An Interview with Andrew Hamilton
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Jonathan Grimes: You’re just about to take up a residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany. Can you tell me about this residency?
Andrew Hamilton: It’s for a year and you apply for it. You’re given free rein to do your own work and they support you and give you a studio.
JG: And where in Germany is it?
AH: It’s half an hour outside Stuttgart. It’s quite remote -- lots of forests!
JG: Up until now you’ve been living in The Hague in the Netherlands. Are you looking forward to this change?
AH: I’m looking forward to the change of living space. I think it’s a time to take in everything I’ve learned in Holland. I suppose I didn’t write as much as I had been when I was studying with [Louis] Andriessen because there was a lot to take in. So I’m hoping I can work through some of that.
JG: Do you have any other things that you want to achieve while you’re there or is the outcome more open-ended?
AH: It’s very open-ended but I am interested in trying to write pieces just for myself to perform on the violin, so I’m the only one performing.
JG: So you’re responsible for everything -- the music and the performance? Have you ever been in that situation before?
AH: No. I thought it might be interesting to cut out rehearsals.
JG: And have you ever tried to write for yourself before?
AH: I tried and stopped [laughs].
JG: Why did you stop?
AH: It wasn’t the right time.
JG: It’s not just musicians that take up residencies in Solitude?
AH: No, it’s writers, dancers, architects, and visual artists.
JG: How do you feel about being with people who’re working in other art forms? Will it be a new experience for you?
AH: No, it won’t. I’ve done short little spells -- I did a choreographers’ course a long time ago in Bretton Hall [in Great Britain]. You can’t force collaborations -- if something happens then that’s great.
JG: So you’re not going with the intention of seeking collaboration. If you meet somebody and you both have common ground then it will happen?
JG: You’ve been living away for some time now -- first in the UK, then in Holland and now in Germany. To what extent has living in these different countries been important to your development as a composer?
AH: I suppose I wouldn’t have heard a lot of music if I hadn’t been in those different places. In Holland I’ve been to loads and loads of concerts and that must have had an effect. In a crazy way the most important compositional and musical experiences have been here in Dublin with Kevin Volans and Gerald Barry, so I feel that I’ve learned the most here in Ireland even though I haven’t been living here fulltime.
JG: And we’ll talk about you’re influences later on. For now, let’s take it back to your formative years. Was music part of your life from a very early age?
AH: Yes. My mother says I demanded to have nursery rhymes put on so that I could dance and sing [laughs] -- I think that’s normal for any child. I did the usual things like the recorder. I started the violin at seven because my next brother up started and I demanded [to begin learning]. Maybe it was because of sibling rivalry that I started into music seriously [laughs].
JG: At what point did you discover composing or was it something that was with you from day one?
AH: I think it was in a way. I started to write down music when I was ten. Even when I started the violin at seven I was always wrecking the pieces I was playing -- I would add bits on. I didn’t think of writing down any music until I was ten.
JG: And when did the idea hit you of becoming a composer?
AH: I wrote constantly from the age of ten. When I sixteen, I was at Chetham’s [specialist music school in England], I wrote an orchestral piece and had all these people in front of me playing it and I thought, ‘I quite like being a composer!’ [laughs].
JG: Did you go to Chetham’s as a violinist?
AH: Yes. My teacher here in Dublin at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Maeve Broderick, was teaching there and she thought it was a good place for me, so I went there as a violinist.
JG: How did you find the experience of going to a school that was exclusively for music?
|'The most important compositional and musical experiences have been in Dublin with Kevin Volans and Gerald Barry, so I feel that I’ve learned the most in Ireland even though I haven’t been living here full time.'
AH: It was exciting. The teaching standard was amazing and I think if I hadn’t gone there I would be a very different composer. It was a very intense, competitive place.
JG: Did you compose many pieces while at Chetham’s that were performed?
AH: Yes, everything I wrote was performed. I suppose it’s very unusual for a sixteen or seventeen year old to have everything they write performed, and really well too because the musicians were amazing.
JG: So that must have been a big incentive for you to continue studying composition -- the fact that you had this instant feedback.
AH: Yes. I think most composers get it later on; I got it quite early on, which was fortunate.
JG: So after that you went to study music at Oxford. Were you composing during this period also?
