Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Chance circumstance! I grew up in a tiny cottage with parents and three siblings, but close to my tenth birthday my grandfather died suddenly and it was suggested that I should go to live with my grandmother in her large farmhouse. From there being no space suddenly there was a great deal! There were few luxuries, but there was a piano, and my grandmother also had a general interest in music. Somehow I think that these two influences got me started. Before I had ever seen an orchestral score I had “invented” it, and by the age of 14 I had written three schoolboy symphonies etc…
Until the age of 16 I attended a very ordinary ex-Secondary Modern school (metalwork, technical drawing, milking the cows and horticulture). I recall taking my Midnight Symphony (80 pages of full score) to the music master one day who practically fell off his chair. He was very supportive and the piece was even performed by local music teachers. But my second stroke of fortune happened when I was awarded a scholarship place to the adjacent independent school. There they fostered my (probably quite thin) talent and enthusiasm for composing, and I was encouraged to apply to read Music at Cambridge.
How does a simple country boy end up there?.. Or three years later taking a doctorate?… I still wonder….
Important though all those were, I really had little idea of what I was doing, even less a voice or much technique. The Professor at Cambridge (I will not cause embarrassment by naming him) honestly told me as much; though I resented it at the time, he was quite correct. A few years ago I helped to commission a work from him, and gently reminded him… – we were both able to laugh!
In fact not long after my doctorate, and despite a fair degree of apparent success, I decided to abandon writing altogether. I looked through the microscope to see nothing; I also increasingly came to despise the whole new music world. So I hibernated for twelve silent years…
In 2001 I was suddenly fired up to write again. My good friend Michael Bell, pianist, directly challenged me to write again – it was a necessary, if rude, awakening! One of his students showed precocious musical gift and somehow these two catalysts, both playing in front of me daily, conspired to open my eyes to what had lain dormant. The result was a sudden flowering – it was as if a voice arrived ready-formed – the pen moved itself. I had never felt such confident ease in writing. This flood has remained undiminished now for fourteen years.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I am sure we can all think of specific “moments” – little glimpses of another plane. From my humble background of course everything was eye-opening, but as a teenager I was especially struck by encountering Schubert’s Die Winterreise, the delicate transparency that opens Peter Grimes, Strauss’s 4 Last Songs, Boris Godunov and so forth.
But the greatest sculptors of my musical psyche are the works of Leoš Janáček and Gustav Mahler, both of whom, like the painter Edvard Munch, dared to “compose their lives”, “to live in their compositions”. They taught me that music is not about playing games with notes, or some kind of “progressive scientific research”, but about conveying that life force that drives us, warts and all. We are each individual pebbles on the seashore, and each make our own splash in the ocean.
There have also been personal encounters: Robin Holloway, my first teacher, showed that one could fly in the face of orthodoxy (and God knows there is far too much of that “Emperor’s New Clothes-ishness” in the contemporary music world – …and recently, too!). His 2nd Concerto for Orchestra and Scenes from Schumann are personal favourites.
I learnt most perhaps though from Michael Bell. I truly think, through working with him daily in a music department and on recordings, that I finally understood how to listen, especially to articulation. There is a huge debt…
Recently I have become close friends Ondrej Vrabec, solo horn of the Czech Phil, and their Assistant Conductor. He has taken my music to his heart and become my greatest champion, commissioning and playing my horn concerto, and conducting other works.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? What are your frustrations?
I could mention having had to juggle my composing with a full time teaching post for many years. But far more significant is “the glass ceiling”, and sad to say, especially the glass ceiling in this country. The greatest challenge for any composer is a lack of interest. We need to hear our work performed in order to grow, and we are also fragile things on whom constant rejection takes its toll.
My real sadness is that so many of the people with power have no genuine interest in music, no inquisitiveness, and often no ears! I have lost count of the “jobsworths” who cannot get rid of one fast enough because the preconceived box cannot be ticked – it would not even occur to them to listen simply out of curiosity. Had I Beethoven’s talent it would be just the same. That is the greatest frustration, not anything more intrinsically related to inner struggle or personal compositional development.
Who are your favourite composers?
First and foremost, Leoš Janáček! I have held his walking stick, his conducting baton and the autograph scores of the Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass – incredible! One always hears his music as if it were for the first time. I admire hugely his coherent, cohesive sound world, his passionate drive, clear ideas, cunning textures and sparkling colours – how can one not smile every time!? I always do! Most of all, however, his was an utterly personal language but one which never lost its roots, or its connections with the listener. Compare this to what one now sees so often: a manufactured (and all-too-familiarly) empty desire simply to break the mould, or merely to relay the baton of progressive Modernism “logically” from one’s teacher to one’s pupil. No, Janáček had real genius.
….And then.. all the “wrong” people for a 21st Century composer…. Mahler, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Prokofiev, Nielsen, Sibelius…
What are your most memorable concert experiences?
Mahler 10, both as a young man and a few years ago at Symphony Hall, Birmingham with CBSO; and Jenufa at Opera North in 2015 – legs of jelly on both occasions!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
As mentioned above, I am still at heart a simple country boy. The sheer magic of hearing one’s music played at all whether by an orchestra, ensemble, or musician, has never left me; particularly working with an orchestra, a beast so varied and “improbable” – a mysterious coalescence of so many musical minds! And one never, never stops learning!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Challenges?… Well – in short, a deadline! How many composers have missed those!? But also not having total freedom in the parameters of a piece. I will say, perversely, that I have been fortunate enough not to have been commissioned that frequently and thus have had the freedom to decide my own agenda and timescales. However, contrarily, sometimes an awkward restriction, or unforeseen stipulation can force a creatively productive exploration – perhaps my Storyteller is an example – a mini-concerto for double bass and ensemble..
Pleasures?…. The opportunity to work with specific performers who “share the investment”. That combined journey is truly special. Of course a guaranteed performance is always welcome, and the time spent with like minds, often in a nice location!
Of which works are you most proud?
This is hard. For me I only succeed when there is a feeling of communion with the listener; of conveying some powerful idea successfully – and if I am shaken up by hearing it, myself! If I may slightly sidestep this question, I feel that perhaps my most significant work is the ongoing Steps piano series, which is an unusual and wide reaching project. This format, five large cycles comprised of smaller pieces, has great potential for colour, variety, and feeling of “journey” over a long time span without exhausting the listener. Like a song cycle, these short pieces can say a great deal.
But I hope also that in time my symphonies and concerti will stake a claim to scheduling. Perhaps my 2nd Symphony is the most epic of them – like Mahler’s 2nd it is my own “Resurrection”!
How would you characterise your compositional language?
This is often asked and so difficult to describe. My sensibility is Romantic rather than Classical. For me both emotional drive and a sense of free, organic growth are vital. I am with Mahler: music should contain all of life! My work is quite traditional in terms of genre, motif, development and perhaps also formal structures. One commentator said that I wilfully ignored recent stylistic trends, yet sounded distinctively modern. I hope so….
How do you work?
I grew up with pen and paper, but predominantly now I work on a computer with Sibelius software. I rarely use a piano. This might be surprising, given my general stance, but I have gradually made the process quite spontaneous. I work interactively with “realised instrumental sounds”, which again I have learnt to “hear past”.
Another composer once said that he had changed from a traditional “successive accumulation” technique to become more like a potter with a wheel – throwing on a slab of clay and subconsciously moulding “on the fly”. This is my method, too. It all starts very crudely, and hopelessly wrong, but gradually refines.
However, I never cease mentally doodling – all day, every day!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
For composers, maybe also for others, too, it is important not to try “to manufacture” a voice. So much of the 20th century is riddled with shallow people like that. One trick ponies who have grabbed a little nameable “-ism niche” for themselves. My “honest professor” above always used to say that a student should simply try to compose the best piece he can, and that if a voice is there it will emerge when it is ready.
Unfortunately the whole current arts system glorifies all the wrong things. Thus young composers and performers are thrust into the limelight (as I was) long before they should be, and are often discarded just as fast. What does one know at the age of 25!?…. To resist the “industry” and not simply to fill the expected template is very hard when one’s shelf life is ten years. For composers finding a true voice can take a lifetime. I wish this were better realised by promoters and broadcasters.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In truth, on a small island with perfect peace! Conversely, to avoid the tinnitus and deafness that may slowly now be robbing me of my art.
But more practically, I would like simply just to be writing, with others finding performances and recordings for me. So much time is wasted in being one’s own manager.
Artistically, I suspect that my voice is now quite settled and may not actually change that much… I am not a Stravinsky! But who knows… I would love to reach the obligatory nine symphonies (and Steps volumes)…
What is your present state of mind?
The “full half” of the glass is content to explore further my sound world, with plenty of projects in mind; the empty half is endlessly frustrated by being ignored and banging my square head on the institutional round hole.
World Premiere of Peter Seabourne Piano Concerto no.2 given by Kristina Stepasjukova with the Academy Orchestra of the Czech Philharmonic. The performance took place at the Martinu Hall in the Lichtenstein Palace, Prague on 12th March 2016 and was received with tumultuous, sustained applause and much comment. It has already been partly broadcast by Czech Radio: