Music helps people escape - An interview with Patrick Ellis

Music helps people escape – An interview with Patrick Ellis

Composer Patrick Ellis is all over No Frontiers like a cheap suit. By that we mean he has a number of pieces being performed across the festival and are in no way making slights on the sophistication of his compositions, or indeed his dress sense.


Hello Patrick, please tell us a little about your pieces for No Frontiers and what is involved to make the performances happen

So I have a few things in this year’s No Frontiers Festival.

On the first day I have two premieres: Wnd Qntt which is to be played by the Lumos Quintet at 3pm in the 6/8 Kafé and Unbranded Ensemble Piece which will be performed 315 Ensemble at 8pm. As with explaining these two pieces, I don’t really want to give much away, so to find out – come along!

Then on the 31st at the Parkside Building, the Composition Department’s Creative Ensemble will perform a set of works composed by the ensemble members, this includes my Riaan’s Trilogy, which is a set of three open score pieces (Riaan’s Rag, Riaan’s Rant and Riaan’s Return) that I composed in 2014, 2015 and 2016, which is dedicated to Riaan Vosloo, the director of the ensemble. The Trilogy features the ensemble singing, electronic manipulations of ‘rants’ and a section with a bass groove.

On the final day of No Frontiers (the 1st of April), I am a part of the Vivid Trip event at Vivid Projects, in Digbeth which features performances and installations by Roché van Tiddens, (Richard Stenton), Oliver Mack, Kolbitr (Robin Morton), Susannah Self, Andy Ingamells, Peter Bell & Cam Athanasiades, Wilson Leywantono, Dan Cippico and myself. My installation is a new presentation of field recording piece that recorded edited in 2013 titled, The Streets of Birmingham. It was one of the first pieces that I composed when I was a first year, so it’s fitting to have this featured as the last piece of my last Frontiers Festival as an undergraduate.

With regard to what makes the performances happen it’s the people who have curated the events and the festival. So a huge shout out to Tom Earl, Chris Cresswell, Riaan Volsoo, Cam Athanasiades, Peter Bell, Wilson Leywantono, Dan Cippico and the Frontiers team for organising these projects! Without them there would really be no Frontiers.

This year’s festival’s theme is ‘breaking down barriers with music’ – How do you think music helps to break down barriers?

Some people think that music is universal, so perhaps that is how it breaks down barriers. However, I don’t think all of it is, so the music that is ‘not universal’ either helps people escape or bring to light universal themes.

Who do you admire artistically and in what ways do you think their work has broken barriers?

I could talk about this for years and really bore people, but I particularly like the sparse sounds of Laurence Crane, Jürg Frey and Michael Pisaro. I admire how they stick to a minimal means of material and work with it inside out. It’s a cliche phrase, but sometimes you’ve got to work within limitations, I think that way one is more imaginative.

Moving towards the ‘popular’ music realm, I have admired Bob Dylan for a long time, particularly his output from the 1960s, which evolved at a fast and organic rate despite disapproval from fans (for example, the constant boos and shouts that he was Judas during his 1966 concerts). If he had stuck to his political folk music, then more artists signed to a label would perhaps not be brave and just follow what the record label executives believe would sell more.


Also the Kinsella brothers (Tim and Mike), who were and are part of many Chicago based bands/monikers from the mid-1990s to the present day. These range from the acoustic sing-songwriter project, Owen (Mike Kinsella) to the erratic sounds Joan of Arc (a band fronted by Tim Kinsella). I admire the fact that the two of them have produced such a large discography that is very diverse and have continued even when the critics dislike something (for example, Pitchfork once rated a Joan of Arc album 1.9/10). If you stick to one thing, you might be building barriers around yourself and others.


Finally, I admire my friends, colleagues and tutors who are/were part of the Conservatoire Composition department and the Birmingham New Music scene (particularly the Post Paradise concert series), there are too many names to mention here, but there are pieces that I have heard and seen, which have really challenged what I perceive as music.

As a composer in 2017, do you feel a responsibility or particular impetus to represent or interpret current social or political issues?

I have felt a guilt and a responsibility, however up to this point, I have not composed something that overtly represents or interprets any current social or political issues.

Has your work in any way been compromised by an unaccountable bureaucrat in Brussels?

No, not that I’m aware of.

Have you ever seen a fellow composer’s work, been overcome with jealously so much that you said to them; ‘Nice composition you’ve got there, shame if something happened to it,’ then “accidentally” spilled your coffee over it, saying; ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I am awfully clumsy,’ before threatening said composer to stay off your turf as you’re the top composition dog round these parts?

I will admit, I have been jealous about compositions by other composers in the department. However, I have never “accidentally” spilled coffee over their scores. Although once, a fellow composer had coffee split on his polyphonic studies homework by somebody, he wasn’t too happy about that…

No Frontiers Festival takes place Sat 25 Mar – Sat 1 Apr.