interview: with Matt London of Tenor Saxophone Index / by Nathan James Dearden

Gilly Blair, Nathan Mertens, João Pedro Silva and Luis Ribeiro will premiere 'johannes: canons and transitions' as part of the Tenor Saxophone Collective's extended WSC recital. (Saturday 14 July 2018 | 14:00 Theatre & TD Big Hall Zagreb World Saxophone Congress).

Ahead of this, here is an interview with composer, performer and Artistic Director of the Tenor Saxophone Collective, Matt London:

[ML] Nathan thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Shall we start by talking a bit about your work and career so far? You studied voice and composition at Cardiff University under a number of people including composer Arlene Sierra and Robert Fokkens before moving on to Royal Holloway, University of London to focus on composition as a researcher. Tell us more about what you do, and what you’re trying to achieve overall as an artist.

[NJD] As you mention, I am currently based primarily at Royal Holloway and have totally jumped on-board with all the opportunities thrown my way alongside my research. Working as the College’s Performance Manager, curating their concert series and coordinating all the practical music-making activities, to teaching bit of undergraduate composition and conducting all the new music ensembles (New Voices Consort and New Music Collective). I love the huge breadth of activity you can be part of as a musician and ultimately bringing people together to create good music.

I see all of this perhaps more practical music-making as part-and-parcel of my work as a composer. It’s all linked for me. Especially as I am obsessed with how music can bring seemingly disparate groups of people together in the aim of a mutually beneficial outcome. Perhaps as a composer I see myself as a facilitator. I create the framework (the notes on the page) in which people can step into (the performer/listener). If the margins that I have created are correct or the best fit possible, then hopefully the outcome will be mutually beneficial, and people begin to get on-board with what the music is trying to say.

[ML] Your piece ‘johannes: canons and transitions’ for four tenor saxophones will be one of the chamber works we look forward to premiering in Zagreb on July 14th! What can you tell us about the piece in terms of influences, concept, the inception of the piece etc?

[NJD] I was thinking of this after finishing the work (in that usual ‘post-mortem’ stage that we have as composers) and actually there are lots of interests and even ‘subtext’ hidden within this short chamber work.

johannes stemmed from an older work of mine, dort in den weiden steht ein haus, written for four bassoons (I get a kick from groupings of similar or the same instruments). This takes short fragments from Brahms’ lied of the same title (WoO 33, No. 31) as a sort of reimagining rather than devout homage. This sort of ‘transitional’, scalic passages found in this particular Brahms (arguably in much of the music of the nineteenth century) fascinated me - for better or for worse. johannes allowed me to really exploit this overtly romanticized obsession with scalic transitions, as a sort of idée fixe of my own. johannes perhaps takes this concept ‘ad nauseum’ as a way of building a tension and need for any such resolution.

[ML] Now am I right in thinking that you played saxophone in a former life? Has this had any effect on the way you approached writing for saxophone today? I am curious as a lot of the repertoire is often written by player composers within the classical saxophone community which often follow a set traditions and conventions with the repertoire almost an idiom of its own. As a musician outside the saxophone community I wonder how you see it?

[NJD] Oo, this is a really interesting question.

I did play classical alto saxophone in a ‘former life’ which resulted in me working towards my diploma, but then I turned 18… Unsure what that has to do with anything, but I remember my commitments as a singer picking up. The guilt alone makes me want to pick up my sax again (!)

I think my writing for this line-up and my existing knowledge of the saxophone would surely have some subconscious implications, but then in hindsight much of the music stems from the Brahms’ piano writing so perhaps less so than when I wrote its partner work for four bassoons (which at the time I had no idea of the capabilities or nuances of the bassoon). I like this element of it though. Despite primarily being a singer, I often do not feel comfortable writing vocal music. There is an element of knowing too much or having a clearer understanding of the baggage of existing repertoire. I know many established composer-pianists who hate writing for piano, as they feel they’ll be judged just as much as a performer if their works pans. The unknown can sometimes be refreshing and create some interesting results. Not always of course, but there might always be that occasion where you hit on something special.

[ML] Personally what I like about your music it’s natural lyricism and subtle development akin to choral / liturgical music, so I am really excited to bring your music to the classical saxophone community at the congress in July!

[NJD] Aw, that’s really sweet of you! I am super stoked for hear it.

[ML] Before we finish up, is there anything you’d like to plug?

[NJD] This is my last premiere before setting off on a bunch of new projects, so nothing iminent to plug. Need to get a shuffle-on with a new song cycle collaboration with composer-pianist, Michael Finnissy, who I have become quite close to over the past 4 years or so. We are looking at diary entries and poems written specifically by queer authors from the First World War, and hope to take our findings and musical offerings on tour before the year is out. I suppose just watch this space.