Meanings that aren't there: An interview with Alan Lawrence

Alan Lawrence (guitarist on the right) c. 50 years ago. Kupka's Piano are excited to be presenting a new work by Alan Lawrence at QSOCurrent this Saturday afternoon in the Poinciana Lounge at the State Library of Queensland. Alan's work will be played at approximately 11am, and entry is free. Angus caught up with him to find out a little more about him and his new work 'The Instant Burst of Clamour'.

Angus Wilson: Hi Alan, thanks for taking the time to have a chat with me. You have already shared with me some great stories about your time in the UK and Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your composing life thus far?

Alan Lawrence: I started out with the violin when I was about 9 or 10 but at around aged 13 my interest in the violin was eclipsed by my desire to emulate Hank Marvin, lead guitarist of the Shadows, who at that time I thought was just about as cool as you could get. So, armed with Bert Weedon's "Play in a Day", I set about becoming a guitarist. Soon after, I formed band and we did the local youth clubs and the like quite successfully (by schoolboy standards) for a couple of years. This was really the birth of my composing ambitions as I started to "write" instrumental numbers for the band. Then one night I heard a classical guitar recital on the radio and I still remember being amazed when at the end of the broadcast the announcer said that this had been John Williams on guitar. I thought, "Yeah... John Williams, whoever he is, and who else?"  I couldn't believe at first that it was just one person playing. Anyhow, much impressed I immediately switched my allegiances from Hank to John and took up classical guitar which I pursued to the Royal College of Music and beyond. But the composing bit stuck, shifting with the playing from pop to classical. I studied both composition and guitar at the RCM and have made my living from both, ever since. Anyhow, there were various compositions while still at school, chamber pieces, a rather ambitious Christmas Cantata, pieces for the local choir, and just after I left school, music for an animated film on "The Twelve Days of Christmas" made by my school's art teacher and students. That last item was where things actually took off because the film was shown at a local arts club where, by chance, a documentary film maker was in the audience. He approached me after the event and asked if I'd like to compose music for his next film. Naturally I did. So by the time I went to college I'd already written about four or five documentary film scores. A combination of playing and writing film music continued during and after college and in 1987 I stopped playing professionally and set up a small studio in central London from where I wrote a lot of music for television over the next 10 years. But before that I'd made a couple of trips to Australia with the Old Vic Theatre Company and in 1979 I'd met the actress Carol Burns, who has been my partner ever since. And that was the beginning of the Australian connection. But there are always swings and roundabouts. I was able to earn a living writing TV music but I rarely if ever had the opportunity to write music that actually interested me as music. When asked about my music in those days I used to say that I wrote music that was heard by millions and noticed by no one. In a way, that was the job. Obviously a signature tune was intended to be catchy in some way but the greater part of the music that I wrote was aimed at the subliminal and therefore avoided the intrusive; something that I hope cannot be said of "The Instant Burst of Clamour". So I was able to earn a living from composition but not from composing music that greatly interested me. There were other rewards, of course... apart from the obvious financial rewards I met lots of interesting arts and show biz personalities. (This was equally true of working in the theatre, especially at The Old Vic.) But there was also the challenge of making things work - getting the timing of cues to work perfectly, achieving the necessary degree of anonymity while at the same time insinuating the appropriate mood. But in the end, the desire to write my own music pursuing my own aesthetic objectives overcame all else and I handed my studio on to another composer and Carol and I headed back to Australia where we've been living (albeit, with regular trips to Europe) for the last 17 years. During that time I've written music only for itself, most of which has been performed and/or broadcast here or in the UK. I have revisited theatre music on a few occasions but only when Carol has been directing something and has needed some sound or music. This year is the exception and marks the first time since returning to Oz that I'll have worked on a theatre production on the open market, as it were, when I contribute to the Queensland Theatre Company production of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" directed by Wesley Enoch and performed by Carol and Steven Tandy.

AW: You are one of our most loyal followers, what first came to mind when asked to write for Kupka's Piano.

Alan: Okay... Well, first of all, why am I one of your most loyal followers? And the answer to that is that I saw an ad on the web for your first - at least I think it was your first - concert at the Judith Wright Centre back in 2012, was it? I saw Boulez Derive I, I saw Grisey Taléa, and I thought Hey! This is it! Some one from planet Earth has landed in Brisbane! Seriously though, what I've always liked about Kupka's Piano is the breadth of the programming. It really reminds me of the programming style of the major European ensembles like Ensemble Intercontemporain for example. You program brand new stuff in quite a variety of idioms from local and international composers but you also represent the giants of the recent past; Boulez, Grisey, Donatoni, Berio, etc. I could go on. But you know what I mean. I like that bigger picture from around a mid-century break point. And then I should mention that as prodigiously virtuosic as much of this stuff actually is, you always manage a really convincing account of the repertoire that you present. So what's not to like? Any how, the short answer to your question, what came to mind when asked to write for Kupka's Piano was "Hey - great!"

AW: Thanks so much for writing 'The Instant Burst of Clamour' for us. We will premiere at next Saturday May 16th at 11am at the Poinciana Lounge at the State Library of Queensland. Can you tell our audience a little but about the story behind it and what you envisaged with this work? Is there a link to the ANZAC 100th anniversary?

Alan: Well, I should start by saying that in my opinion all music is and must be primarily about music, that is, itself. Hermann Helmholtz wrote that music is more to do with pure sensation than any of the other arts - or something like that. I go along with that entirely. Don't get bogged down looking for meanings that aren't there. But of course there can be associations and I'd bet that most of us have certain strong associations that can be evoked by particular pieces of music. But equally, I'd bet, that few such associations were planted there by the composer. And yet we do write commemorative pieces and pieces called Estampes or Pictures at an Exhibition, etc. in other words sometimes we invite associations for pieces although the associations can only finally be made by the listener. Sorry, I wandered off the question there. So yes... it's 2015 and there's much talk of Anzacs and Gallipoli and it's a chosen theme for quite a few of this year's cultural events and I'm happy enough to make my contribution. First I should say that the celebration of Anzac now, a century later, presents a more complex proposition than the simple and sincere commemoration of events that took place at Gallipoli in 1915. Many question the appropriateness of a national celebration biased so heavily towards Anzac losses when losses overall were so numerous. Some fear that pageantry at home and tourism abroad may, at a hundred years distance, seem more a celebration of military chutzpah than an annual reminder of the folly of war. Such fears are of course amplified by an awareness of many ill-advised and reckless military adventures undertaken since 1915, always, it seems, with less regard for the men and women who actually risk their lives, than for the political or commercial capital sought by their civilian masters. Conscious of, and actually sharing many of these misgivings, I found myself seeking an Anzac association or at least a starting point for a piece of music; a means by which I could share in the current commemorations while continuing to question the very validity of the tradition. The approach that I chose was to address the matter somewhat obliquely, first from some distance, and then from a particular perspective outside the actual field of conflict but intimately sensitive to its outcomes. For distance I went to Shakespeare and for perspective I turned to the bereaved rather than the battlefield. When Hamlet meets with the players, "the tragedians of the city", he asks their leader, the first player, to repeat a speech concerning the death of King Priam in The Trojan Wars, at the hand of Pyrrhus. After describing the awful and unequal conflict between the two men in which Pyrrhus slays the "reverend Priam", the speech turns to Hecuba, the queen and wife to Priam. In a short passage of only fifteen lines the first player recounts the disarray, the distraction and finally the distraught horror with which she confronts the death of her husband in war, finishing with the lines, The instant burst of clamour that she made, Unless things mortal move them not at all, Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven, And passion in the gods. The whole of the first player's speech is extremely rhetorical in style as befits the characterisation of a theatrical performance within a theatrical performance. Obviously there is a need to up the ante, as it were, so as to distinguish the one level of dramatic representation from the other. And when, the speech now ended, the first player is moved to tears, Hamlet asks, "What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?"; how can one be so moved by the anguish of some one so remote to one's own experience? Of course, Hamlet has rather more immediate issues of his own to do with grieving — and for that matter, one can wonder if the first player has been moved by the plight of Hecuba or more perhaps by his own emotional investment in the performance? This short episode in Shakespeare's celebrated tragedy, presents us with a complex of disparate elements; violent conflict matched with its collateral damage; rhetorical dramatization of distant events weighed against the perplexities of personal experience; one level of dramatic reality contrasted with another; the generosity of empathy compared to the potential for self-indulgent emotion. Music is the stuff of balances and contrasts, from the largest considerations of form to the minutest detail in the relationship between any two notes. I have chosen to model this piece on my thoughts about the balances and contrasts suggested in the Hecuba passage from the first player's speech in Hamlet as well as on the structure of the verse. The music, in itself, can say nothing about Anzac or about Hecuba or about Shakespeare but it can and does arise from my thoughts about those topics prompted by this occasion. As for direct associations, as I have said, that is for the listener.

AW: Can you tell us a little bit about your other work at the moment. I saw a great performance of a work by you 'Kattrin's Drum' by David Montgomery late last year, what is the life for this piece?

Alan: Yes. Dave is a really terrific performer; an excellent musician but a really theatrical (in the best sense of the word) performer, and he played my piece really well. I think he's doing it again in Brisbane in a couple of months time but I'll have to check the details. That piece Kattrin's Drum is the first of a trilogy of pieces. Each piece is for solo instrumentalist and quadraphonic sound where the quadraphonics are pre-programmed cues (60 odd of them) and the performer triggers each cue along with the virtuosic live content. The second piece is for bass clarinet and quadraphonics and is written but not yet performed and the third one is for trombone and I haven't written that one yet. So current work has been your piece, then the QTC production coming up soon and then back to the Kattrin trilogy. I find that composing for me is a weird cyclical process where I'm always looking to try something that I haven't done before in a kind of struggle to avoid being trapped in comfortable territory but at the same time always being willing to go back and look at previous thinking to see if with the passage of time it has gained some potential for renewal. For example, my first work with quadraphonics was back in 1991 and although I've often used surround effects in theatre music Kattrin is the first time that I've returned to it in a concert piece. But there's no overall agenda. For example, I've written for large orchestra, although not recently, but may well do so again. I hadn't considered a chamber piece for flute, clarinet, percussion and piano, but I've enjoyed writing one now.

AW: What are the five best things about living Brisbane?

Alan: Can we make that Brisbane? Okay, and in no particular order of preference; 1. Perfect winter days. 2. Great cinema prgrams equal to big cities anywhere. 3. The view of the city centre at dusk seen from a CityCat (breathtakingly beautiful). 4. Currently a really switched on state theatre company. 5. And course, the best new music ensemble in Australia.