“A huge amount of space in my brain is, a lot of the time, filled up with different rhythms going on. I’m fascinated by things like metric modulation and polyrhythms… They’re so powerful.”Luke Harrison
Luke Harrison is a composer currently studying at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Having composed for ensembles such as Millennial Percussion, RBC Alternative Orchestra, and more recently the National Youth Percussion Orchestra and National French Horn Ensemble, Luke’s highly eclectic work crosses boundaries of rhythm and pitch, between bombastic energy and meditative introspection. PRXLUDES spoke to Luke about his meticulous approach to composition, the progression of his sound and some of the projects Luke has worked on during his career.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Luke! Firstly I just wanted to say, I love ‘Big Beat Breakdown’; I watched the live video, there was this real viscerality to it!
Luke Harrison: Ah, man, thank you, that’s really kind! It took a while to write, but I’m really pleased with that performance and how it turned it out. I’m glad you liked it.
Take me through a bit of the compositional process… what guided your writing, was there anything in particular you were listening to at the time?
So my first thoughts about it — really, before I began to write it — my initial plan for the piece was for it to be like a drum kit, but spread out for the different performers. I felt like I’d be able to create something that wouldn’t be possible to be played by just a single drummer at a drum kit. I thought that it would be something cool to be able to do; if you’re listening to it, it sounds like a drum kit, because all the elements of a drum kit are there, but because there are four different people doing it, there are so many more rhythmic possibilities.
I suppose [with] influences, at the time… I was listening to a piece by Iannis Xenakis called Rebonds; there’s an A part and a B part, and [in] the B part there’s lots of different patterns and ideas that are developed through the piece. [Though] it’s done by a solo performer, the setup and how it’s played [were] quite influential. Another piece called Ionisation by Edgard Varèse — that’s [for] quite a large ensemble — those were two really big pieces that were quite influential.
Is there any reason those pieces stood out to you in terms of your compositional process?
I think in the compositional process, for me, rhythm is more important than pitch. During the writing process, I was having a discussion [about it] with Richard Ayres, and he mentioned to me that the piece kind of sounded almost like this machine that was going, and there were all these little components in the machine that were moving and working all together. I felt like that was quite a nice description of [it], and from what Richard said to me about associating it with a machine, I then imagined that machine breaking down; all the parts kind of stopped [like] some kind of malfunction, bits started to fall off, slow down… -laughs- I tried to portray that towards the end of the piece. I had all these ideas, all these things, and I wanted [to make] a really big piece dynamically.
I suppose there’s also a visual element of it, as well, because there’s those four performers, and I really wanted their parts to be quite exciting because you’re watching these percussionists. They’re, in some parts, like a machine… They’re doing different things, but they’re contributing to this one thing that’s working, but there’s also parts in the piece where they all play together; it’s not very often, but there’s parts where they’re all playing the same rhythm. There’s a few different elements; sometimes they’re working against each other, and sometimes they’re working together. All those things contributed to the overall sound of the piece.
I find it really interesting what Richard Ayres said about it being a machine; watching the performance, it did feel like the performers were components in a machine…
Yeah, yeah. -laughs-
Do you think there’s that kind of mechanical or methodical approach in your other compositions? Is it something you’ve explored in the past?
I don’t think so, actually. One thing that I would say [about my work] is that I do tend to be very, very precise about the things that I’ve written down on a score. I know there is a tendency sometimes for people to have a small amount of material, a few bars, even a few notes, for a composer to give that to a performer and say “you have that creative control over the dynamics of it, the rhythm, the length or tempo of this”; they give a lot of creative control to the performer which can creative lots of different variations and lots of different results. But for me, I’ve never been that comfortable giving that creative control to the performer; for my music, I’ve felt very precise. But I’ve never tried to make my music feel mechanical or machine-like in the past; I’ve always liked the human element of things, which has been really interesting, now I’m trying to move more towards the electronic and synthesised side of music, to try to create that human feel in the world of synthesis…
It’s almost like a dichotomy, isn’t it? Between human and machine…
Yeah, it’s definitely something that’s interesting to think about, [though] I’ve never associated my music in that way. That’s why it’s great to, during the writing process, show your music to composers that you admire, if you’re lucky enough to sit down and talk to [them], hear their thoughts; for [Ayres] to associate that with some kind of mechanical machinery really [evolved] the piece in a new direction.
From what I remember from the past year, you’ve been working with percussionists and percussion ensembles; what is it that draws you to writing for percussion?
