Composer and sound-mixer Jonty Harrison talks to Christopher Morley about his lifelong fascination with electronic sound.
One of Britain's most illustrious electronic music workshops, Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre, celebrates its silver anniversary this year.
During its 25 years it has spread from one room in the music department of Birmingham University to a suite of nine, with the services of a studio manager. Through most of this period of growth and success, Jonty Harrison has been its director.
This weekend BEAST holds celebratory events at the CBSO Centre, after a four-day season early in January, when BEAST was host to visits from similar enterprises worldwide. At his Moseley home Jonty tells me how he came to fall in love with the medium.
"After my first postgraduate year at the University of York I asked another student to show me the studio. He had to leave after 45 minutes, so then I was on my own.
"Luckily for me, the electro-acoustic composer Denis Smalley was in York at the time, and he let me sit at the back of the studio and watch him work - that's where I got most of my technique from. And there were plenty of fine student composers in York at that time (both acoustic and electroacoustic), with whom I worked and talked."
Among those student composers was Dominic Muldowney, who invited Jonty Harrison to work with him and Harrison Birtwistle at the National Theatre in London.
"I produced tape material for productions, bridging the gap between 'music' and 'sound effects' - something which, looking back now, I realise I am still doing!"
The desire to find out what electro-acoustic music could offer him as a composer led Harrison to discover a completely different way of thinking about music.
"It opened my ears to very different possibilities," he says. "Some of them found their way back into my instrumental music, which many people commented was quite studio-influenced.
"In the end I stopped composing for instruments around the early 90s and focused exclusively on acousmatic music - what used to be called 'tape music', though the technical means now rely on computers and hard disks, rather than tape - though I have been tempted back into the world of mixed forces occasionally."
Jonty speaks of the attractions of using sound-material drawn from the "real" world, and its effect when "a listener suddenly recognises a sound, a location, a situation, an experience, a memory evoked by sound - and the way this interacts with more abstract musical structures to create new musical meanings."
Asked about the nature of BEAST's audiences, and the technique of listening to a sound experience almost totally devoid of any visual performance element, Harrison is refreshingly non-elitist, with nothing of the ivory tower in his response.
"It's difficult to know the audience, especially if we are playing in a new space, as we did for the festival in January at the George Cadbury Hall in Selly Oak.
"Of course, in any particular location on a winter evening, the audience might be considered quite small by the standards of much contemporary music, most classical music and all rock music.
"But it's important to remember that there is a global audience for acousmatic music and, in these days of internet downloads and niche markets, specialist CD labels are able not only to survive, but to flourish."
Does the typical BEAST audience member ever go to other kinds of concert?
"I'm sure people who come to BEAST concerts attend other events, but I think that exactly what those other events are might be quite diverse and very surprising - I suspect that they range from contemporary music (we have a great relationship with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, for example), through electronica to clubs and art gallery events.
"Your question about people who are not used to hearing without seeing is a perennial issue. Personally, I have no difficulty in just listening, without seeing what is causing the sound I'm hearing.
"Some people find this unnerving or even downright frightening. If they cannot account for the sound, then they feel that they are unable to understand it.
"I think if you stick with it, you will start to find connections and patterns, just as the human brain does with any new data. And if you can find patterns and meaning in the sound, then perhaps you don't need visuals - maybe they could even be a distraction."
A surprising oblique reference to the likes of Lewis Hamilton arises when I ask Harrison how much he needs to be a technician as well as a musician. And how did pioneers like Stockhausen manage?
"This is a tricky one. As with any other area of expertise, the more you know about how something works, then - potentially, at least - the better the prospects for using it well.
"Formula One drivers do not just know how to steer - they know how, why and when their machines function at their best, and they are very sensitive to problems.
"On the other hand, knowledge per se guarantees nothing - it's how you apply it that matters. And this is every bit as true in music as in any other field. Knowing how a particular signal processing algorithm works does not in itself make you a better composer.
"Stockhausen was always, I think, a musician first and a technician afterwards - he made sure he equipped himself with the knowledge he needed to solve a particular musical problem.
"Some of his writings have been criticised for scientific inaccuracy or for being 'pseudo-science', but I'm tempted to say that, even if a composer hasn't quite got all the science right, if it has been applied in the creation of an interesting piece, does it matter?
"One thing I do resent though - and I've met it quite a bit over the years, unfortunately, mostly from musicians - is when people assume that if I am sitting at a mixer, then I must be a technician.
"The idea that I am a musician and a composer, that I have good ears and know how to use them, never seems to cross their minds. It seems to me that some of the people making records - engineers, producers - have fantastic aural ability and awareness. In my book that makes them musicians, whether they are 'musically trained' or not."
"I'm sure there's lots more to say," Harrison concludes, "but I think it's more important that people come along and listen to the music, rather than listen to me droning on about it. There is a physicality involved in immersive sound coming from 60, 80, or 100 speakers in a large, high-quality sound system that can only be experienced, not explained."
* Twenty-five years of BEAST are celebrated at the CBSO Centre, Berkley Street, on Saturday and Sunday (8pm). Tickets available on the door or from BCMG (0121-616 2616) or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.