Composer Georgia Denham … in conversation with David Ashworth
Hi Georgia – and thanks for joining us in the cafe!
Thank you so much for having me – it’s lovely to be here!
First of all, a question which may be superficial or actually of some relevance. What was it that drew you to the work of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe in the first place – was the fact that you both share the same Christian name a significant starting point?
My dad has a story about going to an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work at the Hayward Gallery in the early 90s; being so struck by her work, there and then, he said that if he ever had a daughter, he’d name her Georgia. When he met my mum later at art school in Sheffield, she liked the idea too and so they named me after O’Keeffe. I was raised with this very everyday awareness of her; I had books of her paintings in my childhood room, and sometimes my bedtime stories were about her life in the desert.
Growing up, my parents decided against me watching princess films or having Barbie dolls. For better or worse, toys can really shape the humans we become, and they didn’t want me to believe that’s who women needed to be. In place of these stereotypes, I grew up loving women of history and art instead; Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Seacole, Laurie Anderson, Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Virginia Woolf. My understanding of their lives grew and changed with my own growing up, and they’ve continued to be role models and guides in my adult life. I think that if I had been allowed to play with Barbies or gush over Sleeping Beauty, I might not have developed such a deep or long-lasting connection to O’Keeffe or her colleagues.
What a great start! Moving on, did you see making the journey to New Mexico as a sort of pilgrimage – and was there an intention upfront to use the experience as a stimulus for writing music? Was Ghost: Eighty Four a commissioned work – or something you were going to write anyway?
Absolutely a sort of pilgrimage. Quite early on, maybe around eight or nine years old, I remember deciding that I’d visit her home one day in New Mexico. I started saving for the trip when I was eighteen, and finally went in 2019, between my third and fourth years at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. A few weeks prior, I’d been asked if I’d like to write a piece for the college’s orchestra. With my trip to New Mexico around the corner, I had it in the back of my mind to draw on the experience for the orchestral piece, but no specific ideas before I went.
Can you say something about the ways in which the life and work of O’Keeffe might have influenced and shaped the composition?
Aside from taking stimulus from my trip, I’ve looked to her painting in the past few years for direction on blending and manipulating colours. Whilst of course O’Keeffe is doing this in a physical sense, it translates well for me in sound. Her deep colours and slow curves translate to lush harmony, or the gravity of strings; balance in her artistic composition teaches the care needed in musical pacing or detail.
I find it very useful to reflect on visual art or make my own drawings when I’m writing; with physical materials, you can have a very immediate and fluid expression. This can be a really helpful touchstone when I’m knee deep in orchestration and manuscript.
I think you express the link and importance of a visual dimension to your work really well. Let’s move onto the importance of location – the landscape of New Mexico. I hitch hiked down Route 84 one summer in the early 1970s – and one of the things I remember clearly is this landscape. It was hot, the colours were extraordinarily vivid and the long empty roads stretching towards infinity did that thing they do on the films – the heat haze gives the road surface the impression of shimmering. But what struck me most was the feeling of the vastness of space. I’m used to mountains, having been brought up in Cumbria where the landscape and scenery are much more compact. But in New Mexico the mountain ranges were huge and so spread out. A feeling of spaciousness I’ve never experienced to this degree anywhere else. Can you say something about the importance of this landscape and how it might have shaped the music?
The New Mexican desert is such a special place; the landscape simultaneously manages to be rich with intrigue, whilst maintaining an intensely peaceful, almost minimalistic quality. The stillness and stability of the desert felt very nurturing to creative ideas, and it’s no wonder so many artists moved there over the years. Travelling through the vastness of the desert alone, it strips everything away until you’re nothing but yourself with your thoughts and without distraction. It left an indelible impression on me, and it’s a state of mind I try to return to when I’m writing at home, thousands of miles from Abiquiu.
In ghost : eighty-four, I wanted to express the rolling shapes of the landscape and try to translate some of its constant magnificence. After every bend of the highway, you suddenly open out into a red dusty canyon, so majestic that it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen… then the next corner comes, and it’s even more earth-shattering than the last. The unified swells in the piece represent that pattern; individual colours flow, then turn and collide into each other, creating deep chords.
What a beautiful description. In your introduction to this work, you tell the story of your bus ride on the final leg of this journey and how the driver was blasting out some of her favourite songs. Did any of these musical memories make their way into your piece, and if so, how?
I don’t drive, so relied on the public bus network out there. The idea of me travelling on my own by public transport terrified some (mostly white) people I spoke to out there. Really, their concern said a great deal to me about poverty and racial divisions in the US. The buses in rural New Mexico are mostly used by Native American people, who often live in remote, very impoverished communities. Many rely completely on the buses to travel, so it’s completely free for everyone – you just hop on and off. With the network covering such a large area, there are usually only two services a day. When I was leaving Ghost Ranch, I arrived very early at my stop and began to worry it wasn’t coming. Sure enough, the bright blue bus emerged on the horizon in that heat haze you described before. The closer the bus got, this 80s rock music got louder and louder, until the doors opened and the driver asked, ‘Where ya goin, hun?’. She didn’t reach to turn the music down, just smiled and kept singing after I told her my destination. Her energy was electric and I felt something very spiritual around her.
It wasn’t music I’d heard before, but miraculously there is phone signal even in the desert – 1981 hit Urgent by Foreigner. I was the only passenger aboard for the twenty minute ride down to Abiquiu, and she played the track three or four times during that time at full volume. I remember thinking, ‘this is incredible’; finally being in New Mexico, Foreigner playing, the bright blue bus and my extraordinary surroundings. Wanting to re-live everything about it, I set about translating and expressing my perceptions of the journey.
Let’s now talk in more detail about the music. The opening is so effective and quite unusual. Pianissimo clarinet duet supported by a vibraphone. Without knowing what’s coming next, you could be forgiven for thinking this was the opening of a work for jazz ensemble – perhaps a Miles Davis piece. I think it’s the way you combine instruments so that their merged sounds create composite timbres which is so distinctive. It is a work for orchestra which does not sound ‘orchestral’ in the conventional way. So from the very beginning we have the unusual combination of clarinets and vibraphone. Was it a conscious aim with this work to explore the use of shifting textures and timbres rather than have a focus on melody/harmony/rhythm?
The raw opening material is taken from the guitar riff in Urgent, but somehow people don’t recognise it because it’s in such a different context. When I got back to the UK, I transcribed the song to understand more about why I found it so compelling; among lots of hidden gems, the delay pedal creates this incredible semi-tonal tension in the line, so I started there.
In terms of timbre, I knew the clarinets could dovetail the line very well, but that they might be too fluid on their own. I reasoned that the articulation of the vibraphone would provide a boundary to the motif, as well as an inviting combination of instruments; it was important to me that the opening had enough interest to draw the audience into the sound and to a place of intrigue. As listeners, I think we can be lazy when music gets louder; I didn’t want the intricacies to be lost when things built up later on.
Agreed – finding ways of drawing listeners into the music is so important. Rhythmically, the music is quite complex, making extensive use of overlapping asymmetric patterns – but I wouldn’t describe this as music where rhythmic features are dominant. Is it the case that these rhythm patterns are used more to create a tonal effect, perhaps reflecting a certain mood?
A few years ago, I got into doing vocal transcriptions of jazz and pop, wanting to understand where the natural, easy-going nature of a line came from. I’m a singer, but when I’d write a melody, it would be much more square than when I’d sing it. Compositionally, these transcriptions helped me to be able to better articulate and notate my ideas and it snowballed from there. I started hearing soft clusters as complex webs of rhythms, and where I might have previously used a graphic or text instruction, I started to notate them formally instead. Working with complex rhythms like that, you can build larger structures, harmonic journeys, moments of dramatic shift or change, in a specific way you would struggle to with a more free approach to notation. I like to think of it as choreographing sound. Working this way, you also start to build this very nurturing relationship with your material. Each instrumental line has its own story – as does each rock, plant, animal, person in the desert – it’s when they are all seen in one landscape view, that you witness the sum of all its parts.
As the piece develops, more instruments join in and the textures become denser. There is no obvious sense of narrative here. It seems to me that, on repeated listens, the interest and emphasis lies more in the textures which are constantly moving and reconfiguring – mesmerising and satisfying! Is this a fair assessment?
Very much a fair assessment – I’m very attracted to textural sounds, and to shaping their specifics. That was one of the things I loved the most about writing for orchestra; with such a large and varied ensemble, there’s an incredible capacity to build layers of detailed material into a cohesive body of sound.
