“Music isn’t created in a vacuum; everything is in relation to something else, whether it’s musical or social, historical, cultural. Everything constantly references other things, and it’s all interconnected. You’ve got to situate yourself as a listener in composing and factor all of that in.”Christian Drew
Christian Drew is a British composer, performer, and teacher based in London. His work draws on styles such as baroque, medieval, shoegaze, noise, ambient and folk music, as well as music that uses open scoring to invite many possible outcomes. Christian has worked with ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Plus-Minus Ensemble, Apartment House, EXAUDI, Juice Vocal Ensemble, and soprano Juliet Fraser, among many others; recent projects include a commission for the London Symphony Orchestra — following participation in the LSO Panufnik scheme 2020-21 — and a multimedia piece for the Shout at Cancer laryngectomy choir with filmmaker/found artist Philip Clemo. Christian studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a Leverhulme Arts Scholar with Laurence Crane and Richard Baker, and at the University of Southampton with Matthew Shlomowitz, Benjamin Oliver, and Michael Finnissy.
Patrick Ellis sat down with Christian in Battersea, London, and talked about studying with Laurence Crane, uncanniness, shoegaze, Baroque music, and unreliable memory…
Patrick/PRXLUDES: We first met after a Music We’d Like to Hear concert back in the summer of 2019, and I became familiar with your work shortly after. I’ve noted that you touch on a lot of different musical reference points, largely from your own background. Could you tell me how you first got interested and involved in music?
Christian Drew: I had piano and guitar lessons as a kid. But it was really in school where I started singing and playing in bands, and writing songs. It was all kinds of music, [but] I wasn’t playing any classical music other than in instrumental lessons. It was songwriting, playing indie music and folk music, jazz and funk. It was a music specialist school, so there was a lot of focus on performing, but I wasn’t particularly academic.
I wanted to do music at uni, because I knew that was the only thing that I was putting my energy into that really made sense, and [I] chose Southampton because it looked like it was good all-round; it looked like a well balanced programme. I didn’t know that they had a composition department with Matthew Shlomowitz, Benjamin Oliver, Michael Finnissy, and a really strong group of postgrads.
I kind of fell into composition through Matthew Shlomowitz and Mark Knoop joint lecturing in an intro to 20th-century music. I had no idea about contemporary and experimental music and all of the avant-garde, I was basically just mind blown at that point. It was such an informative course, and then I started taking composition modules with Matthew, Ben, and Michael… and that’s how I ended up here. -laughs-
What was your journey into composition? Basically it was that one lecture with Matthew Shlomowitz and Mark Knoop…?
It was that course and the composition modules they had there that got me into composing notated music. But before that I just loved playing in bands with my friends; we all played the guitar and sang. It was really common at my school. Singing and playing in bands was like football… -laughs- So it was a weird school in that respect. Guildford County school is the name. So that was my way in, but I was corrupted along the way, by Matthew Shlomowitz mostly. -laughs- He’s guilty for where I am today.
With regards to Southampton University and your lessons with Matthew Shlomowitz — what did you pick up and implement into or become aware of in your practice during those times?
Matthew Shlomowitz was a good teacher, because at the time we had wildly different aesthetic interests — which was really helpful — and he would just fire over a tonne of scores and things that I would have never encountered otherwise. So it was a steep learning curve, being like “Oh my god, this is what music can be!” I think a major take away was that music isn’t created in a vacuum; everything is in relation to something else, whether it’s musical or social, historical, cultural. Everything constantly references other things, and it’s all interconnected. You’ve got to situate yourself as a listener in composing and factor all of that in. I think that can apply to whatever type of music you’re writing. He obviously in his own music takes that in a totally different direction to anything I would write, but he would always help you push something as far as it should go.
I started off with Richard Baker and I learnt a lot from him, in particular with how to deal with collaborations — really sort of practical stuff that I was quite new to. I hadn’t written a lot of music when I had got[ten] to Guildhall. Richard was a bit of saviour with those sorts of things that I was a bit underwater with.
For the majority of my time [at Guildhall] I was studying with Laurence Crane, which was one of the reasons I went to Guildhall. I always loved his music, and I knew him from going to concerts in London at Café OTO, etc. because he is always there — an ever-present face on the new music scene. Studying with Laurence was always on the cards.
