Getting to know ... Debut Sounds composer Edmund Hunt

Edmund Hunt is one of four composers working with the LPO as part of the Leverhulme Young Composers programme. His new work Argatnél will premiere at Debut Sounds on Monday 9 June. We recently caught up with Edmund for a quick chat ...

Edmund Hunt

Inspired by the early medieval literature of northern Europe, Edmund Hunt explores the sonic possibilities of ancient languages, often using narratives and poems as the starting point for the creation of vocal, instrumental and electronic works.

Edmund recently took a short break from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about himself and his music. Here's what we found out ...

LPO: What aspect of composing do you find the most difficult/ most exciting when it comes to writing a new original orchestral work? What is the starting point for you?
EH: The most difficult aspect is often deciding which idea to use from a seemingly vast array of possibilities. This is also the most exciting aspect of starting a new piece. I often begin with a small fragment of material - perhaps a chord or a melodic line. Sometimes I explore hundreds of transpositions and inversions of this material. On other occasions the transformation of my material is more closely related to expansion or compression of a harmonic or inharmonic series. I usually end up with a large glossary of organically related chords, to which I can refer even when the development of a piece causes the material to deviate a long way from its starting point. However, I never stick to a predetermined plan when I compose. This does not mean that I don’t plan my compositions; in fact, I spend a lot of time thinking about the overall scheme of a work before I begin to write. But I like to have the freedom to modify my plans as I go along. Sometimes, an unexpected idea will come along which will cause the music to develop differently to how I had anticipated.

LPO: How would you describe your style, if you can?
EH: My writing is often based upon superimposed melodic lines which have a somewhat vocal quality. My harmonic writing has been described as colourful, and harmony is definitely at the forefront of my ideas.

LPO: How many draft versions of the score have you written/do you allow yourself before deciding on the final score?
EH: I think I completed about seven hand-written drafts of the entire piece before putting it on to the computer (although some sections went through many more drafts).

LPO: How do you feel about having your first published work being performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a big concert hall like the Queen Elizabeth Hall?
EH: It is a wonderful opportunity to have a work performed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall by such great musicians. But the responsibility of having to write music that might be worthy of such an excellent orchestra was daunting. Mentoring sessions with Julian Anderson and workshops with the orchestra enabled me to receive feedback about the work in progress and to hone my ideas accordingly. This process helped me to feel more confident about the final piece. Julian, Clement (the conductor) and the orchestra and staff have all been incredibly supportive and encouraging.

LPO: How does it feel when you first hand your work over to an ensemble and you begin to hear it take shape?
EH: It’s very exciting to hand over a work to an ensemble, but it’s also quite difficult. The temptation to continue to edit a composition is very strong. Having to put down the pencil and send off the score can feel like an enormous effort of willpower. When you hear the piece for the first time, the experience can seem overwhelming. Music which has only existed in your head for the past few months suddenly becomes alive in the real world. It can be a shock to hear which ideas work as you had expected and which work better or worse than you had anticipated. Often these issues can be resolved by modifying dynamics, but invariably I will make a few modifications to my score after the performance, when I feel I’ve had time to digest what I’ve heard.

LPO: Where does the title of your piece come from?
EH: Argatnél comes from an early mediaeval Irish word for the ‘otherworld’. In Irish literature, the otherworld was a strange and beautiful place which was often portrayed as a layer beneath or above the real world, in which time passed differently. It was seen as a parallel world in which Adam and Eve had not been banished from Eden, so that it was a world without sin. Argatnél (literally ‘silver cloud’) is a poetic term for this otherworld. The piece isn’t programmatic, but the idea of an otherworld gave me an idea of a very particular sound world that I wanted to explore.

LPO: Are there any other areas that you draw significant influence from in your work, other than musical influences (e.g., visual arts, science, literature etc.?)
EH: A lot of my music is influenced by the early mediaeval literature of northern Europe. As an undergraduate, I read Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge. I studied Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Old English, Old Norse and Celtic philology. In recent years almost all of my pieces have had a connection with this literature. I've written a lot of pieces for voice, setting poems in their untranslated form in order to work with the sound of the text. I've also used text in a more abstract way (as in my piece for the LPO). In a piece such as Argatnél, the text is very important to the early stages of my creative process, as it can help to give me a particular feeling for the sort of material that might make up the piece. Often a text will provide me with a concept to explore musically (as with Argatnél's 'otherworld'). But as soon as I begin to compose, my ideas tend to develop a life of their own, and my attention becomes entirely focused on the musical material rather than on extra-musical considerations. The music has to work (or not) on it's own merits, regardless of it's literary stimulus. In the early stages of a composition I like to work quickly and spontaneously, exploring, developing (and inevitably jettisoning) a lot of music, and I find that if I concentrate too much on an external stimulus, the composition process becomes stilted.

LPO: You’ve been working with LPO Composer in Residence Julian Anderson – how has that been? Has this helped you develop your work in any particular way? To what extent do you draw inspiration or ideas from other 21st composers today?
EH: I have really enjoyed the mentoring sessions with Julian Anderson. His suggestions have been very insightful, both in relation to Argatnél and in relation to issues I will need to consider in my long term compositional development. He’s very good at understanding the essence of what you’re trying to express in a composition, even if the idea itself is not yet very effective. He has been very encouraging, and it has been fascinating to learn from his immense knowledge of contemporary music. Of course I can’t help but be influenced by the music I hear around me. I’m always eager to hear the music of my contemporaries and to talk about composition with them. For me, listening to music stimulates the creative process. When I hear a piece of music, I'm constantly thinking ‘how would I write that idea’ or ‘how would I do that differently’, and this sense of questioning is one of the factors that drives me to compose.

And now just for fun ...

LPO: What was the first album / single you ever bought?
EH: A tape of one hundred traditional Irish tunes, played on the tin whistle by Geraldine Cotter (which I bought when I was about 9).

LPO: What’s the most recent album / single etc. you’ve bought?
EH: Richard Causton’s Millenium Scenes.

LPO: What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
EH: I enjoyed the imaginative and atmospheric sounds in Elliot Goldenthal’s soundtrack to the 2010 film The Tempest.

LPO: What’s the most unusual musical instrument or ensemble you’ve played/written for?
EH: The most unusual instrument I’ve played would probably be the Northumbrian Smallpipes (a hobby of mine).

LPO: If you could go back in time and meet any composer from the past, who would it be?
EH: Olivier Messiaen. He taught so many influential yet diverse twentieth century composers. It would be fascinating to sit in one of his classes and to hear the discussions between him and his students.

LPO: How long have you been composing for?
EH: I wrote some short piano pieces when I was 8, and a few short pieces during my teens. But I've only really dedicated myself to composition for about the last 8 years.

LPO: If you could collaborate with any artist from another field who might it be?
EH: I would love to work with a choreographer to write music for dance.

LPO: What else did you want to be ‘when you grew up’?
EH: I always thought I would like to do something creative, but I could never decide what. When I was very young, I wanted to be a writer or an artist. In my teens, I wanted to be a scientist. I didn't realise that it might be possible to be a composer until I was much older.

LPO: Aside from classical/contemporary classical music, what other types of music do you listen to a lot?
EH: I listen to a lot of British and Irish traditional music, and also traditional music from Scandinavia. Whenever I travel abroad, I like to collect some recordings of the traditional music of the region I'm visiting. Last summer I spent time in Bulgaria and Romania and I was fascinated to hear some of the many different types of traditional music from these countries.

LPO: What was the last live performance/concert/festival/gig you went to?
A performance of Bach’s St John Passion (I was singing in the choir).

LPO: What was the last book you read?
EH: I usually have one non fiction book and one novel on the go at any one time. I've recently read Alexander Goehr’s Finding the Key and Mountolive from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.

Edmund's brand new work Argatnél will be performed by members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and musicians from the Foyle Future Firsts programme at Debut Sounds on Monday 9 June at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. More info and tickets

Edmund Hunt is a current member of the Leverhulme Young Composers programme, alongside fellow composers Eugene Birman, Arne Gieshoff and Aleksandr Brusentsev.

For more about Edmund and his work visit edmundhunt.com

The Leverhulme Young Composers Programme is supported by an Arts Portfolio Grant from The Leverhulme Trust. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is extremely grateful for the long-term support of The Leverhulme Trust for this programme.

The Foyle Future Firsts Programme is generously funded by The Foyle Foundation, Help Musicians UK, The Barbara Whatmore Charitable Trust, Angus Allnatt Charitable Foundation and The Tillett Trust.