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Ross Lorraine Interview

Posted on 06 October 2004. © Copyright 2004-2024 Composition:Today

C:T talks to composer Ross Lorraine, whose music has been performed throughout the world at many major music festivals. It ranges in style from extreme experimentalism to accessible songs for music-theatre. within what changlessness can be heard in this season's BMIC Cutting Edge Series, performed by Ensemble Exposé on 9 December at The Warehouse in London.

 Listen to an extract from Ross Lorraine's New Work for bass clarinet (MP3 938Kb)

Ross Lorraine
Tell us something about your background.

I'm from Bristol originally. I studied music at Cambridge, with Hugh Wood for composition. I moved to London, and ten years later I did postgraduate studies with David Lumsdaine at King's College London, and then for four years with Harrison Birtwistle, leading to a PhD in Composition.

How did you start composing?

It took me a while to get going as a composer. I was given a ukele when I was about five - I'd go round the local shops playing Beatles songs and the shopkeepers would give me sweets and fruit. When I was a little older I would make stuff up at the piano, improvising for hours.

I remember taking an old piano to bits, making extraordinary sounds with pieces of glass stuck between the strings, and playing with an old broken harmonium, attaching it to a hoover to see what would happen... Occasionally I'd write things down, but I was a late starter in terms of "proper" music. I picked up several instruments to a fairly basic level, but music wasn't an option at my school, and in fact I got in to Cambridge to do Philosophy and changed at the last moment.

It took me a long time to get over the feeling that I was a bit of an interloper, but perhaps feeling like an outsider is good for developing an
independent attitude.

Who or what has influenced your style?

I used to play jazz and ethnic music on violin and saxophone, and later free improvisation, but I've always liked a big range of music, anything from Gershwin and Thelonius Monk to Conlon Nancarrow, Monteverdi, music from the Balkans, gamelan... In modern music I suppose Stravinsky was initially a huge influence, then Varèse, and later I fell in love with Morton Feldman and Luigi Nono.

How did you get your first commission?

An early commission was from a student of mine, who gave me six bottles of wine for writing her a song. I don't think I declared it on my tax return. My rates have gone up a bit now - it would have to be a whole case.

Where do your ideas come from?

I don't know, but I like Tom Waits's answer to that one: "I get them for free, and then I sell them to you".

Do you have particular techniques - one's you come back to again and again? Tell us a bit about them.

In my more experimental pieces, I have a bit of a thing about using sounds that are in some way on the edge of predictability or stability, sometimes breaking down the playing techniques into component parts like breathing and articulation, then recombining them so that the conventional sense of musical gesture is distorted or transformed. It's something I liked about free improvisation - that there's an interplay between what you can control and what comes about through chance.

I like collaborating closely with good players, trying to push the boundaries of what they can do. With groups like the Arditti Quartet, that can be quite a challenge, because they've seen most things before. We are lucky in the UK to have so many really dedicated performers. For example, I wrote a piece called New Work for Andrew Sparling on bass clarinet (coming out on the Metier label soon) - there's no way I could have written it without his input, because almost every sound in it was arrived at by my asking him "what happens if you do this?... "

To listen to it, you might think there's some electronic treatment of the sound, but it's all live. Of course, the skill as a composer is to take those sounds and make a shape that works. I think there are too many pieces that are just pyrotechnics.

What inspires you to write?

Paintings sometimes, like Klee or Rothko, or just a sound world half-glimpsed for a moment, that I want to explore and expand on. I like big simple shapes, like expanding registers; or just blocks of sound juxtaposed, or blending into each other.

The whole idea that 'less is more' is something I'm getting more confident about, and going to Japan was a big inspiration from that point of view. I've also been doing much more accessible stuff recently, writing cabaret-type songs with a fantastic playwright /screenplay writer called Rob Young that evolved into a musical (now in the slow process of being made into a film for Working Title). That started as a return to the simple process of sitting at the piano and making up tunes that appeal to me. And I enjoy writing for theatre - I've just done the music for a production at the Almeida Theatre - perhaps because my mother was an actress, and I have early memories of the excitement of going backstage at the Bristol Old Vic as a child.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

Don't do it unless you really have to. It's a cruel world. And I need the work.

Do you have a routine? A place that's special

I'm at my best in the morning, but you know when it's going well because then you can't wait to get back to it, and you don't notice the time passing. I don't have a special place, but I do like to work with actual sounds, trying out effects for myself if it's an experimental piece, or having the feedback of sampled sounds if it's something more commercial.

Do you do other work as well as composing?

I taught composition for about ten years, at King's College London and Goldsmith's College. And I'm the editor for Harrison Birtwistle at Universal Edition.

For more information on Ross's work visit

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2024

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