Robert Lennon — composer, conductor, writer

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© Robert Lennon

From his home in Milan, Italy, Robert is teaching English online to around 15 high school & adult students which takes up about 32 hours of his afternoons, evenings and weekends. This leaves him free in the mornings to ride his bike for exercise and do some creative work. He’s hoping to be able to afford to spend more extended, uninterrupted time on composing, arranging and writing. His most recent conducting engagement was a victim of CoronaVirus.

What’s your earliest memory of music, i.e. as a listener?

Firstly, I should say that I wasn’t from a musical family as such, but my musical activity was greatly encouraged and well-supported. My earliest memories, therefore, are of songs we learned and music we listened to at school, as well pop music away from school: Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and, later, the Beatles and Rolling Stones of course.

After I had begun playing, I started going to concerts not only of famous brass bands like ‘Black Dyke’ and ‘Fairey’s’ (who I later played for) but also by the Hallé and Liverpool Philharmonic orchestras in Preston and Blackburn, neither too far from where we lived. I was very taken with much of the music I heard — Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakoff and Tchaikovsky were regulars (as they still are). I bought recordings of many of their works, but it was when I bought the record of The Rite of Spring that everything changed — a musical ‘awakening’ — no less.

When people ask you what you do or who you are, what do you say?

This is not a straightforward question in my case, so my answer is not always a short one. As I tell my Italian speaking English students, the question, ‘what do you do?’ means ‘what is your job?’ so, to answer that question first; at the moment, I support myself and my family by teaching English in Milan, Italy. Previously, throughout the ’80s and ’90s I had been kept very busy as a conductor, composer, instrumental soloist and Music lecturer, then from the mid-2000s to 2015, my educational career took me to parts of the world where it was impossible to maintain the same level of involvement. Although my years as an international school principal taught me a great deal about education and leadership as well as giving me the opportunity to meet and work with all sorts of people, it’s not a choice I would make again. Which brings me to the other interpretation of ‘what do you do?’ When I am not teaching, I compose, I write about music and music education and, although there are fewer opportunities now, I conduct when I get the chance. I suppose that justifies my saying that ‘I am’ a composer, conductor and writer, although I have also been known to describe myself as a ‘musician in exile’.

Why brass? Why the euphonium?

No particular reason, actually. My introduction to instrumental music-making was almost an accident. When I started secondary school at the age of 11, my friend mentioned, one lunch time, that he was going to join the school brass band. I thought I’d go along too since I had nothing else to do. The only spare instrument was a Bb tuba — the biggest brass band instrument there is. I said I’d give it a try and after that, I never looked back. The teacher in charge thought I had shown promise so when an instrument became available, he encouraged me to move to the euphonium. So, in a sense, I didn’t choose the euphonium, but from then on, I Ioved playing it and did so for many years. By the way, my friend gave up after about three weeks!

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© Robert Lennon

How / WHY / when did you start composing / arranging / conducting?

I started composing and arranging in my early teens. My musical upbringing took place in the British brass band world and many of the very challenging ‘test’ pieces we rehearsed triggered some ideas of my own. Having said that, my pieces, at the time, were very derivative and heavily influenced by Stravinsky and, oddly enough, by Britten.

I also started out as a conductor at a relatively young age — fifteen. A local town band needed a conductor, so I went along for a trial and got the job. I got paid for it too! As you may know, the brass band world is very competitive and some of the conductors I played under were almost the musical equivalent of [Footballer / manager] Alex Ferguson — very ambitious, extremely demanding but also superbly talented as players and as leaders. I learned a great deal about how to secure a first-rate musical performance from them and soon got to the stage where I wanted to try conducting myself.

During my time at the University of Huddersfield, in the early 70s, my horizons broadened considerably, and I developed a passion for ‘modern’ and electronic music. My heroes then were people like Stravinsky, Messiaen, Stockhausen, and Boulez who I still think was an extraordinary conductor and who remains among those I most admire.

My own compositions also became more avant garde’ so much so that my professor, the well-known, though quite traditional composer, Arthur Butterworth, suggested I study with Stephen Oliver who was an incredibly gifted and forward-looking young composer, especially of opera. Tragically, he died in 1992. In 1976 and again in 1978, my work as a composer was highly commended by the Mendelssohn Scholarship Committee.

Although I had gravitated away from the brass band scene, I returned briefly in the mid-80s when Richard Evans, the then conductor of one of the foremost bands and someone who had encouraged me greatly in my younger days, asked me to write something for a BBC radio broadcast that was coming up some months later. The result was Songs of the Aristos for two brass groups and electronics. After that I remained very active in the brass world (although by no means only here) as a conductor and player, but only once as a composer!

“…Songs of the Aristos for two brass groups and electronics …” sounds like it owes much to Stockhausen (a la Gruppen)….?

Absolutely. The spatialization of the sound was a central element of this work which I revised, and developed considerably, in 2014. The two brass groups (wind in the 2014 version) were located at opposite ends of the auditorium; one in front of, the other behind, the audience. The two loudspeakers projecting the pre-recorded electronic sounds were midway down the hall, one either side. Thus, the sounds, at times, seem to ‘jump’ from one end (or in the case of the electronics, one side) of the hall to the other, while at others, they seemed to travel smoothly. So yes, there’s no doubt that Gruppen was an influence in this respect. The musical material, however, was very different.

Why have you not composed for brass band since?

Well, I have in fact written one other work for brass band, Fallen Citadel which was a response to the twin towers attacks in 2001. I was playing in a band at the time, so getting a performance wasn’t difficult especially since the conductor was very open-minded. It was quite well-received; I think because many people found it evocative and they could relate to it as they would to film music — although it wasn’t intended to be programmatic. The earlier reactions to Songs of the Aristos from audiences and players was, on the whole, averse to say the least. This didn’t surprise me because I knew very well that bands favour music that is accessible, entertaining and, above all, tonal. This has not changed in any meaningful way in the last thirty years. Some well-known contemporary composers, probably the best-known being Harrison Birtwistle, have written brass band music during this period, but these works are rarely performed. I do have some ideas for new brass pieces, but I would probably hold off unless I was asked again since it would be difficult to get anything played and then there wouldn’t be much of an audience for it.

Could you tease us with a few of the things you learnt about how to secure a first-rate musical performance?

In essence, they were the same things that any attentive, intelligent music student would learn from an experienced, ‘musical’ teacher. For example, I learned always to strive for ‘tight’ ensemble and precise rhythm, together with good balance and accurate intonation which, I found, has an effect far beyond simply being ‘in tune’: it can greatly enrich the tone quality of an ensemble.

I developed an understanding of the most appropriate dynamic levels and ranges for music of a particular style or period, as well how to grade similar dynamic markings according to the overall shape of a work. Well-shaped phrases too were always emphasised in rehearsals as well as articulation — the most appropriate kinds of attack and release and I particularly remember being introduced to the idea of exaggerating certain contrasts for example, of dynamic and articulation. I still find myself saying, ‘when it sounds slightly overdone to you, it’s just right for the audience.’

Other than these things of a general musical nature, I learned an awful lot about brass technique in relation to a desired musical effect. It needs to be remembered that, since brass bands are essentially amateur organisations, at all but the highest levels, a rehearsal is also a lesson.

Of course, by observing conductors in action I saw how the above could be obtained by means of beating (not always ‘stick’) technique, gestures, glances and so on. Sometimes, unfortunately, I learned how not to achieve results. For example, I have worked with conductors who stop too often, who talk too much, who make negative remarks about, and even insult, players. None of these is likely to motivate people to do better. From them, by default as it were, I came to understand the importance of communication, continuity, and of respecting the people you are working with.

What about arranging?

This something that I also started while I was at school, either because I particularly liked a piece and wanted to get more involved with it somehow, or to fill a gap in the band repertoire. I remember doing ‘Troika’ from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé and Beethoven’s ‘Coriolan’ overture, among several others.

