Foundation five: Ergo Phizmiz

Composer, collagist, opera writer, radio producer, filmmaker; take your pick from a long list of his current specialisms

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 18 Feb 2013
  • min read
Composer, multi-instrumentalist, collagist, opera writer, radio producer, filmmaker, performer; take your pick from a long list of Ergo Phizmiz’ current specialisms.

The versatile soundsmith has turned his hand to all manner of music composition and sculpture over the years, but he first came to prominence with his experimental electronica. Never one to sit still, he has since written medieval operas, radio plays and modern folk albums, garnering praise from all corners of the music industry in the process.

Described by The Wire magazine as a ‘one man movement’, and by BBC Radio 3 as ‘one of the most inventive composers around’, Ergo has developed a reputation as one of the most genuinely innovative composers working today.

A singularly prolific artist, he has created over 300 hours of audio and video, including projects for the Tate Modern, the Royal Festival Hall, the Dutch Academy of Fine Art, Cologne Kulturbunker, Arts Council England, Geneva School of Art, Cherbourg-Octeville College of Music & Atagatomusi-k, Resonance FM, Ubuweb, WFMU, Sonic Arts Network and BBC Radio 3.

PRS for Music Foundation recently supported Ergo for his electronic theatre performance Gargantua, based on the cross-pollination of the work of Rabelais with elements of film noir, Cold War and detective fiction.

For the latest instalment of Foundation Five, Sarah Thirtle caught up with Ergo to find out more….

What inspired you to create music?
My entire childhood was spent with music, unavoidable - my dad taught three-manual organ throughout the day and played organ in the working men's clubs at night. And later my parents were a duo performing cover versions in the Northern clubs. So there was either the sound of organ music or cover versions pumping out throughout a 1,500 watt power amp. I don't know how the neighbours put up with it!

A different organ lesson ringing through the house every hour meant also that, because organists play from melody and then improvise the left hand and bass pedals, I unavoidably heard constant permutations of the same song on hourly rotation. That led, I realise now, to my becoming interested in how music is constructed, how composition functions. I'm interested more in the inside of music than the outside of it.

The piece PRS for Music Foundation funded, bless their cotton socks, is called Gargantua. I could never find a way to describe it succinctly, so I settled on ‘An Excessive Entertainment’. It's a mixture of electronic opera, detective story, puppet show, animation and vaudeville.

Musically it's a dense patchwork. I've become interested in very synthetic, artificial music, almost like epic music being badly imitated by automatons. I suppose the music of Gargantua could most succinctly be described, in the time honoured fashion of sticking genres together and hoping for the best, as electronic-miniature-epic-classical-techno-supermidi-opera.

What has the funding enabled you to achieve?
Writing this piece! I have been attempting to make this project for the last three years. I didn't receive the rest of the funding I applied for from other organisations (I won't say any names, but if they're reading it I'm looking at YOU!), so PRS for Music Foundation is the main funder on this project. Without the Foundation coming through it's likely this project would still be sitting in a drawer, but it's not, it's embarking on a 10-date UK tour in March, with European and possibly US dates in the offing....

Have you any tips for other artists applying for funding?
Finding funding for arts projects in the UK has become very difficult, but don't let that deter you! Invention in response to poverty, imaginative use of crossovers between digital technology and real things - going back to the world you inhabited as a child dressing up in tea towels and pillowcases. ‘Austerity’ shouldn't imply austere art.

On a more practical level, when drafting your proposal materials, be clear, be succinct. This isn't always easy, especially with very multiple-element projects, but the key in a funding application is to present funders with the core of your projects. The way to find this is to draft and redraft your description of the project, honing it down, like an astute gardener with very sharp but very fine shears.

What's next for you?
Gargantua tours the UK in March from 16 to 25. Right now I'm heavily in production of animation, puppets, choreography, giant heads, giant blocks and so on with the marvellous team of people working on it. My new album Eleven Songs was released December on Care in the Community Recordings. I've been working on a radio play called Boojum and an opera about Gala Dali, Salvador's rabbit-boiling, nymphomaniac wife and her love affair with Jesus Christ Superstar.