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Esmeralda Weatherwax Interview


February 3, 2004



Myriad : Hello, Ms Weatherwax, thanks for answering some questions. You won the First Prize in the 4th Friendly Music Contest with your piece "Silver Apples of the moon" and we wish first to know who you are. Could you please introduce yourself ?

Esmeralda Weatherwax is actually two people. For the rest of this interview we will call ourselves Esme1 and Esme2.

Esme1 : All my ancestors are Welsh but I was born and brought up in London. I have now reached the ripe old age of 50 and live in Cornwall. From my window I can see the sea.

Myriad : What kind of hardware are you using ?

Esme2 : We have an old iBook with a 300MHz processor, 3GB hard disc and 160MB's of RAM and are using Mac OS X. We're trying to save up for something better as it has become impossible to keep all our software on such a "small" hard disc.

Myriad : How did your interest in music develop ?

Esme1 : I remember as a small child listening to my mother's Mozart records, but even then I found his music too bland. When she got some Palestrina and Bach I started to take an interest. It was when I bought some old recordings of Beethoven's late string quartets that I became completely hooked by music. As a child I listened to those old recordings many times over. Later, as a teenager, I started to learn classical guitar, piano and violoncello and also became interested in composition and song-writing. In my mid twenties I lost interest in music and took up art instead. I think that my problem was that I am left-handed and very clumsy, and could never get a musical instrument to make the sounds that I could hear in my head.

About four years ago I discovered Harmony Assistant and Virtual Singer. I was particularly amazed by Virtual Singer --- if I had had that software to help me with my song-writing 35 years ago I would probably now be a rich, famous, disgusting, wrinkly, dissolute, coffin-dodging old rock star; whereas, alas, in my twilight years I find myself neither rich, nor famous, nor a rock star. I have Myriad to thank for the rebirth of my interest in music.

Myriad : Do you play an instrument (or several) ?

Esme2 : Between us we have played the guitar, piano, cello, violin, banjo, penny whistle, saxophone, flute, accordion and various home-made instruments. Now the only instruments that we possess are the beautiful harmonica which you sent us as our competition prize and this juicy Apple computer.

Myriad : What are your tastes in music ? You can quote artists or music genres if you want.

Esme1 : Over a lifetime my tastes in music have been very wide. I will resist the temptation to give you a long lists of all my favourites. Here are just a few...

In the realm of classical music I like everything from Palestrina and Monteverdi, through Bach and Beethoven. I like 20th century music from Stravinsky and Berg, Webern, through John Cage and Stockhausen.

In Blues I like B B King, Muddy Waters, L C Robinson, Johnny Shines, John Littlejohn and loads more.

In Rock I like everything from Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa through to Radiohead. Anything that is  creative and experimental, and not bland.

In Jazz I like everything from Charlie Parker onwards and I particularly like listening to Wayne Shorter nowadays. (Oh, and she likes the jazz guitar of John McGlaughlin.)

In Folk music the list is way too long and includes artists from Pakistan to Africa and elsewhere --- but my all time favourite folk group is the Irish band, the Dubliners.

Esme2 : For those in the UK, our favourite listening is Friday night on BBC Radio 3 --- “Mixing It" at 10.15pm, followed by "Jazz on 3" at 11.30pm until 1.00am..

Myriad : More precisely, what are you currently listening to ?

Esme1 : At this precise moment I am listening to a song called "Papa was a Rodeo" by Magnetic Fields. Recently we have been listening a lot to The White Stripes, and to Radiohead.

Myriad : And what kind of music don't you listen to anymore ?

Esme2 : I have always had a blind spot for classical music of the Late Romantic Period (1850 - 1900). Too slushy, romantic and over the top.

Myriad : If you had to chose a piece to be put into a capsule to be sent to the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri, what would be your choice ?

Esme1 : I would want to send them something that communicated what it is to be human --- something earthy, intelligent, emotional and spiritual. I would choose Pablo Casals playing Bach's six Solo Cello Suites because in these pieces both the performer and the composer express all of these aspects of human nature sublimely well.

Myriad : If you had to be cut off from the world for a whole year, what are the two albums you would take away with you ?

Esme1&2 : It would have to be our two favourite songwriters...

Nick Drake - the album "Way to Blue" (especially "River Man", "Things behind the Sun", "Northern Skies", "Pink Moon", and the brilliant "Black-eyed Dog") In fact, everything by Nick Drake --- a great songwriter.

Tom Waits - the album "Small Change" (especially "Tom Traubert's Blues", "The piano has been drinking", and "Pasties and a G-String".) In fact, everything by Tom Waits --- perfect drinking music.

Myriad : What was your source of inspiration for the piece with which you won the contest ?

Esme2 : The song "Silver Apples of the Moon" is not actually our favourite song and we were a bit surprised to win the competition with it. (Esme1 prefers "To Earthward", whereas Esme2 likes "Full of Ghosts".) Anyway, it is a setting of "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by the poet William Butler Yeats and the poem itself was our source of inspiration. We'd wanted to set a poem by William Butler Yeats to music for some time, but many of his poems are too long to fit easily into a song. Then we came across this poem, and it was was perfect.

Myriad : What was your method of composition (technical details will be of interest for the readers) ?

Esme1 : We have several methods of composition. Our main method is to keep a folder full of ideas which we call our "Compost Heap"; these ideas may consist of a few chords that sound good together, or a scrap of melody, or a couple of lines of lyrics, or a special effect, etc... These ideas are usually discovered when we are playing with Harmony Assistant, and they are rarely more than about 4 bars long. At the moment our compost heap has more than a hundred of these short files in it, collected over several years --- they will all get used eventually. When we are writing a song or piece of music and we need to find a second theme or a development idea or something that will bring the piece to life, we dig through the compost heap and invariably find something that helps the new piece to grow. Our piece "Cornish Rhapsody", for instance, is almost entirely made up of ideas that we collected on the compost heap over the period of about a year.

Esme2 : Most of my songs are settings of poems by famous poets. When I first choose a poem to set to music, I spend about a week reading it to myself over and over, until I have memorised the natural rhythm of the words and have absorbed the meaning and sound of the poem. Also during this time I develop an emotional response to the poem which helps when I set it to music. By that point I will have decided which style of music best suits the poem and I find that a melody then comes naturally because I know the poem so well. The notes of the melody are often an exaggeration of the rise and fall of the voice when speaking the poem. The rhythm of the melody is an exaggeration of the spoken rhythm of the words. In this way the melody grows naturally from the words.

Myriad : Do you have an anecdote to recount ? Not necessarily related to your piece, but related to music in general.

Esme1 : When I was twelve I went to London to see Pierre Boulez conducting a concert of modern music. The concert included his own piece "Le marteau sans maître" which I was very taken with at the time. After the concert I rushed around to the stage door to get his autograph. As he came out, I elbowed my way through his acolytes and asked him to write a couple of bars of music from the piece and put his signature beneath it. As a budding composer I remember being very disappointed that he had to get somebody to hold a score up so that he could copy some notes from it. I thought that as he had written the piece and had just conducted it, that he should know it all from memory. He was very charming and polite. I have recently seen a copy of the score and can now understand entirely why he had not memorised it.

Myriad : What are your goals or your projects in relation to music ?

Esme2 : This is a difficult question. For the last year we have written very little music because we want to use the Gold Soundbase and yet it won't fit onto our hard disc. Our first priority is to get a swanky new 15 inch Apple Powerbook. Once we have a bit more digital power we have various plans. Esme1 is interested in computer programming and computer generated music. Esme2 is more interested in finding strange new harmonies and melodic lines. Who knows where it will take us. Both of us like to write in a wide variety of styles.

Myriad : Do you have a personal Web site ?

Esme1 : Not yet. One day maybe. We don't have enough time or money to set up a web site at the moment.

Myriad : Do you want to give a message or some advice to the readers of this interview ?

Esme2 : This is a piece of advice that I try to follow myself. Avoid excessive repetition in your music. Listen to your own music as objectively as you can, and if, at any point during the piece, you begin to feel bored, you should ruthlessly edit the music and enter a new musical idea at that point. You can be sure that if your music bores you it will also bore your audience. In my experience as a judge in the Myriad Music Competition I find that repeat signs are too often used to make a short piece longer. That isn't a good reason for repetition.

Myriad : What other questions would you have wanted to be asked ? What would have been your answers then ?

Q. Who wrote Ravel's Bolero ?
A. I don't know, but whoever it was should be dug up and shot !! (See note above on the tedium of excessively repetitive music.)

Q. Is your name really Esmeralda Weatherwax ?
A. No. We took the name from Esme2's favourite literary heroine (Esmeralda Weathwerwax is a bad tempered old witch in the DiscWorld books of Terry Pratchett --- she is very similar in many ways to Esme2.)

Q. What is your real name ?
A. We're not telling you.

Q. Why not ?
A. Because. Anyway, you wouldn't have heard of us. (See note above on lack of fame and riches.)

Q. Which pieces of Esmeralda Weatherwax's music were written by each of you ?
A. We always write music together. At first we wrote music under the name of David Griffith, because that was the name that we used when buying the Harmony Assistant licence. Later we both went on to write various pieces under the name of Esmeralda Weatherwax.

Myriad : Thank you for having answered these questions.

Esme1&2 : You are very welcome, Mr Myriad. We hope that our answers have been sufficiently revealing.


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