sessions, jam sessions etc).
Juliana Day – I’m in a contemporary folk trio called Shivelights and an all-women folk/contemporary project called Inner which will be launched very soon. I sometimes play with solo indie/folk artist Johnny F K as well. I also really love contemporary classical music and have played pieces and film scores written for me. Most recently, I interpreted some improvisation guidelines written by composer Ben Gaunt, the recording of which was played on Radio 3.
Your line up involves a few unusual instruments that may be unfamiliar to your average gig goer – can you tell us about the instruments you use and what draws you to these in particular?
Z – I play the hammer dulcimer, which is a bit like a medieval precursor to the piano. Both of my parents are early musicians, so I guess I was born to bard.
R – I play the nyckelharpa, which is a 16-stringed Swedish traditional keyed fiddle. I discovered it when I was doing an artist residency at a studio in Sweden in 2013, and got completely obsessed with it. The ethereal, unique, surprisingly cavernous sound it produces totally hooked me when I first heard it. I think it has the same effect on people I play it to now.
T – For this project I move between 6-string and 12-string guitars. That’s going to seem dull in comparison to my bandmates’ responses, but, when you think about it, I have a wide range of pitches and timbres at my disposal, and can play in all keys without having to retune, so I guess I’ll be having the last laugh, thanks.
J – I play recorders and whistles. The recorder in particular has quite a bad reputation, but it’s a really beautiful, versatile instrument. I was drawn to it because it has no keys, and no reed or resistance unlike other wind instruments, and that makes me feel more connected to the instrument, and I think gives it quite a voice-like quality. I began playing low whistles when I moved to Sheffield because the city has such a great folk scene- I love the mellow sound the instrument produces and the rhythmic folk ornamentation and style that comes with the instrument.
Emergence Collective is an improvisational ensemble and no two performances will be the same. Tell us some more about your process,what is structured and agreed in advance and how much genuinely emerges on the day?
Z – My instrument can only play in certain keys, which is probably why there hasn’t been any prominent jazz-dulcimer players. We agree a key based around that, just so someone don’t start in F# Major which would be a massive pain for me, though pretty sweet for any lurking pianists. After that’s been established, away we go.
R – We really like patterns. We try to find musical patterns, which are improvised – these can be quite simple musical figures with just a few notes. Then, the ensemble develops new musical ideas on these patterns. This could be repeating the same line, but it could be playing that same line in a new harmony, or a complimentary rhythm or tune.
T – We agree on a key for practical reasons, and, as you can hear, we clearly have a particular aesthetic in mind (i.e. favouring collaborative patterning, and eschewing “soloing” in the conventional sense). Beyond that, what we play is born out of listening to one another and responding in the moment, making every performance unique and exciting.
J- As the others have mentioned, we decide a general key and then begin from there. I will often play more expansive, melodic lines and will play a lot more freely than the other members of the group because of the nature of my instrument. I incorporate a lot of extended techniques into my playing too such as singing and playing at the same time and circular breathing.
If you had to pick one performer / ensemble / composer / artist that is mostly highly rated by all members of the band, who would it be and how would you introduce someone new to their work?
Z – All of the band are massive Springsteen fans. Me and Rob have matching ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ tattoos.
R – I really enjoyed Zeb’s answer. I’d definitely say Steve Reich – so much of our inspiration for this project comes from minimalist music. I kind of see Emergence as like improvising the music of Steve Reich through the sonic palette of medieval folk (if you haven’t heard of Reich, look up Music for 18 Musicians). His music, of all the minimalist composers, is the one I think we most draw upon, with Philip Glass in second place.
T – I think it’s the diversity, rather than unity, of our musical tastes, that has led to us sounding as we do, though we definitely enjoy one another’s listening recommendations. I agree with Rob that Steve Reich would probably be the most straightforward answer to this question, and I’d recommend his music as accompaniment to a nap or bath (or some daring combination of the two).
J – I think the biggest influence on our band is minimalism, so Steve Reich is an obvious one but also composers such as Philip Glass and Terry Riley. We intentionally play with musicians that come from a really wide range of musical backgrounds and all of those influences come out in our improvising.
Any recent musical discoveries or new obsessions that you’re evangelical about? Recommend a video or track that you particularly love.
Z – I really love the new Tirzah album, which feels a bit like being let in on a new secret whispered by an old friend. Intimate, slightly unhinged. Yellow by Emma-Jean Thackray is loads of fun, spiritual but also just the right side of party-jazz. That PinkPanthress album is a lovely recontextualization of the soundtrack to my childhood, which I spent listening to Galaxy 105 (“number one for dance and r&b”). The world needs more UK garage. I also recently discovered a band called Grand Veymont, a duo who take elements of krautrock into unfamiliar realms. A bit like Tangerine Dream hanging out with Juniore, if you will.
R – Just incase I hadn’t already banged on enough about Steve Reich, I’m totally obsessed by a piece of his called Tehillim. He wrote it in 1981 and it’s one of his best works in my opinion. The melismatic vocal lines in the second movement I find really profound and emotionally affecting. The original 1982 recording on ECM records by the Steve Reich Ensemble is still my favourite, but there is also a cracking rendition of it by an American ensemble called Alarm Will Sound, which came out in 2011 on Cantalouope Records. Sit down in a comfy chair somewhere quiet and give yourself half an hour to properly take in the whole piece without stopping. Oh, and I’m also madly into folktronica producer Bibio’s most recent record on Warp, titled Ribbons. It’s really beautiful.
