5 Questions to Kenneth Hesketh (composer) on his 50th Birthday

Born in Liverpool in 1968, Kenneth Hesketh’s first orchestral work was premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra when he was still a teenager. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London (where he is now a professor of composition and orchestration), in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and most significantly with Henri Dutilleux at Tanglewood. Hesketh’s highly individual sound world is rooted in modernist art music of the 20th century, and his music is usually inspired by other artforms or concepts. Early enthusiasms for classical architecture and medieval iconography have been joined by passionate interest in topics as varied as Bauhaus constructivism, entropy, mutation and existentialism.

Happy 50th birthday on 20 July! Tell us about your forthcoming performances and CD releases.

Thank you! Birthdays are things I try not to think about–this one particularly–but at least on this occasion it has provided a space to take stock of recent work and development.

I’m lucky to have four discs coming out in the coming year, the most immediate one being with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by my long-time collaborator and dear friend Christoph Mathias Mueller. The disc, titled In Ictu Oculi, is for release on the Paladino Music label in July 2018.  This CD will also include world premiere recordings of three recent orchestral works: Knotted Tongues (commissioned and premiered by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2012), Of Time and Disillusionment (2016), and In Ictu Oculi – Three Meditations (2016). This work was originally for large wind ensemble and was commissioned and premiered by the National Youth Wind Ensemble, conducted by the marvelous Phillip Scott in April 2016. It’s a special piece for me (dedicated to the memory of my grandmother) and I was thrilled when it won a British Composer Award (BASCA) in 2017.  I felt it should be more widely available so I prepared an orchestral version and was happy to be able to include it on the BBCNoW disc.

Also due for release later this year, on the Prima Facie label, is a CD entitled Diatoms, featuring many of my works for two pianos and piano 4 hands, performed by the Francoise-Green piano duo. The duo premiered the title piece in Bern, Switzerland in 2014 and I was very happy to work with them on this release (I even recorded a short piece on the disc too, my little ‘Happy birthday’ for Henri Dutilleux, Pour Henri).

A short violin and piano piece, Inscrizione (derivata) (A lie to the Dying) will be released in November 2018 on the Challenge Records label, recorded by the excellent FoyleStsura Duo. They commissioned the work at the beginning of the year and recorded the work in June. It had its premiere in late June at the St. Magnus festival, Orkneys being live broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 station.

Finally, in December 2018, Inscription/Transformation, for violin and orchestra, which was written for the American violinist, Janet Sung, will be recorded by her with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Jac van Steen for the SOMM label. The CD is due for release in summer 2019 and will also feature an orchestration of an early piano work by Dutilleux, Au gré des ondes.

There are upcoming performances of In Ictu Oculi, various chamber works and a new version of The Singing Bone, itself extract from my Grimm Brothers cycle Small Tales, tall tales written for the Opera Group some years back.

You’re being programmed with a lot of French music at the Cheltenham Festival and your music has a rather French fascination with timbre. How important is musical colour to you?

I’ve been drawn to French music since I was a child, through piano music initially and then orchestral music. I’m still very interested in resonance and exploring dense harmonic textures, and the timbres and complexes of sounds I am naturally drawn to can be seen as sharing a French lineage. The subject of musical colour is rather a large one, but in terms of harmony and timbre I would say that the various hues and shades one can create through pitch density and spacing, not forgetting the pacing of these through rate of change and rhythm, are certainly of great importance to me.

As for my own my interest in long resonant durations and harmonic ambiguity, I’ve mentioned on previous occasions that it comes directly from memories of my years as a chorister musically growing up in a large acoustic space. In the years since my early compositional attempts I’ve tried to rehabilitate these early impulses and attractions, but some things, sadly, will always leave a residue. As a composer you have to be aware of context and to be aware of your place in the wider scene, to be informed. To look one’s influences squarely in the face and know them is the beginning of being released from them. In this regard, my role as professor over the years has taught me many things, one being of particular importance; it’s to be aware of various compositional tropes that take root and proliferate, and, as I am a contrarian, to distance myself from them or at least treat them skeptically — ­­newness is a concept only entertained by the uninformed.  

Kenneth Hesketh--Photo by E. Thornton

Kenneth Hesketh–Photo by E. Thornton

You have used the phrase ‘unreliable machines’ to describe an aspect of your music. What does this mean in practice?

For me, ‘unreliable machines’ is both musical concept and humanist statement. In technical terms, I originally worked with short fragments/cells of mechanistic material (reasonably regular in rhythmic profile so as to be recognised (if obliquely) identified) which would be imbedded in subsequent phrases, always in different positions from the original while new material would freely proliferate. Attempts at further metamorphosis achieve only a momentary flare up (an increase in speed or widening of range/register) only to result in a rapid termination. The process would then be daisy-chained to create larger dense textures (see my At God speeded summers end or Ein Lichtspiel for early examples). In the last eight years or so, this has changed in that the original seeds that initiate such generative processes are unstable from the beginning and are no longer based around short cells, but more on behaviours exhibited by certain types of complexes of material (see my Forms Entangled, Shapes Collided or Knotted Tongues). This, hopefully, enriches the results.

In humanistic terms unreliable machines (after Descartes’ Bête Machine and de la Mettrie’s L’homme Machine) supports and explores the idea of humans as little more than complex machines within a materialist philosophy, an idea that feels authentic to me. Additional concepts of aging and failure in physical systems have expanded my views and consideration of this topic and thereby my musical thinking, the process of which now utilizes aspects of computer assisted composition and limited randomised procedures. This has ultimately widened organisational approaches and made freer, as well as made more abstract, the ultimate musical work.

The topic of mortality surfaces frequently in your recent music. Where does this preoccupation come from?

It’s a natural outgrowth of the concept of the inevitable failure of the somatic self, as well as smaller but accumulative personal losses of one type or another. We all reach that stage in life when there is a greater sense of loss than of gain, however incremental, but often those loses spike and become more pronounced. This loss of the original self or condition led me to an exploration of the idea of entropy (nothing new in art in general of course–see Rudolf Arnheim’s book for one amongst many), failure in physical systems (see Models of systems failure in ageing–Gavrilov/Gavrilova, 2006), ideas of impermanence and unicursal pathways and how they might be traversed. I sought to define and shape anger and sorrow that accompanied loss rather than be defined by it, though oddly it now shapes everything in my compositional thinking; there are a number of cycles in my output that cluster around ideas of momento mori, vanitas and memorial. Many may think this morose, but I find them sources of strength and direction, and they have certainly given rise to a darker and more dramatic aspect in my work.  

What big projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently wrapping up a piece for Clare Hammond, a phenomenally gifted pianist who has recorded and commissioned a great deal of my piano work over the last 7 years. This new piece, Uncoiling the River, for piano and orchestra is a co-commission from the BBC and RLPO. It will receive its premiere on the 25th January 2019 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff with the BBCNoW conducted by Martyn Brabbins. It a fairly big piece (25 mins in one movement), and it’s been quite a journey writing it; I’ve been able to move forward compositionally, formulate new ways of thinking about my praxis and consolidate many recent preoccupations in one work. I’m very much looking forward to hearing this work. Further to this there’s another short film score in the offing, chamber works and another concerto, so lots to look forward to! Being older has some advantages….