Graham Lynch, composer

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

In my late teenage years I’d dropped out of school and was working in a dull office job in London, as well as playing keyboards in a rock band and having classical and jazz piano lessons. My piano teacher, Peter Sander, was also a composer, and one day I sat down and wrote a short piano piece and immediately I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life – write music. It was very much a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. After that things changed completely for me and I went to university and music college for the next seven years to catch up on the training I’d missed.

All my composition teachers taught me useful things, but my lessons with Oliver Knussen were especially helpful. I studied with him privately for a couple of years. He’d put the music up on the piano and play it whilst scribbling alterations and improvements. It was very practical, and great to be around a musical mind with so much to offer.

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

Developing a musical language that is coherent and expressive. It’s been a slow journey for me, from atonal composing through to a style that is tonal/modal. I see music as about communication (what else can the arts be?) and for that one needs clarity of images and ideas; through this one reaches towards the strangeness that lies beyond our quotidian existence. As Paul Valéry once wrote “what is there more mysterious than clarity?”. I think that’ll go on my gravestone.

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

The pleasures are being paid to write the music, and having a guaranteed performance at the end. The challenge is the deadline! I’ve never missed a deadline, but it does take me a long time to develop pieces and these days I only take on commissions that have a very long lead-in. With more substantial works I prefer there to be no deadline, so that I can take as long as necessary.

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

Working with orchestras and ensembles is incredibly exciting but there is always limited rehearsal time. Because of this I particularly like collaborating with soloists and I’ve written quite a lot of music for piano, harpsichord, and guitar, and had some fantastic performances where the players have really taken the time to get inside the music. Giving a soloist a piece is like handing over a novel, they can immerse themselves in it in their own time and space and I’m often amazed (and very grateful) at the detailed preparation that can go into a performance.

Of which works are you most proud?

In the past I would have looked at particular works, but as recordings of my music have built up I tend to get more excited about groups of pieces that are gathered on a CD and presented in exceptional performances. More recent recordings would include harpsichord pieces (Assi Karttunen), the new piano CD with Paul Sánchez and Albert Kim, and my collaborations with guitarist Rody van Gemert, which have resulted in him recording my solo pieces as well as a forthcoming disc of my guitar ensemble works that will be released in 2022.

In terms of individual works it would be those that reflect a temporary cohesion of my musical language at a given moment, in whatever guise that language presents itself. These would include the early orchestral piece Invisible Cities, the tango Milonga Azure, and the three White Books for piano – all very different.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Non-developmental – driven by the relationship between musical images.

When I was a student it seemed that music offered me two options, tonality or atonality, and for many years I struggled to find alternatives. I imagine I would now be heard as a tonal/modal composer, although I never think in keys/modulations but use harmony primarily as colour, although tension and resolution is part of the experience. Some works are deliberately tonal (e.g. In Arcadia for sax/clarinet and piano) as they were written for particular occasions or players. The recent White Book 3 is a good example of where I’m placed at the moment in a more general way. I’m endlessly fascinated by the mysterious ‘third element’ that is created when two different ideas are placed side by side, and in some of my longer pieces I’ve started the music with three contrasting statements, each in their own subjective and disconnected space, and this immediately opens out possibilities which resonate throughout the work.

How do you work?

Slowly! I start in the early morning most days and compose until mid-afternoon, and the rest of the time I’m still thinking about it. Being a lifelong insomniac I have plenty of time for further reflection during the night. It works best for me if I can take a long time over each piece, often putting it to one side for a few months. In terms of process, I sketch into manuscript books and as ideas build I transfer them onto the computer. Then it’s onto a repeating cycle of printing out pages and revising, re-inputting on the computer, and then start again.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Some composers seem to effortlessly switch from writing music to presenting, performing, and promoting it. I’m one of those that struggles to balance both of those sides as I’m, creatively, a natural hermit and almost totally disengaged with the outer world of musical life; I don’t do all the other things that many composers quite sensibly do – perform, conduct, give talks, run festivals etc. When I was younger success had more to do with getting pieces performed, and that is still relevant, but increasingly my interests are simply in writing the music, with the attendant acceptance that it’s a game that must always be lost.

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

Hard work and perseverance. I know that sounds very boring, and obvious, but much the same advice was given out by the likes of Rilke, Mozart, Rodin, Ravel, and Cezanne. Plus, cultivate a relationship with all the arts. I’m a complete art gallery and book addict, and the input from what I’m looking at or reading presents me with aesthetic strategies and solutions that can illuminate the darker places of my habitual creative confusion.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

Education is key. Anecdotally there seems to me to be fewer children learning instruments, and some youth ensembles and orchestras are folding. If this decline continues then classical music will have even more problems further down the line. As far as concerts go I’m all for finding different ways to present classical music (e.g. shorter after-work concerts) as long as the music itself isn’t compromised. There are no easy ways to read demanding novels – Calvino, Joyce, Huysmans, for example – and similarly one can’t short-cut Beethoven or Brahms.

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

Here, in this attic room.

‘Seria Ludo’, Graham Lynch’s new album of solo piano music, is available now on the Divine Art label.

Graham Lynch’s music has been commissioned and performed in over forty countries, as well as being frequently recorded to CD and featured on radio and television. Performers of his music include the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Singers, Orchestra of Opera North, BBC Concert Orchestra, The Eastman Sax Project, Mahan Esfahani, and El Ultimo Tango from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He has also worked as an arranger for the Belcea Quartet. His works have been played in venues as diverse as the South Bank, Wigmore Hall, Merkin Hall New York, Paris Conservatoire, Palace of Monaco, at the Venice Biennale, and from the Freiberg Jazz Club to a cake shop in Japan, and everything in between.

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