Meet the Composer: Lee Westwood

After a year spent pushing their music in new directions, four of our LSO Soundhub Phase I composers will be presenting their work in a showcase concert at LSO St Luke's on 19 June. Today we talk to Lee Westwood

Tell us a little about your background as a composer.

For many years, my relation to composition was predominantly through the guitar. Ever since I could hold down a couple of chords, I was writing my own tunes in one form or another, be they songs, music for bands, or solo guitar pieces. So alongside composing, I've spent the past 10 years making a living as a performer too. Although the guitar is still my main musical outlet when I'm on stage, since around 2009 the focus for me has shifted quite dramatically away from the guitar and more exclusively to composing, which has been a hugely liberating thing.

In terms of study, I never attended a music college of any sort (although just last year I began a PhD with Martin Butler at Sussex University). All of my musical education has been through playing, through self-educating, learning something from everyone I meet, and through sporadic private tuition in different shapes and forms over the years.

Recently, in addition to my own musical projects and bands, I've been lucky to work with some great players and ensembles, including the New Music Players, percussionist Joby Burgess, Workers Union Ensemble, MusArc, The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge, Riot Ensemble, members of Notes Inégales, and pianist Adam Swayne, among others.

What was it that attracted you to the Soundhub scheme?

It seems to me that composers in the UK are fairly lucky in that there are quite a number of opportunities to become involved in commissioning/development schemes. The LSO Soundhub scheme has a reputation for being one of the best of these, so naturally it's very exciting to be on board this year. 

Soundhub provides a platform to work closely with top instrumentalists in developing a new work, as well as access to LSO rehearsals and some really great rehearsal and recording facilities, as well as marketing and social media tools. On top of this, I think it's fair to say that the LSO Soundhub can add a lot of weight to your CV when you're starting out as a composer. The combination of these makes it a very attractive programme.

Are there any particular themes ideas or techniques you explore in your music?

Almost all of my work at present looks at the idea of focus, how that can be applied to musical material, and most notably how it can be used to evoke a sense of revelation about the nature or the identity of the thing you're listening to. This might take the form of quite heterophonic musical textures, things moving in and out of clarity or definition. Quite a simple example of this is the piece Contours (see music player below). The two voices follow the same basic melodic outline, but approach it in their own way, with unique nuances and inflections which create a sort of softening of the line in between the resting unison pitches.

This movement in and out of focus also seems to call on gradual processes a lot, as a means of traveling from state A (blur) to state B (focus), or vice versa. In my most recent work, ...and the stars were like pinpricks in the black fabric of night... (again, see music player below), this can be seen in the gradual shift from a piano-centric score with subtle colours from the winds and strings, to an ensemble-led melody highlighted gently by the piano. Once again, heterophony played a big part, this time explicitly in a rhythmical sense: the spatial score allowed a free distribution of these repeated-note figures, offering the most flexible way I could think of to create a fluctuating sense of pulse or meter.

I'm really trying to simplify my musical language and my musical structures as much as possible at the moment too, so things are there because they're essential, integral, and to make the most out of the smallest, most economic of musical material. I think this goes hand in hand with moving away from composing in quite an intuitive, 'pure-music' sort of manner, and towards building each piece around a more conceptual framework.

What other projects are you currently working on?

For the last few years I've been very busy with a project called A Hidden Order, which I run with the geometer Sama Mara. We've been looking at the relationship between music and geometry, and have been very lucky to see the project exhibit internationally in some big galleries during its very first year out in the world. You can see a little taster from this project in the video below.

download video

Watch the video for Octagon I for flute and marimba 

At the moment, I'm coming to the end of Sound and Music's Portfolio scheme, through which I wrote a new vibraphone piece for percussionist Joby Burgess. This was performed in January at the National Portrait Gallery.

I'm also very excited to be on this year's Adopt A Composer scheme, working with the East London Community Band (a wind, brass and percussion ensemble) on a new work for their Summer 2016 programme.



You can find out more about Lee on his website, or follow him on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, or Twitter. Better yet, hear his final work at the Soundhub Phase I Showcase at LSO St Luke's on Sunday 19 June 2016.