Questions for James Ledger: Anton Webern and John Lennon come together

When I go to James Ledger’s website his bio begins with “The orchestral music of James Ledger is well known to Australian concert-goers:” which sounds like an admonition to this Canadian, who doesn’t yet know his work. Ledger interests me as a composer bringing his music & sensibility to the New Creations Festival that launches this week with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall. Let me quote a bit more of that bio that can be read in its entirety here.

cwg“Ledger has written much instrumental music and “has established an impressive reputation as a symphonic composer” (The Australian).… In 2011, Chronicles was awarded Orchestral Work of the Year in the Australasian Performing Rights Association/ Australian Music Centre Art Music Awards. The Monthly Magazine listed the same work as one of 20 Australian Masterpieces since 2000, describing it as “a piece of emotional extremes in which everything is in balance”.…He is currently lecturer in composition at the University of Western Australia.…Ledger co-composed the ARIA award-winning song-cycle Conversations with Ghosts with singer-songwriter Paul Kelly.”

Wednesday March 9th the TSO will present the North American premiere of Ledger’s Two Memorials: Anton Webern & John Lennon. I wanted to ask Ledger some questions to find out more about him, Australian music and that intriguing piece we’ll be hearing March 9th.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Both my parents are very creative. They have a great balance of imagination and pragmatism between them. My mum used to be a potter, and dad used to make all the shelves to put her pottery on. Interestingly, both of their fathers were architects, and at one point I was considering that as a career. I think architecture and composition are very similar pursuits.


Composer James Ledger

2) What is the best thing about what you do?

Without doubt, the best thing is hearing a piece of mine performed. A composer spends a lot of time in “solitary confinement”, writing. Sometimes a piece can take six months to write, so it is incredibly rewarding to hear a piece brought to life by the musicians after living with a piece internally for so long.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Like most people, I listen and watch a wide variety of things. Perhaps the best way to answer this is to list the last 10 composers I listened to on iTunes:
Wagner, Ligeti, Strauss (Richard), Sciarrino, Gershwin, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Kelly, H.K. Gruber, Matthias Pintscher, The Beatles

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

This is a very long list! But I’ll just go with being able to play the electric guitar, not just the air guitar.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

This is where things become blurry for me. Even though my professional life involves music, I also like to play music as a way to unwind. I tend to play a lot of 80’s music on the piano – this was the decade that was probably the most influential on me growing up. Even though I do this as a form of relaxation, I know that I’m constantly thinking about how the song was put together and how the chords relate to one-another – so I’m probably still half at work most of the time.


More questions for the creator of Two Memorials: Anton Webern & John Lennon

1- Your Two Memorials piece deals with a pair of composers who could be understood to be polar opposites, certainly with a gulf between them in their popularity, in their tonality and in the way they’re understood. Which one do you think you’re normally closer to in your own compositional voice, and while we’re at it, please also describe what or whose music the Two Memorials might resemble, if anyone.

I guess I’m closer to Webern as you could argue that he and I compose in the same realm – although our music doesn’t sound anything alike.

2- In describing your piece you said “To unite Webern’s volatile, even brutal music with Lennon’s psychedelic, trippy-circus music seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.“ Please unpack this a bit more for us.

I thought it would be incredibly interesting to put the two soundworlds of Webern and Lennon in a pot, stir it around and see what came out. I use an old recording trick to unify the two movements. I have recorded fragments of the Webern movement, put them into a computer and then play them back in reverse during the Lennon movement. This struck me as something John Lennon might have done himself. He (and Paul McCartney) loved to play around with tape, particular sounds in reverse. If you think of tracks like Revolution 9 (a musique concrete piece) or in the final verse of the song Rain, where Lennon’s vocals are backwards.

This piece germinated in 2011 from a late-night listening session with an iPod on shuffle. The fourth movement of Webern’s 6 Pieces for Orchestra started playing and I was gripped. It is an incredibly powerful funeral march that starts with low, ominous bells and percussion and builds up to colossal terrifying shrieks.

I remember disliking Webern when I was a student at university, but this piece really spoke to me. I also recalled that Webern had been shot to death – and so I made a link between him and John Lennon. (They also both wore small granny glasses as well, funnily enough). I was composer-in-residence at the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and so a Lennon/Webern piece became the basis of my final piece of the residency. I soon became preoccupied with Webern’s music and listened to as much as I could. I still prefer his earlier music – the stuff that is freely atonal, rather than the more strict 12-tone music that he adopted later on. At about the same time I was disliking Webern, The Beatles music was being released for the first time on CD and I very quickly became hooked. Their songs are as broad as they are deep – they cover so many musical styles. From the early songs such as Please Please Me which has some unconventional vocal harmonies right through to the groundbreaking A Day in the Life – they genuinely kept pushing themselves musically. For me there are two quintessential Lennon songs: – Strawberry Fields Forever and I am the Walrus.

Webern’s brief and perfectly executed miniatures of expressionistic angst capture the impending doom of the time. Lennon’s music, on the other hand reflects the growing awareness and sexual liberation of it’s time. This is what I thought would make them an interesting pairing.

I think it’s a mistake to think of Webern’s music as being without melody. His music is full of them and he championed a technique called Klangfarbenmelodie. This is where a single line is shared between many instruments in succession. While the melodies might not be traditional, they are certainly there.

3-One of the exciting things about this composition, particularly in its New Creations Festival context, is the way it engages one of the oldest lurking questions about the so-called “new music”, namely the box office poison accusation against the modernists such as Webern. Whether we’re talking about Beethoven & Mozart –the kings of the classical realm—or a genuine star like John Lennon—how do you feel about the concept “popularity” and the distrust/disrespect academics directed at modern tonal /melodic composers?

Yes, the term “new music’ still sends shivers down the spine of most modern-day concert goers. Even though Webern has been tagged with the modernist label, his music is now 100 years old, (and Lennon’s music from the Beatles is 50 years). I think to be both experimental and crowd-pleasing is something we’d all aspire to. The Beatles managed to be both. And I do think the tide is turning with regard to long-running feud between the “serious” and “popular” composers. I think there’s a great deal more of acceptance on both sides than there was say twenty years ago.

4-It occurs to me that one reason I phrased that earlier question about the gulf between the composers was my sense of a space between them. And then I remembered you’re an Australian composer. In Canada there’s been a fair bit of verbiage about our place North of the USA, in the cold north, and the ways our location conditions our experience & our culture. Could you please talk for a minute, as someone who is at least physically a great distance away from either Germany & England, about the way your nationality & location might manifest itself in your music?

Two Memorials was performed in London in 2014, and I was told after the performance that only an Australian could have written it. I was perplexed by this. Perhaps Australia is far away enough from the centre of things to enable a bit more of freedom for our composers. I mean I feel if a major triad is required, then I’ll use it – if a cluster of semitones is required, I’ll use it.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

This WILL sound like a cliché, but I was one of the several billion kids on the planet that saw Star wars and became obsessed. (Remember this was 1978 – before the internet, computers, DVD, video etc etc.) I used to listen to John William’s soundtrack over and over and thinking I would love to do that one day.


Two Memorials: Anton Webern & John Lennon, by James Ledger receives its North American Premiere at the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival on March 9th at Roy Thomson Hall.

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1 Response to Questions for James Ledger: Anton Webern and John Lennon come together

  1. Pingback: TSO’s happy midweek memorials | barczablog

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