Tomorrow's chamber orchestra concert has some exciting names on the programme, but the most interesting is Alex Barker whom you've probably not heard of before. Alex is one of our student composers and this concert will be the premiere of his first ever orchestral piece! We asked Alex if he could have a short chat with us about his experience as a composer and what we can expect from his piece.
Hi Alex! First of all, thanks for finding the time to sit down with me today. Getting straight to the point here, why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself?
"Hi, I’m Alex, I’m a second year music student and I’ve composed for the chamber orchestra this year."
And what else do you generally take interest in?
"I like composition, but musicology as well, I have an interest in musicology and a lot of historic music as well."
Ah okay, so are you kind of thinking Classical era there or…?
"I’m enjoying looking at Baroque at the moment - it’s been really interesting looking at old opera, especially, like, the 1600s, the beginning of opera."
Focusing on your Chamber Orchestra piece then, I seem to recall last time we talked you were very interested in Berlioz and were aiming for a mid-Romantic era pastiche of sorts. Is that kind of what you’ve gone for?
"In a way. I’ve done a sort of, uh, a tone poem, a symphonic poem, like Schoenberg’s ‘Transfigured Night’ if you’ve ever heard of that. It’s programmatic mainly, and the harmony is not just fully Romantic - it gets a little more dissonant than that, but it does that for the purpose of fulfilling the narrative."
So presumably you have a programme in mind? I know there's some discussion amongst composers these days as to whether it's best to lay out all of the inspiration for your piece in your programme, or whether it's best to withhold that information so that you don't risk giving your audience the wrong preconceptions about your piece. What are your thoughts on this?
"Hm, I preferred to give a few details in my programme notes. Not to guide the audience through the entire piece but, you know, ground the piece a bit so they know what to listen for."
Ah okay. It's been a while since we last talked about it but I seem to remember that you’ve given the piece quite a provocative title haven’t you? What was it again? ‘Better a past like that…’
"Better this present than a past like that"
Now I could take many guesses as to what that's about. I’m sure that could be in reference to all sorts
"Ah, well it’s a quote from a poem actually, by Robert Browning"
Oh right, was there anything you were specifically trying to get at when you titled the piece that?
"Yeah, so it’s kind of like how 'Transfigured Night' is about the poem itself but also the time surrounding it. I read this poem probably... 2-3 years ago now, when I was quite ill for, again maybe 2-3 years. It’s based on my thoughts on recovery, and that period of my life, so it’s better now, but nothing ever is perfect and that’s the idea of the programme."
I won’t lie, I thought it was going to be political, haha. Do you have any points of interest in the piece that you always really look forward to hearing?
"The treatment of the horn. A big part of the poem is the ending. The character in the poem lifts up his horn and it’s sort of left to you to decide what happens, whether he dies or whether he’s just progressed to the end of his journey. So I haven’t used the horn too prominently throughout, but there are 3 moments and I think the context it sits in each time, the kind of main motif, shows the progression of the piece."
Presumably this is one of the largest ensembles you’ve written for to date. What do you think is particularly challenging about moving from smaller chamber ensembles to larger ensembles?
"I think it’s thinking about it in a larger scale. You’re not just thinking about what each individual instrument is doing. You’re thinking about what each sort of choir is doing, like, in my piece I liked exploring the high and low winds and alternating between them, so the horns and the bassoons together and then clarinets, flutes and all of them together, and exploring the different textures you can create with that. It’s less about individual instruments and you’ve gotta think a little larger sometimes, which is fairly difficult when you’re starting out."
Cool. Now, I’ve written for larger ensembles myself and I just think it’s such a learning experience isn’t it?
"It is, definitely."
Do you find there are one or two composers that have particularly influenced you? I get the feeling maybe Schoenberg?
"Yeah, Schoenberg, I really like Schoenberg. I think just the large scale of the late-Romantic orchestras and stuff like that rather than specific composers. I know this is a chamber orchestra, but I don’t mean large scale in terms of size, I mean large scale in like, the way that they were thinking about composing."
Yeah, because the size itself definitely isn’t an inherent limiting factor is it? And you get this kind of early 20th-century return to the chamber orchestra - I take it you like Berg as well? Maybe Webern?
"Yeah, Berg. I do like some Webern actually, yeah, but Berg more so."
Okay, and do you think there are any composers you’ve taken a lot from, but specifically in an orchestral sense?
"Umm, I still think Schoenberg, especially his first chamber symphony. I really enjoyed looking at that."
Coming back to programmatic stuff then, are you going to print the poem in the programme?
"No, not going to. The poem was mainly, like, I empaphised with the feelings and the emotions in the poem, so it’s less about the actual words."
What’s the poem?
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"
"Yeah, it’s a weird title, but childe basically means knight and this guy, he has to go on this journey and he doesn’t know why, so he feels frustrated with the journey the whole way through."
Kind of like Lord of the Rings then?
"Haha, kind of I guess. It’s more so about, like, he just feels… hmm… so later on in the poem, near the end actually, he empathises with the dead soldiers who have taken this journey before. They’re lying dead and he just wants to be in that position. It’s about the feeling of not progressing when you are actually progressing."
It’s a very modern day student mindset that, isn’t it? To kind of see everyone else racing ahead and not really realise until you look back how far you’ve come.
So when you look back at when you first got the university, do you think “Ooh, I wish I’d made a bit more progress there” or do you actually look back and think…
"I think you can always look back and think you could have done more, but doing something like this. Just to think that on Tuesday my piece is going to be performed, and this is the first performance of a piece I have written in a formal context. It’s a big thing I think."
Absolutely, and it’s really exciting stuff isn’t it?
So are you hoping to write for symphony orchestra after this?
"Oh definitely. I’d love to. Composition before university was something that I was not comfortable with at all, but after coming to university I think it’s the direction I’d like to take, so I’d love to write for symphony orchestra."
Do you think that this is going to change the way you write for smaller ensembles?
"I think so. Especially in the way I think about timbre and the mixing of different instruments and not just… like, I think it’d be more interesting to have smaller ensembles with more eclectic instruments, rather than having just a string quartet or something like that."
Well, thank you very much for your time. I’m very much looking forward to the concert!
"I am too! And no problem, I’ve really enjoyed this!"
We hope you enjoyed getting to know Alex and that you'll come and see his piece in tomorrow's concert. More information on the concert and tickets can be found here.