Thrilly Marvel Chants – interview with Oliver Leith

Ahead of our concert at Kings Place on 28th February curated by composer Oliver Leith – and including three new pieces of his – we caught up with Oliver to ask him what he has planned for us.

The concert’s called Thrilly Marvel Chants. What does the title mean and what’s the idea behind the concert?

The concert is about special music for the voice, thrilling marvellous chanting. A sharing of good music – a table of people saying to one another, “let me show you this & what if we sung this like this.” I had been thinking about a great video of the Deller Consort, they sit around a table singing English madrigals, it is joy at the table. The video is here: It is as if we are seeing this band of singers practise and perform magic tricks. Vocal pyrotechnics.

You’ve gathered an extraordinary range of different sorts of music together, almost like a magpie’s nest of pieces – how did you do it and what will bind them together for the audience?

The pieces are a collection of pieces or sounds that have done that magical something. The “That’s music doing what only music can do” thing – moving – transcending – confusing. Some of the performance will reflect a particular way of listening to music, looser – affected – repeating moments, slowing them down, playing them at the same time. Rather than reverence – the music is approached with adoration.

Apart from your own new work, which pieces are you especially excited to hear performed?

I have not heard any of these in the room but the New England Psalms feel particularly rare – That music has the special quality of being many things at once, the confusing blur of a wake or similarly charged occasion. A friend sent me a photo of William Billing’s grave recently, a plaque reads “his resting place is believed to be to be an unmarked grave in this area of the common” – he died poor because copyright wasn’t really a thing then. The Americans describe what he did as Hymnody which I’ve not read used in the UK, nice word. There is also this wonderful cowboy ballad in the programme, I’m not sure you’d get to hear that elsewhere, it is by Norman Luboff and called Poor Lonesome Cowboy.

You’ve worked with EXAUDI before – what was your experience of this and why did you particularly want both to write for us and also curate the whole programme with your piece in it?

There is risk of hyperbole here but this is very much the truth. EXAUDI visiting my music college was a transformative musical moment for me. I was jaded by performances of my music to that date, maybe close to bowing out, it was the first time a piece was approached with generous intent – an act of seriousness and faith which I now chase in all of my musical friendships. It is also, in a way, part of the kernel of this concert – serious and wild music. Having faith in strange.

Curating and affecting the programme is a way of composing with more elements than I’m usually allowed to and showing people bits of long made collections.

There is also a strange problem of agency in being a composer – it doesn’t bother everyone, lucky them, but it has eaten at me a little. Often, pieces of your music will end up in and amongst things that seem at odds with original intentions – sometimes reading as misinterpretations of character. From what the music sits beside to what an album cover might look like. Of course this is mostly fun and the way things™ work. However, I have started to think that where I can – for first performances at least – it would be nice to dabble in this end, deciding who the piece’s mates might be. It is also, selfishly, just exciting to do more than the writing and to place work in a frame that it fits more. I’ve also been thinking about situation and theatre more and more, this table-read is a sort of set, a show as a whole.

Tell us about your new work.

I am trying to chase a feeling here, the words are only “Hallelujah Amen O Gloria” & “Sanctus”. I think that those words with a certain colour of music transcend what they might mean in religious terms. Here they are chants that lose meaning – more incantations and sounds. It is constructed from the bones of liturgical music – reassembled – in a less storied and more primal way. That feeling I am chasing is that unexpected pull that only music can do – all feelings at once. This is what church music sounds like to me.

There is another tiny new thing called I er – an experiment in grumbles and grunts – everyone does those little utterances in strict unison, as if possessed by the same boring spirit. An anti-drama. I don’t think I’ll announce it other than here.

Another link you have with EXAUDI is the Renaissance microtonalist Vicentino, whom we’ve performed and who is the subject of a recent microtonal keyboard piece of yours. How do he and his theories fit into your current compositional thinking? 

That piece is called Vicentino, love you and for an electronic keyboard instrument that allows you to ’split’ the keys in a very similar way to his special instrument designed for meantone tuning, the Archicembalo. Although similar – that isn’t really how I think about in-between notes really – mine are more timbral things – thicker or pushed notes. Different pressures. I enjoy these older corrective theories about proper and right sounding intervals (often even with supposed divine qualities/proportions) as they almost always end up sounding batshit (good). Grand alien music. That would be a good codex name. I also think I first heard Vicentino through you.

What’s next for you after this concert?

After this concert – I’ll be working with friends GBSR duo, 12 ensemble and Sean Shibe – a similarly wide ranging programme – John White to Catherina Pratten. I didn’t know how to burn the electric guitar’s baggage so it comes bulging with us. The piece takes the form of a band playing a set. Not a parody of but writing for them as if they are a storied band with their own sound. It is composed band music – an album. I’m looking forward to it – just as I am this.

EXAUDI performs Thrilly Marvel Chants at Kings Place on 28th February