Saturday, 1 February 2020

Music conceived of through restriction, which paradoxically gives the composer freedom: I chat to composer & Royal Academy of Music lecturer Alex Hills

Alex Hills in a workshop at the Royal Academy of Music with Kwesi Edman
Alex Hills in a workshop at the Royal Academy of Music with Kwesi Edman
The composer Alex Hills has a new disc out on the Carrier Records label, his second portrait disc on the label. The first one, The Music Making of Strange was released in 2013, and now OutsideIn is being released this month. The new disc features three of Alex's works, OutsideIn, Flatland and Short Long Shrink Stretch performed by violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and 12 Ensemble conducted by James Weeks, Exaudi conducted by James Weeks, and percussionist Jacob Brown and 4112 Collective conducted by Adam Hickox. In addition to his composing career, Alex is also Lecturer in Contemporary Music and Analysis at the Royal Academy of Music, where we met to chat about the works on the new disc and about how his composing and teaching careers interweave.

All three pieces use the idea of shape in the generation of musical ideas


Alex Hills: OutsideIn - Carrier Records
Whilst Flatland was inspired by Edwin A Abbott's 1889 novella, Flatland, rather intriguingly OutsideIn (for solo violin and strings) and Flatland (for choir) were both conceived together. Alex sees the two pieces as conceptually close and they were originally going to be part of a bigger piece for eight voices, eight strings and eight loud speakers, but he feels that he has moved on from that idea now. The other work on the disc, Short Long Shrink Stretch, was conceived later when he decided to make the disc and was aware that with just OutsideIn and Flatland it would not have the right balance, though the piece is similarly conceptual and all three use the idea of shape in the generation of musical ideas. Short Long Shrink Stretch was written for a fantastic set of players at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) who had formed themselves into the 412 Collective.

Whilst Alex is very interested in the creative elements of the recording process, all the works on the disc were conceived of live and have been performed as such. But he finds the studio a great place to work with sound and in some of his pieces the detail in them comes over better in the recording than live. Whilst Flatland was premiered in a concert hall, the other two works were premiered in other types of location where the sound was perhaps less than optimal (OutsideIn premiered at Café Oto, Short Long Shrink Stretch in the Crypt Gallery of St Pancras Church).

In fact, during the recording's editing process two pieces were edited and made shorter, but Alex then went back and adjusted the score so that any future live performance will use the same material as on the edited recording. On his first CD, The Music Making of Strange, the music was all quiet and detailed and so was recorded quite close, whereas on the new disc the pieces are bigger so the sound has more space to it.

Flatland was the first piece on the disc to be written (in 2014-2016). Abbott's book imagines a two-dimensional world and how the people in it might understand a third dimension. At the time Abbott wrote it, the novella was intended as metaphor for the three-dimensional world trying to conceive of a fourth, supernatural dimension. So Alex conceived his Flatland as a piece with bits of music missing, and it concentrates just on pitch starting with just middle C. Of course it is not as simple as that, and when the sphere descends through the choir (in the novella the descending of a sphere brings illumination about the third dimension to the two dimension world) the three-dimensional harmonic world is revealed. After that the rules of the piece change. Ultimately the work is about how an extreme level of restriction meets freedom, resulting in a challenging journey. The work is written for choir and the words are simply the names of shapes, initially two-dimensional ones and then three-dimensional.

OutsideIn, for violin and strings, is similarly geometric in conception, how you might move around a vertical space. In the first half the music is drawn to the centre and in the second expands, and uses geometric ways of looking at the instruments' register. Alex points out that looking at something from a flat perspective is different from looking at it from above. So the piece starts just on D, a note which has colours and potentials which cannot be seen in the flat view.

Alex's music is almost always conceived of through restriction, which paradoxically gives him freedom. In Short Long Shrink Stretch the restriction is about time and duration. The work uses a set of basic sounds which he uses as samples and gradually creates a world out of them. At the end of the piece, the basic instruments and sounds are the same as at the beginning but have transcended the limitations of the initial 'samples'.

