Laura Jayne Bowler: ‘My pieces are never just a piece of music’
She dodged punches to the head for Jennifer Walshe and will soon be enduring the Antarctic climate, but there’s little chance that hcmf// will see this most committed of composers and vocalists taking it easy…
Composer and mezzo-soprano Laura Jayne Bowler makes her hcmf// debut at this year’s festival, performing the world premiere of her work FFF with Ensemble PHACE on Friday 24 November.
Drawing upon influences that range across Birtwistle, Sondheim, Ligeti, Purcell and Jennifer Walshe, over the last few years Bowler has been the creative force behind a series of striking, politically engaged and often confrontational works, both through her own compositions and performances and as the founder and artistic director of Size Zero Opera, whose name was inspired by the exploration of anorexia in Bowler and librettist Lavinia Murray’s 2008 work My Friend Annie.
With its focus on producing new music theatre and chamber opera, one of Size Zero’s commissions was Jennifer Walshe’s 2014 work Training is the Opposite, for which Bowler had to perform a highly demanding solo vocal part while moving and sparring like an authentic boxer.
hcmf//: What inspired you to become a composer?
Laura Jayne Bowler:
I’m not from a musical family at all. I found my way into music through the instruments I played, but also through performing. I started dancing when I was about four and it was a huge part of my life up until I went to university. Then I continued performing but just as a vocalist. I just couldn’t bear the thought of going to drama school and performing the same show every night for months on end! So I decided to take this route instead.
It’s funny how things come around. When I first started composing, theatre didn’t really come into it. But as I got older it’s become an essential part of my music.
hcmf//: Your collaboration with Jennifer Walshe on Training is the Opposite must be one of the most committed performances we’ve seen. How did that come about?
I wanted to commission a work that celebrated the inclusion of women’s boxing at the Commonwealth Games for the first time. But I should have known, asking Jen, that it would probably have meant that I’d have to learn how to box, rather than being shocked when I read it and thought, ‘OK, I’m essentially going to have to change my entire being to be able to perform this piece.’
Working with Jen on that was a hugely defining moment for me as an artist as it encapsulated everything I was interested in with physicality and performance. Her approach was that if I was going to do this piece I had to be convincing as a boxer; she wanted the full thing, 100 per cent.
hcmf//: So how did you turn yourself into a boxer?
I received the score, and it starts with two or three minutes of shadow-boxing. I soon realised that I can’t shadow-box at all because I looked like an idiot and I had no idea what I was doing. So I contacted various female boxers in London and eventually Cathy ‘The Bitch’ Brown, who does boxing training at Third Space gym in Soho, got back to me and said that she’d love to be involved.
Up until the performance I trained three or four times a week, for three months. I had to do lots of weight training and cardio training as well, as I had to be fit enough to do the piece and I’d been spending most of my time sitting down composing music.
What was the most fascinating thing for me was to fully embed myself in a world that was so far removed from anything I’d been in before. In the gym world, everything was about boxing, weightlifting and the extremes of manipulating your body.
I also fell in love with boxing, so after performing the piece I decided to do a fight. I spent three months training 10 times a week, changed my whole diet and lifestyle and became super-fit and super-lean. I felt absolutely invincible.
They set you up with someone who they believe isn’t going to obliterate you but you’re also not going to obliterate them, so it’s a level playing field. Her name is Catherine Phipps and she’s now a professional boxer. It was her third fight when she fought me, and she’s much stronger than me, but I was a little bit quicker than her, so I managed to dodge some of her extremely powerful punches.
hcmf//: And who won?
It was a draw! So that was good.
I did the piece again this year with Quatuor Bozzini in Winnipeg and it was fascinating, having actually done a fight and knowing the mental state that you get into. You can’t ever have any real understanding of the level of focus required in the ring until you’ve done it. And the adrenalin rush that you get from boxing is far more extreme than performing; I can honestly say that.
hcmf//: What can you tell us about FFF, which premieres at hcmf// 2017?
It’s certainly not anything to do with boxing; it’s more about animal instincts, the fight, flight and freeze mechanisms. The piece draws a parallel between this very animalistic, primal reaction that we have as human beings and animals, and relating it to people’s engagement with current social politics; this idea of passive engagement with things, and the total lack of engagement and then the very active engagement. You could say that Ensemble PHACE are the society and I’m the individual that is exploring these different aspects of reaction.
Physicality always plays a very important part in my instrumental writing, whether that means musicians are getting up and doing something or whether it’s the material I write for them. That was the core of my doctoral research, how I can write material that forces people into a state of exhaustion, or into a certain physical state, that pushes them outside this idea of perfection in performance. Ensemble PHACE won’t be getting up and doing star jumps, but they might be physically exhausted in another way.
“Physicality always plays a very important part in my instrumental writing, whether that means musicians are getting up and doing something or whether it’s the material I write for them.”
hcmf//: Your music theatre piece Women Conduct uses comedy to explore the serious issue of sexism in music. Is this an approach that you’ve adopted elsewhere in your work?
I‘ve become more and more interested in political theatre over the past three to five years. Mainly because I have this constant inner battle over my aesthetic choices as a composer and what I’m interested in sound-wise, music-wise and theatre-wise, versus the engagement with the world around me.
I don’t ever want to jeopardise my aesthetic to make my work communicative but at the same time I don’t want to just sit and write music that doesn’t communicate to a wider audience. And with that piece, that was the first piece I wrote looking at these problems. It’s quite an unusual one for me, purely because all of the music in it is arrangements of extracts from old pieces of music. It’s interesting now to look back on it and see that one of the reasons that I decided to use extracts was a way for me to avoid having to deal with my aesthetic at that point!
I also think that humour is a really important thing when you’re posing difficult social and political ideas to people; it’s frequently used in lots of theatre work that I see. I’m currently working on a project with Philip Venables that is centred around the subject of rape culture and it’s something we’re discussing a lot with that, as we don’t want people to leave feeling totally unempowered and as though they’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.
hcmf//: Tell us more about how you and Philip are approaching that project. It’s an opera based on people’s real-life stories; is that as challenging an experience as it sounds?
It’s a very, very challenging project, I’ll say that. We’ve just done our second residency at Aldeburgh and what we’ve realised there is that we need another work in development week and then we’re probably looking at premiering the piece in autumn/winter next year. Our first week was one of the hardest weeks all of us have ever had, trying to grapple with this subject matter and if it’s even possible to create a work from it or not.
We’re looking at many different aspects. We’re working with Rape Crisis. We have a consultant on the project that has put us in touch with a few survivors who we’ve done interviews with and that verbatim material’s going to be used within the piece. It’s many different experiences, which is obviously important.
The reason I’m doing it is because I’m also a survivor of rape, and that’s what triggered me to create the piece. I was very lucky; I had 18 months’ worth of counselling from Rape Crisis and that allowed me to be in the position to be able to do this. I’ve got the most amazing creative team working with me and it’s really incredible that Aldeburgh are supporting this as well.
Essentially we want to create a piece that points out the many different things in our society and the patriarchal issues that all feed into this idea of rape culture and why it’s so perpetuating in our society. Essentially it’s a call to arms. It has some very difficult moments in it but the most important thing is that it’s empowering for our audience.
hcmf//: It must feel like a great responsibility to take these survivors’ stories and make them work artistically within your piece…
Absolutely. I can honestly say that when I’ve been working with the verbatim material from the other interviewees, it’s been incredibly difficult, that’s inevitable, and I found it hard to have a sense of ownership, despite me having an experience that relates to it.
What we’re not doing is telling the direct story of every single person. It’s more about what the parallels are in all of these the experiences, the core things that exist for every survivor of rape, and then how we can draw that together to essentially become one voice.
hcmf//: And then, by way of contrast, you’re also going to Antarctica soon.
Yes, I’m going in January. I’m working with Manchester Camerata to write a work that essentially brings the Antarctic experience and landscape to Manchester [laughs]. The core reason for me wanting to do it was my interest in climate change and environmental issues.
Having had the chance to visit Costa Rica for my honeymoon a few years ago, what struck me is that it’s very difficult for a lot of people to be able to imagine the closeness that we can have as a species to the environment, if they’ve never experienced it. So the idea is to go to this very extreme part of our world. I’ll be filming a lot while I’m there and then will create an orchestra piece to go with the film that gives people some sort of inclination to see the absolute beauty and incredible nature of Antarctica, so that they will hopefully be a little more active in how they think about our planet.
Landscape has always been a key influence upon me as a composer. I wrote a piece a few years ago for the London Philharmonic Orchestra called 3811 Nautical Miles. At the time I was making lots of trips to Canada because I had a job there – in fact, one of the reasons why I left it was because of the air miles I was totting up. What struck me was the absolute serene beauty of the ice caps I was flying over, contrasted what would be the brutal nature of it if I was actually there. That duality inspired me to write a piece looking at that through the textural aspect of my orchestral writing.
“One of the reasons why my pieces tend to have very physical or visual aspects to them is that I’m very aware that audiences who aren’t used to engaging with any sort of classical music of duration get bored!”
One of the reasons why my pieces tend to have very physical or visual aspects to them is that I’m very aware that audiences who aren’t used to engaging with any sort of classical music of duration get bored! Based on my experiences of people who aren’t artists or musicians – and I have a whole family of them – they just don’t get it.
The first time my parents came to see a piece of mine I think they thought I needed to go to an asylum. Then over the years, they’ve come to prefer seeing new music, as they’ve had the experience and can see how it works; they’re curious now. Even my husband sometimes, when he listens to my music, thinks that it just sounds so… angry.
I would never ever change the way that I compose, but I do try to find ways that can make it more communicative in the way that it’s delivered, whether that’s through physicality or video, or through trying to provide some kind of inroad that allows people’s imaginations to take hold of something. My pieces are never just a piece of music; for me it’s about writing something that has a direct connection with human experience.
Ensemble PHACE + Laura Bowler
24 November @ 10:00 pm
Bates Mill Blending Shed
Tickets £17 (£14 concession / online)