Tag Archives: British composer

Jim Aitchison: inspired by Richter

“I like to compare my process of making art to the composing of music.”

Gerhard Richter

Composer Jim Aitchison draws inspiration from his personal interactions and relationships with some of the leading twentieth-century and contemporary artists in the UK and beyond, including John Hoyland, Richard Long, Antony Gormley, and Sir Terry Frost. In 2008/9 he was commissioned by Tate Modern, Henry Tillman and Jill Bradford and the PRSF Foundation for New Music to respond in music to the gallery’s Mark Rothko exhibition, the largest Rothko show for 30 years. His response was performed in the gallery amongst the paintings with horn player Michael Thompson, counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton and the Kreutzer Quartet.

Jim Aitchison’s latest project is his personal musical response to the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter and traverses aspects of Richter’s work such as chance, sequence , distance and memory to create a unique concert experience. Aitchison’s Portraits for a Study explores real geographical distance, for the work will be performed on four pianos simultaneously at four different venues, using Yamaha’s Disklavier technology. The “live” performance, and the trigger for the other simultaneous performances, will take place at the University of Falmouth, where pianist Roderick Chadwick will play the “parent” instrument. The other three pianos – at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths College and Yamaha Music, London – will be played remotely via broadband data transfer, and the exact nuances of Chadwick’s performance will be created in real time. Pictures from the Tate’s 2012 Gerhard Richter show will be projected during the performance.

Richter’s practice of passing the same images through a variety of processes or filters is also explored in Aitchison’s work: he has recomposed the same music for string quartet. It will be performed by the Kreutzer Quartet at the RAM and transmitted to all the other venues by audio link.

This fascinating blending of music, art and technology takes place on 22nd February 2014. I asked Jim about his influences and inspirations, his particular compositional methods, and how he translates his responses to a particular art work or works into music.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

From being relatively unaware as a child, the world of music crashed into my dim 11-year-old awareness in the form of Arthur Rubinstein’s coruscating RCA Appassionata recording, followed a little later by the televising of Vladimir Horowitz’s final London concert in 1982. I had never encountered eloquent intensity of this magnitude. In hindsight one might question aspects of the magnificent fading drama of Horowitz at this stage of his career, but the experience was electrifying and ushered in many years of preoccupation with 19th and early 20th-century pianism. I began composing at around this time with various futile attempts to emulate the major exponents of this, and it took a long time and significant effort to escape from thinking solely in terms of piano sonority, texture and timbre. In terms of becoming a ‘real’ composer (if I ever have done so) this emerged extremely slowly, and I consider myself very much as a late developer.

Who or what have been the most important influences (including non-musical influences) on your composing? 

Regarding sources of musical influence, these might appear conventional: largely Euro-centric art music, with a particular interest in the aura of the 19th century, but very much thinking of this in terms of how to engage with it now, and what such music might mean as experienced in the present with all of the complexities, problems and paradoxes therein, neither trying to create some kind of illusory, sanitised re-formulation of the past for the purposes of hiding from the present, or an amnesia-based rejection in order to repel the influence of the past.

This sense of ‘present’ in terms of a place to think about the past, and the here and now, manifested itself in around 2001, when I discovered a hitherto unrealised link in myself between the visual and the sounded, embodied specifically in using aspects of visual artworks to create music. Bringing my musical material into engagement with the gallery space and with some of the procedures and approaches used by contemporary artists has been a transformative experience for me as a composer.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

To date, I think encountering the work of Gerhard Richter and attempting to respond to it in music has perhaps been the most challenging and rewarding for me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers? 

It is almost impossible to answer this complex question, without the danger of propagating potentially meaningless and deceptive platitudes, as there are so many variables within any one person’s path and what is around them. I can only offer the rather lame suggestion that one should try to be as true as possible to one’s self, but perhaps make sure to ask, continuously throughout life, what those notions of ‘true’ and ‘self’ mean.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? You will have to wait and see!

What is your idea of perfect happiness? An ‘idea’ of happiness is something I try to be very wary of.

What do you enjoy doing most? (when not working) Walking in solitude, followed by good coffee.

What is your present state of mind? Restless

You say that your work is inspired by or in response to particular artwork/s and/or artists. Does a particular artwork/s prompt an immediate musical response in you, or is the process longer, more of a case of “living with” the art?  

Occasionally the response can be quite swift in onset (particularly the case here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH8zK5W-l7A), but usually it is a long and painful process of building a kind of scaffolding from the visual to the sounded. I particularly value the process of attempting to apply procedures in music that an artist has used in their visual construction, and this can become very involved, almost like learning aspects of a language before being able to say anything useful in it.

What are your intentions when composing with a painting as the subject?  

  • to “explain” musically the painting?  
  • to “extend” the painting? 
  • to make your own personal interpretation, musically? 

I think I would be absolutely horrified if anyone thought that I was attempting either to ‘explain’ or illustrate or even worse, ‘extend’ an artwork. I don’t even like to think of it as a ‘personal interpretation,’ rather, I prefer the idea of a conversation between different art objects, where the original art work might give me a set of starting points from which to create my own piece of music that may take off in its own directions. If there are illuminating links between the art and the music, then so much the better, but I do not see the artwork as a ‘life-support’ machine for my music and I don’t see either as necessary to ‘explain’ the other.

The interpretation of colour introduced into a musical composition – is that present at all?  

I am not synaesthetic, so there is no direct physiological correlation within me that I can draw upon to link colour with some kind of sounding outcome. However, the expressive and structural effects of colour that I encounter do inevitably find their way into the mix somehow. Previously, I have contrived intuitively simple correlative schemes between colours and different harmonies, which I have found very useful.

Portraits for a Study is inspired by the work of Gerhard Richter whose work contains distinct working methods/elements. How have you referenced these aspects in the music, in both the composition and the ways in which the piece will be performed? 

  • CHANCE  

Are there any particular musical techniques you have employed to achieve these aspects? 

Yes, all of those elements you mention I have used to greater or lesser degrees within the pieces. Of all of them, abstraction in the sense that Richter uses it is rather hard to define here: as I understand it, in many other artists’ approaches to abstraction, what may be considered as a drive to transcend reality coupled with a kind of essentialising process, is in Richter’s hands, more a process founded upon establishing its own reality through the accumulation and erosion of visual material: a surface, not a doorway. In the case of my responses in Portraits for a Study, I decided to largely steer clear of direct engagement with this huge part of his output, though I hope to concentrate on this in a future project.

Chance and uncertainty, limited and mediated through formal procedures, have played an enormous role throughout Portraits for a Study, in a variety of ways. From harvesting and re-assembling tiny fragments of music by Bach and Beethoven according to simple pre-established rules, to creating transcriptions of photo-improvisations, to applying rigid filters to large spans of material, to using strict methods of cutting and re-ordering material, where the outcome of this is uncertain. Uncertainty is also built into the performance configuration itself: there is no way of knowing exactly how much of the data transferred between the remote Disklaviers over the Internet will come through and how this will affect the sounding result, as this is significantly dependant upon many variables.