Well, one of things is… I love drums! -laughs- I just love drums. I think, like I said earlier, rhythm is more important [to me] than pitch, so to be able to work and write for a department that are full of these incredible percussionists — they’re really keen for new music to be written for them — to have that opportunity to work closely with [them] as part of the residency has been so much fun. It’s definitely helped my confidence, for sure, as a composer. I’m also a drummer myself, so a huge amount of space in my brain is, a lot of the time, filled up with different rhythms going on. I’m fascinated by things like metric modulation and polyrhythms… They’re so powerful. I feel like sometimes I’ll have a rhythmic idea that I might envisage being played on a [particular] drum, or drum kit, and I’ll assign that pattern to pitch, [which] helps create a melodic passage in a piece, say, written for a different instrument. Whatever instrument I’m writing for, there’s always that influence of drums and percussion somewhere.
Do you see rhythm almost as pitch, or in the some way other composers view pitch?
Ooh… maybe. -laughs- I think the resonance of a drum — for example, someone hitting a snare drum — after the initial attack, depending on how the drum has been tuned, can [become] a pitch; depending if you crank it really tight. Thinking about that can also lead to other [melodic] ideas…
I can definitely see drum resonance being used as a base to create melodic fragments.
Yeah, there can be an element of that, there can be. I feel like the way a specific drum sounds can influence a part; say, if you’ve got this huge, low, really resonant bass drum, I’d write a different part to a small bass drum that’s really tight, [or] had a lot of mid-range punch to it. I think how a drum sounds can influence a part, definitely. I think I’ve moved away from the question there… -laughs-
Speaking of tuning, I’ve seen you recently released a piece you composed for gamelan? How did you find that?
That [Escape to Gamaland] was something that I’d never done before. but [it was] something that was enjoyable, and [that] I learned a lot from. I found that a lot of my music that I’d written in the past has been quite energetic, there’s been a lot of pitch content, a lot of rhythm content, and I feel like that’s in part to do with my personality, and who I am. To contrast that, I have tried [over the past] year to work on music that’s a lot slower, that has a lot more long-held rhythmic and harmonic passages. I tried to make the piece [Escape to Gamaland] more of a calm and meditative piece, [and] I’ve really enjoyed exploring that side of my compositional voice.
[In terms of] the tuning systems… With gamelan, because each of the sets of instruments are handmade, no set is exactly the same. I think, again, because I’ve had that mindset of trying to have a certain amount of control over how [my] music sounds, with [Gamaland], I think that’s what gives [the piece] its character. It’s not exactly tuned, so the results may vary slightly, depending on what set of gamelan instruments you’re playing. It was cool to learn about how other composers were influenced by gamelan as well; I listened to a lot more [Claude] Debussy, John Cage… to hear about how gamelan influenced them as well was inspiring. I suppose learning about its history definitely opened a few more [doors] for me.
Also, the repetition of it as well; there are these repeating patterns, but it’s [figuring out] how to keep the ear engaged, to keep people interested. There’s a rhythmic element to that [too]; the gamelan piece rhythmically is very simple, but [these were] still things that I considered during the writing process. I entered [Gamaland] for the John Mayer Composition Prize as well, and that’s the first composition prize I actually won! -laughs-
You mentioned that you’ve been transitioning your sound from overly energetic to slower and more reflective. Was there anything particularly that caused you to make the shift? Was it a conscious decision on your part?
I think that it’s definitely [been] a conscious decision. I started to discuss [my work] with Seán Clancy, and his influence definitely helped to steer my music in a certain direction. I’m still very interested in the more energetic and rhythmically complex side of my music, that’s still firmly there as part of my voice, but I feel like [the slower side] is something that was definitely worth exploring, because it’s two different extremes; I’ve got this one side that’s very energetic, and the other side that’s more meditative, more reflective. But I think that I — generally as a person — am very anxious day-to-day; my brain is very busy, it doesn’t switch off very much. I’ve found that it’s quite calming; I feel like this side of my compositional voice has helped me to be more patient, because although there’s less material to write, the material that you do have becomes even more important. To have that minimal approach and to be able to develop that, to be able to keep that interesting for the listener’s ear, was something that I definitely struggled with to begin with. But it’s something that’s quite nice. It’s calming for myself, but also the idea that it could also possibly help someone else be a bit more present, to have that period of time where they’re just listening to [my] music… if it helps them calm down in any way. If that were to be the case, that would be really nice. It’s just a really nice thought.
“The idea that it could also possibly help someone else be a bit more present, to have that period of time where they’re just listening to [my] music… if it helps them calm down in any way.” Luke Harrison, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
That’s a very empathetic and altrustic viewpoint… I absolutely love it. When I think of composers, I imagine big egos and all that kind of shit, but you’ve gone the opposite way. It’s brilliant.
