“I suppose my interest in using dramaturgical things, theatrical things, visual things, all comes from the aesthetic of performance.”Gillian Walker
Gillian Walker is a Scottish composer whose recent work concerns the visual and theatrical. Recent commissions have included projects for Hebrides Ensemble, Red Note Ensemble, Cumnock Tryst Festival, and Live Music Now Scotland, among many others; she is a recipient of the Kimie Composition Prize 2019/20, the Royal College of Music’s 2021 Patron’s Fund Prize, and Scotland Chamber Orchestra’s New Stories scheme. Gillian is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where she studied with David Fennessy; she is currently based in London, studying composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
We caught up with Gillian over Zoom in December, and spoke about a host of things including modular composition, “total theatre”, the aesthetics of performance, and much more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Gillian! Thanks so much for joining me today. Tell me about your about your musical background; how did you initially get involved with composition?
Gillian Walker: I was kind of late in coming towards it. I started out playing piano and trumpet from around secondary school age. I was fortunate enough to go to the Junior Conservatoire at the RCS [Royal Conservatoire of Scotland], and that was when I was doing more “classical” stuff — beforehand, I was in brass bands, wind bands, and doing orchestras at secondary school — [so] I started to be introduced to more classical stuff when I was a bit older, probably around 16.
From there, I started having an interest in composition. I started that when I started my first degree. I was actually gonna go and be a secondary school teacher; so I did one year of an education degree — it was called the BEd course at the RCS — and moved to the composition course, where I studied with David Fennessy.
Was there anything in particular that spurred your interest in composition?
The interest in composition came from being interested in pop and rock music from a young age. That was kind of what I was obsessed with, and love — and still love — and that fuelled a creative drive to want to make stuff.
I went to my first composition lesson at Juniors, about a month before I was due to leave to go on to university, and I was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. The teacher was like “oh, do you like this kind of music”, and we ended up taking about all different kinds of music over the lesson! [I] started going to this class, and taking these lessons, for about two or three weeks — and I was obsessed. From then on, I loved composing. I was very naive and rubbish at it… -laughs- But I’ve been doing it ever since.
You’re now based in London, at the Guildhall — tell me about one of the projects you’ve undertaken there recently…
The London Contemporary Dance School has a music collaboration with the Guildhall; all of the composers on the first year MMus course get to pair with a choreographer, and they create a work together over a period of a month a half, two months. I worked with Lila Abdel-Kader, who’s a French choreographer, and that’s when we made ‘When We Collide’. It was great fun.
Tell me about the concept and collaborative process of the piece; was the collaboration natural?
I would say it was equal, which I think was the beauty of our collaboration. We sat down for quite stringent periods of time, and spoke about what it was we wanted to achieve — and we both had similar ideas about the performer as person; we don’t want to characterise performers. There’s a lot of [moments] in the piece where we’ve taken characteristics of the dancers [and] musicians. Their names are in the performance; there’s pedestrian walking versus this virtuosic element where they run about. So we were concerned about this concept of being true to the people that are in [the] performance. It’s a bespoke piece of work for them.
Did the resultant performance feel theatrical to you?
I’ve noticed you picked up on [that]… -laughs- I am very interested in this kind of thing. But yeah, I would say that it ends up being quite a theatrical event, even though it’s in the realm of dance. We had quite a shared interest in Jérôme Bel; he’s a French choreographer who does things with non-dance. He has a well known piece ‘Disabled Theatre’ for Theatre Hora, [and] there’s a couple pieces that are written for specific people. We were interested in that autobiographical aspect of performance, reflecting the people we work with. So we had similar, but varied, interests together.
How did these different elements intermingle with your compositional practice?
The opening idea that I came up with was separating the percussion — forcing the percussionist’s setup to be unnaturally long, so it’s almost like they’re on a walkway. So this elongation of Callum Murray’s percussion — [between] two cymbals — became the premise of the whole thing. There’s a kind of quadrant with the two [other] instrumentalists being at different angles, which affects the sound overall.
I’m interested in percussion as a medium because it’s like a musical playground. When you see all these big percussion sets, sometimes they’re spread out over a whole concert hall. I’ve seen performances where I’ve watched people running about from end to end, and I find it hilarious. I once [saw] a performance where there was somebody trying to walk up a small set of stairs — [over] lots of very quiet string sounds — to get to their other bit of percussion, and all you could hear was their boots creaking, which I thought was really funny… -laughs- Those kinds of things interest me: these accidental bits of performance that people think are infringements.
“I’m interested in percussion as a medium because it’s like a musical playground. I’ve seen performances where I’ve watched people running about from end to end, and I find it hilarious.” Gillian Walker, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
How did you bring that musicality to the piece through the dancers and movement?
There was lots of talk of incorporating paper — how we can intermingle people’s personalities. There’s a tape where they recite their names. Lila and I also speak on the tape, so there’s also the composer [and] choreographer personalities intermingled. Callum writes his name on the cymbals — which is a very small detail, but it’s written into the score. It’s a collage of repetitions of our identity.
