Picking a battle: How to find the right subject matter

The first step for any artist is working out what to write about. Ahead of the world premiere of her new piece Consumption LSO Soundhub Composer Lillie Harris leads us through what the process was like for her.

PLillie Harris LSO Soundhub 2018 035 webart of the reason I was so thrilled to stay on into my second year with Soundhub (apart from the incredible resources offered as part of LSO’s composer development programmes) was I knew exactly the piece I wanted to write.

Well, maybe not ‘exactly’, but pretty close – I knew what the crucial ingredient was going to be, that I’d be writing a piece with an emotional core, addressing a social and political issue.

Pieces don’t necessarily need to be ‘about something’ of course. Lots of them aren’t. Earlier this year, I wrote a new piece without a clear narrative or emotional idea. ‘This will be a fun challenge,’ I had thought naively, like someone about to discover a crippling fear of heights at the top of a bungee-jump. ‘What a great learning opportunity!’

Reaching the end of that particular work took me to some unpleasant places which I have no desire to revisit. And I’ve learned, (much like the bungee jumper might) that an important part of my composer-self requires a clear emotional or narrative purpose. No ifs, no buts.

So my initial plan for this second year of Soundhub was to write a piece about social and economic inequality, and the frustration of waiting for unequal systems to change. It was inspired by the incredibly moving BBC Panorama episode about health inequality. I had scribbled down my feelings straight away like a diary, outlining the ‘characters’ I wanted to embody in the differing musical ideas, then refining them, excitedly describing how the opposing musical ideas would influence (or rather, not influence) one other.

But as days started to trickle by, I found myself oddly reluctant to get going, despite my initial passion about the piece. I realised that I was nervous about telling a story that’s so very personal for many people. My own experience has been relatively fortunate: ‘The System’ wasn’t an antagonist for me when I was growing up. Student loans notwithstanding, I didn’t really feel equipped with enough first-hand experience to do justice to a piece about this particular inequality.

After some deliberation, I found a story that I feel informed enough to tell: the story of humans and the natural world – and more specifically, our relentless battering of it.

My initial plans had centred around two opposing voices, and with the shift in focus, they made even more sense; the domineering voice ploughing relentlessly on doing whatever it wanted, and the other, desperately trying to get its attention. As the recent flood of articles about the environment came through, reinforcing in ever more pessimistic language the reality of the situation we are in, I felt emboldened by my choice.

IMG 2903So the title became Consumption, which is a play on the literal consumption of natural resources, but also the historic term for tuberculosis: a nasty, infectious disease that consumes the life and vitality of sufferers. The opposing material in the piece became, on the one hand, the natural world – full of variety, space, and little, flitting fragments that formulate a natural chaos, with tiny relationships developing between players and ideas, as well as moments of unison, where ecosystems breathe together; and on the other hand, the human capitalist economy: relentless, unending, rhythmic, and increasingly toxic.

As part of the Soundhub scheme, you get to have workshops with LSO players to find out about how to write for their instruments, and learn about extended techniques. My first workshop with the players was incredibly helpful, and I have just now finished the delightful process of refining my initial draft, bringing out the elements that will help tell this story and pack the emotional and musical punch that it deserves.

Art can inspire people in ways facts cannot, as Ben Twist, Director of Creative Carbon Scotland, describes in his excellent TED talk, Why the arts are essential in addressing climate change. 

I’m not a climate scientist, but I am a composer. And if I can write a piece that strikes the emotional core of the unprecedented losses we are facing as a result of our rampant consumerism, then I might be able to make a difference.

Hear the world premiere of Consumption at the LSO Soundhub Phase II Showcase on Saturday 9 February at LSO St Luke's. Click here to find out more and book tickets.