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 #3

Author:   Blogger in Residence, Rory Johnston

Author: Blogger in Residence, Rory Johnston

In this third and final week on the run up to the competition on Saturday, I am interviewing Ben See. Ben is a London-based singer and composer who studied at York University, working almost exclusively with the unaccompanied voice. He set up and runs LaLaLa Records, which is an online platform for new vocal music aiming to celebrate vocal music that ‘dares to do something a little bit different’.

Ben is currently working on his debut EP – ‘blink blink’. The record will be a collection of imaginative songs and intricate vocals, all performed a cappella. Tracks from the soon-to-be-released EP have been played on BBC6Music, BBC Radio3, BBC London and Resonance FM..

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

B: I started composing as a teenager – it was mainly songwriting and lots of self-involved lyrics! I’ve always loved singing and exploring my voice, and I think writing songs and making music came as an extension of that. I wanted to sing music which meant something to me. 

I should also credit the wonderful French singer and composer Camille. I discovered her album ‘Le Fil’ when I was 17 and it turned my world upside down.  Her playfulness and disregard for the rules gave me the confidence to start exploring. She taught me to think about what I could do differently, rather than thinking about how to sound like the great composers. I began making music on my own terms, and using my voice to lead the process.

I started to take composition more seriously as a music student at York University. I had encouraging and supportive lecturers who pushed me to think in different directions and introduced me to loads of great music. I also had a loop-machine, which enabled me to build vocal harmonies and layer my voice to create lots of different vocal textures. I started writing and performing more of my own songs, which then led to writing music for other people. It has been small steps ever since then, but I’ve enjoyed every new challenge and opportunity that has come along. 

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

B: My professional time is split between writing music, singing and leading choirs. I think all three of those pursuits involve bringing words to life in some shape or form.  I love the variety of having all three activities in my working life, and I think they inform each other and make me a more rounded musician. 

I pursue music for the absolute enjoyment of the work, but also because it is what I know. I’ve been involved with singing and choirs since the age of 9, and it has always been a significant part of who I am.  I feel beyond lucky to be doing the work I do.

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

B: Words are at the core of my work. Whether it is lyrics, or something more abstract, I always start with some words to help me find the music. I think a piece of music needs a motivation or a reason to be, and for me that is always something lyrical. With words there is a story tell, and a picture to paint. Even with instrumental music I start with text because I can't pluck notes out of nowhere.

I think words have a natural shape to them, and the next stage of my process is usually to start sketching. A text can have an overall image or feeling, but also individual words and phrases can take different forms. These shapes might be informed by the inherent rhythm of a word or passage, or its meaning and importance. Some are obvious, and some are less obvious. From these initial sketches and shapes I can start to hear melodies, patterns and music.

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

B: This is such a difficult question. I’m from the iPod generation, and my listening habits are eclectic. I think my answer probably changes every day, and with every different mood.  

More than anything I invest in good story telling - that connection between words and music which heightens our senses and draws us into the narrative is central to my appreciation.  The best writing speaks to us directly, and I think this is why I’m so drawn to songwriting as a means of communication. 

If pushed for an answer I might have to choose one of Benjamin Britten’s playful and vivid songs for children (maybe ‘Cuckoo’ from Friday Afternoons). Or perhaps ‘Unravel’ by Björk, which never fails to destroy me. But tomorrow it could be something else!

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

B: There’s so much to choose from - choral music is such a massive field! I’ve always loved the choral writing of Benjamin Britten. I think his music is enjoyable to sing and full of twists and turns, but even more rewarding as a listener.  

I’m also really inspired by the current choral scene. There are some brilliant and bold composers out there at the moment, and I think choral music is moving in interesting directions. The best piece I’ve heard in recent years is ‘Who We Are’ by Kerry Andrew, which was written for the National Youth Choir in response to the refugee crisis. It is a distinctive, powerful and moving work. 

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

B: I’m going to struggle to choose one composer. As a songwriter Brian Wilson is unparalleled for his simple and straightforward honesty. I also admire Björk for her eccentricity, and her ability to find an unusual angle into every lyric and emotion. I also get so much from the playfulness of Meredith Monk’s music – I love the freedom and trust she allows her performers; it makes the music so adventurous and vibrant. 

I think if I could have a one-to-one lesson with any of them, right now, I’d choose Meredith Monk. She’s wise, and her practice is so individual. 

R: What are your current main compositional challenges?

B: My background is in vocal music, and singing is an important part of my compositional process. I think my biggest challenge is to apply that same process in different contexts, and to think about how it translates when dealing with different instrumentations. I’ve recently written two pieces for Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra and I had to think about writing from a totally different angle. It was a steep learning curve and a good challenge for me. 


R: Who or what are your current inspirations?

B: I’m obsessed with poetry at the moment.  There are so many wonderful poets out there, and it feels like a really exciting time for the scene. I appreciate poetry in the same way that I appreciate song lyrics, and there is so much to be learnt from the careful craft and control of words. I’m excited to be running a course in the autumn exploring the relationship between words and music alongside some brilliant poets and songwriters. 

There is also so much great music out there right now. I’m in awe of Caroline Shaw, and her bombastic work with Roomful Of Teeth. I’ve also been reconnecting with Regina Spektor. Her first two albums are so ground breaking, and her songwriting is bursting with personality. I can’t get enough of that sound. 

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

B: I think the best advice I can give to young composers is to make music on your own terms. I wish I’d known sooner that creating new sounds and writing for different groups is achievable, and enjoyable, even if you’re not a grade 8 pianist or the best in the class at Bach Chorales. It took me a long time to figure out that my voice was my route into composition. Find what works for you. 

Music should have something to say, and it is your role as a composer to figure out how to say it. Don’t be held back by the restraints of the school syllabus. I think I was put off composing at school because the focus was always on the process and the technique. The most important part of any composition is the meaning behind the music, and the motivation to communicate something, which our teachers never talked about. 

My final piece of advice is to do it. The best way to learn is to get stuck in and start making music. You’ll figure out so much as you go, and the learning never stops.

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

B: My piece is called ‘Grapefruit’. It is a song about sweetness and kindness prevailing against the odds (which now feels even more prescient given the announcement of our new Prime Minister).

I’m so excited to hear it come alive. I know the ORA Singers and Suzi Digby will bring out the best in it, and I can’t wait for Saturday night!

R: BONUS QUESTION- If you had to go back in time and be part of a musical moment, which would it be and why??

B: In the not-too-distant past I would love to have sung with The Shout (and maybe even written them a couple of pieces). I also think being a Swingle Singer in the 60’s when they were collaborating with Berio would have been pretty memorable. 

However, it is also important to celebrate some of the brilliant composers of today. It is an exciting time to be making music! I lead a few singing and composing workshops with young people and I’m feeling confident about the future of music. There are some brilliant young minds coming through who might change the landscape entirely. I’m excited for what happens next!


Written by Rory Johnston

ORA Singers