Blurring, scraping off or erasure, palimpsest, the blow up, mechanical reproduction and copying, multiples and sequences (such as seen in the colour charts), are all filtering strategies that I see as establishing distance, levelling out, relative anonymity, and an aspiration towards the non-subjective intervention of the artist (a goal that I think is perhaps debateable in terms of whether it is always entirely fulfilled). I have sought compositional applications of all of these things: mechanically copying a whole Rondo by Dussek and then in one case blurring it almost beyond recognition through simple musical means, and in another, taking a fragment from the same piece, blowing it up six-fold and then completely erasing it and filling its duration with something else. In another instance, solo string pieces by Bach are buried under layers of musical ‘over-painting,’ some carefully contrived, others more coarsely applied. Multiples and sequences are used throughout the pieces, in the re-patterning of assembled fragments or in more intricately ordered cutting and re-positioning of segments of improvisations. Once again, the performance configuration is intimately invested in this: multiples, sequences and distance are created quite literally with 4 linked Disklavier pianos spread over 300 miles, and then the same material performed and transmitted again, re-composed for string quartet.

Has your investigation of the work of Gerhard Richter, which has significantly demonstrated the value of painting in the 21st century, assisted you in your question “what is the ‘correct ‘ kind of music to write in the early 2lst century”? 

I would say that Richter’s art has enabled me to find some kind of permission to remain entirely uncertain about this, and reassurance that this is OK, even if it still feels uncomfortable, confusing and worrying.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, for example the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Roderick Chadwick?  

I have been collaborating with the Kreutzer Quartet for nearly 10 years, and it has been an immense privilege to work with colleagues and friends who are true artists. The only real challenges are found in the great distance I live away from them, and to produce work worthy of their skills: I am indebted to their patience in dealing with my inadequacies. This is the first time that I have worked with Roderick and, once again, I am utterly spoiled by being able to collaborate with such an extraordinary musician.

Has working with other musicians’ influenced/changed/stimulated your creative processes?   

Absolutely, not only do I get almost instant feedback and data on critical aspects of the pieces written for them, but also wholly new insights on the music in rehearsal and performance that I hadn’t considered, and I also find early involvement with them often gives me indispensible approaches that I would not have thought of otherwise. This is what happens when you are able to work with musicians who have such breadth and depth in their wider artistic interests.

What are the particular challenges of working in a multimedia format, for example, with the Yamaha Disklavier?  

Firstly, I feel I ought to emphasize that the new music is actually written for solo piano (as well as in a different version for string quartet), not Disklavier, and as such, I hope that pianists may be interested in it in future. But yes, the idea is that the music will be performed on the Disklavier piano in this case, making use of the Disklavier’s ability to be connected to many other Disklaviers across a network. Thus, the sense of distance and automation apparently present in aspects of Richter’s art will be referred to via the configuration of one live pianist at Falmouth University triggering 3 remote Disklaviers 300 miles distant, to play exactly what he plays, and exactly how he performs (the potential for chance data aberrations in transfer notwithstanding), at the Royal Academy of Music, Goldsmiths and Yamaha Music London.

composer Jim Aitchison (photo: Richard Bram)

There are immense technical challenges in doing this and in reversing the polarity, when we will transmit the Kreutzer Quartet performing the re-composed version of the same music back from the Royal Academy of Music to all the other venues via audio-visual link. We have run a whole series of tests between the various institutions and will continue to do so up until the performance on 22nd of February 2014. The main challenges are logistic (co-ordinating a large group of people comprised of several different teams across 4 remote venues and from several other participating organisations, accessing and organising spaces and getting equipment transported and set up over a wide geographical area), and technical (dealing with the idiosyncrasies of a large communication system with many components devised and set up especially for this project).

One of the joys of working like this however is that of building fruitful collaborations, both existing and new. In addition to the wonderful musicians, Arts Council England, The PRS for Music Foundation, Yamaha, Falmouth University, the Royal Academy of Music and Goldsmiths, and with wonderful support from Tate, we have also been incredibly fortunate to find a new collaborator in the Europe-wide Vconect video conferencing research project that includes major partners such as EURESCOM – European Institute for Research and Strategic Studies in Telecommunications, British Telecommunications plc, Portugal Telecom, Alcatel-Lucent Bell, Goldsmiths University, University of London, Stichting Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung, JOANNEUM RESEARCH Forschungsgesellschaft and Falmouth University (http://www.vconect-project.eu/h)

Attend one of the performances:

University of Falmouth

Royal Academy of Music, London

Goldsmith’s College, University of London

Jim Aitchison’s biography

Meet the Artist……Martin Butler, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

It was the organ at Romsey Abbey. I was in the choir from the ages of about 8-10 and just had to get my hands on it! I could read music well and used to page turn for the organist. I begged him to let me play it, but he refused to let me until I’d got Grade 5 piano. By the time I did, I’d entirely lost interest in the organ and was already starting to get really interested in composing. But I bet there aren’t too many other 10-year-olds who know Bach’s complete organ works (from recordings)!

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

Composers: Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Berio. Teachers: my main one (at the RNCM) Anthony Gilbert – I owe him so much in ways he never understands, however hard I try to explain to him; also Berio; and Paul Lansky and J. K. Randall at Princeton University. And then there are individual musicians I’ve admired and learned from at different times in my life and in different ways – Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Bernstein, Richard Barrett, Pat Metheney, Miles Davis… Right now I’m working with the folk singer Chris Wood, and finding him very inspirational. And playing in and writing for my band, notes inegales, and launching our Club recently with Peter Wiegold has been terrifically important to me. I’ve also found the landscapes, folk music and history of the United States musically stimulating ever since my teens.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I think ‘career’ is a daft concept, especially for a composer! I feel I’ve been lucky that people have wanted to play and listen to what I write (and sometimes pay for it too), and thankfully continue to do so. I suppose the greatest challenge is to keep what you do fresh and honest; and accepting that if you’re in it for the long haul, this means getting up every day and ploughing on, even when you don’t feel like it.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

Quite often a commissioned piece will be for a combination, or in a genre, or for an occasion for which you have little or no enthusiasm and it can be a challenge to drum some up! But that’s a good challenge. A composer should be flexible that way and it’s part of the job to adapt and tailor ideas to the task before you. If you can’t, don’t accept the commission. On the other hand, a commission can sometimes be collaborative and involve working with others to develop ideas and new ways of creating. When that works successfully it’s a deeply pleasurable experience, not least because it means you’ll have learned something new.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

It’s always a pleasure to write for or play with long-standing musical friends, simply because you know them well, can play to their strengths and can make music borne of a deep knowledge and understanding of their musicianship. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several such relationships, but I’d single out the Schubert Ensemble: I’ve written 4 or 5 pieces for them over the last 15 years and they’ve played a couple of these in excess of a hundred times! Each time I hear them play my music, it’s more ingrained and natural but also always fresh and illuminating. Playing with notes inegales on a regular basis is the same. We do a lot of free improvising, and it’s got to a stage now where we can predict what each other is going to do, individually and collectively – but not exactly: there’s always an unpredictable dimension, an element of risk that keeps our relationship exciting and fulfilling.

