Thursday, 15 January 2015

Composer Series - Edward Longstaff

We start 2015 off with the third in our series of interviews with the composers who have written music for us. Edward Longstaff is hugely respected in the Uk as a composer, writing for many diverse ensembles and combinations of instruments. As one of the teachers at the Purcell School of Music he is well-known to many musicians performing in the UK today, including our very own Elizabeth Scorah!

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We commissioned 'Saraswati' in 2002 - a fantastically challenging piece of music, with wonderfully contrapuntal, interweaving melodic lines that flow between the harps. It is quite minimalist in style and the extra tension that the final resolution of harmonies and extremely 'funky' rhythms provide towards the end of the piece make this a truly exciting piece to perform. It has to be one of the most requested pieces on our CDs at the end of our concerts so the audience certainly share our enjoyment of it! You can listen to Saraswati here


One of 4G4Hs members – Elizabeth Scorah – was a pupil of yours at the Purcell School. Have you ever had any commissions from past students of the school?
Yes, the days when the BBC Young Musician Of the Year required a piece written by a living composer were a heyday for me!

Do you find working in a school like the Purcell School an inspiring place to compose, or is the noise from all the students, both in daily life and when practising, rather a distraction?
I don’t get much composition done at school - I’m too busy!  But I’m continually inspired by being surrounded by such talented young musicians.  I’m always reminded that nearly anything is possible.

What musical styles are you most inspired by – is there any particular composer that you identify with?
My tastes are eclectic and, like Stravinsky, I tend to be something of a magpie, stealing little bits of stuff from all sorts of composers from Bach to Birtwistle.

What was it that you liked about the idea of writing for four harps? Had you ever heard the harp being played in this way before?
A harp quartet was something new to me but I was intrigued by the possibilities.  The idea of a single instrument ensemble immediately put me in mind of Steve Reich who has written many pieces for a limited timbral palette.  I relished the challenge!

Were there any challenges in writing for the combination, and what did you enjoy most about the compositional process? Did the finished piece sound the way you had envisaged in performance?
The main challenge was control of voicing and making sure that everything was as clear as possible.  When you’ve got 8 hands playing reams of semiquavers… well, that’s a lot of notes to look after.  I was very pleased with the sound of the finished piece in that I’d deliberately avoided a lot of traditional harp techniques in favour of very rhythmic writing, and it worked.

What was the inspiration behind your piece for the group: ‘Saraswati?
Saraswati is a Hindu goddess who has four arms and plays a veena.  She seemed perfect for a female quartet of harpists and, once I’d found her, everything flowed from that.

Making a living as a composer is not an easy thing to do in our rather cash-strapped times. What do you think of the opportunities available to young composers today?
I think ‘good luck to them’ because it is a very hard way to make a living.  Money is difficult for all musicians but (and I may be accused of special pleading here) it is often the composer who ends up doing things for reduced fees or even no fee.  Thank goodness for groups like 4G4H who commission things properly!

Are there any young and up-and-coming composers you think are ‘ones to watch? What advice would you give to a composer starting out today?
I see too many hopeful young composers coming through the Purcell School to feel comfortable singling any one of them out.  I would advise them to work very hard through their twenties to build up their careers.  It only gets harder the later you leave it.

George Bush once famously announced to the world that he did not like broccoli. What two foods are your idea of heaven and hell?
Heaven - roast lamb.  Hell - avocado.

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?
In this digital age this is much easier than it used to be.  My iPod, my kindle and a solar powered charger.

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