“I wouldn’t have the ability to change!” the composer Andrew Hamilton tells me, laughing, when I ask him if he minds what people think of his work. This, for me, is what’s so great about Andrew’s music: it is so defiantly its own thing. “I try to remind myself that as a child,” he continues, “about ten, I just started writing music. It was a natural thing – just spontaneous, it was never a decision – it’s play. You know, all children draw, so it’s as natural as drawing.”
Sitting in the cafe at the Royal Academy of Arts, I quiz Andrew for a couple of hours, bouncing from subject to subject (his music, his interests, teachers, obsessions…) before, not quite sure we’d stayed on topic, we head upstairs to visit the Royal Academy’s exhibition: a retrospective of the artist, Jasper Johns.
“In my mid twenties I became obsessed with Jasper Johns.” Andrew explains, finding a quote in the exhibition’s catalogue that illustrates the artist’s importance for him, “this probably sums up what I am trying to do in music: ‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.’” Perhaps it’s unfashionable, Andrew wonders, “the idea of ‘grace’” (the transcendent!) but for me this gets to the heart of Andrew’s music – ‘some sense of life’. Like Johns’, Andrew’s work is full of life. His music is energetic, arresting and, that rarest of things, funny. There are creative parallels with the paintings and sculptures in the Academy’s exhibition: a mischievousness, the appropriation of familiar objects in an artistic vocabulary that is far from familiar. Looking at Jasper Johns’ paintings of the American flag, or his working and reworking of numbers, dripping with wax, Andrew’s music rings in my ears: those major triads or snatches of melody, familiar (as if we have always known them), but repeated, chopped up, or interrupted so that they appear entirely alien, exciting and new.
“I suppose I was influenced a lot by how, in the visual arts, they take limited means and then push them – so I suppose I’m taking stuff that has existed before but pushing it too far.” Andrew tells me, “I have to entertain myself. If my pieces are going well, I’m usually having a good laugh!” (Laughing? Having fun with art-music?) “It’s terrible to be humorous in music” he goes on, wryly, “because people don’t take it seriously. If it’s slow and quiet people think it’s profound and amazing, but if you have some sort of life and it’s playful, you’re a maverick” he laughs – “especially if you’re Irish!”
In this regard, Andrew’s work certainly stands out from the new-music crowd. To be funny in music is rare; to be funny and to write lasting, impactful music, is rarer yet. We develop a rudimentary taxonomy of humorous composers: “I think Beethoven is funny – Mozart is funny. Meredith Monk is funny.” Andrew muses, thoughtfully, “Haydn is supposedly funny, but I never laugh!” I suggest Stravinsky, asking if the composer was an influence. “Do you know Apollonian Clockwork?” he replies, excitedly, “[Louis] Andriessen’s book about Stravinsky? When I read it, I knew I wanted to go and study with him.” Andrew explains that it was Stravinsky’s treatment of his material that’s been most impactful on his writing: “That’s what I’m aiming for – everything is just… always there. I don’t want any narrative, I don’t want to get anywhere, I don’t want to arrive anywhere.” Common to both composers – Hamilton and Stravinsky – is this cut-and-splice presentation of contrasting material. Musical ideas sit, strikingly juxtaposed, pushed up against one another, heightened in their opposition.
“We look at the four hand Stravinsky version of Petrushka” Andrew goes on, talking about the orchestration class he teaches at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, “and when you listen to that it’s slightly… crass, I mean the harmony is not, it’s not sophisticated, but then when you hear the orchestral version it’s so sophisticated but it’s because he’s able to transform simple ideas. He rejects all of the ‘busy work’.”
I press Andrew to define what he means by ‘busy work’, and he explains how he writes: “Often I get melodies stuck in my head. It’s quite intuitive, because it’s easy to do all that – I call it ‘busy work’ – like writing scales out. It looks nice, but it’s process. After every single lesson with Andriessen, I’d shut the door and think “I know absolutely nothing” because it’s not about ‘busy work’ – you know – ‘busy work’ is not being a musician really; it’s not listening.” Instead, Andrew explains, it is about branching out on your own, doing things intuitively. “I think it’s about finding a language that is more authentic for yourself, instead of taking what’s been given. So using – for example – tonality: a lot of people would say it’s retrogressive, but for me it’s authentic – it’s what I love.”
I’m interested to hear Andrew’s thoughts on tonality – again, a characteristic that sets his music aside from the contemporary-classical mainstream. “It was never ideological.” he explains, “I hope there is no ideology in my work. I came upon tonality by mistake really: I studied loads of Feldman and I wrote lots of really bad Feldman pieces with that sort of harmony. Then somehow, when I wrote this piano quartet with these little triads in it, I remember sitting in the workshop and just loving what I’d written. I’d never had that experience before. I didn’t sit down and think ‘I must be tonal to annoy people’! Now I realise that Feldman’s harmony is beautiful in Feldman but I didn’t grow up in New York in the 1950s – it’s not me!” For Andrew, his use of diatonic harmony is as much about familiarity as it is about authenticity. Again, he draws parallels with Jasper Johns: “I read this quote, that [Johns] likes ‘things that the mind already knows’ and for me that sums up why I use tonality because we all know it so we can begin from the same place and then you can work on the other parameters. So, it gives me the room to push the other parameters.”
Perhaps most striking about Andrew’s music is his use of repetition. Repetition is used, not like the minimalists, but with an absurdist humour, like a Stewart Lee routine or a record skipping ad absurdum, that is as arresting as it is joyful. “I’m interested in nowness,” he explains, “like constantly now and repetition sort of pushes you into listening to the now – like ‘God, is it going to change?’ so you’re not drifting off, which I learnt from Feldman, it’s all Feldman that part. The problem with a lot of the minimalist composers now: it’s just the rhetoric of minimalism without any of the meaning.” He goes on: “I’m trying to get beyond surface.”
And is pop an influence, I wonder – to me Andrew’s music sounds like an acoustic interpretation of copy-and-paste sampling? “Pop must of had an influence on me,” he explains, “because it was something I took very seriously, but I don’t listen to it at all any more!” He cites a host of other influences (“Sufi Qawwali music, traditional Irish music, Thai Pi-Phat, classical Indian…”) before continuing: “As a young boy, one of the centre points of my week was Top of the Pops. I would watch it, it was a ritual, every week. It was obsessive – I loved it, but now I realise it wasn’t really about the music, it was about a weird ritual. I sort of knew that it was completely separate, for me, to when I would listen to Beethoven. It would have a completely different effect on me. Pop was not about transcendence for me, Beethoven was about something amazing, going totally away from where I was, pop was – there. It was, entertainment, it was social.” Our conversation turns, inevitably, to boy bands. “Boy bands are such an optimistic form.” Andrew notes, joking: “I probably don’t listen to pop because I have no hope any more!” In contrast to his self-effacing manner, however, Andrew’s music is undeniably optimistic and hopeful; it imbues vitality and joy. “I suppose – I don’t think I’m interested in escapism,” he clarifies, “because that’s what a boy band is, right? I’m not interested in fantasy.”
Once more, that Jasper Johns quote seems significant: ‘something resembling truth, some sense of life’. Andrew’s music is joyful, yes, but it’s an experienced joy – a joy to be shared. Andrew writes music to be heard. Not “interested in fantasies or dreams” nor with the ‘busy work’ of arranging notes on the page, Andrew explains that he is “interested in writing for people”. Just look at his titles: Music for People Who Like Art, Music for People Who Think Things Could be Better. “If I make myself laugh,” he says, “I’m hopefully going to make at least one person happy.”
Music For People Who Like Art (Crash Ensemble)