AH: Yes. It was a very academic degree. It was quite a hard time but in some ways it was good that my writing was very separate from an institution. I was freer, I think.
JG: You were awarded the Elizabeth Maconchy Composition Fellowship [Post-graduate composition bursary awarded by the Arts Council] to study at doctoral level at York University after your studies in Oxford. How important was receiving that fellowship to your development as a composer?
AH: It was very important because it gave me three years without having to worry about mundane things. The biggest thing for me at that time was that I got back into performing. I played in Gamelan, viol consorts, orchestras, and baroque orchestras. When I look back now I think that was very significant. I started to really think about performance, and why a lot of new music for me as a performer was not very rewarding. I suppose that must have changed my whole musical thought.
JG: So you rediscovered yourself as a performer and the connection between performing and composing?
AH: Yes, and why music is fun and rewarding instead of being a very abstract and intellectual occupation.
JG: Does this experience have a bearing on the sort of music you write?
AH: I want to write music that I’d want to play. As an example, one week I was playing Dixit Dominus by Handel and it was amazing, and then you play a horrible piece in a new music group. That made me think, ‘Why is that horrible? And why am I getting so much from Handel?' I think it did change the way I wrote.
JG: In 2002 you moved to Holland to study at The Hague with Louis Andriessen. What made you go there after studying at York?
AH: I suppose people think you’ve learned everything when you’ve done a PhD. I didn’t feel that -- I wanted to explore more and I thought that Andriessen was someone I could get something from. I read his book Apollonian Clockwork and knew his music. Also, there are two pieces that have really offended me in my life and he wrote one of them, so I wanted to study with him.
JG: And what was the piece?
AH: De Stijl. I first heard it when I was seventeen. I was a very serious composer and only listened to Webern and Schoenberg -- that was new music [for me] and it had to sound horrible to be challenging. Then I heard De Stijl which has this funky bass line; I just thought it was awful! [laughs]. Of course, now I love the piece.
JG: How was studying with Andriessen?
AH: It was great. He’s a great person. He’s a very different teacher to many other teachers I’ve had. He’ll say things and then a few weeks later you’ve realised he was saying, ‘That was really bad.’ He’s a very clever teacher.
JG: How much has he influenced you since studying with him? Has it altered your composing?
AH: With Andriessen, we did detailed work and looked very closely at what I was writing. That was what I mainly got from him: looking at harmony and thinking about it because he’s got very clear ideas about how to write harmonically. Also, the way I write looks quite simple on the page and he maintained I had to be clear about what I want. If you’re going to write such simple music you need to get it exactly right. The department there in The Hague was amazing.
JG: It must have been quite something to be in a country which values new music so highly and which has such a high proportion of composers. Was that a good experience or a daunting one?
|'When I sixteen... I wrote an orchestral piece and had all these people in front of me playing it and I thought, “I quite like being a composer!"'
AH: It was daunting as well, because there are so many people writing so much, so you felt you should be writing a lot. I wrote much less but Andriessen was very supportive. If I was working at the same piece for a year he was fine [with that] because that was the stage I was at. It was liberating because in other places they'd say, ‘Oh, you’ve written a piece with a key signature,’ and that’s what they want to discuss. In The Hague they’ve got over all of that and want to talk about bigger issues.
JG: So what you were composing wasn’t the issue -- it was moving onto other things?
AH: Yes, instead of focusing on ‘Oh, this is very naughty -- you’re writing something with a key signature.’ They would say, ‘OK, you have to do it really well.’ That was a good attitude.
JG: What about influences? You’ve mentioned Kevin Volans and Gerald Barry. To what extent have both of these composers influenced you?
AH: I showed music to Gerald when I was eighteen and that was quite a shock because he went through all of it and said, ‘This is you. This isn’t you.’ That was very important -- to try to get rid of excess unnecessary material. I also studied with Anthony Gilbert for a year in Manchester and he was very helpful as well. He has an amazing analytical mind and would go through my pieces and would tell me what I have written. That was very important -- to have someone tell you what you’re doing if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve been showing my music to Kevin [Volans] the longest of any teacher. When I first went to him I was nineteen and had lots of music. I think he helped me to clear away a lot of empty new music clichés. That was the most important thing -- to really know how to say what you want to say instead of just writing. Before, I just started a piece and I’d write and write and write. After [studying with Kevin Volans], I would think far more structurally.
JG: So you’re more analytical about what you do in terms of questioning what you write?
AH: Yes. You question everything, which can hold you back as well and make for a longer process.
JG: Your music is very concise. I’ve heard composers talk before about economy -- economy of material -- so that they just say what they want to say. Would you be close to that way of thinking?
AH: Yes, a friend once described one of my pieces -- Paint Things Out -- as ‘flamboyant economy’, which is a strange idea. This creates ambiguity as well, which I’m interested in. As well as being clear, it’s not exactly clear why it’s so clear -- if that makes any sense. For me, it’s really important to write a piece where the listener is actively involved in listening to the way that tiny changes work -- it’s involving the listener. Feldman talks about a lot of music that listens for the listener; I want to involve them more and make them think.
JG: So they’re not just passively receiving the piece?
AH: Yes, or they’re adding their own interpretation. If you write music with more space it leaves more opportunity [for the audience] to think for themselves.
JG: Do you think about the audience when you’re writing a work?
AH: When I’m writing a piece I don’t have time to think about the audience. It’s so hard to get it written, so it’s not something I would actively think about. I suppose for me being the listener to my own piece I want to hear from the piece how the composer is thinking -- that’s what I really like.
JG: Where do you stand musically?
AH: That’s a hard question. People like to label you and I’ve been labeled many things. Most people like to describe [my style] as minimalism or post-minimalism.
JG: And how do you feel about being labeled? I know some composers absolutely hate it. They don’t want to be categorized or put into boxes -- they want to be free to move around different styles and approaches.
|'I want to write music that I’d want to play.'
AH: I suppose it’s dangerous in one way because I’m in my late twenties and I’m only starting to make work. It doesn’t really leave you much room to develop. Some people call me ‘minimalist’, but Andriessen was giving classes in minimalism in The Hague before I was born, so it’s over in a way. I’d just label it as ‘clear music’ -- music that wants to think.
JG: You mentioned the danger of being labeled. Where do you think you’re going compositionally? Looking into your crystal ball, in ten years time where do you think you’ll be compositionally?
AH: Andriessen in an exam once asked me what my music was going to be like when I’m eighty [laughs]. It’s impossible to answer. I don’t want to rule anything out -- maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up and be a neo-complexity composer. Why not? I don’t think people should be forced into boxes.
JG: So you’re free to do whatever you want to do?
AH: Richard Ayers, a composer whose teaches in The Hague, talks about why it’s great to be a composer now, in that you can use anything from the history of music. Everything is free, just as long as you do it well. That’s what I think when I hear any new music piece -- is it done well? It doesn’t matter if it’s a neo-romantic or experimental piece, just as long as it’s done well and the composer has put everything they can into it. I don’t know if this makes sense but when I sit down to write I want to recreate the same feelings [as] when I play Bach or listen to Handel.
JG: Looking over your recent work, many of your pieces have very interesting and intriguing titles. There’s Nee Muziek, Music for Cows and frank o’hara on the phone piece. Where do you get your ideas?
AH: I’m always looking around in writings and painting for ideas. Music for Cows came from Ad Reinhardt’s writings. He’s a painter. Also, Music for Cows was a joke -- lots of composers now have to have pieces [performed] in industrial places, so I thought I’d have my piece in a field with cows as the audience. I stipulated in the score that the audience should be cows because I thought they’d make a good one [laughs].
JG: Did you actually have a proper performance of the work?
AH: No, it rained so it had to be inside. It was in Schloss Solitude. Nee Muziek came from... Andriessen was always saying that music can sound like somebody shouting ‘no’ a lot -- so I set a piece in which the singer mostly says ‘no’. I’ve just written a piece called Ya Muziek, which balances this.
JG: And is this for voice?
AH: It’s for two organs.
JG: Hearing you talk about your concept of Music for Cows, a lot of your works are humourous -- they’re actually quite funny when you listen to them. Is this something that comes naturally to you or are you conscious about it when you’re writing?
AH: No. I used to get very upset when people laughed at my pieces. The first time was when I wrote a piece for the Hilliard Ensemble and people were nearly crying with laughter. I got very upset because when I’m writing I think it’s a very serious thing. I never sit down and think ‘I’m going to make the audience laugh.’ I can accept now that people sometimes laugh [at my pieces]. I think it also has to do with the idea of becoming a composer. You listen to your Webern and the whole post-World War II music. It’s a very serious business and I thought that’s what I was -- I was a very serious young composer and when people started laughing it made me question that whole attitude. But then of course there’s so much humour in music of the past. If you listen to a lot of music of the past it’s there. It’s just in contemporary music [that humour] is a strange thing but I think that’s starting to change.
JG: Your approach to composing: how to you work in general when you get an idea for a piece?
AH: Most of the time it’s just finding something that is worth writing about. I’ll usually have pages and pages [of material] that I’ll just throw away; I throw away a lot. I want to find something that’s worthwhile working on for a few months -- that takes a long time.
JG: Talk to me a little bit more about this. You get your idea and then you begin writing? Or is it the other way round -- are you writing in the hope that you’ll find something?
AH: Yes, I’ll keep on writing until I find something that resonates with me.
|'For me, it’s really important to write a piece where the listener is actively involved in listening to the way that tiny changes work.'
JG: Is that a time-consuming process?
AH: I suppose it’s very different to a scientific approach -- it’s relying a lot on your intuition. At the moment I’m trying to write more pieces with processes. I’ve always worked with tiny processes, so I’m trying to work on that.
JG: So your approach is more rigorous?
AH: Yes. I have this side of me that loves rigorous music. I love early minimalism and that really rigorous approach to music, and when I sit down I often want to write that but it comes out very different.
JG: And when you get that idea for a piece that you’re happy with, does it take a lot of refinement before you’re happy with the finished piece?
AH: It will go through loads of stages. To make something that sounds quite simple go through loads of stages is a paradox.
JG: Do you compose all the time?
AH: Yes, I try to. I have to write every day to keep the focus on a piece.
JG: A lot of your works include voice. Is the voice an important instrument in your composing?
AH: Yes. A lot of music I would listen to would have voice in it as well.
JG: And to what extent is the way you write for voice influenced by the type of text you set?
AH: The texts I choose are very cold and detached. I don’t like setting poems because I don’t think I can add very much. I like to use texts that are very basic and with some pieces I’ll add the text on after I’ve written the music.
JG: That’s interesting.
AH: With Nee Musiek I added the text afterwards. The text is ‘no’ in English and Dutch and the names of body parts from a horse. It was just very random.
JG: You like detachment in the text you choose so that you’re not adding to it and the text comes after the music?
AH: Maybe, I think they both combine in a strange way but the text comes second [to the music]. At least sometimes.
JG: And what do you have coming up by way of performances in the foreseeable future?
AH: I’ve got the Continuum Ensemble in Canada doing frank o’hara on the phone piece and then the Crash Ensemble are doing my music theatre piece, I Like Things in London in December.
JG: I Like Things has been performed quite a bit by the Crash Ensemble. Did you write it specifically for them?
AH: Yes, it was a commission from them.
JG: Tell me a little bit about it. Where does it get its title from and what’s it about?
AH: The text for this comes from a Scottish artist called Marcus Creed. He won the Turner Prize but as well as doing conceptual pieces he writes pop songs and the text [used in I Like Things] comes from one of these songs. It’s a very detached text.
JG: And how do you feel about pieces that almost take on a life of their own? Is that a good feeling when you write a work that’s given several performances?
AH: Yes, of course. It’s great because [with I Like Things] you can see by the way the Crash do it [now] that it has changed.
JG: Are you ever tempted when you hear something performed a number of times to go back and change it?
|'I don’t want to rule anything out -- maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up and be a neo-complexity composer. Why not? I don’t think people should be forced into boxes.'
AH: I changed I Like Things. It was first performed in the Project two years ago and I wasn’t happy with it so before it was performed at Gaudeamus I rewrote the whole piece.
JG: And finally, you’ve a number of works coming up in 2006 -- commissions for the Ives Ensemble and the Orkest de Volharding. When will these works be performed?
AH: The piece for de Volharding will be performed in March and the Ives commission [some time] in 2006.
JG: And have you started these pieces yet?
AH: I’ve started both of them but I’m now working mostly on the Volharding piece. It might be done in Ireland because the Volharding has only ever come to Belfast.
JG: Well, good luck with these and your residency. Thanks very much Andrew.
Andrew Hamilton was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 12 September 2005..
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.