skip to content

SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Cambridge-composer Ewan Campbell

Cambridge-composer Ewan Campbell is involved in two events at this year’s Festival of Ideas. He will speak about his own experiments with musical maps in Mapping the score on 28th October and he is also a judge for the East Anglian Young Composer of the Year competition the same day.

Listen to his interview on cambridge 105


Question: When did composers start using musical maps?

Ewan Campbell: Graphic scores, which use non-standard and often pictorial symbols for music notation, are normally associated with composers of the 1950-60s, and since then many composers have experimented with vastly different notation styles. Some unusual examples are Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody, which displays onomatopoeic words in a cartoon-like notation, and Cornelius Cardew’s mammoth Treatise, which takes music notation symbols as a starting point for 193 pages of geometric and abstract shapes requiring comprehensive and imaginative interpretation to turn them into musical sounds. However, there are some fascinating instances of pictorial composing that date from the early Renaissance by composers like Baude Cordier whose Belle, bonne, sage features curved musical staves in the shape of a heart. The closest comparison that I know of to the musical maps that I make is probably Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke XI in which musical fragments of differing length are spread across a page, and the performer is given license to play in any order.


Question: What kind of musical maps have you been experimenting with?

EC: My interest in musical maps dates back to 2007 when I wrote a set of piano pieces each with fragments of fully notated music displayed on a single large map-like page, which the performer can navigate. I used simple map-based concepts such as boundaries, junctions and even a river delta to organise the fragments on the page. Even though the exact order of musical events is decided by the performer, the organisation of the page results in specific and highly distinct musical forms. Since 2015 I’ve been composing directly onto pre-existing maps, such as the London tube map, with the stations replaced by musical fragments. London, he felt fairly certain, had always been London is written for four musicians, each of whom have their own version of the tube map. They do not attempt to coordinate their journey through the map, but instead use the score as a guide for improvisation.


Question: How did you start working with ordnance survey?

EC: I wanted to try using the contour lines of a topographical map as the five lines of the musical stave. I was delighted that Ordnance Survey volunteered to collaborate on the making of the maps, and this year I have written two pieces with their help: Glynde which sets a version of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas onto a hill near the Glyndebourne opera house; and Arthur’s Air and Reel which is a Scottish-folk inspired piece for solo violin written onto the OS map of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. We’ve coined the term ‘cartographic score’ to describe our combination of music and cartography.


Question: How do they influence your work?

EC: The influence of the maps on the music varies greatly between the pieces and the type of cartography that I am using. Often the map, and the location that it depicts, inspires the initial musical idea. Then as the piece develops, the specific details of the map and refractions of the musical stave lines influence the exact notes, melodic shapes and musical phrases that I compose. I am always looking to explore new types of mapping and I’m currently exploring the use of weather maps, stars charts and shipping charts.


Question: What prompted you to work on orchestral arrangements of contemporary music like Radiohead?

EC: In stark contrast to my cartographic composing I have created a number of performances featuring my orchestral arrangements of popular music. The first show we did fulfilled a long-running ambition to orchestrate the music of Radiohead. I’m inspired by the band’s sonic palette and electronic music often influences my own composing, so it was fascinating to try to recreate those non-acoustic sounds in the orchestral context. Increasingly, I like to radically adapt the songs I orchestrate and to create a new interpretation. I recently did a jazz waltz version of Bob Marley’s reggae song Is This Love and I found the rhythmic profile of reggae morphed unexpectedly well into a syncopated waltz pattern.


Question: The Pierrot Project you are involved in brings the visual and aural arts together. How do you think the different art forms enhance each other?

EC: Music is fundamentally a temporal art, while visual art (except some examples of video-art) has at best a very different timeframe. This means that there is no obvious way of combining the two together into a single entity, and what I find fascinating about this project is how this influences and challenges the curator of the events, and also challenges the collaborating partnerships of visual and aural artists. So far every composer-artist pairing has worked in radically different ways to create wildly contrasting projects.


Question: You do a lot of music outreach work with schools, etc. How important is this kind of work for the future of music in the UK?

EC: Education is often cited as the most influential factor to improve social mobility and integration and learning an instrument has also been shown to improve a child’s academic performance in their non-musical studies. I believe outreach is necessary to broaden the pool of students who are able to take advantage of our centres of excellence for learning, be they musical or the more general forms of higher education, and indeed the future of music and academic work are enhanced by being able to draw from a wider pool of educated talent.


Question: You’re judging the East Anglian Young Composer competition. How long have you been involved in the competition and what have been the stand-out moments from it for you?

EC: The competition has been providing excellent performance and learning opportunities for young composers for 12 years now. I was first involved in the competition six years ago, when it was only open to Cambridgeshire composers, and last year we expanded to include all of East Anglia. Every year I am amazed at the forthright originality and imagination of the young composers, but one of the most dramatic moments last year was when the professional violinist workshopping the music asked the six-year old composer if an open string symbol she had written was a mistake, and she promptly explained that she had written it to achieve a particular sonority on the violin, and asked him to play it as notated. That’s one to watch for the future!


Question: How important are such competitions for up and coming musicians?

EC: Young performers have regular teaching; can play in orchestras, choirs and chamber ensembles; and often measure their progress through exams, auditions or solo performances. Young composers, by contrast, mostly start composing by their own volition; rarely have any tuition; and almost certainly don’t have regular performance opportunities. This competition offers a workshop of every entry by a professional ensemble; gives a live performance in a Cambridge concert hall to all those who get commended; and offers a commission to the winner for the following year. Being part of it is one of the highlights of my working year.