Interview: Lewis Murphy

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First published in The Herald on 1 November, 2017

Contemporary opera always needs fresh advocates, so here’s a name to watch. Glasgow-born composer Lewis Murphy, 25, is already nearing the end of a two-year residency with one of the UK’s most prestigious opera houses. He and his regular librettist Laura Attridge use their work to consider tough contemporary matters: their latest collaborations look at the refugee crisis and female infertility via artificial intelligence. Murphy’s music is as unpretentious and plain-speaking as he is; there’s a clarity, a candidness, an emotional honesty that really works when it comes to telling difficult stories in the most unthreatening possible voice. The results are disarming, and have a tendency to get under the skin.

It’s easy to forget how young Murphy is. His Soundcloud moniker is Murph92 – as in, yes, he was born in 1992. When the film Gladiator was released in 2000 he was too young to see it first time around, but a few years later the score to that movie (composed by Hans Zimmer, he reminds me with a grimace) would prove a significant factor in luring the teenage Murphy into classical music.

“I had a Casio keyboard when I was a kid,” he tells me over coffee at London’s Southbank Centre. It’s a golden October afternoon and we both gravitate into the sun with the slightly desperate excitement of Glaswegians in the balmy south. “That keyboard would probably be a hip thing now, but in the mid-2000s it was definitely reaching the end of its coolness cycle. I didn’t really care. I got very enthusiastic about the multi-tracking function, trying to mimic that Hans Zimmer sound of big lush strings and pounding drums. Horrible, horrible.”

When it came time to choose his undergraduate studies, Murphy faced a toss-up between music and engineering. “If I’d lived in England I wouldn’t have dared to choose music,” he says. “It would have been engineering, no question, but in Scotland we have the luxury of being able to explore riskier options without huge tuition fees hanging over us.” He signed up for a composition degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Composers aren’t born fully formed, and Murphy has no qualms in acknowledging the relatively late and very steep gradient of his own learning curve. When he started his undergraduate he had zero knowledge of the towering figures in 20th century music: no Boulez, no Ligeti. “Maybe I’d heard the name Stravinsky once or twice. The only composers I knew were the romantic era ones I’d played in orchestras.” There is, he points out, a serious issue here around the scope of school-level music education, and the number of potential epiphanies missed for lack of exposure.

In his first year at the RCS he became obsessed with the music of Olivier Messiaen, a 20th century French composer and pedagogue whose music is intense and mystical and sumptuous. “The sound was familiar and strange at the same time,” says Murphy. “Elements I recognised from the classical and romantic repertoire but refracted through this amazing prism. After that I was able to face Boulez and it wasn’t so terrifying.”

Most of the music Murphy wrote before his undergraduate was instinctive and tonal; those lush post-Zimmer multitrack experiments, filtered through some pretty roughhewn technical means. After university he found himself roaming to more exotic places harmonically and structurally. When he began a master’s with Mark Anthony Turnage at the Royal College of Music in London, he discovered a new paradigm in which pop, jazz, R&B and classical music collided and clashed and fused and fed into each other. “Now, that really spoke to me!” Murphy enthuses. “Pieces like Blood on the Floor” – a Turnage score for large ensemble and jazz band – “really blew mind mind. I didn’t know classical music could be so direct and so vibrant. I didn’t know it could be so immediate.”

Until this point, opera had played no part in Murphy’s life: not as a listener, let alone as a composer. Like Turnage, it would be the process of actually writing opera that would turn him onto the art form. He applied to write a 15-minute mini opera for the festival Tete-a-Tete and was selected. His dramatic premise was a Ionesco-style dystopia in which five people work late in an office block while a popular uprising rages on the streets outside. Their building is in lockdown and, says Murphy, “people from different backgrounds find comfort in each other and hope for the future. It’s still a piece I’m proud of,” he adds. “And it’s what gave me the confidence to apply for the Glyndebourne thing.”

The ‘Glyndebourne thing’ was the role of Young Composer in Residence, which Murphy was appointed when he was 23 and had a grand total of 15 minutes of opera under his belt. Clearly the company was impressed. And what’s so striking about Murphy’s own reason for pursuing opera is that it has little to do with any associated grandeur or the prestige, everything to do with “the idea of a community of artists. Being able to develop something from scratch with another person. With a whole team. My first instinct was to call it ‘comforting’, but I think it’s much deeper than that. The work is so stronger because it’s a collaboration.”

His first project at Glyndebourne was pure outreach, working with babies in a partnership between the opera house and a local children’s centre. Then he wrote a series of children’s choruses for performance during the interval of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Writing for children has really helped me,” he says. “Thinking about hooks, thinking about themes, thinking about how to make music interesting and strong enough that kids will latch onto it.” It’s like the composer Peter Maxwell Davies used to say: if you want kids to like your stuff, never write down for them. You have to write up.

Murphy’s Glyndebourne residency culminates this week in his debut mainstage opera, Belongings. The theme of the piece is migration and the forced movement of peoples, with a story that intertwines the history of WWII child evacuees coming from London to Glyndbourne and the current refugee crisis in Syria and North Africa. Murphy speaks thoughtfully about the challenges: “how to tell the story without feeling that we were exploiting someone else’s grief; how to write about refugees from the safety of Glyndebourne, working with a chorus of extremely privileged kids?” He’s still mulling it over, and he doesn’t rush an answer.

Meanwhile he and Attridge are working on a short piece for Scottish Opera’s young performers’ scheme Connect. This time it’s about a female scientist who can’t have children – “maybe she’s left it too late because her career didn’t give her the option,” says Murphy – so instead she builds a ‘conscious robot’ as a kind of surrogate child. Murphy points out that, like the refugee experience, female infertility isn’t something he knows much about first-hand. “But Laura and I both feel it’s a social stigma with huge emotion attached. And that makes it exactly the kind of subject matter that contemporary opera should be stepping up to address.”

Lewis Murphy’s opera Belongings is at Glyndebourne, Sussex, on November 11. His opera for Scottish Opera’s Connect will be performed in April 2018.