Sam Salem

I create audiovisual works for performers, electronics and video, which challenge traditional notions of concert presentation and instrumental virtuosity.

My compositional process begins with a set of locations, a line on a map connected by a particular theme, history, or set of constraints. I capture moments, surprises, and ultimately, like prominent London-based psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, I offer a reading of my chosen locations, a divination made through an “act of ambulatory sign- making”. I excavate my locations, and the layers of myth and history that I uncover form my building blocks.

Having received a PhD in Electroacoustic Composition in 2011 from the University of Manchester, I have since shifted my practice in order to incorporate live performance.

My electroacoustic works have been performed at festivals and concert series around the world. These works have also received several awards and nominations, including: the HearSay Prize (Winner, Best Sound Category, 2015), Prix Palma Ars Acustica (Nominated by Radio Television Suisse, 2015), Concours Luc Ferrari (Winner, La Muse En Circuit, 2012), Prize Phonologia (Finalist, 2013), Metamorphoses (Finalist, Musique et Recherches, 2012), Competition Destellos (Nominated by Grand Jury, 2012), Joensuu Soundscape Composition Contest (Third Prize, 2011), 11th Musica Viva Composition Competition (Winner, First Prize, 2011).

My first works for live performers, my London Triptych, are based upon the lives of William Blake (Not one can pass away, 2015), Austin Osman Spare (Untitled Valley of Fear, 2016) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (The Great Inundation, 2017), and were written for Distractfold Ensemble. Not one can pass away has received 16 performances by 5 different ensembles. Untitled Valley of Fear was premiered at Darmstadt in August 2016, and has also been performed at Café OTO and HCMF. Untitled Valley of Fear was nominated for a British Composer Award (Sound Art Category) in 2017. The Great Inundation was premiered at Cut & Splice 2017 and subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

In 2017, I participated in the Earle Brown Music Foundation International Summer Academy for Young Composers, one of 8 composers selected from 206 applicants, and the only successful applicant from the UK. The resulting piece, The Lovers (for string quintet, 2 object operators, performative electronics, tape and video), was premiered by Talea Ensemble as part of the Time Spans Festival in New York in August 2017. The Lovers was noted as being “impressive” and “chamber-orchestra pandemonium with accomplished video work” by the New York Times in their review of the festival. Brilliantly, and importantly, I was also described as “young”.

In 2018, I completed a commission for Ensemble Soyuz 21 (The Tower, for Electric Guitar, Cello, Percussion, Live Electronics, Tape and Video) and composed a new solo violin work (The Raft Breaks, for Violin, Objects, Live Electronics, Tape and Video), written for Linda Jankowska.

My most recent project, Midlands, was commissioned by The Bludenz Days of Contemporary Music Festival and the Ernst Von Siemens Foundation and is my first concert-length work. It was premiered in October 2019.

I am also a founding member and co-artistic director of Distractfold Ensemble. Distractfold received the Kranichstein Music Prize for Interpretation from Internationales Musikinstitute Darmstadt (IMD) in 2014, becoming the first British ensemble to receive the honour. In 2017 we curated and co- produced Cut & Splice in collaboration with SAM and BBC Radio 3, which culminated in a weekend festival in March 2017 and BBC broadcasts in April 2017.

I am currently PRiSM Lecturer in Composition at the RNCM.




Midlands (2019)

…if we strip a thing of all its disposable dimensions, we reach a state of ineffability. It is as if we could detect… at the heart of existence, something ineffable that does the job of ‘being that thing’; the receptacle of each and every name, itself standing before names.
Federico Campagna, Technic and Magic

1. Dreamt in Fire
2. And Despite The Support Of Your Despair
3. There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack
4. How To Build A Machine

Midlands is many things to me. It is equally psychogeographic and biomythographic. The psychogeographic is concerned with the city of Derby, in the Midlands of the UK.

Derby is the site of the first water-powered cotton mill, the engine of the Industrial Revolution and William Blake’s original “dark Satanic Mill”. And yet, Derby today is largely post-industrial. To gather this thread of the narrative of Midlands, I walked the 120km of the River Derwent, a river that bisects Derby and whose flow shaped our world.

The biomythographic is concerned with my experience of growing up in Derby as Other in the 1980s. Now, in my own midlife, I wish to channel these experiences, with alchemical aims.

Thus, finally, the outline of the territory of Midlands begins to reveal itself. It describes a literal and ineffable geography, an exterior and interior landscape. Or else, it is a ritual, undertaken to transform darkness into light.

“How To Build A Machine” contains a sample from “Acid Test” by Gorilla (Whitby, Kersey, Cooper, Gatford), which is taken from the Extended Play EP and used with the permission of the authors.

Special thanks to Clara Iannotta Iain Reekie.

Distractfold Ensemble:
Rocío Bolaños, clarinets, objects and electronics
Daniel Brew, electric guitar
Linda Jankowska, violin, objects and electronics
Alice Purton, cello, objects and electronics
Emma Richards, viola, objects, percussion and electronics
Sam Salem, diffusion

Commissioned by Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik, funded by the Ernst Von Siemens Foundation.

Guest performers:
Mark Knoop, keyboard and accordion
Ute Wassermann, voice

Direction: Sam Weaver, sound engineer Emily Moore, producer


The Tower (2019)
(Editor’s Note: ‘The Tower’ was performed at IKLECTIK on Friday 14 February 2020)

The Tower (2019), for electric guitar, cello, percussion, performative electronics, tape & video

16. The Lightning Struck Tower

From the private Tarot deck of Austin Osman Spare

The Tower is part of a series of pieces based upon the life and works of artist and magician Austin Osman Spare, “London’s lost artist”. The Tower was commissioned by Soyuz 21 and premiered at the Kulturhaus Royal, Baden, in March 2019.

Thumbnail: Sam Salem, w/ things (2019)