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Interview: Roly Porter

by Hetty Mahlich on 24 July 2020

'The TORUS film felt like a ballet that had been ripped out of time and let drift, so I wanted to match this with a sense of something pulled apart and scattered through space' Roly Porter.

The composer Roly Porter in conversation with Hetty Mahlich on creating the ambient, melancholic score for the TORUS fashion film. They talk about Porter's trajectory from his roots in dance music, to the influence of sci-fi fiction on his black-hole reverb soundscapes.

'The TORUS film felt like a ballet that had been ripped out of time and let drift, so I wanted to match this with a sense of something pulled apart and scattered through space' Roly Porter.

"I wanted to capture that silence in sound."

Hetty Mahlich: Tell me about your career so far, what first got you into music?

Roly Porter: I started writing dance music when I was younger, but I was always interested in classical, early electronic or ambient music. When I started releasing music as part of Vex'd we had plans to expand the project beyond its dance floor roots, the functional aspects of dance music became less important to us and we both became more interested in the parts around it, the sound design and emotional or melodic aspects, the impact and the shape of the music. At the time I still loved club and sound system music, but found that dance music as a platform didn't suit the shape of what I was trying to produce.

HM: You’ve worked across a variety of projects, from dance music to film scores. How do you see yourself now?

RP: I am trying to soundtrack the thoughts and ideas in my head, to create a space that will allow me to continue thinking or feeling a particular thing. Sometimes music clashes with your thoughts and sometimes it enables them and I am trying to write things that are presented in a way that enhances the stories or thoughts I am having at any one time.

HM: How would you describe your sound as it stands at this point in your career?

RP: I am trying to create a more unified whole, as though the whole piece is a single instrument or idea and to aim for a more organic sound than I have in the past. I want to rely less on aggression and distortion or feelings of darkness and try to create things with more natural shape, light and movement. I want to avoid recognisable instrumentation, but to retain the sense that something is being played, that it has that organic character.

"Sometimes music clashes with your thoughts and sometimes it enables them and I am trying to write things that are presented in a way that enhances the stories or thoughts I am having at any one time."

HM: Science and outer space seem to be things that interest you, particularly looking at the overt references made in your solo albums, such as with Third Law (2016) and track titles featuring the planets of the sci-fi novel Dune (1965). Could you tell me a little bit about this and how outer space has influenced your work?

RP: I suppose there are two strands to that, the influence of science fiction, in film, books and music, and then thinking about outer space as a physical space, or thinking about ideas around scale, gravity or time. For the first part, science fiction particularly in cinema has been a massive influence and I don't think I will ever escape the sonic influence of things like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Recently The Three Body Problem book by Liu Cixin has been a huge influence, but I have always read and loved science fiction. It frustrates me that in many ways it is still seen as a lower literary form when the genre has some of the most extraordinary works of imagination I have come across.

For the second part, the idea of the reality of outer space, or science as opposed to sci-fi, that's really hard to sum up, but regardless of your beliefs, religion or philosophy, it is important or at least interesting to consider the reality of the universe beyond our day to day perception. It's almost a luxury to think about these things as it is hard to do when the rest of life takes up your time and your thoughts. Anything that gives me the opportunity to think about things on that scale, whether it is film or books or music, or simply being outside somewhere silent on a starry night, it is always valuable and always helps to support how I interpret the rest of life. That is why I was drawn immediately to the TORUS project. Fredrik Tjærandsen's designs immediately transported me to thinking about our perception of time and the vastness of space.

HM: What else attracted you to working on the TORUS fashion film?

RP: The film is beautiful but what most interested me at first is how, even without sound, it has so much natural rhythm and embodied energy. It is such a strange balance of, on one hand totally alien, inhuman shape and movement, and on the other hand a strange delicacy and real human emotions of love or heartbreak. 

HM: Could you talk me through how you approached the project?

RP: I wanted to try and match that pace that I felt watching it in silence, I almost wanted to capture that silence in sound. The film felt like a ballet that had been ripped out of time and let drift, so I wanted to match this with a sense of something pulled apart and scattered through space.

HM: How does working with visual material challenge your creative approach?

RP: In this case it was a genuine pleasure as the film was almost a visual representation of so many things I had been feeling or thinking about. It is sometimes hard when you are used to working on your own, to your own design, to then fit your sound or ideas around someone else's structures and to match their design, but it is a challenge that I love. I suppose the real challenge is how differently people perceive sound and image. Without dialogue in film, or lyrics in music, the range of perception and emotional response is huge. This is a good thing obviously, we don't want all art to be completely literal, we want everybody to take their own feelings and impressions from something, but I know that the sound I imagine, for example, of a ballet gradually unfolding in space, will be something completely different for somebody else.

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