“I’m just trying to make the most sonically sensuous, magic sound-stuff-thing that I can.” -Alex Paxton
Alex Paxton (b. 1990) is an award-winning composer and improvising-trombonist based in the UK. Informed by his life as a jazz musician & improviser, Alex’s work draws upon an enormous range of classical and folk music traditions and heats them into his own uniquely explosive musical voice. Alex is recipient of the 2020-21 Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize, and has worked with ensembles such as Ensemble Modern, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and London Philharmonic Orchestra, among many others: PRXLUDES spoke to Alex about his new album Music for Bosch People (Birmingham Record Company), his practice as both composer and improviser, and his community work writing children’s music.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Alex! Thanks for joining me today. How did you first start getting involved with composition; was there a distinct shift from your background as a jazz trombonist?
Alex Paxton: I’d always composed since a young age. It had always been an important part [of me]. I think I always wanted to be a composer. For me, I saw the life of a jazz [trombonist] to include composing, and I had access to that kind of education from about sixteen onwards; maybe I saw a path there. Most jazz musicians would consider their voice as an improviser [to be] composing; you’re looking for the same thing. If you’re a jazz improviser, it’s like composing, only firstly, it’s in a genre, and secondly, it’s faster. -laughs- The actual decision-making for the performance is faster, but perhaps the preparation is slower.
When I was at the [Royal] Academy, I was super excited by all this contemporary music, and I wanted to carry on the energy I was excited by [through] learning about jazz, learning about harmony, all these different musics. Suddenly, when the door to new music was opened, I wanted to continue that energy by exploring that; after two years on the jazz course at [the] Academy, I was kind of doing second study classical composition, but I felt that I really needed to take a closer look at that. So that’s what I did.
How did you find that transition — were you still playing trombone when you decided to make the switch?
Well, I did for a bit, I did carry on, but towards the end of my undergraduate, some things weren’t quite feeling right on the trombone, and I sort of wanted to spend every hour of the day writing. And the trombone, you have to play every day, if you’re gonna play it all, because otherwise it just feels shit on your lips. So I gave up the trombone for around four years, because I was so desperate to explore the writing part. But then I came back to it; [in] my “grown-up” phase, my mature phase of trombone playing, I suddenly realised I could play some of the stuff that I wanted to write, and I started playing again on my own terms. When I started playing again, I thought “right, I’m not gonna do anything I’m rubbish at, I’m only gonna do the good things, I’m just gonna play my stuff and do improvising” — and what I lacked [in] muscularity, I thought I would make up for with my composer vision and composer craft. I’m sure you understand, even if you can’t play an instrument at all, if you’ve got enough creative vision, you can make it work, and make it into art. But then — as is the case with my trombone relationship — from day one, that plan totally went tits up, and every day I’m more and more addicted to the trombone. I started to become very concerned with all these serious sounds on the trombone. [So] my relationship with the trombone is very serious, and addictive — I love practicing the trombone — but I still just play what I want to play. I don’t do big band gigs on third trombone, I just play my own stuff, and almost entirely practice as an improviser, as a creative voice on the trombone.
Does your practice as a composer and your practice as a trombonist feel different at all? How do they affect each other?
I try to practice on the trombone as part of my creative voice, but it’s kind of of the body. One has a different relationship with the musical material, because as a composer, you only really need to know the material, at bare minimum, for the forty-five minutes it takes [you] to write it down. But an improviser has to know the material much more deeply, not only in my ears, but also in my body, which is a lot slower thing to drag around. But I like that relationship, I like that part of my everyday creative exercises is really knowing this material that I’ve been working on for years. The musical language is probably a smaller slice of the “musical language pie”, but I have a much more intimate relationship with it, because I have to practice it every day.
Well, it’s your own, isn’t it? Both the material and the language, it’s all yours.
