Spontaneity and Strictness - Composer Outlook: Daryl Runswick

Hollie Harding
October 6, 2018

In advance of his concert on the 23rd of October 2018, we interviewed composer and performer Daryl Runswick about his work. In this short interview we discuss his influences, his exploration of spontaneity and strictness in composition, compositional structural devices and things to listen out for in the Borough New Music concert programme.

HH: You have such a breadth of experience as a composer and performer (jazz bassist with Cleo Laine and classical bass with London Sinfonietta; singer with Electric Phoenix), teacher, arranger, presenter and producer. How do you think all of this impacts upon the music you write?

DR: My whole life has been an effort to synthesise the different strands, especially European modernism and jazz. The pieces in the Borough New Music concert on the 23rd October 2018, approach this synthesis in different ways. Capricci asks a ‘classical’ player to improvise, though not in a jazz way. Sonata for Solo Double Bass is completely composed, with just one piece of graphic notation near the end, but draws on my jazz experience for its style, rhythmically yes, but perhaps even more so melodically, where we are reminded of the bass guitar playing of Jaco Pastorius. Finally in Homage à... my improvising might, or might not, be more jazz-influenced than elsewhere.

HH: What is the story behind your Sonata for Solo Double Bass?

DR: The question whether a piece of music has a story behind it is a fascinating one. I’ve always thought of myself as composing ‘abstract’ music (except of course when setting words) but I may be fooling myself. An interesting example is my Variations for String Orchestra, written when I was a young man and recently released on CD. When I was in the white heat of composing it, I would have denied any ‘story’ apart from the structural necessities of ‘what comes next?’ But even as I did so I was dedicating individual variations to particular friends, Enigma-like, and trying to imbue these variations with characteristics associated with those friends. Years later (twenty after the writing, twenty before now) I found myself putting a short ‘programme’ to the Variations: ‘He introduces himself... he confronts his life... he faces his despair...he puts his regret behind him.’ Today I’d go even further, recognising in the music a more complex and subtle emotional journey than that rather crude anecdotal programme: one not so glibly "en-capsulable", one expressible only in notes, but nonetheless deep for all that.

The same can be said for my Sonata for Double Bass. There is no ‘story’ as such, and there is an abstract structure, similar to the single-movement composite forms of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor or Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony, combining the two elements of sonata form (exposition, development and recapitulation) and sonata (three or four movements making a larger work). But my wife Alison Truefitt sees more specific things in the piece:

"It starts with a strange, quiet, and lovely high solo which took me straight to the high moors of Scotland........a gentle cry of isolation......or perhaps of loss..........the flowing semiquaver 'theme' of the Sonata soon follows in similar mode, also lovely, smooth, reassuring, calm.....And soon there follow sequences of powerful chords with strident depths that suddenly unlock the vast horizons of this piece: mountains, secluded, quiet places where remarkable beings are discovered –mute, almost,  .........making rare calls, like space creatures: piercing, tiny high-pitched cries..."

I don’t see any of that, but neither do I object to its being seen by someone else: in fact I’m flattered – someone is responding strongly to the music. If we want to imbue music we hear with stories this detracts not a jot from the composer’s intention.

HH: How do you find a balance between spontaneity and strictness in your music?

DR: This is what my whole career has been about. The jazz aspect of my personal history recognises that extreme interpretative licence – improvisation – enhances the composer’s fantasy by adding to it another person’s: the performer’s. Handel would have had no problem with that: indeed he’d have taken it as a given, not worth mentioning. Had he heard his music performed without improvisation he’d have been outraged and would have considered the performer incompetent.

Of course in the Borough New Music concert on the 23rd October 2018, I’m both the composer and the performer. But Runswick-composer and Runswick-performer are not the same person. Coming there as performer, I might as well be interpreting someone else’s piece. I look at the music and see something he composed: that other bloke who writes music.

At one stage in my development (more recently than when I first conceived the Sonata) I began using improvisation as a composing tool. The first time was with a vocal piece: I took the poem (Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath), turned on a recording device and improvised three different versions of the music one after the other. Playing back, I took the best bits from each recording, honed them further where I could, and combined the resulting chunks into the finished piece, a written score. The performer interprets this particular score with only a small amount of further improvisation.

More recently still I’ve refined the technique further. Where there isn’t a text (in an instrumental piece for example) a structure can easily get overblown and shapeless without a frame or scheme. So first I work out a detailed ground plan – a matrix of pitches and rhythms – then used my fantasy to embellish and fill out that skeleton and produce a finished work: sometimes freely ‘composing’, sometimes ‘improvising’ as with Lady Lazarus – though as I get older the two processes become less and less distinguishable.

For Capricci I’ve separated out the two parts of the technique: as composer I’ve provided a matrix (though without pitches and rhythms) and left the performer to add the fantasy.

The jazz aspect of my personal history recognises that extreme interpretative licence – improvisation – enhances the composer’s fantasy by adding to it another person’s: the performer’s.

