In partnership with the ORA Singers Composer Competition
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Blogger in Residence: Rory Johnston

Rory Wainwright Johnston is a conductor and composer from Bradford-on-Avon, based in Manchester. He joined ORA Singers as our one of our ‘Bloggers in Residence’ in 2018, eager to share his experience of choral writing, singing, directing with the next generation.

About Rory...

Rory is a composer and conductor based in the rainy city of Manchester. Having just finished his Masters in Composition, he is gradually forging a path in the professional world of music.

Growing up within the English choral tradition as a treble at Bath Abbey, Rory’s musicianship was formed by composers like Howells and Byrd. Luckily having been played plenty of Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers on cassettes in his parents’ car as a kid, his taste broadened to encompass more than just the classical sphere. Nowadays, Rory enjoys listening to Renaissance polyphony and contemporary art music alongside R&B and 90's hiphop.

Rory is passionate about encouraging people to engage with contemporary music, opening their ears to new possibilities and sound worlds. He admires the ORA Singers for their commitment to new music and is thoroughly looking forward to working with them.

Finalist Interview #1

Author:   Blogger in Residence, Rory Johnston

Author: Blogger in Residence, Rory Johnston

For the next three weeks, in the lead up to the ORA Singers Composition Competition Final on the 27th July, I will be doing short interviews with the three finalists of the Open Competition - Áine Mallon, Ben See, and Joel Järventausta.

The first of these is with Irish born Áine Mallon, who read music at the University of Manchester, graduating with Honours in 2017. Áine is a recipient of the 2017/18 ‘Emerging Artists Award’ from nationally acclaimed organisation ‘Moving on Music’ and supported by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, where she has had the opportunity to compose for a variety of professional ensembles and work with musicians and fellow composers of the highest calibre, including members of the ‘Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble’ and the ‘Piatti Quartet’.

R: When did you start composing – what were your first influences/passions?

A: I started composing Irish folk tunes when I was a teenager, having grown up immersed in the Irish folk tradition. My early influences were composers such as Sean O’Riada and Bill Whelan, alongside folk singers and artists such as Karen Casey, Martin Hayes and Zoe Conway.
When I began composing contemporary classical music at University, I instinctively had a predilection towards folk-style melodies and modality due to my folk roots. This drew me towards the music of Bartók, Vaughan Williams and MacMillan. 

R: What led you to pursue composition as your main artistic output?

A: Storytelling is my passion, and I feel there is no better way to convey a narrative with so much depth and emotion than through music. Giving the listener a profound experience through music, so that they connect with themselves and others on a deeper level is so meaningful, and I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to provide those experiences.

R: How do you compose? Tell us a little bit about your process:

A: If I’m writing a vocal or choral piece, I will spend a significant amount of time studying the text and getting inside the minds of the characters (if there are any) to encapsulate the mood of the piece.

I then begin by sketching the general shape of the piece, using colours and shapes to denote main themes or ideas. On each revision of the shape the structure becomes more apparent, and once the structure begins to clarify, the musical material will start to flow. I sing or play through all initial ideas, and then I distill what I think will work best and sketch from there! 

For me, the process always works best when my ideas are clear, so I spend some time ensuring all musical choices are in keeping with the piece, and providing clarity and focus.

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R: What is your favourite piece of music (doesn’t have to be choral), and why?

A: That’s a tough one - I have so many favourites! But an example of one of my favourite choral pieces is James MacMillan’s Miserere. The soaring beautiful lines he creates are otherworldly, and they flow into harmonically interesting textures. He crafts seamless transitions from one section to another that creates incredible tension and relaxation at different points of the piece, resulting in an emotional journey for the listener.

R: If you could pick one composer - dead or alive - to teach you, who would it be and why?

A: If I could pick one composer to teach me, I would choose Benjamin Britten. In his works for voice, most notably in his operas, he writes with such clarity and with an incredible response to the character, and the character’s intentions and meaning. The orchestral texture that is set under the vocal line almost always participates in the construction of that meaning. The expression of character in his textures is unparalleled. A lesson from Britten in exploring characters in depth and translating them into musical material would be an incredible experience!

R: What are your current main compositional challenges, and who/what are your current main inspirations?

A: My main current compositional challenge is working in large scale form. I am currently working on my first suite (of 75 minutes), and as this is my first large scale piece, I am finding working on such a grand scale challenging! I am taking inspiration from composers who have completed works of this size, and how they use and develop their musical material over time in interesting and communicative ways. 

I’ve also developed a love of minimalism and I’m inspired by composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass as well as neo-minimalists who are pushing the boundaries of this genre such as Nico Muhly and Nils Frahm.

R: What do you wish you did more or less of in your teenage to undergraduate years, were you to have your time again?

A: If I had my time again in my undergraduate years, I would have applied for more opportunities. As a young composer it’s easy to feel like you’re too inexperienced or not established enough to qualify for opportunities, but I’ve learned to give it a go and to try your best! 

R: What advice do you have to any aspiring young composers?

A: Listen to as much as you can. Listening to new music is like filling up your tank - it keeps you inspired and your ideas fresh!

R: Can you give us any teaser information about your piece and what your excited about hearing in it?

A: My piece is a reflection on Taverner’s Dum Transisset Sabbatum. The main focus of my reflection is on the text, and the story of the three women at the heart of the narrative. It is a piece for three solo female voices set alongside the rest of the choir as a homophonic narrative force.
This piece, for me, is an exploration of the grief, love, and courage of the three women set at the centre of this story. It lies between mourning and spiritual joy; the overwhelming grief the individuals would have felt mixed with the peaceful positivity of the text. I am extremely excited to hear the ORA Singers bring my piece life, and with it - the journey of these women.

R: BONUS QUESTION- Who would win in a fight, John Rutter or Eric Whitacre?

A: Experience trumps all - John has it in the bag!


Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers