David Lancaster is an award-winning composer whose work has been performed, recorded and broadcast internationally. His music includes work for choir, string quartet, piano trio, brass quintet and several song cycles.
Born in Wigan, David studied music at York and Cambridge Universities and at Dartington Summer School (with Peter Maxwell Davies). He was also Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse.
In 2016 David successfully completed his PhD in Composition at the University of York and is Director of Music at York St John University. He is currently the Director of York’s Late Music concert series. From 2019 David’s music will be published by UYMP.
In this interview with Oxford Harmonic Choir, David talks about his musical inspirations, the new work which he has composed for us, and his thoughts on the future of music making in this country, as well as sharing his eight Desert Island Discs.
What inspired you to become a composer? Was it something you always wanted to do from a young age?
I began learning the trumpet when I was around 11 or 12 years old and started to compose little pieces to play straight away: it seemed a very natural thing to do, instinctive, in the same way that someone might draw or make models, and I didn’t really question it. At that stage I certainly didn’t think of composing as a vocation or imagine that it would become important to me in the future. Later on I composed pieces for friends and for the bands and ensembles that I played with, but it was all quite utilitarian, just about providing something new to play.
Which composers have had the biggest influence on you?
I remember attending a summer school for brass players when I was 14 where we played Grimethorpe Aria by Harrison Birtwistle: it knocked me sideways. I hadn’t heard anything like it before; this was bleak, angry music which was very ‘modern’ but which also had a very strong emotional core. But it wasn’t only the sound of the music which impressed me: here was a living composer from the same sort of background as myself, and the music seemed to reflect the landscape I had grown up in. I asked the conductor (Elgar Howarth) how I could learn to write music like that and he recommended studying music at York University. So that’s what I did! My music doesn’t sound very much like Birtwistle now, and other influences have emerged over time: Gavin Bryars, Louis Andreissen, Arvo Part and others, and I’m increasingly finding myself drawn to medieval and renaissance music.
Of Trumpets and Angels is a setting of two of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (At the round earth’s imagined corners and Death, be not proud.) Please tell us about this piece of music. How have you reflected the texts in the musical language? What do you want this piece of music to convey?
For me (and most composers, I suspect), the starting point for any vocal music is the text, so I spent a long time reading and trying to understand all the implications of Donne’s words. That is not to say that the music always complements the text, and some of the most interesting moments are when the music appears to be contradicting the words, but that has to arise from a thorough understanding. So whilst Donne implores ‘Death, be not proud’ and claims that death is no more than a long sleep, the music might sound rather more fatalistic!
The orchestration was chosen for me by Mozart: Of Trumpets and Angels uses almost exactly the same forces as Mozart’s Requiem, for pragmatic reasons (for this, and hopefully, to encourage future performances) but also because the dark timbres of an orchestra without flutes or oboes – but which includes trombones – provides the perfect sonority for this music. I say ‘almost exactly’ because I have chosen to write for modern clarinets rather than basset horns, and Mozart’s timpani are augmented by the use of a wood block!
What does your composing process look like?
I get up very early every day and compose before my university commitments begin: it’s a quiet time when no-one else is around to disturb me. Composing something every day – no matter how little progress I achieve – is very important because I tend to build up momentum, and if there’s a longer gap it is so much harder to pick up the threads of where I left off.
There’s always a certain amount of necessary planning (graphs, charts, descriptions…) before I begin putting down notes on staves, and the pieces which in my opinion represent my best work are generally the ones which spent the longest time at the conceptual stages.
I try to manage my workload so that I am planning one piece while another is being notated. From a practical point of view, there’s a small room at the back of our house which is reserved for composing (where I work each morning), but I also keep a small manuscript notebook which I carry around with me everywhere!
What advice would you give to aspiring young musicians or composers?
Becoming a composer is never going to be easy but the most useful tools are probably persistence and honesty: the persistence to work very hard and to keep working so that you are in the right place when good opportunities arise, and honesty to become the composer you need to be and not the composer you think you ought to be, which sometimes means digging your heels in and resisting the inevitable pressure to conform.
What do you think the future holds for classical music in this country, and choral music in particular?
