Ahead of Spiral Dial’s concert at The Jazz Room, a chance to get to know alternative multi-instrumentalist Liza Bec, her influences and inspirations, and a major challenge to her music career which she has overcome with an innovative and creative approach to music-making
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
As a small child I used to spin around in a trance to flamenco music; I am told I seemed quite hypnotised by the rhythms, so my parents knew I was musical. Luckily there was a retired music teacher across the road from us who was spending her free time giving music lessons to local children for 50p each. She used to have ten people in her room at a time, and one person would be on the piano or singing while she had a chat with the mums and gave the occasional correction. It was brilliant as it meant I was able to learn recorder, piano and singing from the age of four, which we would not otherwise have been able to afford.
I was quite obsessed with the recorder in particular and rarely put it down. I used to drive my mother mad making up songs about witches in the car on the motorway. I can’t remember a light bulb moment but I definitely always wanted to be a musician. Recorder has always been my first instrument although I studied clarinet at music college.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
First and foremost my clarinet teacher Steve Tanner, who got me my first paid gigs playing in pit bands for musical theatre shows as a teenager, and who would turn up with an endless array of instruments for me to learn to play for the next show. Now I play ten instruments, and that’s mainly down to him! He introduced me to an incredible range of music from Artie Shaw to Schoenberg, and even gave me my first wooden clarinet which lasted me all the way to music college. He was, and is, endlessly encouraging and supportive to so many musicians learning in the Portsmouth area. Professionally, I have been lucky to work with some incredibly inspirational musicians, most recently James Holden who introduced me to electronic music.
Having grown up playing in the pit I have always inextricably linked music with narrative, and that’s why I write short stories on which all my music is based, usually twisted dystopian tales. (They do say write what you know!)
However the most important influence has not been a person but an illness – I live with music-triggered epilepsy which means I have to play around my triggers all of the time, avoiding them. This is how I first got into free improvisation, as I was originally a classical musician. So it has been both a blessing and a curse in a way.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
In my 20s I’d noticed that occasionally my hands would twitch when I played, particularly in difficult passages. I thought nothing of it at first but it got worse and worse to the point that my hands would jump clean off the instrument in concerts. It was becoming impossible for me to play what was expected of me as a classical musician.
Eventually I was diagnosed with reflex epilepsy which affects one in 10 million people. Each one of those has a unique trigger, and mine is playing music. This seemed particularly cruel and unfair, but then life’s not fair, so I’m told. I didn’t perform for years, and had to re learn how to play completely in order to avoid triggering a seizure. Even now there are times when my hands will go haywire on stage. So it’s something I’m constantly dealing with, but at the same time has been a great source of inspiration for me.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I have had the opportunity to make an audiovisual installation all about music-triggered epilepsy, thanks to Help Musicians UK Fusion Fund. It’s called INNERVATE and we are performing it live at VAULT festival in London on the 28th and 29th January 2020. It has been an incredibly emotionally challenging subject for me to write about so I’m very proud of the end result.
I also got to build my very own instrument – it’s a plastic tenor recorder with extra circuitry soldered on! Leafcutter John helped me with the design of the recorder and I constructed it under his watchful eye. I also had to learn how to program in Max to create software to listen and react to the recorder as I play it. It has been an incredibly steep learning curve and there is still so much I don’t know, but I’m so excited to learn more and more.
I got to work with some incredible artists – Dan Tombs, who does visuals for Jon Hopkins, has created the visuals, together with Catalina Velasquez Gonzalez, who is a fabulous graphic designer.
The idea for my band, Spiral Dial, has come out of this project – we’re going to be releasing a series of improvised soundscapes and stories throughout 2020.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I only tend to perform original music these days, so it’s a tricky one to answer. I like working with other artists who are creating new music, rather than playing music which already exists. In terms of my previous career, I always used to enjoy playing Messiaen and Stravinsky the most, particularly the Quartet for the End of Time, which in itself has an incredible story behind it and is probably the most mind-expanding piece I’ve ever heard.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I just look for new inspiring people to collaborate with – and the repertoire takes care of itself.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My favourite venue to perform in so far is the Royal Albert Hall. Unfortunately I don’t play there as much as I would like! It feels really cosy on stage, as if the audience is hugging you, despite being absolutely huge.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Obviously, my band! David [Ryder Prangley] is one of the most creative people I have ever met and I absolutely love working with him, and Adam [Hayes] is a fantastic drummer and improviser. Apart from that, probably whoever I’m playing with or listening to right now! I went to a fantastic gig from The Comet is Coming recently, such an amazing atmosphere. When I was making the music for the installation I was listening a lot to Arthur Russell and the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack by Philip Glass, which I love.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It was my first gig back after four of five years without performing, with the Memory Band. It was their album launch, although I wasn’t on that album as I had only just started playing with them. It didn’t really hit me until afterwards when I collapsed in floods of tears. I had thought that I would never perform again, which was particularly distressing as I couldn’t remember my last gig, it hadn’t been anything particularly special at the time. Now I always play as if every show is my last. You never know when you might lose the thing you love the most.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
For me, success is having the creative freedom to express yourself and play the music you love the most.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think in order to have a career in music you need an incredible number of skills which have absolutely nothing to do with playing your instrument. The confidence to sell yourself, a head for figures and the skin of a ten ton rhino would be a good start!
Liza imagines stories and writes the music to bring them to life. Taking inspiration from the dark, unswept corners of slightly unhinged minds, she combines intricate layers of woodwinds and vocals with sprinkles of genres from folk and electroacoustic to rock and beyond. Her most recent EP and short story ‘Beyond the Blonde’ was released on limited edition vinyl in May 2018.
She is currently finishing work on Innervate, a short story and AV installation about music triggered epilepsy, funded by Help Musicians UK Fusion Fund.
Originally a classical clarinettist and saxophonist who trained at Trinity College of Music, London, her life was transformed when she was diagnosed in 2008 with this rare form of reflex epilepsy, triggered by playing certain patterns of notes. “I had to re-learn how to play”, Liza says. “I spent several years without playing a note. My first gig was with The Memory Band…. I cried buckets afterwards as I just couldn’t believe that I was back performing again.”
After releasing an album with original rock band Bordello Rose she received positive reviews in Prog! and Team Rock magazines. She then collaborated with electronic artist James Holden on his latest release ‘The Animal Spirits’ (2017), co-writing ‘Spinning Dance’ and playing recorder, sax and clarinet on many subsequent European tour dates.
Liza plays on a Syos saxophone mouthpiece. She has also built a customised tenor recorder with integrated circuit board to control her live electroacoustic setup on Max for Live. She is available for session work and for weird and wonderful collaborations.