New Zealand composer Lyell Richard Cresswell was born in Wellington on 13 October 1944. He learnt to play the trumpet when young, growing up in a Salvation Army family. After studies with Douglas Lilburn at the Victoria University of Wellington and further studies in Aberdeen and Utrecht, he settled in the UK in the 1970s, although keeping his New Zealand connections. From 1985 onwards, based in Edinburgh, he was able to compose full-time.
His output, widely performed and broadcast, included concertos and orchestral music, choral, chamber and solo instrumental music, and is recorded on various labels including Delphian Records, Métier, Naxos and NMC. Significant works include Voices of Ocean Winds (1989) for orchestra and Dragspil (1995), a concerto for accordion and orchestra.
As a self-imposed exile, Cresswell always described himself as a New Zealand composer, and was fascinated by the Trojan priestess Cassandra, describing her as 'the ultimate exile'. The stage work Shadows Without Sun (2003), for singers, live and recorded speaking voices with orchestra, draws on his own experiences in exile, combined with stories of exiles in Scotland and New Zealand, and that of Cassandra. Cassandra's Songs for voice and orchestra, setting words by Scottish poet and novelist Ron Butlin, explore themes of belonging, exile and identity. Cresswell worked regularly with Butlin, and two stage works, The Perfect Woman (2008) and The Money Man (2010), are further examples of their collaboration.
As Cresswell got older, he thought that his music was becoming lighter and quicker. 'What I'm doing is writing my own biography.', he said in 2016. 'If I were doing it with words, I'd just be telling a pack of lies, but when I'm writing music I find it’s impossible to tell lies. I'm telling my story, my view of the world, in terms of feelings and emotions.'
Following a battle with liver cancer complicated by COVID-19, Lyell Cresswell died at his home in Edinburgh, aged seventy-seven, on 20 March 2022.
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