Composer of the month: David Lancaster
David Lancaster is Head of Department: Performance at York St John University, managing Dance and Theatre degrees along with the Music and Music Production programmes. He is composer-in-residence with Vox Aurum 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. Around 2007 he returned to composing after a long period of silence and has since produced a series of works which again attracted performances around the UK.
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; more recently he has produced an electronic version of this piece as part of a collaborative arts installation project ‘Vestiges of Spirituality’ which has been presented to critical acclaim.
In November 2013 his new orchestral work ‘Strata’ was performed by the Orchestra of Opera North and the sax quartet ‘Swan’ – first heard at Late Music in 2010 – is currently included on a national tour by the Delta Saxophone Quartet.
David’s new piece Sciamachy for soprano saxophone and piano will be performed at the next LM concert (Saturday 5th April) by the Sam Corkin and Timothy End. In May his ‘Echoes from the Phantom City’ for flute, viola and harp will be played by La Mer trio.
On June 14th David’s major choral piece Apocalypse will be performed in the Chapel at York St John University as part of York’s Festival of Ideas.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the works to us?
David Lancaster: Sciamachy is an evolution of two former pieces, both of which involve saxophone; I originally wrote Suspense for a student to play on soprano sax in 2008. That music later formed the basis of my sax quartet Swan and the music in this concert is the latest incarnation of those ideas, with a new piano part built around an enhanced version of the original melodic material. There’s a slow section followed by a faster section, both based on slowly unfolding processes. In May’s Late Music concert you can hear a trio I composed in 1995. It was performed extensively in London for the next few years but hasn’t been played for a while – I’m looking forward to hearing it again. I programmed the score into Sibelius which was quite tricky owing to the extensive aleatoric sections but I resisted the temptation to change anything. The title is a reference to a wonderfully inventive – if disturbingly violent - novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
DL: I do own a piano but only use it occasionally when composing. I think of my music in terms of linear, lyrical lines and I fear I might lose that if I concentrate too much on the vertical, as I might do playing chords at the piano. I compose everywhere: on the train, sitting at my PC, in the shower – so a piano isn’t always practical. And I’m a terrible pianist in any case! There isn’t a great deal of formal pre-composition these days, but I do keep sketchbooks - Beethoven-style - and ideas evolve gradually and deliberately. In fact there is more ‘post-compositional’ work in my process: I can write quite quickly and then spend time reflecting on what I’ve done, then refining the work in terms of shape, pacing, consistency and so on.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
DL: I do like to write for specific performers but it’s often the context which is more influential at the point of composition. How much detail will be audible, what will the atmosphere be like, how intimate will the performance be, will it be a warm tone, will the sound distort at high volume? But when the music is finished I hand the copies over to the performers, whoever they are, and I’m happy for them to interpret it as they think fit; I like them to take ownership of my work and show me things I didn’t know about. (I also like hearing second performances of my pieces which differ from the first since each new performer or venue brings a fresh perspective to the music).
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
DL: I think it reflects the down-to-earth grittiness – the bleakness at times – of the place I was brought up, but also the warmth of the people around me. I’m a little bit schizophrenic: my music often inhabits extremes of calm/desolation or energy/violence but I see them as different aspects of the same thing: I’ve recently heard a performance of my orchestral piece Strata where the two are starkly juxtaposed. Some people tell me that my music inhabits a very dark sound world, others tell me that they hear a black humour – and they’re probably both right!
SC: What motivates you to compose?
DL: Performances: I love the act of musical performance – its inherent ritualistic theatricality - and I particularly enjoy hearing my work come to life in rehearsal. When I don’t have a performers’ deadline in my diary I can sometimes find it quite difficult to finish pieces.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
DL: Oh that’s difficult! John Adams and Harrison Birtwistle, Gavin Bryars and Arvo Part. Very different musicians but all seeming more concerned with clarity than with decoration. But I like to discover ‘new’ composers and at Late Music concerts often find myself more drawn to the work of young or local composers which speaks with unadorned immediacy: I have a low tolerance threshold for anything that smacks of pretentiousness.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
DL: And that’s an even harder question – there are so many to choose from and their beer drinking preferences are not always well documented. I’d love to meet Thomas Tallis, or JS Bach, Varese, Webern or Stravinsky but I can’t imagine they’d be the best drinking partners, and Gesualdo might be risky too. I’m going to pick Bernard Herrmann who was a fabulous composer of concert music in addition to his film scores. I’ve always had a high regard for his music and would be fascinated to talk about his many collaborations.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
DL: Must I? I don’t particularly like lists of pieces. There was one in The Times last year – ‘20 classical pieces you must hear’ – and they missed out Purcell, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Messiaen and so many other important composers and in fact everyone since Britten. The elitist notion of a ‘canon’ of ‘great works’ is surely discredited by now, since by definition it relegates everything else to some sort of artistic ‘second division’, which is ridiculous. If we all thought like that there could be no Late Music and probably nothing this side of Classic FM. So there are very many pieces I wouldn’t want to live without, and here are eight of them:
1. Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms;
2. Herrmann: Vertigo soundtrack;
3. John Adams: Lollapalooza;
4. Arvo Part: Fratres (for string quartet);
5. Bruckner: Os Justi;
6. Sibelius: Tapiola;
7. Birtwistle: Grimethorpe Aria;
8. Webern: Six Bagatelles.
And if I need to choose just one I will pick the Birtwistle, since that was the piece which first fired my passion for new music and composing, sending me on this exciting journey.
SC: …and a book?
DL: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter. I love the fantastical theatricality of Carter’s writing and her ability to move so fluidly between the sublime and the grotesque.
DL: Pandora’s Box, the film of Wedekind’s plays made by GW Pabst in 1929, famously starring Louise Brooks. One of my long-term project ideas is to compose a new score to perform live, so extended exposure to the film on your desert island would be useful.
SC: … and a luxury item?
DL: I’m assuming that manuscript paper/pen is a necessity rather than a luxury item, therefore automatically included! In that case I’m torn between my camera, my bike and my box of ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards. On reflection I think I’ll take the cards since they would offer some innovative suggestions to help tackle all of the problems I would encounter on the island, and there would be one for each day of the year so they would hopefully sustain my interest until I am rescued.