Ah, man… -laughs- I suppose I’m quite a sensitive person, and I do feel like I have a lot of empathy for others. Sometimes that’s a positive, and other times it can affect [me] quite a lot; it can have a negative impact. It’s also difficult because there’s one side of me that just wants to write music that I enjoy, and that I like, and not have that influence of others, but however hard I try, there’s always that thought of how others will perceive [my] work, and how it might affect them emotionally, how they’ll feel when they’re listening to it. There’s two kind of contrasting sides to me.
Why can’t it be both? They can coexist.
Yeah, they do. They have done, and I think they will continue to. -laughs- Either, sometimes it might be beneficial, and sometimes it’ll stop me from sleeping at night. But either way, when you get to a place where there’s a happy medium for both… if you can get to that point. I’m somewhere in the middle between those two; when a piece reaches that point where both sides of me are happy, then… -laughs- [That] often means that pieces I write take a long time for me to compose, or to finish and put the double bar lines at the end. But I don’t see that as too negative; I’m just very thorough in going through everything.
That makes sense — you mentioned you were very particular about your sounds. I know you’ve been working on some ambient tracks; does that translate into the electronic stuff you’re doing at the moment?
Yeah, massively… [I’m] very, very particular about that kind of thing. Which I think is quite nice in the electronic world, as well, because you’re able to spend hours and hours… -laughs- There’s always that joke that people spend thousands of pounds on gear and their snare drum still sounds like trash. I suppose when you’re writing for acoustic instruments, there’s always the individuality of the performer, what kind of strings they’re using, the room it’s performed in… Obviously those things you don’t really have that much control over, but I suppose in the electronic world, when you’re doing it all yourself, you’re able to be a lot more particular. So I suppose there’s the positive and negative side to that as well; but also, there’s that side where you just have to let it go and commit — once you’ve recorded it! So there’s always these different kinds of thought processes going on in my head while writing, and listening. There’s these little battles going on [in my head] like “ah, you know, should it do this, should it do that?”; I think that’s just very common in creatives generally.
How do you feel about your compositional process when it comes to this kind of work?
I think over this period of lockdown, I feel like writing music has become even more of an escape for me, [and] I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to have music there to immerse me in the writing process. I’m sure lots of people will be able to relate, it’s been quite an anxious period for a lot of people, and I’ve definitely been listening to a lot more music to help me to escape and calm down a bit. It [electronic music] is just something that’s new, and exciting, to concentrate on… working with small, minimal amounts of material and trying to develop that, [seeing] where it takes me, really. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, but I feel like it’s something that’s really kept me motivated.
I suppose [what] we were talking about earlier, where I’m thinking a lot about how other people would perceive [me] and more of that empathetic side, I think this side has been a little bit more selfish in some way? -laughs- Where it’s been something I’ve almost written to help me calm down a little bit.
I think a lot of electronic music is inherently individualistic.
Yeah. I think artists like Aphex Twin have been quite influential on me, starting to work in the electronic realm. I think it’ll be more ambient, more minimalistic, but it’ll definitely have my personality and my voice in there.
What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on so far?
I suppose — because it was the largest ensemble I’ve written for — [it would be] a piece of mine called ‘Into the Light’, which was an orchestral piece written for the [Royal Birmingham Conservatoire] Alternative Orchestra. That was really fun, because it was an orchestral piece, but I added bits of electronics [and] samples. There was a lot of saxophone in there, I got a glockenspiel in there… that was a lot of fun! Incorporating both the acoustic side and the electronic side — which I did for ‘Into the Light’ and a string quartet piece of mine called ‘Reflection’; that’s also something I’ve been interested in this year.
So [my trajectory] has gone from all completely acoustic, to mixing electronic and acoustic together, and now — because of lockdown, not being able to work with people face-to-face — I’ve moved to electronic [sounds]. I think being open to all those different sounds and colours opens up lots more opportunities. I don’t think I’ve written for an ensemble that I’ve disliked! I’m always very excited to create music, really, whether it’s by myself or [with] others, no matter how large or small the ensemble is.
More of Luke’s work can be found at:
- Iannis Xenakis – Rebonds B (1987-89), performed by Sam Um @ Yale University (2018)
- Edgard Varèse – Ionisation (1931), played by Ensemble Intercontemporain
- Richard Ayres – No. 50, The Garden (2017-18), UK premiere @ Southbank Centre, London
- Seán Clancy – ireland england (2018)
- Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (full album) (1992)