ONE of Sir James MacMillan’s key priorities when setting up his own music festival in his native Cumnock last year was to foster new composition. And if he could actually find interesting young voices emanating from that isolated corner of East Ayrshire, so much the better.
Well, MacMillan has found what he was looking for in the music of 25-year-old Jay Capperauld, who grew up in nearby New Cumnock, studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), and whose music was already beginning to register with critics and, more importantly, ensembles who might think of commissioning him.
“I noticed people were talking about him on social media,” says MacMillan. “Then, when I listened to his music, I was struck by the welter of invention, and how his orchestral scores were teeming with ideas and colour. He references aspects of deep culture, from classical heritage to links with popular culture. Even if he wasn’t from around here, I’d still maintain he’s one of the most notable composers emerging at the moment.”
For last year’s inaugural Cumnock Tryst, MacMillan commissioned the young Capperauld to write a short piece for brass quintet, Sehnsucht, and since then Capperauld has not been short of offers, the most significant – a result of winning the Craig Armstrong Composition Prize – being Houdini’s Death Defying Spectacular, a 20-minute audio-visual piece for chamber orchestra and multimedia composed for Red Note Ensemble and performed at the RCS Plug Festival in May.
The second Cumnock Tryst gets under way this Thursday, and once again Capperauld will feature with a specially-commissioned piece for cello and piano, to be performed by Laura van der Heijden – winner of the 2012 BBC Young Musician – and pianist Tom Poster. It is called An Ignorant Prelude to Cosmic Consciousness.
For those already familiar with Capperauld’s distinctive style, such a zany title will come as no surprise. Previous opuses have been similarly strangely named, from Circumstantial Awareness at Zero-Depth Entry (a commission for the Workers Union Ensemble and premiered at LSO St Luke’s in London) and Unauthorised Edition (a virtuosic solo piano piece that ingeniously integrates 1980s rock references) to Dehumanised Shock Absorbers, also written for the Workers Union Ensemble.
Invariably, they allude to questions surrounding human existence within the cosmos. “I have a huge interest in existentialism, and asking the question behind why we are here, why do we exist? And I’ve always had a big interest in space and interplanetary systems,” Capperauld explains. It’s tempting to dismiss such talk as cliché: a mode of language all too easily interpreted as a throwback to the psychedelic artists of the 60s or 70s. But the interesting thing about Capperauld’s music is the end result, its lack of pretension. Of the pieces of his I’ve heard in recent years, every one is stuffed with sincerity, conviction, and a uniquely personalised stamp of credibility. Ultimately the titles, allusive as they are, don’t matter.
So what’s this new cello piece really about? How do you turn a universal question about “life beyond our planet and how we connect to it” – what he calls the “concept” – into actual music? “I suppose it’s a lot to do with the language you use as a result of the concept,” he says. “I’ve sort of got my own Holy Trinity position, where I believe that the content of the music – the nuts and bolts, if you like – is the most important thing. Beyond that, the style and concept are driven into that, which hopefully makes for an engaging experience.”
His music is anything but flighty. It is strikingly elemental, in that his deft manipulation and development of the musical material is a tough, rigorous and intelligent process. His first priority, he says, is always to conceive and plan the basic material. The magic lies in the way that content takes on a life of its own. “In the end, it has to write itself,” Capperauld explains. “If it turns out to be one of those hour-long burners, then that is what the piece has to be. There’s no way I will step in and stop this process. I’m interested in the idea of sentient composition: pieces have their own identities and personalities.”
Nonetheless, his new cello and piano piece presented him with a tough practical challenge: “how to get across my ideas on such a huge psychological issue through such a small ensemble; how to get big expressions across in such an intimate environment”.
From the technical standpoint, he simply asked his cello-playing friends from the RCS – where he originally trained as a saxophonist – what worked and what didn’t. But as the music took hold, it became clear to him that the ten-minute piece van der Heijden will perform in St John’s Kirk, Cumnock, next Saturday afternoon, alongside music by Schnittke, MacMillan and Rachmaninov, is just “the precursor of what’s to come”. It seems a much bigger musical trilogy is in the pipeline. Capperauld has already completed a second piece that is 20 minutes long, and is planning a third. “Each can stand alone, but as a whole it could all end up lasting more than an hour.”
It’s a sign of Capperauld’s growing confidence as a composer. Soon after his latest premiere at The Cumnock Tryst – a programme this year that also features the King’s Singers, two new pieces by MacMillan, an inaugural concert by the newly formed Festival Chorus, and artists-in-residence The Hebrides Ensemble – he will have brand new commissions performed in November by the Glasgow New Music Expedition and at the Association of European Conservatoires Conference.
“Hopefully, it’ll be onwards and upwards from there,” Capperauld says with cautious optimism. Of course, if his cosmic infatuation is anything to go by, it won’t just be the world that is his oyster.
• Jay Capperauld’s An Ignorant Prelude to Cosmic Conscousness is premiered on 3 October at St John’s Kirk, Cumnock as part of The Cumnock Tryst, which runs from 1-4 October, www.thecumnocktryst.com .