“I don’t ever want to stand still. Music is a document of your life, and it’s very important to me that it reflects my state of being in any particular time.”Laurence Osborn
Laurence Osborn (b. 1989) is a British composer currently based in London. Laurence Osborn’s music has been commissioned and/or programmed by the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, Britten Sinfonia, Riot Ensemble, Manchester Collective, 12 Ensemble, GBSR Duo, Ensemble Klang, and Ensemble 360; his music has been programmed throughout the UK and continental Europe, with international appearances at Festival Présences (Paris), Alte Oper Frankfurt, November Music (Den Bosch), and Georg Solti Hall (Budapest). Laurence’s music has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, Resonance FM, and Deutschlandfunk Kultur, and his music has been released on NMC Recordings, Resonus Classics, and Rubicon Classics. Laurence was part of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composers Programme in 2017, and has held positions in association with LSO Soundhub (2013-15), Nonclassical Associate Composer (2015-17), and London Philharmonic Orchestra Young Composer (2017-18).
On the 25th of November, Wigmore Hall will showcase Laurence’s music through a set of three concerts as part of their Laurence Osborn Day. The events feature performances from the Solem Quartet, The Marian Consort, and Britten Sinfonia with Mahan Esfahani, with works by Laurence performed alongside pieces by Henriëtte Bosmans, Leoš Janáček, Thomas Weelkes, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Guillaume de Machaut, John Dowland and C.P.E. Bach. Ahead of Laurence Osborn Day, Patrick Ellis met with Laurence in the basement of a café in Marylebone, London, to discuss composer anniversaries, C.P.E. Bach, mechanisation and automation, cultural memory in music, and more…
Patrick/PRXLUDES: On the 25th of November, Wigmore Hall is hosting three events throughout the day that celebrate and showcase some of your music. Were there any portrait concerts or composer days that you attended as a student or early on in your career that really inspired you?
Laurence Osborn: There’s been this very recent sequence of centenaries with all of those titans from the 20th Century in a row. Each year, I’ve gone to that event that they have with that – so it’s been Ligeti this year, Xenakis last year – and I’ve fallen in love again with the work of that particular composer. But the whole thing with Wigmore [Hall] just came completely out of the blue. Maybe the fact that I can’t think of many recent days like that I’ve been to indicates how unusual it is that you get this sort of opportunity. I think it’s amazing that John has been able to give a platform to a composer who is relatively young and also not particularly “known”, bar [by] my colleagues and people around in the industry. It’s amazing that he wants to take that sort of risk to platform my music, which is great.
Was there anything from those events that really inspired you? Either musically, or after you had been approached for this event, did you think, “Oh well, I’ve seen this” I want to present it like this potentially…
I don’t think that sort of inspiration has come from a particular day or a particular event. There are composers’ work[s] featured in the day who inspire me very much and whose work I adore. It’s been really lovely to programme lots of C.P.E. Bach; there’s a sort of impulsiveness and heat to the music which I just find endlessly attractive, and it speaks to a part of my writing that I work very hard to try and unlock, and unleash.
Ten years ago when I was just out of college, my approach to the work would be so emotional and lead by the blood on a nerve level for me; and that approach to writing culminated in a piece in 2017 called Ctrl, which the Riot Ensemble did at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. And then after that, for me, it’s been a process of stripping back and refining – learning to be able to hold what I’m doing like an object in space – rather than just pouring stuff out. I’ve been trying to regain some of that sort of eruption-like aspect of composing, because I feel like once I can get that back and harness that, it will be an exciting direction for me.
So the thing with C.P.E. Bach… It’s so beautifully wrought on a technical level, but there’s just something about it which is so relentlessly impulsive, and excited, and in love and infatuated with the notes as they come out. I hear the same thing in Schubert as well, and Berlioz. So the thing that really inspired the day was discovering this music – the C.P.E. Bach stuff – that inspired the last concert of the day.
In the day, there is also music by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Were those other works selected by you?
It was a mixture. I selected the Ruth Crawford Seeger [Three Chants] – it’s one of my favourite choral pieces ever written. The first time I heard that piece, I was just completely torn apart. I chose the Janáček – which the Solem Quartet are doing, Janáček 1 – which is one of my favourite string quartets.
