Composer Spotlight Q&A: Kevin Leomo

Kevin is a composer based in Glasgow, Scotland, and writes primarily for acoustic instrumental forces.

His work Silhouettes was developed during a composers' residential weekend and premiered at soundfestival 2019 by Sergio Vega Dominguez (oboe) and Martin Storey (cello) musicians from Red Note Ensemble.

When did you start composing?

I started composing in high school as part of the SQA curriculum, although it wasn’t assessed then. In my own time, I mostly studied classical compositions and film scores while working through the ABRSM music theory grades. I was a huge band geek at the time, so I often emulated the compositions we performed in concert band.

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

I didn’t get into composition seriously until my third and fourth years at university. Being exposed to a multitude of compositional styles and approaches while being supported and encouraged by my teachers made me eager to pursue further study. I completed my undergraduate degree, but was still hungry to learn more about composition, so I continued with a master’s degree. Undertaking a research degree was a formative experience, as I was able to set my own agenda to study what interested me musically while seeking out various composition opportunities and performances. Developing these independent skills is extremely important for composers, and this was when I truly realised I wanted to pursue composition as a career.

Where and with whom did you study?

I have studied primarily at the University of Glasgow, with my main teachers being Jane Stanley, Bill Sweeney and Drew Hammond. I have also had masterclasses and tutorials with composers such as Christian Wolff, Nicola LeFanu, and Joël Bons from attending various courses and conferences. It’s always useful to receive feedback from composers who are not your usual teachers, as they can bring new insights to your work.

What stage are you at in your career right now? 

I’m currently in my third year of doctoral studies in composition at the University of Glasgow. I currently work as a graduate teaching associate, teaching undergraduates and master’s students in orchestration and composition. I co-direct the Scottish Young Composer Project based at the University of Glasgow, which involves high school students who receive free tuition in composition from senior honours and master’s students, whom I mentor. I love participating in music education projects, having previously worked as the assistant composer at Sound’s Go Compose! and on Chamber Musical Scotland’s Train and Sustain programme. I also run the new music series, Sound Thought, which provides a platform for postgraduate and emerging practitioners in sound and music to present their work. 

How would you describe the type of music you write?

My music has changed and developed quite a bit over the past few years. My current practice involves investigating concepts of silence and negative space, challenging traditional performance practices, and experiencing the expressiveness of sounds. 

As a composer, I believe that there is a strong link between notation and the resulting sounds which can be fruitfully explored. How my work appears visually certainly effects the way performers receive the information, and in turn perform it. My works are unmetred and employ the use of beams, allowing players some freedom in interpretation and feeling of time. Representing aural negative space in the music is also achieved visually in the notation. I employ the use of performance scores, rather than performers having individual parts, for purposes of coordination, as well as having visual access to the aural relationships and blends I want the performers to create. I’m interested in crafting detailed instrumental sonorities with a focus on performers listening – to one another, the space they perform in, and to silence. Working closely with performers is integral to my practice in order to achieve this.
My work is often informed by cross-cultural practice, whether it’s more abstract through engagement with philosophy and aesthetics, or more overt, when working with instruments and performance practices from around the world. I also draw influence from visual imagery, such as light and shadow, especially in my recent series of works. This aesthetic could be described by words such as: fragile, sustained, spacious. 

Is there something that inspires or helps you structure your compositions?

I draw inspiration from a variety of sources, such as visual art, the natural world, architecture, and other composers’ works. For me, structure is not inherently a musical parameter at the forefront of my works; my approach to structure is more intuitive. In regard to structure, I like to consider how listeners experience both time and space, from the perspective of myself as the composer, the performers, and the audience – we are all listeners in different ways. Structure in my works is often defined by the presence of negative space and silence, which I consider to be equally as significant as time occupied by sound. I’m currently working towards creating longer-form pieces which explore these concepts over a significant amount of time.

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

I love writing for unusual combinations of instruments, as well as for instruments from around the world. For example, I’ve previously had the chance to write for instruments including sitar, haegeum, geomungo, shakuhachi, koto, and stone marimba. My compositional process is heavily focused on exploring instrumental performance practices and the sounds they can produce. Something I find endlessly fascinating as a composer is exploring how instrumental timbres can be blended, as well as juxtaposed – working with unique instrumentations allows me to indulge in this pursuit. 

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

Tōru Takemitsu has been a massive inspiration for me compositionally. His approach to orchestration, notation, and use of instrumental colour and blending is exquisite. Hearing and studying his music has been extremely fruitful. Through Takemitsu, I have learned a great deal about Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, which has informed my approach to the incorporation of pauses and space within music. From the incorporation of Japanese biwa and shakuhachi to the western orchestra in November Steps to the beautiful instrumentation and notation of Rain Spell, I find Takemitsu’s music to be endlessly captivating. 

Name a piece of music (or two) that you listen to over and over, or find inspiring and why? 

Dai Fujikura’s Okeanos Breeze is a fascinating cycle written for Ensemble Okeanos, combining oboe, clarinet, viola, with sho, and koto. I had the opportunity to work with the ensemble a few years ago, which was a pivotal moment in my compositional career, as it sparked my interest in cross-cultural composition. Okeanos Breeze presents an exploration of different relationships between the instruments and their characteristics across five pieces. I never tire of returning to listen to the compelling soundworld of western and Japanese instruments that Fujikura constructs.

I also find Eliane Radigue’s OCCAM series of works to be inspiring. Radigue pioneered composition for tape and synthesizer before turning to work with acoustic instruments and collaborating very closely with performers. Influenced by her work with electronic music, her recent pieces explore continuous, ephemeral sounds over significant periods of time, with very gradual transitions and shifts, revelling in the timbral details of partials, harmonics, and overtones. I find Radigue’s method and soundworlds to be captivating and something I aspire to. 

What do you do to take your mind off composing?

When I’m not composing or taking part in music-related activities such as teaching, you’ll probably find me running, caring for my plant collection, or trying out a new vegan recipe.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m mostly focussed on writing up the commentary for my doctoral portfolio of compositions. I have a few projects on the go which have been postponed due to COVID-19. I’m currently working on a new piece for Tacet(i) Ensemble as part of the Thailand New Music and Arts Symposium. 

What would your dream commission be? 

To have the opportunity to work with Atlas Ensemble would be incredible. It’s a unique ensemble that combines instruments from countries around the world – Armenian duduk, Chinese sheng, and Turkish Kemençe to name only a few. Last year I had the opportunity to have a workshop with several members of the ensemble, but to work with the full complement of musicians would be a dream. I’d love to have time to work with the players in order to learn more about the instruments’ performance practices, history, and sounds.

Is there anything about the current lockdown situation that is affecting your compositional activity, whether positive or negative?

One positive aspect of the current lockdown is that I now have far more time to devote to things I don’t normally get to spend time as much time on, mainly reading about and listening to new (and not so new) music. I’ve also been able to spend more time working on the written component of my PhD thesis.  

However, there are certainly negative aspects, namely the postponement of rehearsals and performances of new works. This is frustrating, as every work informs my overall practice, so I feel like I’m currently a bit static. I think my productivity in terms of composition has suffered, but as I’ve stated I’ve been able to make up for this in other areas. Using virtual methods of keeping in touch with people isn’t as good as the real thing, but being able to continue to chat to other friends and fellow composers, as well as to check in with my students and supervisors has been good.

For all of us in music and the arts, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the current situation, as well as its lasting impact. I think it’s important to adapt your approach and working method, but we shouldn’t forget the importance of face-to-face collaboration and teaching when the lockdown eventually ends.

Find out more about Kevin: 


Sound Cloud:

Twitter: @composer_kev