A few moments with Laurence Osborn

We come to new music in a lot of ways here.  You’ve already been introduced to Yukiko and Lee, the two winners of our 2016 Call for Scores competition.  This Saturday’s concert will also feature more than a dozen World Premieres from New Music Brighton composers – whom we collaborate with in Brighton annually.  Laurence Osborn is a composer we got to know, in large part, because we saw him at a lot of concerts – ours and lots of other people’s, too.  As soon as we heard his music we knew he was somebody we’d like to work with and so we’re thrilled to have commissioned a new piece from him and poet Joseph MindenMicrographia.  

In this interview Laurence discusses his life and music with our artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum. Both Laurence and Aaron will be at the concert this Saturday at 5pm – and the afterparty – so do come say hello if you make it down!

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1. What’s happening in your life?

This evening I got back from Sainsbury’s just in time to see a mouse emerge from a box of cornflakes on the kitchen counter, so at the moment, mouse problems.

2. What’s happening in your music?

I’m writing a 90-minute opera for Mahogany Opera Group. The opera is called The Mother and it’s based on the work of a Polish playwright, painter, and prolific substance abuser called Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Witkiewicz’s work has had a huge influence on my music – particularly his theory of dramatic form, which he calls pure form. I’m interested in creating music-dramatic forms from apparently disparate or unconnected elements that hang together in the same space, so that the story of a piece or a scene is revealed in its overall composition rather than observed through linear narrative. The third act of the opera is made in this way: it comprises twenty-four very short sections intermingled with a standalone choral piece that has been cut up arbitrarily and superimposed on top of it all.

I’ve been listening to and watching a lot of things that work with this principle – Kurtag’s chamber music, and some of Peter Greenaway’s films from the ’80s. And I’m reading Infinite Jest, which does similar things. I’m also obsessed with the new Danny Brown album, Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown is amazing at juxtaposing different voices and sound-worlds in order to create an overarching narrative, I think. He’s a total genius.

3. Your piece is inspired by magnified images of tiny particles in substances including blue mould and urine. Are you at heart a true romantic?

Yes, I’m very soppy. But to be honest, it’s possible to get sentimental about virtually anything when it’s viewed through a microscope. The piece is based on Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, which was written in 1665, and details the author’s observations of various things through the microscope. The book contains lots of beautiful observational drawings. 

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Drawing of frozen wee!

Joe’s text really gets to the heart of Hooke’s love for the tiny worlds contained within everyday things, I think. The poetry is so colourful and evocative in itself that the composition of this piece came very naturally to me. Micrographia is much gentler and hazier than the stuff I usually write.

4. So what’s the first note?

It’s a chord! A cheeky little four-note chord on piano and vibes!

5. And what’s the last note?

An F natural. Not very interesting. But the last word of Joe’s poem is ‘hunger’.

6. What happens in between?

The piece is in six small movements, and each movement focusses on a different phenomenon viewed through the microscope – the point of a needle, salt crystals, urine, and so on. For me, the composition of each movement was a little game of magnification and/or reflection. So material is often magnified during a movement either through rhythmic augmentation, or the proportional widening of the intervals in particular chords, or sometimes both.

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Micrographia by Joseph Minden

But (depending on the movement) you also find material reflected in various ways, in retrograde, inversion, and so on. There is no discernible system for this in movements 2–5. Movement 6, however, is a direct inversion of the magnification process used for movement 1. These two would probably make more sense sat next to one another, rather than at opposite sides of the piece. But also, each movement has its own specific sound-world that relates to the physical qualities of the phenomenon represented – I think the audience will be able to hear this when it’s performed.

We can’t wait to perform it!  Thank you very much Laurence!

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