Lyell Cresswell

by Fiona Rae / 12 May, 2011
The Scottish-based composer is back in New Zealand for the world premiere of a new piano concerto.
Award-winning composer Lyell Cresswell left New Zealand in 1972 and has been living in Scotland since 1982. His works are performed widely and prominently throughout the UK, including at the BBC Proms, but he maintains close ties with his home country, returning often and working with New Zealand musicians, including the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on his most recent CD, A Voice Inside. Cresswell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, written in memory of his composer friend Edward Harper, who died in 2009, had its world premiere on May 13 in Wellington as part of the NZSO’s annual Made in New Zealand concert  for New Zealand Music Month. It will be performed again in Auckland on May 28.

How did having Edward Harper as your dedicatee colour the concerto? It was written over two years and it’s in seven short movements. The four middle ones were written before he died and the first, second and last written afterward. So those four middle ones were written in the knowledge he was ill but not knowing, of course, he was going to die by the end of the piece. I suppose it’s a lot about the anguish and stuff of hearing [he was ill] in the first place and then there are the bits written afterwards: the piece starts with a funeral march and there’s quite a slow second movement, but the last is a sort of fast presto, which is more a kind of celebration [of his life].

You also finished the near-completed first movement of the Third Symphony Harper was working on when he died. How does that weigh upon a composer, completing someone else’s – and in this case a close friend’s – work? That was a very hard thing to do in both ways. One was working up the sketches and trying to keep as close to what his intentions seemed to me were. It was sketched all the way through but I had to fill out quite a lot. The second, of course, is the emotional side of it, having to become so close to his work. One of the things I noticed was the way in the sketches you can see the handwriting actually get more frail as it goes on. It was a very graphic picture of the growth of the cancer, because he finished that [last] sketch something like a week before he died. You can also see some of the directions get a little bit more confused towards the end sometimes.

From your point of view, I guess, you have to submerge your own inclinations. I had to see it as work, of course, to try to detach myself in some way. He was quite a different composer from me, too, which perhaps made it easier in some ways, because I wasn’t tempted to throw in too much of my own work. I was being as safe as I could. But there were some bits where, of course, I had to make up some little bits.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was written specifically for Stephen de Pledge. Does having a player in mind also colour a piece? I think it does. He’s played four or five of my assorted solo pieces, some of them commissioned by him, so I knew him quite well. And I sent him stuff as it was being written so he could see what was going on and could tell me if there was anything that was unplayable. It must have coloured it somehow. I don’t know if I’d be writing it for another pianist. It probably would have turned out much the same piece. But I don’t know. It’s hard actually to say. I was very confident while I was writing it because I know his playing and I know how good he is and how much care he will take over it. So I had no worries about what I was writing.

De Pledge has said, “Pianistically speaking, as with most of his works, it requires extreme physical virtuosity, and a relentless energy and demonic brain power … [it’s] absolutely exhilarating, and a rollercoaster ride from start to finish.” Those are pretty big asks of a pianist. How do you gauge how far you take those things? Do you like to push performers, and indeed yourself? I like to make sure everything is possible, everything is playable. I don’t want to make impossible demands. But perhaps knowing Stephen and knowing how good he is at taking on these things, maybe that made me freer to push it that far.

Although you live in Scotland, you identify yourself very much as a New Zealand composer. What does that mean to you? This is where I was formed and I think also my music is very different from a British composer’s. My sketches, I always send to the Alexander Turnbull Library. This is where they belong rather than in a Scottish place. These kinds of things. There was a book recently that refers to me as a Scottish composer, and I didn’t like that. I think it’s not what I am. I am a New Zealand composer who happens to live in Scotland. I think that’s really the way I see it.

And the Scottish seem quite good in, on the whole, acknowledging that. Everybody knows that’s what I am. And also, of course, it means they are sometime doubtful about whether they can count me as Scottish. Which I’m happy about also. People call me all sorts of things, I suppose.

Is place important for a composer? Even the absence of a place? Yes. When I went away – that was 1972 – things were different then. This was what you did. If I was a youngish composer here now, I’m not quite sure how I would have played it. There are more opportunities and communications around the world are so much easier. So it was a different situation when I set out. And, of course, then I became involved in a life there so it’s difficult then to change.

Does being in Scotland also have an effect on you as a composer? I think why it works so well for me is that it’s on the fringe of Europe and in New Zealand we think we are on the fringe, or certainly did. I like being slightly detached from where the centres are. So this takes me nearer those centres, or the European centres anyway, but at the same time being a little on the edge. And, of course, the Scottish culture, I know there are a lot of differences, but it has a lot to do with New Zealand culture, too.

Over the years, you’ve curated a number of New Zealand showcases overseas and obviously you come back a lot and collaborate a lot and keep a close eye on what’s happening to the New Zealand composing scene. Looking at this year’s Made in New Zealand programme, with five contemporary pieces, four of them world premieres, it suggests New Zealand composition is at a productive stage, if nothing else. I think so. It looks a very strong concert, although I haven’t heard the other new pieces. And this week there are also orchestral readings with some other composers. I will be going this afternoon to hear what some of the younger composers are doing in an orchestral context. So this week will be very revealing for me.

How does the number of composers we have here now and the amount of work being done compare with when you were starting out as a student back at Victoria University? I know you always say things are easier now, but I think there are more opportunities. I wouldn’t complain at all. I was very happy with the way things went for me. But there are these things like orchestral readings and a lot of possibilities here that didn’t exist when I was a student. But we didn’t expect them at that stage. But now things have grown. There are prizes and there are competitions. I think maybe the school chamber music competition started when I was a student.

