Meet the Artist……David Braid


Who 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 1901 Arts Club on Friday 9th May with pianist Sergei Podobedov. They will premiere their new (2014) transcriptions of works by Sweelinck plus Byrd, Gibbons and other composers from the C.15th/16th Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, alongside first performances of new duos and solos by David Braid, plus various solos by Chopin and other later composers. Further details 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