Which works are you most proud of?  

My two operas – Craig’s Progress and A Better Place because they involved the most, and the most varied kinds of work, including some wonderful collaborations! Also my orchestral piece, O Rio, and a handful of others that still ‘work’ for me after many years (in some cases). But, as always, everything is far from perfect and I own up to being yet another artist who’s never satisfied…

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

Not really. Our lovely basement bar at Club Inegales is a fine place to be for me right now!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Lots, of course. But I’ll always remember sitting in on rehearsals, then a performance of The Rite of Spring by my old college symphony orchestra (RNCM) when I was a student there. It was totally galvanising and revelatory – I learnt more then about how an orchestra works than at any time since. Also, my first ‘Ring’ cycle. There are no words.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Diligence; preparation for boredom, frustration and being misunderstood; faith; generosity of spirit; healthy mistrust in authority; no cutting corners; and above all artistic honesty.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m working with Chris Wood on a big piece that we’ll be performing at Club Inegales with the band. There’s also an oboe concerto waiting in the wings, plus a handful of smaller things. I’m one of those composers who can only work on one thing at a time, though…

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

More or less where I am now, doing the same stuff, only better. And with an even better understanding of cooking.

The spring 2014 season of Club Inegales opens on 13th February. Further details here

Martin Butler was born in 1960 and studied at the University of Manchester, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Princeton University, USA. From September 1998 to July 1999 Butler was Composer-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the United States.  He is currently Professor of Music at the University of Sussex. 

Butler’s works are widely performed and broadcast both in the UK and abroad.  He has received commissions from, amongst others, the BBC (O Rio was first performed at the 1991 Proms), the London Sinfonietta (Concertino and Jazz Machines, of which the latter was played at the 1995 Venice Biennale), the Schubert Ensemble (American Rounds and Sequena Notturna) and the Brighton, Cheltenham, Canterbury, Norfolk & Norwich, and Presteigne festivals.  

In June 1994 Mecklenburgh Opera premiered the operatic adventure story Craig’s Progress, which was adapted for radio broadcast by BBC Radio 3.  His chamber opera A Better Place was premiered by ENO at the Coliseum in London in July 2001, and Two Rivers for choir and orchestra was premiered by the Oxford Bach Choir and The Britten Sinfonia in December 2001. Sentinels for string quartet and viola was premiered by the Brodsky Quartet and John Metcalfe at the 2006 Brighton Festival, and William Howard gave the premiere of Funérailles, a substantial work for piano, at the 2006 Norfolk and Norwich Festival. 

From 2006-8 Butler was the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s first ever ‘Composer in Focus’. The orchestra performed several large scale works during this period and his tenure culminated in two major performances of a new commission for the orchestra, From the Fairground of Dreams in January and March 2008 at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Recent works have included a Saxophone Concerto, commissioned by the Presteigne Festival, and Rondes d’Automne, a nonet premiered at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival and shortlisted for a Royal Philharmonic Society award in 2012. 

 As a pianist, Martin has been active as soloist and with a number of ensembles, and is a founder member of the improvising new music collective, notes inegales. He is Associate Director of Club Inegales. 



Meet the Artist……David Braid

photo dbWho or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My mother initially taught me the piano at home and I also took regular violin lessons. However, in what may be a glaring example of ‘instrument-determinism’, I never really enjoyed music until I found the guitar via a new Headmistress that arrived at my primary school: a wonderfully charismatic singing, accordion and guitar-playing nun from Ireland called Sister Annunciata. Incidentally, I’m still in touch with her – I always send her my ‘products’; my CDs, book, etc.

She taught me the guitar via Elvis/Beatles/Abba songs and everything just clicked from then, there was no question that I was not going to be a musician. I spent much of my teens playing guitar in rock bands, the fiddle in Welsh folk groups and after a brief fascination with jazz (specifically Django Reinhardt) I arrived at composition via classical guitar in my later teens; taking it joint-first study with guitar at The Royal College of Music.

I suppose it was a natural progression from emotive immediacy to complexity as one matures; having said that, I always loved Bach even when I was young and often raided my father’s vinyl collection; to listen to his organ music especially.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Sibelius – the incredible logic than you can hear clearly even on the first hearing and the sheer physicality of how the music moves through time.

Messiaen – outstanding, transcendental beauty an ‘other-worldly’ character that one cannot quite explain, his strong religious belief and spirituality transcends the notes, in a similar sense to how one can almost ‘taste’ the humanity and idealism in Beethoven.

Lutoslawski – precision, concise argument, clarity and large scale sweep of energy, what a craftsman!

Britten – he’s someone I grew into much later I have to admit but his skill in handling musical time, expectation and narrative is second to none of his time and he can be incredibly moving.

Shostakovich – such profundity; I can‘t understand how people can hold up figures like Stravinsky as being that important or even interesting when a giant like Shostakovich was around.

John Dowland – perfectly exquisite songs, not bettered since that I’m aware of – his songs are easily on the level of Schubert’s and I actually personally prefer them, although this is subjective (I also play the lute). Also, that British songwriting sound (still clearly audible in The Smiths for example – who are in a sense the true heirs to the Elizabethan school) means a lot to me.

Sweelinck – he’s truly remarkable and original – sitting on the divide between the Renaissance and Baroque periods; so lyrical yet a real contrapuntal animal to his guts!

I, together with the pianist Sergei Podebedov, have recently made some arrangements of his organ music for semi-acoustic archtop guitar and piano. We are premiering these at 4pm on July 21st at The Studio at St. James Theatre in Victoria. It is a great privilege to play this music. He is one of the best composers I know of – from any period!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Finding a modus vivendi that allows for the necessary peace of mind to compose and practice while earning enough money to have a civilised existence (as much as one can at this early stage of our evolution). I have finally achieved this by also working as a journalist, this frees me completely from teaching commitments and from doing any music that is not 100% on my own terms. Time is not an issue, I have no interest in sport or other such distractions – I find composing for more than 3 hours a day to be counterproductive, for me at least.

Another massive challenge – ‘though one that has largely disappeared now – was getting people to play my work. Very hard to do when you’re first starting out. One solution was to play/conduct it myself, the other is that I have a number of loyal friends from my college days, who are first class musicians and have helped me a lot by performing my work. This has naturally led to other contacts and opportunities

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Commissions are truly a double-edged sword, and although I’ve been fortunate to receive a fair few, I would never want to rely on them for a living unless I had quite a choice to pick from – although I’m not sure anyone has that luxury.

It is vital – to me anyway – that I follow each piece with the logical outcome that follows it, i.e. each piece informs and points to the next, even if only by contrast. To have this guided by someone else (or worse a ‘panel’) for mere cash is not something I could ever accept.

The last commission I had was for the incredibly well-armed (technically) choir, Chapelle du Roi for a piece at St. John’s Smith Square, I really loved doing this as I never had to think about limitations and writing for a cappella choir is about as pure as it gets.

Having said this, I’m not interested in dense complexity, experimental screeching, or other such dated things: it’s rather that the choir would know how to interpret and phrase a line and bring a piece of music to life without me having to guide them.

Other commissions, such as a few film scores I did, were less interesting really. Essentially the role of a film composer is that of a decorative artist, you’re not free to follow any musical logic but rather just provide a bunch of audio moods, signals and wallpaper.

I’d certainly turn down another film score offer unless it was something truly amazing such as a time-loop science-fiction film that allowed me to do interesting things with the formal structure. I think in the future the idea of music serving film may be reversed as people’s listening habits become more sophisticated; although who knows, anything can happen – no one saw the internet coming!

A move towards more musical sophistication appears to be happening though: the hold of the more primitive forms of popular music is finally slipping as seen in the arrival of such things as ‘post-rock’, the strong interest in the often highly-complex music of other cultures, and the innovative programming ideas of holding classical concerts in more social settings such as Wilton’s music hall.

People love music – the problem that (good) popular music faces is the greed and associated controlling aspects of major recording companies that spoil it all.

I would be very happy indeed to see the major labels all collapse through piracy and file sharing – poetic justice! The smaller independents such as Linn/Toccata/Guild are amazing – models of enthusiasm and true love of music. These would flourish without the obsolete behemoths of Virgin, et al around.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

It is a pleasure when working with good people who have an inquisitive mind and are not there simply for the money. Otherwise it is a compromise and is frustrating. I have been pretty fortunate though in that I have, more often than not, had first-rate players and sympathetic people who really get what I’m trying to do.

Although I had a brief spell as a ‘hairy-chested’ modernist, I have moved away from this over time and generally have very few or no problems in rehearsals as I try and make everything totally clear and natural for the players in the score.

Going back to modernism for a second I would like to say I that I have come to the conclusion that it is now largely (with some obvious exceptions) unfortunately morphed into intellectual onanism and appeals to no one at all outside those composers and academics who rely on it for their very living from the various grants/arts funding bodies that support it.

It has become a dictatorial institution with Boulez as its ‘Dear Leader’. This is ironic given that it started as a rebellion. However, the fire that existed in those early modernist works is long gone as it has now become the establishment. The same thing happened to Rock and Roll, which is why punk was absolutely necessary in order to kill it stone dead and allow new things with real integrity to then flourish.

This doesn’t mean we have to write in pastiche or turn to simplistic popularism, we clearly need to look ahead, but the standard fare of atonal, or just ugly, meaningless squawk one always hears at contemporary music concerts is now a hackneyed cliché and insulting to intelligent open-minded people who have paid good money to come and hear music – I can no longer bear to attend such things. I, like most of the public, would rather go to the cinema and see a well-made artwork which has cultural relevance.

I would say to a young composer – be a rebel! Write something in D major, annoy your professor, but make it so damned interesting and beautiful that he/she has nothing to say; that is the real challenge for us now.

Contemporary classical music in the UK occupies exactly the same space as bullfighting does in Spain – it is entirely supported by the state and is ignored by 95% of the population. Take that support away and allow it to attempt to function as a genuine living art form that is an honest deal between listeners and composers – it would most certainly die in the time it takes to play a Bach prelude (one of the short ones!).

Given a choice – although I believe very strongly that all funding should be cut for new music and given to hospitals instead – in order to breathe new life into it, I would sooner see all funding cut from bullfighting of course!

Which works are you most proud of?

Hard to say – they all have something(s) that could be improved. The setting of Pablo Neruda I did for soprano and string quartet, ‘Morning’, works ok. I’ve had very strong feedback about it – people seem to love it. It’s the first track on my current CD with Toccata Classic. Steve Reich called this piece “Very honest stuff” so I suppose I got something right.

I’ve been writing a lot of lute and guitar music recently which I perform myself – I enjoy this so much, it feels so free playing one’s one music, I can change, improve things – improvise a little here and there. It’s a wonderful thing. I always feel it’s a shame that so few composers perform their own music (or even perform at all) I think they’re missing out on tactile, immediate and invaluable feedback on what works the best and most importantly – why.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I love the Wigmore’s sound but it needs to bring in a younger audience or it will turn into a museum. This cannot be done by pulling in DJs and other trendy things that they tried to do recently – that just insults intelligent people.

They should give free tickets to all music students as matter of course. They should also give free hire (as opposed to the £1400 it costs) for music graduates for their first 4-5 years after college.

This would allow for fascinating and energetic projects to happen naturally and the players would bring all their friends and probably fill it – it’s not that hard – I’ve nearly filled it once. It would bring strong and long-lasting loyalty to the hall among the young and would actually make economic sense over less than a decade even. Otherwise, the way things are going, it could become another shop for expensive medical products like the others on Wigmore Street, this would be a tragedy. They also need to stop commissioning composers – one contemporary piece on a programme is enough for many music lovers to not attend. This is a sad truth and something that composers need to address urgently by re-engaging with the public instead of experimenting on them!

I also love the Barbican main hall though I’ve not had a piece done there. I love its clean modern lines and bright acoustic bounce. The Southbank is great too – a real feel of democratic openness pervades the entire complex: I love it. I’ve had a couple of Southbank things, it’s always been brilliantly done from their side and the halls really have something special about them.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Performers (living): Baroque violinist Andrew Manze, lute players Jacob Lindberg and Paul O’Dette, Julian Bream, Marta Argerich, Murray Perahia, the Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Emma Kirkby and Johnny Marr.

(Dead) – Glenn Gould, Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, Solomon, Wanda Landowska, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Thomas Beecham

Composers – largely covered above in the answer to Q.2 above though I love so many others too of course.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Julian Bream at the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in the early 1990s – it was perfect. It’s not only that he sings though the instrument but rather that he is the greatest such singer of all that I’ve heard (since Gould died). I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Ignore all fashions such as atonality, the new tonality, minimalism, new complexity, etc., and listen to your instinct, never compromise on your values for any reason.

Ask yourself why you want to be musician, if the answer is anything less than – “because I have to /I’m compelled to” then give up the place to someone who can say that.

Try to listen and understand everything, even music you don’t like, to find out why you don’t like it. Is it because something in it doesn’t work (this can be the case – don’t feel bad about coming to that conclusion) or is it because you have cultural blinkers on? This is not easy.

If you’re going for composition learn counterpoint and fugue properly – don’t just brush across it like they teach at the colleges here (skimming it in ‘techniques’ lessons is not even close to being good enough for a composer).

Write about 15 of them in different ways, chromatics, doubles, 6 voice, the lot. Study Bach and Buxtehude very closely. This will show you how the vertical and linear aspects of music combine to make music with depth; one dimensional music is not acceptable.

Once this is mastered you can apply it to any style: Fugue is not a form but a way of thinking. If you can’t be bothered doing this then do not expect to be a strong composer, go and work in the city instead – at least then you’ll have a good wage and is much easier than music!

What are you working on at the moment?

Funnily enough given my advice above, I’m writing a prelude and double fugue for clarinet, semi-acoustic archtop guitar and piano. I will premiere this at The Forge in Camden in January.

What is your present state of mind?

My standard nervous alternation between grim dissatisfaction and bliss plus total confusion as to the absurd state of mankind and the world – this is very good – it compels me to act!

David Braid performs at The Forge on Wednesday 22nd January. He will be joined by pianist Sergei Podobedov and clarinettist Peter Cigleris in new transcriptions of Sweelinck and new works by David Braid, and solo piano works by Chopin, Prokofiev and Schubert-Liszt. Further details and tickets here

London-based Welsh-born composer David Braid studied at the Royal College of Music from 1990-94, taking joint-first study in Guitar with Charles Ramirez and Composition with Edwin Roxburgh; also attending the composition classes of George Benjamin.

David later attended the Cracow Academy of Music in Poland, studying composition with the late Marek Stachowski and Zbigneiw Bujarksi, subsequently going on to The University of Oxford (St. Anne’s College) under Robert Saxton.

In addition to the UK, David’s work has been performed in the USA, Germany, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Sweden and South America. Recently, the string orchestra version of his setting of Pablo Neruda’s poem Mañana, ‘Morning’, Opus 3, was premiered in Moscow.

David Braid’s full biography

David’s debut recording of Chamber and Instrumental Music is available on CD or to download from Toccata Classic. Further information here

Meet the Artist……Richard Greer, composer


Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I have never thought of it as a career. It is something more than that.  As far back as I can remember music has been the thing in my life, is and will be.

Who or what were the most important influences on your composing? 

Dr. Gordon McPherson, Ravel, Morton Feldman, John Adams, Steve Reich, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Olav Anton Thommessen, Harrison Birtwistle, Bartok, Shostakovich, Talk Talk, Prefab Sprout, Bach, Admiral Fallow, A-ha, John Martyn, Ligeti, Koechlin, Satie, Nicole Lizee, Nancarrow, Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Webern, Yannis Kyriakides, John Cage, John Lautner, William Boyd, Steven Hall, Zoe Strachan, Primo Levi, Van Gogh, Rothko, Rembrandt, Pollock, Renee LeGrande, David Hockney, Stanley Kubrick, John Keats, Robert Burns, Norman McCaig, Wilfred Owen, Marion Colyer, Shakespeare, Star Trek, Sergei Leone, nature, travel, science and space flight.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Every piece offers its own challenges. If I were to pick one it would be the first proper piece I wrote for orchestra – Ridge A. It is all about the coldest, driest and calmest place on earth which was discovered in 2009.

I spent nine months writing it alongside the rest of my folio in the final year of my BMus  and the technical leap it required from me was significant. I studied a lot of the orchestral repertoire and sat in on orchestral rehearsals at college. I realised afterwards that Takemitsu and Sibelius were important influences on the piece.

Standing in front of eighty people and answering questions about your work is quite intimidating, but it was a great experience in the end. The orchestra played it beautifully. The conductor, Christian Kluxen, was fantastic and I hope I can work with him again.

Which compositions are you most proud of?

I was very proud to be commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on their collaboration – ‘Heart of Govan’ – with CRAN Theatre to celebrate the peoples and history of Govan and their historic Govan Parish Church.

Also my piece ‘Sober Observer Sees (HD)’ to be selected by Ensemble Modern for performance in 2012.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

My favourite venue in Glasgow is The City Halls, which sound fantastic.

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

Ravel’s ‘Piano Trio in A Minor’ and ‘La Valse’, The ‘Adagietto’ from Mahler 5, Ligeti’s String Quartets, Thomessens ‘From Above’ and ‘Beyond Neon’ .

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Lots! Many for different reasons. I love Glen Gould, especially his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Nina Simone is a very powerful performer.

I have been lucky enough to have had some incredible performances of my work and I am very grateful to the hard work and dedication shown by those musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The guitarist Pavel Steidl visited the RCS twice and each concert, all solo guitar, were amazing.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Work hard, be true to yourself but admit to yourself when you know other people’s advice is valid. Always do what is best for the music, not yourself, and have fun. Only write music you love and write about what you want.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently making final edits on a 15 minute solo guitar work called ‘Treasures’. It is in three movements and is about the relationship between memory and objects, such as old photographs. It is dedicated to Anthony Winton.

I am about to start work on a new piece and there are a few projects in the pipeline.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Living on the coast of the Mediterranean and supporting myself by commissions!

Richard Greer was born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland where he has recently completed a Masters in Composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland studying with Dr. Gordon McPherson.  His works have been performed by various individuals and ensembles, including Guitarist Sean Shibe, Soprano Claire Thompson, Trumpeter Andrew Connell-Smith, MusicLab, the Viridian Quartet, The Expedition, Red Note Ensemble, Said Ensemble, the RCS Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on their ‘Heart of Govan’ Project, and Ensemble Modern.


Meet the Artist……Jenni Pinnock, pianist and composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I started improvising and composing as soon as I began playing. My teachers, friends and family were very supportive, nurturing and inspiring throughout, and I spent all my breaks and lunchtimes at school singing, playing, improvising and composing nonsense songs with friends. I would write songs and play and sing in school concerts, and I remember helping to arrange music for the school orchestra at middle school! I knew from quite early on that writing and making music was what I had to do.

Who or what were the most important influences on your composing?

I believe my music comes from a melting pot of everything musical I’ve encountered – whether it’s music I’ve played, loved or hated, just experiencing it has an effect on my musical voice. However, some influences will have more sway than others. Javanese gamelan music has played a large part in my life for a number of years, and its influences can be heard throughout my music. Musical theatre is another huge influence on my music, alongside big band music, Beethoven, Debussy and Karl Jenkins. I must also mention that I find a lot of ‘current’ composers hugely inspiring – including many I’ve met through social media such as Twitter.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think the greatest challenge to many who work in the arts is the issue of balance in their lives. For me, it’s balancing composition with family life – especially when I’m looking after a toddler and a new idea bounces into my head!

Which compositions are you most proud of?

