I think it was probably a combination of discovering that I could make my own sounds on the piano as a very young child and also hearing Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) on a tape recorder, which I can still remember vividly. Later I became obsessed with the Beethoven Piano Sonatas as I tried to learn how to play them, but soon became more interested in mimicking their sound in my own modest piano compositions. Beethoven has remained a great influence on my work. I was also very lucky to have the encouragement of my piano teacher and parents, who never questioned my interest in composition, but did provide very useful constructive criticism when required! As a result of this, I can’t recall ever making the decision to be a composer. This path was simply inevitable. Like many of my colleagues, I think that composing is not so much a choice or career, but really a very intense compulsion and almost a way of life.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished creating a Live Music Sculpture for St Paul’s Cathedral, which will be premiered on 12th July 2013 as part of the City of London Festival. The site-specific work will involve singers and French horns which are placed spatially throughout the cathedral in various horizontal and vertical locations, including the Whispering Gallery. It has been designed to explore the unique acoustic of Wren’s architectural masterpiece. I am also working on an original story and libretto for a new chamber opera commissioned by Size Zero Opera.
Who or what are the most important influences on your work?
Usually I turn to literature for inspiration. In prose and poetry, the construction of phrases, form, ambiguity, the importance of context and semantics have a great deal in common with music. I have been directly influenced by the prose of James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann very much, and also the poetry of T.S. Elliot, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. These influences are always changing. I am not so aware of musical influences and try to avoid thinking about these too much!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenge so far was probably composing a Live Music Sculpture for the very long and narrow space above the River Thames inside the walkways of Tower Bridge. The space was so long that the sound behaved in a very unusual way. There was a significant audible delay while the sound travelled from one end of the bridge to the other, which had to be built into the composition.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble/singers?
The most exciting thing about working with an ensemble of musicians is hearing how a collection of entirely different personalities can unite for a period of time to bring to life the vision of a composer through performance. An imagined or written down piece of music exists in a different kind of intangible reality until it is actually performed. And even then, the way that music works is still wonderfully elusive. I think many composers are delighted when they can finally get out from behind the desk and hear their work materialise in rehearsal and performance. One hopes that there will always be unimagined revelations and pleasant surprises brought out by the performers, but also a confirmation that the imagined sounds of a composition are actually achievable. It is thrilling when an ensemble performs a new composition with the same expressive commitment as they would Brahms or Mozart and are able to channel all their knowledge and experience through new music.
It can sometimes be a challenge to convince an orchestra or ensemble that the virtuosic difficulties or conceptual ideas are worth all the effort, but also just as challenging as a composer to learn that the vision isn’t working, and that it needs refining in the next composition after speaking to the players or simply listening to the performance!
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
I have been privileged to write for a great variety of venues, so it’s almost impossible to choose a favourite. I’m enjoying working with St Paul’s Cathedral very much at the moment and attempting to discover some of its architectural secrets.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Again, there are some many it is hard to pin them down! I am a great admirer of Pierre Boulez, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the pianist Krystian Zimerman. As well as enjoying their extraordinary compositions and performances, for me, these three different musicians epitomise what it means to have artistic conviction, as well as complete dedication and a rigorous approach to their work. I am also a big fan of Leonard Bernstein who seemed to be the most remarkably gifted all-round musician. He was very much ahead of his time as a thinker and a great educator.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The first time I heard Mahler’s 2nd Symphony with the CBSO as a student was a huge moment. Despite having got to know it well on record, the sheer scale of the thing was overwhelming in performance. It is extraordinary to consider how Mahler was able to control and organise form over such expansive amounts of time. I will never forget the devastating emotional gravity of the Urlicht in the fourth movement after all the preceding orchestral bombast! This must be one of the most poignant and beautiful moments in Mahler’s entire output.
What is your favourite music to listen to?
Bach, Beethoven, Purcell, Szymanowski, Maxwell Davies, Britten, Puccini, Boulez, Mozart, Sibelius, Mahler, Schubert, early Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams and Berg.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
I think it is very important to have conviction when composing or performing music. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, nobody else will. And more importantly, if you find that you can’t believe in your work wholeheartedly, turn that doubt into something constructive until you can believe in it. It is also important to have a very strong connection to the past, as well as a clear vision for the future when composing or performing music. However, it is easy to be seduced by both, and actually the most important place to be is in the present. We should ask ourselves: What matters now? And what can my music say about the present? And the connection between the past and future will hopefully be there instinctively, for the same themes returned to by humanity over and over again are always eternal.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have a very beautiful 1920’s horned gramophone which plays old 78s. I often listen to fantastic 1920s/30s and 1940s popular music and jazz on it, as well as wonderful recordings of classical music. It’s fascinating to notice how the tempi were often altered to fit each movement onto one side of the record. The sheer effort involved with winding the thing up and changing the needle just to hear about 4 minutes of music, as well as the crackly sound quality, provides a wonderfully different listening experience. It turns a very short listening session into a major event as everybody gathers around the horn to listen. It’s definitely not the same as casually flicking through an ipod!
Samuel Bordoli’s new work, Live Music Sculpture 3: St Paul’s Cathedral, will be premiered as part of the City of London Festival, with five performances Friday 12 July, taking place at 11.30, 13.20, 14.20, 15.20 and 16.20 in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
For the concert listing: http://www.colf.org/whats-on/612-live-music-sculpture
For more information on Samuel: www.bordoli.co.uk
For more information on Live Music Sculpture: www.livemusicsculpture.com