Proms 2018: pre-première questions with David Bruce

by 5:4
8 minutes read

Continuing what i started last year, i’m again expanding my coverage of the works being premièred at this year’s Proms season by putting some pre-première questions to some of the featured composers, so as to provide some background and context for their music. David Bruce‘s new orchestral work Sidechaining receives its world première at this evening’s Prom, so here are his answers to my questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to David for his responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

I like to think I’m constantly attempting to get back to the primal aspects of music, the idea of a phrase as a breath; the idea of a rhythm as a dance, a footstep or a heartbeat. Some of my music responds to the former: a sense of lyricism, particularly of course in opera, which I’ve been involved with a lot; and some to the latter: I love a good cross-rhythm, and often build things up into a sense of joyful, stomping abandon. These two aspects in a way sit at either end of a spectrum, the melancholy lyrical aria or the exuberant dance, and I suppose I’m particularly drawn to things that have this direct and strong impact. Leaving it all on the floor like this has its challenges, but it’s what I’m drawn to and what excites me about trying to create.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

It’s the only activity that makes me feel ‘whole’ – if I’ve had extended periods without composing I get the feeling of a hollow and slightly pointless existence. Being creative, or, at least, being dedicated to something, is a way of giving life a sense of meaning. As to why specifically composing, it was always just part of me from a young age, I was writing pop songs and then for school ensembles; music always felt like home.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

The two most inspiring teachers I had were George Benjamin at the Royal College of Music – we used to attend his all-day seminars at his home once a month, which were incredibly inspiring – and Harrison Birtwistle at Kings College, London, who was very insightful and a good role model in terms of doing your own thing regardless of what anybody thinks. Probably the most important influences on my work, though, are traditional folk musics, like Klezmer, as well as composers like Janáček and Stravinsky, who shared similar interests. The challenge for me was to take Birtwistle’s example seriously, and do my own thing even if that meant writing music that ended up being much more easily accessible than his; to realise that I would be ‘selling out’ far more if I just continued to emulate my mentors, much as I admired them (and still do).

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

The instrumentation is almost always the starting point. I will try to “listen” to it as a combination and see which voices speak loudest in the line-up, which combinations seem to pop out. I try most of the tricks I outlined in a video on my YouTube channel called “Composing Hacks”: I go for walks singing into my phone, I play ideas on the many instruments I have at home, I improvise at the piano, I sketch on the computer. The worst part for me is that stage before things really catch alight; you can spend weeks and weeks with nothing working and it feels like such a waste of time. Unfortunately it’s an essential part of the process. I’m in the camp of artists for whom each new piece feels like starting out again as a novice and being totally useless.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

I’ve written three or four large orchestral works now – something I doubted for many years whether I would ever get the chance to do – and I’m really beginning to settle in to the job! It’s so much fun, and I’m enjoying the feeling of starting to push at the limits as I become more confident. I feel aware, as the pianist Stephen Hough said about performing, that simultaneously, everything matters, and nothing matters. To pay attention to the tiniest details, but then also to have a freedom from inhibition to do something brazen. I think it’s in the balancing of those two aspects that the best art is created.

The particular idea for Sidechaining came because I’d been investigating digital audio software, and I liked the idea of transferring some of these effects, which you can perform with the turn of a knob in the software, on to the much larger scale of the symphony orchestra.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

Sidechaining is definitely more on the ‘rhythmic abandon’ side of my oeuvre, so perhaps chamber works like Steampunk or Gumboots. My orchestral work Night Parade would also be a good companion piece (written for San Diego Symphony in 2012) but it has yet to be recorded.

7. What’s next?

I’m starting a string quartet for the wonderful Dover Quartet in the US for next year, and after that a piece for [guitarist] Miloš Karadaglić and the LPO. I’ve also been deeply involved in the YouTube channel I mentioned earlier ( where I talk about composing and my musical passions. It’s been so exciting to have deep conversations with people from all over the world, and has certainly proved wrong the common belief that YouTube comments sections are the lowest point of humanity! My most popular video so far has been a look at the reasons the saxophone isn’t part of the standard orchestral line-up, which has had over 150,000 views and grateful responses from saxophonists all over the world! In fact, you can also hear more about the ideas behind Sidechaining and even hear a glimpse of a sketch for it here.

Sidechaining – programme note

Just as photography had a profound impact upon painting, I’m fascinated by the way recording and, later, digital technology have affected acoustic music-making. As well as the more subtle or indirect influences, I’ve sometimes wondered, could some of the techniques and effects used in digitally-created music work in, say, an orchestral environment? Well, in this piece I decided it was time to find out.

Sidechaining is a process used in digital-audio software by which the music in one channel affects the music in another. Imagine a long chord. Now imagine the beat of a drum. Each time the drum beats, the held chord just briefly cuts out or reduces in volume. That’s the essence of sidechaining. Another use of the process is when DJs automatically reduce the volume-level of music while they are speaking over it. Sidechaining can be used as an interruption, but it can also be a kind of trigger, one sound causing others to launch; or it can be used repeatedly to create a sense of interaction between two separate ideas.

The notion of one instrument interrupting or stealing the melody from another relates, for example, to the medieval technique called ‘hocketing’, in which a single melodic line is passed between of two or more interlocking voices or instruments (this happens at one point in my piece between oboe and clarinet, although in a distinctly un-medieval-sounding way); it also relates to the way rhythms are built up by a percussionist in, say, Latin music – a steady stream of notes is split between two percussion instruments: when one is playing the other is not, and vice versa (this also happens in my piece). You could think of each of the two interlocking parts as being the ‘negative’ (or ‘inverse’) rhythm of the other.

To me, there’s something very satisfying about making some of these effects on a grand scale in the orchestral arena. The opening bars, for example, switch back and forth between two parts of the orchestra, almost as if some hidden hand is turning the volume knob up and down. The opening sounds are ones of power and energy, but elsewhere the effect can also be comical – the French horn in particular, being the loudest of the soloists, has a tendency to playfully cut the other players off mid-stream.

The commission was for a piece scored for four soloists and orchestra, lasting 10 minutes. While this inevitably leaves little time to fully indulge our four supremely talented soloists, I hope this joyful and good-humoured piece will encourage a general celebratory sense of goodwill in the musical community and a sense of how lucky we are to be surrounded by such talent.

—David Bruce

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[…] continuum, Sidechaining by David Bruce (whose responses to my pre-première questions you can read here) proved to be an altogether less paltry, more robust and mature demonstration of orchestral […]

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