I was lucky to be working with people who wanted to bring their own ideas into it, and actually it was the Solem Quartet who brought me onto Henriëtte Bosmans’ String Quartet, which is a wonderful piece. And then Rory McCleery, who runs the Marian Consort… we devised the programme together. Juvenilia – which is the big choral piece that they’re doing in their set – draws lots of inspiration from composers from a potted history of choral music. There’s a bit of [Guillaume de] Machaut in there, there’s a bit of English madrigal in there, like Weelkes. We wanted to devise a programme that contained all of those influences in there.
But there’s also a strand of that which leads to my collaborator Joseph Minden – who wrote the poem which I set for the Marian Consort commission. His work is interested in memory and heritage, particularly the idea of cultural memory. I suppose one of the interesting things about choral tradition [when] looking at it from the outside – I’m not a singer and I’ve never been in a choir – is how much of a self-reflective tradition it is. How certain tropes and ideas recycle themselves through centuries of that history, and how that’s a process which can be critiqued in an interesting way.
You mention your new choral commissions for the Marian Consort. Comparing that with the last piece you wrote for the choir, Juvenilia – was there a conscious effort for this new commission to really move away from what you were doing in Juvenilia?
On the surface, they’re very different pieces. Juvenilia is essentially an anthology piece which compiles lots of texts and games and rituals relating to my childhood, and collectively conceived notions of childhood as well. And the pieces that I’m in the process of writing for Marian Consort at the moment are much more singular and sparing in terms of what they are. Two of them grow from a single line of another piece in the set: one of them grows out of [a] line in a Dowland piece that we’re doing, another one grows from a line in a Weelkes piece. What Joe has done with the text in both of these is take the line of text, and then use certain operations to gradually distort and transform that line of text. It’s exactly what I’ve done with the music. And so compared to something like Juvenilia – which is just a huge sack of things that I could do when I was 29, and given a 20-minute choral commission I could do whatever I want with – there’s so much excitement in that piece.
On the surface they are very different, but they both concern themselves in different ways. There’s some sort of salvaging or recollecting in both of them. Juvenilia is a fun piece, but it’s also in my mind my saddest piece as well; there’s an attempt to gather up the decaying bits of your own past and repurpose them into something. There’s something in terms of the tonality of it that binds the last few movements together – so when you are listening to that piece, you move from this atomised piecemeal mode of listening into something that’s deeper and more continuous. The last movement starts with this fragment of plainchant taken from the Liber Usualis–and this Arthur Rimbaud poem Départ – and combines them. It’s this very stark, austere, weird movement in comparison to everything else that’s happened before it. Hopefully when you emerge, it’s like you’ve been sucked up in a vacuum tube and spat out of this different planet. What I want to do is to create a sort of feeling of everything having travelled incredibly fast; like you end up in this place, and you are looking back at your past and wondering how that happened. I suppose I’m trying to prime the space in that piece for the emergence of a perspective from outside the piece at that point.
It’s sentimentality with the older piece [Juvenilia], and then maybe more pragmatism and observational manners composing in the newer work…
In some ways, that’s a false dichotomy. Because there can be something that’s so beautiful and sad about things left as they are. One of my favourite quotes about any composer is from the philosopher [Vladimir] Jankélévitch, and in his book about Ravel he says that “Ravel is profound, precisely because he is superficial” – and I know exactly what he means in a sense. When you listen to Ravel’s music, there’s this incredibly austere and beguiling and beautiful rendered surface that it almost feels like you’re watching it through a layer of gauze. You’re not up close to it. But it’s precisely that distance that makes it so beautiful and sad – it’s precisely the fact you can’t inhabit it, that it’s set apart from you as a sort of object, that makes it so beautiful. I feel the same way listening to Apollo by Stravinsky as well. It’s just a profound sadness in the distance of it. I think I’m too much of a nakedly emotional composer to be able to write like that; [but in Juvenilia] I want to be able to create that same impression. So that hopefully comes through in the Marian Consort piece.
When observing a lot of your music, the general things that I pick up on are sentimentality, but taking it and then repurposing it, morphing it into another thing. Where you said about Ravel being superficial, but out of reality almost…
There was a critic who used the phrase “play of surfaces” in relation to Thomas Ades’ music. This idea of using this constellation of associations extending from a musical trope in an active way, which I love to do.