I am very concerned about the future of music education. I grew up in Wigan when instruments and lessons were provided free of charge to anyone who wanted to learn, along with opportunities to join orchestras and bands, to give concerts and to go on tours. In those days the town had one of the finest instrumental services in the country and without that incentive I probably wouldn’t have ever considered a future in music. The situation now is very different and opportunities are denied to many who can’t afford to pay; the result could be a ‘lost generation’ growing up without the benefits of music education.
On a more positive note, recent years have seen a resurgence in choral singing and hardly a week goes by that does not offer new insight into the benefits of singing for physical and mental health. Composers seem much more interested in writing for choirs today and the more enterprising choirs can draw upon a very rich repertoire which includes a great deal of exciting new music.
What are you working on now?
I am currently finishing a saxophone quartet which will form the live accompaniment for a silent film – a very exciting project for the Delta Saxophone Quartet. It’s taking longer than I had expected because the music is all very fast, and obviously that means there are a lot of notes to write for a nine-minute film! And – still at the planning stage – I also have a new string quartet for the Bingham Quartet which will form the third in a cycle of five quartets and which is a small tribute to Leonardo in this the 500th anniversary of his death; the quartet will be performed in York later this year.
And finally, if you were on Desert Island Discs, which eight records would you take with you? (You can choose a book and a luxury as well if you wish.)
This is very difficult indeed and my selection would probably be quite different if I had to pick it again tomorrow!
JS Bach: Magnificat
My favourite Bach: every movement is filled with brilliant invention. I used to really enjoy playing the first trumpet part, which is very high but never fails to impress when it comes off!
Harrison Birtwistle: Mask of Orpheus
I have to include one Birtwistle piece, but which? This opera is central to Birtwistle’s output, and I had the pleasure of working on it (and seeing every performance) during its first production at ENO. For a long time it exerted a powerful influence on my work which took a long time to shake off!
David Bowie: Heroes
Bowie’s three Berlin albums take pop music into new domains; his collaboration with Brian Eno brought out a new creativity in Bowie at a moment of crisis in his life. The Delta Sax Quartet recorded my piece Swan on their CD Bowie, Berlin and Beyond last year along with transcriptions of instrumental pieces from those albums.
Hans Abrahamsen: Let Me Tell You
I’ve always thought there was something quite ‘northern’ about my music and feel a particular affinity with several Scandinavian composers, notably Poul Ruders and Hans Abrahamsen. When my Apocalypse was performed in Copenhagen a couple of years ago by the Danish Radio Vocal Ensemble it almost felt like a homecoming!
Vaughan-Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
For three years after university I held the position of composer-in-residence at Charterhouse, supported by the RVW Trust. It was a very happy, creative time in my life and I grew to love Vaughan-Williams’ music. With my partner Bridget I enjoy visiting cathedrals and abbeys, in the UK and around Europe, and this powerful yet sublime work seems almost to represent the musical equivalent of a great English cathedral.
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
As with most composers of our times, Stravinsky has proved hugely influential over my work and he is a composer I always return to. Choosing from his huge output is very difficult (Agon, Symphonies of Winds and the Octet are particular favourites) but this neo-classical choral symphony from 1930 includes some of his most elegant writing.
Eric Ball: Resurgam
My father died on New Year’s Day this year; this was one of his favourite pieces for brass band and it brings back memories of travelling to concerts and band contests with dad when I was much younger.
David Lancaster: Gentle
Is there room for one of my own pieces in the list? Gentle is a set of three songs setting words by Rumi, originally composed for soprano and piano but the later version for soprano and marimba is the one I prefer. It was recorded by the wonderful PercusSing duo in 2017 and I wouldn’t want to be without Ana singing the final song on my desert island.
My book would be the Divine Comedy (three books in one!) because it’s a long-standing ambition to create a large-scale piece based on Dante’s writing, and my luxury item (of no practical value) would be one of J.M.W.Turner’s pictures of York Minster.
Thank you, David, for such a wonderful interview and we wish you every success with future projects!
If you would like to find out more about David Lancaster and his music, his website www.davidcomposer.com includes details of his work and forthcoming performances. David can also be found on Facebook, Soundcloud and Twitter.