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.
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.
So far I’ve always found Berlioz difficult to enjoy. Nice to be reminded other people find him truly inspiring! I’ll have to keep trying. Talking of teachers’ advice, the bit of advice I was given by a composition teacher which sticks with me is, if you feel a composer is becoming an undue influence on you, turn your attention to the composers who influenced him or her.