That’s a hard one! I’m proud of Surakartan Haze as it was the first full orchestral piece of mine that was workshopped and performed. I’m also proud of Bells in the Rain as it’s a piece I’m very happy with, and that I wrote in the first couple of months of my daughter’s life.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

As with most composers, I’m quite happy with any venue in which my music is to be presented! However, I’m becoming more interested in less traditional venues, which are consequently more accessible to those who are not normally accustomed to classical music. We need to do something to help engage others in classical music, and the traditional concert hall seems to be a large obstacle – so why not remove it from the equation? Venues such as Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and St Ethelburgas church in Liverpool Street, London are examples of venues I’ve visited or performed in recently that I feel make good, accessible venues.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I wouldn’t say I have specific favourites to perform, but two that would make the list (choir wise) are Fauré’s Requiem (as an alto) and the Chichester Psalms. I love playing in orchestras and big bands, but I find there’s something so personal and powerful about the voice. Listening wise, there are too many favourites to pick. Epic, powerful pieces tend to be my music of choice, with In The Hall of the Mountain King and Wieniawski’s Szcherzo-Tarantelle being high on the list.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, I don’t really have favourites. The qualities I admire and seek out in musicians are that they are skilled at their craft, but that they communicate through their music, and add that all important extra dimension to their performance.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are a few, but one in particular is Steve Reich’s prom celebrating his 75th birthday at the 2011 BBC Proms series. I was particularly mesmerised by Ensemble Modern’s interpretation of his Music for 18 Musicians.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think the most important concept is to remember that music is an incredibly powerful force, and that in the end it’s just that – music. It’s an organisation of sounds in time, and there are no rights or wrongs. Composers and performers of years gone by lived in musical societies where certain styles of music were the order of the day, or certain performance practices had to be conformed by to be accepted. That’s no longer the case, and we live in such a free musical society that nothing is wrong. However, as a result, there is a saturation of music everywhere, which can mean as composers we have a battle to be heard. My advice would be to be determined and keep working at it – and to value all your colleagues, as you never know who may help you find your next opportunity.

What are you working on at the moment?

My composition practice tends to involve working on several pieces at the same time. Right now I’m working on a Requiem (my labour of love, which gets some attention in between other projects!), a string quartet, and a collection of works for piano.

What is your present state of mind?

My state of mind at the moment tends to flick between happy and at peace, and slight frustration. I think I’m finally achieving balance and have a nice range of projects ongoing –the frustration comes in when the rest of the world takes over and I have the next section of a work in my head but no time to get it down on paper (or on computer!).

A unique combination of influences and interests help make composer Jenni Pinnock a distinctive voice in contemporary composition world. A versatile performer on piano, oboe and saxophone, a range of ensembles and opportunities have given Jenni an incredibly varied musical diet of genres, instrumentation and styles. Alongside more typical ensembles are the Javanese gamelan and church bell ringing.

Recent performances include her work Ori for small ensemble and electronics, her bassoon and ‘cello duet Double Helix and her art song Bells in the Rain. Current projects include a string quartet, a Requiem, and a work for brass quintet and electronics. In recent years she has had works performed at the International Youth Arts Festival, the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music (as part of the Orgelbüchlein project), and at Colchester New Music workshops and events.

Originally from Hertfordshire, Jenni graduated with first class honours from her BMus (hons) at Kingston University and then embarked on an intensive Masters in composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance studying with Stephen Montague and Greg Rose. A member of the ISM, alongside her compositional endeavours she teaches instrumental lessons and arranges music, both of which act as constant sources of inspiration. She is a member of Colchester New Music and Liquorice composers collectives.


Meet the Artist……Debbie Wiseman, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I’ve always been interested in melody, and when I started to learn the piano at about 8 years old, as well as learning the standard repertoire, I was also fascinated by how melodies worked and wanted to compose my own tunes. It was much later, when I studied at music college, that I realised that I wanted it to be my career. Although I love playing the piano, I was much more interested in creating and composing my own music.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

There were two big influences. One was a music teacher at the Junior department at Trinity College of Music, Philip Colman, who instilled a passion for music-making and a love of inprovisation which I’ve taken through into my professional life. The second was my composition tutor at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Buxton Orr, who was an inspiring and brilliant teacher.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Writing large scores in a very short space of time is always a challenge, but it’s something that I find much easier now than I did, say, 10 years ago. It’s a skill that is acquired with experience, and recently I scored a film called “The Whale” in just 3 weeks. The film had 45 minutes of orchestral music. My score for the film “Wilde” was written in just three and a half weeks, with around 60 minutes of orchestral music.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece, and on film/tv scores? 

The great delight of working on a film is that the inspiration is right in front of you, on the screen. It’s also hugely rewarding to hear your music performed by the very best orchestral musicians, usually as the ink is still drying on the manuscript paper! The challenges are always the time constraints – everything is composed to a deadline, and the deadlines seem to be getting tighter and tighter!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

We are so fortunate in London to have the most talented musicians to perform our music. I am constantly amazed by the professionalism, skill, and musicality of our session musicians and orchestras. I’ve worked with a vast array of brilliant session musicians, and I have also recorded many times with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Which works are you most proud of?  

I’m very proud of my score for the French film “Arsene Lupin”. It was an enormous challenge as there was over 2 hours of music in the film, and a huge variety of musical styles within the score too. We recorded over 3 days with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios and it was wonderful hearing the score brought to life by the orchestra.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

I’ve been very fortunate to have conducted at both the Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall and I love both venues! I have a concert coming up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on December 8th at Cadogan Hall which is always great fun. Come along! (Details here)

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I have many, but I do love the playing of Maxim Vengerov. He always tells a story with his performance which appeals to me as, when you’re composing for pictures, you are constantly aware of the story and the drama, and that the music must help the telling of the story.

What is your most memorable concert experience (as performer and/or as composer)? 

The last concert Christmas concert that I conducted at Cadogan Hall with the RPO was wonderful. The hall was packed and the audience were very responsive – we even had them clapping along during the encore!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

To be dedicated, hard-working and completely focussed on the music, whether playing it or writing it.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’ve just completed “The Whale” for the BBC – a film about the true-life story that inspired Moby Dick. I’m also writing the score for “A Poet In New York” – a film about the last days of Dylan Thomas. There is also a second series of the BBC drama “Father Brown” which I’ve recently completing.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

I enjoy being at the piano, writing music. It never loses its wonder and magic.

