The Royal Conservatoire’s new music showcase is well underway, featuring more than 65 premieres by around 50 composers.
Plug brings back fond memories for alumnus, Jay Capperauld, who credits the festival as a defining moment in his own artistic development. Mark Good chats with May’s Graduate of the Month.
There can be few greater joys for composers than to hear their music brought to life, notes dancing off the page amid the combustible atmosphere of live performance. For Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld (MMus Composition 2014), the sensation has been particularly familiar of late not that he is taking it for granted.
Spring 2018 saw the world premiere of his piano concerto, Endlings, by James Willshire and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. At the work’s core is the plight faced by creatures under threat of extinction at the hands of the human race. The final movement takes inspiration from a 1980s recording of a mating call made by a male Kauai O’o bird. Unbeknown to the innocent creature, there were no females left as they had already become extinct. This haunting tale was brought to life as members of the orchestra left the stage, with only the soloist remaining. It was a quite brilliant way to illustrate a topic which is clearly close to the 28-year-old’s heart.
“We are destroying our planet,” he said. “We’re making it impossible for animals to survive by poaching, pollution and clearing their habitats.
“When I first spoke with Nick Zekulin (chief executive and artistic director of NYOS), President Trump had just pulled out of the Paris Agreement and plastic was all over the news.”
Jay continued: “I absolutely loved the performance from NYOS. Those young musicians were phenomenal they had so much energy and they were really receptive to my ideas. To be programmed in a concert with Rite of Spring was amazing, I was pinching myself.”
For someone enjoying so much success with his writing, one could be forgiven for assuming Jay has been studying composing intensively since childhood. In fact, that all came later. His early musical years in Ayrshire were rich and varied the perfect spark to ignite a love of the performing arts.
There were early flirtations with piano and cornet. Clarinet, oboe and bassoon followed before Jay fell in love with the saxophone (though interestingly, it was never the instrument’s jazz leanings which grabbed him; “I was trying to play Bach instead,” he admitted).
Attending the West of Scotland Schools Concert Band exposed Jay to a new world, from the varied repertoire programmed by MD Nigel Boddice to the network of friends, many of whom were studying at the RCS Junior Conservatoire. Soon, Jay’s heart was set on studying at Scotland’s national conservatoire and he worked hard to make the dream a reality.
He enrolled as an undergraduate saxophonist, studying with Josef Pacewicz. Composing was still a hobby. “I was always someone who was trying things with music. Once I learned notation, I was transcribing and writing melodies. I was still doing that when I was studying at RCS. I started dabbling in composition and that was a huge awakening for me.”
Composition took a formal turn in his third year, studying with Oliver Searle, and Jay followed up his studies with a postgraduate diploma in saxophone. The Royal Conservatoire’s Plug festival, showcasing student compositions, was to be a defining moment in Jay’s musical career. The piece was Heroin Chic and its development, from conception to rehearsal and performance, proved hugely beneficial. “Heroin Chic was for extended big band and working with musicians from different backgrounds was absolutely fascinating. That was the moment I found my feet and knew I wanted to be a composer. Plug is a flagship, something of which the RCS should be really proud.”
The momentum was building and a conversation with Dr Gordon McPherson, Head of Composition, ultimately saw Jay take the plunge by way of a Masters degree. Those formative years shaped more than his musical outlook.
“One of the most important things I have gained is self-belief. RCS really instilled an understanding of the ”˜why’ questions, which are often more important than the ”˜how’ questions.
“To others, I’d say write for yourself. Write for your friends. Find new opportunities you’ll get from it everything you put in.”
This is certainly true for Jay, whose profile has continued to rise since his graduation in 2014.
Highlights include Monad, a collaboration between RCS, Glasgow School of Art and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for which he wrote one half of a ballet. In 2014, he was commissioned by Sir James MacMillan to write a piece for Cumnock Tryst, performed by Pure Brass.
He was part of the RSNO’s Composers’ Hub, which allowed him to “pick the brains of one of the country’s finest orchestras”. The relationship flourished when Jay was commissioned to write a piece for young children for its 360 Live education project. Partnering with the makers of world-building video game Minecraft, Jay devised a piece built into interchangeable chunks. The children voted for what they wanted to come next.
In 2016, the BBC SSO premiered Fèin-Aithne at its Hear and Now Scottish Inspirations concert.
A particularly proud moment came when Jay’s former principal at RCS, Professor John Wallace, got in touch asking him to write a piece for the Wallace Collection. As Above, So Below was premiered by the ensemble and Dalmellington Band, under the baton of Martyn Brabbins, at Cumnock Tryst in 2017.
In May 2018, Jay saw his arrangement of Couperin’s Les Barricades MysteÌrieuses performed by Hebrides Ensemble in Perth Concert Hall, a concert streamed to the world.
Another date comes later in the month, a world premiere by the GSA Choir of The Unspoken. May comes to a close with another performance of As Above, So Below, as the Wallace Collection this time joins forces with the imperious Cory Band for a concert in Cardiff.
The string of performances are worthy rewards for Jay following the inevitable period of solitude when writing. “I’m trying to attend everything. You spend months and months writing away by yourself then you’re thrown into a situation where you are meeting so many other musicians.
“It’s thrilling and I love it.”
Plug runs until 11 May. Audience members buying three or more tickets receive a 25 percent discount. Further information on repertoire, performers and tickets at the 2018 Plug Festival is available at rcs.ac.uk/plug