“What you do creatively, teaching, and even how you live — all of these things are so interconnected and intertwined. For me, it’s been a process of consciously seeing and tracing the connections.”Kevin Leomo
Kevin Leomo is a Scottish-Filipino composer and educator based in Glasgow. Having recently completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow with Drew Hammond, Kevin’s work concerns silence, fragility, perception, improvisation, collaboration, approaches to listening, and non-standard notation. His work has been performed by ensembles such as Red Note Ensemble, Psappha, Trio Abstrakt, Tacet(i) Ensemble, and The Hermes Experiment, among many others; he is currently working with Oxford Contemporary Music as a BOOM Artist, and has been paired with the Scottish Chamber Choir as part of Sound and Music’s Adopt a Music Creator programme. Kevin is the key driving force behind experimental composer collective Sound Thought, co-hosts practice research podcast Essential Blends with Adriana Minu, and teaches at the University of Glasgow.
We caught Kevin for coffee in central London following a workshop with Sound and Music, and discussed a host of things including his involvement with the Wandelweiser group, Glasgow’s experimental music scene, equitable collaboration, DIY artist residencies, radical creative practice, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Kevin! Hope things are well with you; tell me what you’ve been up to recently?
Kevin Leomo: A lot of my time recently has been spent organising arts and cultural events. I’ve [been] working on this project called The Dear Green Bothy: it’s this programme of arts and humanities events [which] originally came about in response to COP26. When Glasgow was holding COP, the College of Arts at Glasgow Uni was like “we should do stuff that addresses the climate crisis” — usually, it’s like science, and notes about the data, but we need to forefront the arts, and humanities, and how peoples’ hearts and minds can be changed.
That’s something that happened during COP, and we managed to get funding to continue it — so we’ve got an ongoing, rolling programme of events addressing the environment, and sustainability. We’ve done concerts, there’s been artist talks, workshops, film screenings… A really cool, varied programme.
That’s awesome. And in terms of your own compositional work, what’s been in the pipeline for you?
Right now, I’m doing the Adopt a Music Creator programme. I’ve been paired with the Scottish Chamber Choir, which is based in Edinburgh. This is a great project, because it’s super collaborative in nature between the music creators and community groups. Over the course of about a year, each pairing works closely to devise a piece together. It’s not like you come in with a piece and they have to learn it; the group has agency, the players have input into the piece and [its] direction. That’s the kind of thing I’m more interested in [now] — close collaborative working with players. So this project has landed at a really nice time for me after finishing my PhD, it’s nice work to get into.
How have you approached collaboration in the past, and how does that inform the work you’re doing now?
I think definitely over the last two or three years, close collaboration has become more and more important in working with performers, [and] working with other players. I’ve also been trying to perform and play more, as well. So collaboration is definitely a key part of my practice.
I think part of that is how I approach composing, things like notation [and] how I want pieces to develop. I’ve worked in different mediums, score-based stuff, text based… I also had a project which involved working orally. I got to work with the sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun as part of Psappha’s Composing For… scheme, which was amazing. That was a very collaborative working relationship, because we weren’t using notation. We were getting involved in Jasdeep’s classical North Indian music background, passing things down vocally and orally — which was outside of my comfort zone, but it was such a good experience.
How did you both conceive the piece together — and how did it differ from other close work you’ve created alongside performers?
It was really fun! I did that programme a few years previously for the flute with Conrad Marshall, and that was a really great process — but that was a typical “you come with the score [and] you work on it.” So I was expecting that with the sitarist; to arrive with some notations and work on that. I came to the first workshop with Jasdeep, and I’d prepared some sketches, and the first thing he said was “sing what you want me to play.” -laughs-
It was so good to be challenged and pushed. Eventually, we came to a process where I would record material, play it back to him, and I would attempt to sing — but that wasn’t pretty. -laughs- But it was a really cool way of working where you’re not tied down to notation, and all of the baggage that that entails. It was a really beautiful process.
As you’ve done some orally-based work — what kind of a role do things like text scores play in your collaborative practice?
That’s something that’s a bit more recent in my practice, text scores. I got involved with Wandelweiser, and that’s been a massive influence on how I think about sound, music, community, and working with other people.
I didn’t realise you were part of the Wandelweiser group! How did you first get involved with them?
I think it was 2019 or 2020 — one of my friends, Sophie Stone, had been to the Wandelweiser Composers Meet Composers mentoring programme. I was kind of interested, [as] I’d started to learn about them and what they were about… She’d been to the scheme, and I [asked her] “oh, how was the mentoring programme”, and she was like “it was the best thing I’ve ever done.” So I was like “okay, I’m gonna go to this!” — and obviously, lockdown happened, so it didn’t run.
But then I was very kindly invited by Antoine Beuger to attend Klangraum — which is this annual happening in Düsseldorf. There’s maybe between seven and a dozen people who present something daily, at different times each day over the course of about five days. The work could be a text score, it could be a performance, it could be an installation… You really get a chance to get to know each artist and their practice. It was really an amazing opportunity to come together in this community, and experience music that way. I got to present: I wrote a text score, and we played that every day. It was incredible. That was a really formative experience for me.
What appeals to you about graphic and textual notation?
I’ve not done that many graphic scores— but I’m really interested in text scores. There’s so many approaches to [them]. A text score may appear simple, but it takes so much thought. It personally takes me a lot to get something and refine it to a stage where I’m like “this is concrete”. But it’s a fascinating way of working.
There’s something about how open they can be. Depending on the piece, you don’t have to necessarily rehearse. There’s something about that that is so refreshing and different from other takes on new music… Just being open.
Tell me more about your involvement with Wandelweiser. What is it about their approach that appeals to you?
I think from the outside, Wandelweiser might seem like it’s just about silence, and long, open durations — which is part of it — but at the heart of it, it’s about community, and care. Almost like a radical way of [music-making]. Working in new music circles, it can often be very competitive — it’s a grind all the time — [but] the people involved with them have a different way of approaching things. When I attended Klangraum for the first time, I was like “wow, I’ve never seen anything like this!” — it’s crazy, but it’s so simple. People caring for each other, lifting each other up.
What was the experience like, discovering this ethos of music creation?
Usually when you go to a conference, or a festival, your piece is getting played or you’re presenting a paper, and it’s like, “I need to be prepared, this is me and [I] have to present myself as best as I can.” But at Klangraum, it was very chill: it was just “do you want to show something?” There were no expectations, or “this is what you need to do.” I knew about it in advance, but I hadn’t prepared anything -laughs- — but I’d been thinking about it a lot — so the morning of, I’m sitting outside at this cafe, and I’m like “right, I’m gonna get something done.” So I came up with this text score, and brought it along. There’s no faff, there’s no stuffiness, no big introductions — you just hang out, say hello, present something, and everyone gets involved. And because everyone has some experience of experimental music, you don’t have to go and explain “my piece is about this”; it was really refreshing to just be with people who are [understanding] in that area.
Of course — more cooperative and supportive environments are much more conducive to art-making, from my view.
Well, exactly. That’s what’s interesting about choosing to be a composer, or whatever you want to call it. There are so many paths you can take. You can go and be this super-competitive [artist], and go for all the things, which is fine — or you can choose how much you want to engage with others: do you want to forge your own path, do you want to bring people together? I tend to gravitate towards people who have similar outlooks — not necessarily sonically, but in how they approach creative work.
Tell me about your role in the contemporary and experimental music communities in Glasgow; how have your experiences affected your work?
That’s a really good question. It’s interesting, because when I was doing my undergrad and Master’s, I was more “new music” [oriented], and I wasn’t really into the “experimental” scene as such. There were other people doing experimental stuff, but I kind of missed them; one of my now close friends, Gregor Forbes, was running Glasgow Experimental Music Series, which has a really interesting programme. He’s also involved with Wandelweiser, as well. We actually did a concert in December, in The Old Hairdresser’s. We had this very intimate performance; we were doing one of Gregor’s pieces, one of my pieces, and one of Sophie [Stone’s] pieces, which were all kind of open, text-based instructions. That’s the kind of thing that I’m into: writing for friends, writing more open pieces. I find that fulfilling!
So that’s one area. There’s lots of different people working in the scene, there’s so many different things going on. So this idea of linking up, and building community – one of the things I do is run Sound Thought, which started off as a postgraduate-run festival at Glasgow University. It’s been going for some time – it was actually started by my PhD supervisor, Drew Hammond, but we’ve kind of been moving it in a more open direction. It’s been a really good outlet; we’ve put on gigs and concerts, we’ve done festivals, we’ve been doing soundwalks and installations, we run a radio show, and we do a lot more public engagement and youth stuff. It’s a really nice platform to engage with experimental music, [and] also bring it to audiences that normally wouldn’t access it. Sound Thought is an event series, but we’re also a collective — there’s five of us (Sonia Killmann, Beth Horseman, Melissa Rankin, Jamie Macpherson), and we all share this love for experimental music.
What appeals to you about working in a collective?
It’s definitely a source of inspiration, having a collective. It’s wholesome to have friends you can work with, put events on together with. I feel like there’s a lot of people in Glasgow that are like that — trying to link people up, and organise things. When we do a concert, it’s always nice to see loads of people come out to support each other. It’s a good scene.
In Glasgow, there’s another experimental group, and they do regular things — they’re called 1.5 Months. We’ve got a collaborative show in March. The way we’re programming it is [that] Sound Thought and 1.5 Months each chose an act, as well as an individual artist each, who’ve been put together as a collaborative duo to create something new. And then there’s gonna be a spontaneous improvised quintet — some of us will be playing in that.
How has your musical and performative background informed this inclusive approach to music-making?
It’s interesting. I find this maybe happens for other people, but growing up and doing a more “classical” education… I play clarinet and saxophone, but when I was really getting into composing, I stopped playing regularly. I had developed a bad relationship with performance – losing confidence – and by extension, the instruments. But more recently, finding ways of engaging with playing and recontextualising my relationship with my instruments has been a really interesting process. You don’t have to be this amazing “practicing six hours every day” musician; you can find other ways of playing and performing — more experimental, more open ways of musicking. Approaching [and] developing text scores; making music with friends and others with similar interests have been ways for me to get back into playing. Some of my friends have been going through the same things, so it’s nice to share that experience [with them].
Of course. I know a lot of people who kind of “fell out of love” with their primary instrument, and then found their passion for it again by something completely different from what they were used to.
It’s also about finding stuff that you enjoy, you know? -laughs- One of my friends — Simon Hellewell — he’s based in Edinburgh, he was doing his PhD at Manchester Uni, and we were finishing up at the same time. We met each other [over] lockdown, and we ended up doing an education programme with Sound Festival up in Aberdeen. We started hanging out, and [it] turned out we had a lot of shared interests. We got to know each other’s practices quite well, and we started playing together — and then we formed this duo called Dronehopper. We did a release on Bandcamp in November! So that’s another project: it’s nice for us to get back to performing, it’s something we’ve been developing, with the aim of doing some live gigs this year.
That sounds wonderful — what’s the instrumentation of the project? Are you both on electronics?
It’s like a mix. I’m on clarinet and saxophone, and Simon is [on] electric guitar. But we also have an assortment of random percussion, and sound-making objects. We basically make sounds that we enjoy listening to. I’ve been working on my fragile multiphonics, and long, sustained drone-type sounds… It’s putting stuff that we enjoy together, it’s been really fun.
How’s the music for Dronehopper composed — does one of you take the lead or is it a mixture of both?
For that, it’s more like we improvise. We both read each other’s PhDs in preparations for [our] vivas, so we each know how the other [is] thinking… -laughs- Again, it’s another form of collaboration; we know each other’s working process, and we’ll make what we enjoy. It’s quite cool to have that. The first time we met to play together, we kind of knew each other in that way [already], which felt quite natural.
Again, that draws strong parallels to when I went to Klangraum [with] Wandelweiser: you may not have met before, but if you have this experience, this shared practice and way of working, it can just mesh. It was the same when I did the gig with Gregor — we didn’t rehearse! -laughs- We had never played before, actually; but we spent a lot of time together, and we knew each other so well. One of my best friends — she’s not a musician — [but] she was like “have you rehearsed yet?”, and [I was] like “we’re not rehearsing”, and she was like “oh my god, I’ve got anxiety…” -laughs-
I think that’s the beauty of doing a lot of improvised, or open music. No matter what happens in the space, it’s tailored to that space.
Yeah. It’s a really interesting way of working. I guess it [also] depends on who you go with, or the context.
On a larger scale — for both yourself and your artistic communities — how do you see your practice expanding and intersecting with others?
That’s a good question. That’s something we were working towards with the Glasgow Experimental Music Series concert with Gregor and Sophie; just getting people together with shared interests or outlooks and doing something.
Last summer, I got to do that mentoring programme I mentioned — Composers Meet Composers. Basically, there [were] four mentees and five mentors [and] we spent the week in Haan, at Antoine Beuger’s place. The way it worked was: you would spend the whole day with one of the mentors; every day you would hang out, and discuss things, or try things out. You could do whatever you wanted to do; you could go for walks, you could do a piece together, you could play together. And every meal we would all share together; neighbors would make us food, or we would cook together. It was like going on holiday with your friends, basically; talking about music, and life, and sharing good times together. So to do something like that here in the UK would be cool.
Absolutely — a residency which isn’t focused on the development of a particular project.
Just a happening, or gathering, with no “okay, we need to leave this thing with a piece.” You know, you go to most residencies — this is not a dig on them! — and you have to get this piece out the way, something needs to get workshopped, you need to leave with a good recording. Which is great, and I do that as well; but it’s also nice to go and have no expectations, and just be like “I’m gonna spend time with these folks, and hang, and see what happens.”
I know Wild Plum Arts do a residency that’s quite similar to that approach.
Yeah! I think there needs to be more things like that. Stuff that’s more informal, that you organise yourself [and] more DIY, is cool, I think.
Another strand to answer your question around intersecting with others: I think through teaching, and through doing stuff like Sound Thought, I find giving back to be quite fulfilling. Regarding teaching, I find it a challenge to be like “okay, you’re a creative practitioner, a composer, but you’re also working in the context of a higher education institution” — trying to keep the more underground, or radical, aspects. How can I bring that to my teaching, or working at the university? That’s something that is always in the back of my mind, because it can be easy to become institutionalised, or just be like “okay, I’m at [a] university now.” But I’m always trying to bring that approach to teaching, and working with young people. For example, when it comes to decolonising the curriculum, all of this [is] always trying to keep that critical edge at the heart of things.
It’s really interesting; it’s a privilege to be working there, and [to] be employed there, but at the same time, how can I affect change from within? There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s about finding other people that are doing it and trying to organise. UCU strikes are going on as well — there’s always things happening. But it’s a balancing act.
In terms of keeping that radical edge — how do you see that developing through your pedagogy and composition?
It really is all linked. Again, I think that’s something I’ve realised over more recent years — this idea of having a creative practice. What you do creatively, teaching, and even how you live — all of these things are so interconnected and intertwined. For me, it’s been a process of consciously seeing and tracing the connections. I’ve been talking a lot about openness: it’s something that I try and bring to my teaching, and try to show students [that] this is what you can do. There are so many ways of working.
Finally; are there any recent or upcoming projects you’ve done, or are doing, that you’re particularly proud of?
I’m working with Oxford Contemporary Music! I’m doing their BOOM Fellowship programme; again, this is a really cool project, because it’s more of an artist development scheme. You basically get to pursue a creative project of your own choosing. The focus this year is on creating something that’s more installation, or outdoors — engaging with audiences in new and interesting ways. So I applied to it, and was fortunate enough to get on the programme. This was so cool, because it’s a bit different from a more “traditional” scheme, and this is the direction I want my work to be going. So I’m at the early stages of that, but I have ideas for installation work. It’s fulfilling for me.
I also wrote a piece for khaen — which is [a] South East Asian mouth organ — [which] is similar to the Japanese shō. It’s made of bamboo. There’s this composer and performer in the States, Christopher Adler. We connected; he does a lot of cross-cultural stuff, [and] he does a lot of work to try and bring this instrument to composers and vice versa. He’s got this album called ‘Landscape Traces: New music for khaen, volume two’; I have a piece on the album called ‘Tracing a Line’.
Kevin’s work can be found at:
Check out Kevin’s work with Sound Thought at:
Learn more about the individuals, organisations, and initiatives Kevin has partnered and worked with:
- Kevin Leomo, ‘Decolonising the Curriculum: a GTA’s Perspective’, Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities (2021)