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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Steve Crowther in conversation with composer and performer David Hammond

David Hammond is from Thame in Oxfordshire where he says he was ‘lucky enough to benefit from excellent tuition and orchestral playing with the Oxford County music service.’ He studied music at the University of York with Roger Marsh and William Brooks. Although composition wasn’t the main focus of his degree, he says that he has always enjoyed composing and hearing his ideas come to life. Clearly, the influence of gamelan music was, and remains, significant. Indeed, David says that he has composed several pieces solely for Javanese gamelan.

‘Gamelan is the traditional ensemble music of the Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese peoples of Indonesia, made up predominantly of percussive instruments. The most common instruments used are metallophones and a set of hand-drums called kendang, which keep the beat.’

David currently works as an accompanist in York - with choirs, soloists and playing for church services, ‘especially at the Unitarian chapel.’ He regularly accompanies students ‘at all levels for exams and assessments, including at both the universities in York.’

Aside from his musical interests, David enjoys walking, cycling and ‘getting out into the countryside.’ David also works at St Nick's, a local nature reserve and environmental charity which runs an emissions-free recycling scheme.

I began this Desert Island Discs-style interview by asking David about his new composition for the York-based choir, The Clerkes of All Saints.

Kinanthi Juru Demung is an arrangement of a vocal melody which is one part of a Javanese gamelan piece which probably dates from 1787. The melody is one that has always struck me by its beauty, and I felt it would work in a choral arrangement - this piece is not intended to imitate the original but uses it as a basis for a new piece. The first verse has a hint of the heterophony which is characteristic of gamelan, the second verse is a much more Western SATB treatment, and the last verse has a sustained accompaniment to the solo.’

‘Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?’ I asked.

‘For this piece there was a combination of working from the piano and using gamelan-inspired ideas to arrange the melody. In traditional gamelan music the texture is made up of different lines of mostly pentatonic music which coincide on the same pitch at structural points. This can be heard in the first verse, but later in the piece a more homophonic chordal treatment is used. In this case, I really feel the original melody did most of the work for me.’

‘David, you are a pianist as well as a composer, how did you approach composing for the choir? '

I have written quite a bit of piano music, so generally haven't had to think too much about the sound as I would already be playing it! For this piece I definitely had the sound of the Clerkes in mind as I've sung with the choir for a good while - there is a clear, pure blend to this choir which I think has an intimacy, but with the possibility for a much stronger fuller sound when needed.

I asked if he could describe his individual ‘sound world?

‘I’m never sure I have a sound world’, he says, ‘but I think my influences are fairly plain to see in each piece. I once found a piece of paper I'd been writing ideas on which said: “whatever it is it shouldn't last too long” and maybe I've taken that to heart a little when composing.’

‘Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?’ I asked.

‘A lot of my favourite music is from more “popular” genres of music - I have a lot of admiration for Joe Jackson as a singer/songwriter who has written songs in so many styles from 3-minute pop songs to a symphony. However, if I could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be Francis Poulenc.’

Right, now for some Desert Island discery.

‘Can you please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.’

Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome

Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring

Ladrang Wilujeng (traditional Javanese)

Portishead: Glory Box

Pet Shop Boys: King’s Cross

Joe Jackson: Drowning

Dave Richardson: Calliope House,

Mansun: It's Ok,

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

‘That’s actually nine pieces of music, but we’ll let that pass. And the No.1?’

‘Hmm, probably Pines of Rome.’

‘…and a book?

‘Book of manuscript paper?!’

‘… and a luxury item?

‘Could I have a piano?’

‘No, but it has been a genuine pleasure to chat with you.’

David Hammond’s new work, Kinanthi Juru Demung, will be performed by The Clerkes of All Saints on Sunday 3 March as part of York Late Music’s concert series. Visit here for tickets and concert details.

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