There’s something about that phrase that feels a bit flippant to me, because of tropes, topics or surfaces – whatever you want to call them. They’re not just about how something looks, or the immediate spark of association that they contain so much history and baggage. If you look at the work of someone like David Lynch, where he’ll have these expansive genre pieces – which are constantly playing with the conventions of cinema – but he plants in them something that eats away from the inside. And especially in the later films, it becomes so surreal that the entire film is eaten away and you are left with something else. There’s something very powerful about the fact that he needs to establish those clichés in order to expose the other thing. That’s what I like to do as well. I like to use sounds that have associations, but what I try to do is reveal the tragedy inside them, the beauty inside them, or just the more profound things inside them. Maybe what I’m trying to do is somehow expose or tamper with the mechanism [of] what we hear and what we think about, when you hear it.
A lot of your work is very multi-faceted and is very fast in terms of development. Would you agree with that observation or would you say it is something different to that?
Fast, large-scale developing processes – that’s bang on, that’s how I generate material. The immediacy of the sound is one thing and the formal processes that I have to do in order to render it are another. [But] blending it for me is a challenge. There are some composers where it isn’t an issue for them, but for me, it’s [like] having to jam a crocodile and an orangutan into a car… -laughs- Often, I have an idea with what I want to do and the impression I want to create with the sound; but in order to get it on its feet, I often have to write long, exhaustive bits of music – canons or themes and variations, chord sequences which either accelerate or decelerate, or a large-scale rhythm with smaller versions of the same rhythm nestled inside of it. Whatever it is to get the things on its feet. And then gradually, they act like struts and I can move them and turn it into actually what I’m doing. The piece reveals itself to me gradually.
So the string quartet that I’m doing at the moment for Solem – I had two ideas at the start. One of them was this phrase in David Cairns’ book about Berlioz. It’s a two volume biography, I’ve only read the first one – and in the first one, there’s this Parisian magazine that’s complaining about the very emotional, romantic young men like Berlioz. The quote is, “They walk around obsessed with lakes, mists, bats, daggers and fountains”, which I just thought was the most amazing array of images.
And so the string quartet [is] called Lakes, Mists, Bats, Daggers and Fountains. I was listening a lot to the Bartók quartets – and the fourth quartet and the fifth quartet are five movements: fast, slow, fast, slow, fast. Bartók has a thing where he will create these palindromes where the material will be the same at the beginning and the end; and then it will almost be like biting into a twister lolly, where there’s the rings in it. So I created this very elaborate scheme about exactly how I was going to do it. It is no longer a palindrome, but it was almost like I needed to render it in that really formal way in order to get to the shape that I know it is – which is a completely different shape. I suppose it is a scaffold, really; working with very elemental shapes for me is just very helpful.
So in short, each piece you write a set of “side studies”, which then become a toolkit that you then pull from and then make the final work?
Exactly. Often I’m working on multiple parts of a piece at once. For example, the string quartet I was working on this morning: there’s a chord sequence which was the beginning – because it was going to begin with these really static set of chords and triads – and then I scrapped the beginning, but I still had the chords in sketch [form]. I’ve used that chord sequence three times at different points in the piece, but there’s no development there. They are all derived from the same thing, which is that one piece of paper sitting at my desk. And I’ve just gone back to them and I’m thinking, “Oh, now we’re ready to put that in again” – and the opening is now not that chord sequence at all.
But that way of working, as you say, is like having a box of stuff that’s on your desk. To me, it’s less like a toolkit, it’s more like… My son’s got this big bucket of art supplies, like coloured cards, pipe cleaners – it’s like having that on your desk of musical ideas. And at certain points you realise why you’ve done something or you realise having done something in one place, means that stuff needs to be used in a different way in another place in the piece. But the process of creating the whole thing is intuitive and happens gradually.
I’m sure epiphanies come to you at different and unexpected moments when composing.
Yeah, they do, but I have this weird thing where I try to not indulge them when they arrive. When I’m having a bit of a slog on a particular part of a piece, these other bits will sail into my head and be like, “Come on, write me! You know exactly what you’re doing with me”. But it’s just an illusion, because when I get onto that, it will be [as] full of problems as the part I was working on. I think eventually, the easy part is having the ideas, and then rendering it is just a constant nightmare – I find it very, very hard and I worry about it a lot. And so I’ve learnt not to trust epiphanies. Occasionally, there’ll be one that’s a real one, but I would say that happens to be about once a year. -laughs-
It’s been interesting with the string quartet, because usually when I’m writing a piece, I get to this point where I’m about two thirds of the way through and I just know exactly what the last bar is. I can imagine that bar in really really vivid detail. But what has been really interesting with string quartet is that I had to finish the last movement quite quickly – because it’s really complicated – and I hadn’t any idea how it was going to end. I was having to work towards an end that I didn’t know what it was. I was about to go onto something else, but then it was, “Oh no, hang on, there it is” and I just cut it – and that’s the end. I just saw it in the middle of something that I had written.
You mentioned mechanisms and mechanics – which is a nice segue onto Automaton and Coin Op Automata. Both are written for harpsichord as the central instrument and both with harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. What was it like working with Mahan?
My experience of Mahan is that he is a wonderful collaborator. He’s a savagely brilliant musician, but so sensitive and selfless in how he wants to reach the core of what you are doing. He’s one of those musicians that wants to reach into what you are doing, in this really extraordinary way. When I had started writing for Mahan, I had only heard him performing Baroque repertoire. In that capacity, it’s expansive and really fluid, gorgeous playing – and what I write for him is very straight, very mechanical, and he performs it with such excitement and precision.
I noted in the Coin Op performance notes that you worked with his own custom-built harpsichord. What is like not only writing for a historical instrument, but also an instrument that is bespoke?
The harpsichord is funny, because when I found out that Britten Sinfonia had commissioned me for writing that piece [Automaton, 2019], I found out quite early that I would be writing for Mahan’s harpsichord – which is notoriously a loud harpsichord with a low E string (the E below the bass clef). And so I needed to go and find the actual harpsichord.So I went to Simon Neal’s house in Oxford, where this harpsichord is, and basically had a morning [playing] on it and found some sounds. That was really instructive and helpful in the creation of the piece, because it really needed to be felt out at the instrument. It is such a hard instrument to predict.
The things that I learnt from it were that you can’t write too many notes – because they all cancel each other out.In a context which the rate of harmonic change is unstable, fast and unpredictable, it sings as a melodic instrument, because otherwise all the “hurck” – all the notes just clash against each other, and you just end up hearing white noise. Which is a problem I have with the Elliott Carter Double Concerto. There’s so much of the harpsichord writing in that [where] I just can’t hear what the notes are. So I decided quite early on [that] a huge amount of space was going to be given to the harpsichord as a melody instrument. That was where I started to think about the mechanical, and the fact that the harpsichord has this remarkable property – which is that the mechanical means of sound production is indistinguishable from the sound itself.
Carolyn Abbate has this amazing chapter on automation. She talks about the keyboard as bearing the trace of lots of Enlightenment era anxieties about the consequences [of] mechanisation and industrialism; I suppose the fear of somehow fusing the human with the mechanical. I’ve just started reading the book from C.P.E. Bach about keyboard technique, and in his introduction, there’s a bit where he says, “the keyboard alone has been left behind”. It’s this idea that there’s something about it [the keyboard] which makes it fundamentally irreconcilable with human expression. I think you hear that tension in the sound of the harpsichord, where there’s something living cloaked in the sound of something mechanical. That’s a very interesting vein of composition to tap into for me.
So much of musical performance is about this strange double-image of music being something that’s completely mechanised and [also] somehow transcendent and spiritual. It’s one from one angle, and one from another angle. As a composer, I want to play with that constantly. Going back to Ravel, that’s what Ravel does so brilliantly: it’s music that’s at once the most magically, extraordinary, miraculous thing you’ve ever heard, and precisely at the same time it’s a mechanical object that bears the trace of human design.
In the programme note for Automaton, you wrote “Sometimes human, sometimes mechanical, and sometimes both”. I found in Automaton more so that you could argue that the ornaments that the rest of the ensemble were playing is almost a mechanism within itself. So would you argue timbral embellishments are like an Automaton?
I think there’s an interesting thing with groups of instrumental players. There’s a way of understanding the instrumental ensemble as a collection of appendages that are attached to the same mechanism. It reminds me of these Isaac Asimov short stories I read as a teenager; there’s one where there’s a computer controlling all of these little robots, making them dance – it’s too buried in the back of my mind to remember fully to be useful – but I think that when we talk about composition in the literal sense, bringing together component parts that function and service the whole in itself is an operation that connotes mechanism.
I suppose the way that I use timbre in that piece doesn’t concern itself with the mechanical as much as the way I use rhythm in that piece, or the way I use metre. That piece is the most formalistic thing I’ve written – these huge layers of stuff that are all manifestations of what’s been referred to [in] 20th century music as constructive rhythm. A rhythm that behaves the same as a motive. The whole thing is built on different scales of this set of four rhythms. When I was writing that piece, I only wrote rhythms for the first four weeks and only wrote a single pitch. And so I’m much more interested in mechanism on that level, than on a timbral level in that piece.
And you talked earlier about spending four weeks writing the rhythms, again going back to that analogy of your son’s art box, was it these exercises and studies in making these rhythm sketches or manifestations?
Exactly, they were a way of generating material. But it’s not just generating material in a detached way, it’s understanding the rules of the world the piece are going to [be]. Sometimes I need to write lots of rhythms, sometimes I need to write canons, sometimes I need to write variations on a melody, and sometimes I need to write chord sequences in order to do that. But it’s almost a way of feeling the environment of a piece, learning what it requires, what it needs. Because it’s about mechanisms, retrospectively it makes sense if it’s about the mechanical. It needs something that’s a grid that controls other aspects of the piece – like an enormous set of cogs at the centre – which everything has little teeth and can mesh with.
Whereas with Coin Op Automata, it’s completely different – it all came from a melody, which you hear at the beginning of the second movement. That’s the heart of that piece; that piece is much more about line and melody. So its mechanical aspects are in some ways harder to place on a structural level.
With Mondrian in a lot of his famous works, if you look at the canvases closely, you can see pencil markings where he originally intended for the lines to be. So did you have maybe a pre-plotted kind of idea for where the events would unfold in Coin Op? And in relation to what you did in the middle of the piece, or the end, or wherever, did you adjust those points of change?
No, it’s actually the complete opposite. Coin Op originally was going to be lots of different movements. I was finding it really tricky; at that point, I was working on it from January to April 2021. My son had been born in October 2020 and at three months, he had this insane sleep regression where he just would not sleep for more than two or three hours at a time – so we were absolutely knackered – and it was lockdown. So I could only write in short bursts, and genuinely just didn’t have the brain space to think about things in terms of a large structure.
I was also listening a lot to [Henri] Dutilleux’s string quartet, Ainsi la nuit, which I hadn’t listened to in ten years. My teacher Ken Hesketh loved that piece – he’s also written an amazing article about it – and then I picked it out again, because I had gotten back into Dutilleux during lockdown. Ken talks about it in terms of genotypes: it has lots of interrelated, little panels of material that relate through the [piece], but also relate through a sensory coding of sound. So there will be a certain “vibe” to a section which will remind you of a “vibe” of a different section. And so I thought that given that I’m functioning on three or four hours of sleep a night, this will be a really good way to work on this piece; it means I can basically just write little statements, which I can gradually bring together into a whole.
What Ainsi la nuit does is create a patchwork, but then that patchwork is also a dyptich. There’s this big structural point in the middle that ends on a unison and then we start again in the second half of the piece, so I did that as well with Coin Op and the perfect place to do that was with the melody that begins the second movement, which is the lowest register of the harpsichord and the highest register of the violin moving together. So there’s actually not much pencil work behind the structure of that piece at all.
The other thing I find interesting about that piece is that a lot of the material develops, but I developed it as I was writing it. The way I ended up disposing of it on a chronological level was completely different. You’ll get material in its underdeveloped form at the end, and you’ll get a far more sophisticated, or wrought, version appearing at the beginning of the piece. I wanted to write this thing about little arcade machines sat next to each other – but I think there’s something significant in the fact that there’s this pool of cogs and bits and bobs [that] the whole piece is made from. And they’re next to one another in a way that defies chronology. It’s not linear; you could start at any point in terms of the material and work your way through the piece. So again, the piece reveal[ed] itself to me gradually for what I needed to do at that time, in spite of the fact that I didn’t have much sleep while I was writing it.
In the last concert you have Rendering Error, which was originally written for Fenella Humphreys. You mention in the programme note that it’s based upon badly rendered computer generated images and the original material of the piece slowly reveals itself over time, through deviation. From taking that original material, what kind of musical deviations or tools did you affiliate with when writing the piece?
Two important things about that piece. One of them is the end of it – the last two, three minutes just came out. That part of the piece is almost its own thing. Then [I] wrote the beginning of the piece separately, and I didn’t know whether I was going to include that bit at the end – and then I spliced them together. The reason why I was interested in glitches, or things being imperfectly rendered, was that I wrote both of those sections [with] a very rudimentary set of pitches arranged into diads or chords, and I just moved through them and I wrote it instinctively – like I took my pencil for a walk through them. I just moved from one to the other and I would reach a point, and I would be like, “Oh” –bzzzzt– – mess it about – “Oh, there’s the glitch there, I’ll go back a few steps and do it…” Keep going through and –bzzzzt– And gradually, I sort of did two steps forward, one step back, work my way through.
In the final section of that piece, you can really hear that. This thing that’s important to me – having a tube map of chords or pitches, and working my way through it – then taking a step back, doing it again and then going at a diagonal, going back in and moving along. That’s something that happens as I work. It’s like an instinctive thing, as I work through and write – those are improvised decisions. That interplay between being so spontaneous as to trash your plans in the moment [while] also having made those plans is important to me creatively, or at least an important part in my process.
I think it was in TOMB!, or Coin Op. One of the things that I can hear distinctively is this starting material being dislodged – maybe not super quickly, but it’s definitely present and you can hear it getting more and more severe overtime.
Both of those are actually examples of where that didn’t happen! So the beginning of TOMB! was modelled on an idea from [Conlon] Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 6. It’s a weird bass line in A Major, which almost sounds like Calypso music; it’s really strange. It’s split between two staves so that the bottom stave is divided into five [and] the top stave the bar is divided into four. And it moves between them, so you’ve got this bass line which repeats, but every single time, it’s warped in different places, it trips into fives at different places.
The beginning of TOMB! is a nineteen note bass line, where it’s simultaneously in two tempi – which relate in the ratio of two to three – it only trips a little bit first. Then gradually, the bit that’s in the faster tempo grows and grows and grows each time it repeats itself. Then by the end of the first two minutes, you’ve metrically modulated into the next section. There was a quality in that Nancarrow Study – and in a lot of his other player piano music – which relates back to the mechanisms we were talking about earlier. As though there’s a musical surface that’s being operated from within, like a hand in a glove.
Then with Coin Op, that is essentially a melody with a counter-melody that’s like two parts. It’s in a time signature which gradually trips up over itself. So it starts off being in 8/8 (3-2-3), then gradually, little extra twos get put in the middle, so you get the odd 10/8 and then over that, you get 9/8 bars mapped over the 2… You’ve got all of these patterns going onto top of each other. Again, you create [this] sort of mechanical gambit, and then there’s something that gets into the machine and starts tripping it up. Like the thing with David Lynch: there’s an element inside itself that eats it from within, but the important difference for me is that with Coin Op that’s a mechanical problem, whereas there’s something much more insidious with TOMB!. The thing that is destroying that music is living. That comes back to the thing about the organic and the mechanical, which makes music interesting as well.
In terms of other intriguing timbres in some of your music: the piece for Zubin Kanga, Counterfeits (Siminică), [has] an emulation of this swell type voice tone on a TouchKeys keyboard. Could you please tell me more about that, like why did you choose those timbres for the artificial sounds?
It goes back to the thing about the living and the mechanical. The sample is of my own voice; I felt like if I sampled my voice and then contorted it in ways that were obviously artificial that would create an interesting or sort of unsettling effect. It’s a very strange piece because it’s almost like there were two people writing it. The piano writing, for me, is the real voice, and the vocal patch is the counterfeit voices. So the whole thing is like you are listening to one thing – but that thing is the wrong thing, and the real thing is the piano.
When I wrote it, a lot of it was me improvising at the piano, and out of those improvisations, [I was] finding pockets where the voice part could sit. But at that time I didn’t even know who’s voice it was going to be. For a while I thought, well should I sample Dona Dumitru Siminică’s [a Romanian folk singer] voice, and then I thought it was too easy and too obvious. And so I went round to Jocelyn Campbell’s house. He’s a composer, and he’s also one of my best friends and whenever there’s a tech element to what I’m doing, Joss is very, very helpful. Joss and I just made the patches – we had the score in front of us, and we made patches in response to what the score was suggesting. The second movement, with these babyish sort of, “La la la la” sounds, was a really last minute decision. The screaming as well, in the last movement; but I felt like it was the way it needed to be because the vocal parts needed the spontaneous quality in order to live, they needed to not be too thought out.
And the piano music had been worked on so painstakingly. It was so funny at the premiere. Zubin is such an amazing performer – you’re in safe hands when he performs your music – but it was such a funny experience at that premiere because it was one of the few times where I have gone in and I’ve really haven’t been sure where the central gambit of the piece is going to work in the room. I still feel funny about it; people found it funny and it is supposed to be funny, but I didn’t realise people would actually laugh at it. I worried coming out of it that people would just find it funny, when there’s actually a lot of seriousness in the piece. I was there with a friend of mine and I said to them, “Is it too funny? There are a lot of serious elements to it and I’m worried that people miss them”, and he was like, “Never underestimate the power of a funny sound”… -laughs- Which I thought was very good advice.
I know that he’s [Zubin] great at really bringing out things within everyone he has collaborated with. Would you be able to talk through what a workshop with Zubin is like – and how you personally respond to someone like Zubin?
As a performer, Zubin’s got this extraordinary emotional, romantic aspect to his playing, which I got to know when we were working on our first piece together [Absorber]; and [Counterfeits] Siminică gives much more space to that part of Zubin’s identity as a performer. Before that, I’d seen him live and was thinking, “God, this guy is unreal”… He’s a piano gladiator; you’ll give him a bin lid and a fork and he’ll just do it. -laughs- I’m now three years into our collaboration and I really want to explore the interplay of these two aspects of his identity as a performer. One of which is the blood and the other which is just extreme precision, and ability to be versatile with all sorts of different kinds of technology – and do an amazing job under a huge amount of pressure.
The collaboration itself was such an instructive collaboration. He approached me about writing Absorber, and I knew that I wanted to do something where he played the keyboard in one hand and the piano in another. I sent him the piece and he emailed back, “Some of this I just can’t do, I can’t physically move my hands quick enough between [the piano and keyboard]”. So we worked together on it, we figured out exactly how it was possible practically and I went back and rewrote bits and changed bits, and we got to a place where it was much more like it is. Now, he’s probably the only person in the world that can play it and he does a fantastic job with it. It was an instructive process because with Zubin, you’re essentially writing for a new instrument; we had to do a lot of work in the room to get there.
Working with Zubin in some ways is unique for me, because I’m not a tech-y person at all, and I’m not really that much of a tech-y composer. It’s fantastic that Zubin challenges me in that way. I genuinely think that he’s one of the performers in my life where I would be a different composer if I hadn’t started working with him.
Going back to Wigmore Hall, each of the pieces (the new commissions aside) were composed between 2019 through to 2021. A lot happened in the world during that time and your son was born, etc. Had there been any recent revelations about these older works whilst you have been working on these new commissions?
It’s funny, because once I’ve finished a piece, I don’t really ever listen to it unless it is being performed. Usually once I’ve listened through to the performance recording of a piece [or] unless I’m showing it to someone, I just don’t listen to it. So, working on these pieces a second time has been quite unique in that sense – because I’ve gotten all of these impressions of what I was doing and actually it’s been the same.
I think what the pieces at Wigmore Hall document, because they travel pretty much chronologically from 2019 to 2021 – there’s almost every piece I wrote in that time frame (apart from Essential Relaxing Classical Hits) – you start to see a chronological document of your life as a composer and how it changes and how it develops. There’s definitely things that I’m interested in doing in Juvenilia, that when you get to Coin Op Automata, have sort of burrowed much further into the music.
I think it also is a set list that just straddles me studying with George Benjamin and me not studying with George. It’s really interesting to see how my work shifts and changes over that period, because George was such an important and significant influence on me. What I notice a lot is this confidence to give music space – which I know is a funny thing to say, because my music doesn’t have much space in it. But I know what I mean when I look at it, because it’s more about a state of mind. In Juvenilia for example – which is the oldest piece – there’s this play of surfaces, this relentless throwing at you. It’s music that finds it much harder to just sit with something; and just sitting with something, really immersing yourself in what you’re doing as a craftsperson is something that George was incredible at helping me reach. There’s this shift there that I can see there’s a confidence and an ability to let things be, which wasn’t there before.
When you talked about Juvenilia, you mentioned that it was a big 20 minute commission and you were 29 at the time. It’s like when you are presented with an opportunity of that magnitude, one almost drops any inhibitions and just really goes, “This could be the last time I get something like this”, so you just throw yourself into it. Would you say that was the case?
Absolutely. There were three times. There was Ctrl for Riot Ensemble, then this piece Kindertotenspeil I wrote for the London Philharmonic Orchestra – that was the same, as it had been the first time I had been given an opportunity to write for the orchestra. And Juvenilia. It was all that, “I’m going to dive in” and I’ve since written for choir again – and I’ve since written for orchestra again. It’s very different the second time you come around to it. It’s like there’s something more steady about your relationship with that compositional opportunity.
