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Kenneth Hesketh in interview with Christopher Thomas September 2001

Kenneth Hesketh is one of the rising stars of the 1960ís and 1970ís British compositional generation. Born in Liverpool in 1968 his music attracted interest whilst still in his teens resulting in a performance of an early symphony by the Merseyside Youth Orchestra when he was sixteen and a commission for Sir Charles Groves and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, "Harlequin", whilst still a student at the Royal College of Music.

Subsequently studies at Tanglewood as Leonard Bernstein Fellow in 1995 brought him into contact with Henri Dutilleux, with whom he studied, as well as Oliver Knussen who has done much to champion his music ever since. In 1996 he returned to the USA to complete a Masters Degree in composition and at the recommendation of Sir Simon Rattle was awarded The Shakespeare Prize scholarship from the Toepfer Foundation, Hamburg, granting a years residency in Berlin. Works from around this period include Theatrum for chamber ensemble (a commission from the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University) and In Paradisum for unaccompanied chorus, for the European City of Culture for 1996, Copenhagen.

Several major works were to follow his period of study in Berlin, amongst them, Torturous Instruments (after Bosch) for chamber ensemble, The Hanging Figure is Judas for cello, subsequently revised in a version for piano quartet and The Circling Canopy of Night for Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, premiered in Birmingham and Paris in 1999. The orchestral work At God speeded Summerís end, written for the BBC Philharmonic, was premiered in Manchesterís Bridgewater Hall in November 2000 under Vassily Sinaisky.

Netsuke for chamber ensemble, completed in 2001, was written in response to a commission from Hans Werner Henze for his own 75th birthday celebrations and premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Endymion Ensemble.

The following interview was conducted in the wake of a performance of The Circling Canopy of Night by the London Sinfonietta and Oliver Knussen at a late night Prom in August 2001.

CT: Did you grow up in a musical household and at what age did you begin to compose?

KH: Though I wasn't born into a musical family, I had a fairly good voice and had won local music festivals singing various things (including O for the Wings of a dove!). I was encouraged by my primary school headmaster to audition for the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral choir. I passed the audition and became a chorister at the age of 9, learning musical theory, given vocal training and beginning piano lessons, as well as having the opportunity of listening to many sorts of music, covering much of the western canon of church music. The contemporary composers I came into contact with were mostly of a fairly tame leaning however (sub-Messiaen at the extreme). There was however a fine Willis organ, very French in its registration, which was played by very fine performers. The music I heard was perfectly suited to the instrument - harmonically very rich and colourful, resounding in an acoustic space with a 9 to 11 second decay. One of my most treasured memories of this time is a concert including Gabrielli's Jubilate Deo (scored for double choir, double brass group and 2 organs); hearing this great contrapuntal work with its antiphonal sections working across an enormous space left an impression. By 10 and a half I was composing.

CT: What and whom were your earliest musical influences?

KH: Naturally I was influenced by much of the music around me, though I should say that the sense of ritual played out gloriously either in the main part of the cathedral or the more intimate Lady Chapel every week also left its mark. The choral music that appealed most forcefully to me was early 20th century English music; Leighton, RVW, Mathias, and Walton in particular. The organ music that excited me most was the late 19th/early 20th century French repertoire; Dubois, Mulet, Langlais, Messiaen. I was most fortunate to have a wonderfully broad-minded piano teacher, a Miss Dorothy Hill, who as well as making sure I knew standard rep. (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms etc.), made sure that I was aware of more 'exotic' things - Debussy, Ravel, Gliere, Satie etc. I well remember discovering Diaghilev Ballet music at about 13 and was smitten from that point on. The same piano teacher also happened to be an opera lover and would invite me along to see productions by Welsh National, English National and Scottish Opera. So by the age of 13 or 14 I had seen 'From the house of the Dead', 'Peter Grimes', 'Pearl Fishers', 'Cunning little Vixen', 'Death in Venice' and quite a few others. My exclusive love of cathedral music had been broken and I wanted to explore orchestral sonorities.

CT: As a teenager you played in the National Youth Orchestra as orchestral pianist and percussionist. Do you still play any instruments regularly?

KH: Sadly no; sadly because the interaction between composer and performer is most often relegated to final rehearsals before the performance and precious little else. I have only added to my own dissatisfaction in this regard by allowing my pianistic technique to disintegrate, largely due to ever-encroaching nerves leading up to a performance. I did enjoy the sheer physical nature of playing, the way certain chords felt under the fingers and the choreography needed to get round a particularly difficult work. Being an orchestral pianist and percussionist allowed me to take part in performances of great works such as 'Gurrelieder', 'Turangalila' or Shostakovich 4th Symphony to name but three. In addition to this I also enjoyed my role as an accompanist before, during and, briefly, after college. I also played tuba in my secondary school brass band. All of these experiences gave me the opportunity to observe musicians at close quarters, to see how instruments are played and what is possible and grateful to play, and what isn't, of course.

