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28 February 2008

Lumsdaine, Durham and the 1970s

Interview with Peter Wiegold

Peter Wiegold Image: Peter Wiegold  

Peter Wiegold studied with David Lumsdaine at the University of Durham in the early 1970s at a time when the music department there was at the forefront of electroacoustic music in Britain. Lumsdaine was much sought-after as a teacher who was familiar with both improvisatory and notated forms, and Wiegold’s hugely successful career has been built on music that combines improvisation with notated composition.

Wiegold’s inclusion of improvisation is differently formed from those early works by Lumsdaine; however, there is a lineage that strongly connects these two composers and which serves as a reminder of the significance of improvisation in Lumsdaine’s early music.

By the end of the 1970s, Lumsdaine had moved away from including improvisatory elements in his music, yet the lessons learnt thoroughly inform Lumsdaine’s later music, and are essential to understanding his relationship with Australian (and British) soundscapes.

Michael Hooper: When did you first encounter David Lumsdaine's music? What was it that first attracted you to working with him?

Peter Wiegold: I first met David at an ‘SPNM Composers Weekend’ [Society for the Promotion of New Music] at which he was one of the directors. They were marvellous weekends with many leading and student composers, performances, discussions, workshops etc… I’d written a piece for it but was late and it wasn’t played – late in the weekend I persuaded David to look at it.

We sat on some stairs and he followed it through intently and pointed things out, almost sung along, and it felt like the first time I’d truly been understood. I arranged to study with him and he helped me get funds.

MH: What was he able to offer you that other composers weren't?

PW: He gave a sense of deep understanding and deep commitment. It was like he could hear my voice and understood what I was trying to do. He was, of course, completely au fait with contemporary developments – something I’d been very frustrated by at Aberystwyth University where they ignored most contemporary work.

He taught me techniques such as he and [Harrison] Birtwistle and [Peter] Maxwell Davies were using, (pitch, iso-rhythm etc.) and was very good at pointing out key deficiencies – like rolling along from point to point without proper ‘signposts’ for example.

He was, of course, very adept in terms of craft, but I think the key thing was the belief. He seemed to believe in me and see where I was going and that gave me a fullness about myself I’d never had.

MH: Was he the kind of composer who was keen to explain his own music and current practices?

PW: He engaged us in his working as it was happening. I don’t think there were extended analyses of past pieces… but he shared the passion and drive and materials with us as he went – which was very inspiring. He was driven as a composer, with a great deal of self-belief, it seemed.

MH: Did he talk about music by other Australian composers?

PW: He was very fond of Don Banks and Don’s music. Otherwise I don’t remember particular fondnesses. David was someone with very strong opinions, and, if you like, ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’, he was quite forceful about those he admired, and those he didn’t – with very high standards.

MH: I know that Olivier Messiaen was an important composer for Lumsdaine's teaching, but were there other composers whose music was frequently discusses/analysed?

PW: David had at the centre, as most people then, the central progression from Arnold Schoenberg to Anton Webern, and we looked a great deal at those two. We often returned to Webern. He was fond of Luciano Berio (with some reservations) and we would also look at older composers such as J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert.

MH: I am interested in the way that David's work responds to the natural world. He is frequently cited as one of Australia's landscape composers, yet for me the most exciting thing about his interest in, for example, birdsong, is the way that it presents a model of musical interactions that can be explored in a notated piece. And that this model can be used for compositions for two performers (for example, Flights, Kangaroo Hunt) or many (for example, Hagoromo). How important for your own music was it that David understood improvisation? Was that a reason for working with him, or did your own interest in improvisation come later?

PW: It can be a mystery exactly how David works the birdsong – not as ‘self-conscious’ as Messiaen, but producing a natural and long-term shaping as in Cambewarra.

David encouraged me with my improvisation, and with great awareness saw to it that I ran workshops experimenting with improvisation when I was at Durham [University].

David seemed to understand improvisation in a straightforward way – he had a, as ever, thoughtful and intelligent view of how it functioned. Just as with Asian music, David always had a broad awareness of how it functioned. Just as with Asian music David always had a broad awareness of how music ‘worked’ even if different from his own traditions. And, of course, David was always encouraging – he, once he trusted you, was able to be very free minded and permissive about our interests.

My reason for working with him came from the time he spent with me at the SPNM weekend going over a piece I'd written. So in fact I was first attracted by the depth and detail he showed in looking at a fully composed piece.

And my embracing of improvisation in concert pieces came much later.

But, as ever, David's belief in the authenticity of my voice transcended any particular form.

About Peter Wiegold

Peter Wiegold studied at the University College of Wales, and at Durham University with David Lumsdaine. After two years as Composer-in-Residence at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, Peter Wiegold was appointed lecturer in composition at Sussex University. Following this he became Artistic Director of the ‘Performance and Communication Skills’ department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, followed by two years as a lecturer in composition at Royal Holloway, University of London. In 1998 he become freelance and is now very active combining his three passions as composer, conductor and ‘creative director’, and he is also, since 2003, Professor and Head of Music Research at Brunel University. He founded and directed the chamber music ensemble Gemini for ten years, performing and broadcasting 20th century repertoire and pioneering participatory workshops. In 2007 his BBC Proms commission, He is Armoured Without, was performed by the BBC Philharmonic, with trumpet soloist Hakan Hardenberger, musicians from Uzbekistan, Coldstream Guards, plus 150 more brass players.

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Michael Hooper is a performer and musicologist. As a mandolinist, he specialises in the performance of the instrument’s recent repertoire and is active in commissioning new works. As a musicologist, his PhD at The University of York considered the music of Britain in the 1960s and '70s, and specifically the Australian-born, but long-time English resident, David Lumsdaine.


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