The Grit, The Colour: An Interview with Alex Taylor
“I haven’t always wanted to be a composer.” So says Alex Taylor, the youngest person to have ever received the SOUNZ Contemporary Award. At 25, his achievements span three impressively long paragraphs: Winner of the NZSO-Todd Young Composer Award. Winner of The Orchestra’s Choice Award. Compositions performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, 175 East, the NZTrio.
“I mean, I’ve always liked music.” He does this a lot: sweeps from bold statements to gentler clarifications. It creates a conversational beat, a measured harmony of myth and reason. “I’ve been doing it since I was little. I started on the recorder when I was five, then did violin and picked up saxophone at school, and I’ve always sung.” He’s always liked music. “But I guess it wasn’t until I got to uni that I wanted to be a composer.”
That’s not to say it came out of nowhere. He studied composition at Westlake Boys High School, but it wasn’t his only interest, and when he enrolled at Auckland University he chose to major in both music and English. “I knew I wanted to do something creative. I was like: well, I could be a writer or a musician,” he smiles wryly, “neither of which is a particularly stable career. But I thought if I did those two things then maybe I’d have a better sense of what I was good at, and what I could do as a career.” At the end of his conjoint, he took stock: “I was getting lots of performances and people seemed to like the music and, I don’t know - it was kind of… worked out along the way.”
Alex has lived in Devonport most of life, though he left last year for the next suburb over. He now lives at the bottom of a treacherously steep driveway, right in the heart of a Beach Haven Kauri forest. There’s a solitary chicken milling by the front door, a pair of gumboots in the hallway. Out the windows you can’t see any houses, just a lush, slippery green powdered by ashen morning skies. The house itself is dry and cool – cave-like apart from the warm lighting – and is crammed with instruments. The lounge alone has an accordion, a guitar, a violin, a piano.
Despite appearances, the place stays mostly quiet. The accordion’s broken. The guitar and the piano aren’t his. And when it comes to the business of composing, it’s rare that he’ll use instruments. Oh, there are special circumstances, like when he’s writing on a really complex solo piece for a skilled performer, or if he needs to know intimately what the instrument is capable of. But usually he starts simple. With an idea. “A feeling. A germ of something. I usually start with particular performers in mind as well, so it might even be as prosaic as: “I’ve gotta write a piece for a string quartet. What are the capabilities of the players? What do the instruments sound like? What can the instruments do? So it might be a very technical musical germ that starts off the process, or it might be: I’m feeling a particular way. Or: I have an idea about space and time and music. And that starts off a thought process about how that could be investigated in a piece of music.”
It’s at this point that he’ll reach – no, not for his violin – for his notebook. He has lots of music notebooks, filled with notes and rhythms and gestures. All the pre-compositional threads that later serve to scaffold a piece. He’ll scrawl notes at the piano. On the bus. The ferry. In between his teaching hours at the University of Auckland’s music school. “There’s a lot of generating and thinking about material before it’s coagulated into any structural thing.”
When he does start writing, he does it by hand. While he uses digital programmes later on in the process – they’re useful for mapping time, and for making notation look pretty - he avoids them when he’s writing. He feels that they trap you. “It’s not neutral. It’s not a blank page. Computer programmes have options. It's: choose this or this or this. And if you want to do anything outside of that, you have to think about it and how to do it.”
But how does he get a sense of what he’s writing? How does it work, when he’s composing music for so many different instruments? “You develop, over time, a catalogue of sounds in your head.” He can hear music. “Not in a Mozart sort of way, where you can hear ten parts at once. But I can hear melodies in my head and I can hear the sound of certain instruments.”
Colour’s important too. That’s another reason he doesn’t like digital programmes: they’re don’t accurately capture what instruments sound like, and the colour of that sound. “It’s not a synaesthesic thing,” he explains. “I mean it in terms of tone colour. So if you were describing the sound of a cor anglais, a type of low oboe, it has a nasal quality and a rich colour in its lowest register. If you were describing a violin up high, it’s got a really thin, piercing quality. So that’s the colour or the timbre of the sound.”
An image of the composer: hunched at his desk, pen flying across the page with a reckless flourish, sketching out symphonies in deafening silence. It doesn’t seem so far from the truth. “The visual thing is important for me. To see architecturally, or structurally, how a germ can be manipulated and developed and put together with other things. It’s more difficult to do that aurally. For me, anyway.”
Even though he’s primarily a composer, he still writes. Poetry. He likes the beats, with the exception of Kerouac. He likes John Ashbery. Michelle Leggot. Alan Brunton. “I think I have similar aesthetic preferences in both forms. I tend to like something that’s lyrical but that’s got a bit of edginess or dirtiness – a bit of grit in the oyster.”
I ask how somebody writing about his work might describe its personality, its defining characteristics. “Every piece is different,” he says. “But I think you could probably tell when something’s my work.” He pauses. “I hope.”
“I’d say it was quite intimate and introverted, and expressive and lyrical and sometimes quite dark. Melancholic.” He shakes his head slightly. It’s almost a shrug. “I don’t know. You can describe music in lots of different ways.”
You can, and here’s one way, from someone with no background in music, who knows very little about classical composition: It’s like glass disintegrating. It’s graceful. It’s searching. It’s suspenseful and it’s hard. Each piece is a story well-told, taking you through a similar kind of emotional trajectory as a fully-formed narrative. In the case of [Inner], it's fear you feel. Then dread, intense longing, relief.
Another way you could describe his music is ‘classical’, but it’s a term he’s reluctant to endorse. “There’s not really a better way to describe it,” he laments. “There’s lots of different terminology people use. Contemporary classical music. Art music. New music. None of those terms really cover the breadth of what the genre is, nor do they specifically target what my music sounds like. But I suppose that’s the same with pop music – it doesn’t mean anything except that it’s popular.” The big problem with classical music is that not only is it broad, it’s inaccurate. “It’s not classical music. It’s music written for classical musicians.” Which is often how he describes what he writes: music written for people that play classical instruments.
But contemporary classic: isn’t that an oxymoron? Or is this a terrible misconception casting a shadow over the genre? “I think a lot of it is to do with exposure,” he says diplomatically, generously. “Most people under the age of 50 don’t experience classical music to any great extent, so they have this idea of what it is based on little snippets of popularised classical music that appear in advertising and television, but really are just a tiny warped segment of what it is. And also going to concerts - experiencing it live - is such a different thing.”
Experiencing it live conjures - for certain people under the age of 50 - smart suits, thinning hair, the glint of a gold earring across the room. It’s accurate for one kind of crowd, but not all. “A lot of the stuff I write for is for chamber music, so smaller groups and smaller audiences and smaller venues compared to orchestral concerts. People who go to the APO tend to be older, but people who go to chamber music tend to be the university crowd.”
And just as audiences differ, so too do classical writers. He flats with another young composer, Claire Cowan – owner of the chicken, and the piano, and whose own list of achievements runs just as long as his. They haven’t collaborated on any compositional projects together because while they both write contemporary classical music, “Claire writes film music and I write mainly concert music, and they're quite different, fundamentally, conceptually. With film music you're writing for an image, and the music is - well maybe Claire will have something to say about this - but the music can never dominate, and it can never be the primary focus. It's always something that's enhancing the visual. And it's also quite didactic - it's telling the viewer how to feel. It's an emotional tool, whereas concert music is less accessible in that way.”
He tells me he’s a Capricorn. That means he’s cautious. “I think about things. I’m not a risk-taker.” He proves his point when I ask what the biggest risk he’s ever taken has been. In predictably Capricorn fashion, he equivocates. “I suppose every time you write a piece of music and put yourself out there, it’s taking a risk.”
Does he feel that he makes himself vulnerable through his music? “All composers do, because they’re putting something of themselves out there, but particularly with music because it’s something that anyone can access. Sound is - even with all the problems of concert hall etiquette – something anyone can listen to and have an emotional response to, whereas not all other artforms have that accessibility.”
He sees music as a way of expressing himself, which he finds hard to do by talking. “I think it’s a way of exploring my own emotions, and whether other people can relate to that or can engage with that is a separate thing.” And so we have another way to describe his music: “Feelings. Most of it is feelings. In that way, I’m a closet romantic. Even if it’s slightly edgy or dissonant or acerbic, often it’s just an expression of my emotions.”
His current project – his latest risk – is a composition for the Westlake Girls and Boys Orchestra. They’re going to Hungary later this year, to play at a festival, and have asked him to write a piece with a singer and a chamber orchestra, using a Māori Text. At the moment it’s still in its early, notebook stage of development.
“I’m not sure how I’m going to approach it,” he says. “I haven't done anything like this before. I'm not sure how comfortable I feel doing it, but it's something that we'll work through.”
He thinks he’ll have to bring someone in who understands Māori, who can write the text for him. “There are a whole lot of issues around ownership and authenticity,” he comments, “When you use texts, first of all, and then when you use a cultural object that you don't have any direct connection to. It’s problematic. Even the Māori text aside, producing work for a specific purpose - as a tourist statement, of positive New Zealand culture – feels like it’s selling out to an extent. Is this still a work of art? Or is it just made to order?”
He silently considers the question. “But we'll find a way of doing what the school wants me to do.”
His relationship to Westlake Boys, his former high school, is complicated. “It was fantastic, academically and musically, but socially it was a bit- it was a difficult place to be gay. I wasn’t out, but it was a difficult place to – music wasn’t really respected. It was beginning to be, but it was good we had Westlake Girls because they had a huge music department and all the combined stuff was great.”
It’s striking that these two teen encounters of stigmatisation are treated interchangeably. “They’re tangled up, somehow,” he agrees, though he thinks it isn’t necessary to separate them out. More than that, he wouldn’t, though the extent of their entanglement varies through time and space. “There are different contexts for my work and in some contexts it may be useful to talk about me as a gay composer, in others simply as a composer who happens to be gay.”
So far he’s written one piece – feel - that deals explicitly with his sexuality, specifically the experience of coming out. His multi-award-winning [Inner] forms one movement of the larger four-movement piece, which was performed last year by the NZSO National Youth Orchestra.
“The broad trajectory of feel is one of expansion within a framework of introspection,” reads the programme note from the performance. “At the outset, the lyrical voice of the cor anglais is trapped in a stifling, hostile environment, which buries the cor in amorphous, alien textures. But by the end of the work, melodic figures saturate the texture, transforming the orchestra from something rather suffocating and claustrophobic to something more open, polyphonic and mercurial.”
The original programme he wrote for this show included the opening stanza of John Ashbery’s Poem in Three Parts, but he was asked to remove it. “The NZSO management felt that the note as it stood was inappropriate for young people - 13-25 year-olds. I was quite shocked at the time – that I was, to some extent, being asked to obscure or remove the motivations behind the piece – but in the end I felt it was better to compromise than to kick up a fuss.”
“Once I let a guy blow me.
I kind of backed away from the experience.
Now years later, I think of it
Without emotion. There has been no desire to repeat,
No hangups either. Probably if the circumstances were right
It could happen again, but I don’t know,
I just have other things to think about,
More important things. Who goes to bed with what
Is unimportant. Feelings are important.
Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life
Like the wind, like tumbling clouds
In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.”
You wish he had kicked up a fuss, made a scene, but he’s picking his battles. “In the music world at least, the stigma of being gay is minuscule compared to the stigma of being a composer of contemporary classical music.” He chalks some of this up to natural conservatism. “The mainstream classical audience is, in a lot of ways, more hostile and antagonistic towards new music than the average person is, because they’re so ingrained in the classical repertoire and the standard, traditional idea of beauty – anything that challenges that is confronting.” He feels that same marginalisation more generally, too, though he chalks up to visibility. Exposure. “New music needs a bigger presence. Not in order to be popular, necessarily, but to be valued.”
We trace our paths retrospectively. Alex didn’t always want to be a composer, but everything till now can be mapped to this point. It's a form of astrology: a meaning-making activity that’s infallible, satisfying, curiously compelling. “It was a strange place,” he says, reflecting on his time at Westlake. “But that's where my impetus to do music came from. I don’t think I would have necessarily become a composer if I’d gone to a different school.” Or perhaps we would have, but still we look back: to his gangling teens, to his love of this one particular risk, to the search for something more open, more polyphonic, more mercurial.