‘Going to the moon was terrifying.’ An interview with Chris Cresswell
Composer Chris Cresswell talks to us about his 315 Ensemble event for No Frontiers, leaving caves and alien documentaries…
What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Chris Cresswell. I am a composer/sound artist and am the guitar player/founder of the 315 Ensemble. I also work as a teaching artist/visiting lecturer, teaching composition and music theory with Junior Conservatory.
Please tell us a little about your project for No Frontiers and what is involved to make it happen.
My project for No Frontiers is the 315 Ensemble. I started this ensemble this past year to explore my interest in electro-acoustic music and to have an ensemble that I could always write for and perform in. The project has morphed over the year and we’ve commissioned new works by young composers from both the US and the UK.
I really enjoy being able to write for a group and to have the ability to champion music by young composers I love. I’ve been able to test out ideas with members of the ensemble before finishing pieces, which has led me to write stronger pieces. I plan on maintaining the ensemble after I graduate this spring.
This year’s festival’s them is ‘breaking down barriers with music’ – How do you think music helps to break down barriers?
As a composer/sound artist, I am less interested in ‘breaking down barriers’ than I am with cultivating communities. The art that I find most effective, whether it is music, poetry, visual art, etc. is art rooted in communication. These two words, community/communication evolved from two Latin words: Communis and communicare. Communis means common or sharing. Communicare is a verb to ‘make something common’.
Art is an opportunity to share my point of view on the one thing we all have in common: this strange, weird experience we call life. As artists we have the opportunity, not to break barriers down, but to transcend them and offer a better, shared vision of our world.
Who do you admire artistically and in what ways do you think their work has broken barriers?
While there is a long list of composers, visual artists, poets, songwriters and others whom I admire, one are I keep coming back to is the folk singer, Ani Difranco. While her work, aesthetically, is quite different from mine, I’ve always drawn inspiration from her independence and her willingness to bear witness to her own experience.
In this current moment, sharing your personal story as openly and honestly as possible is itself an act of courage, and seems the most effective way to ‘break down barriers’. There is a quote from the liner notes of Ani Difranco’s first album, (written in 1990, when she was only 18!) which has stuck with me and has become my own artistic mantra:
I speak without reservation from what I know and who I am. I do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus, whether the result is harmony or dissonance, the worldsong is a colorless dirge without the differences which distinguish us. And it is these differences which should be celebrated and not condemned. Should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it, just take what you can use and go on.
As a composer in 2017, do you feel a responsibility or particular impetus to represent or interpret current social or political issues?
I’ve been reflecting on this question, and this particular moment in time, and I keep returning to Amos Lee’s song Lies of a Lonely Friend. The first verse ends with the line ‘the world ain’t no harder than it’s ever been’. The second verse ends with the line ‘the world ain’t no easier than it’s ever been.’ This feels about right. While fear in this moment feels, at times, acute, the truth is, the world has always been a dark, terrifying place. And it has always been full of light.
Leaving the cave was terrifying. Sailing to the new world was terrifying. Going to the moon was terrifying. History is full of stories of terrified people doing amazing things. Or amazing people doing terrifying things. When we read history books, we too often forget the humanity behind the stories being told.
Looking past the details of any social or political issue of the current moment, I recognize that we are all deeply flawed human beings doing our best to navigate an often confusing world. My art is deeply rooted in my own personal and emotional experience. I am, of course, affected by the current political and social climate, but I am less interested in making ‘statements’ than I am in offering my story, and in turn listening to others. Statements are about making declarations; I am interested in having conversations.
Has your work in any way been compromised by an unaccountable bureaucrat in Brussels?
I am an American, so this whole EU-Brexit conversation, while fascinating, has very little effect on me personally. I visited Brussels in December. The beer was good.
An alien has landed in Birmingham, they are hungry and also in need of examples of contemporary culture to report back to their people. Where do you take them to eat and how do you entertain them?
First, I want to reveal a secret. I am obsessed with terrible ‘documentaries’ about alien autopsies, UFOs, and what not. So this is super fun. First, lets assume that the alien in question takes a humanoid form and doesn’t have a gluten allergy. I would probably invite over a few friends and throw together a dinner party for everyone. A night of homecooked food and conversation would do the road weary alien some good.