Lawrence Dunn, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Both my mother and my maternal uncle were musicians in their youth—their parents used to say to only go into music unless there was nothing else one could do. I think this is reasonable. While my mother did not become a professional musician, her brother Tony is a very fine clarinet player (he was a founder member of the London Sinfonietta, and has been in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for many years). Indeed his wife Suki was a cellist. Their house was full of musical bits and pieces—lots of scores; Tony’s period clarinets, as he’s a period specialist; Suki’s beautiful old Steinway that must have been from the ’20s. Tony also has worked with and knew personally a lot of composers—Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Berio, Goehr. A couple years ago I was tasked with sorting out their old music collection (they were moving house) and amongst many wonderful things they had were Stockhausen’s cadenzas for the Mozart clarinet concerto, dedicated to Tony.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I spent a great deal of time—indeed, ten years—as a Junior at Trinity College of Music. This was luxurious, and I still am only fully understanding the benefits of all of that training. I have never been an orchestral musician (I studied piano and percussion), and the people I studied with always had a heavy interest in composition—as opposed to, say, drilling me on instrumental technique. My piano technique is terrible to say the least, percussion even worse, and I never enjoyed sight-reading; though I did improvise an awful lot and still do. My teachers were Cecilia McDowall (mostly a choral composer—a very good one), Ken Paige (a pianist and also a dabbling composer too), and for percussion Joby Burgess, who is one of the best young percussionists in the country and has done an awful lot of contemporary music. The Junior Trinity percussion ensemble did Cage, Reich, Varèse, Lou Harrison; one year Joby even arranged G-Spot Tornado by Zappa. (A fellow perc student at Trinity when I was there was Sam Wilson, who’s stupidly good himself these days. Joby is a good teacher.)

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

It’s pretty hard to have a composition ‘career’—at the present, I’m back to being a student (PhD at Huddersfield), and before that I was a schoolteacher. I would say that in terms of being active as a composer I’ve only been at it properly for about two years at most, and old fashioned notions of professionality are crumpling everywhere these days. How long are music publishers going to be around for? It’s difficult to know what being a professional composer means, especially without older models of publishing to look to. When I’ve crawled my way through this doctorate I guess I’ll be closer to knowing. But we’ve already had maybe three, maybe even four generations of composers who had to rely on university and conservatoire teaching to get by, or other day jobs (Feldman sold coats); this will not be changing any time soon.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The greatest pleasure is being approached for a commission in the first place. There are so many composers today that those approaches are rare, and very gratifying. With this piece, I knew the commissioners but not the musicians—and it was a pleasure to get to know the musicians as we made the piece together.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Perhaps the most specific challenge is working with musicians whom you don’t know—but it’s also a pleasure too. Music is a way of ‘knowing’ others—composers and performers knowing each other, listeners knowing composers knowing performers. As in, it can be hard to see into someone else’s mind; knowing other people is hard. Music, when it’s good, can reveal much about the person who made it; performers can reveal much about themselves in a piece’s development and rehearsal and performance. This is why it can be so amazing to write for musicians who are already your friends; it can deepen or enrich a relationship in a very singular way.

Of which works are you most proud?

I have to say, I was pleased with this piece that I wrote for John and Marie. It fell into place lightly—but I think securely. It’s difficult to be proud of one’s pieces—one can be immediately after one finishes (perhaps more ‘satisfied’ than proud). But later on when they’re set in aspic and difficult to alter significantly one always sees their flaws or problems or naivities—one just has to move on to the next thing. I’m quite proud of a few pieces I wrote as a teenager—but I wonder if that’s because I’m proud of the teenager who wrote them. But I have no idea about the recent music. I wrote an orchestra piece recently—I still don’t know how I really feel about it. But then I’m still convinced that the next piece will be the best one. I wonder when one snaps out of that.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Predominantly, I’m interested in those rather old fashioned hoary things, harmony and melody. I personally cannot see a difference between them; or if they do differ they are at best two manifestations of the same thing. Harmony and melody are present in my music as ‘habitual’, as colour, as tensility, as physicality, as segmentation and fluidity, as a situation of being. I have slight synaesthesia, this may help. Justly intoned harmonies can have a certain magic quality that tempered harmony can lack somewhat—they can ring, interfere, buzz, bite, they can be intensely coloured and warm, languid, but also agitated. It’s this sort of thing I’m exploring. There aren’t many composers outside of the States to concern themselves with Just harmony—it’s my hope to become involved intuitively as opposed to schematically—though I have nothing against schemata.

How do you work?

I do a lot of thinking about the piece: usually it’s nebulous, some combination of mood, intensity, colour, topic; sometimes there are clear ‘scenes’ that come into view. Working at the piano (actually a keyboard), I would improvise a lot, make sketches and drawings, put things into the computer. Singing in the shower too. There’s a lot of tactility to the process—I’m not the sort of composer who can write things direct onto the page without feeling them out first.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

If I’m not careful the list grows and grows. Robert Ashley, David Behrman, James Tenney, Ben Johnston, Eliane Radigue, Christian Wolff, Lou Harrison are the better known names. Martin Arnold is a wonderful and enigmatic Toronto-based composer. Have recently been bowled over by some of Quentin Tolimieri’s pieces. Linda Catlin Smith, Cassandra Miller, Marc Sabat, Tim Parkinson, Jürg Frey, John White, Matteo Fargion. On and on. (These are just composers, adding improvisers it gets even huger.)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Impossible to answer really. I have a strong memory of a recital Clemens Merkel gave at Music we’d like to hear back in 2010, it was a beautiful concert and I think it had an lasting aesthetic effect.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Blimey. Well pianists don’t often understand about the fine-gradedness of intervals that other musicians do. Namely that major thirds and sixths are fairly rough (‘dissonant’) on a piano, by quite some way. Once a musician has heard a true 5/4 or 5/3 (the Just major third, and the Just major sixth), the piano’s major sonorities are colourless in comparison. It is possible to play strings without vibrato and obtain very great warmth, by Just pitching (for example Quatour Bozzini, their recording of Skempton’s ‘Tendrils’).

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Alive, and hopefully still in one piece!

What is your present state of mind?

I would be lying if I didn’t say anxious. As an antifascist and a leftist and internationalist, the Brexit vote is not encouraging. But it is easy to be overcome with worry, especially given the way that news is conveyed to us. At its best creative work is liberating; through it one sees with greater clarity and perspective.

Lawrence Dunn’s piece for two violins “your wits an E la” has recently come out on Listenpony’s first “Live at Listenpony” EP, available from iTunes and Spotify
Lawrence Dunn at Sound and Music/The British Music Collection