Saturday 13 November 2021

Inspired by the work of sculptor Naum Gabo, I chat to Alex Groves about his latest music, as well as creating pieces inspired by Barbara Hepworth, and the importance of his concert series, Solo

Alex Groves working on an R&D showcase with theatre maker Yve Blake  at the Barbican Centre (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)
Alex Groves working on an R&D showcase with theatre maker Yve Blake at the Barbican Centre
(Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Composer Alex Groves has been nominated in the Solo Composition category of the Ivors Composers Awards 2021 for his solo cello piece, Linear Construction (No. 5). In the first of three interviews with composers from this year's nominees for the awards, I chatted to Alex about Linear Construction (No. 5), which was recorded by cellist Gabriella Swallow during the first lockdown in late Spring 2020 and released as part of Nonclassical’s I hope this finds you well in these strange times – Vol. 1. Alex is the artistic director of Solo, a concert series focusing on single performers exploring music old and new [with the next concert in the series coming up on 16 November 2021]. In his compositions, Alex often uses inspirations from visual arts, and this Summer one of his own artistic works was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art's Summer Exhibition.

Given that the title of the nominated work in the awards is Linear Construction (No. 5), I wondered whether there were four predecessors, but Alex borrowed the title from sculptor Naum Gabo (1890-1977), who produced Linear Constructions Nos. 1-4, so Alex decided to create No. 5. Interest in visual art is a long-running theme in Alex's work; seeking inspiration in music he finds difficult, the comparisons are too easy and the imitation is on the surface only.

Originally, he had started reading more about the process and compositional practices of other composers, and this led to him reading about the artists Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and Bridget Riley. He loves both their work and found inspiration in how they made their art. Alex started experimenting with using these ideas to make music, pieces that were related to visual art but not entirely connected due to the different mediums. One of the fruits of this method is Alex's long-running sequence of Curved Form pieces.

Linear Construction (No. 5) was written during lockdown in 2020 and arose because Alex started looking at the work of artists other than Barbara Hepworth and Bridget Riley. Naum Gabo's Linear Construction (No. 1) is in the Tate Gallery, a work comprising of a clear plastic frame with thread, and when Alex saw it he was struck with its evanescence. The piece was dynamic yet simple, you see everything and he found the result mind-blowing. So, he looked for Naum Gabo's other Linear Constructions and found all were very organic ethereal pieces. There was a tension to them, they look like digital art yet are analogue, the works are made of straight lines yet seem devoid of angles and hard surfaces. Alex was struck by these juxtapositions, weightless versus rigid, fluid versus linear.

During last year when he was in need of inspiration he turned to Gabo's Linear Constructions, and Alex's Linear Construction (No. 5) plays with the same phrase, which moves in one direction and then cuts back, the material does not change but the way it is being played does. Thus Alex evokes in music, Gabo's methods of construction.

Alex has collaborated with cellist Gabriella Swallow on several projects; he describes her as fabulous and fearless. Most notably he wrote Curved Form (No. 11) for her. They released it as an EP (on Bandcamp) this Summer, and she has performed the work extensively from the Handel House to Ronnie Scott's. During lockdown last year the music promoter, record producer and events producer, Nonclassical put out a call for pieces for proposed new collection to be issued during lockdown, this would become I hope this finds you well in these strange times – Vol. 1. Swallow asked Alex if he had anything, and the result was a delightfully socially distanced collaboration. Alex wrote the piece in his flat, then cycled up to Alexandra Palace where he met Swallow, outside, and delivered the score, recording equipment and instructions, and left her to it! Two weeks later, he cycled over and collected the results, and he put together the final recording from her takes. He describes it as a lovely moment of collaboration in a weird time, and she was the first person he met outside the circle of his close friends and partner. Whilst the recording of the work has been issued by Nonclassical, no performance with a live audience has happened, yet.

Curved Form (St Endellion)' performed by Manchester Collective at Hallé St Peters Mancheste 2021 Photo Chris Payne
Alex Groves' Curved Form (St Endellion) performed by Manchester Collective at Hallé St Peters Manchester 2021 (Photo Chris Payne)

For the last four or five years, Alex has been working on his Curved Form sequence of works (the title comes from a work by Barbara Hepworth). He has enjoyed the Curved Form sequence as he was able to consolidate ideas for construction, rather than reinventing the wheel each time he wrote a new piece. The most recent of the set is Curved Form (St Endellion) which the Manchester Collective performed at the Southbank Centre. Such as series is a comforting place to be, but it is important to know when to step away and do something new.

With Linear Construction (No. 5) Alex was looking at new ideas, trying things out to see what happens when he added new things to the platform he had created with the Curved Form works. It gave him a chance to open up ideas in different directions. And now, when he sits down to write a new piece, there is the comfort of having the Curved Form sequence and Linear Construction (No. 5) behind him, but also the possibility of going in a new direction. He feels that he is at a branching point, thinking about how he develops his music, adding new ideas to the mix.

When I ask if there will be a Linear Construction (No. 6), he laughs and says 'If someone commissions it!'. But there are more ideas that he wants to explore and there might not be a Linear Construction (No. 6) but a work with another name.

Alex's catalogue has a significant number of works for solo instrument and for small chamber ensemble, and I wondered whether this concentration was deliberate or not. He feels that it is part happenstance and part design. He created his concert series Solo out of necessity. Every young composer is faced with the conundrum that when trying to get a new work performed, people usually want to hear what it sounds like before deciding, even though the work has not yet been performed. So without performances and recordings, it is difficult to get the ball rolling.

Alex's solution was to create Solo, a concert series based around collaborative relationships with performances. The idea is to contextualise both the performer's work, playing a mix of classical and new works and Alex's pieces. The series would thus give Alex his starting point, getting the ball rolling in terms of performance and recordings of his work. But, of necessity, the series was DIY so concerts were restricted to one performer and one hour of music, mixing old and new music, new ideas and new ways of interpreting stuff.

This led to Alex's significant series of works for solo instrument, though he sometimes adds electronics as he feels that it gives a bigger flavour to the concert. And the Solo concerts became an incubator, creating a way of working with performers who would then make the new pieces their own.

Whilst his ambitions extend to writing large scale pieces and for large ensembles, practicalities rather govern his approach to these. He wants to write music that he can hear and that others can, so his recent catalogue has often been restricted to the smaller scale out of economic necessity. He wants to write for larger ensembles, but he also likes collaborations with individual performers who want to play his music.

Alex Groves (Photo Sam Le Roux)
Alex Groves (Photo Sam Le Roux)

Many young composers start out wanting to do things, to have large scale gigs that are expensive to put on. But Alex worked as a festival producer for Spitalfields Music and more recently as fundraising co-ordinator for Sound and Music, and this has made him realise that as a composer you ignore the practicalities at your peril [in this he rather echoes the practicality of American composer Tim Corpus, see my recent interview]. So whilst it is lovely to be able to create stuff without constraints if you are looking for performances you need to be practical. This extends to wanting to write for an odd or strange ensemble, it is preferable if someone has already written a work for that combination thus making programming easier.

When it comes to the electronics that Alex uses, it is very much geared up to live performances. Most pieces are performable by the performer themselves with a laptop, perhaps with a technician. Most of his electronic pieces use a click track and all the elements such as looping are built in, so the performer simply needs to stay in sync with the click track. Alex admits that this is not without its nerve-wracking moments, but he enjoys it for the magic of it.

For instance, Curved Form (St Endellion) is for violin, cello and live electronics, using a series of different length loops which are played back until by the middle of the piece the effect is of a full string orchestra, but there are just two performers making people think 'how is that happening'. Alex loves the idea of not being able to work out how something happens, and for him, this applies as much to the theatre as to music. He finds something childlike and enjoyable about knowing how something like this happens.

Whilst there is, he feels, a fairly clear line to draw between his teenage self and his current use of electronics, none of the steps he took was deliberate. In his teens, he was fond of listening to bands like Daft Punk, bands that used electronics, and he bought the same computer programme. He played the piano, but not to a level that he wanted to play to people, which meant that at university he graduated towards composition.

