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June 2004

Contemporary Classic

British composer Graham Lack talks about his work

Whether for the gilded grandeur of Vienna’s concert halls or the mystique of Beethoven’s homeland, classical musicians have been drawn to the German-speaking world for centuries. For composer Graham Lack, it was the wonder of Schubert’s Lieder and a lectureship at Munich’s University of Maryland campus that prompted his move to the city 22 years ago. Prospects in Munich and leaving behind the miseries of his native England—“terrible trains, food and weather”—were all the motivation Lack required. “I left on a one-way ticket,” he laughs.

Arriving in Munich, Lack immediately began teaching himself German while tutoring his music students and composing. By the time the University of Maryland discontinued its Munich program in the early 1990s, Lack was well established as a freelance composer. A professional to the core, he has also done some writing, lecturing and music-festival management—all work directly related to championing contemporary classical music.

On meeting Lack one notices immediately that he is a man refined by both experience and education—not to mention by a good dose of English charm. Seated in a quiet Haidhausen café, Lack sets down his brown derby hat and warns with a glint in his eye, “I’m afraid you’ll get the same answer to every question, because for me it is all intertwined—music, philosophy, work and life.” When asked how and when he began composing, Lack quotes T. S. Eliot as he explains his compulsion to “set down” his musical ideas on paper, a craft he began at the age of 14 and has continued ever since. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Lack has no intention of ever composing at a computer. Rather, he remains true to the time-honored tools of the trade: paper and ink.

Lack had a background in piano and was active in his local church choir, but had no formal composition instruction. “I just began doing it,” explains Lack. And it was his characteristic willingness to “learn by doing” that led to many of his early choir compositions being performed and later landed him a choir directorship at the age of 18. Since that time, Lack has continued his education through experience and formal instruction and now holds bachelors and masters degrees from the University of London and a doctorate from the Technische Universität in Berlin.

With his compositions Lack seeks to communicate directly and with clarity—a refreshing approach, especially for any concert-goer who has come away from a performance of modern classical perplexed (if not disturbed) by what often seems to be a series of incomprehensible sounds. Lack acknowledges that much contemporary classical music is insanely difficult for musicians to play and inspires little interest in audiences. “The challenge for the contemporary composer is to deliver musical relevance to audiences without sacrificing performers on the altar of technique,” he half-jokes. Lack clearly has no intention of sacrificing either performers or audiences. In fact, it is a strong sense of responsibility to audiences and musicians that tempers Lack’s work. “Before composing, I always ask myself if there is a need for this piece. Does humanity need this work?” When the answer is a resounding “yes,” Lack begins to bring something new into existence. “I attempt to convey that which has not yet been conveyed,” he explains.

To this end, Lack employs traditional musical forms, which provide the frame of reference necessary for audiences to interpret and enjoy something new. Time tested dance forms, familiar instrumentation and a balance between tonality and dissonance characterize Lack’s work. “In my music, the unexpected lies not so much in the chord construction as in what comes next.” And it is precisely his talent for bridging the familiar with the unfamiliar that makes Lack’s music accessible to today’s audiences. He extends this talent to his work as a festival organizer in Munich. In partnership with the digitalanalog electronic music festival, Lack introduces contemporary classical music to young audiences in a pop-culture context. This October the festival’s classical-music event “Classical Lounge” will take place and will include Lack’s compositions.

Also beginning in the same month is the annual “Brittan and Beyond” music and film festival, which Lack directs. It features British-inspired work by a diverse array of musicians, composers and filmmakers. In addition to festival performances, a number of Lack’s new compositions for string orchestra, choir and chamber orchestras are also planned for this autumn. In speaking with Lack one realizes that the fabric of his life and work is indeed intertwined. He also possesses the rare quality of being able to transcend the period in which he lives. From his penchant for paper and ink, to a Schubert-inspired migration to Germany, one senses that Lack would live and work similarly, whether born a hundred years ago or in a hundred years from now—building on the tried and true in order to create something completely new.

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