Catching up with Luke Paulding

Last week I spent a few days in Huddersfield with the ELISION ensemble, watching some of their work with young composers. Wednesday featured a workshop and concert with four student composers chosen from an international call for pieces put out by the Institute for Musical Research in London. More than 40 scores were received, from which pieces were chosen by Daniel Moreira (Brazil/Germany), Mark Barden (USA/Germany/UK), Yuko Ohara (Japan/UK) and Leo Birtwhistle (UK). The standard and ambition of all four was high, but for my money I want to say a special word for Birtwhistle’s Mesoscope A for trumpet, trombone and percussion, which struck me as the most effectively written of the pieces for ensemble (Moreira’s BaKaTakaBaKa was for trombone alone, Barden’s PULS for percussion) and a very accomplished piece of work. Given that Birtwhistle is still just a third year undergrad (at York University), I’d suggest looking out for more of his work in the future.

Friday was the main concert, featuring music by Pedro Alvarez, Alex Jang, Luke Paulding and Matthew Sergeant. I’ll be posting a proper review of this next week, but in between rehearsals on Thursday I caught up with Luke Paulding for a chat about his music.


Paulding is an Australian composer, pianist and tubist, living in Melbourne. He was born in Bahrain in 1987 and moved to Australia when he was five. Recently he has begun to visit the country of his birth more regularly and, interestingly, he noted that he is increasingly compelled to bring certain aspects of the country – the political tensions, the regular sound of the Islamic call to prayer, certain features of the landscape – into his work. Not in any literal or programmatic way, but on a deep, maybe subconscious level of influence.

Our conversation kept returning to this idea of the almost imperceptible, or the unobvious-but-nevertheless-present. He spoke, for example, of wanting to avoid too much ‘conceptual definition’ to a piece when composing: ‘I’m happier when it has a visceral quality’.

Something of that visceral quality comes through in his choice of percussion. Friday’s piece, where dust is in their mouths and clay is their food, makes use of dry bamboo twigs and leaves, metal trays and grains of rice. All items to which an audience can directly relate. Everyone can grasp what pouring rice onto a tray might sound and feels like, even if they can’t apprehend what vocalising into a trombone with the slide in fourth position is like, or how it relates to what they hear. Paulding refers to this as a kind of ‘peripheral recognisability’ – things you might recognise, but whose sounds might be distorted or recontextualised in some way – which serves a kind of heightened perception of the work and its meanings.

The idea of obscured or only suggestive meaning came up in the subject of titles too. where dust is in their mouths … takes its title from the Epic of Gilgamesh, in particular a vision of the underworld, ‘a house of dust’ ‘whose people sit in darkness’. (See here, in a different translation: ‘where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay’.) However, Luke tells me that searching for a title for a piece – even one as visually potent as this one – ‘takes almost the whole compositional process’. It’s something that comes into focus only towards the end of the piece, as ‘a way of enriching the work … when it needs a bit of conceptual grounding’. It isn’t a starting point, so its relationship to the material and form of the work is tangential at best. Other works reference lines of poetry by Eleanor Winer or Robert Wilbur, like this one:

One idea behind where dust is in their mouths … comes from a different, but related, piece of Babylonian poetry, describing the descent of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, war and sex, into the underworld. As she proceeds along her path, she has to pass seven gates. Ancient decree requires her to remove one item of clothing at each gate, and when she passes through the seventh she is completely naked. That idea of nakedness and increasing vulnerability was what attracted Luke. The piece is not a literal setting of these stanzas, however, but the idea of them echoes through the music: ‘ghosts of the myth’ pop up throughout.

So the players are pushed to the edge in this work, they’re left out on a limb, they’re made vulnerable. The piece begins, for example, with an extremely rapid, mostly triple-piano solo for tenor trombone, set in an almost impossibly high tessitura. There’s an inbuilt danger to writing like this, which flirts with the possibility of failure. Yet Paulding is smart enough to recognise there is also a certain artifice to this impression: that when a composer gives their music to an ensemble like ELISION, experience, skill and commitment will always trump risk in the end. ‘Writing for ELISION still has something of the fantasy about it’, he says. And the same holds true for listeners: risk in a formalised concert hall situation with elite players on stage is a highly mediated kind of risk.

We can’t decide whether this means that ‘complexity’ has reached a point of expressive saturation. There’s a chance that it has. And Paulding acknowledges that there are other paths one might take towards a similar expressive effect. However, we do agree that the shock value that was accessible to composers in the 70s and 80s is long gone. ‘But maybe that allows for different possibilities,’ he concludes.

If you’re in Dublin you can catch Luke’s piece tomorrow night (Tuesday 12) at the Kevin Barry Room, National Concert Hall. Concert starts at 7.30, and there are more details here.

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