Composer Alex Roth joined the Panufnik Composers Scheme in 2014 and has continued his time with the LSO as one of the LSO Soundhub Associates. He was commissioned by the LSO Community Choir, formed from people who live or work around the LSO St Luke's area, to write a new piece for their concert this Autumn. Ben Palmer asked him how it was going...
When the call to be commissioned to write a piece for the choir was sent out, what made you decide to apply for it?
Although I'm not a singer myself, the voice has featured quite prominently in the music I've written and/or arranged over the last few years – settings of poems by Yeats and Heaney for the band Blue-Eyed Hawk, or re-imagined Sephardic ballads for electro-acoustic chamber ensemble Sefiroth, for example. When writing for Blue-Eyed Hawk's debut album a couple of years ago I started experimenting with layering vocal tracks on top of each other to create a quasi-choral effect and I had since wanted to take this idea further. The commission for the LSO Community Choir seemed like the perfect opportunity to do this.
Also, on a personal level, I love listening to choral music – there's just something magical about lots of people coming together through song. I remember singing Carmina Burana in my school choir, aged about 11, and sensing that something really powerful was happening. Thinking about it now I realise that was probably one of the experiences that made me want to pursue music; in many ways I'm still trying to achieve that same sense of profound excitement in the music I compose or perform.
Tell us a bit about your piece, such as what inspired you to compose a piece called Elegy.
The commission brief was to set words by an English writer born in the 16th century. Initially I thought of Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Raleigh etc. but something about the language and tone of their poetry didn't sit right with the musical world I had in mind to evoke. Then I came across Chidiock Tichborne's Elegy and knew I'd found the right text. Tichborne, a devout Catholic, had been involved in the Babington plot to overthrow Elizabeth I, who had banned Catholicism, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot was foiled by one of Elizabeth's spies, Francis Walsingham, and those conspirators who hadn't fled quickly enough were arrested and sentenced to death.
On the eve of the Tichborne's execution, from a prison cell in the Tower of London, he wrote a letter to his wife Agnes containing the Elegy, for which he is best remembered today. The emotional directness of the poem, heightened by the extraordinarily tragic circumstances under which it was composed (Tichborne was only 28), had a strong impact on me. This, combined with the simplicity of its language (the poem consists entirely of monosyllabic words) and its structural balance, makes it a very attractive text to set to music. I took quite an instinctive approach to writing the piece, prioritising a sense of atmosphere that I hope will allow the words' emotional content to come to the fore.
Has your time working with the Community Choir been enjoyable?
I've only attended a couple of rehearsals so far – one before I started writing and one after I'd finished – but I got a sense that the members of the choir really enjoy singing together every week. The conductor David [Lawrence] is fantastic at conveying the energy of each piece and his enthusiasm fuels the wonderful sound the choir makes. I'm really looking forward to hearing at the next rehearsal how they've been getting on with my piece, but for me the highlight will be the premiere on 20 November in the beautiful setting of LSO St Luke's.
Would you normally consider yourself to be a jazz composer?
I studied jazz guitar for my Master's degree but my Bachelor's degree was in composition and, although I draw inspiration from the jazz tradition, I don't really self-identify with any one genre exclusively. Even the distinction between "composition" and "performance" I find a bit awkward as I've always thought of these activities as part of the same process, particularly where improvisation is concerned. The blurring of these roles may have been one reason why I gravitated towards jazz in the first place, but I don't think about genre when I'm making music so it doesn't make sense to me to call myself a "jazz musician" (or a "classical" one for that matter). Ultimately I'm interested in all ways of experiencing music – composing, performing, improvising, listening etc – and I just want to derive as much meaning as I can from each.
Do you think you might start composing more choral works after this one, and after your composition last year as part of the Panufnik Composers Scheme, have you any plans for more orchestral works of a similar scale?
I hope I get the opportunity to work with a choir again soon. The process of writing choral music seems to demand a kind of rarefaction of musical language, which I've found quite liberating in this piece. It would be interesting to see how far I could take that in future pieces.
I'd definitely like to write more orchestral music, but the sheer time-scale involved, alongside the range of other projects I'm involved in, means it might be a while before I get the opportunity to do so again.
What was most useful aspect of the Panufnik Scheme for you?
Having never before written for orchestra, I have to admit I found the prospect of composing for the LSO extremely daunting. There were many challenges to overcome, not least the overbearing sense of the weight of all the great music that's been written for orchestra (and even the LSO specifically) over the centuries. (It's a peculiar psychological phenomenon that the very thing that inspires one to attempt a piece of creative work can also stifle one's ability to carry out that work.) It's hard to imagine that I would have attempted such a feat at this point in my career without the kind of support offered by the Panufnik scheme. In that respect, the most useful aspect was probably that it provided me with a supportive context within which to attempt something quite far outside my comfort zone.
Then there was the matter of how to adapt my way of working, which usually involves close collaboration with performers, to fit the orchestral context, where it's not unusual for the composer only to meet the players on the day of the performance (if at all). This was an exercise in communicating every necessary detail on paper – quite a different process from the one I'm used to, but an extremely useful one. In this area, the tutorials with Colin Matthews and Christian Mason, and the sessions with individual LSO players, were invaluable.
What made you choose to stay with the LSO after being invited to join as an LSO Soundhub Associate?
The invitation to join as a Soundhub Associate reflects the LSO Discovery team's dedication to maintaining relationships with composers who participate in its various development schemes, and I was excited at the prospect of becoming part of an artistic community of over 70 other musicians who are between them working on a wide range of fascinating projects. There are regular events for Soundhub composers that I'm looking forward to getting involved with, like workshops in recording techniques and orchestral part-writing. On top of that, we also can also attend LSO rehearsals and concerts, and get access to resources and space at the wonderful LSO St Luke's. These kinds of opportunities can make a real difference.
The LSO Community Choir's and Community Gamelan Group's joint concert takes places on Friday 20 November at LSO St Luke's, and sets Alex's new piece amongst other music with texts from the 16th century. Tickets are £7 (£5 concessions) plus booking fee.