Neon Part II: A chat with Lyra Pramuk

Manchester Collective have commissioned two absolute pioneers of the electronic-classical-crossover world – Hannah Peel and Lyra Pramuk – to compose a piece for a programme built around Steve Reich’s monumental Double Sextet. The premiere of both pieces will be performed by Manchester Collective as part of a live show, coming to Birkenhead’s Future Yard on Saturday 21st May. The performance interrogates the darker side of our urban dreams, evoking the intrigue and momentum of sleepless nights and crowded streets…

Following Part I with Hannah Peel, we now sit down with the phenomenal Lyra Pramuk for Part II. We chat about her commission ‘Quanta’ and the constructs of time, as well as using music to discover your identity, the crossover between the contemporary and classical worlds and much, much more…

Lyra Pramuk expertly fuses classical vocalism, pop sensibilities, performance practices and contemporary club culture in what can best be described as ‘futurist folk music’. Her debut album ‘Fountain’, comprised entirely from her own vocals, was hailed as ‘a potent religious text in praise of human vocality’s promise’. Integrating the intimacies of the club, the emotional multitude of trans experiences and the forbidding possibilities of social and physical technologies, Lyra is not afraid to push the boundaries of music as we know it and to envision a post-human queer futurity.

‘Quanta’, the first work Lyra has written for an ensemble of this kind, attempts to take on literal and poetic notions of some of the ideas presented in Italian quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli’s book, ‘The Order of Time‘. Lyra states that ‘it takes an artist to begin to wonder what some of Rovelli’s statements about the truths of time might sound like, what implementations they might have for the way that sounds and bodies come together. Starting with only 5 instruments and a backing track, this already became quite a complex task for me. Imagine playing a piece where there is no time to swim in; you are merely your own energy. It is your own divine impulse that creates any sound. And it is only a spiritual coincidence that any of the players in your ensemble sound together at all. Each moment of coming together is a gift. But you believe, so it’s possible.’

Hello Lyra! Before we jump into ‘Quanta’, how did you first get into music?

I did lots of choir and classical singing when I was a kid, as well as musical theatre, playing in an orchestra and taking piano lessons. So my childhood was very well-rounded classically. I was also really interested in jazz and popular music, and started producing electronic music in Fruity Loops when I was like 12/13. At the same time, I went to a music conservatory where I got really into contemporary music. My twin brother was also building a career on Myspace as a music producer, so he was always this window into pop music. I was listening to a lot of pop and electronic too, that was a huge part of my musical world. 

How did you start bridging the gap between classical and experimental music?

I always understood that I was in a more historical practice and really loved that music, but I also really knew what was happening in contemporary electronic music. That was reality to me. So I think I always knew that I was going to mix these worlds somehow, as if that was the task of my life. After I finished up at the music conservatory, I had already been writing electronic music in DAWs. I took a long break from the classical world and got into electronic music production. I started working at Ableton and began really experiencing the social aspect of electronic music; going clubbing, seeing how this music is meant to be heard in such spaces and feeling part of a community. It feels like only recently when I started to let classical ideas back into my vocabulary. It was something I had been really wrestling with. 

So was it a conscious effort to move away from the classical music world for a bit?

Yeah and you know, leaving that world is what allowed me to realise that I was trans and actually transition. The community that held space for me to become who I am was not the classical music world. It was the spaces that have been defined and carved out as life-nourishing places by queer people over the last 50 years. And that’s where I had my second coming of age, or first or whatever. So that, more than anything, became my home. But then I had this other life where classical music was my home too, so it felt like a teenage rebellion in my mid-20s.

How did it feel to show and tell the classical world how you actually felt?

I was having a feeling where you know that something’s just not right. This isn’t the world I want to politically represent; I know what my beliefs are, I want to talk openly about how the product of colonialism relates to global-late-capitalism-climate-crisis that we live in, I want to talk openly about genocide and talk openly about something I’m going to live with every day. And the classical music world doesn’t always do that. It’s starting to challenge politics now as a lot of younger artists are taking the helm as curators and programmers, but it’s emergent. It’s new. 

At the time, I just needed to get out of that world. My desire for freedom was so radical that the classical music space couldn’t help me. I was trained as a performer first and foremost and, when you’re a trained classical singer, there are expectations about how you’re holding your body, literally. So once I found the freedom and variety of rave culture, I could never go back to putting my physical body into those kinds of confines.

How did you turn to music to explore your identity and your body within the ‘rules’ of these different worlds?

I grew up in a really small town, whilst most of my peers at music conservatory were from bigger cities and had been part of more prestigious classical music programmes. I didn’t have that background at all, so I went for the richness of the education then never entered that world professionally. My family didn’t know enough about it to have any expectations either, so that was kind of freeing.

In a practical sense, I would approach composing in a very traditional way (writing notes, playing the keyboard) but then combine that with methods of electronic manipulation (layering recordings, warping, stretching). But I think ultimately, I generate sounds in my body through my learnt singing techniques. I think of my voice as somewhere between a soul singer and a synthesiser, so I try to be really modular with how I use it. I then record my voice in different ways and use a lot of the music theory I learned at music conservatory to think about how to arrange compositions and develop harmony. It’s nice to know that there are some formulaic things that have stood the test of time and when you call on them, you’re part of a conversation that’s been happening for hundreds of years. But then beyond that it’s like, okay, I have these traditional constructs. But now how do I fuck it up? 

With your voice being the main instrument, how are you able to tell a narrative without the use of lyrics, for example?

When I was 15 I wanted to be a composer more than anything. I was listening to so much instrumental music within European art music that is so narrative. Symphonic music, for example, became an art form by the 19th and 20th centuries, where composers would use different instruments and their different tone colours as though they were characters themselves, like Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’. I was so enraptured by, in symphonic and instrumental music, the depth and complexity of expression through those mediums and what richness composers were able to express without words. So there’s this history in classical music of instruments representing souls or people, and imagining them as human outcries. I feel like I’m doing the same thing in my music.

What was it that first inspired you to start experimenting with your voice? 

I think it’s pretty simple. I didn’t get to transition before I went through puberty, so as my voice got lower, I was super confused about that in retrospect. I think I was just trying to make sense of that always, somehow. I think some combination of my discomfort with a traditional male approach to my voice and my love of aesthetics, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with transness. I had always loved aesthetics. It just became a bit obvious later that I didn’t care about the person I was supposed to have been, which was quite a harrowing experience. Then it all made sense to me – I was just trying to escape the character that I was playing. Also I’m an identical twin, so I was already really fighting to have a sense of individual identity. Trying to understand who I was actually came more from being a twin.

Moving on to Manchester Collective, how did you find the process of writing ‘Quanta’, the first work you’ve written for an ensemble of this kind?

The last time I wrote music like this was in university. I was really excited to get asked to do this, because I was like, I know I can do this, it’s going to be great. I had a rough idea of the instruments that I could select from based on the repertoire that they had already chosen, which helps as there are already limitations. I imagined the record as a piece of furniture or something. So when you put the record on, you have this like sound furniture, but it’s not furniture, it’s more than that. It’s something you live with that is music, which has a different function in our lives. So if music is a material object, it’s not exactly a chair, but I wanted this to feel somewhat like my muse; an object that you can visit. I wanted to push the formal boundaries.

What are the ideas behind the piece? 

At the time I was reading ‘The Order of Time’ by Italian quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli, a beautiful book where he literally explains the history of physics. And where he arrives is that time is subjective; it’s established from within each of us. I found that so interesting, I’ve read the book three times in the last year. And so the book was the impetus for the piece.‘Quanta’ are quantum measurements of particles, but it also means ‘how much?’ in Italian.

I was also obsessed with this modernist grandfather clock that I saw in a museum when I was younger, by Austrian architect Adolf Loos. It was made in 1900 and it’s one of the most beautiful clocks I’ve ever seen. When I think of time, throughout my life, I always think of this clock. And so I arranged a quartet of players (violin, flute, clarinet, cello) as though they were on each side of this clock made of glass. They have to play segments of the melody together, as though they were passing the energy of each segment, like light crossing through these panels of this clock. There’s a sample of a grandfather clock in the piece and so there’s also this physical element. The time dissolves, then by the time it gets to the middle of the piece, they’re all playing at different times from the same score. It’s actually asking quite a lot of everyone *laughs*

Why do you think it’s important, for us as artists, to explore time?

I think it’s really interesting. There’s also an element of melancholy there, of knowing that we will all die and finding power in that. How time usually goes faster when things are going well or you’re in love, and then how it also slows down when something traumatic happens. And that’s exactly what Ravalli is writing about; we construct time only as our memory constructs it. We’re all moving at different speeds or understanding time differently, but how much does that fact lead to conflict among people? José Esteban Muñoz wrote a lot of important books on queer and post-colonial theory, and often about what he called  ‘straight time’, which is a homogenised cultural construct that keeps everyone locked in. If we look at the history of colonisation, many indigenous concepts of space and time were a direct challenge to colonial rule, which I think is a serious conflict and more relevant than we may want to think.

If you were to go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice from now, what would you say?

When you have outsider ideas as a marginalised person, I think it’s really easy to feel like you need to make them bigger to fit into a mainstream space. If I were to go back to when I was 17/18, I would tell myself to trust everything that you are and love, and trust it earlier. Trust that there is space for everything that you love in your work. Because I think that’s something, especially when you’re straddling disparate worlds, that can be a big problem for lots of people.

Finally, what else do you have planned for this year? 

I’m premiering my audio-visual show at Sonar in Barcelona, then a few more shows in summer. But I’ve just been more or less on tour for 10 months, so I’m going into a quieter time.

Manchester Collective present ‘Neon’, featuring Lyra’s commission ‘Quanta’, this Saturday at Future Yard – grab your tickets here. In the meantime, support Lyra’s latest release ‘Delta’, a rework of stunning debut album ‘Fountain’ by other producers: