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Tim Souster

Tim Souster

"The work of Tim Souster seems to me to be of special interest because it sets out to span some of the big divides in the world of music." Hugo Cole

Tim Souster (1943-94) was one of the most innovative composers of his generation. After reading music at New College, Oxford he studied composition with Richard Rodney Bennett, then joined the BBC in 1965 as a music producer in William Glock's Third Programme. In this position he worked with many of the leading contemporary composers, such as Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, Feldman and Cardew. His early modernist compositions of the 1960s are written for conventional acoustic forces, but he was attracted early on to the advances being made in the use of electronics, and in 1969 wrote his first live-electronic composition: Titus Groan Music for wind quintet, ring modulator, amplifiers and tape, premiered by the Stockholm Wind Quintet (but subsequently withdrawn). At the same time he was absorbed by the radical developments in pop, rock and jazz and, when he left the BBC in 1967 to devote more time to composition and music criticism, he became the first critic to write regularly on pop and rock for The Listener. Among groups he particularly admired were Captain Beefheart, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and The Beach Boys, all of whom, alongside Wagner, Ravel, Delius and Berg, had a profound influence on his own musical sound-world.

On becoming composer-in-residence at King's College, Cambridge in 1969, Souster was in a position, with Roger Smalley, to establish a live-electronic group, Intermodulation, which was among the first to use the new VCS3 synthesisers being developed by Peter Zinovieff's EMS company. Intermodulation toured extensively in the UK and Europe in the period 1969-76, performing the works of Stockhausen, Cardew, Riley, Rzewski, Wolff and others, as well as pieces written for the group by Smalley and Souster themselves. Among the pieces Souster wrote for the group are Waste Land Music, Triple Music II for three orchestras (commissioned by the BBC and performed at the Proms in 1970, revised in 1974 and performed in Berlin), World Music (commissioned by West German Radio, Cologne, in whose studio he made the tape part), Zorna for saxophone, three drummers and live electronics (also commissioned by the BBC for the Proms) and Spectral, for viola and live electronics, based on the song of the humpback whale. Between 1971 and 1974 Souster was working in Germany, initially as teaching assistant to Stockhausen at the State Music High School in Cologne, and subsequently as a composer-in-residence in West Berlin under the DAAD visiting artists scheme. At the end of this period he wrote Song of an Average City for small orchestra and natural sounds (commissioned by the BBC and premiered by the BBCSO in 1974, conducted by Pierre Boulez).

In 1975 Souster became a Leverhulme Research Fellow at Keele University, setting up the university's first electronic music studio. At Keele he also created a new performing group, OdB, with whom he explored his interest in progressive rock styles. With this group he made the LP, Sw1t Dr1ms (later to be listed in WIRE magazine (Sept. 1998) as one of the '100 records that set the world on fire - while no one was listening').

Souster spent the year 1978/9 in the US on a Bicentennial Fellowship, moving between California and New York. There he composed the purely tape piece Driftwood Cortège in the computer studios of Stanford University and an instrumental work, Sonata, for the Nash Ensemble. Back in the UK in 1980 he established his own electronic studio in Cambridge and from this time on became increasingly involved in writing commercial music and music for TV. He won a BAFTA nomination in 1990 and a BAFTA award in 1991 for best television music.

Many significant concert works, both electronic and acoustic, date from the 1980s and early 1990s, among them Hambledon Hill for string quartet and live electronics written for the Arditti string quartet and a further commission from the Nash Ensemble Le Souvenir de Maurice Ravel. A commission from Equale Brass, Equalisation for brass quintet and live electronics, was the first of a number of works for brass, which became an important medium for him, encouraged perhaps by his collaborations with the trumpet player John Wallace. For Wallace he wrote The Transistor Radio of Saint Narcissus for flugelhorn, live electronics and tape (a first-prize winner at the Bourges Festival in 1984) and the large-scale Trumpet Concerto (with live electronics) commissioned by the BBC in 1988. Echoes (for Besses o’ th’ Barn) was the first piece to be written for brass band with live electronics. Souster's fascination with sound-worlds extended to cartoon soundtracks and the brass quintet Rabbit Heaven for the English Brass Ensemble and Paws 3D for the Cambridgeshire County Youth Orchestra are based respectively on the soundtracks of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons. At the time of his death in 1994, Souster had just started work on a third commission for the Nash Ensemble.

Souster described himself as 'incurably given over to heterogeneity' (quoted in Contact No 27). This grew perhaps from an irrepressible desire to absorb and exploit the resonances of the many sounds and styles with which he surrounded himself. 'It's possible' he said, 'to take stimuli from far-flung parts of the world and to gain new experiences in this way. The fact that this kind of cross-fertilization can happen is something which gives me a certain amount of guarded hope.'

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Tim Souster
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