A few moments with Scott Lygate

3_1615Well, tonight is the night!  Tonight at The Forge we unleash The Flatulence of the Gods: pieces for 5 bassoons, 4 trombones and tenor, and 5 Bass Clarinets.  The lineup is – so far as we know – a totally unique one, created by drawing upon various existing pieces for groups of low instruments.  The final grouping of 5 Bass Clarinets comes from Scott Lygate’s piece Earth Tremors.  This piece was recorded previously but has never been performed live in concert.

One of the fascinating things about Scott is that alongside his work as a composer, he’s an active performer, working regularly with ensembles like the London Sinfonietta and LPO.  With this in mind, I was particularly interested to ask him about how his experience as a composer influences his work as a composer.

AHN: Scott, thanks so much for joining us. In addition to your work as a composer you are the founder and artistic director of the Azalea Ensemble and, I think it would be fair to say, your primary activity up until now has been as a clarinet performer. Can you tell us a little bit about your work, and tell us how your work as a performer and promoter of music has affected you as a composer?

SL: It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of what lies behind yourself as a performer, because you are so focused on the instrument; the technique, the sound, and also the interpretation of the music.  I get a huge kick out of performing, which I love very much and have dedicated much of my musical life to so far, however my personal voice can be heard most clearly through my writing, and I get enormous satisfaction from having complete ownership over the creation of something.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with and trained by some of the great interpreters of modern repertoire, both as a clarinettist and composer, and I’ve also gained a huge amount from running Azalea: programming music, creating a sense of identity and family within an ensemble, and the business side of running a large group.

All of this this does contribute to one’s approach as a composer. You are more aware of what is possible technically on each instrument, and the practicalities of rehearsing to a time schedule. So I always make sure my parts are as tidy as possible, and as I write each part I try to feel the physical sensation of what it would be like to play it; the breath, the attack, the intensity of line, the direction, and the character.

Rehearsing Earth Tremors at LSO St. Luke's. From left to right the players are: Lorenzo Iosco, Duncan Gould, Mark Van de Wiel, Oliver Janes and Max Welford.  Riot Ensemble Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum is conducting.

Rehearsing Earth Tremors at LSO St. Luke’s. From left to right the players are: Lorenzo Iosco, Duncan Gould, Mark Van de Wiel, Oliver Janes and Max Welford. Riot Ensemble Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum is conducting.

AHN: This piece is for 5 bass clarinets – one of your primary instruments. Is it difficult to write for your own instrument? Does it change how you approach the composition?

SL: I actually wrote Earth Tremors 5 years ago when I was 19. Earth Tremors was a gateway for me to stretch my boundaries, improve my technique and extend my palate. Since then my writing has inevitably changed, hopefully matured, and expanded on some of the ideas in Earth Tremors which I began to explore.

As for the instrument itself, I naturally have certain things that I like to do on the bass clarinet. I love exploiting its incredible range (obvious in Earth Tremors), writing soaring melodic phrases in the extreme high register, beautiful warm cantabile lines around the middle range, punchy, earthy and razor sharp stabs at the extreme bottom end of the instrument, and creating haunting, breathy, ghostlike sonorities. One of the huge advantages of writing for your own instrument is that, of course, you know what is possible, how things will sound, and how to create more specific colours and effects. In ‘Earth Tremors’ I was able to write all the things I love about playing the bass clarinet.

AHN: As someone who is now composing more and more, what do you wish some performers of contemporary music new about composing that they often don’t?

SL: When it comes to performing I have a huge interest in the context of a piece of music, and how that effects my individual part. I demand a lot of myself in terms of the accuracy of executing every articulation, dynamic and performance direction printed because I know that a composer has had to spend a great deal of time considering every one of those details.  Colouring it in, as it were.

Beyond the notation, the composer as a person interests me because understanding them helps you understand the context of their work, and gives you the starting point for bringing the music to life. I sometimes feel that performers who aren’t composers underestimate the value of gaining a broader understanding of a piece. Why the composer wrote it, their inspirations behind the piece, and how their individual part contributes to the overall picture.

AHN: When Witold Lutoslawski heard John Cage’s Second Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period for him (the first result of which was his Jeux Vénitiens). Have you ever had a similar experience with a piece or composer?

SL: Yes, I’d say I have had this experience several times with various composers. Some important works for me have been: Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony, Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Sweet Time Suite’ for Big Band, John Adams ‘Son of a Chamber Symphony’, Steve Reich ‘Double Sextet’, George Benjamin ‘Into the Little Hill’, Colin Matthews ‘Suns Dance’, and particularly important for my ‘Earth Tremors’ was Louis Andriessen’s ‘Zilver’.

AHN: What is ahead for you in 2014?

SL: This year I have some interesting projects lined up. I am a London Sinfonietta Emerging Artist for 2014 – 2016, I have a commission for solo cello from Swiss soloist Gerard Pawlica.  I have 4 feature films to orchestrate!and, and a commission for bass clarinet and piano from Lorenzo Iosco (Principal bass clarinet of the LSO, and 1st clarinet in Wednesdays performance of ‘Earth Tremors’).