“I like things that keep me and the audience on their toes; things that are surprising, and don’t unfurl how you might expect.”Lucy Armstrong
Lucy Armstrong is a London-based composer of opera, musical theatre, choral, and instrumental music. Lucy’s work is eclectic and theatrical and juxtaposes contrasting musical ideas and grooves to create visceral, gestural sound worlds; she has written operas for Bergen National Opera, Grange Park Opera and Sky Arts (in collaboration with Julian Philips, Blasio Kavuma, Aran O’Grady, and Ábel Esbenshade), and in association with the Royal Opera House, and has been commissioned by ensembles such as Salford Choral Society, Cambridge Philharmonic, Psappha, FontanaMIX, and Arch Sinfonia, among others. Lucy studied at the Royal Northern College of Music with Gary Carpenter and Adam Gorb, and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Julian Philips; she is currently a Balancing the Score resident composer with Glyndebourne, and was a Royal Philharmonic Society Composer from 2021-22, where she was the Rosie Johnson RPS Wigmore Hall Apprentice Composer.
Ahead of her three-year residency at Glyndebourne, we spoke with Lucy about her recent projects, her influence from Stephen Sondheim, capturing dramatic moments, making text sing, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Lucy! Hope you’ve been keeping well — tell me a bit about what you’ve been up to recently?
Lucy Armstrong: Right now, I’m doing a piece for London Sinfonietta for their Sound Out school’s concert. I led workshops with secondary school students and we wrote some music together, which I’m now arranging for 30 young musicians from Enfield, Waltham Forest and Harringay to be performed at the Festival Hall. It’s a 45-minute schools concert, introducing a packed hall of kids to some amazing new music — I’m also conducting the premiere of an epic piece by Zoë Martlew for the London Sinfonietta, the 30 young musicians and 1600 kids in the audience. It’s going to be a lot of fun!
Next on the agenda is a saxophone concerto. It’s for Gillian Blair and Chloé van Soeterstède — that’s with Arch Sinfonia. That’s exciting, because I’ve written for Gilly quite a bit before. She first commissioned me a good number of years ago now. I first wrote for Gilly’s quartet, the Borealis Sax Quartet, and then I did a piece for alto [saxophone] and piano. I also did a piece for two saxes and piano for the Blair/Mertens duo. This is our fourth collaboration — the big one… -laughs-
That’s so exciting! How did that relationship develop with Gillian, and how has the collaboration informed how you’re approaching the concerto?
I first wrote for Australian saxophonist Erin Royer while I was studying at the Royal Northern [College of Music]. I’d also got to know Gilly at college, and when she heard Erin’s piece, she liked it, so she commissioned me, and it kept going! So that’s great. It’s really nice, as a composer, to have somebody who’s supporting you in that way.
You’ve recently completed two large-scale works for orchestra and chorus for the Cambridge Philharmonic and Chorus and Salford Choral Society / Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra — tell me a bit about those pieces and how they came about?
Salford Choral Society wanted to commission a piece in memory of Margaret Henstock. Margaret was a keen gardener, so the choir had the idea that it could be about the seasons or the passing of time. Conductor Tom Newall got in contact with me and it went from there! Writer Rebecca Hurst and I took the seasons as a starting point and then talked a lot about what the piece could be. Rebecca wrote a really beautiful text. I think her work is really good for me to work with, because it’s quite multi-layered — there’s a surface layer, and then there’s all sorts of things underneath it, which I can choose to bring out with the music.
I worked with Rebecca again for Cambridge. The piece is called ‘The Alchemical Kitchen’. It’s quite gestural, it’s quite over-the-top, I suppose — very dramatic. It’s an interesting text, because on the surface, it’s about cutting a cabbage in half… -laughs- But then there’s actually all sorts of things rumbling underneath it. Ultimately it’s about finding joy in small things and enjoying life.
How do you first approach a text when you’re setting it — particularly with these larger-scale pieces?
I’m always approaching things from the perspective of character. I think it comes from my love of musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim is very influential on how I start a piece, I’ll always approach it like an actor — thinking “what do I want to bring out here?” So I’m choosing an intention or an emotion. With text there are so many possibilities of what you could say or bring to it, so you need to make choices. I’m trying to find how the text sings. I’ll do it very practically, I’ll imagine the moment, then act it, then start to see how it sings, I’ll try to find what it needs dramatically. It’s quite a practical and instinctive way of working; acting, singing, playing until I’ve found what feels right.
Is composition, and the compositional process, a physical activity for you?
Yeah. For me, it’s very physical and embodied. I want to get to a place where I’m totally in it — and when I’m totally in it, it’s very loud, it’s very bashy. I will essentially be whacking the piano quite hard, and singing very loudly. -laughs- Often, more nuanced shaping of dynamics and pacing will come afterwards. I tend to work in extremes — if it’s the sad bits, I’ll really go for it…
It’s just as intense in the other direction. -laughs-
That’s how I make it! I think that’s my favourite part of the process: sitting at the piano and bashing [the keys]. I’ll have the first idea, I’ll sketch it down on paper — often with no notated rhythm so the process can be faster— sometimes I capture rhythm in a voice note. I’ll play and sing, then keep going until more of it arrives. And then I’ll get stuck, and have to zoom out, and do some planning… -laughs-
What role does that analytical side of yourself have, compositionally — does it create a frame around those high-octane, free moments of your writing?
I suppose it’s about looking at what you’ve got, and figuring out where you need to go. If the instinctive stuff stops flowing, looking at what you’ve got in-front of you, how it’s working and what rules, games or processes might unlock the next bit. And if it’s not working, figuring out what the problem is: is it structural? Is it harmonic? As soon as you’ve figured out what the problem is, you can get going again. I think it’s also about having a grand plan. If you have a big idea, or a very ambitious plan, then you’ve got something to aim for. Often, you deviate away from the original plan anyway. Just having a plan can get you going, and then you slowly discover where it’s going. When I get stuck, it’s often worth thinking “well what do you know?” -laughs- Then you can get on with that for a while.
Do you tend to compose in a linear fashion?
No, I don’t work from the beginning to the end. I’ll often read through a text, and something will sing — and I’ll start there. When I’m reading it, I keep the voice notes at hand, and I’ll just record anything that I don’t want to forget. And then, bit by bit, put it all together, as Sondheim wisely says… -laughs-
Whatever instrumentation the piece is for, I’ll still start with just my voice at the piano, once I’ve got something there, I’ll start slowly polishing and orchestrating. The stages are very messy — if I know that there’s a violin solo going on there, then I’ll put that in; if I know there’s interplay between different vocal parts, I’ll put that in immediately. It’s all about going bit by bit, I’ve got to do it that way otherwise when it’s symphony orchestra, it’s just too much to think about at once, there’s a lot of instruments. -laughs-
“I like things that change, I like things that keep me and the audience on their toes; things that are surprising, and don’t unfurl how you might expect.” -Lucy ArmstrongTweet
You’ve mentioned that you’ve had a compositional interest in the eclectic and the unexpected — how does that appeal to you?
I like things that change, I like things that keep me and the audience on their toes; things that are surprising, and don’t unfurl how you might expect. I’m trying to find that balance between surprise and inevitability. I’m thinking of it like a piece of opera or theatre — I’m creating drama. It might lull you into something, and then go “BANG!!!” -laughs-
I’m trying to create a journey, tell a story. For me, my greatest fear is being boring. I want to keep injecting it with life, with rhythm, with groove… I want to keep it lively — as Julian Philips says, “stay one step ahead of them.” -laughs- So I am very much thinking about giving something to the performers that they can create the drama with. I’m thinking of performers as actors — instrumentalists as well — giving something that they can tell a story with, convey the emotion with. I’m approaching it like a show — so I am thinking about keeping interest, keeping a through line that makes sense.
Of course — if you give the performers this agency to create dramaturgy, it creates a much more impactful experience.
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes, I’ll write performers notes like “pp, mysteriously” — just in case it wasn’t obvious. -laughs- I want to leave room for a performer’s personality and allow people to put things across in their own way dramatically.
How does this idea of tapping into the dramaturgy of your performers translate into your more instrumental or chamber works? I remember the piece that Psappha commissioned from you…
The Psappha one — ‘The Executioner’s Pond’… I’d just finished my opera, ‘A Risk of Lobsters’, and I was thinking about how I’d take everything I learned there and use it within an instrumental context. I made my own narrative and instruments were characters, so I was world-building in the same way as with an opera or musical. I thought of that piece on three different layers, one technical, where I was playing games like there being a constant middle C which was being re-contextualised (an idea nicked from Purcell’s ‘Fantasia upon One Note’) and then then story with characters and under that the emotional things I wanted to create. But I didn’t share the narratives with the audience in the end, just the performers.
That’s so fascinating. -laughs- Why are you wanting to keep these narratives secret from the audience?
With that piece I didn’t want to impose my narrative on the audience, I wanted them to be able to hear it in their own way. Sometimes I do share, like the first piece I did for Psappha — which I called ‘Space Adventure’ and it was all about the murder of space adventurers by aliens… -laughs- I’d been teaching in primary schools a lot at that time and I had the idea to set myself one of my own Key Stage 1 composition tasks. -laughs- The risk if you share something it can make it sound silly or trivialise it, so it depends whether it enhances the piece as to whether to share a narrative or not.
When you’re working in fields when you’ve got these framings already — such as opera or musical theatre — how do you go about approaching those collaborations, such as with your opera ‘A Risk of Lobsters’?
My approach to collaboration is to try and be as open and enthusiastic as possible about hearing other peoples’ views and thoughts, and then to try and find ground where we bring out the best in each other. Which sounds simple but it’s not so simple to actually do. -laughs- The exciting thing is ending up somewhere you’d have never ended up by yourself. Klara Kofen and I spent a lot of time talking about opera, stories, why we’re making an opera, what opera can do that other genres can’t do. From weeks of conversations, a narrative emerged. Klara did an amazing job at giving me something that suited me perfectly, she managed to figure out what kind of story would spark my imagination. It had depth but also a great sense of fun and ridiculousness to it, which I loved.
How did that combination pan out in the resultant piece?
We both like the bombastic, and the ridiculous; the idea that you can cut more to the core of the emotion if it’s quite extreme. It’s funny, but it’s also serious. Like the choral pieces, it is trying to get through to something serious — it is trying to say something — but it’s going about it in quite a humorous way, which hopefully heightens the impact, getting people to invest in the characters.
Was the compositional process for this opera quite similar to the way you’ve approached your choral/orchestral and instrumental work?
Klara and I actually did a couple of readings of the libretto — just the two of us. You start to sing in those readings… So the process is the same; I would work at the piano, read the script, feel it as an actor, and then make it.
There was then a long process of altering it, trying to make every moment flow and land in the right way. I was thinking, as well, of the fact that we had brilliant singers — and so giving them the platform to really create a character. I wanted to give the cast something they can go absolutely full-throttle with, in a way that I hoped was quite thrilling, tapping into the visceral power of opera.
Were there any challenges you learned to overcome through dramaturgically-focused scoring?
There’s a bit where the protagonists have gone to space to meet two stars to be convinced of their insignificance. The stars are singing: “we eat the dust of our dead parents”, it’s quite a dark comic moment where they’re eating star dust out of a bucket. I initially wasted an entire afternoon over-notating the exact rhythm I wanted there, and then I realised I just needed to give them something they could act with and it could be quavers with “freely, speech-like” written over it! -laughs- And they actually happened to do the exact rhythm I wanted.
Because they could feel it.
Yeah. And that’s really nice, when performers put it across exactly as you’d hoped… that’s when it’s really magical.
Finally: are there any recent projects you’ve done that you’re particularly proud of that you’d like to briefly share?
We’ve not covered the football opera — ‘Gods of the Game’! It was an opera produced by Sky Arts and Grange Park Opera about corruption in football. Unusually, it was written by five composers collaboratively. It was really fun to work with Julian Philips, Blasio Kavuma, Aran O’Grady, and Ábel Esbenshade. We don’t normally “do” that and I loved being able to work with such awesome people. It was nice to find our ideas and instincts were not so different and it was great to be able to play to people’s strengths. I really enjoyed having people to bounce off, it makes a big difference if you’ve got other people to get excited about ideas with.
Lucy’s work can be found at the links below:
- Stephen Sondheim – ‘Putting It Together’, from Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
- Lucy Armstrong and Klara Kofen – A Risk of Lobsters (2017-18)
- Henry Purcell – ‘Fantasia upon One Note’ (1630)
- Julian Philips, Blasio Kavuma, Aran O’Grady, Ábel Misha Gille Esbenshade, and Lucy Armstrong’ – Gods of the Game (2022)