B i o g r a p h y
Leon Haxby (b. 1993) is a Composer, Bassoonist, DJ and teacher living in Cambridge. He has always been fascinated with the effect of quotation and re-contextualisation in music, and is now pursuing this field of study both in composition and through his groundbreaking research topic “Music’s Uncanny Valley”.
Leon began composition lessons with Darren Bloom at Forest School in London and was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, followed by a place at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam where he has just completed his Masters in Composition. In the past, he has studied under Richard Ayres, Wim Henderickx, Richard Causton, Edwin Roxburgh, Ed Bennett, Joe Cutler and Howard Skempton. He has also taken masterclasses from Rebecca Saunders, Mario Garuti, Anna Korsun and Colin Matthews.
Leon was the winner of the Orchestre Nouvelle Generation Composers Competition 2016/17, and the Birmingham Conservatoire Orchestral Composition Prize 2015. Distinguished ensembles and performers of his works include the DoelenKwartet, HERMESensemble, Syzygy Quartet, Ossian Ensemble, Noszferatu, Decibel, David Le Page, Patrick Johnson, Sara Minelli, Rowland Sutherland and Colin Alexander. His compositions have been featured at world-famous festivals including the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam and TROMP Percussion Festival, and at venues such as Kings Place and Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, as well as various venues throughout Europe, North America and South Africa.
In addition to classical composition, Leon immerses himself in a diverse range of musical styles. He composes advert soundtracks on a regular basis for clients such as GHD, Manolo Blahnik, Lanvin, Japanese Vogue, Mariana Jungman (London Fashion Week), Nowness.com and Cent Magazine. He has composed a number of film scores, including for award-winning short films 'Wanted' by Graeme Montgomery, and 'Genesis' by Beatrix Haxby. As a bassoonist, Leon studied with Adam Mackenzie (New London Chamber Ensemble) and John Orford (London Sinfonietta) and has composed new repertoire for bassoon including bassoon quartet and a number of concert studies. He is also an active DJ, playing eclectic sets from UK Bass to Jungle. He studied with international artists including Kasey Riot and Noah Priddle at the London Sound Academy and has performed in venues such as SET, Dalston alongside artists including Chiminyo and D’vo.
Interview with American Viola Society, April 2016
When did you start composing, and what or who were your early passions and influences? When did you realize that you want to be a composer, versus maybe a performer who composes?
I started composing when I was about 14 using a programme where you just drop in samples/loops and rearrange and edit them. I soon moved on to notation software and started writing rock songs (even though I didn’t play guitar), dance tracks (even though it’s completely the wrong software) and classical compositions. My earliest memories are of listening to Peter and the Wolf on a tape machine, and I believe that has always inspired my work; Prokofiev is still a huge idol of mine. My first instrument was Bassoon which I started at the age of 8 and I began playing Piano at 10 years old, but soon after I started composing I realized that was what I wanted to do. It seemed to come naturally to me and I found it much easier compared to my instrumental studies.
How do you usually start when composing? What methods do you use? How do things come to you? What equipment or tools do you use? Do you have to hear it with your ears or can you hear it in your head?
I usually start with a title or a concept of what musical elements I want to explore, or what I want the piece to be about. The instrumentation is almost always decided beforehand too, normally because I’m writing for a specific ensemble, but also because setting up certain limitations can actually help ideas flow more easily (even thought that seems paradoxical). I have the notation software Sibelius 7 with NotePerformer sound library installed, a MIDI keyboard and I always have a Piano nearby. Melodies and chords I will often work out at the Piano, but elements like texture, rhythm and colour I can hear in my head.
How did you come to compose for viola? Do you play viola, or were you inspired to compose for viola because of another person?
The first Viola piece I composed was Variations on a Theme by Edward Elgar which I was asked to write for the International Viola Congress 2014 in Porto, and it was for five Violas! I don’t play Viola myself, but luckily I have a friend whose parents happen to be professional Viola players, so help is always near if I have questions or need to try anything out.
What work(s) have you composed for viola? What do you like most about them, and what do performers say they like most about them?
So far I’ve only composed two pieces featuring the Viola – A Walk on the Wild Side (Viola & Piano) and Variations on a Theme by Edward Elgar (Viola Quintet). However, a few more of my pieces have included Viola in the line up - String Quartet No. 1 in Eb Major, Pleading the 5th, my pieces for large ensembles, and I’m currently working on my second String Quartet, String Quartet No. 19 in C Minor. What I like most about them is that I have had all very good performances of pieces I’ve written for Strings. From my experience, String players seem to spend a decent amount of time preparing a piece before it comes to rehearsal and have a good work ethic, which means the rehearsals are easier and more productive. Performers generally give me good feedback about my pieces, they say they’re well written and that they enjoy playing them.
How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition? How do you decide on instrumentation in a piece?
It is tempting to say that every piece I’ve written was composed specifically for the individual instrument(s) and that they are integral to the piece, but I can already think of a couple of recent compositions which I would like to hear played on other instruments, if only out of curiosity. Of course there are certain timbres and extended techniques which simply do not translate onto other instruments, but there is almost no limit to what you can do (I’ve managed to convert a Timpani roll onto a Viola). Having said that, I do usually decide on the instrumentation before I start composing because it helps me think of ideas for the piece when I’m not necessarily at the desk. Obviously String instruments have a beautifully homogenous sound which makes ensembles like a String Quartet so pleasing, but when things start to get interesting for me is when you are able to create new timbres by mixing different instruments. I heard my first live Thomas Adés piece recently (Chamber Symphony), and what struck me was how many different instruments would carry a single melody. There would often be 3 or 4 different instruments weaving in and out of a unison line which create a myriad of aural ‘tricks’.
What do improvisation and interpretation mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits? Do you want people to improvise within YOUR compositions, or are you pretty committed to the notes on the paper? Do you prefer to work closely with artists performing your work, or are you happy to rely on the score to communicate what you want the work to be?
Interpretation is essential in every piece and is probably the most important factor in judging whether we like a particular performance or not. Improvisation is an element I’ve only recently started experimenting with, but so far I’ve been happy with the results. Giving improvisatory directions can often be useful to express an idea or texture which would otherwise be extremely complicated to notate. It also allows performers to judge the atmosphere of each concert and react accordingly with their improvisations; this give and take between musicians and audience has become a recent interest of mine. Usually when I’m writing for solo performers I feel that the score can communicate my intentions, but in larger ensemble pieces I often have to give more direction. I think in new music it can perhaps be tempting for ensemble players to bury their heads in their own parts, and forget to concentrate on making chamber music.
What's your view on the tasks of composers today (e.g. political/social/creative) and how do you try to meet these goals in your work? Do you take extra-musical ideas into your work, or are you all about the music alone?
I think composers either aim to present the world as they see it, or provide relief from the world through their music (both goals being equally valid to me). Perhaps the greatest composers are able to do both. I’ve recently found that the best way to attack an idea is not simply to criticize it, but to try to ridicule it. My inspiration here comes not only from music but also largely from films. I believe that directors like Luis Buñuel and Martin Scorsese knew this and not only express disapproval of political/social systems but also make a mockery them in their films. In my own work I rarely start with a political message being the main aim of my piece, but simply being aware of the struggles that people around me face surely feeds into my music consciously or subconsciously. Of course, music is always open to interpretation and I would never be against someone taking my work to be about a particular subject, even if it wasn’t what I had intended to begin with.
Do you feel that your compositions are accessible to audiences of ordinary people? If your compositions require more careful listening, what are your expectations for the audience? Do you feel the audience has a role in the musical communication process, and what is that role?
We had a playwright come into our Conservatoire once who argued that all artists write for their audiences to some extent. He managed to convince me to his way of thought until a few days afterwards when I realized that it’s ludicrous to suggest that you can know your audience. I’m not in the habit of conducting surveys of what people like to listen to before I begin composing for a concert, so there’s no way to tell whether my piece is going to be played to 100 Pierre Boulez fans or 100 Justin Bieber fans. I believe the best you can do is to write music for yourself first, and not worry too much about what anyone else thinks. The famous example of this is of course Van Gogh, who was completely ignored in his own time but he continued to make art that he believed in and is now regarded as one of the greatest painters who ever lived. There are countless musical examples of this, too: Monteverdi faced criticism for writing music that was ‘too modern’, Vivaldi was held in much higher regard than Bach in his own time, Beethoven’s last String Quartets were not understood by his contemporaries, the infamous Rite of Spring riot etc.
Composers have traditionally found it challenging to secure a living with their art alone. What are the financial realities you're living with and in which way, do you feel, could they be improved?
Of course it would be nice to earn enough through composing alone to support myself financially, but I don’t think that’s been possible for a 23-year-old composer in any era of classical music so far. I have another job in retail, and luckily I enjoy giving private music lessons so I hope to be able to give up my other job when I have enough students. Financial security is a problem for young artists in general (not just composers) but perhaps it’s necessary because it feeds a healthy detestation of those in power. What use would we be if there was nothing to complain about? The financial situation could be improved by the implementation of a ‘basic income’ – a system which is already working successfully in the Dutch city of Utrecht. A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all people, regardless of whether they are employed or unemployed. This would end the horrible stigma of people on benefits in the UK. Choosing a career in the arts means dedicating a lot of time to honing your skills, and this would give people the freedom to pursue their aspirations rather than spending their time at a job they don’t really enjoy out of necessity. A ‘basic income’ for all may sound expensive, but seeing as it would eliminate almost all crime (most crimes being committed by people in desperate financial situations), the savings to law enforcement and incarceration would be substantial. In short, it would create a safer world, in which we would all have more time to pursue our passions.
What is your favorite kind of music to compose? What do you hope to focus on as your career progresses? Where do you see yourself compositionally in ten years?
The style of music I like to compose in doesn’t really have a name yet, but it is tied to the ‘appropriation’ art movement where existing material is recontextualized to create a new work. This translates into music, and the style is present in composers like Charles Ives and pops up in sections of many contemporary works such as Sciarrino’s Aspern Suite or Clarence Barlow’s Variazioni e un pianoforte meccanico. However, I don’t believe any composer has dedicated the majority of their works to this style of music, which I intend to. To me, ‘appropriation music’ is where you reference or take quotations from previous musical periods, and subvert it by putting next to or mixing it with more contemporary music. This creates a kind of ‘twisted pastiche’ where, as a listener, you’re not really sure where you stand. The music from an earlier period provides certain comfortable connotations, which become sabotaged when heard next to the more abrasive music and it forces you to occupy two musical worlds at once. The result is a very uneasy and often dark atmosphere, which I love. In the near future I hope to do a Masters, and then after that perhaps a Postgraduate degree. I hope that within ten years composing/teaching will become my main source of income.
Any more viola music on the horizon for you?
I’m currently working on my second String Quartet, String Quartet No. 19 in C Minor, which of course includes a Viola. No other plans for Viola pieces yet though, so please get in touch if you would like more Viola music from me!