First Person : Jack White
6:05pm Wednesday 2nd October 2013 in News
REPORTER LAURA LEA speaks to 31-year-old composer and songwriter, Jack White, about music, learning Welsh and Icelandic singing.
“My granddad was really into music and he use to play the piano really well - well I thought he did- and he used to make us play the Welsh hymns and make us do sight reading. Now I’m actually really grateful for those experiences - because at the time I found them really boring, but it’s good to have someone pushing you to do something.
I think it was because he had aspirations to grow up and do music, but because he grew up in a small village in mid Wales, it wasn’t going to happen. So I’m very grateful or all the help they gave me because I think it was what he would have liked to have done.”
I was born and bred in Newport and went to Llantarnam High School, where I learned to play the flute and the bassoon.
Piano is my main instrument - that’s the one I enjoy playing the most.
I was a member of the Gwent wind band - lead by Paul Hornsby at the time. I had such good experiences there. That’s part of my experience growing up here and it’s only when you get a little bit older that you really value the experiences that you’ve had.
I studied music at GCSE and A level as well as being part of Llantarnam school choir. I have always sung.
You have to if you’re Welsh, it’s like a law.
I started composing in school, but never had the experiences of doing it on front of people. Most things I was writing were for academic purposes or for myself - which didn’t necessarily end in a performance.
When I went to university that was the first time I felt it was something that I was really enjoying and also that I felt I had an ability as well, because it’s quite satisfying when it finally clicks.
But it’s quite difficult because when I was in university and even now, you’ve got to rationalise your ability to do something over your ability to make money from it. It’s all very well making music but if you can’t use it to support what you’re doing, you’ve got to ask yourself questions.
I studied music at Oxford University, where a small part of the course was composition.
I ran a gospel choir while I was there.
I then started doing the music for some theatre productions there. So people came to me and said, we’re doing this play, can we have some music? And I was only using a really crappy keyboard - it didn’t even have a record function on it. I started to really enjoy it.
That was the start of writing music to order I suppose. I was still doing stuff for myself but I did six or seven productions.
It was in Oxford that I first came in to contact with electroacoustic composition, a genre that would inevitably shape my career. Electroacoustic composition is composing with recorded, sampled sounds. It originated in the 1940s and 50s.
But I was dismayed to find the course was only offered as a tokenistic procedure and was told there was no one there to teach me it.
So I took it just to annoy them. If I do it they’ll have to find someone to mark it and at least supervise me. So I spent most of the summer of my second year in the really dingy tech studio in the music department. Literally it was like the computer had never even been turned on.
So I just taught myself. And I wrote my first piece then.
This was the same piece that went on to win first prize in the Eisteddfod after I left university, under the Welsh title, Mae’n dda siarad.
It was based around sounds that people make.
If you record a sound and you listen to it back out of context, you start interpreting it as music. It’s that process which really interested me.
That was the start of wanting to work with computers and music.
Next, I went on to study for an MA in music at Cardiff University.
When I was at Cardiff, my friend said why you don’t add a piece to the Eisteddfod.
I didn’t speak Welsh at that time so was a bit daunted going up to the Eisteddfod. I felt cheeky having the Welsh title.”
It was during my PHD at Cardiff that I decided to learn Welsh.
I wanted to be able to write with welsh because lots of my compositions are text based. I didn’t really think I could call myself a Welsh composer if I didn’t speak Welsh. There would always be that question that you didn’t want to get asked.
I took night classes for three years to master Welsh, which had to work round my odd work schedule.
Composition is weird in that you sometimes get quite a lot done and not expect it but there are other times when you can be labouring and not get anywhere. You have to keep quite anti social hours if you’re working on something. I will start at about 3 in the afternoon and continue till midnight. That’s ok but it cuts you off from doing things with other people so I do try to keep in regular hours now.
While I was writing up my PHD, there was a call from ‘Sound of Music’ to composers to work with the BBC Symphony orchestra.
I applied and was so busy that I completely forgotten that I’d applied.
My proposal was to write a piece called Digital Dust and the idea behind that was to use the orchestra to replicate effects you can make on the computer. Things like reverb, time stretching and delays.
They liked it and I got one of five places on the scheme. Five went down to three and I was chosen to carry on and develop his composition to a full piece.
I tried really hard to think about the orchestration because the experience I’d had prior to that was good and bad at the same time. I had one of my pieces played by the National Orchestra of Wales, but it didn’t sound like I wanted it to.
It’s really daunting hearing your composition for the first time. You’re used to working with smaller ensembles - everything is more immediate - you have more relation with the player. Instead you’re relying on the conductor.
When they played my piece there were bits that worked well and there were bits that were terrible. I had scored it completely wrong - I realised I had so much more work to do on it to actually finish it.
This memory came back to me in London - especially as I had asked the players to do strange things like play their violins with coins as well as rustling plastic bags.
They were really cool about it. You’ve asked someone who’s a really high standard on their instrument to play it with a 50 pence piece - they could have said no.
That moment when it played and it was what I wanted- it was such a relief. I was nearly crying from the relief, but I thought it would be really indulgent for me to be sitting there in tears listening to my own music.
I was really proud of what I’d done there.
I work from my Newport home and use the piano to compose, finding the route of the piece first. I writes quickly, Digital Dust took me four days in my head, but getting it onto paper is the part that takes months.
I have to think about how the player is going to interpret the score.
Through the Sound of Music scheme, I was able to apply for an opportunity to work with The South Iceland chamber choir.
I have recently got back from a 12 day trip, where I stayed with members of the choir and workshopped with them. The piece I will be writing for them will involve Icelandic, English and Welsh.
The idea is the choir are going to resemble water. As the piece changes, the process is going to be like ice melting.
What I like about working with choirs is generally they’re up for a laugh. What I wanted in this was that the movement reflected their music and vice versa.
The piece will be performed at Southwark Cathedral at the 70th birthday celebration of composer, John Taverna.
It’s a really good opportunity for me to get my music heard. There’s a lot rising on this piece.
Developing the relationship between music and movement, this year I worked on a dance project with Ballet Cymru and choreographer, Marc Crew, called “Stuck in the Mud”.
I’ve never worked with a choreographer but he said if it’s an outright fight between music and dance, music will win, so I want the music to be less. And that’s really hard for a musician to do.
It would be nice to do something with them again.
When it comes to relaxing, I have a confession to make.
I don’t listen to music. I just don’t relax when I listen to music. If I’m listening to music, I’m analysing it. What relaxes me more is sitting at the piano and singing."
BLOB You can hear Jack’s music at the ‘Stuck in the mud’ performance at Newport market on November 12-13 or Southwark Cathedral on November 15.
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