Way Out East: Nicola LeFanu

Composer Conversations (Pt. 3)

The first concert in our Way Out East series at The Coronet is a portrait of Nicola LeFanu. We’re playing a programme featuring two extended chamber works: The Same Day Dawns (1974) for soprano and ensemble, and Deva (1979) for ‘cello and ensemble, as well as Songs Without Words (2005) for clarinet and string trio. Corentin Chassard will feature in David Lumsdaine’s Blue upon blue (1992) for solo ‘cello; and we’re delighted to welcome the Ligeti Quartet, who will play Nicola’s second string quartet (1996), and the Passacaglia from String Quartet No. 6 (1950) by Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, Nicola’s mother.

 

She kindly set aside some time for a wide-ranging conversation with Jon Hargreaves about various aspects of her work and career, and the milieu in which composers work nowadays. In the third and final instalment, Nicola reflects on her journey to becoming an established British composer.

We’re playing pieces from the 1970s [Same Day Dawns (1974) and Deva (1979)], which have had numerous performances. Is your relationship as a composer to those pieces different now compared to when you wrote them? How has it developed over the pieces’ lifetimes?

 

I suppose what I feel is that when I have written a piece it goes out into the world and fends for itself. So I don’t have an emotional connection to it, really, from then on. Someone once asked me, ‘is the first performance like giving birth to a child?’ and I said ‘no, not at all, because that’s happened already – you cut the umbilical cord and the piece goes off into the world and fends for itself’. So all you can do, I suppose, is what you do in bringing up a child - if necessary you try and assist in rehearsal!

The most interesting thing for me is that Same Day Dawns is absolutely part of the lingua franca of its time, and players found it easy to play. But I have found sometimes, that players who know my later work well, and are very at home in it, have difficulties with some of the earlier repertoire – they haven’t encountered timespace notation; they didn’t expect to have a mobile they could repeat while listening to someone else – I mean, little things that we all took for granted in the ‘70s. Certainly, I can remember Same Day Dawns being done in York, and a very similar problem arose. Already, people had lost touch with the things that were very normal for us then. That’s really quite interesting I think, the way things change. 

There were a number of people at the [Lontano Ensemble’s] November concert [of my works] who were composers of my age, who were very struck to hear a piece from the ‘70s – they all said things like ‘Oh! That took me back – that’s what we were all involved with! Why do we never hear music from the ‘70s now?!’ It was quite interesting.

Deva has not been done so much as The Same Day Dawns, and I’m particularly interested to hear it again. I think the last performance I can remember (though I believe it’s been done since, in performances that I don’t know of) was in St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Orkney, which was a wonderful place to hear it – the acoustic was gorgeous! I remember thinking then that its long timespan and long evolution had been no problem at the time, but expectations change as every decade passes. So either people are very happy with extraordinarily long timespans because they’re into Feldman, or because they like the kind of timespan which is a minimalist one – you know, you kind of go on to a different planet while the repetitions are happening! But a concert piece in the idiom of Deva – I think I was concerned whether people would still be engaged.  Although it’s not that long – it’s not slow, because the ‘cello is continually evolving.

A page of the score of Same Day Dawns

It’s worth saying that the ‘cello part [of Deva] particularly, is more complex, rhythmically, than the music I write now, and I used more pre-compositional techniques to create that rhythm. I don’t know whether it’s a good or a bad thing that I don’t do that so much now.  I mean I still enjoy playing with different ways of creating rhythms or rhythmic canons or mensural canons or whatever it may be. But that kind of very detailed, projected rhythmic line, I tend not to write now.  

You have now written over 100 works and counting – congratulations! For any composer at any stage of their career, there is a balance to be caught between affirming one’s distinctive voice, and avoiding repeating oneself. Is this something you have ever considered in relation to your music? 

Tokaido Road, 2015 Production, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London

Frequently! I think it’s a terror. Yes, I’m very nervous of repeating myself. One of the things that I love about opera is that every opera takes me to a completely different place. Occasionally, much as I always long for opera commissions, I have been known to turn them down because something’s come up which I feel would be a repeat of something I have done before, but in general, each opera has needed a response from me which has taken me into a new place musically. Light Passing (2004) is a church opera with real French polyphony in it – plainchant and so on. So finding a way to weave my language with the source material was a response I had never made before. Tokaido Road (2014) had Japanese instruments, which meant listening to Japanese music and thinking about the appropriate ways to use those instruments in combination with Western ones and so on. I love that, because I think that being taken into a new place is life blood, certainly when you’re older – because I’ve written so much; I’ve written for so many mediums again and again!

