Somewhat Spooky, Yet Sophisticated Too: An Interview with Composer Ben Lunn
A musician born in Northern England, Ben Lunn has made various movements around the UK, and stretched his mind further after deciding to temporarily move to Eastern Europe and gather a masters degree before starting his career. As an artist today, he’s known to have worked in various elements, including conducting, musicology, teaching and composing.
I was immediately impressed by Ben’s history after learning more about him via Disability Arts Online. He clearly has his talents and provides original orchestral music with a great sense of quality. This is interesting music that people do enjoy. Composers also write film scores, such important sounds to make a movie feel dramatic when the time is right.
Ben isn’t composing film scores yet, but the sounds he makes guide people towards great feelings of emotions. Back in 2017, he was made Hebrides Ensemble’s trainee artistic director, and only seems to be continuously expanding his career.
Continue reading below to find out about how his life has unfolded as a disabled artist, including what he’s been up to over the past 12 months.
Hi Ben. How’s life been for you this year so far? Has it been any different than last year – have you enjoyed it any more?
It’s been a surreal one. Thankfully, I’ve got a few more things to keep myself busy with, which is much better than last year when everything just came to a grinding halt.
I’m somewhat looking forward to April. It’s not that far away, is it?
No, we’re nearly there.
I’m maybe a bit jealous of you up in Scotland, to be honest. I kind of wish I was with you up there.
Oh – a different evil, a different evil is up here.
I see. Well, I did a bit of research through Disability Arts Online to see who came up regarding musical artists. You appeared, and it seems you have quite an impressive CV with the education you’ve gained in music in the past.
You have expressed an interest in musicology, which is very related to what I studied at university, so it’d be great to hear more about that. However, people’s descriptions of your compositions interested me than anything. When it comes to the descriptions – evocative, restrained otherworldliness, chilling – your work sounds kind of spooky in a way, but I like that!
I know – it’s kind of a nice thing to share out with the rest of the group!
Okay! Well, can you tell me and anybody who doesn’t know you well a bit about your background?
Well, I’m originally from Sunderland. I started in young people’s bands, in brass bands – that’s where I got the start of my musical education, and as I progressed, I started writing tunes a little bit.
When I did my A-Levels, I applied to various musical colleges to see if I had any chance of getting in. I was pretty lucky to get offered a place at the [Royal] Welsh College [of Music & Drama] and then did my bachelors there for four years and studied with a great composer called Peter Reynolds. He introduced lots of things to us in lots of different styles in many places all over the board.
From there, I made music in the Baltic states. Mostly because I found there are many very curious responses to developments that have happened in the 20th century, and they sort of had a bizarre life in North-East Europe and didn’t fit anywhere else. I was just quite curious and wanted to look in and find things that way.
I was then lucky to get my place at the Lithuanian Academy of Music & Theatre, where I studied my masters for two years. It was a funny adventure that one – primarily because if I knew how much I needed language before I went, I probably would have chickened out beforehand. It sounded like I could be sent something entirely in English on the website and pick up the phrases I needed to survive. However, it turned out I had my one-to-one, personal lessons in English, but the lessons I had in my class were entirely Lithuanian. So I had to learn some new terminology very quickly, and it was highly stressful.
After that, I then moved to Scotland to live with who is now my wife, and we’ve been working with the likes of Drake Music Scotland, Drake Music in England, and a few other groups trying to connect a few bits when back here in Britain.
Wow, moving to Lithuania for a while…I could never do that. My disability would never let me learn any new terminology!
Okay, are there any particular musical artists, or places that have inspired you most? You mentioned the brass band and your college then. What was it that inspired you to become so involved in this work when you were growing up?
When I was in Sunderland, the person who ran the young people’s band handed me a cornet and asked if I could play that. That didn’t go very well, so I got something slightly bigger and more comfortable and learned a few notes on that. After that, I was chucked into the young people’s band and ended up playing music in hymns on Sundays.
And then I just picked up more capabilities with the instrument. Because playing the likes of baritone horn and euphonium, there aren’t many other ensembles regarding where else you can play. It then just led to finding other brass bands who were technically more competent and challenged me more.
I ended up playing the trombone later, but if I started with a trombone, I might have taken a slightly different route. But a euphonium is what I started with, and there just weren’t that many ensembles that fitted me in more than anything else. That’s what steered that development.
Can you describe a euphonium for people who aren’t too familiar with it?
It’s like a baby tuba.
Okay, thanks. Well, from what I’ve read, you’re now working in various elements – including conducting, musicology, teaching and composing. The last 12 months have been unusual for everybody, though. How has the pandemic affected your career in Glasgow?
Well, it’s odd to say.
With composing in particular, a lot of our work is writing in a room and doodling on paper. The ability to sit back and spend a bit more time has been quite novel, whereas often you’re either dealing with very short deadlines or having to juggle and give yourself the time to work at home to do the composing. So, when it came to the lockdown, I spent a lot of time sitting down to just keep writing. It was nice and gave me a bit of time to explore bits.
But obviously, the ability of not being able to work in performance has had a detrimental impact. I’ve been quite fortunate in the sense that I had a piece that I performed around a week before lockdown originally started last year, which was in Liverpool. It was quite a nice concert, despite their only being nine people in the audience!
After that, it got quieter, but I wrote this piece for a narrator and a small ensemble that was then performed at Sound Festival on 22 October. Sadly, there wasn’t an audience allowed, so we ended up playing it while being live-streamed online.
