Lachlan Skipworth is one of Perth’s most unassuming musicians. His friendly modesty is so easy to be around I often forget he is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful young composers. He is the 2016 composer-in-residence at the WA Symphony Orchestra and I thought profiling this local legend would be a great way to kick of the 2016 Celebrity Soft Spot series.

What music gets your heart racing?

I am quite a fan of fast and energetic music, even if it’s not immediately apparent from my compositions which are often slow. This includes, for example, Bartok string quartets, Steve Reich’s minimalism, Taiko drumming, the twisted genre of “math-rock” and many things in between. I’m a self proclaimed “closet-percussionist”. I must also say, WASO’s cycle of Brahms Symphonies was a pretty exhilarating journey last year.

What calms you down?

Most music calms me down, and I believe music is a language of its own which takes us away from the everyday. I also find a unique state of quiet concentration in playing shakuhachi honkyoku, the ancient solo pieces composed anonymously by the komuso monks.

You have a soft spot for the shakuhachi and the clarinet. What is the appeal of these very different instruments?

I actually don’t think they are so far apart. Obviously the sound is produced differently, but there are a few key similarities including the vertically style of playing and the sparing use of vibrato in the school of shakuhachi I learned. For me, the main appeal lies in the inherent melancholy in the tone of each, especially the chalumeau register of the clarinet and the breathy sound of the shakuhachi. I love the rich warm tone of the clarinet and its almost limitless technical capacity, while the shakuhachi draws me in due to its almost ghostly tone colours and subtle ornamental inflections of pitch and dynamics.

After a successful clarinet degree at UWA what led you into composition?

I seriously considered composition as my undergraduate major, however I’m very glad to have spent several years with the clarinet and its repertoire. Towards the end of that degree I composed my first serious compositions, however this was again hurriedly put aside as I travelled to Japan to learn shakuhachi for 3 years. Only my return to Australia did I pursue composition as my main focus.

Congratulations on being announced as WASO’s Composer in Residence for 2016! What a coup! What will be your involvement with the orchestra over the next few years?

Thanks, I’m really excited about this. I always looked up to the previous composers-in-residence: Roger Smalley, Iain Grandage and James Ledger, and to be the next in line is a true honour. I will write some works for the 2017 concert series, and will also assist on some exciting projects with EChO (the Education Chamber Orchestra) and collaborations with contemporary musicians.

How will you go working in the same organisation as your wife, WASO violinist Akiko Myazawa?!

We’ll probably pretend we don’t know each other – we’ll both be really nervous!

2015 was an epic year for you – Ashley William Smith’s premiere of your Clarinet Concerto was awarded Performance of the Year at the 2015 Art Music Awards. What is it like to hear your name called at such a prestigious award ceremony?

Skipworth and William Smith receiving the Art Music Award

 That was a real honour, but I admit to harbouring a healthy amount of hope. Anyone who witnessed Ashley’s performance will know he really pulled something special out for the occasion, and his vivid performance is still strong in my memory.

In October Dark Nebulae was selected as the Australian work performed at the ISCM festival in Ljubljana. And one of your compositions was toured nationally by the Song Company as part of their Michael Leunig – inspired concert. Which Leunig poem did you choose to work from and how did you go about creating the music?

I find the impact of Leunig’s work is often augmented by it being very succinct, so I chose to work on a very short prayer of his which is only four lines long. Before this appears in the piece however, I intertwined two Latin texts in a sombre and almost bleak harmonic language to create an atmosphere from which Leunig’s prayer appears as a light of hope.

Your composing career is getting off to a cracking start. Is it just me or is it moving really fast for you?

It is beginning to move rather quickly! Despite this, I feel I’m only just finding my “rhythm”, as in a stable but consistent writing habit through which I can get a lot done (though this unfortunately doesn’t avoid the usual artistic crises and deadline woes!). It’s also a pleasure to work increasingly with high-calibre musicians and ensembles, although one down-side is that I’ve had to start saying “no” to some projects I’d really like to do. I’m currently split over a decision to reduce my clarinet teaching load, because I find it really rewarding to share the art of music with the younger generation. Of course my students are all great talents (and personalities), so it will be a hard choice.

 Riley Lee performs Skipworth’s Light Rain with the Sydney Camerata

How important was the Australia Council Early Career Residency in 2013? Do you have concerns that these kinds of awards are currently being axed due to lack of funding?

The Clarinet Concerto grew out of the Early Career Residency and the success of that project has led directly to this composer-in-residence appointment, so it was indeed very important. The cuts to the Australia Council have been very disappointing on numerous levels; the arts world is such a fragile and interconnected eco-system that these major changes threaten to be catastrophic, especially at the grass-roots level. It is only through the health of the small-to-medium organisations that I was afforded the opportunity to hone my skills and be prepared for the bigger opportunities I’m now seeing. If we want our major arts organisations to be vibrantly celebrating great Australian work, we need a level of health and ongoing security throughout all levels of the arts sector.

How did you meet one of my favourite Australian composers Anne Boyd?

I was an admirer of Anne’s music and decided to contact her before I moved to Sydney to commence my Masters. She turned out to be the ideal teacher for me and despite recently submitting my Ph.D., I will most definitely continue to seek her advice. She has a very good knack of pointing me in the right direction during the composition of a piece, even if that right direction was occasionally (but rightly) to simply start again!

Do you have any other composers/mentors you are inspired by?

Another composer who has had a big impact on me is Jörg Widmann, with whom I studied for 2 semesters in Freiburg, Germany. I travelled there to “face up” to the European avant-garde, and it was a healthy clash of ideologies from which I took away a more fearless approach, a broader musical palette, and a greater appreciation of our link back to the lineage of great classical composers. 

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

It is all about the music but yes, I do have additional (un)healthy obsessions for cricket, Japanese comedy and ice-cream.

A huge thank you to Lachlan Skipworth for making the time for Celebrity Soft Spot. For information on the WASO residency go to
To keep abreast of performances of Skipworth’s music go to his website.