Ahead of their first LSO Jerwood Composer+ events later in April and May, we caught up with Hollie Harding and Des Oliver to talk about their musical backgrounds and composing icons, and to learn what we can expect from their curations.
How did you first get into music and composing?
Hollie: I started out playing the violin (the usual story!), but I guess composing really took over as the main focus through writing songs for the bands I was in, and writing pieces for GCSE and A level coursework. I think composition became my main creative outlet from around 16-17 when I developed severe performance anxiety. I discovered I enjoyed constructing the music and being behind the scenes much more than being onstage… since then it’s been a voyage of discovery!
Des: I came to music relatively late – my first encounters with classical music were during my teenage years, singing in various choirs at school, and I knew then and there that I wanted to be a musician, to immerse myself in that magical world as often as possible. However, I think my fascination with composing came long before I could play or write a note of music. As a young child I would spend hours cutting out pictures of people and objects to create collages that were very different from their original source material, constructing my own narrative. There was something about the architectural process of designing through recontextualization, superimposing familiar gestures in novel ways, that forms an important part of my aesthetic today.
Who do you look up to as a composer?
Hollie: Alwynne Pritchard, because of her uncompromising artistic vision and inexhaustible creative energy. I was lucky enough to meet Alwynne through my undergraduate study at Trinity Laban Conservatoire where she used to teach in 2008. She has been an inspiration ever since.
Des: There are many composers, and works, that I both admire and draw influence from; Tchaikovsky Symphonies, Stravinsky Ballets, the orchestral and quartet works of Bartók, the entire output of Messiaen, and Debussy's piano music, are like my parents and have become my conscience in a way, whose sound-worlds are innately familiar to me. When I close my eyes, theirs is often the music that comes to me.
If you had to recommend just one piece of contemporary music, what would it be?
Des: It’s always difficult to pick just one piece, but I do highly recommend Cycle of Reckoning by multi-instrumentalist Tunde Jegede. It's a dream-like duet for acoustic guitar and kora, which is a West African harp-lute. This is one of Tunde's earlier works, written in 1991, and is the piece that really establishes his musical language. The version from his album Mali in Oak, which contains numerous other beautiful works by him for kora and cello, also includes some magnificent guitar playing by Derek Gripper
Hollie: I recently discovered the enigmatic music of Carola Bauckholt – it’s really fresh, unusual and playful. I’d recommend giving some of her work a listen, particularly Treibstoff (1995). My first event will actually include the UK premiere of her work Doppelbelichtung (Double Exposure)!
Can you tell us a little about the concept behind your first event?
Hollie: My first event considers the complex relationship between humans, sounds and ecology. It includes multi-media works that incorporate, for example, film, field recordings, narrative and spatial sound diffusion, inspiring the audience to explore real and imaginary environments.
There’s a new commission, Feral, which focuses on the concept of re-wilding, in particular re-wilding humans in order to combat ecological boredom and reignite our connection with the natural world. It will include filmed choreography by my collaborator Josh Ben-Tovim and incorporates text and ideas from Geroge Monbiot’s book Feral, rewilding the land, sea and human life.
Des: Last year, I created a 13-part documentary series called Identity and the Anxiety of Influence for the British Music Collection, which featured interviews with a number of BME classical composers and the double bassist and founder of the Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE. I travelled across the country over the course of several weeks to meet each composer – Daniel Kidane, Dominique Le Gendre, Philip Herbert, Tunde Jegede – and I feel privileged not only to have gotten to know their music but also to have made four new friends.
I found the experience so inspiring that I wanted to write a piece responding to these encounters and to the music of these amazing composers. In a sense, I wanted to continue the conversation, but this time via music. A string quartet concert seemed the ideal medium for this, and The Diasporic Quartets will be premiered alongside their music in my first event. Each movement of the piece is dedicated to, and directly inspired by, the musical landscapes of these four composers.
What can audiences expect?
Hollie: The music is for combinations or soloists from a line-up of violin, cello, piano and fixed media. Expect bird-song diffused through suspended violins, filmography and works that incorporate field recordings of natural and man-made environments. The pieces in my first event will stimulate discussion around environmental issues, such as re-wilding, that are becoming increasingly urgent and important to address.
Des: In a word – diversity. The exciting thing about this concert is that each composer has a unique voice. All five of us are influenced by our respective heritages, but choose to explore and express it in very different ways. There are sound worlds which draw on Russian and Eritrean heritage combined with grime and urban music, West African and Western classical, French Caribbean music mixed with 19th and 20th century French classical music, and finally English classical music like Vaughan Williams and Finzi together with African-American spirituals.
Finally, aside from the LSO Jerwood Composer+ Scheme, what is keeping you busy at the moment?
Des: I recently completed a recording of the first three episodes of a new music podcast series with Susanna Eastburn MBE for Sound and Music, produced by Michael Umney. Each episode explores a different creative theme – inspiration, time, and taste. I'm also working on two pieces inspired by ancient mythologies: Greek and Hindu. My other love is film making and I’m in the process of creating a film entitled The Day My Youth Orchestra Died, about the Bedfordshire County Music Service and its youth orchestras, of which I was a member. The film explores the challenges and remarkable successes of the Bedfordshire County Youth Orchestra, which served as a beacon for youth music for over fifty years.
Hollie: I’ve just finished writing a new vocal piece for CoMA Voices called 5 Landscapes for Voices, which will be premiered at CoMA’s Festival of Contemporary Music for All at the Sage Gateshead in March. I’m also working on sketches for my Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize Commission for members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, for workshop in mid February, alongside teaching at Trinity Laban and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Hollie Harding and Des Oliver present their first events as part of the LSO Jerwood Composer+ Scheme this Summer, with music performed by LSO musicians. Tickets available now.
The Diasporic Quartets curated by Des Oliver
Explore the music, ideas and experiences of British-based classical composers from the African diaspora, as composer and filmmaker Des Oliver showcases the music of composers who featured in his landmark online series Identity and the Anxiety of Influence.
Feral: Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding curated by Hollie Harding
Film, field recordings and violin loudspeakers inspire an exploration of real and imaginary environments in this multimedia concert of works considering the complex relationship between humans, sounds and ecology.
LSO Jerwood Composer+ is generously supported by Jerwood Arts.