On Thursday 31 March at LSO St Luke's, the six composers of the 2020/21 LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme will experience a pivotal point in the process of writing a new piece for orchestra: for the very first time, their musical ideas will be performed by the full forces of the London Symphony Orchestra, and opened up to guidance and feedback from musicians, mentors and peers. Ahead of these free, public workshop sessions, we caught up with the composers to hear about their music and time on the Scheme so far.
Tell us a little bit about your piece, and the ideas and inspirations behind it.
Stef Conner: 'When I started out writing for the LSO Panufnik Scheme, I was interested in exploring ancient Greek tonal systems and Sapphic verse forms, which sounds a bit acadmic, but it actually led me to an idea that called to mind memories of rock festivals. The strumming of a lyre reminded me of progressive death metal! I wanted to use the vast timbral possibilities of the orchestra (and spectral analysis) to emulate some of the aggressive, distorted sounds of death metal, combining that with driving rhythms of sped-up ancient Greek metre. If I was only allowed one word to describe that piece, it would probably have been ‘fun’.
Unfortunately, my life suddenly changed during the scheme, and I found myself facing extreme personal circumstances, which made me feel unable to compose at all. Thanks to a great deal of support, patience, and flexibility from everyone involved in organising the Scheme, mentors, Colin Matthews and Christian Mason, and the part copyist, Alastair Putt, I managed to continue the piece, which transformed significantly from my original idea. I used Jungian techniques of active imagination to reconnect with my creative impulses and had a powerful dream-like visualisation. I witnessed the world melting around me, like a time-lapse video of rotting fruit, and felt that if I stared straight into this terrifying vision, I could see that within the degradation and destruction, everything was somehow shimmering and alive. I completed the piece by subjecting the death-metal-inspired visceral, grooving, slightly predictable materials to a process of entropic transformation. As the materials transform from grounded familiarity to intensely chaotic energy, the piece reaches towards a different part of the psyche, beneath the constructed self. It becomes about feeling an energy without relating that feeling to past experiences or precedents. At least, that’s what I felt when I was composing it. Listening will of course be another matter!'
Alex Paxton: 'This piece is named after a piece of art of mine called Love Yous Bus-Eyed (pictured below). I made this while writing the piece. I wrote this short orchestral piece with a gushing-urge kind of feeling. I remember wanting to get it down quite quick and desperately. I often plan out creative activities in a certain way so that I can preserve the spontaneity of the original musical drive/feeling/idea whilst I write through the rest of the score (which takes longer). Other than that I found the process satisfyingly thoughtless and instinct-led.
Though the piece is entirely abstract on one level, I am also aware of some word-based ideas that I often think about in my work and hold presence in this piece. Firstly a kind of sonic 'world-building’ vibe. Maybe a kind of surreal fantasy, computer game utopia/dystopia with some wonderful things that would be made out of fibre glass in our world but here are made from genetically exciting organic matter. Also some stuff from our own world but in a different world. Maybe like escapism-ecstasy mixed in with a reflection of many bits of Love/ Terror from our own reality. I also like the idea channeling things like love and eroticism (as well as all the gristle and junk that goes with it) into this piece … especially as its a 'love-song' kind of length (at 3'30).
I love writing for orchestra. I'm very attracted by how to make the orchestra play high energies, to try and write in a way that can access the most exciting and honest musical intelligence inside each of its members. I like thinking about how I can get a symphony orchestra to perform with the same intensity of an Evan Parker solo improv or maybe a painting by Ody Saben. I like fantasising around in the idea of orchestra as a special-futuristic-(Octavia Butler like)-bio-fatasy-super-synth all smurged together in the intelligences of 80 or so humans and their special musical lives.'
Christian Drew: 'My piece Double Chorus is a a loose layering and amalgamation of different musical materials that all developed very slowly and organically throughout the Scheme. Most of the woozy, undulating chords are transformations and expansions on the two-note harmonies in my piece See Slow Blue, which was released on the NMC compilation album Six Degrees of Separation alongside pieces by the five other composers on the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme.
The meandering baroque-sounding melodies and ornaments in the muted strings all stem from material I wrote for our harp workshop with Bryn Lewis, LSO Principal Harp, which later became a piece called Parlour Music for my friend, harpist Cara Dawson. Initially I was thinking of Double Chorus as a simple, clean-cut division of these two types of material, which would be assigned to two separate groups of instruments (ie a double chorus). But when it came to assembling, combining and orchestrating the materials it ended up a lot more amorphous than that, with layers and instruments shifting between roles. In any case, I feel that the double chorus sentiment is still there beneath the surface, and the title might also hint towards all the instrumental doubling and chorus-like sounds (as in the guitar effects pedal) I’ve tried to go for in the orchestration.'
In general how would you describe your compositional style?
Stef: 'It is as influenced by early medieval and traditional as it is by Western notated music. My music is always connected to text, poetry and verbal expression. It's modal, a bit spectral, slightly coloured by contemporary jazz harmony but almost never emulating the sound of jazz. It's intuitive and feeling more than thinking.'
Alex: 'It's kind of like this; like minimal but loads more notes, like video-games but with more song, like old music but more current, like yummy sweet but more stick, like paint but more scratch, like tapestry but filthily, like prayer but more loud, like loud groove and more rude, like fingers and faces too but somehow more smelly, like smelly things cooking with more chew and change, like louder prayers that groove with like stinking-hot-pink in poo-brown but even more desperate-like than that, like drums and dream music …'
'I try to make very-magic sounding stuff. I try to make every moment as sonically sensual as possible. My music is indebted to all the people who have created, improvised and composed all the music I have ever listened to, ever.'
Christian: 'I compose intuitively, by ear, doing a lot of improvising on keyboards, guitar and voice. Recently I’ve been trying to tap into whatever music seems to be leaking from my sub-conscious at the time. In this instance it’s off-kilter baroque ornaments and lounge-y jazz harmonies.'
How has your music and work been affected by the pandemic?
Stef: 'The disruption to hospitals as a result of the pandemic, and the enforced separation that went along with that, has been devastating to my family. It’s too soon to talk about impact on work and music: I don’t know yet what kind of person or composer I will be when (if) I’ve processed everything that’s happening now. At the moment I’m grateful to be continuing at all and want to thank everyone involved in the LSO Panufnik Scheme for making that possible.'
Alex: 'I don’t know. I think it has though. I was able to give up the last of my regular day jobs in this period of time. This was such a gift to my creative work as it is so time-consuming … and I want to spend as much time as possible doing it obsessively, because it makes me feel more alive than anything else in the world.'
Christian: 'Like many I lost a lot of work and it’s taken a while to get things going again. In the early months of the pandemic I started making open scored pieces that were designed to be recorded remotely, mostly with other composer-performers. I hadn’t worked with flexible scoring very much beforehand and at the time it was a really nice way to keep in touch with friends and keep making music.'
'I’ve felt incredibly fortunate to take part in the LSO Panufnik Scheme – it’s been a real compositional lifeline for the last year.'
What has been the highlight of the Scheme so far?
Stef: 'I couldn’t pick one – the whole Scheme has been amazing. Writing for brass quintet for the first time and hearing the piece played and recorded by amazing musicians, getting to know the other composers and being inspired by their ideas, working with and learning from Colin and Christian, testing out ideas with wonderful LSO players who care deeply about new music, like David Alberman, being part of this community of incredible music creators, and hearing the beautiful new works by the composers who participated in the last scheme.'
Alex: 'Having my music played by LSO musicians. This is such a privilege. I am very lucky to live in a time where this is possible and where, through fortuitous circumstances, this has been made possible to me.'
Christian: 'Meeting composers! I’ve loved getting to know their music and different ways of working. Colin and Christian have also been incredibly generous with their time and expertise.'
Hear Stef, Alex and Christian's new music performed and workshopped by the LSO and François-Xavier Roth on Thursday 31 March, in the morning session of our free Panufnik Composers Workshops.
Panufnik Composers Workshop (morning session)
Thursday 31 March 2022 10am–1pm, LSO St Luke's
Jonathan Woolgar Symphonic Message – 'Wach auf!'
Stef Conner The Rot and the Shimmering Moss
Alex Paxton Love you's bus-eyed
Christian Drew Double Chorus
François-Xavier Roth conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
Tickets: Free entry, advance booking essential. (No booking fee)
The LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme is generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust.