Composer Louise Drewett speaks to Paul Kilbey about authorship, freedom and composing for the stairwell of the Royal Academy of Music.
In November 2018, something unusual happened at the Royal Academy of Music in London: a community choir, Singhealthy, took over a central staircase to slowly, gracefully chant the names of several types of cloud: “Stratus”, “Altostratus”, “Cirrostratus”.
This unconventional event, part of the Spaced festival at the RAM, was Stairway, a composition by Louise Drewett, who is currently studying there for a PhD. She explains how this all came about, and how she went about writing such an adventurous score – which doesn’t use any conventional notation, and lets the performers choose some notes for themselves – for an amateur ensemble.
First of all, can you describe what happens in Stairway? How does it work, and what do the performers do?
I’ll try to explain! There’s a group of about 30 singers. They stand along a spiral staircase in the Royal Academy of Music, arranged roughly in range order, so basses at the bottom, sopranos at the top. They’re split into six groups. The singers move through three verses of similar instructions, in a chain: it’s unconducted, the groups are cued by each other but then sing in their own time. And the piece slowly transitions from long sustained notes into something more active, using curved forms as an inspiration – glissandi, for example, sung from graphic scores.
And there’s a cloud metaphor running through the whole thing too?
Yes, I use cloud names and cloud forms as a metaphor for this transition from low to high, and the transition from the lower space in the stairwell, which is the old Academy building, to the new space at the top. There’s a glass ceiling above, so you can look at the sky.
The idea also seems like the collision of two quite different musical worlds: the Royal Academy of Music, and Singhealthy, the community choir who sang it.
Yeah, I guess it does. This was a piece for the Spaced festival at the RAM, and the idea was to use spaces around the Academy in an unconventional way – I was asked specifically to use the stairwell and to have singers arranged on the staircase. But that commission came about with knowledge of some of my previous work, which has involved community choir singers, unusual and site-specific performances, and very specific ensemble formations.
And were you also familiar with this particular choir?
Yes – I co-direct Singhealthy choirs with Kieran Morris. I joined them in 2012, working as an accompanist for the founder, Dorian Edwards, and it’s been a big part of my life since then. The choirs have been very supportive of me and my composition. When I first joined, working with the choirs really motivated me to continue to write music, because I could actually see the benefits of doing so: it felt relevant and it felt meaningful. It was great to see people excited about new music.
You must have worked closely with the choir on Stairway, then. How did you develop it?
It took a long time to make it work. I ran two workshops, with the help of Kieran, going through drafts, and the final score itself was rehearsed over several weeks. The score only used text and graphics, which the choir weren’t used to working with: it was something that was potentially more accessible than musical notation, but, in another way, less so! So I needed to make sure that what I was asking was reasonable, and that they felt comfortable doing it. The singers made an important creative contribution themselves, and helped to shape the work.
Were there things that this group could do that maybe a professional or more seasoned amateur ensemble couldn’t?
Yes – one of the more experimental aspects of the score, that I think was really beneficial, was giving singers the freedom to choose their own pitches, within certain limitations. It gave the singers more of an individual voice, and the chance to contribute something unique. Plus I wanted variations in the sound. I think that would be more contrived with a professional ensemble, because professional choirs generally aim for a homogenized sound.
Despite the performers having quite a lot of freedom in what they could sing, they must have got to know the piece very well. Did you feel like the singers were trying to do the same thing each time? Or did they deliberately vary their approaches, reflecting the freedom they had in the score?
That’s always an interesting thing if you’ve got aleatoric or independent elements in the score. It’s massively down to personality. Some singers are far more comfortable than others with doing something new each time, while other singers have a set plan: there is a big natural variation in what people tend to do in this context. Overall I was very very pleased with what they achieved in both performances.
Would you describe this, or your other work, as “experimental” – is that a label you’re happy with?
Maybe the word “situational” is better! I feel like some of the processes or models I use are there pragmatically, rather than with experimental intentions.
So it’s not so much a “what would happen if” sort of experiment, as looking at how you can create something for a particular performance scenario.
Yeah, exactly. I also really enjoy working with individual players, and workshopping a piece. Also when working with professional players, it’s incredibly useful to have a personal connection.
It sounds like you’re someone who really thinks very carefully about why they’re writing a piece in the first place.
Kind of – but I don’t think writing a piece of music needs justification. Definitely not. For me, I think: why did I enjoy Stairway so much? It created a special moment. Hopefully the audience took something away from that, as did the performers, but for me, it’s also about having a meaningful relationship with my social environment and my surroundings.
How has doing Stairway fed into other compositional projects of yours?
I’m currently writing an orchestral piece for the LSO Panufnik scheme – a hugely different commission. I’m interested in, how to describe it… the independence of voices. There are elements that are drawn across from Stairway in the orchestral piece: the role of separate voices, and how they layer up. I’m interested in creating similar kinds of textures for an orchestra.
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