Stef Conner interview

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 

Stef Conner:Steve: Can you describe your new work to us?

Stef: It’s an instrumental composition based on the Old English poem known as ‘The Ruin’—one of the elegies in the Exeter Book. The first time I encountered this poem I was singing a beautiful Modern English setting by Paul Keenan, whose work I admire very much. Through descriptions of a Roman ruin, haunted by echoes of its grand past, the poet contemplates the transience of all earthly things. It’s a simple theme and one that has been part of literature since the earliest known to us, but the way it’s expressed in this particular text grips me. The sound of the language itself, as much as the meaning of the words, underpins the composition. There’s something in the form of the text—the way it ebbs and flows—as well as in the stress patterns that is beautifully musical. The close connection between (relatively) early poetry like this and the oral tradition it’s supposedly descended from gives the language a rich, direct, song-like quality… so it feels to me like composing a piece based on it is not composing at all but transcribing. Of course I’m transcribing from an imagined Anglo-Saxon past, not a real one, but that doesn’t matter. We composers all need a reason to start writing a piece, and mine is almost always an imaginary ancient soundscape. Why not?

Steve: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

Stef: I do pre-plan… sort of. I draw new compositions on the biggest sheets of paper I can find, in a soft pencil with lots of shading and texture, then I scribble bits of text all over it and occasionally paste in shreds of manuscript. I try to follow my own ‘instructions’ when putting things into Sibelius but usually wander off on tangents and lose track of the plan. Then I throw most of what I’ve written in the bin and go back to the plan. Or realize the plan was rubbish and make a new one. It’s entirely intuitive and never systematic. I used to write at the piano a lot when I was younger. I was obsessed with ‘discovering’ new harmonic ideas… not ‘new’ in the absolute sense—there’s not much new to express in equal temperament now—but things that felt ‘new’ to me because I hadn’t been taught them or internalized them by analyzing famous composers’ works. In order to feel inspired, some of us, at some points in our lives, need to experience a subjective sense in discovery. That used to matter to me a lot. But somewhere along the line I realized that I had settled on a harmonic language that felt like my own and I haven’t felt the need to depart from it since, so I use the piano less and less. I stopped trying to do newthings and focused on trying to do old things better. Occasionally (maybe one piece in twenty) I feel satisfied that I’m getting better at doing those old things. I still head to the piano if I’m not sure what I’m hearing in my head and I want to test it, but I prefer to sing things to myself as much as possible instead. Also, because I work with ancient instruments a lot these days the piano has started to sound a bit weird and twangy. And dense chords and harmonic progressions sound a bit smug to my ears! I think it’s just a phase I’m going through… When you’re into a musical language or technique and trying to connect with it on a level that allows you to create with it spontaneously, it has to feel like the most important thing in the entire world. Right now, for me, that’s ancient Greek tunings… so the piano’s not much use and I’m disdaining it. I’m blinkered. It could also have something to do with the fact that I flagellated myself into a practice room for five hours a day when I was an undergraduate, so I’m a bit traumatized. Having said all that (and revealed myself to be totally irritating and obsessive), I must admit that I composed the original version of this piece (a string trio) many years ago… on the piano. 

Steve: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

Stef: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I think it’s lovely and inspiring to collaborate with performers you know, and when I have the opportunity to do that, I always compose music with elements of those performers’ personalities in it. Something I wrote for my friends the Ligeti Quartet recently felt like as much their piece as it was mine. That sort of collaboration is satisfying on such a deep level. It’s nice to make composition-babies with musicians that you admire! But other times there’s just a piece to write, and when you have a basic understanding of what competent professional musicians can do, and you’re not trying to push any boundaries in playing technique or drastically change your style, you can just write it, knowing that it will sound pretty much as you expect it to. But for trying new things, it’s great to have the chance to work with performers… because we don’t always imagine everything perfectly. Sometimes I have an idea for an instrumental texture that I think will be amazing and then it just sounds drippy and awful. There are a lot of instruments in the world, and a lot of amazing players doing crazy new things with them. You have to keep learning about them… it never stops!

Steve: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

Stef: Spectral ancient imaginary with lots of voices and a bit of naughty jazz.

Steve: What motivates you to compose? 

Stef: A sense of connection to other human beings who think deeply about the world, and their connection to the beings they share it with. Sometimes those humans have been dead for thousands of years and left their words pressed into clay tablets or written in ink on vellum. Sometimes they are fellow composers or performers who are so brilliant that I want to try to be more like them. Sometimes it might be someone with a voice that I have fallen in love with and want to combine with equally lovely words. Sometimes it’s a present for a friend. Sometimes a poem. Sometimes a story… It’s a sense of empathy, but often one-sided, when projected onto voices from the past. Do we still call that empathy, even when it’s pure projection? 

Steve: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

Stef: I think I identify with all composers who are obsessively dedicated to what they do, sacrificing basic wellbeing on the altar of this strange, masochistic, non-religious religion that is contemporary music. Even those composers who are working with such systematic generative processes that they almost entirely sublimate their own intuition… because there’s something so dedicated about that. Being pretty much incapable of organized, systematic behavior myself, I find that way of writing quite alien, but I also relate to it on some level. Certain people have a deep need to sublimate intuition. I have a deep need to wallow in it! I really admire allcontemporary composers… except the wealthy ones who don’t put any discernible effort into their work and write bland, predictable crap with no soul. I resent them. 

Steve: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

Stef: Probably not one of my favourite ones… I have a feeling a few of them were a bit sociopathic! But I’d love to meet Vaughan Williams… and his Shakespeare Songs are among my favourite works. He was a proper socialist, despite being from a wealthy background. He really cared about English folksongs and his deep respect for the people who sang them is clear from the notes on his song-collecting travels. He also did so much for amateur music-making in Leith Hill, where I grew up. People used to travel from villages, from all social classes, on the back of carts, to sing in the festival he helped to set up. Even my granny remembers singing for him. Classical music has a massive class problem in this country… perhaps now more than ever. Anyone who tries to make a difference on that front is a hero to me. I’d definitely cook him a lovely meal and give him a pint if he wanted one. I’d ask him what we can do to keep classical music socially mobile in this country when it is dying in schools and only the rich can afford to buy music lessons for their children. Maybe he’d have some good ideas. Or maybe I’d invite Hildegard von Bingen round and put on A Love Supreme over dinner. I reckon she would really like John Coltrane.Steve: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

Stef: Aforementioned A Love Supreme (Part II); Turangalîla Symphonie; Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco; Sacred and Profane and Peter Grimes; À la Fumée; Partiels; Knife Party by the Deftones; that lovely Middle English lyric Worlde’s blis ne last; the traditional song Salisbury Plain… I think I’ve run out… I have no idea why these specific pieces come to mind today. They’d all different tomorrow. Apart from A Love Supreme, so let’s stick with that.

Steve:…and a book?:

Stef: Maybe a grammar of some dead language, to keep me out of trouble, as I have a terrible attention span… or perhaps short stories by Borges, because you notice something new about each one, each time you read it. And they remind me of my partner Rory, without whom I would be totally cut off from great fiction!

Steve:…a film?

Stef: Monty Python… Grail or Brian. Nothing else is even in contention. 

Steve:… and a luxury item?

Stef: My cat, Magnus! Is he an item?