And Tur Moràn — the dancer and performer who recites the text at the end — that’s their own original text, and some poetry from their native home of Catalonia. That was an interesting discussion, bringing in native languages. I think they all had input in the piece, which is why the piece is utterly made for those people. That’s the kind of environment I like to work in, rather than “traditional” concert settings.
Environments where everyone’s got their foot in the door, in a sense…
Absolutely. It’s constant communication. That was a great situation, because we were constantly there once, twice a week. I like that it’s a true collaboration where everyone’s involved. I’m not sure if it’s possible to completely get rid of the composer hierarchy, but it definitely helps when you’re making work with other people in that way.
You’ve recently worked on a collaborative piece for an installation at the Southbank Centre in London; tell me about how your approach adapted to a site-specific environment?
Yeah! ‘The Hop’ was a very interesting project. I had [the] opportunity to write a performance piece for Jyll Bradley’s sculpture at the Hayward Gallery, on the Southbank — which is called ‘The Hop’. The structure itself is made of wood and plexiglass, and it explores ideas of community — particularly working-class communities in East London, travelling to the hop fields in Kent as a working holiday. Me and Jyll talked about this quite a lot, and something I really wanted to do was put on something there. That’s probably the most specific place I’ve put something on in.
What were the most important elements for you in conceiving the piece?
I would say that [for the piece] space is the most important thing. Part of the way that I “composed” the piece — it’s not really a “composed” piece, it’s more of a performance work — is that I brought together lots of materials, lots of things that would influence what happened in a space of time around the sculpture. For example, I got the plans [for] the design of the sculpture, and incorporated that into where the performers would move. I devised a kind of semi-choreographed “pathway” for everyone to travel.
The other piece of important material in that piece is a folk song called ‘Hopping Down in Kent’. It’s played through with different instructions behind it, and a series of chords that I constructed around [it] as an interrupted factor, a moment of stationary-ness.
What kind of challenges did you encounter while writing the piece?
It was important for me to think about the materials I wanted to bring to this place. I was thinking a lot about outdoor performances — which I’ve done once before — and the complications that come from doing things outside; for example, temperature, [or] people coming in and out of the scene. That’s the kind of thing that interested me most, when I went to visit the sculpture — people loved walking through that site. It’s very playful. It’s a warm place to go.
During the performance, people were walking through it unknowingly — [not knowing] that there were musicians playing something in that time. The performative encounter is quite interesting to me. Some people would walk through it, realise it was a performance, and go “woah”, and walk round… Some people would see it was happening, and very tentatively walk around the performance space.
It’s always interesting to think about how peoples’ mindsets shift between a performance and non-performance environment.
If it was me, I’d quite like people to really get in about it, and not be so self-conscious; but it’s very interesting. The blurred line between what a performance is, and what happens if you take it outside the concert hall. Some of that reticence still appears when people don’t want to walk through, like, eight musicians playing in a sculpture… -laughs- It was a beautiful thing. It was a very, very cool thing to do.
Tell me about the role theatricality plays in your work — how do you see theatricality impacting your practice?
I feel like “theatricality” is a very broad term, and it can be seen in many different ways. I suppose my interest in using dramaturgical things, theatrical things, visual things, all comes from the aesthetic of performance. I think that I’ve always been interested in the “performance” of classical music concerts — the way we clap at certain intervals in a concert, or [are] told to move in certain ways. Conductors are fantastic examples of this. And when you take somebody that doesn’t normally go to classical music concerts, it can be quite a theatrical event. I definitely found that when I started going to them, which was fairly late on.
So when I work with musicians, I notice that they have certain gestures, or they do things in certain ways. There’s things that all of them do the same, like the way they hold their bow, or the way that they lift off. I wrote part of an earlier piece based on the way that woodwind players do a circle motion when they finish certain gestures. I think those things have always fascinated me, because it aids them in their musicality.
Were there any moments, or experiences, you had that may have influenced your mindset?
I think that theatricality and musicality are quite intrinsically linked. I always remember being in brass bands, or school orchestras, and being told to walk [in] certain ways, or [how to] present yourself… and it’s very dramatic. -laughs- I think that’s unconsciously stayed with me, and it’s something I’m interested in heightening.
Do you see your approach as a blurring of these different practices — and what kind of ethos inspires that approach for you?
I’m quite interested in this idea of total theatre. Something that’s all-encompassing. I think I’m quite narratively-driven — I’ll probably regret saying that… -laughs- But the kind of way that things unfold in a piece, over a period of time, and how it looks, is very important to how I compose. Blurring some of these elements together really interests me, and I enjoy watching [performances] that do similar things.
I’ve not come across the term total theatre before — what do you mean by that term?
Do you know the term gesamtkunstwerk? It’s kind of under the same umbrella as this. But my understanding of total theatre is that [which] is seen as incorporating every single facet of performance — like, puppetry, mime, music, visual art, theatre, happenings, performance art — everything that you can possibly think of that comes under the umbrella of “performance”. It gets blended together, and it pops something out that’s supposed to encompass the audience’s senses; something that celebrates physical art, visual art, theatre, and performance.
It’s quite an old term, from the twentieth century — but it’s something that I came across when I was researching older forms of experimental music theatre. This is where some of these things have evolved from. So I find an interest in blending lots of things together, even though my skillset is mainly in composition. That’s why I’m interested in collaboration; because it can add to what I have.
That entirely makes sense — it’s a way to centre and celebrate aspects of collaboration and performance that aren’t necessarily in the spotlight. Are there any pieces of yours that you feel particularly encompass this theme?
I think I do it now in a lot more pieces. I first started doing it in a piece called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’; it’s for Gaia Duo, who are a string duo based in Scotland. I suppose that’s blending together literature, spoken word, and ripping up wallpaper — I don’t know what that comes under… -laughs- I don’t want to say the piece is “beginning steps”; I think that was quite a big step towards that notion of what incorporating different elements outside of music could do to a piece, which a lot of composers have done previously.
The other piece that I’ve done is a piece that I did as part of my final portfolio, which involved a close collaboration with a percussionist at the RCS. It involved videos of the performer, myself playing percussion as a kind of “hidden” performer, and the percussionist as percussionist. There was lots of play on what video involvement does to a performance, [and] what does somebody who’s not trained in an instrument, coming in to a performance to play that: what happens to them as a role? I was doing more gestural things, that were not so much focused on “playing”, but extrapolating some of the percussion material…
Are there any projects you have coming up exploring this theme?
I’m doing a piece now, which is for percussionist Calum Huggan. It’s gonna involve Calum Huggan, Gaia Duo, choreographer Constant Vigier and filmmaker Louise Mather. That will involve “othering” the instruments, using instruments in unconventional ways. I suppose the two pieces I’ve recently talked about — ‘Where We Collide’ and ‘Tending (to the Hop)’ — are much stronger in their different uses of other elements, but I hope to further it more and more in this piece.
That sounds absolutely fascinating — what do you mean by the idea of “othering” instruments?
The project that we’re doing is centred on otherness, exploring unheard voices in classical music. It’s focusing on a queer and female-identifying narrative, which is the project brief. When I heard the term “othering”, [it was] actually something that I, without realising, connect to and understand — because I think it’s something I’ve been doing in earlier pieces. I suppose what I mean by “othering” is just making it unfamiliar — things [that] look unfamiliar — extrapolating something that is known to people, and making that gesture bigger, or the performance aspect bigger. We’ll be filming the piece I will have made in March-time, so there will be an update around March!
I’ve noticed that much of your work feels very gestural in its performance — in terms of your notational practice, how do you approach the score?
It’s kind of like a modular way of composing — which was coined by James Saunders. He’s done a huge research paper on it, which I read after someone told me “your composition’s modular”, and I was like “what’s that?”… -laughs-
So in ‘Completed + Unfinished’ there’s little fragments which are either repetitive or transformative. There’s also a “graphic” element, in which performers react to a visual I’ve given them — and there’s a little bit of their own personal improvisation. There’s a huge text score of instructions on what to do, [and] what the parameters of the performance are. That was a challenging piece to put together, but so much fun. It’s not “removing” traditional notation — because the cells were still traditionally notated — but trying to find other ways to bring musical elements together, not necessarily via notation.
What drew you to this idea of modular composition?
I’ve only started doing this very very recently, in this first year of [my] Master’s. There was a need for me to stop being so prescriptive and to not be so controlling over elements. I wanted the performers to step into my pieces, and to feel that they had an autonomy; that they had a much freer way to shape my work. There’s a couple of pieces that I’ve done — one for violin and piano, one for strings and voice, [and] this one for Plus-Minus Ensemble. Even then, they’re not very loosely notated, but the way in which they’re composed [is] modular, in the sense that: I give them a small piece of music, they can transform it with different text instructions, and there’s different ways of getting to different bits of material. I think this kind of collage interests me.
It’s something that’s very new to my practice, but non-standard ways of notating interests me. I haven’t quite gotten to the point of moving away from [standard notation] completely. I would say that the Plus-Minus pieces and ‘The Hop’ have the least “music notation” in it, of any pieces that I’ve done.
I get that — there’s other parameters that make those pieces complex, without needing more “standard notation”.
Absolutely. And when you add theatrical things, it’s a whole other layer of complication. Sometimes, the material has to be hand-in-hand with other things that are complex; like, asking someone to walk around is a lot more complicated than what you think it is. Ask them to do that and play very difficult arpeggios… -laughs- So that’s also interesting, that dynamic.
Gillian’s work can be found at:
- Jérôme Bel – Disabled Theater (2012/2014), for Theater HORA
- ‘Hopping down in Kent’, performed by the English Folk Song and Dance Society
- James Saunders, ‘Modular Music’ (2008). Perspectives of New Music, 46 (1). pp. 152-193.