Meet the Artist – Joe Cutler, composer

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

Free instrumental lessons in primary school in the 1970s were pretty important. Someone from the London Borough of Brent music service came into our class and we all did various kinds of ear tests which involved saying if a note was high or lower than another, or louder or quieter. Apparently I did ok which meant I was allowed to learn the violin. From then onwards, I was always making up my own tunes and improvising. Then I struck lucky going to study at Huddersfield Polytechnic in the late 1980s. It was very immersive time, what with the festival, and we were really encouraged to compose and present our own works in performance.

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

Both Dutch and Polish contemporary music has been very influential for me. I spent three years studying composition in Poland which was a very liberating time, and I was attracted to the physicality of sound in a lot of contemporary Polish music. There is also a directness and rawness to a lot of Dutch music, and a sense that everything can be accommodated; that we can draw upon everything that has been a meaningful part of our musical past irrespective of genre. But perhaps the biggest influence in the last decade or so has been spending such a lot of time with my composition colleagues and students at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I’ve learnt so much from them.

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

I think challenges and frustrations can be positive as well as negative. In recent years, my time for composing has been quite stretched, with a pretty demanding teaching position and also having a young child, but then it’s meant I have to use the time available well, whilst also challenging the way I work. It means I have to be more relaxed and let go of the inner-perfectionist demon, which has perhaps resulted in a different sort of music.

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

Every piece brings both pleasure and pain, although hopefully much more pleasure ultimately. There’s the struggle of the blank page at the beginning, and then the joy of something previously unimagined coming into being little by little. The context of the commission is important to me; who is it being written for? Whose commissioned it? What’s the context for the performance? I want to bring as much if that as I can into the piece and create something intimate.

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

I’ve been lucky to work with a few very special performers quite regularly over a number of years, people like the Fidelio Trio, Orkest de Ereprijs, Sarah Leonard and my own collective Noszferatu. They’re close friends and that sort of relationship leads to a special trust or bond that develops over time. That’s a really great pleasure.  Then there are new projects with people you haven’t worked with before, and there’s often a great excitement and energy to these as you begin to work out what makes each other tick.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m proud of all the pieces on my latest NMC album, ‘Elsewhereness’, and also the previous albums Bartlebooth (NMC) and Boogie Nights (Birmingham Record Company).

How would you characterise your compositional language?

The language can be quite multi-faceted, drawing upon broad range of influences from post-minimalism and jazz through to the baroque and experimentalism. I aim to absorb these influences, not pastiche them, allowing them to come out as something else through the filter of my own individuality. There is often a broad emotional range from exuberance to introversion, darkness to technicolour.

How do you work?

Generally quite slowly, searching for a way in to the piece, an idea, a concept. Sometimes the material leads the way, showing its own possibilities.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Lots. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Louis Andriessen, Martijn Padding, Errollyn Wallen, Howard Skempton, Michael Wolters, Ed Bennett, Sean Clancy, Andrew Hamilton, Bach, Trish Clowes, Richard Ayres, Laura Mvula, Schubert, Andrew Toovey, more, more, more….

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To keep going and to help others along the way

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

Try and improve the world a little; be serious about what you do, but don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t be an old composer when you’re a young composer; perfection is dull; “success” isn’t everything; don’t lose sight of the magic of music; be generous, kind and help others.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with my family, today I walked in the woods with my wife and son and it was the most beautiful autumn day.

What is your present state of mind?

I’d say it’s in a pretty good state, but in need of sleep (my little boy was awake most of last night….)

*The title track on the new CD ‘Elsewhereness’ was commissioned for the launch concert of the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. 

Joe Cutler : ‘Elsewhereness’. Released 19th October 2018. NMC Recordings / NMC D246

Launch concert for ‘Elsewhereness’ at Birmingham Royal Conservatoire on 16th November 2018


joecutler.com