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An introduction to the music of Jonathan Lloyd by Stephen Plaistow

Jonathan Lloyd has never sought to distance himself from his contemporaries but his long recognised preference has been to walk by himself. He is the least parochial of British composers and his world has no evident boundaries of nationality and culture. He could be called a maverick, but he is not a remote figure and certainly not an outsider. He has written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic, for the London Sinfonietta and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and for vocal and instrumental ensembles up and down the land, and he has always tried to respond, at various levels of musical society, to the gifts and enthusiasm of performers who wanted music from him.

He had a rigorous training but found a way of composing intuitively quite early on, seemingly without monuments to set his course by or systems to generate notes, and his work has been increasingly confident of its own voice. The traditions of modernism and post-modernism have long included elements derived from popular music, but with Lloyd the contrasts and incongruities run unusually deep. As Hugo Cole noted [Tempo No.164, March 1988] "when Lloyd introduces instruments from the world of popular music, he does not insinuate them into the ensemble stealthily or apologetically... they announce themselves as visitors from other worlds [and] question the values of the more refined concert-hall instruments".

There was an occasion nearly twenty years ago at a performance of Everything Returns when the inclusion of a rock group caused outrage. Even now, when some would say anything goes, Lloyd’s inclusion of popular tunes can still be startling: You are my sunshine, an American hit-song of the 1940s, appears in the Second Symphony not just as an intruder but as an invader. The use of popular references functions as part of Lloyd’s style, without quotation marks. When he employs shock tactics, however, we wonder where we are - is this for real, or fantasy? It is particularly characteristic of his music to inhabit a state of limbo, Beckett-like, and to keep us waiting, unnerved by our surroundings and unsure as to whether a goal will be reached, or whether a way out can be found at all.

It is music sometimes about other music, Puckish and uninhibited, inviting response to the here-and-now. But always it is in sharp focus, whether a montage of fantasies, a conceit, a ceremonial, a meditation, a semi-theatrical progression or a play of cells and motives. A characteristic Lloydian journey is one on which a destination beckons but we are happy to keep returning and regrouping and to bump into things we have come across before. We listen from moment to moment, recognising that discourse can pass into narrative; that something big can come out of a lot of small and disparate bits; and that repetition is an important element of form-building. Janácek might have considered Lloyd a kindred spirit. In an admiring comment on the Mass for chorus and the linked Second Symphony, Robin Holloway mentions another 20th century master: "The capacity to tease the utmost out of a few haunting phrases can, as Stravinsky knew, produce profundity as well as laughter".

As he enters his sixth decade, the five symphonies, together with Tolerance (in effect, a concerto for orchestra), can be viewed as the centre of Lloyd’s achievement. It has been hard won, particularly when his music has challenged the formalities and economics of traditional concert life. But in bringing together the arcane and the popular, the co-operative and the anarchic, in new ways he has frequently given us a fresh angle on musical discourse. He has no trademark but we recognise him instantly, and as the ambiguities and the richness of his work multiply it is time for it to be more widely celebrated.

Stephen Plaistow, 1998
(pianist, writer and radio producer)

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