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.
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.