A bit of brain scrambling never hurt anyone

It's all starting to come right for composer Orlando Gough with his scores for 'The Tempest' and a leading dance company, writes Jenny Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

Assumptions about creative people are easy to make. All writers, given the chance, want to write a big novel, don't they? And all composers, given subsistence, a garret and plenty of biscuits, are gagging to produce some large, abstract work that will command swathes of Radio 3 airtime or furrowed brows at the QEH.

Assumptions about creative people are easy to make. All writers, given the chance, want to write a big novel, don't they? And all composers, given subsistence, a garret and plenty of biscuits, are gagging to produce some large, abstract work that will command swathes of Radio 3 airtime or furrowed brows at the QEH.

Not so Orlando Gough, the Oxford-educated composer, whose hour-long commission currently touring with the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, includes riffs of salsa and tango and the voice of a 112-year-old woman, whose incidental music for the RSC's new production of The Tempest is described by a friend of his as "a Frank Zappa rewrite of South Pacific", and who runs a professional choir called The Shout.

At university where he studied maths - a long time ago, he's now 46 - what attracted him to composing was "the whole idea that music could be tonal, and fun, and fast, and you didn't have to do it in concert halls." He was seduced by the minimalist school of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, but even more impressed with the fact that they played in their own bands and that that they were playing in art galleries, or up all night. It was more like rock'n'roll.

What wasn't at all like rock'n'roll was a composer's earning capability, and for many years Gough, younger brother of the now-celebrity architect Piers Gough, fell back on teaching maths to survive. (He even wrote an A-level textbook that was widely used until the syllabus changed recently.) For more than a decade he clung to his ideal of composing for bands, his own bands, in a style best described as energetic minimal-classical-Latin-fusion.

In the early 1980s there was one band called Lost Jockey, then another called Man Jumping. Both earned lively reputations, but no money, and Gough finally threw in the towel when, after breaking down in a van en route from London to a gig in Manchester, "I realised we'd spent more on one taxi ride than the band's total income for the year."

Gough has since been more willing to take the art-house shilling (two children to support may have influenced him) but still manages to walk on the wild side, mostly away from the concert hall. His choir The Shout now embodies his ideal in terms of working practice. As he says: "Choirs are not groovy things normally," but this one is not normal, consisting of 18 individuals from singing backgrounds as diverse and distinct as opera, gospel, blues, early music, contemporary classical and Asian classical. Their first concert was reviewed as "a robust and unpretentious event", their singing "a joyful, complex noise", comments which must have gratified the composer greatly.

The name of the choir, Gough explains, comes from a short story by Robert Graves: "About an Australian man who can produce a shout that can kill people. And while I don't think murder by singing is such a good thing, I do like the idea that you can scramble people's brains in a direct way using sound." He also likes the idea of "giving away" some of the authorial control of his pieces: "I once would have been horrified by the thought of telling performers to improvise," he says. "I used to notate everything that happened, but now it seems such a waste of the musicians' brains if I write them notes all the time."

The blank page still terrifies him - he frequently doubts he has anything more to say - and he has never got used to the long-distance loneliness of the compositional process. Which is why he has gravitated towards theatre and dance. "With something like a Shakespeare for the RSC there's the downside of having to provide glue for scene-changes," he says, "but at least you know where you are. Two minutes here, three minutes there, and some halfway-decent lyrics."

Contemporary dance, however, is a different animal. One of the attractions for Gough is that choreographers generally want to spend a lot of time talking about what they want, how it's going, where it's going, and what it should be called. "They're wanting you to inspire them, of course, but I try to drag a bit back and get them to inspire me. I'm still a bit alarmed about starting the ball rolling. It's an odd process, because you know the thing is going to end up as a kind of duet between dance and music, but you have to produce one part before the other exists, remembering to leave cracks and voids for the dance to shine through."

Over the last decade or so Gough has paired his shimmery, pulse-driven style to wildly different choreographic talents, from Ashley Page at the Royal Ballet to Shobana Jeyasingh with her cutting-edge Asian group. He's now working on a piece for the Belgian iconoclast, Alain Platel, "whose company always seems to include at least one retired wrestler and a four-year-old child". One of the impressive things about all these artists, he says, is that, "They tend to listen to my music with such fantastic concentration that they know it better than I do, which is both flattering and unnerving."

What are his feelings on first "seeing" his music performed? Unending surprise, he says. Witnessing something you've made become something else is extraordinary. And he does believe good choreography can make you listen to the music better: "It directs the ears somehow". Which is another reason for not writing for the concert hall. That, and the fact that he's the kind of guy who doesn't own much in the way of a jacket.

The Shout: Drill Hall, WC1 (020 7637 8270), 2 November; 'The Tempest' is in rep at the Barbican, EC2, until 18 November (020 7638 8891)

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