So, there are things that have only happened because of our current situation. There are things that have been slowed down as well, though. For example, the scheme I’m building in which I’m writing music with a saxophone and a choir. However, because of the pandemic, I haven’t met them yet. I’ve talked to them on Zoom in calls like this. But I’ve not sat down with them, heard the ensemble play, or heard the choir singing, so it’s a pretty strange feeling.
With conducting, I’ve not done very much at all, apart from the concert in October. With musicology, I’ve done a few lectures, but it’s a very strange experience to deliver them to a screen – especially if you don’t know if any people are even hearing you!
Yeah, I imagine. When it comes to teaching, do you have a set of students you teach? Do you know how many students you have?
I don’t have my position doing that, but I have been selected by the Scottish schools and Royal Welsh College of Music to give student’s composition lectures. They were in groups of around 15. I’ve had no long-term teaching, though.
Back in October 2017, you were made Trainee Artistic Director at Hebrides Ensemble. How has that worked out for you?
With them, it’s been a wonderful experience so far. One, because I shadowed staff to see how the ensemble goes about putting on concerts. I found out how they do the background work, such as applying for funding, getting that balance between what you want creatively and getting the funds and support you need to do it.
In December 2019, we did a concert called Diversions, where I got nine disabled composers in total to make music for Hebrides Ensemble or members of Drake Music Scotland’s digital orchestra. It ended up in the queen’s vault and was a wonderful experience across the board, and just nice as it was a concert with nine composers, which I don’t think has been managed to the same degree at any other point in Britain.
That sounds good. What other work have you done with Drake Music?
Well, I was initially commissioned by them as a part of their emerging composer’s scheme back in 2018. I wrote a piece known as T-4 based upon the protocol taken on by the Nazi’s to exterminate disabled people.
The piece had a combination of the names of the victims of T-4 and the victims of the impact of austerity and changes to disability benefits, etc. So, there was a juxtaposition that what the Nazi’s did was intentional, and they had this propaganda behind it. However, what has happened with the austerity measures hasn’t had the same propaganda drive, but perhaps a more devastating effect. It’s a very surreal way of looking at it, but it led to creating a musical platform for those names and that compensation to be completed.
That was performed in Brighter Sound in what I think was May 2018, and has been performed quite a few times since. It also got performed in Rossi Fest in Belgrade as part of their Holocaust memorial. It was quite an honour to have the composition put in, considering the vast majority of others were reflecting on the nature of the Holocaust and its impact on the Jewish community. It was good to have something to make it clear disabled people were murdered as well.
It’s an odd piece to be proud of, to have a piece that was in memoriam…
It’s okay, I see what you’re saying! You paid your respects, and you’ve given me a pretty good description of it all.
Well, music seems to be an essential part of your life, but are there any other arts or hobbies that interest you?
I love reading – and read far too much for my good! There’s a load of books I’ve been gathering. I’m not a particularly good writer, but I love reading and taking in different kinds of books. I’ve just received The Novel and the People by Ralph Fox. Another book I have is looking at the social relationship of literature to the bored working class across the globe, which is quite an interesting topic to look into. But I read far too much for my own good!
That’s interesting; I’m not much of a great reader, but I obviously do a lot of writing – somewhat the opposite.
Have you got any particular actions you have in mind that will keep disability arts up and running during or after the pandemic? Do you have a passion for keeping disability arts alive?
Yeah, but I’m more focused on getting arts back involved with the working class; it’s a key thing I’m passionate about doing. Many working class people can’t always afford to keep up with the arts and juggle all the various barriers that are in the way. Regardless of all the talent and skill involved, the arts’ framework is not in our favour.
There are many bits to fight among the musicians union equality committee – that’s one way to just highlight the social concerns and the work-related concerns for disabled people within the music industry because there are many different issues. Sometimes just having the ability to sit on the stage is a tough task, as they’re not all user-accessible.
There are a few campaigns around that. There’s also the question of promoting disabled people in different forms which has been quite an interesting process to do because like the PRS of the wonderful 50-50 scheme. They’ve been trying to push various organisations to have 50-50 gender representation within programming, to make sure just as many women have access as men to concerts which is a very good step. It helps that there’s plenty of support behind it.
However, with disabled composers, there’s not that same kind of discussion because not everyone knows who the disabled composers are. When people discuss Beethoven, the deafness is mentioned, but there isn’t detail about how it variously impacted his work or how it implies he was disabled. It’s more a celebration of how he heroically kept composing despite being diagnosed as deaf.
After the pandemic, I think we need a broader sense of investment – not just in the bigger cities, such as London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow – they all have these beautiful centres for arts. But, if you can’t get to Glasgow or other areas, you can’t see it. I think we should be pushing work further out to make sure that people as far as Land’s End or John O’Groats can get to see the arts.
Well, I’ll round this interview off with a simple question. What do you think you’ll enjoy doing more than anything when you see this pandemic come to a close? Is there in particular that comes to mind?
It’ll just be nice to do rehearsals with people once again. Just be in a room with lots of other people and making music together. It’s sad to have been so long since I last did that. But then there are just little things like bumping into people and grabbing a coffee. Just knowing it’s normal again!
Thanks very much, Ben. I wish you all the best.
To find out more about Ben, or see and listen to more of his work, you can always head to his YouTube channel page, listen to his music via Soundcloud, or take a look at his personal blog.