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at175          Oliver Leith   ‘Me Hollywood’

    Five chamber works performed by Explore Ensemble

1. ‘Me Hollywood’  (2020)                  15:45      youtube extract 1

2. ‘Grinding bust turning’   (2018)         5:31

3. ‘664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache’ (2016)    13:52

4. ‘Blurry wake song’   (2019)               4:59

5. ‘Balloon’  (2018)                             13:44    youtube extract 2

Taylor MacLennan (flutes)   Alex Roberts (clarinet)   Siwan Rhys (piano)  Sarah Park (piano)

David López Ibáňez (violin)   Oscar Holch (viola)   Deni Teo (cello)  Richard Baker (conductor)

William Foster (trombone)   Sam Becker (double bass)   Katie Smith (trumpet)

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Oliver Leith talks to Ben Gaunt about ‘Me Hollywood’

Your first release for Another Timbre, good day good day bad day bad day, was a single, sizeable piece of music. However, this new release contains multiple different compositions. Are the pieces linked? Or is this more of a composer portrait, designed to highlight different aspects of your musical personality?

Although I’m very fond of them, the pieces are not linked at all really, they span four years and I have just spotted that annoyingly there isn’t a piece for every year - that’s probably not important - it does make me wonder what I was doing in 2017 though. I have racked my brain for some link - I'm not old or focused enough to have any musical ‘periods' so I can’t say that and I couldn’t say that they were written in the same place. They come from the same pool of instruments but every piece a different combination. So no, no link. Perhaps it’ll be clearer to others. The coherence that makes me happy is Simon’s recording and the groups playing - that’s enough for me and also how I listen to music, scattered.

The disc, I guess, is a portrait in some way, but a portrait done by people who could draw me without looking probably. The band have been part of my musical (and eating) life for a very long time - we worked together so long ago that they were called explorensemble and I included the Christophe as my middle name - all aspirational. There is something more interesting in that though, we have in some way grown up together and it feels like a healthy time in our relationship to put some of the past in the can. It has been joyful to hear them play older pieces and own their commission, Me Hollywood. My music is in their fingers - I had trust that these relatively disparate objects could sit side by side like tat and ephemera on a shelf.

Do you have a 'process' as a composer; a method of working? Has your approach changed during the four years?

I don’t really have a process, there is an order which is very chaotic until > it isn't. My studio reflects the mess I make whilst working, although in some inverse way; as the piece emerges the studio looks more and more like a bin - when I finish the piece (I tend to work on one at a time) I tidy my studio and hide all the various scraps and literal rubbish - just like I do with a final score.

I experiment by throwing notes around, recording voice notes, sampling sounds, touching new instruments - I do this until I feel something. Then, If I can listen to it for ages, I know it is right for me - I used to edit down my favourite moments of recordings of others' stuff and do the same thing -I’d loop them and if it was for me I wouldn’t ever get bored. This ’something’ feeling is all I want - I know that if I play around enough I will get it. Maybe that is a process.

I'd love to know more about the titles of your pieces. Why 664, for example?

Usually my titles are images or scenarios that form in my head of what the moment of feeling ’something’ looks like. Grinding bust turning I think is quite obvious. Blurry Wake song, the same, blurry - wake - song, happy sad happy sad. Me Hollywood, I imagine a sort of patron who thinks his life should be a film so he’s paid someone to score his life - a willing Truman. (As a footnote below I'll place what I originally sent to the ensemble as a programme note).

664 Love songs guaranteed to cure heartache is an exception - it’s made up of all the lyrics of all the number one hits until I was born (I had to stop somewhere) and from that I made these non-cynical but generic little songs that are projected and synchronised to the ‘lines’ that the instruments play, so yo sort of sing song in your head. there is a video somewhere on the internet of it.

Balloon I thought of hitting balloons with a baseball bat, no matter how hard you hit them they drift off unscathed, smiling back at you - untouchable. Speaking of that piece, I was chuffed to have my old teacher (and now mentor and friend) Richard Baker conduct on Balloon - he has rescued me quite a few times but this was a heroic surgery of a previously decapitated premiere of the piece. I nearly cried a little in the recording, I am so grateful for his and Explore Ensemble's work. It is lovely to work with imaginative and skilled musicians and to be reminded of what I and plenty of others cannot do.


‘Me Hollywood’ sees a hired ensemble soundtrack their patron's evening. He is hoping, or, knows even, that the music will elevate each banal gesture. Films will eventually be made about him, so he’s just making it happen now, his life is filmic, it just needs a score, he drinks, he sings, he plays the piano, he cares for his guinea pigs. All eyes on him as he presumes they have been forever anyway.

I've seen a few of your scores, and I really like the way you communicate with your musicians (detailed, but informal). This 'something' feeling; is this what you want the performers to feel too, and are your scores a way of communicating that? Is it important the audience understands the 'something', or is it more private/personal?

The ‘something’ definitely doesn’t have universal resonance - friends and relatives confirm that in their hesitations after gigs. This is a blatant theory - and is probably wrong - but I often think with excellent pop music that the musicians have / possess that more universal 'something' - which is amazing. I think of some quote from Chris Rock that I’ll garble about comedians and how freaked out you would be if you went to your child’s playground and hundreds of children were just listening to them talk. I love that image but I'm glad we don’t all enjoy the same things

It’s hard to find a way to convey that (my) ’something' in a score. I write down my honest thoughts at certain moments in piece in my own voice - which is, as you say, informal - I am informal. I note moments where I’ve smiled or nodded along like a cow in case it is useful. It is important to me that these markings are in the score but they are not instructions.

Just for reference - because I’d forgotten to give one, someone else’s ‘something’ is (last time I’m writing it sorry) at 3 mins 27 seconds of Pray (oh doctor Jesus) by Miles Davis/Gil Evans - this lion roar feels like you’ve just driven off a cliff but you’re just floating off. You need to listen to the bit before for it to work but as I said - it won’t be the same for everyone.”

You talked about your relationship with Explore Ensemble. What was the recording session like? Did the pieces change in any way during the recording process?

They are a hit team - they know my music - they play it brilliantly, they would nod like cows if I asked and do it well. It was disconcertingly smooth and joyful few days. Pieces they hadn’t played before were aced. The only disruptions were sirens and motorbikes (both welcome to exist on the record in my eyes but - it won’t be the same for everyone). When I haven’t been working with them in the past, I’ve been eating with them - we ate great Korean food for lunch (yoshi sushi king street w2). Thanks Ben, we should go if you’re in town at some point.

Oliver Leith

Explore Ensemble