Interview with Benjamin Oliver

ben oliver head_photo markus kinch[7625]
© Markus Kinch
Harry Matthews (HM): Let’s start by talking about the upcoming concert SHIFTS. What gave you the idea to curate a concert that focuses on aspects of minimalism?

Benjamin Oliver (BO): We do performance projects quite regularly at Southampton where we bring in people to perform alongside our students. [This project] started from the point of view of thinking about repertoire that would fit with our current student body and I came upon the Steve Reich piece – Music for a Large Ensemble. I like early Steve Reich music a lot and it fitted with the profile of our students at the moment. The Lois V Vierk piece we’re playing [Red Shift] was a suggestion by electric guitarist Tom Pauwels at [our annual postgraduate Composer] Get Together this summer…then the rest of the programme arose over the summer…

HM: I find SHIFTS an exciting title as it not only reflects the historic shift in contemporary music, but it also reflects the current trend towards shifting our attention to other more obscured composers involved in the minimalist movement. It is important to you as a curator to exemplify lesser known works?

BO: Yes it is. Red Shift… is an amazing amazing piece and I’ve never heard it in the UK, it has been played, but it’s not played a lot. There is so much music in the world so if you find a piece that you really like then as a curator I really like to play repertoire that people may not have heard before…

HM: Is commissioning new works also important for you to consider when putting on concerts?

BO: Not always but I do direct a lot of new works. I conduct a new music group called the Workers Union Ensemble, and we play 90% work written for the group. As a composer myself commissioning and replaying existing pieces by composers is something that’s fundamental to my existence as a conductor.

HM: This concert features the fantastic HARTLEY Loop Orchestra, a relatively new group compared to other Southampton run orchestras, and something I was proud to be a part of when studying for my MMus in Composition with you. I’m wondering what your future plans for the orchestra might involve?

BO: Yes this is only the second gig with the HARTLEY Loop Orchestra… The HARTLEY thing is from when Prof. Andrew Pinnock was Head of Department at Southampton and he came up with the idea that all Music Department groups should be Hartley something and then the loop orchestra came out of the fact that I ran a project called ‘The Loop Project’. Then it just seemed to fit really well with Reich and my music again being played and it just seemed to fit.

HM: Joley Cragg, a member of Workers Union Ensemble, is coming to play the solo part in your piece Changing Up +, and I’d like to talk more about that piece in just a moment. It’s really nice to see professional musicians playing alongside students, this is something I see quite regularly at the University of Southampton, I’m interested to know your ethos behind this type of collaboration?

BO: We do regular visiting professional musicians and also in the case of the Hartley Loop Orchestra there is going to be three or four of our instrumental teachers fitting within the orchestra. There is nothing like playing, sitting next to your cello teacher or your percussion teacher to make you sit up as a performer. If you’re collaborating with them in a playing sense that’s really good for a sense of community. You need to then step up your game as players. When we had the trio of Ivo Neame, Jon Scott and Jasper Høiby come in to play my piece as part of ‘The Loop Project’ you could just see people in the orchestra look at them and go ‘oh my goodness, like what is this’ when they started playing. We also bring in composers to talk to our students about their own work and we have some of the best musicologist in the world come to Southampton to do our Hartley Residency and things like that. Showing models of outstanding playing, scholarship and composition is really important for the development of our students.

We have a number of orchestral percussionists that will get to spend a couple of days with Joley, talking to her about how to approach their playing and how to think about playing percussion in a professional situation. I think that’s only healthy.

HM: So you’re giving students not only confidence but the networking skills you need in a professional environment.

BO: Yeah and also, Joley is going to be playing in the orchestra so Hope and Clare who will be playing with her see a model of how she approaches performance.

HM: Rhythm and pulse are big features in your music. I notice some gestures that seem to pop up now and again, and I remember once you told me you have a favourite chord. So I’m wondering whether any cohesion that exists between your works is planned or instinctual?

BO: It’s a bit instinctive but there are also somethings that I really like so there are probably gestures that you could find in scores from 2005 if you could be bothered. But that’s not to say that I’m actively trying to copy myself but rather than there are things that I clearly like more than other things.

HM: It seems to me that you haven’t finished working with those sounds yet.

BO: Yes, that might be true. But I hope I don’t do a Steve Reich and carry on doing the same stuff for 50 years. [I think Ben was joking!]

HM: Steve Reich didn’t include a video of a snooker game.

BO: (chuckles) I guess so…

HM: In the upcoming concert we’re going to hear one of your own compositions. Changing Up + exists as a major reworking of a previous work for solo percussion you named Changing Up!. What is it about revisiting pieces that interests you at the moment? And are you learning about yourself as a composer whilst doing this?

BO: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have revisited other pieces. I did a rearrangement of a piece for you guys, OUT-TAKE.

HM: The first Hartley Loop performance?

BO: Oh yes I just made that one better. My Loop Concerto was a piano concerto with orchestra and I over-scored it and it didn’t groove and that’s why I changed it. [Changing Up] piece was for solo percussion and it lasted six minutes and I always felt like I kind of crammed a nine minute piece into a six minute one. It had a premiere at 9am in London to an invited audience of about 30 people and then that was it. I was quite pleased with the piece and having the opportunity to revise it and add in different parts just seemed like a fun thing to try and then as it happens it went quite well… Whilst orchestrating it, I could bring out certain elements and make some of the solo part quite different. I knew how it would end and begin, which is always nice as a composer because you’re not worrying about the end. You know what it’s going to be, or where it’s going to end up at least, somehow!

HM: I assume you will also be conducting your piece during the concert. Do you also learn a lot about your work by taking on this role?

BO: I recently played Dan Mar-Molinero’s [Southampton Head of Jazz and Pop] music in a big band and there were all these key changes and weird time signatures and it was hard – karma for all the hard stuff I’ve written other people! It’s not nearly as hard to conduct as it is to play. I now conduct so many of my pieces that I’m not sure if it’s a thing anymore. It’s more rare that I’m not conducting and sometimes I find it much harder to be in that situation. Wandering around outside the performance, not being in control.

So for my last question, I’d like to know what you’re up to at the moment and what your plans for the future might be?

BO: In the immediate future I’m writing a piece for Harpsichord (with electronics) with and for Jane Chapman and then I have couple of days in September with Riot Ensemble and poet Luke Wright to develop some ideas for a piece that will come together in 2020 or 2021.

The interview was conducted by video chat on 21 January 2019.

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