Meet the Artist……Bernard Hughes, composer

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

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember once making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

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

I had an influential music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music. I have had a number of excellent teachers along the way, but the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

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

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

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

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. I had a commission that got more and more precise; in the end it had to be a wordless choral work based on a visual work of art by an artist I knew. And the piece turned out to be quite unusual as a result.

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

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers. When you have a piece sung by them you can be confident they will get it right – working with children as I do much of the time, there is always the possibility for a collapse. But technical expertise is only half the battle; it is particularly fun to work with groups and individuals who enjoy the challenge of new music.

How would you describe your compositional language?

A question composers tend to dread. First, I would certainly say that my language is different from piece to piece, depending on the circumstances and context. Next, I would say that I am interested in using tonal materials in a non-tonal way, if tonality is interpreted narrowly as meaning music that has a sense of home key and a hierarchy of other keys, and that modulates away from and back to the home key. Under this narrow definition, Steve Reich’s music, for example, is not tonal, although it uses diatonic chords. This is a fertile ground for me (although my music sounds nothing like Reich). For example, my choral pieces often use diatonic chords, but I am rarely able to write a perfect cadence. I am also interested in the use of modes, such as the octatonic collection, or invented modes. In summary, my musical language tends to be a bit ‘safe’ for those who like hardcore modern music, and a little bit tricky for those who like straightforward ‘classical’ music.

How do you work?

I use a mixture of pen and paper and computer. I am at the tail-end of the generation trained pre-computer notation – I first got Sibelius in my 20s, when it was a new (and by today’s standards, primitive) software. I now don’t know how I ever managed without a computer. First thoughts for a piece usually come on my feet, either walking round the block or in the shower. Notes will often first come at the piano, sketched onto manuscript. I also often print out music at an intermediate stage and write onto the printout with amendments. I think it is so useful to have visible drafts – one of the downsides of a computer is that once you change a note, the original is gone. But the main use of the computer is for checking the pacing of a piece – which is, for me, the ultimate challenge. Do the events of the piece happen at the right psychological moment?

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces I have written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music (she is also an extremely kind and generous person), Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Adès, Julian Anderson and a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who I only discovered through reviewing a CD.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

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

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s tape collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.

‘I Am The Song – Choral music by Bernard Hughes’ was released in April 2016 on the Signum Classics label. More information

‘The Knight Who Took All Day’ from the book by James Mayhew with music by Bernard Hughes will be performed on Sunday 29th January 2017 at Hertford Theatre, Hertford, conducted by Tom Hammond. More information

Bernard Hughes studied Music at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, graduating with a first-class degree. He subsequently studied composition at Goldsmiths College, London under Peter Dickinson, and privately with Param Vir. Bernard Hughes was awarded a PhD in Composition from Royal Holloway College, London, studying with Philip Cashian. Bernard Hughes is Composer-in-Residence at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London.

Bernard Hughes’s music has been broadcast on Radio 3 and King FM in Seattle, and he appeared as a conductor on the Channel 4 series Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century Greats. Bernard writes regularly for theartsdesk cultural review website.

More about Bernard Hughes here