T – I’ve really enjoyed exploring 80s R&B over the past couple of years, largely as an antidote to global gloom. Anita Baker’s Rapture album is just fantastic, and Cherrelle’s Affair is a banger from start to finish. More recently I’ve been listening to a lot of European jazz, such as saxophonist Trygve Seim, whose music is incredibly gentle and patient. On the folk end of things, I’d be remiss not to mention Mike Vass’s Notes From The Boat, and the Fraser Shaw Trust’s Mac Ìle – The Music of Fraser Shaw, both of which are completely gorgeous, and have very touching backstories.
J- I’m a bit obsessed with Big Thief and have been for a while. They’ve recently released a few new singles which are really beautiful. I love Ambrose Akinmusire’s new album ‘on the tender spot of every calloused moment’, and as a whistle player I’m obviously a massive Flook fan! I particularly love the tune Wrong Foot Forward from their album Haven.
Which live artists would you cross hell or high water to see? Do you have any upcoming tickets for live performances (by them or anyone else) that you’re excited about?
Z – I’ve got tickets for Laurel Halo, Ichiko Aoba, Sleaford Mods and Big Thief coming up, though not on the same bill. Also tickets for postponed gigs by Arooj Aftab and Imperial Triumphant. Oh, and Mitski! Can’t wait for that. I saw Sarah Davachi a few weeks back at the Southbank Centre and it was pretty deep listening, with a smattering of microtones to stretch your brain a bit. It was like hearing crunchy jazz chords for the first time. I’d happily cross hell and high water to see Tom Waits, though I think his cab’s been stuck in traffic for the last decade or so.
R – I mean, you might say this is getting ridiculous, and that I’m not really interested in other music at all by the sounds of things, but I recently travelled down to London to see an evening-length concert of compositions by Steve Reich. I excitedly booked the tickets months in advance and on the day they went on sale, which was wholly unnecessary as there really just isn’t the demand for a ticket to see contemporary classical music like there is for a ticket to Glastonbury or whatever. Still, it was ace. The concert contained a performance of Tehillim (yep, that piece I just mentioned in the previous question), which I’d never heard performed live before and it totally lived up to my expectations. He also wrote a new piece for the concert which was very underwhelming but I’ll forgive him.
T – Most of the gigs that I attend these days are those played by my friends (I consider myself very fortunate to know so many great musicians!). I’d absolutely love to see saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, bassist/vocalist Richard Bona, and pipa player Liu Fang, but doing so would almost certainly involve crossing high water at least. I’ve got tickets for math rock trio Covet, fronted by the spectacular guitarist Yvette Young, and I have high hopes.
J- I have tickets to see Ichiko Aoba, Big Thief, and Buck Meek coming up in the next few months which I’m really excited for after not being able to see live music for so long.
What other art or culture outside of music has made a big impact on you recently?
Z – I went to see the Noguchi exhibition at the Barbican and the Anicka Yi commission at the Tate while I was down in London to watch the (postponed) Arooj Aftab gig. Both offered radically different takes on sculpture that lay beyond the traditional forms – Noguchi’s structures incorporated light and shadow into his pieces, Anicka Yi makes sculptures out of ants, bacteria and scent. A sculpture for your nose! It was great, and made me think about which other of the senses art could be made for. You could have a narrative told via the medium of a three course meal, so you interpret the story through your tastebuds. I’m a terrible cook, so someone else would have to do it.
R – Picking up where Zeb’s answer left off with regard to cooking, I recently went for a 10-course tasting menu at JÖRO, probably Sheffield’s finest restaurant. The food was stupendously good. It was wonderful to eat dishes that were inventive, unusual, and delicious. It reflected well on why going to a top-drawer restaurant can be a unique experience where you taste things you couldn’t even conceive of tasting, like eel custard or seaweed ice cream. I also loved their brand new alcohol-free drinks pairing, which added a lot to my enjoyment of the dinner I had there. Non-drinkers can often get left with just fizzy water when dining out, and it was nice to be treated equally in such an environment. Although I love cooking, I haven’t attempted to cook anything they made there, it’s another level. I’ll stick to making a decent curry or a tagine. Also, that Noguchi exhibition that Zeb mentioned was indeed excellent.
J- I’m interested in photography and videography, and have been enjoying spending a lot of time with my camera over lockdown- I really love the work of Diane Arbus. I’ve also found myself reading a lot more poetry/literature recently- my favourite authors include George Orwell, Mary Oliver, Haruki Murakami and Frank O’Hara.
What tracks would feature on an Emergence Collective ‘tour bus’ playlist?
Z – I hate touring, I’d much rather stay in and rewatch Succession.
R – Anything by Steve Reich, if I’ve got control of the aux cable. I know, what a boring answer. Also the music of Emeralds, and let’s not forget Bob Dylan’s Christmas album, which features heavily at any Emergence social gathering in December.
T – “The Wheels on the Bus (Go Round and Round)”, and as many Britney tracks as we can get onto a cassette (no delusions of grandeur here: that “tour bus” will be a jalopy).
J- I’m just going to add some David Bowie to this list, also Rob’s karaoke song is apparently Eternal Flame by the Bangles which I haven’t seen in person yet so that would definitely be on there.
You can hear some of Emergence Collective’s recommendations and influences on our Spotify playlist – though of course, if you find some music you love, please go and buy direct from the artist where possible!
Tickets from budsandspawn.nuwebgroup.com