Composer Spotlight Q&A: Rylan Gleave

Rylan Gleave is a young composer and musician currently undertaking an MMus degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In 2020 sound commissioned Rylan to write a new work, 'before, and after', which was performed by musicians from Aberdeen-based ensemble Any Enemy in separate locations over Zoom as part of our lockdown composing project. 

Later in the year, Rylan developed a new work for flute and electronics, UNSUNG II; Harbinger&Herald, as part of sound's annual development opportunity for Scotland-based composers in partnership with Red Note Ensemble and was premiered during soundfestival in October. 

Rylan is also involved in two forthcoming events during the second weekend of soundfestival 2020 on 30/31 January 2021 (details below).

What stage are you at in your career right now?

I’m in the final year of my MMus Degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, studying with Dr Linda Buckley. I sort-of have my foot in the door as a freelance composer, working on several commissions, and transitioning from student to emerging artist. I feel it’s important to note that ‘my career’ isn’t just composing; like most musicians, there are plenty of various musical and non-musical jobs that I take on to make ends meet.

When and what made you decide to pursue composition as a career? 

It was about two weeks before the first year of my BMus Degree started. I was attending the RCS Composition Summer School, with plans to study as a singer at the RWCMD, when Gordon McPherson asked me to reconsider and join the BMus composers. It was a very last minute decision, and a strange scramble to suddenly switch disciplines! Having someone see potential in my earliest work was crucial to what turned out to be a life-altering change. Studying with David Fennessy in my BMus transformed my sketches into real pieces, and I think around the beginning of my third year I had been convinced that I could make at least part of my career writing music (I’m eternally grateful, Dave!). 

Do you have a favourite composition you have written and why?

I almost didn’t answer this one, but am hopeful that this will connect with someone else; I find it really, really difficult to quality assess my own work. It’s probably (definitely) tied to self-esteem, and I think prevalent in a lot of creative people. The sheer amount of my peers with imposter syndrome is staggeringly high, especially those I would personally consider ‘established’ or ‘successful’. Whilst it’s pretty dismal that a lot of us feel this way, it helps me feel less alone to remember that there are so many people are in the same position.

How have you been coping with the pandemic and how has this affected your output?

Working from home has meant I haven’t stopped writing. I’m lucky to have been in lockdown with my partner Alasdair, who’s also the lead artist for our band Ashenspire, who I sing live with. Like many other people I’ve felt isolated, and as an autistic person, my rigid routine of study/work/socialising was completely dismantled. I’m lucky also to have composing as a coping mechanism, and to have been afforded opportunities to keep my music moving. I’ve been working as a vocalist too, learning an emotionally hard-hitting piece by friend and fellow composer Lucy Hale, that I hope will, despite the devastating circumstances of her passing, be premiered later this year.

Have you been involved in any special musical or compositional projects during lockdown? 

I was selected for Nevis Ensemble’s Lochan Sketches project, and wrote a saxophone/electronics piece for Jenny Akroyd. My piece in waves, originally written for the Edinburgh Quartet, was selected and purchased for a concert of Disabled composers worldwide by Crossing Borders Music in Chicago. It was broadcast again at Back Of The Yards Chicago Public Library, and then used as a teaching resource in a secondary school workshop. JACK Quartet in New York also selected in waves for a professional recording project as part of JACK Studio 2020-22, and aim to record in April 2021. I’m working with Jen Langridge and Ben Powell of Psappha Ensemble on the ‘Composing for…’ scheme, writing for piano and cello, and wrote an electric guitar/tape piece in the first lockdown that was premiered as part of Explorathon 2020. Working with sound on several lockdown projects too was a great way to distract myself; Lockdown Composing with Any Enemy Ensemble, Flute & Electronics with Ruth Morely and Alistair MacDonald, and a new sound/Red Note Ensemble co-commission. 

What forces do you prefer writing for and why? (Instrumental, orchestral, chamber music, choral…)

String writing seems to be where I’m finding the most expression at the moment; there’s a lot of similarity to writing for voice, which I think I’m drawn to as a vocalist. Actually writing for voices I find more difficult, potentially due to navigating text, and moving away from my experience with the classical voice. I’m working on a piece for myself as a vocalist at the moment, and focusing more on timbre and imperfections than words or a ‘polished’ sound, which is a really cathartic experience.

Which composer (dead or alive) has most inspired you and why? 

Rufus Isabel Elliot (it/its) who is a close friend, and monumental composer. Its work is painfully moving and honest, and I feel addresses stories and testimony in a uniquely raw, beautiful way. Rufus’ work in the trans community, especially with OVER / AT, is ground-breaking and continually inspiring. I’m privileged to have sung its music, and to have worked on many projects together, and hope to continue to do so in both the near and distant future.

What would your dream commission be? 

I’m working on it right now! It’s the aforementioned piece for vocals, piano, cello, orchestral bass drum, and electronics, titled In chemical transit. It’s an homage to my former mezzo-soprano voice, based on the Mozart aria Voi che sapete, the song I have likely sung and hated more than any other. Hopefully it will be premiered at RCS PLUG Festival 2021, pandemic dependent, but I’m looking forward to making it into my first album either way. 

What do you do to take your mind off composing?

It’s maybe an autistic thing, but I find it difficult to turn that part of my brain off. Whilst there are lots of elements to composing that aren’t putting pen to paper, I find that most activities I enjoy feed into writing in some way. There’s maybe a nonsense, capitalist ‘self-worth linked to productivity’ idea I’ve internalised, that needs addressing too. 

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The Scotsman

Ones to watch in 2021: Rylan Gleave, composer