Currently, Laurence Osborn is moving house, from Notting Hill (West London) to Notting Hill (West London). We meet for coffee on Gloucester Road (West London) in an hour squeezed between cardboard boxes.
As someone whose magpie-like tendencies have steadily transitioned from shiny sounds to juicy words, I remember being struck by the title of Osborn’s 2021 piece “Essential Relaxing Classical Hits,” and how its subversion sat alongside the large number of storied institutions and ensembles listed in his ever-growing biography. This is one of many animating tensions in his practice. One is between his academic compositional trajectory—Oxford, Guildhall, King’s College, London—and his musical first loves—rock, hip-hop, a jazz-klezmer band called The Kippers. Another is being taught a particular version of compositional history, and second-guessing himself about the marks this has left on his music today. By navigating those foundational anxieties, he creates music that is conceptual, precise, emotional, and, unsurprisingly, anxious.
Ahead of Laurence Osborn Day—three concerts featuring his music, given by the Solem Quartet, the Marian Consort and the Britten Sinfonia at the Wigmore Hall on November 25—we spoke about subjectivity, hip-hop, the bastardization of musical forms, the internet, and, before all of that, parenthood.
VAN: Your parents were actors. Is that where your interest in conceptual elements began?
Laurence Osborn: My mum went to teach movement at Rose Bruford [College, a drama school in south London] when I was six. My dad had jobs on and off with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and odd jobs when I was a teenager. But basically, it meant that I spent a lot of time in rehearsal rooms, because if you’ve got two single parents, and one of them’s doing childcare while one has to work, you’re in rehearsal rooms a lot. And I think that’s where the sort of extra-musical aspect of what I do came from, because my early experiences of music were almost always as a vehicle for something else.
I suppose those experiences were formative for balancing parenthood and artistry now?
There’s a lot that you learn from. I think with [Osborn’s son] Luke, it was an amazing thing because I had always primarily thought that my existence was geared towards writing music before Karis got pregnant with him. And then there was this incredible switch that almost felt like something had been done from the outside—like it was automatic—where suddenly, that’s the second most important thing.
In many ways, it’s very liberating. Now I feel like if I’m able to do a good job as a dad, then that’s the value, whereas before, my sense of self was so tied to writing music. It’s also freed up my approach to music; it’s meant that I feel more able to free what I’m doing on the page from who I am. And it means that what I’m doing on the page goes in different directions to the way it went before.
So before, that relationship between self and work was something inextricably bound, and this has been a prising away of those two things, allowing distance?
There’s been a sense of perspective. Particularly because the job is so solitary, and it’s so solipsistic in many ways—I find when I’m writing I become very, very tunnel vision—and not only now is it impossible for me to do that, but also it’s less desirable for me, because it means I can’t be completely available to my son.
Presumably, your composing process has had to become compartmentalized?
It’s changed in two ways. One of them is emotional. When I used to write, there used to be this huge bank of personal feelings and pain to draw on in every single piece. When I was writing, I’d get myself to these very vulnerable places. Now, obviously, being on the edge, that doesn’t work with parenthood. So it means that I really have to discipline myself and choose what pieces I’m going to go there in, and what pieces are going to be studies in a particular thing, or lighter or less involved. I think it’s made my work more variable.
Luke had a very hard first year because he had early onset Crohn’s disease. And it also meant that the time blocks that I got to write in were very short. So the pieces I was writing when he was really young were the third and most of the first movement of “Essential Relaxing Classical Hits” and “Coin Op Automata.” Both of those pieces are very paneled, and that’s just because I’d get two hours, and I’d go, I’m just going to work on this window here.
In 10 years time, do you think you’ll be able to notice this time clearly in your musical forms?
Absolutely. It’s a really nice thing to be reminded of how the work pours into your life in whatever shape, and just assumes that shape, like Polyfilla.
It’s just filling a clearer shape this time, not just a canyon or a cavern or something—an oblong?
Exactly. It’s a brick.
You’re part of a generation of UK-based composers writing for theater or the concert hall whose ears have really been opened to what might broadly be described as commercial music, and are happy to list this as an influence. (A program note for Osborn’s “Lakes, Mists, Bats, Daggers, and Fountains,” a string quartet premiered by the Solem Quartet in November, lists C.P.E. Bach alongside J Dilla). Is there a structural reason for this shift?
I think it’s to do with access. Because we grew up with the internet, there was this way of consuming culture, which meant that you could go between lots of different things and not feel like those transitions were problematic. I think that we’re immune to the fear around other kinds of music.
I think the particular thing with my generation is taking hip-hop seriously. My parents were very open-minded, but even their generation didn’t take it seriously until Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer, basically. [Hip-hop] is probably the single most significant musical development in the last 50 years in the West, in terms of influence, in terms of its newness. It’s extraordinarily complex, and I think that my generation, for some reason, recognized that complexity was available in other kinds of music.
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A couple of years ago, there was a strong J Dilla renaissance, that led to his music becoming a readily imitated thing. What do you make of all of the music that came afterwards?
I think it’s really sad because it’s basically turned into Beats to Study To. It almost feels generated by AI; the slightly woozy key samples, non-quantized rhythms. But I do think that that happens with all kinds of music really, that eventually it becomes bastardized, because of voracious demand for it, and particularly voracious demand for the shell of what it is rather than what it’s actually trying to say.
Such things inform your piece “TOMB!,” a tombeau taking lifeless forms from music history and questioning them by dancing about in them.
It’s about the morbidness of it, and the sovereignty of these forms: Why do they have so much sovereignty? That’s as much a question I’m asking myself in my work because I have such anxiety about that side of my work.
Is it fair to say that you’re obsessed with concepts?
Not quite. Verdi has this thing called “tinto”: the color of a scene, or an opera. I see that a lot in “Falstaff,” where you begin with this incredibly frenetic and garish palette, and then the final act is this nocturnal scene made of completely different fabric. That idea of creating a world that you inhabit, and you know what it feels like, what it tastes like, what it smells like, what you would find in your pockets if you spent some time in that world. It’s just the vibe, isn’t it. The vibe of a piece.
A recording of all three volumes of your pieces for soprano and ensemble “Essential Relaxing Classical Hits” is out later this month. Where did the idea for the piece come from?
It came from a worry and disgust at how the self has become a resource in the running of capitalist structures. The idea that our attention is being used like oil is one I find deeply disturbing. That came about very naturally alongside this idea of taking popular classics and bastardizing them, because there’s a sort of double-edged thing; I love those pieces [those referenced in the composition include Pachelbel’s “Canon,” “Air on a G String,” and “Clair de Lune”] but also I recognize that they’ve been used as a sort of fuel.
Some of the texts for the piece come from the Lululemon website…
I read a book called “Perfect Me” by Heather Widdows, about how, in discourse and in reality, the body has increasingly become the sort of thing you’d upgrade like you would your car or your phone. What I found with the Lululemon website was it uses the language of efficiency and exactness that you might imagine in car advertising 20 years ago, but using it as applied to clothes that you wear to optimize your own body.
Is there the potential for composers and artists to rebel against the tendency you describe—the commodification of the self—and what might that look like?
I think it’s just horrible, it’s just built into our industry now, baked in. When I was 22, and I was becoming a composer, there was no pressure to do this kind of stuff. You could exist and have the things that you thought were the things that you wanted to say, and they could be worked out in your work; you didn’t have to be a figure in the same way that now everyone has to have a presence, immortalize themselves and sell themselves all the time. I think it’s really unhealthy, and really bad for composers, because it pushes them into a place where they’re constantly trying to do better for somebody else or some imagined viewer. So at the moment, it’s very hard to extract yourself from that system.
We shouldn’t have to spend all this time presenting ourselves in order to be recognized, and there’s so much pressure that comes from above in the industry to do that.
But do you also see more people putting themselves into their work?
Absolutely. I think that in work now, there’s a link between subjecthood and the work, at least in the milieu of composers that I work with. Think about how many composers are now also performers: Alex Paxton, Héloïse Werner, Laura Bowler is the obvious example. But you’ve also got composers who center their musical experience in their work, like Cassandra Miller, where it’s about her embodied experience of music. I think that there’s a new subjectivity that’s emerging among composers which I really like. ¶
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