In Conversation: Composer Jeffrey Lewis talks with Xenia Pestova

Composer, organist, pianist and conductor Jeffrey Lewis was born in 1942 in Neath, South Wales. Following studies at Cardiff University with Alun Hoddinott, he left for Europe on an Arts Council of Wales bursary, where he studied with Ligeti, Stockhausen and Bogusław Schäffer and subsequently worked as a contemporary music ensemble pianist in Paris. He taught composition and contemporary music at Leeds College of Music and then Bangor University (University College, Bangor) until 1992. He currently lives in Llanfairfechan in North Wales. Xenia Pestova caught up with Jeffrey Lewis on a sunny morning in Bangor to discuss his approaches to composition and musical memories.



Xenia Pestova: Tell me about your keyboard writing – you are an organist, and a pianist as well. How do you feel about this idea of tactile experience as opposed to more abstract approaches – when you write for keyboard instruments, do you compose at the piano?

Jeffrey Lewis: Stravinsky made a point when he said ‘I like to be in physical contact with the sound’ – obviously if you’re writing a piano piece, it’s very advantageous to write it at the piano, because we can sit down at the screen or with a piece of paper, and it can be very clumsy, very unplayable. I’m a great believer in using the piano – I do work away from the piano, I can work on the train or whatever, but when it comes to it, I think it has to be about the sound.

In regards to your comment on working on the train, do you find that generally having the time and space for work is important for you, the need to get to a quiet place, or are you often able to work with distractions?

It’s interesting you ask this question. I find extraneous noise a real problem, I have serious problems in the summer because the machines start up – the lawn mowers, the strimmers… I do have a double door in the room I work in (which I had installed when the children were small), I find I can work much better when there is no extraneous noise.

How does that compare to when you first moved to North Wales, to the village of Sling?

…happy memories…

You said it’s changed a lot – I am trying to imagine how it was in those days, because to me it’s still incredibly quiet and isolated, but I guess back then it was even more so…

It was an odd experience to have gone back recently after all that time and of course things have changed. I started here [Bangor University] in January 1973… I arrived with a case at the Bangor station, walked up Holyhead Road and found a Bed & Breakfast, and then someone in the Classics department said they had a house in Sling, so I rented the little terrace cottage alongside their house, and then moved to Ael-y-Bryn in August. I then moved to Llanfairfechan in 1984.

You said there was a stream and there were frogs…

Yes, the garden was lovely, there was a wonderful stream alongside and lots of frogs…

…and you had to check for them when mowing the lawn!

Yes… It was idyllic up there, and very little traffic came through. From the upstairs bedroom there was a wonderful view right across the Menai Straits. I wrote an incredible amount of music up there: twenty works, nineteen of them commissions (six of them were BBC commissions, including five orchestral works, and eight festival commissions). Bangor really was the first department in the country which had quite a big emphasis on contemporary music in terms of composition. Bernard Rands was a student and a lecturer here for a short while, as well as Reginald Smith Brindle, and William Mathias was the head of department. Mathias just let me do what I wanted to do. When I came, I formed the student contemporary music ensemble, and did the programmes I wanted to do, and he never interfered. William Mathias was very good in terms of supporting concerts. There were regular Thursday night concerts and they would alternate the resident ensemble and visiting artists. If ever you looked at the programmes, you’d see an amazing range of music – a lot of new music. Bangor was known for composition and new music back then.

Could you talk about the titles for your pieces – so many of them have spiritual implications or references. The choral sacred texts – but also piano pieces: Sereno, Threnody… Is this something you think you gravitate towards naturally?

If I go back, I came to music through the church. It was simply because my mother attended an Anglican church, and at the age of seven I joined the choir, and then at quite a young age I started learning the organ. I think I was about twelve. The then organist [Colin Jones] was quite young, in his twenties, and he’d had organ lessons at Gloucester Cathedral with Herbert Sumsion (who was responsible for a lot of premieres of music by English composers of that period), who was a phenomenally good musician. I had a very good organ teacher. So, I came to music through the church, through choral singing, and then it was onto Cardiff, where I sang in the Palestrina Choir. It was run by a fellow music student [Peter James – later to become vice-principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London], and we did a lot of early music. That was my background. I’m not a religious person in any conventional sense, but I think we’re all capable of being spiritual, we are all capable of having transcendent experiences.

What about transcendent experiences through music?

For me, music is the supreme art where you can have that experience. We can all think of examples, and they don’t need to be specifically religious pieces. It never ceases to amaze me how music ‘lifts’ one, and I’m not talking of the Buddhist mindfulness technique… I think a lot of people tend to think of music as a pleasurable commodity, as background, something to fill the void. For me, listening to music or going to a concert is like a religious experience, and it should be treated with the respect that it deserves.

Can you give any examples of pieces that you feel help you have this transcendent experience?

There are many. There are the obvious sacred music examples going way back, and my interests are not only 20th- and 21st-century contemporary music. My introduction to music was slightly unorthodox, not from Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven but Renaissance music and then the organ. I also played the violin and have the orchestral repertoire background. I can also think of countless examples of 20th-century music. Messiaen, Ligeti – you can have a very deeply transcendent experience, for example a piece like Ligeti’s Lontano for orchestra.

You’re also very interested in Berio’s music…

The curious thing is that there aren’t many pieces of Berio’s that I like! That seems like an odd statement to make – but those pieces that I do like, such as Sinfonia – that is one of the great works of the 20th- and 21st-century. Everything about it – in terms of subject matter, putting together of the piece, the political connection… A lot of the texts of the third movement are student graffiti from the May 1968 Paris riots, and I was present at those riots… Plus the Mahler movement from the Second Symphony running through it, as well as Beckett’s text from the The Unnamable, and other musical quotations.

Earlier, you were talking about Messiaen’s organ works, which you also play and are very intimately acquainted with. Are there some that you admire more than others?

When I started learning the organ, my parents bought me a blue KB transistor radio. I still have it at home. I remember going up to my bedroom one afternoon, I must’ve been about thirteen. I went up and I fiddled with it, and this amazing sound came out, and I was transfixed and sat there until it got to the end, and it turned out to be the Third Programme (what is now Radio 3), and the voice came on and said that was Arnold Richardson playing Olivier Messiaen’s complete La Nativité du Seigneur. I had no idea what he was talking about, I’d not heard these words, these names before, and I was transfixed by it, because you know the sound of Messiaen’s organ music – even in a piece as early as that, he creates sounds unlike any other – a lot of the time you think: ‘what instrument is this?’ Of course, as Messiaen’s music progressed, he did even more interesting things with the organ that electronic composers couldn’t achieve… So, it was that profound experience that determined the course of my life… Because of course I could have left school at 15 to work in the steel works!

Do you really think that was an option?

A lot of people would say: ‘Why didn’t you’? [laughs]

I came from a very humble working-class background. My father worked in the tinplate works, and then the steel works in Port Talbot, which was a very industrial, deprived town. There was a piano in the house, which had been bought for my mother by her parents. It was bought in Swansea before the First World War, and I’ve still got that piano. So, I started piano lessons. I remember a lesson with the local teacher where she taught me E-G-B-D-F, F-A-C-E. So what I did was I put the pedal down and played E-G-B-D-F, F-A-C-E, and that had quite a profound impact. Clearly unbeknown to me, I was playing with harmony and sound – it was the fusion of the sound and the harmony, and the pedal was blurring the two chords.

Singing in the choir, there was sight-reading involved, and when I started learning the organ, I realised that during the services, when the lessons were being read, or the sermon, as I sat in the choir stalls and looked at the music, I could ‘listen’ to all the lines – so I spent a lot of time doing that, hearing them in my head, and I still think of the effect of learning to hear the inner parts and the harmonies. I would also get music out of the local library and play through it.

That was a very thorough musical education! We were talking earlier about music education today and the importance of covering the basics. Is there anything you would recommend to the young musicians of today?

There is a book by Hindemith, Elementary Training for Musicians, which is a book of genius. Hindemith, being an unbelievably skilled musician, has the most unbelievably well-constructed book in terms of mastering musical skills. It can become a party game! You can enjoy doing it.

Can we talk about notation? You notate by hand.

I had the first version of the Sibelius notation software (on an Acorn computer!). I hated using it and seeing the stuff coming up on that screen… I cannot describe how abhorrent I found the experience. I think I’ve got ‘screenitis’ or ‘screenophobia’ – if I can’t see the whole thing, I find it very frustrating!

What about notation as communication – communicating the essence of the piece to the performer?

I always give a lot of thought to notation. I know specifically what I want and I take great care with all the aspects of notation, and particularly the time-span, because it’s very easy to forget about the duration of the piece when you are writing it: you are frozen in uninterrupted time, and to me that’s supreme, because there are many pieces that cannot sustain the duration. That’s one factor. But I think to avoid all confusion, any mistakes and mis-readings, that’s my aim, in the details and even in terms of the layout.

Do you think having first-hand experience of performance enhances your work as a composer?

Absolutely! This is very important and useful musical experience. I value performers, I used to do a lot of organ recitals, and I remember feeling the terror of it! In an ideal world there should be as much combination of performance and composition as possible, I think that’s so fundamental, a knowledge of instruments – otherwise it’s like being a surgeon who doesn’t know what the tools they’re using are for!