It all feels part of the abstract energy inside which makes me write music and live this really obsessive, and sometimes indulgent, life of a creative musician. It’s just part of what I want to do. So the product of that is [that] I love composing, I love creating these worlds, but I also like being in pieces that I’ve written as an improviser. There’s a layer of creative music-making that happens [at] the concert, or on the recording, and so the composition isn’t done until the performance. And I like that. So often, with these big pieces I’ve made, for Ensemble Modern or orchestras or something, I’ll have written the music knowing when, or when I won’t be, playing in the piece. When I finish the piece, I’ll make a mockup track, and I’ll practice that as much as I can before the concert, or recording. It has a whole different life then. When I’m practicing it, I don’t change the written notes, but a couple of months of practice often makes the trombone improvisation part very different from how I imagined it. I’m very surprised, because with these big pieces, I usually decide “well, I’m gonna play here, and I’m not gonna play here” — and it’s often closer to the inverse of that by the time I’ve practiced it, and gotten to know the piece better through continuing that process.
It’s like once you’ve got that performance hat on, you get to know your work in a completely different light.
Yeah, it does feel different to be in it. It’s a very different perception, but for me, the experience of being a composer is closer to the experience of being a listener; often, the composer within me has a greater awareness of what the music sounds like, and the improviser me isn’t so aware of what’s going on, what it sounds like, [or] what it might feel [like] to the listener. It’s a darker, underhanded relationship — and I often don’t know what’s going on, or how it’s coming across. I only know what it feels like to me, in that moment. On the few occasions I play other peoples’ music in an ensemble, I have no idea what I think of this piece of music — I have no awareness of what it sounds like or whether it’s any good or not — and I have to listen afterwards, as a listener, to see what I make of [the] piece. The relationship is so different; when you play the music, it feels like you have something much more intimate, and personal, unobjective, irrational.
That’s so interesting to hear. I know you’ve played trombone in your own works alongside established ensembles; what’s the dynamic like when you’re performing your own work in collaboration with accomplished performers?
You may have noticed my music is quite high energy. What I really try to facilitate in all my work with other people, is where an individual’s energy can be channeled into the piece. In an ideal situation, each of those players is doing what they want most to be doing, or doing something they really burn for. In larger orchestras — and classical music institutions — this isn’t always possible, but it’s a realistic goal. When I write for contemporary classical music specialists who play very difficult music for nine hours a day, I want to give everyone a good play. Actually, those two ensembles — Ensemble Modern and Ensemble x.y — I like them best, and I like them best for [the] fact that, when you get it right, both those ensembles wanna get their teeth into some music. They want to have a nice play, and I want to write music that lets people have a nice play. I think that comes from playing music. As a composer, aesthetically, I want all that energy, and I demand that high energy; my music demands a super high energy that is almost destructive, so I try to facilitate that. But I think it’s also coming from a feeling of playing music; on the few occasions I play other people’s music, I wanna have a good play. I don’t wanna play long notes. -laughs-
There’s a time and a place for drones, and not all performers are gonna be cool with it. -laughs-
No, I was being a bit facetious. -laughs- I like listening to lots music that has long notes, but that’s not what I do with my playing.
Do you see the act of performance as play?
It is play — people talk about this in lots of things. The act of playing, like children; it’s a really beautiful idea, it’s so key to what we are as humans, and how we socially interact with each other. I definitely value that as an idea, because lots of different art forms and musics talk about music as “Play” — with a capital P — and I would associate myself with those, for sure.
I’ve definitely seen that aspect in your work. I know you’ve had your own ensemble on the go?
I have this thing called Dream Musics. I don’t know what I call them. It’s kind of an ensemble — it might be a record label, soon — I’m not sure [what I’d call them].
How did Dream Musics happen? How does having them there impact your work?