CT: At the age of sixteen you wrote a symphony that was subsequently performed by the Merseyside Youth Orchestra. What are your recollections of that work and its performance?

KH: The symphony was a blend of Walton, Arnold and Shostakovich, with a small amount of Khatchaturian and therefore rather 'filmy'. It was fairly symphonic thematically. I never finished the projected first movement and so I began the symphony with an extended slow movement, a scherzo to follow, and the final movement, which included a fugue! The overall shape was rather unsatisfactory as a symphony. The piece was very well received however and a movement of the work was performed by the NYO conducted by Vernon Handley. This was actually my fourth orchestral work, but the one that cemented a good working relationship with my local youth orchestra. It also led to more commissions from the orchestra and brought me into contact with various people in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic organisation who were helpful and encouraging. Recently I have been able to release the scherzo in arrangements for wind band and brass band and both seem to be fairly popular. The one thing I regret about the work is that, whilst I was extremely lucky to be able to write something for orchestra and to hear it played, my orchestral technique was influenced and limited by the ability of the performers. It made me very cautious in my handling of string writing for example and it took some time to be confident enough to be more even-handed in my distribution of material. Harmonically I was also content to stay tonally based longer than I might have been (why change when everybody around you likes what you do already?). It was not until 1986, after being involved with a NYO performance of Messiaen's 'Turangalila', literally getting inside every strand of that work during rehearsals, that I felt challenged enough to expand my harmonic and structural approach.

CT: Your first formal commission came whilst you were still studying at the Royal College of Music, "Harlequin" for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. How did the commission come about?

KH: One of the people I mentioned coming into contact with in the RLPO was the orchestral manager of the time, Brian Pidgeon, whom I was to meet over a decade later in connection with my recent BBC Philharmonic commission. There was to be a concert celebrating something or other and Brian asked me to write a work for this event and Sir Charles Groves was to conduct. The work was a difficult one to write, I remember many sleepless nights during its composition, even though I was consolidating my musical style and not trying to develop at that point. I was particularly lucky to be able to write for Holst 'Planets'-sized forces which allowed me to write very dramatically, being able to keep very busy textures going for long stretches just because I had the sheer number of players to do it. 'Harlequin' was actually first performed by the RCM Symphony orchestra in 1989 but I had already become dissatisfied with the piece only a year after writing it. It was this piece that forced me to reconsider my stylistic approach and to find new ways and means.

CT: Despite your early successes you turned away from composition for three years following completion of your studies at the Royal College. Were the reasons for this musical or otherwise?

KH: I think that due to early success with a specific sort of music, a particularly melodic/tonal style, I subsequently found the development of a more original voice very difficult and stressful which resulted in my becoming disillusioned with my own ability as a composer. It was also a time when the residue of serialism and its often quite negative polemic had not quite dissipated in certain quarters at the College, making it difficult to connect with Avant Garde music which I later came to enjoy. I therefore felt that moving away from serious music within the confines of academia was a way of 'wiping the slate clean' so to speak, and this allowed me to move forward. I also needed to earn a living and was able to turn my abilities to commercial music, writing music for CD ROM sound tracks and arranging. I eventually felt it was time to see if serious composition still interested or indeed moved me and so looked at two pieces that I had written before leaving college, 'Now Springes the Spray!' and 'Recit and Aria', reworking them considerably. I was able to get fairly decent performances and decided I should give myself another chance with serious music. The two works were sent to the reading panel at Tanglewood- the only summer school I have ever attended, they were then chosen by Henri Dutilleux (composer in residence that summer), and I was invited over to the USA.

CT: In 1995 you attended the Tanglewood Festival. This brought you into close contact with Henri Dutilleux and you have also had considerable involvement with Oliver Knussen and Hans Werner Henze. What have you learned from these three composers and who has been the most significant influence on you?

KH: My relationship with and the aspects of each composer's work is utterly different. The sensibility of each composer has something which interests me, for example, in Dutilleux the rhythmic buoyancy, orchestral and harmonic colour and individuality of form strikes a kindred feeling in me. The fantastic nature of Knussen's sound world as well as his rhetorical concision impresses me greatly, whereas with Henze the sheer scope of his musical expression, some areas I relate to more than others, and the ability to reinvent himself are things I find refreshing. However, on coming into contact with each of these composers, the things that struck me as common traits were attention to detail, an incredible aural imagination and the highest artistic and compositional standards. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the generous nature and spirit of each uplifts me in a musical scene which can all too often be petty, selfish and clique-ridden.

CT: Several of your recent pieces, including Torturous Instruments and The Circling Canopy of Night, are based around non-musical stimuli. How does a piece usually start for you?

KH: I read a fair amount (a particular passion for me is Medieval literature) and enjoy art that has a labyrinthine quality to it, highly ornate and detailed. The concept for a piece will often come from a reaction to such works. An inner dialogue will slowly begin between my sensibilities and certain features or qualities in the non-musical work or more abstractly with a basic musical premise - stability and instability for example. A structural framework will be the first thing to be fully worked out on paper, down to the smallest detail if possible, but will also be accompanied by a melodic contour or harmonic colour, and the instrumental clothing will occur at the same moment. I will then try to pin down these given objects, understand their meaning in the scheme of the work and begin to elaborate. This does not mean that the plan will be adhered to in its original state, particularly if a more successful approach to a situation is revealed. Until I have the initial gesture completely worked out, the work will not proceed and can stagnate for weeks. The sketches build up and acquire an order of relevancy as an idea takes shape, though I keep the earlier sketches around me in case an earlier route turns out to be the correct one. I'm happy if I write 3 or 4 bars in a day, though sometimes if I feel particularly comfortable with the work it can go ridiculously quickly (some sections of Circling Canopy came out pretty fully formed in 1 - 2 minute blocks). There is always something left over after the completion of a work, both materially and mentally, and this often will open the door to the next piece. I think the work immediately following is always a form of comment on its predecessor, providing a chance to develop or reject an approach or way of thinking.

CT: Could you give a brief insight into how you organise your music, harmonically and structurally?

KH: My orchestral work uses the late Stravinskian method of hexachordal transposition as well as basic serial procedures. The following work, Netsuke, only uses this procedure in the slow movement (La Rose). These are not the only systems at work in any one piece, however, and I still allow the spontaneous to occur during the compositional process. My harmonic thinking is often governed by a predominant pitch, which will act as a horizon line so to speak, setting the remaining notes in a definite hierarchy. It is this pitch which gives the harmony above or below a sense of place. This can be upset by the lowest note of a chord, the bass line, and so I often have to be keenly aware of top and bottom at any one moment during composition. It is the whole aural territory which has to be considered whilst keeping half an ear on predominant thematic material. Rhythmically I enjoy creating a sense of flux, as if improvised, but am careful that the events which constitute the narrative line are clear and as uncluttered as possible as these will often be in more than one part at a time. Structurally each piece differs, though there are certain recurring features such as sectional palindromes and varied repeats across larger sections. 'At God speeded summer's end' was based on the structure of the 'Prologue' by Dylan Thomas and this poem is a large rhyming palindrome, the first line end rhyming with the final line, the second with the second to last and so on. It is this sort of hidden game that I find interesting. 'Torturous Instruments' is another example of a large structural palindrome.

CT: Do you tend to compose at the keyboard?

KH: I used to generate all materials at the piano, but gradually worked more and more out on paper, checking the relationship between pitches and constituent parts of a work at the keyboard only afterwards. I think that whatever a composer needs to successfully work out what is necessary in a piece is a good thing. I have no bias to one mode of working over another.

CT: What do you consider to be the most important elements of your music and which of your works to date are you most proud of?

KH: I try to achieve a complete musical surface from pointillistic, highly elaborate backgrounds, making sure that each part has interest and can be focused upon should the listener so wish. An analogy to this might be a work by Seurat or more basically a 3D picture, which after some time yields hidden images to the viewer. I try to invest each work with a sense of the 'magical' or 'otherworld'. As for which works I am most proud of, I wouldn't say 'proud' is quite the right word, 'happy with' or 'it works' are criteria I usually apply to my music. I am finally happy with 'Circling Canopy' after at least three very large-scale revisions (mostly dynamic or notational, though with some cuts), whereas 'God speeded' and 'Netsuke' were more or less 'correct' first time around. 'Theatrum' was a nightmare, as I had not thought carefully enough about how the music looked, i.e. the notational aspect. I am now very happy with this piece too. A work can be very straightforward in its effect but be very difficult to realise. This area of notation and how my music should look, to give the player the best possible chance of performing it well and hopefully enjoying it, occupies me more and more.

CT: Do you get nervous prior to first performances?

KH: I usually enter a concert expectantly, chatting with friends and quite comfortable. But the few minutes preceding my work I automatically shut out the outside world and try to hear the piece and nothing else. I usually remember very little of the performance afterwards (other than good or bad!) and feel happy to have gotten through the concert. It usually takes a while after, privately with a copy of the performance on CD, for me to pass judgement on the piece.