412 Collective Rehearsing Alex Hills' 'Short Long Shrink Stretch' in St.Pancras Church Crypt
412 Collective Rehearsing Alex Hills' Short Long Shrink Stretch in St.Pancras Church Crypt

How much music he could make in a tiny space was a revelation


Alex studied composition with Michael Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough, and when he was in his mid-20s his music had lots of notes.
He describes his work then as very dense and rigorously conceived. But he came to feel that there were things that he put into the music which even he did not get out of it in performance, never mind a listener unfamiliar with his style. As a result he started to strip his music back.

In 2008, he wrote a piece for cello and percussion in which there were almost no changes of pitch, just changes in the way the notes were played. How much music he could make in a tiny space was a revelation, how he could still find music sonically rich and with a narrative. Michael Ferneyhough said that systems were useful for finding a constraint to work within, but Alex was interested in how a system might affect our perceptions of the music itself. Systems with very few sounds help him make music which he feels is more focused.

When I was doing background reading for our interview, I came across the idea of strangeness. Alex explains this by introducing me to the work of the Russian literary philosopher Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984), who wrote that what art does is take things that are familiar and makes them strange (in terms of making them new or uncomfortable). For Alex, art makes us re-experience things, so we re-experience a stone and art makes it stony. And equally, we experience a simple note of D as the complex of things within it.

Flatland is an example of this strangeness. By making us think about the artificial rules of physics the novel makes us think about the ordinary rules of physics in new ways. Similarly, a piece of music with restrictions makes us think about the ordinary ways of appreciating music in new ways.

Many of the performers on the disc are people with whom Alex has had a longer relationship, and collaboration is indeed important to him. He first met violinist Aisha Orazbayeva over ten years ago, and he was written four pieces for her, and OutsideIn is the biggest yet. Certainly it would be possible for another violinist to play the piece, but for Alex, Aisha has such an understanding of what he want that her performance is very special and very important.

At the Royal Academy of Music, Alex teaches a class on performing experimental music and during the first year of the class, half of the performers went on to found the 412 Collective. They are just getting started as an ensemble, but he finds them amazing. In fact, the solo percussionist in the piece, Jacob Brown, was in the same class and Alex collaborated with Jacob on the percussion part.

Aisha Orazbayeva and Roderick Chadwick performing Alex HIlls' -verse at Cafe Oto
Aisha Orazbayeva and Roderick Chadwick performing Alex Hills' -verse at Cafe Oto

He is not interested in the sort of detailed control which makes a composer use complex, visual notations


For all the conceptual complexity of Alex's music, his notation is based on conventional structures. Though it can be complex, his music is rhythmically conventional. Microtones, where used, are notated specifically and only with the symbols for specific sounds does his notation become special. And even here, the spareness of his writing, its very restriction, makes it easy to control and most pieces use only four or five special symbols. And he admits that he is not interested in the sort of detailed control which makes a composer use complex, visual notations. He has thought about giving up conventional notation, but he always thinks in a pulse grid so has kept using it. That said, he is fascinated by people who do things with graphic notation. He does like his scores to look good, but for him notation is a means to an end.

When writing a piece, there is a long period which Alex spends thinking about the work, making notes and diagrams. Then for the next stage, he puts lots on paper, though he has moved away from producing a paper score. Instead, lots of paper sketches feed into the first computer draft. Then a long time is spent tidying this up, which in Alex's case usually means getting rid of things; he almost never adds anything! He describes his first draft as 'loose and sloppy', and the editing is to tighten things up, and even the shape can change.

He loves the canonic repertoire, loves sitting down and talking about Schubert


Alex comes from a conventional classical music background, and still enjoys playing mainstream classical music on the piano. He loves the canonic repertoire, loves sitting down and talking about Schubert. In fact, at the Royal Academy of Music one of his classes is analysis where he teaches people to do things like write fugues! He is interested in the craft of music, even though the craft he teaches is a different kind that in his music. And whilst he does teach contemporary music at the RAM, he likes having a division between his composing and his teaching work.

Alex's parents were amateur musicians, and his brother is a rock musician. Alex has always written music. He started playing the piano as a child, though he admits to not being very good! As he was taught to read music, and as he both read and wrote words, by analogy he decided he would also write music and carried on doing it, becoming better when he was in his teens. He attended the Southbank Centre's Ligeti Festival and heard works like Clocks and Clouds and felt that new music was something to explore.  By this time he had already written a lot, not all of it good, but it became clear that this was what he wanted to do with his life. That music as something to engage with was part of his life.

Alex Hills (photo Eloisa-Fleur Thom)
Alex Hills (photo Eloisa-Fleur Thom)
Alex feels himself lucky to have studied with Michael Finnissy. Whilst Alex's music is very different to Finnissy's, Finnissy took Alex seriously. But Finnissy could be confrontational too, and Alex feels that he needed it and it pushed him. He also feels lucky to have worked, as a teacher, with a number of talented performers including those who did not specialise in contemporary music, for example he taught theory to the pianist Benjamin Grosvenor for two years. Another composer whose work he admires is Cassandra Miller, commenting that her music is amazing. And Matthew Shlomowitz is a close friend, they did their PhD's together and have spent the last 20 years talking about music, something which is important to him.

With the completion of the disc and its release, it is perhaps time to look ahead; each time he completes a piece he finds it time for reflection. Alex's last ten years has been about planning projects that he wanted to do, and making them happen. This is an exciting way to work, and he is happy to carryon like that. But he would also be interested in writing music for large ensemble where he was less involved in initiating the pieces. Yet having his Royal Academy of Music teaching post means that he does not have to be writing to commission, though it also means that it can be difficult to find the time to fulfil large-scale commissions.




  • OutsideIn - Alex Hills: OutsideIn, Flatland, Short Long Shrink Stretch - Carrier 045 (available from Bandcamp)
  • The Music Making of Strange - Alex Hills: After and Before, Knight's Move, Some States Can Be Resovled Rhythmically, -verse, Alles comp. F.J Haydn Jello Biafra Nico, Ostraneni - Carrier
Elsewhere on this blog
  • A touch of heaven: The Divine Muse, Mary Bevan & Joseph Middleton in Wolf, Schubert & Haydn (★★★★) - concert review
  • A welcome chance to hear the Orchestra National de Lille under its music director Alexandre Bloch in London, in Ravel, Debussy and Beethoven (★★★★) - concert review
  • From Georgia to Lotus Land: pianist Nino Gvetadze in music by Cyril Scott (★★★½) - CD review
  • Genesis: accordionist Bartosz Glowacki's fine debut recording moves from Scarlatti & Rameau to Trojan, Gubaidulina, Vlasov, Pärt & Piazzolla (★★★★) - CD review
  • Superb ensemble showcase: Opera North's new production of Kurt Weill's Street Scene (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Audience development and evangelism at the core of what they do: I chat to Adam Szabo of the Manchester Collective  - interview
  • Maxim Vengerov: celebrating 40 years since his stage debut with new recordings & a new relationship with IDAGIO - interview
  • Beethoven Odyssey: Daniel Barenboim completes his sonata performances at the Philharmonie in Paris (★★★★) - concert review
  • Beethoven marathon: François-Frédéric Guy directs all the piano concertos from the keyboard in one concert in Paris (★★★★) - concert review
  • A flaming affair: Berlioz' La damnation de Faust at the Philharmonie de Paris -
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  • From the rare to the popular: Fauré and Poulenc from Bertrand de Billy and the London Philharmonic (★★★★) - concert review
  • Bach Round-Up: violin, piano, organ, recorder, viol, choral and orchestra by Bach and his cousin Johann Bernard  - cd review
  • Home

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