The act of making an ensemble is very important to me, because the decision that a composer makes at the beginning of a [composition] — what instruments is it gonna be for — these are the biggest single decisions. You spend the rest of the writing process making these tiny little decisions, “is it gonna be this big, or this big, or is it gonna be here or here”… but the act of saying “well, what am I actually gonna write for?” — these are massive decisions, and these affect the piece more than any other decisions. This is important to me. On the journey of me writing, [from] my student-y exploration things, to writing in a way that’s a bit more mature and speaks stronger, it was a really important thing when I started [Dream Musics] instead of looking for a group to write for, or waiting for a commission or some bullshit like that. -laughs- My objective is to make the most sensual sonic experience I can imagine, and this is what’s driving me; so then, it was really important when I started saying “I’m gonna make my own ensemble, I’m not gonna worry so much about pragmatic things — I’m gonna make the most sensual piece of music I can with the resources that are available to me”. I suppose that is always the case, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to make it.
Of course — there’s something so freeing about just having your own players you can hang and experiment with.
I suppose there is an element of “who do I know”, “how much money can I get hold of”, these kind of things… But generally, other than that, I’m just trying to make the most sonically sensuous, magic sound-stuff-thing that I can.
I also have an orchestra which I’ve named the Purple-Tree Tapestry Orchestra. None of these things actually exist any more than anything else exists; but in my head, I call my smaller groups Dream Musics, and my larger groups Purple-Tree Tapestry Orchestra. So these are very important to me, yeah.
How does your Dream Musics relate to your Purple-Tree Tapestry Orchestra — and the initial piece you wrote for them? Is it purely the size of the group you’re working with?
They’re kind of related. Each time I’m reaching to that abstract thing, I [find that] the ensembles that I make — that I pull out of nothing — have similarities, if you look at the way that they’re constructed. There’s often two saxes, two trombones, two strings, or two guitars. That piece [‘Purple-Tree Tapestry’] feels very intimate to me; I might have written in four or five years ago, now.
Was it to do with the initial conception of these “entities”?
That’s not the reason it’s intimate. I think the reason ‘Purple-Tree Tapestry’ still feels disproportionately intimate to me is something to do with its happiness, or the way happiness is formed in the piece. I’m not sure I can say more than that. I felt that when I wrote ‘Music for Bosch People’, this was a similar feeling, but this was the dark side of it — and ‘Purple-Tree Tapestry’ was the light side. If we’re going back to Hieronymus Bosch, maybe ‘Purple-Tree Tapestry’ is that middle panel — where everyone’s having a great time frolicking on mythical creatures and gigantic birds, and eating berries, and having sex in clams— and ‘Music for Bosch People’ is the far right panel, where they’re all being turned into jellyfish by demonic bassoons, and stuff.
That’s a really interesting point to mention — how your new album is involved. How does ‘Music for Bosch People’ relate to Hieronymus Bosch?
I’d known that painting [‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’] for a while, and find it inspiring, but I didn’t think of the name until I’d finished the piece. And ultimately, I named it like that to help facilitate the communication of the music. It’s not the most important thing, the name, for me; but I’m quite happy to use names to help music communicate, and I think that this title does that. It’s important for me to communicate to people, but it’s also important for me to write totally uncompromising music. But I’m happy to think about communication a bit more with the title — “how would my mum get into this piece? How can I convince my mum that this is a good piece of music for me to listen to?” — maybe that would help her, she might have an image of what Hieronymus Bosch is like.
To make the music as uncompromising as possible, the extramusical elements might need to be more communicative, to help facilitate that.
You’re totally right. Although I don’t know what I think anymore — I’m not quite sure I’m comfortable saying my music is entirely uncompromising. Communication is part of my practice; I feel it’s very important to be really true to myself, but I do think about [the] realistic expectation of how something can come across. Or maybe I don’t! Maybe I’m just making the most sensual experience… But maybe I’m imagining somebody listening for the first time, as opposed to me, who knows the piece quite well by the time I’ve finished it.
Isn’t that the beauty of it? You can be both, there’s no reason why you can’t; I don’t think it’s compromising.
It’s just in the world in new music-y people, and art, the word “compromising” has lots of baggage which can mean lots of different things. That’s why I’m hesitant to use it. Sometimes, though, there’s some word that is good to usurp it.
For example, I’ve done lots of workshops with children, and when I do workshops with any children of any age, I always try to find a piece — of a given composer — that “speaks” the best. That’s how I define it to myself. It’s not necessarily their best piece of music, but the piece I feel will speak most strongly to whatever audience of children, or young people, I’m [working with]. Some pieces of music, generally, most people are gonna find much harder to get into than others. When I started, I was very hardcore with musical education, and I was bringing Le Marteau sans maître into primary schools — a pretty hard piece to get into for your average primary school child… you can do it, but the workshop leader has to work much harder to get the kids into it. So I realised that that was not a good use of my energy, especially when I can find really exciting music that can speak for itself, as well. I might describe some pieces of music as “more easily accessible to primary school children” as other pieces, but then this word has lots of baggage in “grown-up” new music circles. I’d be up for finding a different word.
Speaking of how you’ve used music in schools, I saw you wrote a community opera?
I think for ages, even in my teens, I had loads of failed attempts to write music for children, and younger people, and youth bands. It’s so hard to write good music, it’s so hard to write music that means anything to you, it’s so hard to write music that means anything to you and other people. [It’s hard] writing for children that isn’t just a hack, but I started to get this right the year before I left college, halfway through my masters. I started writing music for children that was both true to who I was, but also communicated to children. And this was the perfect antidote, having spent seven years at music college doing all of this stuff… it was the perfect complement.
I started writing music for primary school orchestras — orchestras made up of forty, fifty primary school children — with tiered violins that go from grade three, to the middle violins, to babies starting out on tiny little instruments… they don’t tune, they don’t resonate. Because I was doing it as an educator, you can’t just write really abstract stuff where the children are using their instruments as play-dough, or tabletops, eating sandwiches, because they came here to learn the violin, in whatever context they are. So it has to be stuff that relates to the way music is taught. Also, it has to be music that the children enjoy, otherwise they won’t turn up to these orchestra clubs and I’ll be out of a job. So it was kind of doing all of these things. And I really enjoyed it, and I really found something in there that I hadn’t found in my music.
Have any major perspective shifts come about as you’ve been doing this community work in your music?
I’ve written about an hour and a half of children’s orchestral music, plus this opera for mass forces which is about an hour, and I’ve probably written another hour of children’s songs, and other little things like that. This is a massive part of my music, [and] the way my music has grown, for sure. I’m hoping to make an album of children’s pieces, I’ve just got shitty little live recordings.
I’ve realised when I was teaching at the start of my twenties — I did classroom music teaching — [that] the best pieces of music speak to five year olds. There should definitely be music that doesn’t speak to five year olds — it would be hell if there wasn’t — but also, really good pieces of music in the world really do speak to five year olds, [or] people without any purposeful cultural education. So I make music that kind of does that. I probably wouldn’t play ‘Music for Bosch People’ to five year olds… but I’ve played other tracks on the album. I have done workshops [for] kids with ‘Night Pictures’ and ‘Prayer with Strings’ — and it speaks to them without much help from me. But I don’t mean to be self-righteous about it.
I completely understand that. There’s a universality in not only the best music, but also the best art…
Something that I’m really interested in is when literary authors [and] poets who usually write books aimed at adults write children’s books — they are beautiful and precise, and really wonderful. I actually wrote my first children’s book the other day — it’s for three year olds, [and] books at that age are mainly the visual artists’ project, so I came along and scattered some words at the end — I loved this process, and I’ve got a few sketches for children’s books that’s come out of my work writing children’s songs for orchestras. But lots of authors who write for adults will do one or two children’s books as part of their oeuvre, and they’re always worth checking out.
Even if you look at some of the greatest children’s book authors in the past hundred years, they all have written for adults. Look at Roald Dahl…
Roald Dahl is a really interesting character… I could speak about children’s authors for ages. Roald Dahl is really interesting, for sure. His adult books are kind of gory, but his children’s books are kind of gory. The interesting thing about Roald Dahl that I really [is] that he’s always fondling with moral allegory — we know this form of the story — but the more I found out about Roald Dahl, I’m convinced that he’s totally unconcerned with morality. He’s just writing good stories! He just wanted to write a story that entices you in — that was his craft, that was his art.
In my head, I’m trying to be the Roald Dahl of children’s music: in that, Roald Dahl writes stories that celebrate what childhood is. Before Roald Dahl, most children’s stories were trying to make depictions of what children should be — but Roald Dahl is really celebrating all the gritty, dark, sludgy, slimy bits of humanity that exhibit in children’s books. It feels to me like he broke the seal on that. But I feel there’s a music for children that hasn’t been written yet, really. It’s great that you show [children] music that’s written for adults, just like it’s great that you teach children Shakespeare; but also, it’s nice in this world that they have literature that’s written especially for them. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my children’s music.
Tell me a bit about what you’ve been working on recently — what plans do you have for future records?
At the moment, I’m working on an album I call my “jazz project”; I’m not sure whether it’s jazz, but it is groove music, which isn’t something I’ve done properly before. It’s [for] trio, mainly — so trombone, drums, and keyboard — and the keyboards are playing synths and samples, so it’ll sound much bigger than a trio. I wanted to write something really specific for my technique on the trombone, as well; something that I could only play when I’d been practicing it for a few months. I wanted to say something on the trombone like that. That’s exciting me at the moment.
How far along are you with the record? When can we expect your next release?
Well, I’ve got loads of records. For the trio album, I’ve written two and a half pieces — maybe there’ll be six, or seven, or five on it — but actually I want to make lots of albums. I think I need to make about two albums a year for the rest of my life. So the next album, which I’ve nearly finished, is probably gonna be called ‘Happy Music for Orchestras’. I mainly made this at the same time as Bosch People, so it’s been almost finished for over a year and a half now. And this is the more “classical” side of stuff I’ve done in the last few years; it’s gonna have ‘Purple-Tree Tapestry’ on it, and it’s gonna have ‘Od Ody Pink’d’ — my concerto for me as an improviser and a symphony orchestra — and a few other orchestra pieces that all have some kind of happiness in them. It also has this piece called ‘Bye’ on it, which is quite an old piece [which] won the Dankworth Jazz Prize last year — and that was the closest I came to minimalism. -laughs- ‘Bye’ [has] a minimal choral-like formula, but then I go crazy improvising over it, because this is how I experience minimalism.
Then, I want to create an album which is a more harder-edged contemporary music album; I want this to have ‘Ilollipop’ on — which is my half-hour piece for Ensemble Modern — and a couple of other pieces which have something a little bit harder in them than ‘Happy Music for Orchestras’. ‘Happy Music’ is quite gay, in all meanings of the word; and this one is gay — all my music is gay — but this one is a little bit rougher, in a new music way. The other album I’ve got on my desk — I don’t know what order these are gonna happen in — is this groove music one [for] trio. I feel this album is in more of a dialogue with jazz and groove musics, and oral traditions, jazz playing and improvising. I [also] want to make this hour of children’s orchestra pieces into an album, with children on it I’ve got rough recordings of all of these, but I decided I wanted to get really nice recordings of them, and try and capture that wild, dangerous energy that these rough recordings have to children knocking over music stands, all the chaos of a primary school music concert, but capture it with a bit more sonic precision. Those are my upcoming album plans. Ideally — if anyone’s reading — I want labels for all of those, please. -laughs-
Music for Bosch People is out now on Birmingham Record Company (NMC Recordings) at:
Alex’s work can be found at: