"I first heard Loré Lixenberg doing some of her own birdsongs up a tree in Doncaster ... " Welcome to the wonderful world of Gregory Rose, the Featured Composer of Series 6 in Borough New Music. Before his concert on 27 March 2018, Clare Simmonds talks to him about the influences on his work.
CS: How did you come to write Birdsongs for Loré? What inspired you?
GR: I first heard Loré Lixenberg doing some of her own birdsongs up in a tree in Doncaster at one of the CoMA summer schools and was just totally delighted by it. I thought it was wonderful – zany and bonkers. I've also been interested in birdsong for a long time. Most spring/summers we get blackbirds at the back of our house and I have often recorded them, because blackbirds produce the most fantastic song [I think]. When I was working with Loré in 2012, we made the first recording of the Song Books (Solos for Voice 3–92) by John Cage with Robert Warby (I came out of retirement as a singer). During that time Loré said, "You've never written anything for me!", and I said, "It will come, don't worry!". Then I was looking at some poetry by the Dadaist artist [called] Kurt Schwitters, whose work always I've loved, and I saw a poem called Super-Bird-Song. I immediately thought, "This is it!" It took me about half an hour to write something and I sent it off to Loré, who wrote straight back to say she loved it. Now there are seven songs in this first 'Volume' of Birdsongs for Loré, and the texts come from a mixture of different poets I found, including my own poem about doves.
CS: What were the influences on the other pieces in your programme at Borough New Music?
GR: Quelques gouttes d'eau sur une surface began life when I heard water dripping in a bathroom at the AIMS summer school in Eastbourne. I found the sound fascinating – an almost regular rhythm which sometimes changed pitch. I thought "Ah, there's a piece here". It sounded just like a marimba. Actually in the piece that idea gradually deteriorates, so by the end there is no connection with the beginning at all!
CS: Did other pieces in this programme start life whilst you were on a summer school?
GR: Two others in this Borough New Music programme did! I went to a Greek island called Kythera, where there was a string orchestra music course set up by Chris Surety. I was a tutor on that for the first few years. During that time, I learnt about the claim that Aphrodite was born on a rock, just off the coast. I read more about Aphrodite, found her completely fascinating, and I've written several pieces connected with her. For Aphrodite and Adonis, I wrote the text as well. It's about her relationship with Adonis, how she fell in love with this little child, and then the fact that he was eventually gored to death by a boar. It was premiered in the States. I've written eight or nine song cycles now, and I'm writing another one at the moment.
Kythera is a beautiful island. Unlike other Greek islands which are arid, dry and very hot, Kythera has gentle hills, a lot of trees and green – it's just lovely. The summer school used to take place at Kapsali, the main port, along the seafront, in an amphitheatre, created by a guy who bought a derelict post office and made it into an arts centre. He dug out the back garden (a huge task) to create a little mini-amphitheatre. At the top of it, he had some land where he used to provide meals (he got a chef in). They used to have very gentle music on at the restaurant. One day I was having a meal, listening to this music, and thought I heard Greek modes (though I didn't actually!). I did some research anyway, and found that a musician in AD4 completely messed up the order of the modes, and if you go back to the theories of Aristoxenus, you'll see they're different. For Music for Kytherian Amphitheatre, I used the original formulation of the modes. The hardest thing was writing a piece entirely for white notes on the piano, and keep it interesting! But because there were lots of directions as to how each mode has its own character, I was able to keep each movement contrasting.
CS: How did you get to know the performers in the Borough New Music programme?
GR: Loré Lixenberg and I first met on CoMA summer school about 10-15 years ago. The first time, I asked her if she had performed any John Cage, and at the second summer school I asked if she'd like to record the John Cage Song Books with me, and she said absolutely. So that's how I first got to know her. Chris Brannick, I met through CoMA too. I always found him very inventive, and extremely good at reacting to new ideas in percussion, a wonderful player and a great guy to work with – I really like working with him. I met Clare Simmonds at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance where I used to conduct the new music ensemble, and I knew that she was very dedicated to contemporary music and an excellent player, so that was a no-brainer!
CS: How do you compose so prolifically?
GR: It's a mixture between writing things that people want, and writing things that I want to write. It's an imbalanced mixture. Every so often I think, "I've got to write a piece". Most of my ideas come from either going to a different country and realising I have to do a piece on something I find there; or from meeting people I want to write for. Just occasionally, someone asks me to write a piece for them. My most recent work was for Trinity College Choir in Cambridge, as I'd known Stephen Layton for years, and he asked me about four months ago if I had a piece that the choir could sing. I sent him some of my pieces, but he said they were quite tricky, so I wrote a new Ave Maria for them. They performed it very beautifully three weeks ago. When people want something and I get the seed of an idea, the piece comes pretty quickly.
CS: What do you enjoy most of all your musical endeavours?
GR: Can't answer that! I am just so lucky to be doing what I love doing. I went freelance in 1974, so I haven't done a proper day's job since then. Each day is different. I'm so lucky - being able to do all that sort of work and be paid for it is just fantastic. My son does house music – he has just come back from being a DJ in Milan – and he asked if I ever get nervous before performances. I don't really. I remember I used to, when I was a chorister, but from my teenage years onwards, I've loved doing concerts so much. I get excited. In the concert hall I'm in my home territory!
CS: What have you got coming up?
GR: It's a fantastic gift to be a featured composer at Borough New Music – a complete concert of my own music is just a wonderful opportunity. There can't be many living composers who are invited to do concerts of all their own music.
It's my 70th year, and on April 18th I'm putting on a concert at St John's Smith Square.
Also I've got a CD coming out, of selected choral works, recorded in Latvia last year. The CDs will be on sale at the concert St John's.
Gregory Rose is the Featured Composer for Series 6 of Borough New Music, in a FREE concert on Tuesday 27 March 2018 at St George the Martyr Church, SE1 1JA at 1pm. Performers include Loré Lixenberg (mezzo-soprano), Chris Brannick (percussion) and Clare Simmonds.
Wednesday 18 April 2018, 7.30pm: Music by Gregory Rose at St John's Smith Square, performed by Loré Lixenberg, Peter Skepper Skaeverd, Jupiter Orchestra, Jupiter Singers, conducted by Gregory Rose. Tickets and more info at www.sjss.org.uk (box office 020 7222 1061).
The CD Gregory Rose: Choral Compositions and Arrangements (Toccata Classics TOCC0482) with Mikus Baliņs (tubular bells) and the Latvian Radio Choir, conducted by Gregory Rose, will be available at all major record shops from April 1st 2018.