“I find there’s always lots of music drifting about in my head; like a big ball of yarn, with strings you can gently pull to see if they unravel.” -Rylan Gleave
Rylan Gleave (b.1997) is a Glasgow-based composer and vocalist whose music addresses intersectional identity, re-contextualised natural situations, and quiet, furious resistance. Named ‘One to Watch’ 2021 by The Scotsman, Rylan’s work has been performed across the UK and USA by ensembles such as Jack Quartet NYC, British Paraorchestra, and Red Note Ensemble, and his work was recently shortlisted for ISCM World Music Days 2021 in Shanghai and Nanning; Rylan is also the vocalist of Scottish black metal outfit Ashenspire. Rylan spoke to PRXLUDES about the development of his compositional voice, authenticity in art, and the influence of his trans and autistic identities on his work.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Rylan! Hope you’re well. Firstly, I wanted to say a huge congrats for your piece ‘in waves’ being shortlisted for the ISCM World Music Days Festival in China — that’s an amazing achievement!
Rylan Gleave: Thanks so much! It’s wonderful to be representing Scotland alongside such talented peers.
Tell me about what inspired ‘in waves’; you mentioned that the piece took influence from a series of paintings?
Yeah. The triptych was painted by Kirstie Cohen, who’s a Scottish artist. I went with [poet] Beag Horn to the Pathfoot Art Collection at the University of Stirling. It was part of an RCS/University of Stirling collaboration where we visited and responded to all these artworks. So we saw Kirsty’s painting — ‘Stac An Armin’, depicting St. Kilda, an archipelago off the coast of the Hebrides — and we were like “this is gorgeous”; Beag wrote a poem and sent it to me, and I wrote the piece. So it was this three-part collaboration, [where we were all] inspiring each other.
How did the initial performances go for the piece? I saw that a few quartets already have their eyes on it…
I love getting to talk about ‘in waves’, because I get to talk about Crossing Borders Music, who premiered it in Chicago. They’re absolutely fantastic; they’re a nonprofit that’s using music to promote the dignity of people from all cultures. Tom Clowes heads that up, he’s phenomenal. CBM also used it as a teaching resource in secondary schools; they’ve taken a really varied programme in to different schools. It was streamed at Back of the Yards Public Library [in Chicago], with a little Q+A session; it was really fun to be on the panel for that. And JACK Quartet, in New York, are recording it in April as part of JACK Studio, and if it [gets selected] for World Music Days, it will be [performed] in Shanghai and Nanning as well. Hopefully the Edinburgh Quartet, who it was actually written for originally, will get round to doing it at some point. It was postponed last June, and [we’ve] been trying to reschedule that ever since.
I completely understand — has covid affected your writing process at all?
It feels really strange saying this, and I almost feel guilty, but it’s actually been mostly good for me career-wise. I don’t have to go to my restaurant job, so I have a ridiculous amount of free time, and I’ve just been using all of it to write music. I’ve not stopped for a year. -laughs- I’m really lucky to be living with my partner — who’s also the drummer for Ashenspire, and the writer and everything — and it’s been really nice to have more time with him, and [for] musical collaborations.
I totally get that, having more time in my own head without distractions has made it easier for me to write. Is it that need for headspace that’s helped you over the past year?
That’s a really interesting one. I find there’s always lots of music drifting about in my head; like a big ball of yarn, with strings you can gently pull to see if they unravel. Instead of needing lots of time to do it, it’s just trying to shut that out while I’m doing other things… Maybe it’s an autistic thing. -laughs-
Let’s explore that a bit. Do you see your autism as playing a part in your writing process?
I’d say the biggest factor would be hyperfocus. It means I can, and often do, spend up to 14 or 15 hours composing, just getting lost in it. Most composers I know who aren’t autistic, I don’t feel like they do that… I feel like it’s a “I’ll slot in my work here, [then] I’ll go and do something else” — sensible stuff, prioritising other life things. Whereas for me, I have to get it all down or I’m inconsolable. -laughs- I can’t remember who I described it to, but it’s almost like having tendrils that come out of your head; they go into a project, and once they’re in there they’re really firmly rooted. When you then have to do something else, it’s a really slow process of retracting them and bringing them back. I think my transition period between composing and not composing isn’t always that smooth, because I’m always stuck in composing mode, which makes it difficult to get back into waiting tables or pouring pints.
I feel the same way. I need to have space in my day to compose, but once I’m stuck in, I literally can’t do anything else.
Yeah, totally. -laughs-
Are there any pieces you’ve written that you feel directly relate to your autism?
I think [it’s] a really interesting topic to explore, because all of my art is autistic, whether or not it’s about being autistic, and will always be perceived as [such], because I’m autistic. All of my works, in some way, do engage with that, because it’s not something I can separate from myself as an artist.
There are a few pieces that have explicitly dealt with being autistic, but [with] an additional element — autism and isolation, autism and relationships. There was a piece in Diversions called ‘Permanent Address’, which was written for the Hebrides Ensemble, which explores navigating physical spaces and the concept of home, and what that is when you have that sense of loss of home. Again, back to the tendrils and how we grow roots in places.
I can definitely understand that — I’ve personally struggled with the idea of home, too.
It’s an odd one; a lot of people our age have moved for uni, or for work. My parents got divorced, and I went to boarding school, and then moved to a different country. Although it’s a neighbouring country [Scotland], I didn’t know anyone, I’d lost that childhood home, I’d lost my temporary home, and my parents had gone to two different homes. I wrote that piece when I got this flat with my partner; it was my first permanent address in nine years — hence the ‘Permanent Address’ title. It’s not particularly inventive.
But it’s authentic, and that is in itself inventive.
I like that, that’s a nice quote. -laughs- It’s such a strange concept [authenticity]. What I like about other peoples’ music is how it blends all fabrics of their musical personalities. When I can hear other peoples’ interests within their music, for me, that’s the most captivating [element]; how that’s presented, how those things are all tied together.
Have you read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist? He touches on those themes in a really poignant way for me.
No, I haven’t; I’ll need to take a look. Relieves a lot of the anxiety around accidentally plagiarising someone… -laughs- Dave Fennessy said to me that you kind of find that compositional voice a bit later; write the music you want to write, and you find your voice the more you do it.
That’s definitely something I agree with — have you struggled with finding that compositional voice in the past?
Yeah. It definitely ties in with imposter syndrome, that weird feeling of “am I really doing enough?”. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t start writing until I was 18 — which, compared to some peers, seems to be quite late. I trained as a singer [originally]… -laughs- I love singing, but it was strange to navigate, knowing that I’d be taking hormones at some point, and wouldn’t have that voice anymore. I didn’t want to start a degree and then be like “hey, I have three notes in my entire range”. -laughs- Even though I’ve been studying composition for nearly six years, I’m like “ooh, I’m not really a composer… I was a singer, and everyone else here is a real composer…” — I’m not sure that ever goes away. I hope it does. -laughs-
That’s a really interesting way of being introduced to composition; how did your musical interests transition from singing to composing?
I only joined the composition course in RCS about three weeks before the first term actually started. I did the short course over the summer, and then Gordon McPherson offered me a place on the BMus Composition course. I was meant to go to the [Royal] Welsh Conservatoire to be a mezzo-soprano, and he just said “don’t”. -laughs- I definitely had that weird sense of not quite fitting in, I didn’t have the theory to back up a lot of the composition knowledge that it was assumed I would have; I’d just scraped my Grade 5 Theory, and that was it. I really shied away from writing for the voice for quite a while, and only really when my [voice] broke and dropped did I consider myself as a performer again. I think joining Ashenspire was a really pivotal point for that; it gave me a stage to explore all of that without being constrained by classical repertoire, or classical style.
What is, or what are, the pieces you’ve composed that you’re most particularly proud of?
I find these questions so incredibly difficult to answer. Quality assessing my own work is really hard; I think mental health ties in with that. Linda Buckley, my tutor, really helps me with it though! Even the word “proud” I struggle with, because I’m proud of all my collaborative projects, but that’s usually on behalf of my collaborators. I find it really difficult to celebrate my own success. It never feels like I’ve done enough to warrant it. I’m working on that. I still need to celebrate my last four birthdays… -laughs-
Have you had any experiences, like, “hey, that was a sick realisation of my work”?
Yeah. I mean, with Crossing Borders playing ‘in waves’, I had no idea it would sound like that. They translated that in a really gorgeous way that matched up with how I’d imagined it, but enhanced it in such a way that it became so much better than it was in my head.
Tell me about some of your most recent work. What projects have you been working on as of late?
I’m working on a piece for PLUG Festival in May — which I’ve just finished — called ‘In chemical transit’. That, I would say, I’ve enjoyed working on, and I’m looking forward to the performance of; it’s [a] huge 45 minute piece. It’s based on the aria Voi che sapete from [The Marriage of] Figaro, a piece that I’ve sung more and hated more than any other song. That’s the traditional mezzo [soprano] repertoire — you do that for all your auditions, you do that for all your exams — and I was really pleased when I stopped being a full time singer, and stopped having to sing that song. I was doing my ABRSM vocal tuition diploma, and [I saw] the setlist of pieces you had to perform, and that was the only song I knew on that list, and I had to sing it again! -laughs- But I also sang it at my old piano teacher’s 70th birthday concert just before she passed away — so it’s a really special piece in one particular way, but I just hate it. I hate it so much.
So I wrote this big 45 minute piece about having a late-breaking voice on T [Testosterone], and the connotations of trouser roles1; how when I had to then sing it for this exam, my voice was cracking, and it was totally unintelligible. So I’ve got this recording of me singing it at age 15/16, where it’s [a] top fluttery mezzo range, and I’ve got a recording of me trying to sing it when my voice was breaking, and some of the odd vocal spaces in between. I’m not sure if I would say I’m proud of it, but I maybe will be when it’s done — when it’s been realised. It’s for voice (me), cello, piano, bass drum, and electronics.
Do you see any distinction between your work with more “classical” instrumentation and works you’ve done with metal instrumentation, or with Ashenspire?
The only divide I see between those in terms of my own practice is notation. No Ashenspire members, apart from our violinist, read sheet music — everyone reads tabs, or learns by ear — whereas I learned Western standard notation, but I’m not a good sight reader, so going from singer to composer, I really had to brush up on those score-reading skills. But going back to working with a band, I [was] totally having to rely on my ears again. For that first album, there’s no vocal score — they recorded all the music, and then stuck Alasdair [Dunn] in a booth, and he just sang it. And that’s the piece, those are the parts — so there’s only really that as a reference point, which made learning that first album difficult.
It’s almost like the notation is just the audio for the track.
Notation is the way you communicate with other people, right; how you show them your ideas, the clearest way of putting them down. But if you’re not trained in that, there’s a whole other way of working [to] explain yourself, I guess. I loved working on ‘baby star’ with Fraser [Gordon] from Ashenspire, because we got to explore weird and wonderful notation; a mix of tabs, graphics, and text. They’re super cool, and a gem to collaborate with.
On the subject of Ashenspire — tell me how you got involved with them. What’s your history with the group?
I got involved with Ashenspire after I covered a service with a local church choir. I stood next to this guy who was singing, and he was singing an F sharp instead of an F natural, and it was grating on my ear ever so slightly. So I was like “hey, let’s have a look at this passage”… we [got talking] and he was like “I have a band — you know music, do you wanna be in my band?” and he was cute, so I was like “yeah”. Then we ended up dating, and that was three and a half years ago. We’ve been together ever since.
That’s such a cute story!
Yeah, I listened to a lot of metal in my teenage years! I went to Chetham’s School of Music for sixth form, and it wasn’t really accepted as worthwhile listening. I wasn’t so open about it. But I’m trying to do away with the idea of guilty pleasures in music; it’s just music you enjoy, [you can] listen to it.
[So] I joined just after their first album was released. We’ve got a second album coming out later this year; I wrote one of the tracks for that, which I’m singing on with Maud the Moth as guest artists, but Alasdair is doing the lead vocals throughout, [because] it’s a passion project for him. I do the live gigs because he can’t drum and sing at the same time. -laughs-
With all those things considered, do you think an attitude shift needs to happen for new music to reach a wider audience?
Going back to how we promote new music, and contemporary classical music, to young people… Even in programming, it’s like “oh, we’ve padded this out with some Beethoven or whatever, sorry about the new music!” — I’ve done some workshops in primary schools with Red Note Ensemble, and we brought brand new music in to these kids, and they loved it! Kids are way more intelligent than we give them credit for, in critiquing that kind of stuff. They haven’t learned all the “new music is weird and bad, and classical music is elitist” — it’s all just music, it’s all just sound. Like with a lot of values, music only has value because we ascribe value to it. I do feel like we hold the power to change the way that currently exists, but it requires a lot of us doing it, not just a few of us here and there.
Rylan’s work can be found at:
- trouser roles: a theatrical term used to denote a role which is portrayed by a performer of the opposite sex.