Research@Schulich: Laurence Willis

Laurence is a PhD student in music theory, and his article “Comprehensibility and Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9” is about to be published in Music Theory Online.

Laurence Sinclair Willis is in his fifth year of a PhD in music theory at the Schulich School of Music. He recently worked on a performance analysis project at the Kunst Universität Graz, Austria (PETAL). He has two forthcoming book chapter translations on Giacinto Scelsi, and is also working on a larger book translation project. Laurence has presented at a variety of international music conferences including the Society of Music Theory, EuroMac, and GMTH. Laurence previously studied at the University of Surrey in the UK.

His research shines a spotlight on American composer Ben Johnston’s just-intonation music. Johnston, now in his nineties, wrote works where he set aside the notion of equal temperament and instead explored just intonation (where the gaps between notes are tuned to precise numerical ratios). Laurence's research abstract states that "Johnston became aware of the disconnect between Western art music composers and audiences. He therefore set about composing more accessible music that audiences could easily comprehend." 

Where are you from?

I am from a small village outside of Bedford in the UK, which is a sleepy market town in middle England where the medieval king Offa of Mercia was buried.

What made you choose McGill for your studies?

Three main reasons: the rigour of the program, my supervisor (Jonathan Wild), and Montréal.

How has McGill influenced your work?

I have learnt a lot from people of many different backgrounds (both musically and more generally). I think that has made me more empathetic. I only started writing on many of my main research areas since coming to McGill, so McGill has definitely changed what I write about.

Explain your research in three sentences or less:

I trace the evolution of tunings across Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9 (written in 1988) and its perplexing notation that the composer hopes will make music we can easily understand. In this quartet, every note is tuned in allegiance to another pitch by a whole-number ratio. This produces some truly novel and startling sounds that seem unusual but we can hear are related to pitches we are more familiar with.

What led you to this particular topic?

I became interested in tuning at high school when my (brilliant) music class teacher told us about how our tuning system (equal temperament i.e., twelve equally spaced notes per octave) only approximates pure ratios. Then, when I heard the third movement of Johnston’s quartet, I realized I needed to learn more.

How does your work add to what is already known?

There have been a few analyses of Johnston’s music, but never taking such a wide view of a piece. I try to keep away from simply describing pitch materials in the abstract and instead give more credence to form and harmony. I also argue that the features I find in his quartet bear out his wish to produce music that is easy to understand.

What are the practical implications of your research?

In all aspects of my research, across other topics, I am interested in enriching the listening experience. I consider it an analyst’s duty to reveal aspects of compositions that are not obvious on casual listening. For the majority of people, listening is where we have our most profound musical experiences, so I always hope I can make those experiences deeper while developing ideas that can be used in different contexts.

What are your next steps?

Right now, I am working on my dissertation (on late romantic piano music), which I hope to complete this year while also producing publications on mixed music, fugue, and late romantic tonality. At the same time, I am translating a book on globalization from German to English that should be finished by December. After that, I will try to get a job!

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

Take things easy and don’t overwork yourself. Listen to your body and your mind: you will work better when you are rested, happy, and have plenty of time off. Your weekends are your own. It is entirely possible to complete your graduate studies (wherever you do them) without taking liberties with your mental health.

Where is your favourite place to study?

I like the lower floors of the library (the library in the Elizabeth Wirth building is amazing, and the librarians are very helpful), or a café (Humble Lion and Pikolo are close by and do a good filter). I like a slightly buzzy room when I work.

Where in Montreal can you be found in the weekend?

A classic Sunday for me starts with brunch, continues with a long walk or a swim, and ends with a few beers with friends at Vices & Versa.

What is your earliest musical memory?

My first memory where I can really pick things out is playing blind man’s bluff with music in the background in a room full of balloons. One of them exploded and it made me laugh.

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

I once seriously considered becoming a spy(!), took some aptitude tests, and made an application, but thought better of it. I have often wondered about becoming a lawyer: I think people who do a good job in family law and thereby help protect children are real heroes.

What was the last book you read?

Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons. It is a really great collection of poems from one of the most exciting Jamaican poets. The language is fantastic, but I am even more drawn to the flexibility of his metre.

If you were offered a return plane ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?

I love the sea, I love archipelagos, and I can’t really deal with too much heat, so as boring as it might sound, I would go to the Hebrides islands off the West Coast of Scotland. That is my idea of perfection, even in the rain.

If you could invite any four people to a dinner party, who would they be and why?

I have real option paralysis answering this, so I will try to make some unusual picks. Katie Ledecky (the greatest freestyle swimmer over 400m, which is clearly the best distance); Chris Morris (a satirist who created The Day Today, Brass Eye, Jam, and Four Lions—he rarely gives interviews and I have many things to ask him); Emma Thompson (an exceptionally funny comedian, actor, and writer); Kendrick Lamar (for obvious reasons).