Meet the Artist……Kenneth Hesketh, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My musical life began as a chorister at the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool in 1977 when I was nine, but singing had already been a part of my life (winning local music festivals for solo singing), which is the reason I went to audition at the Cathedral. After joining I was given piano lessons and other basic theoretical training. From about the age of ten, I was composing a number of things which further supported my initial forays into composition; primarily the unwavering support of my mother and grandmother who purchased a piano and reams of manuscript paper. Various BBC programmes on music at the time engaged me; my parents mentioned a James Blades programme on percussion that I was enthralled by before I want to the Cathedral and I subsequently took up percussion alongside piano. I also fondly remember the Stravinsky centenary programmes on BBC 2 in 1982. The support of the organist at Liverpool Cathedral, Ian Tracey, a lovely piano teacher, Dorothy Hill, who was also an opera fanatic who would invite me to accompany her to Opera North seasons in Liverpool for a number of years. Singing high quality choral music of the Italian renaissance, English Tudor and even 20th century periods, all of these cemented my need to live in music.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

It dawned on me about 10 years ago that one reason much of my work is saturated by activity against sustained resonances comes from my childhood memories of the acoustical properties of the Cathedral building.  The sort of aural glow that is present in that building (and sometimes, musical confusion!) seeped into my head at an impressionable age and has remained ever since. The reverberation of a large acoustic space also suggests ambiguity, doubt and distance to me. Also, the nature of ritual and text, the rich, reflective nature of space and echo, all left their mark on me.

Music of the Franco-Russian period – orchestral music mostly – was important when I was a very young composer and remains a pleasure for me to this day. I was lucky from the age of 13 to have my orchestral work performed by the Merseyside Youth orchestra and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. From 2007-2009 I was the RPS Composer in the House with the RLPO which felt like a full turn of the wheel and a wonderful homecoming. About the age of 12 I had composition lessons from composer Steven Pratt (I remember that mine would often follow Steve Martland’s lessons) and he challenged my rather safe musical horizons with works by Berg, Messiaen, Boulez, Hugh Wood (his teacher) and other repertoire I would not have come across myself at this time. Three composers followed who have had a profound influence on how I believe a composer should be, Edwin Roxburgh, Oliver Knussen and Henri Dutilleux – fastidious in work, with acute musical ears and generous in spirit and nature.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Maintaining space – both physical and mental – to work, to stay on top of commissions, to teach and be an active and present father to my young son. The musical challenges have been to remain true to the real inner voice and how to express it as clearly as possible, which also has a direct impact on technical issues of notation and performer psychology.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The challenges may come from the terms of the commission,  the constraints of the instrumental forces, the duration, the context which the new piece will find itself in (I’m not a fan of ‘themed’ or anniversary commissions but take them anyhow) and so on. The solving of these problems is also the pleasure of working on a commissioned piece. Solving a self-imposed technical issue (formal, harmonic etc.) and conveying something of the deeper intended affect or mood – without simply priming people in a programme note! –  is also a challenge/pleasure coupling.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

As scores are only the best possible ‘model’ to aspire to in realising a work, one hopes that it can be executed as conceived in the rehearsal time allowed. One also hopes that a collective situation can be arrived at where I feel the piece is well represented and speaks as intended (expresses its nature) and that there has been a transformative journey, for all involved – audience, performers, myself.  Working with technically brilliant and artistically informed musicians is one of the great pleasures of this musical life, as is the celebratory drink after a premiere!

Which works are you most proud of?

The ones which seem the most authentic to my ‘inner voice’ (perhaps even musical conscience) and also the ones where I’ve taken technical and emotional steps beyond my own initial expectations. This, in the happiest of circumstances, can lead to a synthesis of things I was only dimly aware of but which then become a foundation to build on in the following work.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are a great deal of established musicians and composers from the past and present who I find exciting, and even close to, that cover different musical genres (art music, medieval music, Moorish music, folk music). But I suppose it is the people that I have established a long-term working relationship with (and usually personal friendship) that are the most interesting and that I favour.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

To be honest I find performances nerve-wracking (perhaps a reason I gave up giving them myself) so I try to put them behind me or at least view them in hindsight.  However, my Prom concerts – be they as a performer (I was in the National Youth Orchestra of GB as a percussionist) or composer – are very special memories. Going onto the stage with an audience at the RAH is a hard experience to beat. But then, when I was 17, accepting the applause of a Liverpool Philharmonic Hall audience after the premiere of my early symphony, and more than two decades later accepting the applause on the same stage for a large work for orchestra, choir and tenor and being greeted with a warm and extended applause once more, these will also remain in memory.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Strive for technical mastery; be honest to your inner creative impulse; be curious and listen, read and experience art in all its forms; challenge yourself regularly if not daily (ask hard questions); make connections and get your name and work out there, however distasteful or difficult you may feel it is. If you wanted an easy profession you took the wrong turn.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still here.

Pianist Clare Hammond has released a disc of solo piano music by Kenneth Hesketh. Featuring Kenneth’s masterpiece, Horae (pro clara), a series of twelve miniatures written for Clare in 2011/12, this disc features a further three works which illustrate his kaleidoscopic approach to colour and the incisiveness of his imagination: Notte Oscura, Three Japanese Miniatures and Through Magic Casements. The disc is available now on the BIS label.

Described by Tempo magazine as “a composer who both has something to say and the means to say it”, Kenneth Hesketh’s work has met with widespread critical acclaim. He is a composer fluent in multiple genres and has worked with leading ensembles and orchestras in Europe, the USA, and the Far East.

He has received commissions from organisations including the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Göttinger Symphonie Orchester and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group amongst others. Hesketh’s work has featured at the Prague Premieres (Czech Philharmonic orchestra), Tanglewood, Munich Biennial, Beijing Modern Music, ISCM (Korea) and Gaudeamus Festivals. Appointed Royal Philharmonic Society/ PRS Foundation Composer in the House with the RLPO, his works were performed and broadcast as part of European City of Culture events. His music has been recorded on the London Sinfonietta label and has been the subject of a number of portrait discs on the NMC, BIS, Psappha and Prima Facie labels.

Hesketh’s early interest in other artforms, be they classical architecture, medieval iconography, poetry or Bauhaus constructivism, have more recently included a fascination with entropy, mutation and existentialism. His work has been described as “pure music, in possessing – because the notes seem to be creating their own harmonic and rhythmic forces and processes – a great freshness.” (Paul Griffiths).

Hesketh has worked with an array of important conductors including Sir Simon Rattle, Vasilly Sinaisky, Vasily Petrenko, Susanna Malkki, Ludovic Morlot, Pascal Rophé and Oliver Knussen who was an early champion of his work. Christoph-Mathias Mueller and Clark Rundell have also championed Hesketh’s music in Britain and Europe with orchestras including the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, SWR Sinfonie Orchester Baden-Baden and Ensemble 10/10.

His works for chamber and solo forces have been performed by Nicholas Daniel, Hansjorg Schellenberger, Sarah Leonard, Rodney Clarke, Sarah Nichols, Christopher Redgate, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Clare Hammond. Commissions in this genre include the Endymion Ensemble (in honour of Hans Werner Henze’s 75th birthday), the Festival Présences (Paris), the Munich Biennale, Kissinger Sommer Internationales Musikfestival, ensemble Psappha, the Continuum ensemble, the Michael Vyner Trust for the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble contemporain de Montréal and the ASKO ensemble.

Hesketh’s music for the stage covers subjects as disparate as the Brothers Grimm and DNA. Commissioned by The Opera Group and Phoenix Dance Theatre, his work has toured nationally (including performances at the Royal Opera House in London). He has also composed music for three art films, all sharing an interest in the bizarre and eerie on celluloid.

Kenneth Hesketh is professor of composition and orchestration at the Royal College of Music, honorary professor at Liverpool University and active as a guest lecturer and visiting professor.

“Hesketh’s music is beautiful, complex and restless … His response to musical form is particularly remarkable … The colorful orchestration and palpable verve in the individual gestures and large-scale construction make me want to return to them again and again.” American Record Guide