LPO Debut Sounds | Meet the Composers: Nathan Dearden

Ahead of our annual Debut Sounds concert next 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Each year the LPO invites a small handful of promising but as-yet unpublished young composers to take part in a year-long scheme which sees them collaborate with LPO musicians, take part in tutorials with the Orchestra’s Composer in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 a few weeks away, 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.

First up, Nathan Dearden is a composer, conductor, and postgraduate research scholar currently based at Royal Holloway, University of London, who’s interested in the relationship between music and everyday experience, and music as a form of social commentary. On top of his writing and research he also conducts a number of ensembles specialising in new music, and works as a performance manager for his university department.

Nathan DeardenSo you’re taking part in the LPO’s Young Composers scheme on top of all this other stuff!
It keeps me busy – it’s great! I first applied for it about three years ago, so this is my third time trying to get a place. Loads of my friends and colleagues have applied or taken part in the scheme in the past, and they said I should apply for it and I said ‘yeah I’ve been trying for three years!’ But finally getting a place couldn’t have come at a better time, because this year Magnus has set a piece by Purcell as a sort of catalyst for our own compositions, and something that really interests me is using existing music to either inform your own art or as a starting point for creating your own art, and the questions that throws up of how you use it, whether you work with it or against it, whether you love it or hate it. It’s come at a perfect time for me!

In your other music are you always taking inspiration from external sources?
Yeah I used to be obsessed with using existing music, but I’m trying to wean myself off it; it’s sort of a dangerous, slippery path because it can start affecting your own style – or rather in the wrong hands it can start affecting your own style, so maybe my hands are wrong! I always used to feel that my style was in this hiatus, and I could never really figure out what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it. So then I started moving away from using existing material and drawing instead on my own experiences, and what’s going on in the country or across the world at the moment influenced my music, and working on projects that bring what’s happening in the news into the music.

And what about having to draw on Purcell – it’s a specific piece by Purcell that you’ve been asked to work with isn’t it...
So the piece is Come, Ye Sons of Art. It’s a piece I sung quite a few times back in Cardiff, and a few friends who sang in the National Chorus of Wales got together and sort of did a jam session on it, so I know it quite well, which is another ideal thing, and I love Purcell. However it’s a celebratory piece, written for Queen Mary on her birthday, whereas a lot of my pieces at the moment are not particularly chirpy, because there’s not a lot of happy stuff going on in the world at the moment! A lot of my music if quite fraught, so for this one, which we have to base on this quite celebratory piece, I went with an ‘anti-fanfare’. It’s really distilled; I’ve taken a few notes from the Purcell right at the very beginning – in a different transposition, but it’s the same notes, the chord’s still there – and just stretched them, so we have this really distilled melody that’s stretched across the whole ensemble and builds up on itself, in clusters and fragments, with events happening to throw it off its course. It’s not celebratory in any way!

To me it started off sounding quite serene, but then becomes gradually more imposing and scary-sounding, as it all collapses in on itself.
That’s good! That’s what I tried to do in a way. Earlier in rehearsal I was saying to the ensemble that right now a lot of my pieces sound like teenage angst because I’m angry about a lot of what’s going on politically, so with this I thought I’m going to step back and write a more transcendent piece, that the listener can get lost in. But as ever that’s not for me to decide – that’s for the listener to decide, if they want to get lost in it!

Are there other composers who you’ve taken particular influence from?
It kind of bugs me when contemporaries and colleagues of mine champion a particular composer, because you go through phases. It’s like when you go through a phase of eating a lot of the same meal that you like, and then get sick of it eventually. At the moment I like a lot of Steve Martland, and a lot of the stuff that was going on in the 80s and 90s in Britain, particularly with the treatment of minimal material, and exploring economy of means. Also the guys working in New York like David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, who have a particular message to fight for in every single piece, whether it be something rather ‘everyday’, or a big political movement they’re trying to express ... anything really. So yeah, those are a few composers I’m interested in at the moment, but it’ll probably change next week.

What would you say to someone who hasn’t been to a contemporary music concert before and doesn’t necessarily know when to start?
That question’s kind of my life mission at the moment – changing perceptions and opening doors to people. I’d say to someone that’s not sure where to start that contemporary music is categorically 110% not what you’d expect it to be. There’s a lot of work that I’ve done with programmes of music that’s different from what people might consider to be the ‘crash bang wallop’ school of contemporary music. I love a lot of that music too, and I think it’s important for us to understand, know, listen, love, hate, that sort of stuff, but there’s so much more out there too. Since music splintered throughout the 20th century there’s so much going on, everything from underground trance music to what’s going on in our concert halls, so just give it a try because you never know. So many people come out of concerts saying ‘oh that was so good, there was something in there for everybody’, and I think that’s the point – what I think curators of concerts need to do now is just give  a smorgasbord of different stuff that people can get on board with. So yeah, be open-minded, delve deep, enjoy it!

You can hear the world premiere of Nathan’s anti-fanfare 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