The first piece of his that I heard, I think [was] Tour de France Statistics 1903-2003; which is an off-piste Crane piece to hear. But it’s liberating stuff, hearing major chords and being like, “Ahh, you can do that,” you know? -laughs- He’s liberated the triad for all of us, which I think is very kind of him.
There’s a lot to break down in that. You mentioned he [Richard Baker] saved you on a practical level. Do you mean the idiosyncrasies of instrumental writing?
Certainly with the practicalities of notating music that works. But also how to salvage a failing collaboration and come out with something that you’re happy with. It’s hard to disagree with people in a constructive way, and I’m not very good at that. -laughs- Richard helped a lot with keeping things real and helping me to be honest with every aspect of the process and to put the music first, and [collaborative] relationships second. He taught me to stick to my guns, and have a bit more confidence and faith really.
Going back to Laurence — you mentioned how you loved a lot of his music. As you said he liberated the triad, [which is] a lot of people’s first experiences or impressions when listening to his music: “oh right, there’s someone out there doing this and they’re still involved in new music”…
Yeah, absolutely. But I suppose it’s what he does with the triads, rather than the fact that they are there. It’s that the music is actually subversive and witty and unpredictable and sardonic, but also lush and beautiful; it’s that contradiction of being kept on your toes by something that sounds so good. -laughs-
What were your expectations of him as a teacher? And then what was the reality?
Because his music is so aesthetically stringent, you might think his tastes are; but that’s not the case at all. His reference points musically — and the things that he would suggest — are so far from what he might write himself. He’s able to get into your head and where you’re coming from, and it doesn’t feel like that’s a Laurence Crane suggestion. If anything, it never really feels like it’s a thing he would do; again, like his music, you are kept on your toes so to speak. But [he’s] just a really well rounded teacher, in the sense that Laurence is very meticulous when it comes to notation and score-making, but he’s equally comfortable sorting out an existential crisis… so what more do you want? -laughs-
So from Laurence, what were your main takeaways? So before Guildhall what you were doing compared to what you were doing after, what were the main changes?
I think, just trying to operate outside of your comfort zone — which sounds crazy coming from a teacher who didn’t write a tempo change until he was 37 or something, you know? But he was always pushing me to work outside my comfort zone or to disrupt the process; to try something which would shake the music up, so that it wasn’t the same old. The same for Richard, actually. He was always trying to help me step away from what I was doing or flip something on its head, so that you’re constantly finding new ways to work. Trying to not necessarily challenge yourself, but…
Something to pivot from?
Yeah, exactly to pivot away from what you might want to do initially from your first intention, and not [be] afraid to sort of run with the unknown. Not worry too much about the outcome. Focusing on that process and that sense of development within your work, rather than what anyone is going to think about it.
Especially with how contemporary music, the avant-garde and experimental music have in a way all become quite marketed; there’s always a subconsciousness everyone has of trying to build some kind of “brand” around themselves. But again, the process is really paramount.
I felt that as soon as [I] got into contemporary music. It felt like, “Oh, I need to have a concise aesthetic, something that makes sense and is consistent,” but the reality is that’s not how you make good music, and that’s not how you find musical growth. It’s a funny pressure that young composers have in that sense — which is partially due to having social media looming over us, and everybody being a brand from the get go, whether you like it or not. Dark times. -laughs-
Going back to a theme in your music, you draw into different versions of your past self in a way. Would you be able to elaborate on how you incorporate past influences, and then mould them and recontextualise them into your own music?
That’s a really nice way of putting it, and it makes me sound quite nostalgic and sentimental — which I probably am. -laughs- I like to tap into my subconscious, that’s where it feels like it’s coming from. It feels like I’m mediating stuff that I’ve absorbed. I’m like a sponge; I like to just take things in and then composing is noodling, slow-motion improvising and feeling and intuiting. In that process it might be my own impoverished understanding of Baroque music, or some indie music from 2002. -laughs- I think it’s trying to allow these things to enter and not question them too much, in the same way [as] when you are listening to music; you don’t know why something hits you and affects you in a certain way, it’s intangible. I think when I’m composing music, it’s trying to replicate and find material that works for me. When I’m on my own, playing the same chord over and over again.
I love music that references other things. I don’t need music to reinvent the wheel; I love a band that sounds like two bands that I already love, because combining two things makes other things. I can’t help it, but I think I’m constantly categorising things and everything that I see and I experience. There’s just an unconscious sort of taxonomy going on. Whenever I hear something, I go, “well that sounds like x, y and z” — I love that about listening to music. That’s one of the things that excites me when I’m writing music — “oh, this sounds like this, but if I put with this that sounds like that” — you find something that can create these references, but can still sit in a grey, messy, soupy place.
Again, taking things, putting them together, even just having more “concert music”-like instrumentation. I mean having your concert music with material akin to your indie rock or Renaissance Church music…
Just by notating things and giving them to someone else to play, especially on classical instruments, it already sounds a bit uncanny. But there’s something about putting things on instruments that they shouldn’t be for; there’s an opportunity to turn things on their head, so that it’s not quite right. That’s sort of my approach to technique as well — kind of out the window until I really need it. -laughs-
You also say that when you do go down to compose, you do everything by ear; with instinct and intuition, gut and taste. Did you ever try using systems and found material?
I wrote a couple of pieces with found material. One of the most clear was Shoegaze Medieval, which uses a song by Solage, and takes [its] pitch material [as] the pitch material for the whole piece. But everything else about the piece was written intuitively. It’s just working with the pitches, and even then, I couldn’t help but cut the ones that didn’t work and mess around with it. I’m just not a systematic guy. -laughs-
It’s process-informed, taking something and shaping it.
Yeah, exactly. It’s good to have a starting point — and sometimes there’s a vague method — but most of the time, I just don’t know what I’m dealing with until I’m finished, and then it becomes slightly clearer. But that’s the fun of it; not having a clear goal or outcome for the piece, and letting the process sit in the foreground. Or even if I do have an idea of where it’s going to go, that is usually not where it goes. -laughs- Even if you have a starting point, it’s nice to work against it.
I guess also building things in layers is another sort of thing you do, as you said earlier you are improvising in slow motion [when composing]. Almost how a band would workshop new material essentially, someone would come in with a riff and then it’s just bouncing off until something’s figured out.
That’s a fantastic metaphor. I think that’s probably exactly where it comes from, in that my background in making music was recording music. So it always starts with a riff or chords or whatever, and then finding something against that; it was never the whole picture, and it still works like that today. I’ll come up with a layer, and I might not necessarily know what the next thing that goes with that is going to be. I think that’s how a lot of bands work. Maybe I’m just a slow motion one man band.
And when you are stuck or looking to make a new layer do you go for a walk, or do something different the next day, or even have a week off? I find that those in-between times change ones thoughts ever so slightly and influences how you are thinking when you come back to it [composing].
Absolutely. When I’m composing I try not to think too much about why I’m writing what I’m writing, and I try to not overthink decisions. So when you come back a week later or a month later, it is sometimes like someone else has written something; you think “Where did that come from? What’s that about? No idea how that got on there…” I think that is probably partially why I end up throwing influences from different spheres into things and jamming them together. You can be in a completely different headspace — why not see what they sound like? I was at Guildhall with Lara Agar, and she was a huge influence for that method; of just trusting your gut and not being afraid to put things together.
Just going for it, basically?
Yeah, and putting things together that you might not think would fit. I don’t think I would ever do it as well as her, but she’s been a really good influence on my process in that respect.
There’s a quote from someone I knew — maybe a teacher — who said that the reality is that you are actually going to pick up more from your colleagues than your teachers. Teachers give you the experience, but they’re not at the same stage as you at the same time.
It often feels like your peers are taking risks and pushing the boat out, and have less to lose; so what they’re doing can be a lot more adventurous. I think at Guildhall, it immediately felt like a community, it felt good, and they’re still a lot of my close friends today. [It was] super supportive and it didn’t feel like anyone was competing stylistically. It’s that kind of place to find your path and follow it; no one’s going to tell you otherwise.
And with Lara, was it just kind of off-the-cuff stuff, like, “oh I do this”?
I think just seeing her work and knowing her music well, and talking about what I’m working on and showing her pieces. Being a very open and free way of working that is process-led, but still so clearly Lara when you hear the piece — even though the way it’s made might vary so dramatically from one work to the next. Stylistically, not being bogged down by whether something should be somewhere or should be something or not. Just allowing things to coexist.
Your piece Bobby D was premiered at the Festival of Laurence Crane [in 2021], featuring five performers. At one point there’s a harmonica tutti, or just drone, or wave; it is very Bob Dylan in a way, but also like a shoegaze wall of sound. What was the idea behind it and the inspiration behind it?
First and foremost, the instrumentation that we had available. We decided to form a band of composer-performers and write for each other. It started with the guitar part; as a guitarist, whenever I write for guitar, I want to find a new way to play it — and in this case, create a tuning that I have never played in before — so that things are not so familiar and I don’t end up using too many tropes. As a guitarist, your fingers fall in the same place every time, and by playing mostly the tuning pegs in the left hand or using a [new] tuning, you kind of force yourself to relearn the instrument.
I have a bad habit of buying lots of little instruments that I never use, and then later finding ways to shoe-horn them into pieces; so too many harmonicas — they had to be used. Our hands were busy [playing instruments], so: harmonica holders; harmonicas in; and that’s where the Bobby D element came in, because everyone’s got harmonica holders and harmonicas… -laughs- But the whole piece was written around the guitar part and then fleshed out in layers from there. The harmony all revolves around the guitar tuning and the harmonicas in C and G. But the score is pretty loose and the way we shaped it as a band in rehearsals, kind of jamming it out, which is a lovely way to work.
It was performed by Lara Agar, Harry Harrison, Patrick Hegarty and Darius Paymai, all composers and student colleagues of yours at Guildhall. What was it like working with them, who were all familiar with your music, compared to say a professional ensemble who maybe don’t know your music?
You don’t have to say as much, which was quite nice. You can feel your way through it a lot more and you can often sort problems out simply by playing; the fact they knew what I liked and the kind of music I tried to write, meant that I didn’t have to do very much with it. -laughs- It fell together quite nicely — which is always a shock — but working as a band, you don’t have to explain yourself too much. You can just find the sweet spot through being in a room and through spending enough time [together] and being able to go on vibe, rather than notation.
Did they chip in anything of their own?
For sure. The piece is kind of just like a block of sound, and it’s in the workshops that we actually gave it a vaguely discernible shape. I think giving everyone the freedom to push and pull as much as they need to is much easier when playing with your pals — who are excellent composers in their own right. I haven’t listened back with the score, and if I did, it probably wouldn’t be that close to it and I’m quite happy about that.
It’s sort of like a demonstration that the score isn’t paramount. It’s useful and important, but not the be all and end all.
Absolutely. The score is always just a way of communicating an intention, and sometimes, I’ll use notation that’s [either] very loose or incredibly precise. I’m usually not interested in the outcome being either of them; if it’s super precise, give it a damn good go and that’s usually the intention, or if it’s just a few dots on a page, make them your own. You have to trust and allow the humanness in [it] — that’s one of the things about writing for instruments, rather than recorded music. That’s why I keep doing it; because humans are not perfect, and everything is always going to be slightly rough round the edges, and not too performerly and precise.
Moving onto Parlour Music; I remember in your short Psappha Ensemble interview for More Parlour Music, you talked about your impression of Romantic chamber piano music. With Parlour Music for harp, I imagine that this is your impression of Baroque music on a harp?
Cara Dawson [harpist] described that piece as harpsichord music on acid, which I thought was quite accurate; and little did I know, it’s deceptively hard to play like that on a harp. But for me, it was filtering my own experiences of what I’d like harpsichord music to be, but on a harp. It’s got a harp in the name — what’s the difference? Apparently quite a big one when it comes to playing ornaments — but Cara had plenty of opportunities to say no. -laughs-
Because ornaments are such a feature of Baroque music, and it’s similar to your approach with More Parlour Music, it was very grand and expansive in the range. And it’s like you took a stereotypical feature of those styles of period music and then really took it to an extreme.
Yeah absolutely. The material [of More Parlour Music] is quite “Romantic” and consonant, and pleasing to the ear. But the way in which it unfolds and registers — the fact that it goes from the top of the piano all the way to the bottom — is a slight parody of Romantic music. But again, it wasn’t that I decided that beforehand; it was simply all the melodies were descending. So there was only one way to go… and it was down. -laughs- And suspensions sound best when they resolve downwards… so down they went! -laughs-
Do the two pieces have links to historically informed writing?
They’re very viscerally connected to specific styles of music. For me, that’s a way of engaging with the instrument on a meaningful level. When writing piano music for example, it feels like there’s got to be a fairly good reason to write a piano piece; and for me, the way to justify it is to engage in the tradition and to poke at it a little bit, perhaps take it a bit too far. But also to kind of accept the history of the instrument for what it is; not to dismiss Romantic chords just because they’ve been overused in film and TV, but to try to think of them as fresh — and [it] was fresh at one time.
Comparing this to your orchestral work Double Chorus, which you wrote when working with the London Symphony Orchestra. When listening to the piece, I heard different layers of almost waves, which emerge and then disappear at staggered times. Were there any differences when working in an orchestral medium compared to your solo and chamber pieces?
The process was fundamentally the same. I would be working in layers, it just takes a lot longer. Obviously you can have an idea and make a layer of material, and then spend weeks orchestrating it and working out what exactly to do with it. The process was very similar — chords and melodies, melody and accompaniment — but the opportunity for multiplicity and simultaneity with an orchestra means that you do end up with this wash and these waves of sound. The actual material underneath it is so far behind the aggregate of textures, it’s quite hard to discern.
That piece is the first movement of the piece I’ve just written for the LSO. It’s actually called Aquarium Drifter now! The whole piece is in four movements that are subaquatic in vibe, in one way or another. So it’s interesting to hear that come through. I think a lot of my music does sound like it’s slightly underwater, and this piece is probably the best example of that. -laughs-
Bringing shoegaze into it again; that’s like a watery sound that’s just buried in effects…
A lot of the time, you have so many options when you orchestrate. There are so many instruments. Thinking in terms of effects pedals — “Oh I create a tremolo effect here” or “I can do a flanger if I layer it in that way” — it never does in reality. It’s always a surprise how it comes out, but it’s a useful way to conceptualise in the process; shoegaze is always there underneath things. The more instruments there are, the more likely for me it is going to get swallowed up in a haze — which I personally always love, but not so easy to follow as a player.
I guess the title, Double Chorus, is that almost referring to effects in a way?
Yeah, [at] one point it refers to chorus effects — but also the basic material. You’ve got lounge-y, jazz sounding chords, and then you’ve also got some Baroque ornamented melodies and harmonies — and it’s a jamming together of those two things. Although instrumentally the orchestra wasn’t divided up, there’s fundamentally two materials going on; it’s like a double chorus structurally in that way.
I was going to ask if you started with a fundamental layer, but I guess you kind of did…
These two types of material that might not necessarily fit together — starting by writing one, and then writing the other. Writing the jazzy chords first and then the sort of Baroque music at the end separately, and then finding a way to dovetail them so that they meet in the middle. Then write backwards with the baroque music, so that it goes to the beginning of the piece; and then write to the end with the sort of lounge jazzy chords so that they reach the end of the piece. You end up with a dovetailing of these two things. Which is much more complicated in practice than in theory, and not an advisable way to work. Trying to write music backwards… very difficult!
I know Andrew Hamilton’s C  was composed with end material at the start, and then he worked backwards.
That’s really interesting, I don’t think I know the piece.
But to me anyway, it just sounds like an insane way of working. Some composition teachers have a taboo against working linearly. I get — on a learning basis — pivoting and trying to push their students. But if you start with something… not every piece is narrative based, but there is usually always some kind of flow.
I mean for me, I usually work in a very linear way — I love continuity in music — and not necessarily worry about where it’s going. I love Cassandra Miller and Martin Arnold, so much of their music embodies that mentality. But also Michael Finnissy; one of the things he said to me which has always stuck with me is to continue a line for as long as you can possibly go before you do the next one — if that’s how you work, if you’re happy to work in layers. For me, it just so happens that I do. Following that line for as long as you can possibly go before you think about the next thing vertically — so to always have the horizontal in mind — can be difficult. The more instruments you add, the more difficult it is to focus on the horizontal and not get bogged down on the vertical. For me it’s trying to keep my mind on the horizontal and what the listener is going to feel in time.
As you mentioned about Michael Finnissy talking about continuing a line, and I guess Martin Arnold and Cassandra Miller’s music kind of meanders but in a good way. It’s moving all the time, but moment by moment there’s no clear…
There’s a trend of that in Canadian [music], but also lots of English music — like John Lely and Tim Parkinson. They have very different ways of working, but both make some of the best meandering music you’re going to hear. A lot of composing is just noodling for me and noodling is something I aspire to musically, that’s a nice place to me, noodling and meandering, which is the expression marking on my guitar trio [Jangle Consort] I wrote a few years back.
You also composed another piece for the LSO scheme, See Slow Blue…
Yeah, that was a lockdown project because we got postponed for a year, so Colin Matthews put together that album as something to keep us occupied in the interim.
Listening to that piece I can hear that it is centred around melody and accompaniment, occasionally interrupted by short pauses and material diversions, and it’s ‘peppered’ with the chimes and the bells. In relation to Michael Finnissy about extending the line as far as it can go — was that something you had in mind when writing that?
Absolutely. The harmonic material in that piece is completely cyclical and can just continue forever; it’s the circle of fifths and major triads pretty much. That one was [made by] singing along to chords; [that’s] where the melodies come from, you can play and sing along on your own for eternity. In the composing and in the arranging of the material, it’s trying to find very subtle ways to reframe it — adding some sleigh bells or a tom-tom [which] suddenly gives it a different colour — not huge contrasts. That’s quite a sparse piece for me. But trying to reframe something without having to change or add too much; that’s something that I love in Laurence’s music, a very subtle change can alter your perspective on something that is quite simple. That particular piece could have gone on forever.
When you have very pared back material, like Laurence’s music — and also this piece — and then you have a subtle change as a listener and performer, it just completely changes your relationship to the previous set of material.
I think that’s something that Matthew Shlomowitz ingrained in me, to try and always keep your ears fresh as if you are listening to it for the first time. Even though the music might sound very calm and very consonant, there’s still always going to be suspense and an opportunity to shift that, even though it might be an incremental shift. Even things that are very static are always changing.
In terms of developing and tweaking your original source material: do you have any sort of go-to’s or a toolkit that you use when in doubt?
Recently I’ve tended to rely on my unreliable memory for source material. I was talking last night about a piece of music that I heard on Soundcloud a few years ago that sounded like the trippiest Chopin that you have ever heard. This really psychedelic piano music — but processed through 47 filters. I never found it again after that one time, and for me that’s like a perfect source material. It’s in your memory somewhere. That’s the kind of thing that I try to reach for. Or if I’m working with something more tangible, it might just be a few diads from early music; and then once you’ve got two chords, you’ve got a place to start, that’s a progression, where’s it going to go?
But recently [I’ve been using] less exact source materials and more just a general impression of a thing — which might be misremembered — but you’re trying to recreate a feeling. Even if the outcome is nothing like the original.
With the pivoting that we talked about earlier, do you have any go to things? Changing a parameter, or “I’m going to flip this pitch up an octave”?
I mean, if in doubt, copy and paste something on top of another thing you didn’t intend to fit together. Who knows, happy accidents. I think accidents are my favourite way to divert, or Sibelius decides to playback incorrectly — perfect!
Do you try to accommodate accidents, or are you trying to seek them out? Obviously you never know when or where they might come…
I think accommodating, for sure. Seeking an accident seems like a slightly contradictory or precarious activity, but allowing for surprises for sure. Not trying to make too many aesthetic judgements about something until you’ve been able to sit with it for a while. Sometimes, something you might not at first feel like is you, turns out to be just what the piece needs.
Learn more about Christian Drew and his practice at: