Interview with Katie English (Isnaj Dui)

Katie English

A founder member of neo-classical outfit littlebow, bucolic miniaturists The Sly And Unseen and part of Antipodean-gothic traders The Doomed Birds Of Providence, the Wire beloved composer/flautist Katie English is best known for her sequence of innovative and stealthily genre-busting instrumental albums in her guise of Isnaj Dui.

Released on the ever engaging Rural Colours label, Poiesis, the ninth in the Isnaj Dui sequence, reflects English’s relocation from edgy central London to the edge of the Yorkshire moors with a paradoxical sonic switch from her previously meditative and impressionistic sounds to a condensed, complex, expressionistic cauldron of both soft and hard, calm and stormy. Poiesis presents a newly formed style of ambient music, specific to our more conflicted times.

Katie English takes pause, here, to discuss musical modes, influences, ‘trouble at mill’ and the missing aptitude test that made a monkey out of MENSA.

Poiesis is perhaps the fifth time you’ve used a Latin or Greek sounding word for an album title. What’s it mean, how does it apply to the music and why the tendency to the classics?

In all honesty it usually comes down to wanting to make something sound a bit more glamorous, as I’m not great with titles. Duodecim came about as it was 12 pieces over 12 months of the year but Twelve as a title was a little blunt so I figured the Latin might work. I suppose it provides a certain timelessness and ambiguity to the titles.  I found Poiesis while looking for another title which wasn’t sitting quite right, it’s the philosophy behind bringing something into being that didn’t exist before so I thought yep, that’s what I do when writing music so why not!

The previous Isnaj Dui albums all possess differing moods to each other. Abstracts On Solitude being probably the most inward looking.  Poiesis, on the other hand, seems the most extrovert of them containing a slight feeling of aggression. It sounds like an album that is engaging with the world but not necessarily liking what its finding. Correct?

I’ve always engaged with what’s going on in the world but it’s always been in a slightly removed way. Abstracts On Solitude was very inward looking as I was rather insular at that point in time.  This album has come about in fits and starts over two years which have seen a fair bit of trouble, both personal and on a wider scale.  There is a lot of ugliness around at the moment which I think has brought me out a little as I want to extend the idea of creating something beautiful for the sake of it and actually turn my (current) anger and disappointment into something if not beautiful then at least constructive. Old story but the EU referendum in particular brought out some nasty points of view from loud mouths on both sides of the political spectrum and I found that really shameful as it turned something incredibly important that will potentially affect generations to come into a glorified slanging match.

This album also shifts from the impressionistic to the expressionistic, to my ear. At times the bass flutes do a convincing impersonation of a herd of angry elephants which, despite the sense of violence conveyed, also hints at a touch of humour.

I guess it follows on from the previous answer.  Although I feel as though there’s too much nastiness in the world and rather hopeless at times, I’ve also got that ‘if you didn’t laugh you’d cry’ sense of humour about things.  Ultimately life is a series of blunders and stumbles and if we’re all blown up in nuclear Armageddon it won’t be from any noble intent, it’ll be completely Dr Strangelove, an accident, a ‘woops I didn’t mean to press that’.

One limitation of the ambient/drift musical world that Isnaj arguably inhabits is that, even when good, it can become slightly two dimensional. Your music, however, is remarkably multi-faceted. Do you know a secret something?

I’ve never felt happy with the term ambient/drift although I can appreciate why I’m lumped into that category – there’s no drums!  So much of the ambient scene is second-rate versions of stuff that happened forty years ago and combined with the fact that a lot of it is produced on digital ‘instruments’ it lacks a lot of depth and warmth so it all ends up as this very perfect sounding but ultimately dull background noise.  It’s just too sheeny and it’s not a genre that lends itself to sheen, it needs depth and overtones.  There’s no secret though, it’s just being interested in lots of different things.  With flute and cello I’ve studied a few different styles of playing and play in bands that all have their own sound so it makes sense that these things will cross over.  I’ve never liked albums that are very similar the whole way through, where you know what it’s doing and where it’s going.  You can still have an identity while flitting between floaty niceness and crunchy darkness, it gets boring pretty bloody quick if you don’t mix things up a little.  Someone recently made a comment about my tunes lulling you into a state of relaxation only to be gripped by the sudden fear of getting whacked round the back of the head with a blunt object.  I’m chuffed with that.

I’ve noticed that you dislike the term ‘experimental’ when applied to your work or, indeed, others in your musical neck of the woods. Why so?

I have a love/hate relationship with the term experimental.  In many ways it works well but I think it’s just too clean yet incredibly vague.  I was once playing a gig in a room above a pub in Winchester and a bloke popped his head round the door, asking what kind of music was on tonight.  I replied it was sort of experimental electronica type stuff.  He replied “Oh, like the Rocky soundtrack.”  Not quite, but it made me think that ‘experimental’ is just a bit too vague because he wasn’t wrong in a way, but also was totally out.  These New Puritans had a good point when they said that the term implies that you don’t know what you’re doing.  Sometimes that’s true, if you’re just playing around seeing what happens.  But none of that stuff is what makes it onto the albums, that’s the stuff that you capture and develop and work on to create the finished piece which is anything but an experiment.

Muso-question-alert! You sometimes utilise modes and harmonies (the piece “Diffraction Gratings” is an example) that seem to draw upon early music although the overall effect is entirely modern. How does that come into your work?

I’m a bit obsessed with harmony, I think it comes from being the least pushy flautist at school (not difficult, flautists are a pushy bunch) so I always got the harmony parts when playing in groups, not the leading light of the melody!  At first I felt a bit put out but after a while I realised that the harmony is the real guts of the piece and there’s so much interesting stuff going on in the background.

I’ve never consciously written in modes, it’s just something that happened when I started composing and it’s never gone away.  Although I’ve done my grades and all that I still tend to feel music more strongly than whether it’s technically what’s expected.  Maybe it comes alongside never wanting to feel too settled within a piece of music – major/minor are traditionally happy/sad whereas modes are less obvious and less used so people find them slightly unsettling.  There is definitely something deeper and more natural about early music scales and harmonies that I really love as it just gets into your guts much more than the rather polite modern scales which are all very well and good but just don’t have quite the same effect.  Having said all that, it would be pointless to write something that sounds 600 years old so I enjoy combining those harmonies with buzzy bits of electronics and the like.

How has the Isnaj Dui sound developed over the albums, since the beginning? Do you feel that you have a route map?

It’s difficult to say really.  There’s certainly no route map as each album has its own nature that is largely defined by how I’m feeling about life at that point in time.  I tend to go through phases, for a while I wanted as little processing on the flute as possible but at the moment  I love putting it through pitch shift effects and things, still keeping it as live playing but with effects added to change the nature of the sound.  At the same time I think I’ve got a fairly recognisable sound, probably mostly down to the harmonies and melodic leanings that I have as they’ve not really changed much.  Weirdly I’ve only recently started using the flute and dulcimer on tunes together.  The dulcimer has never really been tuned to anything in particular so has been difficult to use with the flute so I’ve previously had ‘dulcimer tracks’ and ‘flute tracks’.  It’s been nice starting using them together more although it means a lot more fiddling when playing live.

I believe that you were once a member of MENSA but left as you thought that the other members were a bit stupid?

Ha ha!  Yes I was but the real reason for leaving was that I couldn’t afford it!  I just took the test out of intrigue and got a good enough score to join.  I was a member for a year just to see what went on, learn the secret handshake etc., but there wasn’t much to it really.  I didn’t even get to talk to anyone about neurology which was disappointing – I’d had images of nattering to people about music and brains… There was an incident involving a Mensa meet up, beers in the park and one bloke thinking he could climb a tree before falling a whole two feet to the ground, didn’t even reach the first branch!  Tree climbing isn’t on the Mensa test…

It’s notably hard to identify particular musical influences in your music. Are there any specific influences that you would care to name, either directly musical or in a more general sense?

I’m a contrary little madam when I want to be so I’ve certainly got a lot edgier since leaving London and settling in the hills of Halifax.  I know I should be writing Elgar-esque pretty tunes but although I can appreciate the beauty of the landscape I’m a townie at heart and am always in awe of how unforgiving nature can be.  For me that’s way more interesting from an inspiration point of view and links back to that idea of something unsettling – yes the hills are pretty but one wrong move and you’ll end up getting swallowed by a bog!

Just general stuff that happens in life is of course an overwhelming influence.  At the start of the year I hadn’t written anything for a couple of months and then about three tunes came out one afternoon, just pent up ideas.  I always cringe to sum up musical influences – it puts me in mind of those people that say they’re into ‘like, everything’ before naming two fairly identical bands.  Like most people I listen to all sorts and have mentioned before that my obsession with loops was sparked by “Sure Shot” by Beastie Boys.  A lot of my interest in awkward harmonies comes from old school ska and Bulgarian choral music and my love of tricksy off-beats comes from playing in a London based Balinese gamelan group for several years, I somehow always ended up in charge of the off-beat part.  It’s funny, to me these influences are fairly blatant but I guess I then make them my own so it’s not so obvious if you can’t see inside my head.