Meet the Artist – Dobrinka Tabakova, composer

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

At the time, I really didn’t think about it much. My family are scientists and doctors who love music and played LPs in the house most of the time. So I grew up surrounded by music, but never imagining that it could be such a big part of my life. My curiosity led me to find a piano teacher, and eventually my parents saw I was serious and supported me to take lessons in piano and solfege. The curiosity grew and I was improvising soon after I could play. So, the desire to create has been there all along, and I was surrounded by a supportive family.

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

I consider my surroundings very important to what I do. I write music which I’d like to share with my family and people I feel close to. it’s more than a profession, it’s part of my personality, part of my life. The fact that I grew up around non-musicians makes me appreciate the natural, life-long relationship which can develop between people and music, when one might not necessarily be part of a musical family. Having said that, if it were not for the music I listened to as a child, I might not have been inspired to make this my life, so Bach, Schubert, Brahms, are very important, eternal inspirations, as well as all the performers who I’ve worked, particularly those I’ve known since my student days – Maxim Rysanov, Kristina Blaumane, Roman Mints.

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

One of the aspects of this profession, which I’m constantly having to learn about, is the way you pace yourself. I need to find a peaceful state of concentration in order to create, it takes some time to slowly shut the world off and begin to work. Once the music is written, there is the complete opposite – talking to musicians, explaining your work, communicating what you’ve been working on for months in a few minutes during the tight rehearsal time. It’s a complete gear shift, and each time it takes some effort to be in either gear.

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

There’s nothing like a deadline to help the creative process! The possibilities are so endless that having some guidelines, like instrumentation and duration, help some of the decision making. But I also really enjoy the research part of the project, so for example I chose to compile the text for my Immortal Shakespeare cantata. The research into the plays and choosing the right text which would fit the structure of the work took a considerable amount of time, which I enjoyed.

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

For me, the best thing about working with musicians who you know and even more importantly, who have played your music, is that you don’t have to explain as much. There is only so much you can achieve with notation, one composer’s articulations (or lack of) might be interpreted differently to another. For example, much of my string music is played ‘on the string’ and to a musician who hasn’t played it before they might first read it and play off the string and not give it a second thought. Long phrases, nuances of dynamics, trusting the music to do what is there and not asserting too much on it- are all qualities which I value in musicians who I have worked with repeatedly.

Of which works are you most proud?

There is a story to each piece, and like many composers I feel there is a reason for each work and these works can take on almost human characteristics (like Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets, for example, which he famously called his ‘children’). So, I wouldn’t wish to have favourites, but I know which were difficult to create and took longer than I had planned. My double piano concerto ‘Together Remember to Dance’ is one such work. Just when I thought I had finished the first draft, I had a total change of direction for this work and had to start all over again, with just months before the musicians were due to get the parts. Instead of sticking with my first idea, I jumped straight into a new direction and I was extremely happy I did that. I feel it’s a powerful and uplifting work, and that’s what I needed to write and the soloists – Arthur and Lucas Jussen completely inhabited this idea and communicated and performed the work perfectly.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would like for my compositions to communicate, to be accessible, but also make you think. Music with a mind and heart, I hope!

How do you work?

Slowly.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

This is, unsurprisingly, a long list which keeps growing and is often affected by who I’m working with or listening to at that moment. Certainly the composers I grew up listening to-  Bach, Schubert, later Ligeti, Britten and Messiaen… I get real pleasure from playing Rameau’s harpsichord works for myself (on the piano, though I’d love to one day have the space and chance to buy a harpsichord). Phrasing and timbre, nuance are performance aspects that my ear is always drawn to and there are just so many exceptional musicians. Some I have been lucky to work with, as I already mentioned, I’d add Janine Jansen and some very fine choirs too! Currently I’m enjoying (re-)listening to my recordings of Bill Evans, Andras Schiff, Nina Simone, Ibrahim Maalouf, Laura Marling…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success for me is to have the freedom to create what you wish, and be able to make a living.

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

Even if it means having a small circle of devoted friends who you talk to about your music, try to communicate and share your passion. It’s a difficult profession, so we need support from people around us, and finding those ambassadors will absolutely make life easier. Also, be kind- in choosing this life we often develop high levels of self criticism. Try to be kind to yourself and to those around you, as perfection is not art.

What do you enjoy doing most?

There are two moments which I adore: the moment when I know how the piece I’m working on will be shaped and it’s just a matter of writing it down; and sitting on the train/plane before travelling to a premiere/concert. And there’s everything in between…

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Every situation can be perceived as complete happiness, I think in order to really savour that happiness you have to feel inner contentment and feel you are where you need to be. Then, even eating an apple on the sofa can be perfect happiness.

What is your present state of mind?

I have two deadlines at the moment, so my state of mind is far from ‘zen’.

Dobrinka Tabakova’s Concerto for 2 pianos, percussion and strings, ‘Together Remember to Dance’,  receives its UK premiere on 10 October with pianists Arthur and Lucas Jussen and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Bramwell Tovey at Watford Colosseum. More information and tickets

The intense juxtaposition of the piano arpeggios and string clusters plunge us into the opening of this dramatic concerto. How to consolidate dissonance and harmony, passion and direction? Just like trying to exist alongside each other in society, the first movement presents layers made up of different ideas, which strive to find their place and ultimately reach a resolve. The second movement ‘Remember’ is a spiralling waltz, where we are never quite rooted, but instead float through harmonic modulations. Each time the theme appears it is in a new tonality and seen from another angle, as if trying to remember the past and each time finding something new in our memory. The final movement is a kaleidoscopic perpetuum mobile in constantly changing time signatures. The infectious pulse drives through some unexpected sparks and delivers a breathless finale.

The concerto was commissioned by Amsterdam Sinfonietta / Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ (supported by the AMMODO Foundation) and co-commissioned by the Istanbul Music Festival, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre de Picardie and BBC Concert Orchestra.


Born in the historic town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria to a music-loving family of doctors and scientists, Dobrinka Tabakova moved to London in 1991, where she has lived since. Here she studied at Alleyn’s School and the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department, specialising in composition, piano and conducting. Early on, the composer John Adams praised her music as being “extremely original and rare”. She attended summer courses at the renowned Centre Acanthes in France, as well as the Prague and Milan Conservatoire summer compositions courses, alongside her composition degree studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD) in London. On graduating with distinction BMus and MMus at the GSMD, Dobrinka was appointed Composition Fellow there, where she continued her activities as President of the Contemporary Music Society. In 2007 she was awarded a doctorate in composition from King’s College London (KCL). Her composition teachers have included Simon Bainbridge, Diana Burrell, Robert Keeley and Andrew Schultz as well as masterclasses with John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Alexander Goehr, Marek Kopelent, Philippe Manoury, Alessandro Solbiati, Olav Anton Thommessen and Iannis Xenakis.

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