An interview with Alexander L’Estrange

How did you get into composing?
When I was 12, a chorister at New College, Oxford, I had a rare day off school, ill. My mother saw an advert for a composing competition run by the Ernest Reed Music Association, who used to organise Saturday morning children’s concerts at the South Bank Centre in London. I saw the words of the poem they had set, instantly heard the tune in my head, and set about writing it down, complete with a jazzy piano accompaniment.  Dear Reader, I won that competition, and my piece was played with a full symphony orchestra and a huge choir!

Are there any composing/musical projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’m just about to embark on a large-scale Christmas project for a combined group of 50 schools across the UK. It will be with a band too, my Call Me Al quintet that form the accompaniment for my 3 large scale community works, Zimbe!, Ahoy! and Song Cycle – vive la vélorution. This new work will be especially exciting because there will be not one, but 50+ premieres next Christmas – one or two massed performances, and then each school or group is being encouraged and given the resources to take the piece back into their own community and put on their own premiere, hopefully linking up with other local choirs, schools and community groups.  How exciting!

Have you come across any challenges in writing for vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists? 
No – writing for voices is what I do best, and love the most! Ever since I was a choirboy myself, and then through work in music theatre and jazz/a cappella, I’ve been fascinated by harmonies, words, textures and all the wonderful things the human voice can do.

Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?!
I find that I write best to a deadline (Who was it who said, “I love the noise they make as they swoosh by!”?) and I am massively inspired by words. Once I have the right words, or the text that the commissioner has requested, I find it so much easier to start the piece.  I find it much harder write absolute music or instrumental music without text, unless it’s background music for television, which I also write, where there’s a clear sense of what mood or atmosphere I’m trying to create… 

Are there any artists you particularly admire?
Too many to mention – singers like Bryn Terfel, a cappella groups like The Real Group (from Sweden – sensationally good 5-part group) and of course professional choirs like Tenebrae and ORA. Jazz musicians also inspire, amaze and uplift me – artists like Herbie Hancock (piano), for example – his take on Ravel’s piano concerto in G, slow movement, is one of my all-time favourites. It’s on the desert island list already.

Which composer, alive or dead, would you most like to talk to, and why?
What a great question! I love early 20th century music – Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen in France, and then English composers like Herbert Howells and Gustav Holst.  I’d love to see their work process, and to talk to them about harmony, in particular.

What styles/genres of music do you most enjoy composing for?
I love writing for children, to give them opportunities to make music and share the love of performing with others – adults, teenagers and professional musicians, for example. Big pieces like Zimbe! (for unison primary kids, SATB choir and jazz quintet) really draw a community together, with, say, schools, community choirs/choral societies and independent/state schools all working together and sharing resources.  Not to mention bringing in a really large audience too…

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Cricket! I’m a real “cricket badger” (as they say – honest!). Not just playing (which I don’t do so much these days) but coaching youth teams – I’ve got 2 boys who both enjoy it, so it’s been a thrill getting them involved with the local village club here in Hertfordshire. I also adore cooking and wine. Oh, and making home-made pork scratchings; we do a Christmas event in our village church every year where I make stacks of different flavours and we get in a barrel of local ale and then sing folky and medieval carols – love it!