DAVID Lancaster, cutting-edge composer, York Late Music projects manager and head of York St John University’s music department, is back on course for the new academic year in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Going smoothly so far, but all fingers are crossed,” he says, when asked “How is the new term going?”.
“It’s the start of term like no other, and we’re aware that we could have an outbreak and/or be shut down at a moment’s notice, which does tend to push up the anxiety levels! Still, here goes for week 2.”
A university term “like no other” for Dr Lancaster continues the unpredictable path of a start-stop-restart year like no other, when all the usual channels of performance were removed overnight under the lockdown strictures imposed on March 23.
Out with the old order, in with the new, as David’s commission for Harrogate International Festivals, Eclipse, became the conversation piece of the hastily arranged inaugural virtual HIF Weekender, when 10,000 people from 60 countries viewed the online line-up of free arts events, exclusive clips and highlights from the July 23-26 programme showcased on BBC Radio 4.
David’s digital commission came to fruition against the stultifying background of lockdown. “The lockdown has proved to be a difficult time for all musicians, particularly for freelance performers, and the members of bands and choirs unable to work together,” he says.
“The impact on composers – who often work alone, in any case – has been significant for different reasons. All performances of my pieces since mid-March have been postponed or cancelled, and the uncertainties surrounding concerts have meant that performers, venues and festivals have been reluctant to make any firm plans for the future.”
Commissions dried up and deadlines, so important to David in providing motivation to complete pieces, disappeared. “Most of all, I miss the interaction and discussion with other musicians that takes place in planning meetings and rehearsals, and in the post-mortem after performances, when so many ideas are nurtured and developed,” he says.
Hence his delight – if trepidation too – at being approached by Harrogate International Festivals’ chief executive, Sharon Canavar, and board member Craig Ratcliffe, director of music at St John Fisher Catholic High School, with a “really great idea” for a new piece.
“Put simply, they wanted a short, fanfare-like composition for brass and percussion that could be recorded remotely by many players, locally, nationally and worldwide, that could be re-assembled in the studio to make a ‘live’ performance,” says David.
“Local brass bands would be contacted, and trumpet virtuoso Mike Lovatt – a good friend of the Harrogate festival – had very kindly agreed to record a solo track.”
Lovatt was a stellar signing, being professor of trumpet at the Royal Academy of Music and principal trumpet for both the John Wilson Orchestra and BBC Big Band.
Explaining the choice of title for his world premiere, David says: “We chose Eclipse to represent the idea that the Harrogate festival couldn’t take place this year – the concert halls, theatres and community venues had ‘gone dark’ – but that next year, the light would return and the festival and all its bright lights could resume.”
David wrote quickly, finishing the piece in only five days. “Oddly enough, I had previously composed a fanfare for a ceremonial occasion at the university – the installation of Reeta Chakrabarti as the new Chancellor – which had been postponed right at the start of lockdown, so I was able to draw upon and develop some of the rhythmic ideas from that piece in Eclipse,” he says.
“There was lots of material on my ‘cutting-room floor’ that I could rifle through, re-cycle and add to for the Harrogate festival piece. I was working on other things at the time, so writing Eclipse was a very pleasant interruption.”
Lockdown and the strange new world of Covid-19 2020 had an impact on David’s composition. “Obviously we all think about then time we are going through, and one of the reasons for being a composer is to get a better understanding of the world we live in as we hope to get back to some kind of normal when we can return to contact,” he says.
Eclipse “isn’t really a conventional fanfare,” suggests David. “I suppose there’s a hint of melancholy that reflects the current mood, but the ending is triumphant, and I hope that will serve us well when this piece is performed live, in front of an audience, when Harrogate International Festival returns in 2021,” he says.
“It would be lovely if Eclipse could complete its journey from darkness to light that way, when things have been so gloomy.”
More than 120 musicians joined forces remotely to record tracks, including players from Opera North, West End musicals and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, complemented by brass players from Qatar, Canada, the United States, South Korea and New Zealand, together with local brass bands and orchestras.
“I was so pleased that so many people got involved in putting Eclipse together,” says David. “When Harrogate International Festival first commissioned it, their intention was to use local brass bands from Ripon, Knaresborough and Harrogate, and then we started getting top players from West End musicals, Opera North and the RPO, with Craig using his contacts to draw in so many musicians.”
Eclipse subsequently was live-streamed for HIF At Home at 6pm on July 24 and made available on the festival website from the end of July.
Meanwhile, serendipitously for David, the new, alienating working conditions necessitated by the pandemic have chimed with a creative project he had in mind already. “Coronavirus has forced musicians to adapt to remote working, often making music independently of one another. Ironically, this is something I had been thinking about in 2019, long before lockdown,” he says.
“I wanted to explore asynchronous rhythmic elements in my music: passages in which players are not governed by a single, unifying pulse, but have opportunities to move apart from one another, to play independently, either individually or in small groups. Little did I suspect that I would be composing this music during a global pandemic in which we were all forced into working apart from one another.
“I have always been intrigued and fascinated by the non-verbal communication that takes place during ensemble performance: the way in which players send – and receive and interpret – visual and musical signals, and I wanted to incorporate some of these ideas into the fabric of a piece.”
The resulting work, Before I Fall Asleep, Again, The City…, takes its title from the first line of a novel by French author Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose use of multiple perspectives mirrors David’s own creative process. “It reflects my concept and it casts my piece into the domain of a recurring, if half-forgotten, memory,” he says.
“As always in my music, there is plentiful repetition; ideas move into the foreground then recede, only to return later in different contexts. I like the analogy of a person wandering aimlessly around a town, during which they regularly encounter sights previously seen from different directions, angles and perspectives: they experience familiar sights, unfamiliar sights, and the familiar ones in new guises.
“Memory plays an important role, so in the music I have tried to ensure that there are elements that will be recognised when they reappear, even if they are never quite the same each time.”
A research grant from York St John University enabled David to approach the new ensemble Trilogy with a view to performing it. “I was delighted when they agreed, but the ongoing pandemic has meant that all arrangements need to be provisional for the moment, though if all goes well, we are looking to perform it in York and London next year – and I can’t wait to hear it.”
As and when those performances can take place, the Trilogy performers will be placed as far apart as possible on stage. “Not in different rooms, or buildings, as they have to be able to co-ordinate, but we want to use the space they are in to the maximum,” says David.
“We hope to do it as part of the York Late Music 2021 programme in the St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel next May, and we’re still hoping to perform it in London next summer, in June.”
David is working on two more projects too. “One is a piece for a solo violinist, Steve Bingham, who works extensively with live electronics,” he says. “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m firing off lots of questions to Steve.
“The other is a longer-term project, where I’m setting the sonnets of John Donne. Last year, two of his Holy Sonnets were performed in Oxford Town Hall – Death, Be Not Proud and At The Round Earth’s Imagined Corner – by Oxford Harmonic Choir, who now want me to do more.”