On Thursday 31 March at LSO St Luke's, the six composers of the 2020/21 LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme will experience a pivotal point in the process of writing a new piece for orchestra: for the very first time, their musical ideas will be performed by the full forces of the London Symphony Orchestra, and opened up to guidance and feedback from musicians, mentors and peers. Ahead of these free, public workshop sessions, we caught up with the composers to hear about their music and time on the Scheme so far.
Tell us a little bit about your piece, and the ideas and inspirations behind it.
Emma-Kate Matthews: 'The base concept is about a train journey and some of it was even written on a train. I was interested in how our perception of perspectival depth changes as we accelerate through a landscape. Though I have flipped the diagram in this instance: When we’re on a moving train we actually feel like we’re static and that the landscape is the thing that’s moving, as reflected in the title of the piece, A Study of Passing Objects in an Accelerating Landscape.
The piece contains a number of spatiosonic (a self-coined word which I use to describe correspondences between spatial and sonic concepts or behaviours) metaphors. It starts with a cross section which cuts through the entire landscape (the music) before the journey begins. A gradual acceleration follows, where objects in the landscape pass at increasing speeds. The objects’ approach is represented by ascending and intensifying musical motifs which descend as they disappear behind us, sometimes staggered in time, to simulate the parallax of our movement relative to objects as they stretch from foreground to background. At the start, the variety and detail of the foreground colours the music. As we accelerate, this detail becomes smeared and lost: the harmonic complexity diminishes and our focus eventually converges on the horizon line: a two-note drone.
I particularly wanted to explore the musical potential within the spatial concepts of distance and direction, exploiting the wider tonal and timbral range of the full orchestra. I also wanted to explore how drawing could become part of the compositional process. I always seem to start my compositions with a drawing, to work out ideas relating to form and relationships between timbral and tonal groups within ensembles. For the LSO Panufnik Scheme, I made a series of 3D digital animated drawings which became helpful in understanding the spatial conditions of phenomena such as parallax and acceleration.'
Patrick John Jones: 'My piece is called Song of a Red Sprite. Red sprites (example pictured below) are luminescent electrical phenomena that appear high above thunderstorm clouds. They look a lot like jellyfish hovering in the sky – bright red-orange bodies with tentacles underneath, extraordinarily vivid and surreal. They were named ‘sprites’, like mythical spirits, because of their elusive nature. My piece is a slowed down transcription of one of their songs.
I don’t really remember if this was the idea I started out with – the beginning of the scheme feels like (and was) a long time ago. In general I start composing a piece without knowing where to start, so I’m pretty sure that would have been the case with this one.'
Chris McCormack: 'fold filament arc echo was inspired by engagement with magic realist writing, in which two or more views of reality are placed side-by-side, as if they were not contradictory. These ideas inform the material oppositions that provide the ignition for the work, and help to drive the ways in which these materials inflect and shape one another.
I think that this is a piece that I have wanted to write for a long time. I love music that causes me to feel uncertain or disoriented, and I have always wanted to create a work that moves very quickly across different types of material, such that local moments of uncertainty or hesitation are created.
I’m possessed of a certain horror vacui, and was fascinated by the way in which the ornate prose of magic realist texts allows the author to effect large narrative shifts. In the development process, I spent a great deal of time investigating how I might use a similarly high information density to assist in creating rapid, ‘plastic’ transformations of musical material.'
In general how would you describe your compositional style?
Emma-Kate: 'My musical and sonic works are eclectic and very often site-specific, or at least heavily informed by a specific space or spatial condition. Throughout all of my compositional projects, I work with a wide-array of sonic inputs which range from field recordings, to self-made electronic tools and instruments, to more traditional acoustic instruments in a classical setting.'
'The LSO Panufnik Scheme has enabled me to consider both the spatiality of the orchestra and the widely-expressive timbral range that’s available within such a rich and varied selection of instruments.'
Patrick: 'Rather than style, my method of composing tends to be sitting at a cheap desk with bad posture, lots of pointless agonising, sometimes involving a [redacted] amount of procrastination!'
Chris: 'I’m very interested in the idea of sound as a plastic object – one which can be manipulated and reshaped, and I think that this materialist mode of thinking shapes a great deal of my work. As well as a composer, I am also a recording engineer, and as I am writing, I will often move between musico-linguistic considerations – the treatment, setting and manipulation of musical objects, and acoustic or timbral considerations more germane to studio practice. This is generally a fluid process, and I often do not know where one mode of thinking ends and the other begins – I have come to understand that it is an integral part of my makeup.
I also have a strong interest in, and focus on rhythm. I have lately been particularly interested in the textural possibilities of rhythm, and where this consideration of rhythm as a textural object can interface with the more familiar idea of rhythm as the articulation of a pulse.'
How has your music and work been affected by the pandemic?
Emma-Kate: 'As I’m sure is the case for most people, many of my projects have been postponed. This is initially quite frustrating, but it has given me much more time to develop thoughts and ideas. I’ve been able to iterate upon drafts and to let ideas percolate for longer than would normally be the case. This extra ‘thinking time’ has given me the chance to be more experimental during my compositional process and more rigorous in the development of tools relating to each of my projects. I’ve also had time to focus on refining much more detailed conceptual frameworks, which helps to link ideas across projects and disciplinary fields.'
Patrick: 'When the pandemic struck, I felt very fortunate to be an LSO Panufnik composer, despite the postponements and uncertainty about when things would pick up. Colin Matthews set up an interim project in which we all wrote chamber works for groups of LSO musicians, which were recorded and released on NMC. So I had that to think about, and this piece for the full Orchestra. My work centred on recordings during the lockdowns, for obvious reasons – there was a solo piano piece (Eel) for Robin Haigh’s piano anthology (also intended for amateur pianists to play at home); and a solo viola piece (Swoop) for Psappha’s YouTube series.'
Chris: 'The pandemic was a hugely challenging time, and I sincerely hope that we are now nearly out of the woods. Composers are well-used to spending protected periods in isolation, but I don’t think anyone anticipated just how profound the impact of lockdown would be. I’m naturally a bit restless, and I feel that the novelty of staying at home had well and truly worn off by mid-2020! With this being said, I actually feel very lucky – I had this piece to work towards.
'To be able to stay busy in this respect, in a time of very deep uncertainty, was a real privilege.'
What has been the highlight of the Scheme so far?
Emma-Kate: 'It has been extremely creatively and educationally enriching to be able to develop ideas with musicians from the Orchestra in the form of small-group workshops. The ongoing support from mentors Colin Matthews and Christian Mason and the wealth of constructive and generous feedback from LSO musicians has made it possible for me to take a few important creative risks with this piece, whilst still feeling like I have a level of control over the output.
'It’s also really good to know that the performance of my final piece takes place in a public workshop setting during which ideas can still be discussed and developed in a productive and supportive environment.'
Patrick: 'The recording session we did in December 2020 was a particularly fun and slightly overwhelming day. I think it was the first “in-person” work thing I had done since March and it seemed like everyone in the room was feeling the effects of the year, but it was a really productive and positive bit of music-making.'
Chris: 'The process of adapting ideas to an orchestral canvas is a unique challenge – the medium demands an entirely different mode of thinking to that of writing for a sextet, or even a sinfonietta. So the ability to seek feedback from Colin Matthews and Christian Mason has been of enormous assistance; they have both been extremely generous guides and mentors, and I am hugely grateful for their time and insight. The opportunity too to get to know the work of my peers was wonderful. I think that we all have very different approaches and interests, and it has been a lot of fun to see the individual personalities of each composer come through over the course of the process. I feel like we have gotten to really know one another!'
Hear Emma-Kate, Patrick and Chris' new music performed and workshopped by the LSO and François-Xavier Roth on Thursday 31 March, in the afternoon session of our free Panufnik Composers Workshops.
Panufnik Composers Workshop (afternoon session)
Thursday 31 March 2022 2.30–6pm, LSO St Luke's
Emma-Kate Matthews A Study of Passing Objects in an Accelerating Landscape
Patrick John Jones Song of a Red Sprite
Louise Drewett The Daymark
Chris McCormack fold filament arc echo
François-Xavier Roth conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
Tickets: Free entry, advance booking essential. (No booking fee)
The LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme is generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust.