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 #2

Author:   Blogger in Residence, Rory Johnston

Author: Blogger in Residence, Rory Johnston

This week I will be interviewing the young Finnish composer Joel Järventausta. Currently working towards his PhD in Composition at King’s College, London, with George Benjamin, Joel also studied at the Royal College of Music and University of York, for his Masters and Bachelors, respectively.

After being a part of the 2018 Panufnik Scheme run by the LSO, Joel was recently commissioned for a new 10-minute piece for the London Symphony Orchestra to be premiered in 2020/21 at the Barbican, London, which he is currently working on. Joel is the youngest member of the Society of Finnish Composers and his works so far have been performed at various venues and festivals in UK, Finland, France, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Bulgaria and USA.

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

J: I started learning piano at the age of 14 and would always improvise and try out little musical ideas. I had a few attempts at notating some of this early experimentation down, but I would say I only seriously started learning the craft of composing at the age 19 at University of York. There were many early musical influences for me, but the music of living composer such as Kaija Saariaho, James MacMillan, Unsuk Chin and Harrison Birtwistle (to name a few) were important when I was starting out.

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

J: In 2013 I came to England from Luxembourg (I am Finnish, but grew up in Luxembourg) as a pianist. Toward the end of my first year at university I developed tendinitis on my right wrist which prevented me from playing. This was around the time when I had started composing, so my interests switched. Ever since then I have not looked back. I love writing music. The acts of creation and exploration are immensely fulfilling.

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

J: My process varies from project to project. Sometimes it helps to write down the kind of sounds I am hearing in my ‘mind’s ear’. Other times I work on the piano, to figure out harmony and pitches. Sometimes I can have a detailed plan. Sometimes it feels as if I’m stuck for days on end, and then suddenly after countless of hours spent thinking and trying different ideas, something clicks and the piece sort of writes itself.

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

J: This is a difficult question, but one piece that always comes to mind first would be Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. The piece made the biggest impact on me when I first heard it ten years ago. I am still completely addicted to it. Its sound world is so seductive. And the score is absolutely magnificent.

R: If answer to above was not choral, could you also give an example of one of your favourite choral pieces?

J: My favourite piece for choir is probably Krzysztof Penderecki’s Veni Creator. Its haunting atmosphere gets right under my skin every single time I listen to it.

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

J: I’ve recently been reading the letters of Leonard Bernstein, so right now I feel like I would love to have a few lessons with him. The letters reveal a ferociously intelligent and musical man as well as an endlessly fascinating personality. On the other hand, I am very lucky and happy to be currently studying with George Benjamin whose music has had a huge influence on me over the years.

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

J: I’ve had difficult time writing a string quartet recently. The concept of a string quartet is laden with history and the ensemble offers a comparatively limited palette of colours. It has been especially difficult after writing for larger ensembles with a more varied instrumentation. But what is composing without a challenge?

The biggest inspiration of all for me is listening to a lot of different music. I also draw inspiration from nature, books, paintings, art and poems.

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

J: I wish I had attended even more concerts. It is so important to hear music of all kinds live.

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

J: The best advice I could give, on an artistic level, is to work hard and put all your efforts into developing your art and craft. Hopefully the resulting music will speak for itself. On a more practical level, make sure you disseminate your music. It feels as if composers are barely taught the ‘business’ side of music. For example, networking doesn’t come easy to everyone, but it is such an important part of the job. Many who work in other sectors do intensive courses on networking and leadership. Why not apply this kind of thinking into being a musician? Another great piece of advice I don’t hear enough is to be nice. Be genuine and willing to work with others to reach what you’ve set out to achieve.

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

J: The word reflection has two meanings, to physically reflect and to contemplate, so I decided to approach the task from two perspectives; the audible and the abstract, hence the homonymous title Reflecting Taverner. The rich tonal language of Taverner is reflected in the harmonic landscape of my piece. Only five words - Sabbatum, Maria, aromata, Jesum, Alleluia - of the original text remain in my work, all of which bear resonant vowels to allow a rich choral sound. I have also attempted to make the choir sound as if heard from afar or possibly from outside a church, with humming and occasionally chopping the words into syllables. On a more abstract level, presenting these words on their own and in a new context perhaps strips off some of their religious meaning and therefore could depict a juxtaposition between the heavily religious 16th century and the growingly secular times today. I am really looking forward to hearing how it all comes together sung by this incredible group under Suzi Digby’s direction!

R: BONUS QUESTION- I found out recently that Schoenberg and Gershwin used to play a weekly tennis match together, so to commemorate Wimbledon last week: Who would you rather be in a doubles partnership with, Schoenberg or Gershwin – and why?

J: If Gershwin’s personality is anything like his music, then it would have to be him! Perhaps we could play against Schoenberg...


Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers