Composer of the week: David Lancaster
David Lancaster is Head of Music at York St John University and composer-in-residence with Laudamus Chamber Choir and with the EYMS Band.
David first encountered contemporary music when as a young cornet player he took part in a performance of Harrison Birtwistle's 'Grimethorpe Aria' at a brass band summer school. Music studies at York and Cambridge Universities and at Dartington Summer School (with Peter Maxwell Davies) followed, along with a period as Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse. He gained a number of important awards including Lloyds Bank Young Composer Award, Michael Tippett Award, LCM Centenary Prize and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Composer Award; the Parke Ensemble presented a London concert series of his work and in May 2011 there was a retrospective concert devoted to his work at York St John University.
David’s recent work includes music for choir, string quartet and several song cycles, such as Memory of Place (which sets poetry by the York-based poet Daniela Nunnari and which has recently been issued on CD on the Meridian label). David’s choral work Fallen, originally composed for Canterbury Cathedral, was used in a documentary made for Sky Television and his band piece On Ilkley Moor – based on the grisly tale of Yorkshire’s famous folksong – was first performed in November 2011 in Ilkley and has since been recorded.
In August 2012 City of Kings will receive its first performance as part of the York 800 celebrations, and in September Mosquito for wind quintet will receive its premiere performance as part of the prestigious Late Music concert series by Souza Winds.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the new work to us?
David Lancaster: It is called Mosquito, not after the buzzing insect (which I’ve learnt to avoid when I work in Malaysia) but after the device which emits ultrasonic noise to disperse young people – you find them outside shops, giving out a signal that only people under the age of around 23 can hear. I collaborated with conceptual artist Rory Macbeth a few years ago for an exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery which was all about how art has been used to portray class distinction in British culture; Rory asked me to transcribe the sound of the Mosquito – very much slowed down and lowered in pitch – for live performance. Since then I have often thought about turning this simple transcription into a fully-developed composition but when I discovered that the manufacturer of the Mosquito also produces a device which emits ‘royalty-free classical music’ as a weapon against young people that the idea came to full fruition. The piece begins with the sound of the Mosquito transcription juxtaposed with the opening of Tallis’ ‘Lamentations’ and the music simply unfolds out of that stark alternation.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
DL: No I don’t tend to use the piano. I suppose because I started as a brass player I tend to think more in horizontal terms: lines and phrases. I used to do much more pre-compositional planning than I do now but I suppose that with experience and confidence I have come to trust my instincts much more. The process usually involves one big idea, lots of scribbled notes (both musical and text) on scrap paper and any number of long walks or cycle rides. Actually ‘post- composition’ has become more important to me; I like to finish pieces long before the given deadline so that I can mull over the score, do lots of fine editing and move things around if necessary before it goes off to the performers.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
DL: Not necessarily. I don’t believe that there is only one ‘correct’ interpretation of a piece of music but rather that there are very many possibilities, so I enjoy writing for people I don’t know and discovering what they make of my scores. And also I like hearing second performances of my pieces which differ from the first since each different performer brings a fresh perspective.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
DL: I think it is quite a dark world but there is scope for black humour too! My over-riding preoccupation is to achieve clarity of idea so my ‘sound-worlds tend not to be dominated by textural effect or excessive decoration.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
DL: I’ve always done it, since I first started playing an instrument – it seemed the natural thing to do. There’s an element of problem solving: setting challenges for myself then finding ways to overcome them. But it is also very reciprocal and iterative: I teach student composers at York St John University and find myself immersed in their ideas as well as in my own preoccupations and obsessions, so one piece just leads to another…
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
DL: Birtwistle, above all others. It was his music that first jolted me into an awareness of contemporary music and taught me to follow my own path. There’s so much in his approach to music, landscape, theatre and visual art which mirrors my own thought and practice; he seems to think the way I do. He knows how to write for performers and audiences but without ever compromising to either, and his music still has the capacity to move me emotionally.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
DL: I discovered a couple of weeks ago that my music teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was Mozart! So it would have to be Wolfgang Amadeus since we have so many people in common! I suspect he would have been a good drinking companion although it would probably always be my round. I’ve been round to his houses in Salzburg and Vienna but he wasn’t there…
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
Mask of Orpheus – Birtwistle (I worked on the original production at ENO, playing the voice of Apollo on sampler keyboard).
Symphonies of Winds – Stravinsky
Six Bagatelles for string quartet Op 9 – Webern (who died on 15th September 1945, exactly 15 years to the minute before I was born).
Lollapalooza -John Adams
Fix You – Coldplay
Year of the Dragon – Philip Sparke
Soundtrack to ‘Draughtsman’s Contract’ – Michael Nyman
Memory of Place – David Lancaster (if only for ‘If Wishes are Willows’ and Daniela Nunnari’s wonderful poetry).
If I really must choose one, then let it be the Stravinsky please.
SC: …and a book?
DL: Topology of a Phantom City – Alain Robbe-Grillet (the nearest I’ve come to reading one of my compositions expressed in words!)
DL: Vertigo – Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann at their very best.
SC: … and a luxury item?
DL: I’m torn between my Nikon DSLR and my trusty racing bike, neither of which would be especially useful on the island. But since I don’t want to get sand in my camera I’ll go with the bike, which might at least help me to keep fit.