CT: Would you say that the recent performance of The Circling Canopy of Night at the Proms is your most important performance to date?

KH: Certainly the most kudos, though I also attach a lot to the BBC Philharmonic performance of 'At God speeded summer's end'. I was happy with the orchestral sonorities and the dramatic sweep in that piece. 'Theatrum' and 'Circling Canopy' have been performed in Paris at Radio France and the Cite de la Musique respectively. I feel that Circling Canopy now works as I intended it to and will form the right ending to Trinita, my chamber ensemble cycle consisting of 'Theatrum', 'Torturous Instruments' and 'The Circling Canopy of Night'. I was thrilled with the performance and attention to detail that Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta were able to give at the late night Prom. Working with this group has always been a happy experience for me and in that way I suppose I have been spoiled a little!

CT: Several of our most notable composers, including Knussen and Ades, have dual careers as conductors. Do you feel any compulsion to conduct or diversify in any way?

KH: I am a little nervous about conducting my own work as I am not sure I would be the best vehicle for my music. I have however continued to write music for amateur musicians, particularly wind bands, brass bands and choral societies and find these performances give me a lot of satisfaction more readily, perhaps because the music is less challenging to listen to and therefore the response more immediate, though not always easy to perform. This is my approach to diversification. I am about to conduct one of these 'lighter' pieces in November and so will see how I respond to that situation.

CT: How do you feel about the current contemporary music scene in the UK and are you confident about its artistic future?

KH: In the current artistic climate, pluralism and referentially have more presence than ever before. Whilst I am not drawn to crossover, certain manifestations of minimalism or rock-based classical music, one has to wonder at the plethora of musical styles available to both composers and listener alike. Our field is elitist; i.e. we strive for excellence in art. In the words of John Tusa in his book Art Matters 'Art is all the things that the rest of life is not'. There is far more music out there than the demand dictates, and the way in which the media has relegated certain types of more difficult music to the margins is worrying, the dreaded 'dumbing down'. The situation with regards to second and third performances is not as bad as it was perhaps, but it is still the premiere that arouses the most critical and audience interest. With this situation it is impossible for many works to ever reach the status of standard repertoire. Apart from recent stagings of 'The Silver Tassie', 'Morning to Midnight', the opera house and particularly the ballet theater (where are the new contemporary scores for the main stages?) are in danger of becoming moribund, however much the marketing and packaging has improved. One wonders how much taste is adversely affected by the music that is heavily promoted at the moment by radio and the major record companies. Until money is made available to creative artists and performing organisations without constricting artistic and financial strings attached, I cannot be overly confident about the future. This is a shame as there are many more voices around - State of the Nation hosted by the London Sinfonietta and the Philharmonia pre-concert concerts being the only major London based platforms for such voices to be heard. Of course, there is The Warehouse and BMIC, both with particularly diverse concert programmes. The Hoxton Festival is an excellent platform for emerging voices but smacks of the 'new-music ghetto' for me; contemporary music cannot live outside the mainstream of concert life and expect to inform the standard RFH audience, for example. It must be heard in context, as an extension of a compositional lineage. Nor do I see gimickry as a development in what we perceive as the concert experience - video screens behind a performer cannot heighten the sonic experience (which is what music is after all) and merely becomes 'candy floss' for an easily distracted audience.

CT: Whom do you most admire of your contemporaries?

KH: The composers of my generation - Julian Anderson, Thomas Ades, Stuart Macrae, Richard Causton, Arlene Sierra, Johnathan Cole, Tansy Davies, David Horne to name but a few, all at various stages in their careers - represent a very exciting cross-section of voices working in Britain at the moment. The worry about the UK scene for me is the cult of the wunderkind - composers are considered young at 35 in most countries but are expected to be a fully formed voice at 25 in Britain. This is so rarely the case. That there are so many accomplished composers in this generation is amazing considering the often-philistine approach of successive governments to music where education and funding is concerned.

CT: What of your own compositional plans for the future?

KH: I am very much looking forward to beginning my opera 'The Overcoat' which I am about to start. Writing with the input of a collaborative team has always interested me and writing for voices is something I have looked forward to for sometime, having been a singer myself at one point as well as remembering the excitement of seeing my first operas. There is also a puppet ballet I intend to write, a commission from the Vyner Trust, and this has a particular fascination for me, particularly because one has to be aware of the restrictions of writing for non-animate performers and retain the "balletic". I look forward to writing more orchestral music, perhaps my way of re-writing the wrongs (slight pun intended) of my compositional beginnings!

CT: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

© 2001 by Faber Music Ltd. Reproduced by permission of Faber Music Ltd, 3
Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU.

For more information on Kenneth Hesketh and his music visit the following websites: and

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