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Interview, Edward Cowie on the natural world and music

Black and white image of Edward Cowie, wearing a coat and wellingtons, jumping over a shallow stream on mud flats. Image credit: Chloe Rosser
Image credit: Chloe Rosser

The word 'polymath' is sometimes thrown about rather lightly, but even a quick glance at the CV of Edward Cowie makes it clear that his gifts truly are both prodigious and wide-ranging. Holding one doctorate in music and another in the combined fields of physics, mathematics, music and fine arts, he's a completely box-defying artist and thinker. 

A recurring theme in Cowie's compositions is the inspiration of science and nature - anything from wildlife to subatomic physics, and in particular a fascination with birds. His most recent album, The Kreutzer Effect, reflects his long and fruitful collaboration with the Kreutzer String Quartet, also including a five-movement work evoking different species of owl. Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings, released late in 2023, sees clarinettist Anna Hashimoto and pianist Roderick Chadwick perform all four books of Cowie's Bird Portraits, composed in 2020. I spoke to Edward a little while ago about this album and the influences that inspire him.

Your work is marked by a blend of scientific and artistic influences, and indeed your initial university education was as a physicist. When did you start suspecting that you might have a calling as a musician instead?

To me, the word 'blend' isn't so dynamic as the word 'fuse'. A lot of the things that are described as collaborative processes, say between a scientist and a composer, are a bit like a chef cooking while on the back of a motorbike. The motorcyclist and the chef are each doing their activity and I suppose they're 'blended' in a sense, but in a more fundamental way they're not blended at all! Unless there's some kind of meta-language between them, by which the two activities adapt to one another and come together, it's not the same sort of collaboration.

To really answer the question I think I'd have to go back to what was in fact a relatively lonely, pastoral childhood in Suffolk; you're surrounded by wild things. From the age of about four onwards I felt that everything I experienced was teaching me something. I started drawing everything - a sketchbook was one of the first things I felt it was essential to carry around with me. Plants, movements of water, patterns on treetrunks, cloud formations, birds, everything. And I became increasingly aware that everything was connected - I had a moment of revelation when I'd been drawing some water turbulences, and a couple of days later I did some bark rubbings and I saw that the patterns were exactly the same!

I started playing instruments when I was a kid - the recorder, which gave me the understanding of horizontal melody, and the harmonica, which made me aware of the verticality of harmony - but by the time I was coming to select areas that I wanted to focus on and develop, I'd shifted to the violin and piano. I was a pretty good violinist, but I had a serious rugby accident where I damaged my hand so badly that I could no longer get into the position to play. That might have been providential - I would never have made a really first-class violinist.

I had an elder brother who had studied sculpture; he won two very prestigious prizes in the same year and promptly had a nervous breakdown because he couldn't stand it. He destroyed all of his works, ended up in hospital, you name it. So my father was very concerned when I said I wanted to have a career in the arts; and being good at maths, I went to Imperial College to study physics. It was an incredibly fortunate time; I got a grant to work as an external student at the Slade School of Fine Art for three years studying painting - so in a sense I was already manifesting all those childhood things. Studying both theoretical physics and the visual arts and performance and composing all at once. I started writing piano trios at around that point.

I never wanted to say goodbye to any of those activities; I always imagined that it was possible to become a composer and not leave them. And I was very fortunate to end up becoming a pupil of Alexander Goehr, who I can't say enough about in terms of the richness of his flexible thinking about teaching. He encouraged me to study things like Goethe's colour theory, D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form; and I then passed to him scientific books by the likes of Niels Bohr and Buckminster Fuller. All these things we were swapping and interchanging.

Works like Rutherford’s Lights and the Particle Partita are directly inspired by specific aspects of physics. How do you translate those concepts into music, in a way that listeners can pick up on?

I'd better keep the answer relatively simple here...! Taking Rutherford's Lights - I collaborated with Sir Michael Berry, who is an eminent physicist working on light. He's almost a reincarnation of Newton, in that if you go to his house, upstairs he's got a studio with two lathe benches joined together and lots of old prisms - some a couple of centuries old - through which he fires light and measures the results.

What I already knew from my own work on physics was that light, and its interaction with surfaces, is transmitted both as a line and as a point. Both continuums and discontinuums. So already you've got something akin to the difference between horizontality and verticality in music. Then if you look at a specific example like Foucault's prism and what it actually does to light, these are all things you can draw, and in doing that you realise that if you had a cluster of notes, and if you assign them colour properties, and ‘fire’ them into time, and have a surface that they're going to arrive at, then they'll separate out somehow. There's then a process of figuring out how you're going to do that - you can see how it begins to become both observed and physical.

Image from CERN representing a particle collision. Image credit: ATLAS Experiment
Image credit: ATLAS Experiment

And especially with the Particle Partita - if you Google Image search for ‘CERN particle collision’, you see two things. One is a huge amount of Kandinsky, and the other is the fact that if you have certain particles, and you cause them to collide, they produce these amazing diffractions and reactions, with a whole range of different properties. And each of those can be considered as a note process. So in a sense I'm just doing in music what they're doing in the big circular tube at CERN: in my mind I feel like that's what happens. How else can it be that I can go to bed thinking about a problem and wake up with it solved in my head?

As well as a physicist and a musician you’re also a painter; how much cross-pollination is there between your visual work and your work with sound? Do these things evolve in parallel, or separately?

Oh, definitely in parallel. What I take with me is three or four different sketchbooks; one for just straightforward drawing, which will be both black and white and in colour. Then there's a second level which is that I start to abstract and formalise things into what they consist of. Then there's sonic things going on around me anyway, so I'll also start to notate those - with those abstract notations going onto the same page as the abstracted sketches. And then there's a much more refined version of the sketch, where the fusion between looking and hearing enables me to have the first meaningful sense of things like pitch structures, what the harmonic language might be like.

It also brings us back to Alexander Goehr - he asked me once if I'd ever read Kandinsky's Point and Line to Plane (which of course I hadn't). And if you read that and look at the book, you can see that he's drawing music, whereas for me it's really the opposite way round. Then if you look at Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, which he also recommended, you can see that both of these painters were onto the fact that the relationship between visualisation and sonic realisation was an integrated and fused one. They didn't pursue it further than that; whereas I would say I've gone the whole hog!

Turning to the four birdsong-inspired cycles on Where the Wood Thrush Forever Sings – many people will instantly think of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux. Other than the fact that you write for clarinet as well as piano, how would you say your approach differs from Messiaen’s?

An image of 'stage 4' in Edward Cowie's composing process; fragments of notated music interspersed with written notes, sketches of wild plants and butterflies, and abstract colour patterns. Image credit: Edward Cowie
Image credit: Edward Cowie

Interestingly enough, Messiaen's first bird-related piece was actually for clarinet - 'Abîme des oiseaux' from the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. I have said and written (perhaps I shouldn't have done...!) that Messiaen took Music to Nature, and I take Nature to Music. It sounds glib, but if you think about it, and what his sensibilities were, it makes sense. He's definitely a Paris Conservatoire thinker; if you look at the music of anyone that came into contact with that - George Benjamin for example - the idea of precision overrides the idea of sensuality. Messiaen, in his second book of conversations, even says "I'm not sensual". When I first read that I thought it couldn't be right, but actually it is; what he records in birdsong is the shape and the design of the song, in the same way as he absorbs the impact of Indian Classical music - rhythm, modalities, timbre.

So yes, there are relationships; Messiaen and I both love birds, and decoration, and complexity. And although he didn't own up to it, I think he loved the sensory idea of the arabesque, the curvaceous, folding, undulation, ripples and things like that. They're all parallel influences (and we could easily say the same about Ravel, Debussy, Janáček, even Sibelius and - dare I say it - Vaughan Williams).

There’s something almost paradoxical about composing (and fixing in precise notation) music inspired by the wildness of “untamed” parts of the natural world. It seems almost like pinning a butterfly to a board. How do you keep that sense of wildness in your music?

It's not exactly a pin for a butterfly; it's like a camera lens that can record both still and moving pictures. Once you start thinking in terms of the latter, all that's necessary when you write it down on paper (which I still do) is that every note, phrase and harmonic procedure has to be a catching, or an unearthing, or peeling back (not a pinning-down!) of a continuum of experiences. What I find rather beautiful, but sometimes terrifying, is to be able to maintain a continuity of honesty in terms of my original response and the inevitable temptation to rationalise it. For instance, turning it into thinking "I've got to write the note E flat at this particular point". That's the pinning of the butterfly. But if you see that E flat as only one part of the whole journey, you don't need to get hung up on that, and the butterfly doesn't need to be dead and pinned.

You're right that it's easy to think in these terms about writing music down. Many composers have been guilty of writing programme notes and giving interviews where they give the impression that it's very precise, every note counts, and when they do a certain specific thing it has to be exactly that way. It does come back to pinning the butterfly again.

I think what you maybe mean by 'wild' is a sense of authenticity? A wilderness, a wild place, isn't really untamed as such. Granted, it doesn't look like Manchester. And yet everything in there is ultra-related - the relations of things to one another are really quite precise. It may look anarchic, but it isn't. Two hundred thousand starlings settling at night is untamed, or fish shoaling, but there's order.

Yes, I think my music's wild; but it's not wild without music. I can't avoid my own musical history. It all comes out of a primeval sense that we humans are part of a sounding environment which in itself - if we're curious about it - can continue to teach and open us to new ways of sonic possibility. And I know that sounds grandiose and like the ‘quotable quote’, but I actually mean that!

It does appear paradoxical, but as Proust said - unless you understand the paradoxical in life, you'll never understand anything! And that's a lovely thing to think about. 

Roderick Chadwick (piano), Anna Hashimoto (clarinet)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

The Kreutzer Quartet

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC