Lee Westwood is a winner of Riot Ensemble’s 2016 Call for Scores. His large-scale work ‘Florescence’ will be performed at a 5pm concert on October 29th at St Nicholas Church (Dyke Road) alongside a dozen miniatures by fellow NMB members. See the post below for full details and our concert flyer.
Here is an interview conducted by Riot Ensemble’s Aaron Holloway-Nahum in March 2016, shortly after Lee was announced as the winner of the competition.
Please come to the concert to meet Lee and hear his extraordinary new piece!
You are both a performer (guitarist) and composer. Does your work as one influence the other?
Yes, I think unavoidably so. For many years, all the music I wrote was really intended for me to perform myself, so over that time the two had been inseparable parts of the same thing: my relationship with my instrument (the guitar) and with music. I think that kind of relationship also leaves you with a very deep sense of the importance of the tactile qualities of the music you write – how it feels to play – and that’s something I try to sustain when writing for other instruments. Whether I’m always successful in that is another question… On the other hand, that very close relationship with the guitar was the reason I had to distance myself from it for a while, in order to break away from thinking like a guitarist all the time when composing!
You were self-taught for a long time as a composer (and musician), but I believe you’ve recently taken up PhD studies? What is it like to be studying for the first time? Has it been a positive influence on your work?
I am indeed in my third year of a PhD at Sussex with Martin Butler. To be honest, as an undergrad (I studied Psychology at Sussex years ago), I was a terrible student within an academic context, and spent all my time playing guitar, transcribing music I loved, and composing. After scraping through my degree I thought it would be a great antidote to enroll on a Jazz course, but only lasted six weeks there – I just couldn’t sit in a classroom for another minute! So, many years later, it’s great to be back, studying what I love formally, and on my own terms. To be honest, it’s really just an extension of what I do day to day anyway, but perhaps there’s something about the academic environment which makes you question your motives a bit deeper, helps to focus your practice a little. It’s just a shame that time moves so fast – I feel like I’m just getting started!
One thing that we definitely think helped bring your work through the many entries in the call is its very strong and distinctive voice. Do you feel like you have a ‘personal style’ in your composing? Could you describe your own style to us?
Ha! Tough question. In a way, I’m the worst person to ask – better for people to listen and make their own mind up. And what’s more – I’m aware this sounds a little evasive, perhaps pretentious, but it’s true – if we’re talking about the very voice of a music, and not just the superficial surface elements that help convey it (as meaning is to a sequence of syllables), music is what I use to say the things I can’t say with words – so of course I can’t tell you here what they are…
One thing we felt about your music was that there was a sense of lightheartedness and playfulness – at times joy – that came through really strongly in the pieces we heard. Is this something you agree with? Do you seek out these characteristics purposefully, or are they just a byproduct of other focus in your work?
There’s definitely a particular kind of energy and excitement I enjoy feeding into my music – perhaps this can be joyful at times – and sometimes it can be lighthearted, but I’m not sure I’d call this a general characteristic: my music is not always difficult, but I think lightheartedness is the wrong word. I strive to give all my music an immediacy about it, regardless of whether its message is simple, or very complex. But hell, who am I to say, really.
Could you tell us a bit about other projects you have going on in 2016/2017?
Well, this year I’m very lucky to be part of two great composer schemes: firstly, I’m writing a piece for bassoon and ensemble as part of the LSO Soundhub, which will be premiered at St Luke’s in February next year; secondly, I’ve been working with the East London Community Band through the Adopt A Composer scheme, on a new piece called ‘Barricades’, for a premiere on October 8th in Bethnal Green – two very different projects, both of which have kept me extremely busy. Finally, I also have a series of EPs of chamber music old and new that I’m in the process of releasing, three of which feature the master keyboard skills of the Riot Ensemble’s very own Adam Swayne – so keep your ears peeled for that!
Update! The EPs have now been released and may be found on Lee’s Bandcamp page.
With our July concert just round the corner, we asked Talkestra conductor Steve Dummer to give us the lowdown on clarinets, Cabaret, and the importance of supporting new music…
1 – Tell us a little bit about your involvement with new music.
I’ve been involved with playing new music since college and I feel very strongly that all performers should be enthusiastic about getting involved in it. It’s such a cool thing to do! As well as being a clarinet player I’m also a conductor and I try to programme as much new music as I can when the opportunity arises. I started Talkestra to attract reluctant concert goers and I found that ‘new ears’ were often more captivated by new music as long as the music was good, played well and they were given a few explanations as to why, how and when. Much of my work now is with amateur groups where there is often a reluctance to take on new pieces but many of the reasons are very understandable. The reluctance doesn’t necessarily come from a dislike of the music, more an irritation at unreasonable demands, unthoughtful part writing or just simply bad music. As conductor of the Horsham Symphony Orchestra, we’ve played quite a lot of new scores including Lutoslaswski’s ‘Mi Parti’ which they really enjoyed doing and we commissioned a symphony from your very own Julian Broughton, a fabulous piece that went down very well with both players and audience. The thing that marks both of those pieces out is they were really enjoyable for everyone to rehearse after a day’s work.
2 – What was it that got you into music originally, and what drew you to performing?
I started playing the piano when I was 10 and the clarinet at 12 but it wasn’t until I joined the West Sussex Youth Concert Band at 15 that gave me the bug to take it seriously and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I thought it as a career worth pursuing. I went to Guildhall as a clarinet player and then Royal College of Music as a conductor but I would say the biggest influence on my performing life was being in Itchy Feet, a very zany jazz band. We played for weddings, parties, pubs – all that sort of thing and it still makes me smile to think of it. We haven’t played for years now but a reunion is often spoken of.
3 – Most glorious live experience? And most hideously embarrassing?!
Most of the most memorable live performances have been with amateurs where the result is way higher than it was supposed to be – a bit like Leicester City. There was a Percy Grainger concert I conducted at Dartington a few years ago with professionals taking the first half (Green Bushes, Random Round for six pianists on two pianos – I was no.6!), then the all-comers orchestra in the second half playing all the well known lollipops (Shepherd’s Hey, Molly on the Shore, Handel in the Strand etc). By its nature an all-comers orchestra isn’t going to be particularly balanced but this one was spectacularly unbalanced in having eighteen oboes! One of the pieces we did was Harvest Hymn which has an oboe solo at the start. The sound of eighteen of them playing it was astonishing (in a good way!). The whole event was cracking. John Woolrich, who was Artistic Director at the time, said “when you realise it’s not the Vienna Phil it’s actually better!”.
Most hideously embarrassing was being in the stage band for Cabaret. The director wanted us to be dressed as women in a subversive, 1930’s Berlin nightclub kind of way. But we ended up looking like Hinge and Bracket. My mum brought one of her friends (who hadn’t seen me for many years) to see it. A bit strange meeting her after the show. We ordered a pizza for backstage one night and missed one of our cues. I remember the director walking down the corridor in the interval to tell us off but had to walk away because he started to laugh. There are photos but I don’t seem to be able to find them now…
4 – What was the last piece of music you listened to?
I occasionally get a bit concerned that my listening habits are governed by work rather than pleasure but that still means listening to some great music. Horsham Symphony Orchestra have got a great programme together for next year including Berg’s Violin Concerto so it’s been great fun getting back into other Berg and also Schoenberg and Webern. I’ve also started to go to opera a bit more and I went to see The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne last weekend. Fabulous music that I haven’t listened to for many years so it was a real pleasure.
5 – Are there any exciting projects you’re involved in at the moment that we should know about?
Recently I’ve quite enjoyed being involved in other people projects rather than doing my own but I’m starting to get itchy for doing something new. But the favourite project that I’m involved at the moment is Kidenza, a group that plays concerts for children. Not much chance of playing new music but I get to work with some great players, I can mess about a bit in the concerts and I’m normally home by 6.00.
6 – Talkestra will be playing a whole programme of works by NMB composers on July 2nd. Do you think there’s any unifying thread, a sound, that connects these works, or perhaps defines the Brighton compositional scene in general? What can we expect from the concert?
I’m not sure I can tell a particularly ‘Brighton’ sound or a unifying thread. Some of the composers have written for me before so maybe they have that in mind. There isn’t anything that’s overwhelmingly ‘experimental’ but there’s plenty of imagination in what the combination of instruments can achieve. I’m always amazed at how much composing is actually happening and Brighton is so vibrant in that respect. It’s always a pleasure to be involved with NMB which I have great admiration for. Val and Juliet are cracking players, both of whom I’ve worked with before but never all together so it’ll be great fun for us – and hopefully for the composers and the audience.
Talkestra perform a full programme of music by NMB composers on 2nd July @ Friend’s Meeting House, Brighton, 2.30pm. Visit the event page for more info:
Leading up to the performance of his ‘Impromptus’ by Claudia Racovicean in NMB’s first concert of 2016, composer Ric Graebner indulges us with a bit of Q&A…
These are the middle movements of 4 Impromptus I wrote as a set in 2012. Their starting point is one or other of the 8 Schubert Impromptus (D899&935). I was interested in the mixed impression these gave of improvisation while at the same time referring usefully to familiar traditional forms for overall coherence. When I started writing my own impromptus I did not , as it happens, have the Schubert scores at hand so I was remembering or misremembering bits I found salient or interesting and elaborating them my own way, usually changing the character of the original beyond recognition. The first impromptu based on D899 No.4 (Ab minor) retains some of the spirit and rippling virtuosity of the original.
#2 is mainly based on D935 No.2 – you hear fragments of it in the left hand at the beginning against a faster figure in the right hand obscurely reminiscent of D899 No.1 (C minor), which is incidentally my favorite – rather Mahleresque, and Schubert’s most orchestral. This comes as a contrast to the virtuosity, and sometimes density, of (my) #1. It is essentially a slowish movement but with mercurial speed and character changes from time to time. These mood switches, as opposed to the thematic material, are mostly inspired by Schubert’s D899 No2 in Eb major which starts off as a rather complacent salon number, but breaks unexpectedly into an angry outburst.
#3 breaks away entirely from the spirit of its model (D899 No3 in Gb major), a lyrical rather Liebestraumy affair, loved by pianists because it reminds them of Chopin or Liszt and gives them scope to be ‘expressive’. My own version removes the mellifluous accompaniment figure, leaving the bare bones of Schubert’s melodic outline and has a rather sinister character, more of a Liebesnightmare, with discontinuous textures, disruptions and interruptions. It is essentially an even slower movement than #2 but as the interior detail develops there is a seething sense of repressed activity behind the façade. That said, my own take is probably closer to Schubert’s sense of his piece than most people recall. One remembers the nice opening tune but not the disturbing middle section with its unpredictable modulations and growling bass trills.
2 – When was it written, and what were the major challenges, if any, in writing the piece?
2012. For me, the major challenge writing solo piano pieces is making them playable. This may seem an odd remark, since the piano is my own first instrument (I have also played oboe and percussion in the past, and other keyboards) but during the basic composing stage I don’t want what I know is feasible to get in the way of the ideas I want to express. So my method now is to just start off by writing what I think I want, then sort out the practicalities afterwards – mainly by playing my pieces through repeatedly until satisfied I could perform them myself, with the necessary practice. There is always a way, often with only having to make minor adjustments. The other basic challenge with the piano is that dynamic control of notes is limited to the initial attack (as with harp, guitar or pitched percussion) so that sustaining a sound, which comes naturally on winds and strings, has to be avoided, or faked with arpeggiation, trills or other forms of ongoing movement. An alternative is to acknowledge the piano as basically a percussive instrument (which is the case with my finale, Impromptu #4) but over a long period that can be very limiting and monotonous. So the overall creative challenge, arising from all the points made above, is to achieve a variety of texture, without sounding like a piano reduction of an orchestral score (i.e. a piano piece that really wants to be something else) or falling into the various piano-writing clichés that have accumulated in the repertoire because of the constraints imposed by the instrument.
3 – How/why/when did you develop an interest in composition?
I think it was Thea Musgrave who remarked tartly to some up-and-coming young thing “Well if you are a composer, bloody well compose”. Her point was there is too much posture and attitude, and not enough of the activity. My first written down piece was ‘Walz’ [sic] when I was 4 and interested in the act of writing as such, so music notation (I had just started piano lessons) seemed as natural as writing letters of the alphabet. It’s only later that you realise society considers it a rather bizarre and specialized practice and there are these arty people called ‘composers’. After an early start, precocious but scarcely prodigious – I was no Korngold or Mendelssohn – I developed very slowly. Unfortunately I never had the benefit of a formal composition teacher who could, as I have subsequently realised, have provided a useful entrée to the professional compositional world, and, in passing, have hinted at some short-cuts to certain things I only discovered much later on my own, by constantly studying scores of earlier composers. Also while I was trying to find my own voice, there was a range of opposing fashions – serialism, minimalism, what you might call texturism, crossover multiculturalism, etc.. You had to belong to one camp or another to have credibility, perhaps more among other composers or critics than the public at large. Even electronic music which should simply be a means to an end had the aura of a stylistic genre for many, as though it was only respectable to generate certain kinds of sound or a certain type of music using that medium. Probably similar pressures exist for young composers today. The advantage of being an old composer is that you can forget fashion and get on with what you want to do.
4 – Who are your most important musical influences?
Pretty much every significant composer from J.S.Bach onward. Often the influence is some abstract quality such as flexible part-writing or springing a surprise in a Haydn quartet. Less commonly, it might be some actual musical idea which I have an appetite to transform or incorporate in some way (as in the Impromptus). Paradoxically, the composers who influence me most are the ones my musical surfaces resemble least, perhaps because I am too familiar with them to let references slip in carelessly.
5 – How long have you been a member of NMB?
6 – Do you have any other upcoming events that you’d like us to know about?
Musicians of All Saints 2015-16 Concert series – Concert 4
Saturday February 27th 2016 7.45pm
All Saints Centre
Musicians of All Saints
Steve Dummer – clarinet
Honegger Pastorale d’été
Mozart Violin Concerto No.2
Ric Graebner Clarinet Concerto
clarinet and Strings FIRST PERFORMANCE
Haydn Symphony No.24 in D major
About Ric Graebner…
Ric Graebner’s recent compositions include many for electronic and mixed media, variously incorporating dance, images and film. A review said of the Venus in Landscape CD “Brilliant, and really musical works for electronics, composed and realised by Ric Graebner. No trace here of random meaningless noise so often associated with electronic music.” He has been internationally broadcast and performed by ensembles such as Lontano, the Arditti Quartet, Quatuor Elysée, etc He also performs as pianist and conductor. www.ricgraebner.co.uk