HH: At the end of our last season I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Aleks Szram perform three of your Scafra Preludes Book 2, two of which use ‘pyramid forms’ to inform the structure. I noticed that a pyramid form also features in the opening piece of your upcoming Borough New Music concert, Capricci, and wondered if this is a form you often return to, and if so, why?

DR: Yes, I use pyramids often. As a young man I was keen to write ‘modernist’ music but was concerned that when I listened to the composers I was trying to copy – Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis – the music seemed dauntingly unapproachable. I set out to work out why, and one conclusion I came to was that their music never repeats. Starting even earlier in the 20th century, with Schoenberg, there arose a distaste for straight repetition without development. Now this puts an enormous burden on the listener because repetition induces recognition, and recognition in my view is essential for musical appreciation: even more for actual enjoyment! So I decided to find a way to introduce recognition in to my modernist music. I quickly found that the simple repetition of a passage didn’t work: it sounded naïve. What was needed was repetitions at unexpected times. But of course being a modernist I couldn’t just make this up freely, I had to have a system. How could I solve this? The answer, developed over a number of years, was my system called Scafra. I learned to write modernist-sounding music whose difficulty was ameliorated by the recognition that repetition provides, but repetition in unexpected places. A pyramid is one very good way of achieving this. In Capricci the pyramid goes 


                                                                               C D E

                                                                           B C D E F

                                                                       A B C D E F G

– each letter representing a passage of music. So first we hear what the player improvises for D, then C, then D again – oh good, a repetition. But then we hear something new, E. Right... then B, also new, then C again, didn’t expect that, but nice: then D: ah, do we have a sequence we’ve heard before? Yes. C-D-E. Lovely. But now new music again, F. And more new stuff, A. But, ah, now, comfort, here’s B-C-D-E-F returning how we heard it before... and then a coda-like G: a mixture of the unexpectedly new and the reassuringly expected that keeps us interested and involved.

Aleks Szram performing at Borough New Music, Series 9

HH: Homage à...  is a free improvisation for any performer(s) and you describe the score for Capricci as ‘a score to be improvised’. Why does improvisation and controlled improvisation interest you?

DR: The interesting part of that question is the difference between free and controlled improvising. The vast majority of improvising historically has been the controlled variety: ornamentation in Baroque music, playing on chords in jazz, using modes (ragas) in classical Indian music. Completely free improvisation is an invention of the past sixty years or so, done usually by groups of performers in either the European classical or jazz traditions, where there is no previously-arranged score or even agreement about what will happen ­– the performers simply start and see what develops. If you get a chance to hear some of this free improvisation, grab it: the results can be stunning. Listening to Keith and Julie Tippett is to experience something transcendental and world-class.

When I first asked concert players to improvise (in a controlled way of course) I got very short shrift: this was in the 1970s. Nobody in the ‘classical’ world improvised in those days, not even the early music bunch –  if they ornamented at all they worked it out beforehand. And modern-instrument players resented being asked to improvise: they were being expected to do the composer’s job for him, was their attitude. As a player in the 70s I was involved in performances of the music of composers such as Henri Pousseur and Earle Brown where even ‘contemporary specialist’ performers – and conductors! –openly scorned the improvisatory or aleatoric aspects of these works, pre-planning them wherever possible. As the years went by, perhaps partly due to my efforts, a new generation emerged who not only tolerated indeterminacy and improvisation but revelled in it and became very, very good at it.

Homage à...is a hybrid piece because it requires free improvisation against a backing track. Now the very existence of that track controls the improvisor, making the playing no longer completely free, imposing something, some sound, against which to play: against which to react, from which to diverge, with which to harmonise. But that’s me. In the end, when the chips are down, I’m a composer...

HH: How does performing your own music compare with listening to others perform it?

DR: There are three categories, whoever is playing. 1) Do they play it right – are the notes all correct? This applies even if there are no written notes as in Capricci: even here you have to follow the rules correctly. 2) Do they get it right – do they understand what the piece is about? I’ve heard plenty of performances, not just of my own music – of a Bach prelude and fugue, for example – where the tempo is wrong, the rubato is wrong, the registration is all to cock. In an improvisation piece you have to improvise in an appropriate style. 3) Do they do the piece justice? You can get notes wrong or the conception all wrong and still play the hell out of apiece. Du Pré doing the Elgar Cello Concerto is an example of this.

Me? I’ll play the notes right, mostly, though the Sonata is a virtuoso piece. Naturally I’ll get the concept right (but I have to say that the performances of others can teach you things you didn’t know about your own pieces). Doing it justice – that’s for others to judge.

Listening to others play my music, especially if they’re as wonderful as Aleks Szram, adds an extra layer of love to the experience.

HH: What events or releases do you have coming up?

DR: My latest CD is just coming out: The Eternal Song (Prima Facie PFCD090). It contains Variations for String Orchestra, mentioned above, and Aleks Szram playing – and improvising – my Piano Concerto, live at my 70th Birthday Celebration at Cadogan Hall in London last year.

You can hear Daryl Runswick performing his own music at Borough New Music, Series 10, St George the Martyr Church, Borough SE1 1JA. 1pm on Tuesday 23rd October 2018.