Composer Spotlight Q&A: Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson is a composer from the West Highlands of Scotland interested in combining sounds from nature and folk music; examining relationships between people and the land and highlighting environmental concerns. 

She is currently undertaking a PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland following on from her masters (violin performance and composition) studies at the RCS.

Lisa's new work Archipelago was premiered live by musicians from new music ensemble, Any Enemy (North East New Music Ensemble), in a unique performance during lockdown over Zoom on Sunday 14 June 2020 which you can rewatch here.

When did you start composing?

I really enjoyed composing pieces throughout secondary school as part of the music curriculum but it was not until I began my BMus degree, when I was first introduced to a wide variety of contemporary music as well as the basic tools of the craft of composing in a contemporary style, that I really began to explore my own style and grow in confidence as a composer.

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

I think in a funny way it sort of just happened rather than being an active decision (I’ve never been a big one for making decisions!). I composed because I loved to do it. I loved the craft, satisfaction and real joy of it. I just continued to explore and explore and I suppose it was due to the endorsement and encouragement of teachers and other professionals I encountered, as well as feeling I had somewhat come to terms with my musical language and artistic motivations, which gave me the confidence to consider myself to be forming a career a composer.

Where and with whom did you study?

I studied BMus at Royal Holloway with Helen Grime and Mark Bowden before coming to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where I did a Masters in violin and I also studied composition, with Rory Boyle and Oliver Searle. I continued on to PhD in composition, first with Gordon McPherson and later with Emily Doolittle and Bill Sweeney. I have also attended a number of masterclasses and summer schools, for instance, studying with Sir Harrison Birtwistle at Dartington International Summer School, Brian Ferneyhough at Darmstadt Summer Course and I also took part in masterclasses with Sir James MacMillan.

What stage are you at in your career right now? 

I am just finishing my PhD at the RCS. I am also writing pieces for commissions and participating in various emerging artist schemes including the Young Composer’s Scheme with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. 

How would you describe the type of music you write?

Deeply rooted in my home in the remote West Highlands, my musical language stems from approaching nuances of local natural sounds and traditional music from the perspective of contemporary classical composition. A few words which spring to mind to describe it might be - environmental, motivic, harmonically static, Scottish, birdsong, fragmented, textural, busy, wild, northern, persistant, decay.

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

I am greatly and continually inspired by the remote coastal environment of my home. I grew up immersed in the sounds of the sea, extreme weather conditions, seabirds, other birdsong and animal sounds as well as the sounds of local Gaelic song and other traditional music. I return over and over again to these sounds as inspiration and sources for my pieces. I am interested in examining human/ environment relationships with many of my pieces relating to ideas including environmental activism, the cultural significance of place, issues of land management, human emotions reflected in landscapes and land in cultural memory as well as exploring my own personal relationship with the natural environment. 

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

Well, as a violinist, perhaps I am biased towards strings! I do find that strings are a great timbral vehicle for the soundworlds I aim to create, however, I also like to write for a wide range of forces in order to explore new colours and often to challenge myself. Generally, I love to create dense, complex structures and textures, and to include diverse timbres, so having many voices to work with obviously makes this more readily possible. Anywhere between medium chamber to orchestral forces would be what makes me most excited. 

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

It’s very hard to pin it down to one! A very early and enduring influence was Stravinsky with whom I have been fascinated since long before I really began to compose. I have continued to be inspired by his persistent force, exploration of timbre, motivic development, and flavours of birdsong and folksong. My most influential living composer would probably be Hans Abrahamsen. I love his fragile yet bold soundworld, maximising of concise material, masterful control of colour and his captivating, expressive atmospheres. I was lucky to get to see his The Snow Queen earlier this year and it was just spine-tinglingly brilliant.

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

Following on from my inspiring composers I would have to say The Rite of Spring, although I’m sure many/most composers would probably cite this work as being influential in one way or another! It was such a big impetus for me early on that I find it really interesting to return to it and to continue to form new impressions. Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee was the piece which first drew my attention to his work because of its uncompromising sparseness and repetition, persistent use of such unique timbres and his ability to totally encapsulate the atmosphere of the natural landscape/phenomena of snow. If I’m allowed a few more I would say Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna Magica with its mesmerising, subtly shifting timbral control and also Bent Sørensen’s L'isola della Città, containing a fascinating and unique language with a fragmented, melancholy sense of decay and perfectly crafted detail.

What do you do to take your mind off composing?

I spend a lot of time playing violin, as I am also active as a violinist, which involves a totally different mindset for me so it does take my mind off composing. But in my spare time, basically anything that involves being outdoors, particularly up mountains or in/on the sea like hiking, running, skiing, open water swimming and climbing things. 

What are you working on right now? 

I am currently working on a few different things, a solo trombone piece for the Nevis Ensemble, a piece for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain Fellowship and I’m also working on my PhD written commentary which will accompany the composition portfolio which I will be submitting. 

What would your dream commission be? 

To write a large-scale environmentally themed work for orchestra with free reign over some adventurous extended instrumentation, including using found objects to recreate natural sounds, and also using immersive spacialisation. 

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

One positive thing that I have found really interesting is that, being stationary in one location for such a long time, I have really been able to take note of the changes in natural surroundings as they have occurred. It has been fascinating and inspiring to have the time, space and routine to make such observations and I’m sure this will impact on my future work. Combined with a lack of distraction, this has also made it quite a productive period for me in terms of writing. Negative impacts have, of course, been the cancellation of performances as well as the inability to hear or play music with other people; the lack of human connection, both musically and of course sociably. The experience of hearing music live is so important and inspiring and that’s really impossible to replicate in isolation. However, some new opportunities have also arisen and the new challenges the situation has posed have facilitated learning new unexpected skills. For instance, it was really exciting to get to work on a piece for sound’s ‘Lockdown Composing’ which is specifically designed to be performed on Zoom!

Find out more about Lisa and listen to her music:

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