Interview with Leo Geyer, composer of ‘Vortex’


To celebrate SWON’s 20th anniversary, we commissioned friend of the orchestra, composer Leo Geyer to write a piece of music. The result was Vortex, which was premiered by the orchestra at the 20th anniversary concert on 6th April 2019. Below is an interview with Leo about his relationship to SWON and the process and inspiration behind Vortex.

SWON: How did you get into music and when did you realise you wanted to be a composer?

 LEO: My musical journey began from a dip out of the hat! My primary school offered flute and clarinet lessons and as they were oversubscribed, a lucky dip would decide the musical fate of the students. Thankfully, I was one of the few to get flute lessons. I immersed myself in the Lewisham Schools’ Music Service, and, in particular, the Concert Band. Though I diligently worked hard at the flute it didn’t quite chime with me. I really wanted to play the oboe, but the only double reed lessons available at the time was bassoon, so I had a taster lesson and fell in love with this huge bundle of sticks, despite that fact that it was taller than me at the time!

I had begun composing and arranging music almost as soon as I started playing. I used to get my friends together and we would play through my pieces for wind quartets and quintets. Gradually I became more ambitious and confident, eventually writing a piece for the Lewisham School’s Concert Band. I remember the rehearsal vividly. It was a life-changing moment hearing my music played by such a large group of people. It was in this moment that I decided that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

SWON: How did you first become involved with SWON & what has been your connection to the orchestra?

LEO: I first became involved with SWON several years ago. Matthew Hardy (SWON’s current MD) and I had met at a conducting masterclass in Manchester and were both impressed by each other’s flapping! Matt asked if I might be able to come in to take a woodwind sectional rehearsal and I’ve continued to do this ever since, as well as taking rehearsals in Matt’s stead when he has been away. Over the last three years I’ve got to know the band pretty well and seen it grow in size and ambition. It’s been a pleasure!

SWON: What do you usually start with when composing? Tell us a bit about your process.

LEO: Without sounding overly profound, I think composing is my way of understanding the world.

Composing is my process of understanding art, literature and society. It’s also how I capture and record a moment in life. Once I know what it is that I want to express, I usually consolidate my ideas into a poetic preface. I’ll then sketch out some musical ideas as part of a structural plan. I’ll usually always deviate from the blueprint, but it’s always helpful to outline before I lock myself away and write the thing.

SWON: Does anything about your process change when commissioned to compose a piece for a specific orchestra or event, as in this case?

LEO: Beginning a piece is difficult. There are literally an infinite variety of options available. To overcome this it is all too easy to write within the parameters that you already know. Therefore, I always welcome a commission brief because it specifies the options you have available and consequently directs your creativity in a new and exhilarating direction.

SWON: This piece was partly inspired by the Vortex jazz club. Tell us why this was a source of inspiration for you?

LEO: As a composer of the 21st century, I think it’s important to engage with, or at least be aware of, the rich variety of music that is being written and performed today. As to be expected, I closely follow developments in the classical “new music” world, but I also keep a keen eye (or rather ear!) on contemporary jazz. I live pretty close to the Vortex Jazz Club and regularly attend this home of cutting-edge jazz, improvised and experimental music. My new piece for SWON is in homage to the Vortex for hosting an inspiring programme of wonderfully unhinged jazz. Vortex, the composition, sits stylistically somewhere in-between contemporary classical music and contemporary jazz. Vortex also includes a number of solos which require the player(s) to stand, as it is practiced in Jazz.

SWON: As well as referencing the jazz club, the name of the piece is also influenced by the ‘vortex structure’ of the music. Please tell us about this and what has drawn you to experimenting with this structural form?

LEO: My music has always centred around motific development as means to create trajectory and structure. In the last few years I have been exploring works which unravel a singular strand of motific development throughout the entire duration of the composition, resulting in a form which I have called the ‘vortex structure.’ The form begins with the presentation of a musical phrase followed by an extended variation of the first. The third phrase is then an extended variation of the second, and so it continues; thus spiralling out as each cyclic variation becomes larger and increasingly more flamboyant. It is an enticing compositional challenge to write in this way, as it requires every singular note to be organically grown from the initial motif.

SWON: Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?

LEO: Part of my interest in the Vortex structure is that it is a form that audiences can hopefully perceive. It is essentially a reimagining of classical theme and variation; whereby musical material returns elaborated and decorated. To achieve this, each section of music has a very distinctive character identified not only by motific material but also instrumental colour, rhythmic energy, dynamic shape and tempo. So even as the material constantly undergoes development, it is always within its “character.”

SWON: Did you face any particular challenges when composing this piece?

LEO: Vortex is consistently at a very fast tempo. Initially beginning at heart racing 152 beats per minute, it accelerates, at various moments hurtling along at nearly double that speed! For the composer, fast music means more notes, and more notes means more time needed to write. Vortex is also largely in compound time (dividing the beat into 3, rather than the more common 2) and computer notation programmes don’t respond so well in this metre, requiring a huge amount of editing. Therefore, the big challenge when composing this piece was time! For a 12min piece it took the best part of three months of fairly solid work to write.

SWON: You played in the orchestra during our first rehearsal of Vortex and have also conducted some rehearsals, what was that experience like as the composer?

LEO: In both cases I take my composer hat off. I find the playing and conducting a very different act. The fundamental difference when it is my music, is that I am in the fortunate position of knowing the music very well (as you’d hope!). So, when conducting I act on my intimate knowledge of the music to aid my colleagues in the performance of it.

It’s always a very exciting and somewhat terrifying experience at a first rehearsal. Having spent months locked away writing, finally the moment has come to hear it in the flesh. As is nearly always the case, the first read of the piece is usually somewhat chaotic, as the performers quite rightly get to grips with what is being asked of them. This was certainly the case with SWON, so I wanted to be very encouraging and inspire everyone to persevere. It appeared that not much encouragement was needed as everyone was very keen to make it happen, and I am very excited to hear the final result!

SWON: On concert night, rumour has it you’ll be among the orchestra as well… is that something you often have the opportunity to do with first performances of your compositions? What is your ideal situation for the first outing?

LEO: I very rarely play the bassoon now, as I am primarily a professional composer and conductor. So, it is very unusual for me to be playing at the premiere of one of my own pieces, which I am very much looking forward to. Usually I’m the one flapping my arms around, which I much prefer to sitting in the audience. I tend to get very fidgety, questioning my compositional decisions and over analysing the audience reaction. I much prefer being in the action and making the music come alive!