Composer Lyell Cresswell, whose music can be heard in concert tonight, has created a new work with Fiona Farrell

"I'm not a laptop type of guy," Lyell Cresswell protests when he has to confront technology, projecting his music on to a screen for a special composers workshop in the University of Auckland's Music Theatre last Friday.

Our most distinguished expat composer has returned from Edinburgh for the first performances of his new song-cycle, The Clock Stops, with Jonathan Lemalu and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan.

"Things don't change in this country and it does make me realise that I really belong in New Zealand," he says.

Cresswell is not fazed by a 70th birthday coming up "even if it seems somehow like crossing the bar".


He points out that he was born in the same year that Schoenberg contemplated coming to New Zealand. For the moment he is content to be 69. "It's a good number - the same upside down as it is the right way up."

Cresswell has a quirky sense of humour, which may surprise those who encounter him through his prize-winning Piano Concerto and Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra on his latest Naxos CD.

He has been a freelance composer, living off commissions, since 1980. There have been residencies and academic fellowships but "teaching would take up the energy I need for my own work", he says. "I'm extremely lucky to have this kind of life, with no one behind me telling me what to do."

At last week's tribute concert for Jack Body he entertained with his wry and warped cartoons, one of which wittily replaced the muscles on a Renaissance figure drawing with a patchwork of musical notes.

Cresswell likes the whole thing of pen on paper and is glad he was brought up to write music by hand.

"In those days you'd make pages and pages of pencil sketches and then there was the task of turning them into a score. It's a process that computers have now put an end to but I liked it because it gave me time to think."

The new song-cycle, The Clock Stops, which opens tonight's concert, finds Cresswell working with Christchurch poet Fiona Farrell. The 11 songs were spurred on by the Christchurch earthquakes "and then things took on a much broader form", Cresswell says. "It's more or less a history of various cities, from the Turkish Catal Huyuk of 9000 years ago to the modern cities with their skyscrapers and skateboarders; from their birth to their destruction, whether it be through human or natural causes."

Cresswell is happy to confide the secrets of a songwriter. The vocal line is always written first, "because the rhythms come out of the words", he stipulates. "In fact, every member of the orchestra is playing some rhythm derived from the text."


He admits he has favoured writers such as Ron Butlin, whose poetry fuels the two song-cycles so beautifully sung by Madeleine Pierard on Cresswell's 2009 Naxos album, The Voice Inside.

The Clock Stops is his third collaboration with Fiona Farrell. "The ideal text is neither poetry nor prose but something in between. You can't have the density of poetry, nor do you want the expansiveness of prose."

He reads out one of Farrell's short poems that has a Joyceian stream of consciousness in its staccato listing: "Flag flap. Chop. Hack. Stack, Sack." In the song-cycle, these words are snapped out by the singer in between great barks of orchestra.

Initially, Cresswell seems worried about the idea of word-painting, but now he admits that "words bring colours to the composer. So often word-painting is a pejorative description, but in fact it can be a positive thing".

What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra - Hear & Far

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, tonight at 7.30pmThings don't change in this country and it does make me realise that I really belong in New Zealand. Lyell Cresswell