At some point, as a composer, one must have reached a point where one has established a voice, and uses it to express, or respond to things…

 

Yes, although I suppose for me it’s not as self-conscious as that, in writing. Somehow when I’m writing, I’m living in my inner ear, I’m living in an aural world; I’m thinking in music. I’m not thinking about ‘me’.

I think also, there’s a kind of composer who, in their teens, writes lots of huge symphonies and so on, in a tonal idiom, and I was not that kind of composer – I couldn’t do that at all. I mostly wrote short, quite exploratory pieces – and they didn’t always work. But I think that was why I came quite early to what you call a distinctive voice, because I didn’t go through a long apprenticeship of writing in a derivative voice.  I just kind of ‘jumped’. 

Also, there are probably key pieces. The Old Woman of Beare (1981), which I wrote when I was in my early 30s, was quite a key piece for me I think, because it drew on the experience of writing both short lyrical pieces like Same Day Dawns, and big orchestral spans like Columbia Falls (1975). Technically too, what I was doing with the pitches; what I was doing with the rhythms and so on - I think that was really quite an important landmark for me; quite a watershed.

I think where I would be nervous of habit, is certain technical things that I like to do, like I love working with axis of symmetry matrices and working with asymmetrical and fully symmetrical harmony; and there was a stage when I was doing a lot with Fibonacci series. The first piece I wrote like that, the Invisible Places (1986) clarinet quintet – everything was Fibonacci, and I really like how that works; I mean it was very conscious. Then, for the next few pieces I may or may not have used that, but I suddenly became aware that actually I didn’t have to do it consciously: all my phrases were coming out as five bars or eight bars; or thirteen attacks.  And it was kind of gratifying that I would do it anyway without thinking about it, but I also thought ‘right, now I’ve got to leave that completely’. So then I had a phase when everything was prime numbers, so as to prevent me from working with Fibonacci! So I think sometimes I have to be conscious of breaking habits.

You have longstanding associations with established groups such as Okeanos, Lontano and Gemini, often working with and writing pieces for those performers; they have recorded your works. How much do you think their sounds influenced your musical ideas, in small-scale, chamber music?

 

Well I think quite a lot. I suppose what I’m most grateful for is that those are all organisations that have given me opportunities. That’s the most marvellous thing – I mean in every case I have been invited to write pieces for those ensembles. I mean that’s the best thing that can happen to a composer! Then the fact that the players know my work, means that it’s an absolute pleasure to rehearse – you get quite quickly into actually making music and talking about tuning and phrasing and those things, whereas if players don’t know the work at all, then inevitably, there’s a certain amount of ground that needs to be covered just to become familiar with the idiom.

So for example, for Deva, did you have a specific ‘cellist in mind?

 

Yes, it was written for a wonderful ’cellist called Christopher van Kampen. He and I had been students together, so I knew his playing very well. He was the ‘cellist for London Sinfonietta, but he died very young, unfortunately. It’s had some fine performances since then – Britten Sinfonia played it very well, for example.

 

Similarly, Jane Manning recorded Same Day Dawns, but it was written some time before that, wasn’t it?

 

Yes, it was written while I was in the States, and a very fine soprano called Diana Hoagland premiered it with Boston Symphony Chamber players in Boston, and then came over and premiered it in the Purcell room in London. And quite a lot of people have sung that.

Given their numerous performances, have ‘performance practices’ developed for your pieces, or would you encourage younger groups to take a liberal approach to interpreting your works?

 

Yes, absolutely, I would encourage that. I mean there may be a performance practice that grows up from a particular ensemble, but I think it’s terribly important for a younger generation to get into the work, because otherwise, for older composers, it would be like being dead! The work wouldn’t have a life if it wasn’t being played by young players as well as players of my own generation. Also – some of my generation, happily, are still playing, but some are not, or, like poor Chris van Kampen, have passed away.