Meet the Composer: Oliver Leith

After a year spent pushing their music in new directions, four of our LSO Soundhub Phase I composers will be presenting their work in a showcase concert at LSO St Luke's on 19 June. For the final installment of our Meet the Composer series, we present Oliver Leith …

Tell us a little about your background as a composer.

I accidentally started making music at primary school – the background for a show I used to record at an after-school club reciting terrible jokes and songs in a lovely dress – using a video camera, I could (sort of) primitively multi-track by filming the TV whilst playing back the feed and just keep layering in the background (I think I was trying to give the impression that more people were involved, oddly something I’m still pursuing). I could say I was interested in the degradation of sound, but I would be projecting that onto past me. I think I was just playing.

Much later, I was encouraged to write notated music by brilliant people in sixth-form. In order to hear these sounds I'd work within the schools means. One of my first pieces was a little piece for ten of those amazing educational glockenspiels that you can reorder and remove the pitches from. I think it was called pleasant tinnitus. Jazz was big at the school so I cut my teeth on instrumental writing with a bizarre big band chart for my first love. I was, and, still am trapped in a permanent false nostalgia for composers and their romantic image. I felt like this was a swooping/grand gesture but, in reality, a strange gift between teenagers. In my final year of school I was asked to write a piece for the Handel festival at the Rosemary Branch pub (a great but overpriced spot!). Hearing my music was and still is an irreplaceable joy that I've been chasing since. I veered away from my performance ambitions; in a whole other life I was convinced I'd be a guitarist.

I studied composition at Guildhall with Julian Philips, though, I did very little work until my final year of undergraduate where he encouraged a change. I had this great experience with Exaudi, setting fantastic Kerouac poems from Mexico City Blues and it was then I remembered that I did actually want to write music. Having flitted away a few years submitting awful Fux counterpoint, I wanted to learn (quite) a bit/a lot more so I attended the Guildhall School again for my masters degree with Paul Newland (2013–14). I spent time in Paris with an ensemble from the conservatoire where I had the terrifying experience of conducting a moment of Rebecca Saunders' music – I am no mover so conducting is a tricky one. I then participated on the Sound and Music Next Wave scheme, and so the London Sinfonietta and Lore Lixenberg recorded a work (Hand Coloured) for NMC, reimagining anonymous works from Roman de Fauvel.

download video

Listen to Hand Coloured, performed by the London Sinfonietta

In the same year I was lucky enough to receive an RPS composition prize. I also had the opportunity to work with plusminus ensemble, Opera North orchestra and my first dip into dance with the London Contemporary Dance School. 2014 was a very busy year and the most music I'd ever written and, as intense things do, the degree ended too soon and the void of real life loomed. So…

once again, I attended Guildhall but as a composition fellow (2014–15) and, with help from Richard Baker, I completed an opera (Isabella with a libretto by Rebecca Hurst) which had performances in Budapest, Milton Court and the Royal Opera House. Opera feels like something I should try again. I felt very lost in that big machine but it’s extremely seductive. Surtitles were off the menu for the opera and it was their absence that led me to the idea of the piece I’m writing for Soundhub, which uses surtitles as a material. I also completed (among other things) a work for the Philharmonia, Craquelure where my love for detail and defacing old things peaked.


I've been clean from Guildhall for one year now and things are good. I'm working on shaking off my Oedipal feelings towards my alma mater. September has only just become the middle of the year to me. Though it might be odd to have remained so still as part of the furniture – it is a great place. In the real world, it’s harder (chasing that dragon) being a composer but I’m constantly inspired by the many great and positive things happening with young composers at the moment – particularly the collectives and curators. There is bucket loads of great new music – things feel healthy and generous.

What was it that attracted you to the Soundhub scheme?

How often does a composer have the chance to suggest a project to one of the world's best orchestras, utilising its players, facilities, tech and all the cogs. I've attended most of the Soundhub concerts and have always been struck by the ambition and inventiveness at play. It feels like you are given the trust of direction that might only be afforded to someone with 30 more years under their belt and a book of press clippings.

I've had ambitions to return to my younger, more curious self and begin exploring mixed mediums. Soundhub offered a chance to experiment and make mistakes with professionals. From the start you are told that you needn't finish a piece but, instead, present your work at whichever stage it is at – a liberation that oddly spurs you on further to complete a piece. 

Are there any particular themes ideas or techniques you explore in your music?

I am very interested in presenting the very interesting (to me). I use sounds that I find fascinating. Quite a lot of my music starts its life as a visual idea or process – whether it’s simply a shape or something that can be seen- most of my time is spent thinking about a translation between these two words. The reason I’ve been keen to begin mixing formats is that I want to have an output that isn’t just abstracted music – I’ve got things I want to say with art now. Recently, I’ve also been thinking about equipmental extensions to instrumental technique, making objects that make a particular playing technique that might be impossible or impractical into idiomatic things creating rather alien sounds. A material that informs the material.

What other projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on quite a few bits and pieces at the moment. The bits are for me and the pieces are for others – one I’m particularly excited about is a miniature piece for The Ives Ensemble and Lore Lixenberg, both brilliant. I’ve also been devising bits of large scale organisations of material in the hope that I’ll one day be trusted with lots and lots of people to make music that sounds like Hieronymus Bosch.


The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch

You can find out more about Oliver from his website, or you can follow him on Soundcloud and Twitter. Better yet, hear his final work at the Soundhub Phase I Showcase at LSO St Luke's on Sunday 19 June 2016.