But I do also think there’s another important thing that distances me from that, which is becoming a dad. I think there’s the perspective that I got when that happened. There’s this thing where you have to stop being the protagonist in your life, as there is a new protagonist – your child. Your role as their nurturer, keeper, and carer is then your main role, and your role as a composer is your secondary role. That shift was also very important for me, because those early pieces are so solipsistic; not in a pejorative sense, but they are very led from the inside of my head. There’s definitely something that happens around 2020/2021.
Essential Relaxing Classical Hits – which I wrote half before Luke was born and half after as well – I see that as the swan-song of that [version of] me. Then the music that I’ve written afterwards was Coin Op Automata, TOMB!, Counterfeits (Siminică), this piece I wrote for the CBSO called The Biggest Thing I’ve Ever Squashed – and these new Wigmore Hall commissions. There’s something about them that feels less driven by a sense of self, or a need to express the self, as it is at that particular moment and much more driven by a sense of belonging in a world. And I think that reflects where I am psychologically in terms of being a dad as well, because it’s like a rebirth for you as well. You see yourself in relation to the world so differently, or I do anyway. Where the pieces straddle me working with George [Benjamin] and me post George, it’s important that they also straddle me becoming a dad.
Going forward, have there been any sort of musical obsessions (you have mentioned C.P.E. Bach earlier) in recent pieces which may be distinguished from earlier works? What have been your recent core values and ideas you’ve had with these newer compositions?
There have been a couple of things. I have become much more interested in jazz harmony; last year I got really really interested in Bill Evans. I spent a lot of time listening to the way he comps behind Scott LaFaro playing a solo; listening to the notes he chooses to leave out of particular chords, or the way that he can use a pair of notes to suggest so much more than just those two notes depending on the context. That’s been very important to me and has fed into what I do.
There’s also a thing about music as separate from instruments. I’ve been listening a lot to the Purcell Fantasias for Viols and there’s this amazing quality that they have which is just music that seems to exist in the abstract without an instrumental envelope at all. Because my music historically has been so infatuated with the collections of associations – and the particular sounds that they bring with them – listening to these Purcell pieces has motivated me to start thinking in terms of voices in space rather than instruments. That’s what I’m [now] trying to do;; it just so happens that those resonating strings are the host for the celestial thing that is the note. I’ve never done that with my music before, ever. My music is so rooted in the mechanical and the corporeal, and so “What happens if I take those away?” is where I am at right now. I’m sure there will have been lots of other things that I have been listening to that I would have forgotten about and then I will feel annoyed that I didn’t mention them to you.
That’s an exciting place to be – moving away from something that you have solidified over a number of years and then going, “Ok, this discovery has manifested itself, I’m going to try and consciously abandon that as best as I can and move into these uncharted waters”.
I don’t ever want to stand still. Music is a document of your life, and it’s very important to me that it reflects my state of being in any particular time. I’m a person that has changed a lot in the fifteen years since I have been doing this. I want to try and consciously challenge myself to keep reaching outward in what I do and what I listen to.
Wigmore Hall’s Laurence Osborn Day – a celebration of Laurence’s work – takes place in London on 25th November. You can get tickets at:
You can learn more about Laurence and his practice at:
- Ruth Crawford Seeger – Three Chants, 2. ‘To An Angel’ (1930)
- Leoš Janáček – String Quartet, No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923)
- Henriëtte Bosmans – Strijkkwartet (1927)
- Liber Usualis, or “The Book of Common Use”, Latin Mass Society
- Arthur Rimbaud, Départ (Departure)
- Vladimir Jankélévitch, Ravel (1956), Seuil
- Igor Stravinsky – Apollon Musagète (1928)
- David Cairns, Berlioz, Volume One: The Making of an Artist (2003), University of California Press
- Béla Bartók – String Quartet, No. 4 (1928)
- Béla Bartók – String Quartet, No. 5 (1934)
- Elliott Carter – Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano, and two chamber orchestras (1961)
- Carolyn Abbate, In Search of Opera (2003), Princeton University Press
- C.P.E. Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments
- Henri Dutilleux – Ainsi la nuit (1976)
- Kenneth Hesketh, ‘The Backbone of Night: Mechanisms of Evolution in Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit’ (2010), Contemporary Music Review, 29.5
- Bill Evans – ‘Waltz for Debby’ with Scott LaFaro
- Henry Purcell – Fantasias for Viols (1680)