David Lancaster, composer

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

I began to compose at the same time I first started to play an instrument: it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to invent my own melodies, structures and harmonies and to try to write them down so that I could play them again, and it didn’t take long before I realised that I enjoyed playing my own compositions much more than the ones I bought at the music shop. I grew up in Wigan, a product of one of the most fantastic local music services which enabled children like me who were not especially well off to get together with like-minded individuals to rehearse and perform together. In the town there wasn’t a lot of music going on, only amateur G&S, brass bands and the local choral society, so there was little sense that music could be a career. At school I had intended to pursue a career in medicine but there was a massive moment of realisation when I was about 14 or 15 and I encountered the music of Harrison Birtwistle whilst on a summer school for brass players, directed by Elgar Howarth. Utterly blown away by these incredible new sounds I asked Howarth how I could learn to compose like that and he suggested studying music at York University, which is what I ultimately did. In the intervening years I tried to absorb as much new music as I could: records, books, Radio 3 and an annual trip to the Proms, but nothing really moved me as the Birtwistle had done.

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

Surprisingly, some of the strongest influences were quite negative ones: people who discouraged me or implied that a lad from Wigan couldn’t/shouldn’t be a composer have just made me work so much harder. I don’t really come from a musical or artistic family (although it grew into one!) and my parents don’t really understand what I am trying to do but they have never tried to stop me from pursuing my ambitions and still provide support and encouragement (whilst telling me that my music goes right over their heads). I always determine to do something when someone tells me that I can’t!

I was fortunate that I chose the trumpet because it’s an instrument which can play a part in so many different musics (and brass bands tend to ignore distinctions of style in their programming in any case: a classical arrangement might precede a pop song, followed by a jazz transcription or a piece of original band music) and as a hands-on sort of learner I was desperate to understand all the music I encountered.

Birtwistle was my first major compositional influence and his music remains very important to me; at first the sound world of his pieces – raw, earthy and dramatic – was a significant factor but now my affiliation with his work is more closely linked to the structures and the organisation of his ideas. I worked at English National Opera during the production of Mask of Orpheus and for some time the influence was just too strong; it took me quite a while to work it out of my system.

My student days at York were extremely influential, not only what I was taught in class but through all the music I heard and the ideas that developed in conversation with fellow students down at the pub after rehearsals and concerts. At university I discovered a wealth of music: gamelan, minimalism, the Beatles, experimental music, Berio, Rzewski and Stockhausen, all of which left traces in my work.

And now – in my current university teaching role – I am surrounded by musicians, artists, dancers, film and theatre makers, writers and energetic, excited students, all of whom influence my work in one way or another!

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

Fortunately, the frustrations have been relatively few in number and I remain grateful that I am able spend so much of my time creating new music. I guess that all composers would like more numerous, bigger, better performances of their music and more prestigious commissions and I am no different, but ultimately I enjoy the act of composing and the thrill of hearing my work played by wonderful musicians: the vast majority of my pieces are performed and for that I consider myself very fortunate.

The biggest frustration for me is that of being categorised; having my music put in a box along with other composers so that it can be summarily dismissed. When I was a student composer one tutor told me that ‘your sort of music is virtually extinct’ (as if I urgently needed to relocate to a more fashionable style) and another guy actually stopped speaking to me because – by his own admission – I was the ‘wrong kind of composer’! In general people today seem much more accepting of music which challenges boundaries and stylistic conventions but still one recent newspaper review called me a ‘minimalist’ – and I don’t think that it was intended as a compliment!

On a pragmatic level, I wish that finding second (and third, fourth and so on…) performances of my pieces was easier. I suspect that all composers feel this way but given the massive investment of time and energy that goes into creating a piece, a single performance just leaves me wanting more; after every performance my first question is ‘when can we do this again’? Several of my pieces have been taken into performers’ repertoire or played on longer tours, and the impact of repeat performances upon a work is incredible. The music really starts to emerge in a different sort of way as the performers get to work beyond the notation and immediate technical difficulties of performance and develop a deeper relationship with the sounds and structures.

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

Commissions are always linked to performances, so for me the biggest pleasure comes from trying to visualise the moment of performance in as much detail as possible and then to work backwards from there to the blank sheet of paper; from there I simply have to retrace my steps in order to fill in the space between! Commissions will always come with deadlines which I find very incredibly helpful because they enable me to shape the structure to my working life and in particular to the ‘retracing of steps’. I love deadlines (and I don’t think I have missed one yet) but they do bring to the surface a tension in me between artist and craftsman in which the artist always strives for absolute perfection no matter how long it might take and the craftsman wants to complete the work to the best of his ability within the allotted timescale.

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

Maybe I have been very lucky in my collaborative partners but I have never found working with other musicians to be a difficult process, and I suspect that is because we usually have a common goal. Musicians are all different: some are quite demanding and want to play a direct role in the creation of a new piece whilst others may be content for me to get on with my work and will wait to see what I create for them. I always do as much research as I can, listening to their recordings and thinking about their other repertoire, for example, but a musical score needs to be transferrable and I always intend that my pieces are played by many different performers, each of whom will bring something unique to the music. The concept of an object (in this case a piece of music) being ‘viewed’ from multiple perspectives, transformed by the context, is more important to me that any ‘personalisation’ of a piece for a particular performer.

Of which works are you most proud?

I see my pieces as part of a bigger single body of work, inter-related and belonging together, rather than individual works, so it is difficult to isolate one or two as being of particular significance. However Apocalypse (for SATB chorus with soprano soloists) is something which stands out in my mind. It wasn’t a commission, it all emerged from a single idea which I had nurtured for a long time; I developed the text from a medieval source and crafted a twenty-five minute structure which emerged exactly as I had intended. The four performances to date (one in York and three in Denmark) were unforgettable occasions when I just wanted time to stop so that I could live in that moment forever! Similarly my orchestral piece Strata was one that I wrote simply because I had to do it. There are others which seem to encapsulate my ideas particularly clearly (such as Velocity for string quartet, Hiraeth for piano trio and The Dark Gate for soprano and piano) but Apocalypse and Strata are works I feel particularly close to because of their larger scale and because their creation came entirely from nothing other than my own motivation, not a commission or even the promise of a performance.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I am interested in narratives. The ‘story’ may be an abstract one and the subject doesn’t particularly matter but it does require that listeners are able to trace a path through the work using memory to recall what has gone before, and to make connections between past and present. For a long time I have been fascinated by the way film makers can manipulate time to present narratives in interesting ways, for example through the use of montage, flashback or premonition, or by apparently slowing down the passage of time or presenting multiple events sequentially as it they were happening simultaneously; I often attempt to use similar techniques in my musical structures.

In order that the narrative structure is evident I make quite extensive use of repetition and generally avoid unnecessary decoration; clarity is extremely important to me (which may explain why I was described as ‘minimalist’) and in recent pieces have worked to make the narrative emerge in as sharp a focus as possible. That preoccupation with time and structure has possibly led to the prioritisation of rhythm and repetition (of melodic and harmonic gestures) over texture, timbre and colour in my work, which become a sort of by-product of my writing rather than a primary concern.

How do you work?

I’m a creature of habit so I like routines: it’s important to compose every day. I get up early and work until my first university appointment, and by limiting the time at my desk in that way it forces me to make the best possible use of that time. But I carry the music around with me all day in my mind and constantly add ideas to my notebook between tutorials or in boring meetings! The early stages of composition will progress on paper and only when I feel secure in what I am doing will I transfer to working at the computer. Music software tries to force composers to work in a very linear way, from beginning to end, so I always resist that and treat the computer like manuscript paper, with bits and pieces everywhere before the final score is assembled. I am the world’s worst pianist so trying to work at the piano is a waste of time for me, but as a consequence I have learnt to generate, hear and refine ideas in my head and on paper to a greater extent.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I especially like performers who make interesting connections between different musics and whose programmes cross genres to make even very familiar music sound fresh again: the Kronos Quartet or Joanna McGregor immediately spring to mind but there are lots of others. At the time of writing I’m working with the Delta Saxophone Quartet who are also wonderfully versatile and imaginative musicians: they have recently recorded my Swan for a new CD called ‘Bowie, Berlin and Beyond’ on which I’m sharing a platform with David Bowie and Brian Eno amongst others, which is very exciting.

The composers I admire the most are the ones who have single-mindedly defined their own distinctive musical language and who stand out from the post-serial lingua franca of the late 20th century: Birtwistle for sure, but Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Arvo Part and Louis Andreissen are also good examples. I feel a particular affinity with Scandinavian composers such as Poul Ruders and Hans Abrahamsen – I think there’s something very ‘northern’ about my writing too.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Hearing a performance of one of my pieces in concert and thinking ‘yes, that was exactly how it was meant to be’.

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

Honesty: be true to yourself and become the composer you need to be rather than the composer that you think you ought to be. Write to please yourself – never others – and be your own harshest critic, making sure that your critical reflection drives you forward. And work hard – you can’t rely on favours or lucky breaks because ultimately there is only you who can take full control of your composing.

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

Hopefully in ten years’ time I will still be doing what I’m doing now, although I optimistically see myself moving away from the administrative, managerial aspects of my role at the university in order to make time available for composing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness is a brilliant performance of one of my pieces followed by a pint in a quiet pub surrounded by a few good friends.

What is your most treasured possession?

I’m not really into acquiring material possessions (and most of my ‘favourite things’ are memories of people, places and events) but I still have the trumpet which my dad bought for me when I first went to university: I would struggle to part with that. We’ve been through a lot together!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Outside of music I enjoy photography, travel, real ale and rugby league: I’m a fan of Wigan Warriors, of course.

What is your present state of mind?

One of reflective calm. Writing the above has proved highly therapeutic!

Born in Wigan (UK), David Lancaster first encountered contemporary music when as a young cornet player he took part in a performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Grimethorpe Aria’ at a brass band summer school. Music studies at York and Cambridge Universities and at Dartington Summer School (with Peter Maxwell Davies) followed, along with a period as Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse. He gained a number of important awards including Lloyds Bank Young Composer Award, Michael Tippett Award, LCM Centenary Prize and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Composer Award; the Parke Ensemble presented a London concert series of his work and in May 2011 there was a major retrospective concert devoted to his work at York St John University.

David’s recent work includes music for choir, string quartet and several song cycles, such as Memory of Place (which sets poetry by the York-based poet Daniela Nunnari and which has recently been issued on CD on the Meridian label).  David’s choral work Fallen, originally composed for a performance in Canterbury Cathedral, was used in a documentary made for Sky Television and later became part of the Vestiges of Spirituality multimedia installation.

In 2014 his work has been heard around the UK and also as far afield as Hong Kong and the USA.  A particular highlight was the premiere performance of the large-scale choral work Apocalypse, sung by The 24 under the direction of Robert Hollingworth on June 14th.  

In 2015 Strike was premiered in Hong Kong and Strata was recorded in the Czech Republic, for release on the Ablaze label; in 2016 Apocalypse was performed in Copenhagen by the Danish Radio Vocal Ensemble, and Late Music featured two new pieces: Hiraeth (for the Albany Piano Trio) and Breathless (for brass quintet).

David recently completed PhD in Composition at University of York (supervised by Prof. Roger Marsh) and is Director of Music at York St John University


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