Debbie Wiseman conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall on 8th December in the Magic of Christmas, a concert in aid of the Breast Cancer Campaign. The programme features Debbie’s own compositions, and much-loved seasonal works by Tchaikovsky. Full details and tickets here

Interview date: October 2013

Meet the Artist……Judith Bingham, composer

Judith Bingham (photo credit: Patrick Douglas Hamilton)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I started when I was very small – my mother said I was 4, but I don’t think she really knew. The attraction was its secrecy I think – I was already playing the piano, and liked the fact I could have a secret world that no-one else could influence. I think the person who influenced me to make it my career was Berlioz, my teacher and friend during my teen years when no-one else took me seriously.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

Apart from Berlioz, two people really encouraged me when I was young, Colin Davis and Hans Keller: both were very selfless with their time though, of course, I didn’t appreciate that until I was much older. I was very lucky to have Hans as a teacher, – his Viennese background with its rigors and psycho-analytical slant suited me very well. He had a hugely improving effect on my writing and was also very kind. Musical influences were The Fires of London, French Baroque music, and probably singing in big choirs.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Being a composer for a living is continuously challenging! But I think the biggest challenge is being truthful in a world that worships fashion. Inner voices make you doubt what you are doing but there is no Art without Truth. I think as I get older there is a challenge of being brave and fresh and not just doing what you know you’re good at.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

I like the fact that every commission inhabits a separate world, it’s a totally different project from the last. As I was a performer myself for so many years I love working with musicians – I know that sounds obvious, but it is such a magical experience, the transformation from the page to the open air. Trying to get it right – the act of fulfilling the brief – while remaining uncompromised is the great challenge, especially in church music where there are so many restrictions.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

Whether they can do what you’ve written! That’s the heaven and hell of life for composers. All composers get a lot of bad or inadequate performances either through their own fault, – having written something that’s miles too hard for the commissioners – or short rehearsal time – or lack of empathy, or all three. A piece has to be very banal for people to get it straightaway, but often there isn’t enough rehearsal time for people to get beyond the stage of getting the notes right. This is the English disease. Often it isn’t to do with money but with a British distaste for too much emotional involvement. There is an idea that repeated performances take the place of rehearsal. But it’s tragic when people commission a big piece, only do it once, and spend most of the rehearsal time doing the Beethoven. The pleasure is when people really engage and go the extra mile – of course, they get more out of it this way, and the experience for everyone becomes extremely uplifting. The real magic happens when people feel free from worry about the notes and start to bring themselves to the performance, then the piece can really travel.

Which works are you most proud of?  

That would be a variable thing, and pride isn’t quite the right word, more a transient sort of satisfaction. But I would choose ‘The Ivory Tree’, a kind of dance drama I did for the Cathedral at Bury St. Edmunds. It was a project that went on for years and had some extremely fraught moments, but ended it fantastic performances.  I like mixing dance and singing, and would love to write an opera-ballet.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I am really eclectic with composers, though I have stopped listening to any sort of pop music. This might sound snobby, but it is more that there is only so much time. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Prokofiev. He is a composer with enormous range, and I love the ambiguity of his music. I am trying listen more to women composers, as more and more music is being recorded now, alas, generally by women. I like the discovery of Italian baroque music by nuns, which is gorgeous. Favourite musicians: Roger Norrington, Philippe Herreweghe, Marc-André Hamelin, and people I’ve worked with – Stephen Farr, Tom Winpenny, Peter Skaerved Sheppard, Chamber Domaine, Andrew Carwood – too many to mention.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are some terrible ones! But I can’t really do a league table of the good ones. When I was a student, performing in the Proms was overwhelming, especially Berlioz and Mahler. My first experience of the great roar of a full Albert Hall was extraordinary. Sometimes it is the small unrecorded events that stay with you, or a particular feeling of telepathy with other performers. You might expect big events, big names to be memorable. But it is often something more intimate where a transcendental kind of communication happens.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

I like what Peter Maxwell Davies said to students: ‘my first piece of advice is – don’t listen to anything I say!’ or words to that effect. I think I would say that integrity matters: this is even more true in today’s world, where things are remembered for ever on the web. The more you dilute your ideas and your identity the less anyone will value what you do. In the (very) long run what people want from a composer is individuality, and truth. It doesn’t mean an easy life though. Develop your ideas – the music doesn’t think for you. Read and think, and develop ideas on the big mysteries of life. There’s a lot of junk out there: the world doesn’t need any more.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m writing a piece called ‘A Walk with Ivor Gurney’ for Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae. The landscape of Gurney’s Gloucestershire in his words mingles with the memorials to the dead Roman soldiers buried there. It is fabulous to be writing for Sarah – a long time ago we sat next to each other in the BBC Singers. Now she is (in my opinion) one of the greatest voices of our time.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still alive, please, and compos mentis.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

No such thing.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Thinking, starting a new project, researching pet subjects.

What is your present state of mind?

Stressed as usual.

Born in Nottingham in 1952, and raised in Mansfield and Sheffield, Judith Bingham began composing as a small child, and then studied composing and singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was awarded the Principal’s prize in 1971, and 6 years later the BBC Young Composer award. Recent composition prizes include: the Barlow Prize for a cappella music in 2004, two British Composer Awards in 2004 (choral and liturgical) one in 2006 (choral) and the instrumental award in 2008.

Read Judith’s full biography here

Alex Woolf – debut album


Since I featured young composer and pianist Alex Woolf in the early weeks of my Meet the Artist interview series in 2012, I have been following his fortunes via Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing platform which enables people to fund projects of all shapes and sizes.

The recipient of a number of important awards, including BBC Young Composer, Cambridge Young Composer of the Year and the NCEM Young Composers Award 2012, and principal composer of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Alex’s work has been praised by Gramophone magazine and International Record Review, and has been performed and recorded by top artists including the Tallis Scholars, tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Malcolm Martineau, and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Now Alex is about to fulfill a long-held ambition, to compose and record his first album, ‘Red Handed’, featuring music for his first love, the piano. All the tracks on the album are performed by Alex and are inspired, in one way or another, by colour. Alex’s successful Kickstarter campaign provided the funding for the recording, and the album presents a journey through Alex’s unique sound-world: breathtakingly vibrant and deeply moving in equal measure.

The album will be released on 1st October and is available as a physical CD or digital download. For further information about Alex Woolf’s album please go to http://alexwoolf.bandcamp.com/album/red-handed. Join me in supporting this exciting young artist.

A taster of Alex’s new album:


Alex’s Kickstarter page

Meet the Artist……Alex Woolf


Hear a sample of Alex’s work

Meet the Artist……Ben Parry

Ben Parry, composer, conductor, arranger, singer and producer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and singing, and make it your career?

I guess my dad was my biggest inspiration – he was a church organist all his working life (he had a stroke 6 years ago and can’t play any more) and I immersed myself in church choral music from a very early age. All my brothers and sisters sang in the choir, as did many other local families, and I fondly remember great choral evensongs at the end of each month, including music by Stanford, Parry, Howells, Britten and so on.

Who or what were the most important influences on your composing? 

The British choral tradition – and, most importantly, Benjamin Britten. I was born and brought up in Suffolk – and have recently returned to live here (in fact I direct Aldeburgh Voices, the resident choir at Snape Maltings). I attended concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival and met Britten once in his sports car! The harmonic language of my own music is also tinged with my love of a cappella close harmony – the Great American Songbook, Latin styles and so on.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

My managerial and administrative roles as a director of music at St Paul’s School and Junior Academy in London have been challenging, as well as character-building! Having to make strategic decisions, which are sometimes unpopular, is difficult but often necessary, and sometimes I wish I could just get on with the music-making.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I conducted a production of Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors in Scotland – and Menotti staged it for us. I’d met him at a concert in Haddington by my vocal group Dunedin Consort (which I co-founded – something else I’m proud of) and he promised to work on it with me. My choral pieces Flame and Three Angels are special to me – Flame was my Proms debut last year, and Three Angels was sung by King’s College Choir on the TV last Christmas.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I’ve performed in many, many venues – New York, Los Angeles,Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, – but Snape Maltings Concert Hall takes some beating, as does King’s College Chapel for sacred music.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love performing Stockhausen’s Stimmung! It becomes other-worldly after a while, and quite trance-like. I’m not sure the audience feels the same way. I love listening to Beatles songs, which are timeless and so inventive. The Sergeant Pepper album is genius.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Who would I pay money to hear?!

Classical – Tenebrae Choir

Jazz/Contemporary – The Real Group (5 part Swedish a cappella group)

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Take Six at the Barbican in 1991, or The Rolling Stones at Wembley 1982.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Practice, of course, but love what you do, and always remember to learn from your experiences.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A piece for choir and orchestra, and strategic planning in my new role as Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. Plus all the other stuff!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A good work/life balance – but is it ever achievable?

Ben Parry has made over sixty CD recordings and his music is published by Peters Edition and Faber Music. He works regularly with young musicians as a director of the Eton Choral Courses and as Director of Junior Academy at the Royal Academy of Music. He has just been appointed the new Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.

Ben is co-Director of the professional choir London Voices, and worked with Sir Paul McCartney on his classic choral work, ‘Ecce Cor Meum’, as well as conducting and singing on many major film soundtracks. He regularly collaborates with writer Garth Bardsley, and their choral piece, ‘Flame’ was performed at the 2012 BBC Proms. He is also Music Director of the Aldeburgh Voices.

As a singer Ben has worked with Taverner Consort, Gabrieli Consort and Tenebrae and was a singer and music director with The Swingle Singers. As a conductor he has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Ensemble, National Youth Orchestra, Royal Symphony Orchestra of Seville, Vancouver Youth Symphony, Cumbria Youth Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Philharmonia Voices.


Meet the Artist……Alison Wrenn

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

My grandfather was a composer, so he definitely inspired me. My mum did a music degree when I was about 9 years old so we had a small music studio at home where I learnt to use Cubase. It was around then that I remember writing my first composition, a Morris dance that was used in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (my mum wrote the rest of the music for the production).

As for making it my career, I actually came to it fairly late – 8 years after completing my degree. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible to make a living from composing and I didn’t want to teach, so I took an office job to bring the pennies in. It’s only since getting married and having a baby that I’ve been able to stay at home and write music, but it’s been the best decision I ever made!

Who or what were the most important influences on your composing? 

I consider myself to be a self-taught composer, as I don’t recall ever receiving much direct feedback on my work. Even at university, our composing sessions consisted of listening to new music rather than learning compositional techniques and tips. This is my memory of it anyway! So my composing hasn’t been directly influenced by any teachers.

Instead, I would say that my main influence initially was music I had played in orchestras. I used to say that I wanted my music to have the harmonies of Debussy, the rhythms of Stravinsky, the Englishness of Vaughan-Williams, and the passion of Rachmaninov. However, since returning to composition in 2011, I’ve opened my ears to the wealth of new music that has been written since the time of those composers, right up to music being created in the present. As a result, my style has changed a little, I have learned a lot, and my ideas are more creative. I’ve started to look outside of music to find influences, for example ancient history and nature.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

As I left it so long after university, I didn’t have any tutors to promote me, enter me for competitions, or show me how to turn this from a passion into a career. I have had to do a lot of research into how composers get paid, how to be noticed, how to get my music performed, etc. I have also had to find the performers for myself, something which would have been a lot easier had I still been at university and surrounded by musicians. This has actually been a good thing though, as I have made connections with a lot of fantastic performers.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I’m extremely proud of winning the Yorkshire Late Starters Strings composing competition 2011/12 with my 15 minute piece “Battle of the Winwaed”. The piece was written for the YLSS, who comprise adult string players of grades 2-8. To get round the challenge of writing for mixed abilities, I split the cellos into parts 1 and 2, along with the usual 1st and 2nd violins, violas and basses. I also wrote parts for a solo violin and solo cello, to add more complexity for those players of the highest standard. The orchestra performed the piece twice in 2012.

I’m also very proud of my third string quartet, “Cross Quarter Days”, which was recorded in 2012 and has been released on iTunes, Amazon, and on my website. The piece is in 4 movements, each representing one of the four key dates in the Pagan calendar that divide the year into quarters. It represents a big leap in terms of my development since the second quartet, written just a year earlier, and I feel it’s the work that best represents me as a composer.

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

One of my favourite pieces to listen to is Michael Torke’s July for saxophone quartet. It’s so funky, I don’t think I could ever get tired of it! Other favourites include the Rite of Spring, Turangalîla, the Planets, Ravel and Debussy’s string quartets, White Man Sleeps by Kevin Volans, Gabriel Prokofiev’s Jerk Driver… I also listen to a lot of 80s pop music and Steely Dan!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Performing Turangalîla with the County Youth Orchestra at Snape Maltings, I think it was in 2003. Such an overwhelming piece to perform, and in such a fantastic venue. I feel very privileged to have had that experience. I remember walking off stage with my cello at the end and saying to the conductor, “wow, that was amazing!”.

Regarding performances of my own work, the most memorable is probably when I performed my own concerto for cello and string orchestra at university in 2002. Having my Christmas carol “On A Gentle Winter’s Night” performed in Guildford cathedral in front of 1000 people in 2001, and then its second performance in New Zealand last year, are also very memorable occasions!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Be true to yourself. Don’t give up. Have an open mind. Listen. Network. Take criticism constructively. Make things happen, don’t sit around waiting to be noticed.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m currently about halfway through my largest commission so far – a 25 minute suite for full symphony orchestra entitled “Legends of the Tor”. The work will be in 5 movements, each referencing a different legend relating to Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. The piece has been commissioned by my local symphony orchestra, after they successfully applied for a highly competitive “Community Music” grant from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. The community element will be the involvement of 5 local schools, who will each have a group of children composing their own music on the theme of “Myth and Legends”, with the help of workshops led by myself and members of the orchestra. The children will perform their pieces at the concert in June when the orchestra will premiere my piece.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

My goal is a commission for the BBC Proms! I’ve set myself a 10 year target, so we’ll see what happens! Failing that, I’d be happy to have my music performed regularly and to continue receiving commissions so that I can carry on writing.

Alison Wrenn’s new work for piano trio Between the Mountains and the Sea receives its premiere at the Halstatt Classics Music and Literature Festival on 17th August. Further details here


Alison Wrenn (b.1981) is a British composer, whose style brings together influences from the English Pastoral Tradition, elements of popular music and media music as well as strains of Celtic and some aspects of American minimalist music.

Full biography