This particular musical score came to mind after a machine message from my friend Margaret, who has a sing-song voice, and I thought, "That can be a musical score." So I developed a musical piece using these messages. I have often done work that brings out the singing quality in the spoken word.
In my other work, I use some incredible samples, and people are often surprised by how bad in quality they are. They are usually recorded by me, collected when I am walking around, for example. I do end up incorporating stuff that is bad quality, yet are interesting samples. But when recording I use the best equipment I can get. For instance, when I was working on the film score for Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, I was lucky enough to record at Abbey Road, and was completely blown away by the quality of the sound. The end result was so exciting. I've been really spoilt now. But each sound has its own story and own quality.
The thing about the answer phone is that it has become so much a part of most people's lives; it can feel like you've been cheated if there are no messages, and we come to expect a daily litany of messages and voices. And from the messages left on the machine can emerge a feeling of absence - of people not connecting with other people, missing each other and not being together.
The sound quality of an answering machine is also haunting. But it's mostly the ritual of the message leaving. How often will people ask if you are there? It has a resonance of asking for other things - like "God, are you there?"
A lot of varied ideas and emotions have emerged from these messages, although initially I didn't have a clue what to do with them. I work with a Persian singer and she has a habit of singing into my machine before she speaks and I also have a friend called Trevor, who is travelling around the world, ringing me up from all over and describing places. These different messages put together made an exotic world. This is then at odds with another message from a friend who talks about getting me a cat flap.
In Portraits in Absentia, there are little narratives that emerge which are kind of the drama of the everyday life, a celebration of moments and friendships. Or rather, the extraordinary out of the ordinary.
It's quite nice to use something such as an answering machine as a recording instrument because it imposes a direction on you as a composer. With this composition, I had imagined it would become a requiem, yet the piece is quite chirpy, and has been described as a pop song. It's very low tech, and I am interested in how it will work live; the sound quality is low but it's a part of its greatness. I am drawn to the scratchy, hissy quality. It's evocative.
Interview by Jennifer Rodger