Keith Bruce

NOT so many years ago, compiling a list of composers from Cumnock, the town that provided us with Sir James MacMillan, might have seemed an odd exercise. Yet since MacMillan began his Cumnock Tryst festival, the sixth edition of which runs from October 3 to 6, it has become clear that the Ayrshire town had a wealth of composing talent just waiting to be discovered.

The opening concert at this year’s Cumnock Tryst features new works by one of them, Michael Murray, but the name that would be at the top of a list of most recognised Cumnock composers after MacMillan himself is that of Jay Capperauld, whose works have been played by the RSNO, BBC SSO and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

Capperauld’s story is entwined with that of MacMillan and the Tryst, but his rapid progress is just as significantly a product of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which he initially attended as a classical saxophone player. And it is at the Conservatoire that his latest work, Afterlife, commissioned by and written for a more recent graduate, Lewis Banks, will first be heard on Friday, before it has a second performance as Capperauld’s most substantial contribution to this year’s Cumnock Tryst.

So appropriately it was in the Conservatoire’s café that Capperauld and Banks explained the multi-media phenomenon, and told the tale of how it came to be.

“David Eagleman’s book Sum – 40 Tales from the Afterlife was the inspiration for the project,” Banks begins. “It’s almost like a secular holy book. What he does is lay out all these different scenarios about what could happen when you pass on, but the stories give you a reflection on your current life.

“I was reading it when I was in the first year of my Masters here, and I was thinking about commissioning Jay because I had same money left over from a scholarship to support my post-graduate studies from the Worshipful Company of Musicians. He read the book and loved it as well; a lot of the concepts seemed really easy to turn into music.”

Banks and Capperauld were not the first musicians to come to this conclusion. Brian Eno has written music for some of the stories, which he has performed in partnership with the author. And Max Richter created a score inspired by the book for choreographer Wayne MacGregor.

Capperauld switched to study of composition after completing his Bachelor of Music degree as a sax player. When Banks arrived at the Conservatoire five years after him, there were only two first-study saxophonists in his year, so they turned to the composition department to recruit players to complete a quartet. It also happened that Capperauld’s early big band work, Heroin Chic, praised by Michael Tumelty in The Herald when it premiered at the Plug season of new music, was the first new composition Banks played as a student.

“We both have similar musical reference points in terms of the jazz we like,” Capperauld says, “and as saxophonists we had grown up with the same classical repertoire.”

“Originally I just commissioned one piece from Jay, and that was delivered on the day we all got snowed in during March 2017,” says Banks, “but I was already thinking it would be good to have Afterlife as a concert in itself. I was bored with the way contemporary music is presented in concert, usually sandwiched in between two pieces that people already know, so there’s no context, and it doesn’t make sense.

“To present it as a thing in itself, I asked for half an hour, and that grew to an hour. Then it became a question of how to attract people to listen to an hour of new music, with us talking about narration or lighting before hitting on the idea of commissioning a film. By accident I came across the director we are working with, Paul Wright.”

In fact Banks was trying to keep the project “in house” by involving another alumnus from of the Conservatoire to provide the visuals.

“I looked on the RCS website and found someone who studied here called Paul Wright. I Googled him, visited his website and loved his work. It was only five emails into our conversation that I realised it is not the same Paul Wright, which was a bit awkward. Turns out there are about six different Paul Wright film directors in the UK.”

“But it was serendipitous,” Capperauld chimes in, “because his aesthetic was exactly what we were looking for: dark and brooding, but with comedic elements as well.”

In the modern way, the Scottish musicians have yet to meet their Manchester-based film partner, with their collaboration all happening online.

“He listened to the score, and then we decided together where the film would work with the music, responding to it or setting up the music to follow. He made up his own narrative as a response to the book, so it is a proper film in its own right, not visual accompaniment,” says Banks.

“It is about one woman’s journey through various afterlives, essentially. She is in a forest where she has woken up after some sort of an accident, and she finds that there are various doors that she can enter.”

The music, meanwhile, has stayed within the parameters the pair set at the very start, with Banks playing alto saxophone and Marianna Abrahamyan, who is currently completing her doctorate in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, at the piano.

“I wanted to put restrictions on myself, and it was a challenge for me to see how varied I could be over an hour with one set of instruments, alto sax and piano,” says Capperauld. “In a classical setting it would be an extended sonata, if you were to look at each of the pieces as movements. But I see them as individual pieces, part of a larger collection that is Afterlife.

“There are eleven in total, including four short piano interludes based on one chapter in the book. They give nuggets of one of the stories as it progresses during the whole work. That was pragmatic as well as structural, because Lewis needs some rest over the course of the hour. My music does tend to be quite full-on. As soon as it is on your face, it is never off your face!”

“Yes, it is a bit heavy on the chops,” Banks agrees, revealing that he had some misgivings about the challenges of playing the whole work after an early work-in-progress outing for that first movement.

The extent of their collaboration becomes increasingly apparent as the pair talk about Afterlife. One solo piece, entitled Déjà vu, uses a clarinet line that Banks picked out from the Capperauld piano concerto, Endlings, James Wilshire premiered by James Willshire with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in April 2018. Another chapter, Scales, has become a homage to Ligeti, a composer that Capperauld came to admire as well during his studies. A piece called Omniattentive has a subtitle borrowed from John Cage, “Nowadays everything happens at once”, and is a theme and variations inspired by a chapter in which the character asks for a reprieve from the demandingly rich experience of his Afterlife.

“We want the whole concert to be a seamless experience for the audience, and not at all predictable,” says Capperauld.

He has served on the board of Cumnock Tryst for the past three years, having had his music played there since its inception.

“I was the inaugural Festival commission, and that was my first ever paid commission, even before I graduated.

“When I knew they were starting the festival I sent James MacMillan an email to introduce myself as a composer from Cumnock, and just asking to be involved in some capacity. It was amazing that James took it upon himself to commission me. You never know what will happen until you put yourself out there!”

But it turns out that MacMillan had inspired both the young musicians before they knew one another. In a turn of phrase that might amuse the man who celebrated his 60th this year, they describe it as “a nostalgic connection”.

“When the Scottish Chamber Orchestra came to do workshops at Cumnock Academy, and I was starting out as a sax player aged 13 and 14, we played a piece that he had written. That shook me awake that some composers were still living at all, never mind from my area.”

Banks, meanwhile, grew up in Glasgow’s Jordanhill, where MacMillan lived before he moved back to Ayrshire, and also became aware of Scotland’s greatest living composer as a young saxophonist. “He wrote a piece for the opening of a building at the school,” he remembers.

For both of them, there is a real significance in having the premiere of Afterlife at the Conservatoire.

“This building has been so much to both of us and our initial pitch was for the RCS performance. The Cumnock date was then a case of getting in touch with James and asking if they were interested. It’s huge privilege to have my own slot there, because that festival does mean a huge amount to me. And getting the piece performed in my own town is really special.

“And we are still trying to find more avenues for the piece to be performed, because hopefully we can tap into book festivals and film festivals as well.”

Afterlife is at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow on Friday, September 27 at 1pm and then in New Cumnock Town Hall, as part of Cumnock Tryst, on Saturday October 5 at 4.30pm. It is supported by Creative Scotland, the Musicians' Company, The Hope Scott Trust, The Cross Trust and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.