After university, a lot of his friends were making theatre, so he started making music theatre with writer/director Rebecca Hanbury. The use of electronics arose out of necessity, there was no money, and electronics provided flexibility (no worrying about scores) and enabled them to make the most of what they had, and it was a language that he had become happy working in.

His first large-scale theatre piece was Sister (premiered at Spitalfields Music Summer Festival 2016), which used two sopranos, ten microphones and 350 audio cues! Everything was done live, a mix of singing, speaking and Foley effects, recorded live and then mixed up, all on his laptop (with steam coming out of it by the end of each performance). The show was made over two years, and if he had sat down at the end he could have made the work differently, by then he knew all the workarounds. But he learned as he did it, creating what he calls a complex technological mess, but he is realistic. Sister was pressurised and faced paced, with no time to think so you do what you can do. And it was a valuable experience in many ways.

So electronics feels like a natural space for him. If you study orchestration, then you hope to reach a level of comfort and imagine things, you hear the different orchestral effects in your head, and he feels he has reached this level of comfort with electronics in his work. Electronics is not an add-on in his pieces, it is central to the structure. He loves being able to create live music which is both nice to play but also good source material for the electronics. He enjoys the fact that there is the live experience, the electronic experience and the combination.
Alex Groves: Surface Image 2
Alex Groves: Surface Image (No. 2)

Alex had a piece in the Conway Hall's recent Clements Prize [see my interview with Noah Max, who wrote the winning piece]. Alex's piece, Three Forms, was a string trio for members of the Piatti Quartet. Again, the work breaks away from his Curved Form sequence, yet is directly inspired by Barbara Hepworth's Three Forms. Her Three Forms comprises three pieces, each an object of beauty, but seen together they create relationships between each other. Alex liked the idea of three independent objects, three performers, three lines - a piece about independence and unity. Though the three parts sound unsynchronised, there are moments of unity and the three are intrinsically linked. So it takes Curved Form ideas and adds things, starting in a phase of comfort but taking one step away and seeing what happens. With young composers, there is always talk of finding your own language, but Alex comments that even when you find a place of comfort you can't let it stagnate, you tinker and ask questions.

On Tuesday 16 November 2021, violinist Rakhi Singh [see my interview with her] will be giving the next Solo concert at St Ethelburga's Church, playing everything from Bach to Julia Wolfe. The concert was originally planned for March 2020. There will be a commission from Emily Hall, and the premiere of Alex's Curved Form (No. 19) for violin and electronics, a work that he finished in early 2020.

During the lockdown earlier this year, Alex became frustrated with writing music, putting notes on paper, no-one would hear them, and he could not see works to fruition. So he decided to do something else to release the pent up tension and started playing around. His music uses structural and harmonic processes, and he started using these processes in visual art. He became absorbed in an activity that was both a relief from the news and playful. He played some more, acquiring squared paper, graph paper and tracing paper. The work that was accepted into the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition was Surface Image 2, which mirrors in a visual way how he feels about music.

Creating music, there is a solid scaffolding of things that have to be there because of the music, it is tautly conducted but the sound-world is seamless, organic and he likes that contradiction. With the picture, he mapped the music processes as shapes on graph paper but then used tracing paper to colour in the bits he wanted, creating something strongly ordered yet organic. He feels that the piece is indebted to early Bridget Riley. Up close you see the hand that made it, a neat and orderly artwork made of scribbles.

Not only are there links between his music and his art, but he uses elements of Surface Image (No. 2) for the visuals in his Curved Form (No. 11) release this Summer. He has no idea where his visual art is going, but he enjoyed it and will continue. He can interpret music in art and vice versa, and it is a nice easy way to exercise his creative muscles in a less pressured way, if he feels blocked with one he can turn to the other.

[I would have liked to have included images of the Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth works in the Tate Gallery which inspired Alex. Unfortunately, the works are still in copyright and the image fees were too high, but do follow the Tate gallery links to see the pieces for yourselves]

SOLO 08 | Rakhi Singh
16 November 2021, 8-9:30pm, St Ethelburga’s, EC2N 4AG - Tickets and further details from EventBrite.

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