‘Look after yourself’: Music for keeping in touch

An original composition by Lewis Coenen-Rowe

21st century life has increasingly come to be defined by the strange combination of distance and proximity that comes from sustaining long-distance relationships with friends and family. While it is becoming common to find those we are close to living far away from us, through the mediation of technology—email, Facebook, FaceTime, Skype— it is now possible to sustain a sense of proximity, which both collapses the physical distance and heightens our awareness of it.

This is certainly true of my own experience of keeping in contact with friends and family living abroad and I wanted to write a piece of music that communicated something about this experience. I was inspired by the postcards that I frequently receive from my father as a means of staying in touch and decided to use fragments of them, which I recorded myself speaking, as the basis of the piece.

As a result, it is a very personal work based on my own individual experience, but it hopefully should resonate with others who have experienced a similar feeling. By combining and fusing the familiar and strange, I aimed to write music that would translate the actual experience of long distance relationships as well as thematising them.

The piece, entitled ‘Look After Yourself’, is made up of two distinct elements: an electronic soundscape through which are threaded various spoken texts drawn from the postcards, and a piano part that I play myself when performing live. The texts, full of references to travel and distance, are subjected to various processes of distortion that render them either familiar or strange, distant or close, while the electronic elements shift between the comforting and the disconcerting. Originally there is a clear distinction between the electronics and the live piano, but as the music develops this is blurred, with distorted elements of piano music mixed into the soundscape. Eventually the piece reaches a crisis of technological defamiliarisation before reaching a comforting conclusion, where the spoken text finally appears in undistorted form.

The title ‘Look After Yourself’ references the sign-off that my father always uses in his postcards and this phrase provides the comforting connecting thread throughout the piece. It is sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, and sometimes layered into complex swarms of sound. It serves as a reminder that, while there are inevitably trials and tribulations to sustaining long distance relationships, the trace of human caring always remains, however diffused by distances both physical and technological.


Lewis Coenen-Rowe’s compositional studies have included a music BA, with Dr Deborah Pritchard, an AHRC-funded MSt with Robert Saxton and Martyn Harry at Oxford University, and an LAHP-funded PhD at KCL, with Silvina Milstein and George Benjamin.  His PhD is concerned with research into issues of immediacy in the perception and cognition of contemporary classical music. As a composer, he has worked with the Oxford Philomusica, the BBC Singers, Lontano ensemble, the New Music Players, Ensemble ANIMA, the Cavaleri Quartet, Mark Simpson, Jonathan Powell and Richard Casey. He has also collaborated in the foundation of various music projects including the Oxford RendezVous concert series and Spectra Ensemble. Lewis’s current compositional projects include work on a chamber opera based on a libretto by Kurt Schwitters, scheduled for performance in April 2017. More information is available on his website at lewiscoenen-rowe.com and sound recordings are available at soundcloud.com/lewis-coenen-rowe.

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