Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?
I hadn’t considered composing as a career until relatively late in life: at university. When I was younger I was very inspired by the first organ teacher that I had, and I wanted to be like her and teach music to young people. By the time I arrived at university I was both interested in contemporary music and aware that, as an organist, I wasn’t involved in a lot of the activities that most music students are—orchestras and the like—so was looking for something that reflected my interests. I’d had a traumatic time doing my performance diploma and was convinced that performing would never be for me, but I also believed that composition was a matter of innate ability and not hard work (as many students do at 18). It was only when, encouraged by my lecturer, I entered—and won!—the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Young Composers’ Competition that I began to imagine that there might be some sort of future in it for me.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
The lecturer who invited me to enter the competition that I have mentioned, Dr Mic Spencer at the University of Leeds, was a significant influence on my musical development, in particular because he was willing to lend me so many CDs, books and scores when I expressed an interest in New Music. By doing so he allowed me to listen to and learn about music which would have otherwise been completely inaccessible including most of the (at the time) more recent developments in Europe which are so rarely, if ever, performed or even mentioned in the UK. This music in itself was a huge influence on me and opened my ears to so many more possibilities than I had previously considered.
The composer Chris Newman was also a big influence on my work; I greatly admire the music and the art that he makes, and in discussing both my work and his ideas with me he encouraged me to be uncompromising in my work and ideas.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The most challenging time for me was a couple of years ago when I was travelling all the time, teaching in a lot of different places, and struggling to find time to work on pieces. However, this also taught me a lot of skills which help me to work under pressure now. The image of the composer toiling away in a darkened room is very much not the reality! The most challenging project I worked on was probably the opera, green angel, that I wrote from 2010-2011 with librettist and theatre director Adam Strickson. The challenges here were working collaboratively, working in the theatre which was also new to me then, and producing such a long work (75 minutes in total). The opera also went through a very intensive rehearsal process: 6 days from the first rehearsal until the opening performance and this was a completely unfamiliar way of working for me as well. However, the musicians that we worked with were all excellent and extremely dedicated which made all the difference.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The most recent commission that I have worked on was from the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds. The commission was for a new choral piece that also celebrated the centenary of the discovery of crystallography by William Lawrence and William Henry Bragg. The challenge with such a commission is not just to respond to the brief which involves learning a whole lot of new things about something that you haven’t previously thought about—in this case, about Chemistry—but also to respond in such a way that there is a meaningful relationship between the impetus for the commission and the resultant music. This means that each time it is necessary to re-think one’s approach to composition as a discipline; it’s not sufficient just to draw upon techniques and ideas from the past. This is both difficult, sometimes incredibly so, but also extremely satisfying and rewarding.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
There are different challenges when working with all sorts of musicians, and I’m really lucky because most of the time I’m now working with musicians who are either contemporary music specialists or people who are extremely enthusiastic about and dedicated to the pieces that they perform. I really enjoy working with pianist Ian Pace, who has performed two of my works, not least because as well as being an excellent pianist he is also extremely insightful about the music that he performs. A lot of my work involved open or graphic approaches to notation, and I’ve also really enjoyed working with specialist performers on this type of piece. It can be a challenge to present this type of notation to unfamiliar performers. Recently I’ve worked with the group Vocal Constructivists on the piece concerto and with trombonist Gail Brand on the piece ‘entoptic landscape’. When musicians like these are so skilled at working with the type of notational challenges I present to them there’s the opportunity for dialogue and rewarding exchange which also helps me to go further as a composer.
Which works are you most proud of?
This is a difficult question to answer! Usually, the most recent music I’ve written represents best my current thinking about music and composition, so in this case it would be the piece a common method, written for the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds, which I’ve most recently finished. I’m also extremely proud of the piece ‘/’(h)weTH’ which is a collaborate and multi-media piece that I wrote in 2012 with US visual artist R. Armstrong. This collaboration really challenged me to extend and develop my ideas and this was perhaps a turning point for me in the way that I approach many aspects of my work.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
I really enjoy when music is performed in unfamiliar places. I like the idea than any spaces can be re-purposed to become musical, and that the concert hall can become part of the staging of a work itself. In September 2013 Ian Pace performed my piano piece, i am but one small instrument, at the festival Firenze Suona Contemporanea (http://www.flamensemble.com/en/) which takes place in the Bargello Museum which is actually a mediaeval prison that has become an art museum. The concerts take place in the open-air atrium at the centre of the building. This is perhaps one of my favourite ever concert venues.
As an organist my favourite place to perform at the moment is St Laurence Church in Catford. This church was built in 1968 and has beautiful modern architecture and stained glass. It doesn’t house a very big organ but the instrument is quite powerful for its size and makes a great sound. This is the venue for the ‘Automatronic’ (http://automatronic.co.uk) concert series for organ and electronics that I organise with Huw Morgan and Michael Bonaventure .
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
This is another difficult question. All of the composers that I work with as an organist are important to me; some of the best experiences I have relating to music are when others share their ideas with me, and the kind of collaborations I have had with some of the composers whose music I perform are very important.
For many years as a student the music of Mathias Spahlinger was usually very close to the top of my CD pile. I also love to listen to the music of Sainkho Namtchylak, particularly the way her compositions and performances include so many influences and that she is so confident in presenting her ideas.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Perhaps some of the most memorable experiences that I have had were of hearing live performances for the first time of large works by composers I had only heard on CD at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. A particular example that stands out is the world premiere of Concertini by Helmut Lachenmann. But I can think of many examples of fantastic live music experiences, perhaps most recently at the ‘free range’ experimental music series in Canterbury (http://free-range.co) last week. This weekly concert series is memorable every time I go to it, and although so much of contemporary music culture seems based around recordings these days I think that live music is still most important.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The most important thing for any musicians to do, students or otherwise, is to listen to—and try to come to understand—as much music as possible, and particularly unfamiliar music. This is an idea that I come back to in my own life very often: it’s not possible to spend too much time discovering new music. In addition, I always try to impress on the student composers that I work with the importance of learning technique. Techniques can always be re-worked and re-purposed and, no matter what type of music you want to compose, being able to manipulate sounds and ideas—and to take these from one setting and use them in another—will always help to realise your ideas. Finally, I try to encourage all students to consider compositional practice in a similar way to instrumental practice: do some every day, do warm-up exercises, do a lot that no-one will ever get to hear. Often we think that instrumental performance takes a lot of hard work but expect composers to be brilliant as a result of inspiration and nothing more. Nothing will take you further as a composer as much as hard work!
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m preparing to take the programme of organ and electronics pieces on tour. The tour is co-produced by Sound and Music and is a great opportunity to perform the music that I’ve been learning as a performer. The next compositional project is more collaborative work with Adam Strickson (who I worked on the opera with). The piece is still very much in the developmental and ideas stage, but should be finished by the summer.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Most of my time is spent composing, performing, or teaching music, so I’m glad that I enjoy this. Outside of music-related work I love cooking, particularly for other people. I think that good food is an important part of having a fulfilling life as a musician.
Lauren Redhead is a composer, performer, and musicologist from the North of England. Her music has been performed by international artists such as Ian Pace, the Nieuw Ensemble, Trio Atem, Philip Thomas, BL!NDMAN ensemble and rarescale, and she has received commissions from Yorkshire Forward, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Making Music and the PRSF for Music, and Octopus Collective with the Arts Council of England. Her opera, green angel, was premiered in January 2011 with the support of the Arts Council of England. Her music has been performed at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Gaudeamus Muziekweek, the London Ear Festival, and many locations throughout the UK and Europe. In 2013, her work was be performed in the, Belgium, Italy, Austria, the London Ear Festival, the London Contemporary Music Festival and the Full of Noises Festival in Barrow. In 2014 she will be involved in the Sounds New Festival as a composer and performer. A CD of her chamber works entitled tactile figures was released on the engraved glass label in 2012, and further works will be released on CD in 2014.
As an organ performer she has premiered notable works of experimental music by Chris Newman, Nick Williams, John Lely, and Scott McLaughlin, amongst others. Lauren is actively involved in promoting and commissioning new works for organ and electronics and graphic and open notation works for the organ. In 2013 she made her debut organ performance in North America at Wesleyan University and appeared at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. She co-curates the ‘Automatronic’ concert series for organ and electronics with Huw Morgan and Michael Bonaventure. In 2014 she will tour her organ and electronics programme throughout the UK with the support of Sound and Music.
Pianist Ian Pace performs Lauren Redhead’s i am but one small instrument on 16th June at Deptford Town Hall, London SE14. Full details here