LPO Debut Sounds | Meet the Composers: Stef Conner

Ahead of our annual Debut Sounds concert this month we've been chatting to the LPO Young Composers about their new works and their experiences on the scheme.

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Each year the LPO invites a small handful of promising but as-yet unpublished young composers to take part in a year-long scheme which sees them collaborate with LPO musicians, take part in tutorials with the Orchestra’s Composer in Residence Magnus Lindberg, and write a new orchestral work for our annual Debut Sounds concert. With Debut Sounds: New Musick at St John’s Smith Square just around the corner, we caught up with this year’s four composers at a recent workshop to find out how their new compositions have taken shape, and to ask them what it’s been like to take part in the scheme.

Stef ConnerStef Conner is a composer and singer, performing her own music as well as the music of antiquity. She reconstructs Ancient Greek, Mesopotamian and Medieval music and poetry for her ‘historically imagined’ performances, aiming to reconnect audiences with lost musical traditions.

So Stef, do you see your work with ancient music as being separate from your composing life, or do you see the two things as being in dialogue?
In the past I felt that there was a kind of tension between my interests, and sometimes worried that I was spreading myself too thin, and looking at things that were hard to connect, but as I’ve got older I’ve found them converging, so all of my orchestral music is now drawn from ancient poetry in some way or another, and my vocal music tends to set Medieval texts or older texts. So everything has now coalesced into this whole aesthetic which is all based on drawing ideas from ancient poetry, and from lost oral traditions.

For this work Magnus Lindberg has given you a brief of using Purcell's Come, Ye Sons of Art for influence or inspiration while composing. Given your interests do you feel that you’re on comfortable territory drawing on Purcell's music, or has this been a new experience?
It’s out of my area because Purcell is incredibly modern compared with the music that I’m interested in! I dealt with that by kind of ignoring Purcell and taking the theme of the piece as my starting point instead, rather than the music and its style.

Could you give us an introduction to your piece Calling the Night Gods?
So what I took from the Purcell brief was music being used in praise of royalty or leaders, as a kind of exultation or almost as a propaganda exercise – the powerful effect of music in inspiring people to have faith in their leaders. The piece is based on some fragments of Babylonian royal praise poetry, so it’s almost like the orchestra is a kind of shaman reciting these incantations. Also one of these incantations is one that’s supposed to reveal the future, so as that incantation unfolds there’ll be some quotations of more recent music that has been used in some way to glorify a regime or a leader, and so these quotes will be revealed gradually, not that perceptively, as the piece goes on. The idea of voices chanting also permeates the piece in various different ways – timbrally and structurally.

And there’s no Purcell?
There may be a little Purcell here and there...

Are there other contemporary composers or at least more recent composers who you feel directly influenced by, or do you feel that you’re drawing very much your own response from the music of the past? Do you feel that there are any comparisons between your music and other contemporary music?
I wouldn’t be so bold as to make comparisons but there are certainly influences. All my ideas about the past can be heard and perceived through the lens of my more modern influences – Berio and Messaien and Grisey, mainly. But in the same way that Messiaen went out and transcribed birdsong and used it in his music and it came out sounding like Messiaen, I have these ideas about ancient poetry and transcriptions of how ancient poetry is spoken, and then it comes out sounding like Stef Conner. So it’s all a bit speculative and imagined and all my ideas about the ancient world are conditioned by what I hear in the present and the contemporary music that I listen to – I can’t escape from my influences, and I think my craft isn’t honed enough to say that any of my music sounds like the people that I like listening to, but maybe we’ll get there!

Do you consider that a problem – are you comfortable with the fact that as much as your music is in dialogue with ancient traditions that it is also very much here and now in the present?
I think that’s fine. It would be a bit masochistic to see it as a problem because it’s inevitable and unavoidable. So I’ve made my peace with that!

Are there any other contemporary composers who you particularly like listening to, who you would recommend?
I think people should listen to more Claude Vivier, who sadly died way too young in his thirties, which was a great tragedy, but what he did produce before he died was amazing, and I wish it was performed more. And then obviously being part of this scheme has led me to listen to more of Magnus Lindberg’s music than I did before, and I’ve heard lots of pieces that I hadn’t heard before I started this and they’re stunning.

What would you say to someone who hasn’t been to a contemporary music concert before and isn’t sure what to expect or where to start?
I would say keep an open mind – that’s obvious really. Don’t necessarily expect things to make sense to you on an intellectual level, but allow yourself to engage on an emotional level. Don’t shut yourself off, or think that because you don’t understand what you’re hearing you need to protect yourself from it. Go knowing that people who profess to have expertise in contemporary music very rarely understand what they’re hearing either – it’s about letting the music hit you and feeling something, and if you don’t close yourself off to that you’ll have a much more exciting experience.

You can hear the world premiere of Stef's Calling the Night Gods at LPO Debut Sounds: New Musick at St John’s Smith Square on Wednesday 12 July, as part of a bold programme mixing new music from the LPO Young Composers with choral works by Henry Purcell and Sir James MacMillan. Tickets are £9 (and just £4 for students!) and available here