Now, there are different imperatives. It’s more a question of ‘having something to say’ about a particular work — and I really don’t care if it’s been arranged more than once before. This applies particularly to the Debussy piano preludes I have transcribed for wind orchestra recently. In doing these, I stayed as true as possible to what I saw as the composer’s intentions — or rather, what they would have been if he had orchestrated them.

Have you heard Debussy’s orchestrations of Satie? What do you think Debussy’s approach was?

I have heard them but cannot say that I know them. I don’t feel able to say much about Debussy’s approach, but I would comment that some pieces are, perhaps, best left alone. Even though I have transcribed some of them, I would say the same about many of the Debussy Preludes.

What impact did your professor / teachers have on your musical style or voice? How did they teach composition?

None at all. Arthur Butterworth encouraged me to experiment, to create new scales and so on, as well as practical aspects of notation, orchestration and performance. Stephen Oliver tended to challenge me to justify choices in terms of their relevance to the overall idea. Both had things to say that were relevant and helpful but neither had any influence on the way I wrote.

How do composing, arranging & conducting inform each other?

Composing, conducting and arranging are closely linked, obviously. When I compose, I don’t write a short score and then orchestrate: fragments, phrases and sometimes extended passages come to me along with the instrumental colour. They are then worked upon in several ways, always drawing upon what I have learned about what works and what doesn’t in terms of orchestration which is what arranging is basically about.

When writing for ensembles, I always find myself taking into account the challenges of time-beating, balance and coordination that the conductor would have to deal with — sometimes to the extent that I find myself rehearsing the beating or the kind of gesture that might be needed while at my desk, working on a composition.

Composition also influences my approaches to arranging and conducting, perhaps surprisingly, in similar ways. As I just mentioned in relation to arranging, the main imperative is to realise as closely as possible, the composer’s intention and this applies — even more so — to conducting. I’ve already referred to my admiration for Boulez as a conductor. I always felt that he let the music ‘speak for itself’ — unlike people like Bernstein for example, who in certain cases, did things that the composer absolutely did not write or could not reasonably have intended. He often did not interpret the music in the truest sense of the word.

Of course, I would not for a moment compare myself to either of these great musicians — despite having problems with some of Bernstein’s interpretations there is no doubt he had a kind of genius about him. I prefer to approach things by achieving as much as possible in purely technical terms, by which mean attending to ensemble, intonation, rhythmic accuracy and balance, while trying to find the right tempo and giving a work the overall shape I think the composer had in mind. The rest, including any emotional effect on the audience, should follow if you have done everything else right. I am not interested in putting any ‘me’ into it.

When you say “writing”, what do you mean?

I have, for many years, had ideas about what makes music ‘tick’. A few years ago, I started to express, and clarify, them by writing a series of articles entitled Pythagoras and the Music of the Future which I published on my blog, Music Today & Tomorrow.

It struck me very early on that the development of intervallic relationships and of harmony has, in a sense, represented an ascent through the partials of the harmonic series. The articles, which are currently being ‘refreshed’ somewhat, explore this in some detail and also explore the correspondences between the harmonic series and ‘musical time’ — rhythm, metre and tempo.

Harmonic series

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By Hyacinth, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27409040

I know that I am by no means the first to address this, the most famous precursors being Henry Cowell and Conlan Nancarrow. Nevertheless, the conclusions that are drawn are somewhat different not least because we now have the technology to bring these ideas out of the realm of pure theory into that of performance. The long overdue final article in the series will propose how music now and, in the future (i.e. that which I will endeavour to compose myself), can explore new territory while continuing to be based on the structures inherent in the harmonic series.

Having spent a great deal of my working life in education, having done several years as an instrumental teacher, as an ensemble trainer, musical director and having been a mentor for the CT ABRSM course, I felt I had something to say about instrumental teaching and, in particular, group teaching.

You probably know that this is regarded as a second-rate option by a great many teachers, most of whom feel that progress on an instrument can only be made as a result of one-to-one lessons. I think they are mistaken.

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© Robert Lennon

I spent a year writing my book, Teaching Young Instrumentalists which explores, in depth, not only the ideas behind my claim that group teaching actually has more educational value than do one to one lessons, but also the neuro-scientific and psychological backgrounds.

Most importantly, there are lots of suggestions for practical, every day, applications. The book is available on Amazon but it has not been widely read at all — even though the numerous blog articles on which much of it is based have been widely read and have won quite a lot of praise from practising teachers.

I take responsibility for this lack of readership. Whilst I think that the book could be better targeted, and that’s something I’m addressing in the next edition, I do think that the current edition has value. The real issue for me is that it seems increasingly necessary to possess a certain expertise just to get someone to click on a link, and even more to get them to part with an amount of money they wouldn’t think twice about spending in McDonalds, for example. That’s expertise I don’t have.

What impact has technology had / continue to have on your music?

It has had a massive impact. It is central to my musical thinking. Very few ideas come to me that don’t need some element of digital technology for their realisation.

How do you think views about Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen & Stravinsky have changed since you were at uni in the 70s? When does music stop being “modern”?

That’s a very interesting question. Firstly, I now find that there is quite a bit of Stravinsky that I don’t have too much time for. I still think that some of the ‘neo-classical’ music, that I was very interested in initially, is splendid — Symphony of Psalms especially, but also Symphony in C and the Octet but I now feel that, essentially, there is nothing much that is new in the work of this period. Some of the late period music is also interesting, but I think his most significant contributions were made during the so-called Russian period, from The Firebird to Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Le Noces. I’ve had the privilege of conducting several of these and I remain full of admiration for them.

I now tend to think of Messiaen more in technical terms: Non-retrogradeable, additive rhythms, added values, modes of limited transposition and chords that become timbre such as in the Quartet for the End of Time. Most of these continue to influence my work as you would notice from reading my articles, Pythagoras and the Music of the Future and from listening to my Klee Connections for Piano. I don’t find works like Turangalîla — Symphonie very interesting anymore (I think Boulez’s term, ‘brothel music’ is quite fitting) but I am still fascinated by works like Et Expecto Ressurectionem Mortuorum (which I have also conducted), Oiseaux Exotiques and Visions de l’ Amen.

As with Stravinsky, it was, and still is, the earlier work of Stockhausen that interests me the most. I regard Gruppen and Kontakte, which I experienced under the direction of Stockhausen himself at the Royal Festival Hall, as masterpieces — I would hesitate to explain why — they simply sound like great music to me. Mantra and Stimmung are also really absorbing pieces and I could listen to some of his later Klavierstücke all day! However, string quartets in helicopters, and the like, do nothing for me at all.

At around the time you are asking me about, the works by Boulez that I was most aware of were the first two sonatas, Structures Book I (albeit only in the context of studying integral serialism), Le Marteau san Maître and the early cantatas. A little later, I got to know Pli Selon Pli and Éclat as well as Figures-Doubles-Prismes, all of which I thought were marvellous. That view hasn’t changed.

Klee Connections for Piano was composed in Feb ‘13. It works by connections being formed between superimposed variants of very simple rhythmic & harmonic series.

I still admire the works that I used to, but my perspective on the composer has altered somewhat. Whereas in the early days, his works were intellectually appealing and indeed satisfying, I now have a more spontaneous, pre-intellectual response to them especially since I got to know works such as Répons, Anthemes II, Sur Incises, and Memoriale.

Music ceases to be modern when composers cease to explore. The exploration can take place on different scales so to speak: some composers change the course of musical development whereas others introduce new perspectives. Even though they don’t always produce groundbreaking works, they do at least look forwards.

Others, by contrast, look backwards and embrace worn out concepts such as tonality. I have no time for this at all, since all that can be said with functional harmony has been said — and that has been true for quite some time now. This is not to say that music has to sound ‘dissonant’ but, for me, it does have to seek out new material and appropriate ways of structuring it. There are composers like John Taverner and Arvo Part who have written very beautiful tonal music but let us not pretend that this is modern in the sense that Ligeti’s Atmosphères was modern.

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