In conversation with… musician Michael Begg

We caught up with award-winning musician Michael Begg to chat about his experiences while south, the Siouxsie and the Banshees gig that started it all and his penchant for a single malt whisky.

In conversation with… musician Michael Begg

We caught up with award-winning musician Michael Begg to chat about his experiences while south, the Siouxsie and the Banshees gig that started it all and his penchant for a single malt whisky.

In conversation with… musician Michael Begg

09/06/2024

We caught up with award-winning musician Michael Begg to chat about his experiences while south, the Siouxsie and the Banshees gig that started it all and his penchant for a single malt whisky.

Michael Begg is an award-winning composer and sound artist based in East Lothian, Scotland. He is an Associate Artist at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, and has held residencies with the European Marine Board, Ocean ARTic Partnership, the Mexican Centre for Music and Sound Art, and Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute.

Last austral summer, Michael visited Antarctica aboard the HMS Protector for a four-week placement. Since 2010, the Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute (FoSPRI) and the Royal Navy have provided an annual opportunity for artists and musicians to journey to the polar regions. Previous FoSPRI Artists in Residence and the current Musician in Residence tell of the transformational impact of direct experience of polar environments on their creative practice. 

We caught up with him to chat about his experiences while south, the Siouxsie and the Banshees gig that started it all and his penchant for a single malt whisky.

Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

I was never conscious of wanting to be a musician, but I always played and made music, after a fashion. I never had to want to be it. I had no formal training in music, which, I later learned, could be very liberating. I took up the guitar when I was 13 and learned how one could use feedback and effect pedals, tape loops and layered recording using multiple tape recorders. This was much more engaging than scales and arpeggios.

I took to music more seriously in the late 1990s as I  became involved with theatre and began to work with sound and noise instead of scripting dialogue, perhaps as a distraction from writer's block, or from the realisation that I wasn’t actually very good at it.

Michael with his recording equipment in Antarctica

Michael at work in Antarctica (Credit: Michael Begg)

By 2000, I was releasing CDs and becoming increasingly excited by the possibilities of using computers to do what previously was only possible with groups of people and expensive studios. From then I think it was a combination of persistence, chance and a dogged determination to protect my sense of freedom that slowly, very slowly enabled some kind of momentum to gather pace.

Along the way I have picked up music theory and, if pushed, I could draw lines of association that would place my work in a continuum encompassing not only 20th-century modernists but 16th-century melancholics like Byrd, Tallis or Dowland. I’d maintain, though, that it was my capacity for experimentation and twisting technologies that enabled my current work with scientists and data to take root.

Were there any artists, albums or performances that captured your imagination initially?

In 1980, when I was 14, I attended my first concert at the Edinburgh Playhouse. The lights went out, there was a mad dash to the front of the stage and sound exploded from the PA. Slowly the curtain rose and dry ice billowed out. The stage lights were blinding. A projected film of white clouds scudding across a blue sky, and Siouxsie and the Banshees hammering out ‘Israel’. I was lost then, at that moment and I remain lost now.

You were the Musician in Residence aboard the Royal Navy’s HMS Protector. Please tell us about the experience.

After two successful composer residencies with the Ocean ARTic Partnership and the European Marine Board, in which I’d collaborated with scientists to compose new musical works arising from polar research data, I was successful in securing a residency with the Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. They had a long-standing artist-in-residence programme and were keen to try something new. They work in partnership with the Royal Navy for this innovative and, I think, highly effective programme, and so HMS Protector and her crew became my hosts in Antarctica for the duration of the trip.

In a working tour of duty as the Royal Navy’s ice patrol vessel, we visited South Georgia, various bases in the South Shetland Isles and travelled down the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula via the Lemaire Channel, stopping at Detaille Island, Vernadsky research base and Deception Island. We actually sailed past Port Lockroy on its 80th birthday on February 11th and piped our congratulations and best wishes.

The senses were overthrown anew with each passing day. During base visits, I would be dropped ashore with the first zodiac and was left to my own devices to absorb and record all that I could see and hear. Aboard the ship, I would compile the field recordings and begin the process of finding the music hidden in the wind, ice and animal calls. All the while, an ever-changing seascape of icebergs and fogs would constantly draw me back out onto the deck to gorge myself on the spectacle.

It was an accumulated experience of extremes; extreme temperature, extreme wildlife, an extremely deep sense of solitude and fragility. It was, of course, life-changing. A deep privilege and a call to urgency in my work.

Mountains in the Lemaire Channel

The Lemaire Channel in Antarctica (Credit: Mathias Berlin/Shuttersock)

We believe heritage can be a force for good in tackling the climate crisis. How do you think your music can influence current affairs?

Any revolution is marked by its music, is it not? 

Like heritage, music can engage the listener's affections and impress itself upon the individual profoundly, certainly deeper than words. My sense of activism is not driven by the need to vocally protest. I seek instead to use technology, data, field recordings, and whatever sensitivity I can muster to create music that speaks with authenticity to the complexities and vulnerabilities in our time. If I can somehow instil an emotional connection or an affection for the subject in the listener, then I think that is a good thing. We are less likely to cause or enable harm to be done to anything for which we feel affection.

Do you still have a dream destination you haven't visited? 

In the context of this work, I am keenly aware that a trip down the flank of the peninsula is barely scratching the surface of the Antarctic continent. The experience has put a hook in me and I feel that there is much more for me to learn and accomplish down there. There is a deeper solitude to experience and there is more to be brought back from this frontier where we cannot sustain ourselves without our massed resources of protection and warmth. I long for that remote perspective on what it is to be us. Previously, I thought it was only astronauts who had the opportunity to get that far out of the commonplace.

Outside of work, I have a long-standing desire to visit Bhutan. 

What is the Black Glass Ensemble? 

I began forming Black Glass around 2019. I had been making increased use of sampled instruments in my work and was becoming curious about what it would be like to work with real musicians, and whether there were new forms of music that could speak effectively to our current predicament, our new anxieties as we tip into the Anthropocene.

I put out a couple of notices and began to assemble a troupe of players drawn from the fine orchestral players who happened to be in Edinburgh, and, to help me with the electronics and production side of my ambitions, Ben Ponton from Newcastle. The cellist, Clea Friend, was instrumental in bridging the trust gulf that divided me from the classical players. She had worked with me previously on a National Galleries of Scotland commission, so knew that although unusual, my methods were sound.

We all met in a no-mans land in which none of us were in our comfort zone. The musicians needed to come off the page, and the electronic experimentalists were required to find a musical vocabulary with which to engage the players. 

I assembled a sound palette comprising strings, brass, tuned percussion, synthesis, DIY instruments composed from beach treasure, live weather feeds and low-frequency atmospheric receivers. sonified data… and a performance framework that included scored passages, electronic erosions, improvised movements and a lot of field recordings. To work with them is to find me in my happy place. My other happy place is, of course, to be deeply alone on Detaille Island, with my headphones on and my microphones bright and active, turning me inside out as the sound pours into me.

What's next for you?

I am combing through 30GB of field recordings and video footage and as I do so, the beginnings of new compositions have begun to bubble to the surface. There are festival shows later in the year, a keynote to be delivered at an event organised by the Geological Society in London in September and an album release scheduled for 2025, so there is much still to do, and Antarctica will be with me for some time.

What luxury item would you take if you were working at Port Lockroy for the season?

Is that an invitation? If so, I’ll take it!

When I was aboard Protector I developed something of an evening ritual in which I’d pour myself a single malt from the medicinal supply I’d brought down with me, you understand? And along with the dram, I’d have a daily ration of two kalamata olives and a square of dark chocolate with a touch of sea salt. So, my luxury item – for when you invite me formally – will be a five-month supply of Scotch, olives and chocolate.

Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?

I had a couple of days to kill back in the Falkland Islands before boarding the flight back to Britain. On one of these days, I walked from the harbour across to Bertha’s Beach which was about 10km away. I found myself alone with a colony of gentoo penguins and I found them to be wonderful companions. It was like being in a holiday resort with them. Some were paddling, some were swimming, whilst others seemed content to lie out flat on the sand and take in the sun. Adults fed their young and couples squabbled. It seemed to me to be a highly evolved society. There was even a group gathered on the bank of a dune-like they were attending the agora or a political rally.

Penguins at Bertha’s Beach

The gentoo colony at Bertha’s Beach, Falkland Islands (Credit: Yingna Cai/Shutterstock)

But what grabbed me most was the individual character exposed by their reaction to me. Most were completely non-plussed and ignored me completely but one or two would waddle up to me with such an open and unabashed curiosity that I found bizarrely moving. It wasn’t like elsewhere in the world where an animal would approach you because they’ve somehow learned that humans will throw scraps of food. It was just curiosity, pure and simple. 

I ended up sitting with them for a couple of hours and I felt myself utterly at peace with this society. Their general indifference to my presence was, ironically perhaps, what drew me closer to them. I fear I may actually be a gentoo, so will need now to examine my family tree.


For more information about Michael's work or to sign up for the occasional newsletter follow this link. You can likely find a selection of his work on your streaming platform of choice but everything can be found on Bandcamp. And you can learn more about the Black Glass Ensemble here.

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