What were some of your formative influences as a composer? You come from a Salvation Army family. Was that important to you? That was where my original musical background came from, yes. I was brought up in a brass band, you might say. But then my interests quickly broadened, when I actually studied music with Douglas Lilburn and David Farquhar. They were big influences. And Fred Page, the professor at Vic. That was the New Zealand [influence]. And then in the larger world my influences were more Stravinsky, Bartok, that kind of line, rather than the 12-note, although I was involved in that sort of music as well.

How do you see yourself as having developed as a composer – particularly in recent years? It’s hard for me to say. It keeps developing. An English critic said of my work a little while ago that I had a reputation for squaring the circle between complexity and the approachable. I like that definition. But the trouble is it means that those who like complex music think I’m not complex enough while those that like easy listening think it’s not easy listening. But this is the place I want to be. Where music is a challenge but at the same time it expresses emotion and it makes sense to people who are prepared to listen.

And do you think squaring the circle is something that has come to you more recently? That’s sort of the way I’ve gone. And maybe I’m gradually getting closer to that. I don’t know, though, you’ll have to ask other people whether it’s working or not. But that’s the way I see myself. And probably I’m getting a bit nearer that position all the time. Whether I’ll ever reach it or not is another matter.

You’ve said that you’ve been listening to Haydn a lot more as you’ve got older. Yes, I’ve been listening to that older music a lot more. There’s so much new music about now and so much variety and I do like listening to it but sometimes I find it becomes just a task, a job, and I want to have music that I can be moved by and enjoy. So more often, yeah, I’ve become more interested in listening to older classical music. But that doesn’t mean when I hear new music I can’t be riveted. I find some of it impenetrable, some of it I don’t like, but there’s always a lot of new music that still excites me.

Who are some of the new composers that excite you? Ooh, I don’t know! Recently, there’s been Mark-Anthony Turnage, who has a huge jazz influence and uses jazz players. He’s one. It’s difficult to say now who are the real composers that excite me. I think in the past there were the days of when people like Xenakis and Beriot and Ligeti were alive, they were the ones that excited me then. But they are all dead now.

Is it more likely to be an individual piece now rather than a body of work? Yes, it’s hard for me to think of a particular composer I would want to rave on about.

One of the things you’ve said of your own work, and that has been said of your work, is that it’s got faster. I think so. That is a generalisation, of course, there always was fast music. But the underlying pulse and speed of it has got faster. Maybe time passes faster and you want to get more things done more quickly, I don’t know. I think for my early pieces I hadn’t quite cracked how to write fast music; once I did, or thought I did, since then things have been getting faster.

There’s a cautiousness about programming contemporary music in New Zealand, a fear there isn’t going to be the same audience there is for Haydn, for instance. How do you find audiences for contemporary music? I think there’s a lot more interest in it [than people think]. I think people need a chance to hear it. The trouble is if you’re not exposed to it very often the audience then thinks it’s some kind of freak thing. But it needs to be regular pieces. It’s okay putting them in with older music, if it’s carefully chosen. The problem is that often a new piece is put in an inappropriate programme otherwise. If the whole programme is thought out, then it’s really an education and very good to have a new piece in the context it might have developed from or has some relation to. That’s a good way of doing it. But too often it’s just a crass way of putting in a new piece in the middle of something that’s not appropriate.

You had a Lyell Cresswell is Fifty festival in Glasgow and a Lyell Cresswell at 60 in Edinburgh. If you were the one programming Lyell Cresswell at 70 – which hopefully someone somewhere will be putting on – what would be some of the works you’d like to see played? What would be the key works for you in your career? It’s hard to know the big works. There’s the String Quartet Concerto which the New Zealand String Quartet played here a few years ago. That, I think, is an important piece. Some of my best work, my biggest orchestral works, are concertos – there’s a cello concerto from 1984. And maybe the new piano concerto. Let’s see how it goes! I think in a programme like that I would like to cover a range of things, from the earlier, mid and late. Something new as well.

Do you find your works across your career are pulled out and reperformed  adequately? Sometimes. But never enough, of course. We all complain they’re  not pefroermd enough! But yes, they are sometimes.

How do you measure your musical successes? What criteria do you apply when you look back over your work for the ones you’re happy with? The only really way I can see it is whether it still moves. I’m very critical of what I’ve done. I hardly ever listen to my old music, or to my music at all, but sometimes I will listen to a piece or look through the score and see what I think. Whether I think it still stands up. There are some pieces I’ve discarded which I don’t think do. But on the whole there are enough pieces that do.

For the future, over and above specific individual commissions, are there any particular things you would like to do? I’d like to do some more opera. I’ve done some opera work. I have some ideas with a friend and librettist I work with in Edinburgh, Ron Butlin. We have some ideas for some more. But bigger scale opera is so hard to get going. And in my position, I have to work to commissions, that’s my livelihood. So unless we could have something like that commissioned, I probably wouldn’t [be able to]. That’s the kind of thing I would like to happen. But there’s certainly plenty of other things I want to do yet.

MADE IN NEW ZEALAND: ENCHANTED ISLANDS, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich, including Stephen de Pledge (piano), Wellington Town Hall, May 13; Auckland Town Hall, May 28.
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