Having said this, I never set out to avoid narrative explicitly, it’s more that somehow my work doesn’t emerge that way. As you can probably tell from the story around this piece, narrative was very important in its conception, but this initial inspiration became much more abstract in the final result. If I were to really trawl over the score, I could no doubt point some kind of narrative out, but I’m happy for the audience to take what they want from it and be none the wiser. One of my favourite parts about being a composer is using specific notation to create a very clear and precise sound-world, then hearing it jump off the page beyond its technicalities – it’s almost mystical.
I don’t think it’s necessary to share every detail and inspiration with the listener, and in some ways I wonder if knowing everything can ruin their right to independent ideas and reflections about the music. Keeping these secrets also preserves some kind of intimacy between me and the music. It’s certainly not that I look to disguise anything deliberately, but rather that the final form of my music surfaces in a kind of abstract memory.
I have a theory that there are so many hidden moments of inspiration in composers’ music – things musicologists could only ever dream of knowing. I love imagining composers of history, say Britten or Boulanger, sat at their desks drinking tea and making decisions that the rest of us will speculate and drool over for decades to come; where did this chord come from; did they have a thing for the clarinettist and that’s why they got that line; did they quote a sea shanty and have one over on us. It can be interesting and fun to imagine, but somehow I feel it’s not knowledge we necessarily deserve or need to know; discovering those secrets can kill the magic sometimes, especially when the real reason something exists musically is for a very mundane and practical reason.
Next up, we need to talk about … tubular bells! They are used very sparingly in this piece – just a few notes played softly with large gaps in between the phrases. And yet they seem to add something important. Can you say something about their significance in this piece?
Percussion can be tricky territory for me; whilst I adore music with pulse, I’m so used to using rhythms in a textural way that I struggle when it comes to any kind of percussive instrument. Even though I should know better, I can’t help but automatically think of percussion in the context of Bang On A Can or Louis Andriessen. The tubular bells in ghost : eighty-four were my way of easing myself in, and as you said, using them sparingly. Like with the vibraphone in the opening, I wanted the percussion to provide a kind of definition or framing in the music, to support the haziness and juxtapositions going on elsewhere. Reflecting on this piece now, the occasional percussion seems to be the intermittent pillars that hold the whole structure carefully in place.
Listeners who are perhaps used to more traditional orchestral works might be looking out for melodic passages and dramatic development in Ghost: Eighty Four – and may be frustrated by their absence. But for me the strength of this piece lies in the fact that each time you hear it, you hear different things. The strength of the music lies in its density. I suppose this is a challenge for all musics where instant gratification is not high on the agenda. It may take several listens for the listener to really appreciate what’s going on. So does the recording, which gives repeated access, become in a way more important than the one off live performance?
That’s an interesting point, and certainly makes me think about how the availability of high quality recordings may be influencing the music that is written today. We’re no longer confined to travelling vast distances to hear a specific piece again, and with the convenience of PDFs and Google, the opportunity for musical analysis has become more accessible than ever. My understanding is that there hasn’t ever been such a saturation of new music as there is now, and that repeat performances for living composers were more frequent in the past. Whilst the digital age has undoubtedly made repeat listening more convenient, I think people must have found the same kind of understanding from regular performances, hunting down LPs, study scores or piano reductions.
For me, I still think of one off live performance as more important; the occasion facilitates the commission, writing and rehearsal of the piece, with the recording coming as a documentation of the primary event. More so than the recording or the performance though, it’s the score that feels most important to me; it fundamentally captures the music to be communicated again and again. Having said this, many of my colleagues are migrating to a more DIY or digital practice, especially given the restrictions posed by Covid-19. Alas, I’m still clinging onto the hope of old-school concerts and ensembles, at least for now.
I love some of the shimmering, pulsing effects that we hear in this work, which effectively captures an experience of this landscape. Much of this I guess is intentional and is generated by the busy repeated note phrases you write for the various instruments. Perhaps sometimes are they perhaps an unintended but welcome consequence of a sort of tonal phasing between the instrumental parts? When you first heard the work performed in rehearsal did musical effects emerge that you might not have envisaged in advance?
The gradual tonal phasing was one of my main hopes for the piece, so it was a huge relief when it came together in the first rehearsal. You can never fully know until that moment if it’s going to work or not, especially in the context of orchestration and balancing; you just have to trust your technique, and take the plunge. Practically, there was a lot of harmonic planning that went into ghost : eighty-four; I knew that trying to construct the piece without this map would be difficult at best, and a disaster at worst. At college, I had an amazing academic studies lecturer, Dr. Steve Halfyard, who used to say ‘a dream without a plan is just a wish’ – she meant this in the context of essays, but it stuck with me when my music was becoming more complex harmonically or rhythmically. When I actually sit down to write, it’s a very intuitive process and I struggle to use systematic approaches; having a plan keeps me focussed, but I’m never so devoted to it that I don’t allow myself to make a change if I want to.
When you listen back to this music, I suppose it must inevitably trigger memories of your epic trip. And it resonates with me because I’ve travelled through this landscape. Others listening to this piece, whether in the concert hall or via a recording, will not have this dimension. Does this matter?
It doesn’t matter at all to me, and in a way, it’s my hope that the music can stand independently from its inspiration or narrative context. Music can have a wonderful capacity to meet people where they are, and I think everyone benefits when contemporary music and sound can be widely accessible and welcoming. For those who have been to the New Mexican desert, I’m humbled that they hear the landscape in the music, but to insist on this understanding is to deprive others of a meaningful reaction to the work. I suppose this draws on our earlier thoughts about abstraction and texture; in the absence of an explicit narrative, I hope the music can evoke an individual and personal response for each listener.
It is unusual (and refreshing!) to meet a composer who can write orchestral works who is also comfortable working with electronica. Usually two musically exclusive worlds. I suppose you could equally have approached writing a work on this theme as a soundscape using synthesisers and related technologies. Was this ever a consideration?
Thank you! It was a hard-won path with electronics; I was so frustrated by my lack of knowledge and the number of times I’d been patronised in tech runs. A few years ago, I finally got an audio interface and started to experiment and nurture an individual approach to electronics. I was also very fortunate to meet good people at the right time; there is a wonderful community of free improvisors in Birmingham who took me under their wing. I think it also helped coming to it a little later, having already studied composition for a while; if I’d have tried electronics first, I think I’d have been overwhelmed by the possibilities and would be less likely to exercise sensitivity and control. It’s helpful to think of it as just part of my compositional tool kit, something I can blend into my writing when it makes musical sense.
I love the idea of ghost : eighty-four with electronics; it would probably help the depth of the sound so much. Having said this, I think I enjoyed the challenge of the acoustic orchestration too much to think of electronics as a possibility for this piece; more my blinkered approach than anything about their suitability. In a way, they’d work so well that it would almost be too easy; I’d worry that the orchestra could become secondary to the synthesizers, given that the electronics could create such a brilliant depth of sound. Ah, you’ve got me thinking now…
Possibly going off at a tangent, but I’m interested. There is another work in your repertoire called For O’Keeffe for amplified ensemble – also written last year. Does this piece relate in any way to the piece we are discussing?
Yes, they definitely relate – even though they are very different pieces stylistically, they’re bonded over common influence and a similar textural approach. for O’Keeffe uses electronics in a very prominent way; throughout, there are samples of Georgia O’Keeffe speaking, taken from an old PBS interview – she has the most extraordinary voice. Where ghost : eighty-four was written when I got back from my trip, for O’Keeffe was written in anticipation – in a way, I like think of it as being ghost : eighty four’s little sister. I never shared for O’Keeffe online, because it wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be – I do love it though, and if anyone would like to hear it or see the score, feel free to get in touch via my website.
Finally with Ghost: Eighty Four, where do you go from here? Are there any plans for further performances? Could it work in the context of a multimedia piece? For example expanding to include spoken word, projections … ?
Such is the uncertainty of the world today that I don’t honestly know. I’d love to hear it performed again one day, and would be very happy for another orchestra to approach it. On the subject of multimedia, a friend actually found a video of the bus route I took in New Mexico on YouTube and watched it along with ghost : eighty-four. Whilst they enjoyed the two together, I found the experience almost hollow; photographs never seem to do the landscape justice, and I like that the music has its own space. I’m definitely not opposed to projections or multi-media works, but I’d be nervous that visuals would draw the listener away from the textural specifics of ghost : eighty-four. I’ve also never been in the habit of making major revisions to my works after their first performance. I’m only twenty-three now, so I try to keep moving and not to get too hung up on what I’ve already written – there’s a very long, shimmering road ahead.
Thanks so much for dropping into the Cafe, Georgia, and sharing your thoughts and music with us. We look forward to hearing more!