Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Whilst on a German school exchange to Munich when I was fifteen I was taken to a performance of Berg’s Lulu in the Nationaltheater. I had never seen or heard anything like it before in my life and decided on the spot that I wanted to be a composer, especially of dramatic music (i.e. theatre, opera, ballet, film)

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

Meeting Olivier Messiaen while I was a student at the Royal College of Music confirmed my lifelong passion for his music. At that time I studied and loved Britten’s operas, and learned much about dramatic timing and word setting. I’ve also had a lifelong love of the music of Leoš Janácek, who still remains a strong influence. The concision of his writing, his limitless imagination in the development of motifs and his sophisticated melodic curves of speech continue to fascinate me.

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

I had the good fortune to be offered a lot of film commissions in my thirties and forties. One of the challenges was to put aside enough time each year to compose at least one major concert piece. It sometimes became frustrating not to have enough time in the year to develop compositional ideas. It was for this reason that, when I retired from film music four years ago, I decided to take a PhD at Bristol University in order to really get to grips with composition technique and to become more familiar with what is being written today.

Of which works are you most proud?

One of the works I wrote for the PhD was called Kalon, for string quartet and string orchestra. What is unusual about it is that the two string groups perform almost throughout in different simultaneous tempi. I nearly abandoned it twice, so difficult was it to write clearly in polytempo without it sounding a mess. When I heard the Czech Philharmonic play it for the Signum Classics recording I felt so glad that I had stuck with it and that the piece really works.

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

I’ve always needed to work to a deadline, even if the deadline is three years off. I have a fear of the piece either not being ready or not being the best I can write, so I tend to finish a commission months before it is due for delivery. This means I can sit with it, re-visit and change or improve large or small things before it is published and the parts are sent to the performers. With my second violin concerto Niobe I persuaded the Czech Philharmonic, who commissioned it, to let me have a playthrough with the wonderful soloist Tamsin Waley-Cohen four months before the first rehearsal. I learned so much from the experience and, as a result, revised several passages to give it even more punch and dramatic impact. In such circumstances my publisher Nimbus Publishing were endlessly patient in allowing me to re-print the score and parts for what turned out to be the definitive version that we premiered and recorded.

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

Knowing the choir, orchestra or soloists is always a pleasure.

Pietà is my third commission for the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and as well as knowing the choir very well I am always thrilled to work with their conductor Gavin Carr. Gavin heard the piece at different stages of the composition and made a number of incisive observations about voicing and the overall impact of the work’s structure and climaxes. I feel very lucky to have worked with collaborators like him, and Pietà is dedicated to Gavin in thanks for all his support and encouragement over many years.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

Hard to answer this one meaningfully. I’ve always felt a need to communicate with my music and consequently have tried, without limiting the freshness or originality of the work, to make it accessible and direct. Having experimented with atonal and serial music in my twenties I am now more interested in using different forms of modal music, or even triadic harmony in new ways. During the PhD I chose my thesis topic as polyrhythm, polymetre and polytempo, and I think my music is characterised by a rhythmic dynamism and freshness. People have also told me that my music is very melodic, and creating well-crafted melodic material remains one of my preoccupations.

How do you work?

I mostly work in my studio in the village in Oxfordshire where I live. The studio has inspiring views on a small lake and I work on a lovely Yamaha grand piano that is also aligned to a computer on which I write with Sibelius. I often sketch on manuscript paper, then go into short score or full orchestral. Occasionally I have ideas in the middle of the night and come downstairs to work for an hour or so. Mostly, I put in about eight hours a day and never work during the evenings, as my brain would be too stimulated to be able to sleep.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having people want to perform and hear my music is entirely my definition of success. Creating music that is good to play, sing or listen to is all I can hope for. If at a concert someone comes up after a performance and says they sincerely enjoyed the piece, or were visibly moved by it, makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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

If asked, I always tell composers to follow their hearts and their instinct, to write what they want to write rather than what is considered fashionable or in vogue. I hope they will write or perform out of love for what they do, rather than for the critics or the approval of a small elite. But this is just my own experience, and every musician has to follow their own path and create their own truth.

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

At this stage of my life I have decades of experience behind me of writing music in every genre, from commercial to art music. I hope that, energy and good health permitting, I still have my best work to come. I am a great admirer of the Japanese artist Hokusai, who said that nothing he created before his seventieth year amounted to very much, but by the age of seventy he was just getting the hang of painting. I like to think that, aged 65, I am beginning to get the hang of writing music.

The world première of Pietà, a new work by Richard Blackford, which will take place at the Lighthouse, Poole on Saturday 22 June 2019. Pietà is a setting of the Stabat Mater, with additional poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The work will be recorded for Nimbus shortly after the first performance. The London première will be on Saturday 19 October 2019 at the Cadogan Hall. 

Further information


Richard Blackford studied composition with John Lambert at the Royal College of Music, then with Hans Werner Henze in Rome. Early awards include the Tagore Gold Medal, the Ricordi Prize and the Mendelssohn Scholarship. He was first Composer-in-Residence at Balliol College Oxford, and later Composer-in-Residence to the Brno Philharmonic in the Czech Republic. His works were performed in the major music festivals of the world, including Adelaide, Berlin, Brighton, Montepulciano, Cheltenham, Long Island. He has composed in virtually every medium, including opera, choral, orchestral, theatre, film and ballet, with his most recent ballet Biophony (2015) in collaboration with Bernie Krause and Alonzo King, winning “Best Contemporary Performance 2016” in the Italian dance magazine Danza&Danza. As a media composer Richard was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music for his 4-hour score for the CNN/BBC series Millennium, and in 2015 was awarded Die Goldene Deutschland for services to music in Germany. His literary collaborators include; Ted Hughes, Maya Angelou and Tony Harrison. He is a Director of the charity Music For Youth, President of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, a Trustee of the Aberystwyth MusicFest and Trustee of The Bach Choir.

Richard Blackford’s music is published by Novello and Nimbus Publishing.

 

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Help Musicians ShootWho or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I didn’t have a lightbulb moment with deciding to follow a career in music. It was more the accumulation of many joyous and happy moments right from when I started to play the clarinet, and from there it seemed a natural thing to keep working and enjoying what I did. As I was growing up and playing more and more, nothing else appeared that seemed more attractive as a career, so I simply stuck with it!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My first clarinet teacher, Vanessa, who got me started on this crazy journey. After that, I had lessons with Joy Farrall who remains a wonderful colleague and friend to this day. Other than that, more generally: everything! I take great pleasure in listening to what other people have to say. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt – one of the greatest mistakes we can make is passing judgement before we form our own opinion. (This is especially true, I think, as we exist in an era where peoples’ attention spans and tolerances often seem shorter and lower than ever before.)

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

A continuous challenge is sitting with uncertainty, and knowing that you’re only as good as your last performance. Of course, we all make mistakes (and whoever created this obsession with perfection in our industry has a lot to answer for), but it can be hard to feel like you are always being evaluated, compared, ranked. On the other hand, to do a job which keeps me on top of my game constantly is a challenge that I relish. The thought of having a job where I can become stultified and get away with constantly being mediocre is frightening.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Truth be told, I don’t really listen back to many recordings I do – once I’ve done something I move on pretty quickly to the next thing. Any performance or project that I walk away from knowing I learned something or gave everything to I am proud of.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Anything where you get a lot from the score or the collaborators. I draw a lot on what is right in front of me in the moment – the more there is to bounce off, the more involved I become.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I don’t really choose a lot of repertoire myself – this often comes down to the orchestra’s schedule. With freelance work you get booked and the repertoire is always decided in advance – you just turn up and play. With The Hermes Experiment, we always look to do new and different things, be it commissioning a certain composer, playing at a certain venue, or exploring a different theme (or all three!), and so our repertoire grows around this.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Before Christmas I took my bass clarinet along to a pub in Stoke Newington and joined in a blues jam at the invitation of a friend. I am pretty sure I was terrible but it was by far the most fun atmosphere I’ve played in for months.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Anyone who has flair and says things in an interesting way that also make sense. I think Joni Mitchell is a genius. I am discovering Kate Bush. A friend introduced me to the wonderful music of Brad Mehldau.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Some of my most treasured memories come from my time in the National Youth Orchestra – playing at the BBC Proms with Vasily Petrenko as the culmination of months of delving so deeply into repertoire and forging wonderful friendships is something I’ll never forget.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me, success is asking the two questions ‘What do I want my life to be right now’ and ‘What do I actually have in my life right now’ and having as narrow a gap between the two as possible. There’ll probably always be a small gap, but it’s a good thing to aspire to. As a musician, as a person, it’s all the same thing. I’m not talking about wanting to own a nice car or winning the lottery or something. I’m talking about doing things that leave you fulfilled, that are true to your values. That is success. And being able to pay the rent. That’s also nice.

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

Firstly: Listen to as much music as you can. Try and get a flavour of everything, and then find what you’re passionate about and investigate it as much as you can. Be obsessed. Find what makes you happy and follow it relentlessly.

Secondly: Listen to other people. If you think they’re a moron. Listen to them. Everyone has something worth saying. Even if you walk away thinking ‘I definitely wouldn’t do it that way’, you were present and you listened and made the active decision to do things your way, rather than walking away out of close-mindedness, arrogance or laziness.

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

I still ask myself on a regular basis if I want to do this, if this is something that I want to be doing. As soon as the answer is ‘no’ I am out of here! Music is something that you do because you want to, because you are passionate about it and it brings you happiness (as well as happiness to others, of course). Why do it if these things don’t happen? To do something as personal as music for a living, but be empty or cynical inside just doesn’t make sense to me. Go and become a banker or something. Or a consultant (I still have no idea what consultants do). In 10 years’ time I will be wherever I am.


Oliver Pashley is a young London-based clarinettist and founding member of contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. He holds the position of Sub-Principal Clarinet with Britten Sinfonia and plays regularly with orchestras and ensembles at home and abroad, including the Philharmonia Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia, The Riot Ensemble, Northern Ballet Sinfonia, and the Haffner Wind Octet. Highly in demand as a soloist, chamber and orchestral musician, he has played guest principal with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, London Mozart Players, and English National Ballet.

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

I first discovered the piano at a friend’s birthday party when I was six years old. They had an upright piano in the living room, and that interesting large object immediately caught my attention as something that looked very interesting. Later, when most people were outside playing football, I remember climbing onto the piano stool and started just tinkering some notes, and realised that there was a connection between each note, and a kind of weird relationship I couldn’t quite describe – I started to slowly pick out tunes that were stored in my head from my even earlier years at nursery (tunes such as ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’). It took me a while to pick out full tunes, but I was immediately aware that some of the notes fitted in the tune as the ‘right’ notes in the right order, and some notes which didn’t, and thus were ‘wrong’. I also could somehow differentiate each note in terms of pitch by an instinct – later, I was told that this was perfect pitch. My friend’s mum was impressed, and later phoned up my own mother and told her that she didn’t know I was taking piano lessons, and wanted to know who my piano teacher was. My mother was shocked at all this, and was in confusion with pianos and piano teachers, since it’s something that never really cropped up into her life until that point! A few months later, my mum bought me my first piano (a new upright), and after playing around with the instrument, I began taking lessons.

My passion for composing music came around the same time when I picked up the piano, but it started out as improvisation – I always loved to sit at the piano and make up my own pieces and remembered having tremendous fun! When I was about eight, someone told me that it might be a good idea to start learning to write ideas and improvisations down. A music student, who was a friend of my dad’s, came round to our house and recommended we get a music notation software. I began to play around with that, and would spend hours playing on there and experimenting with different instruments, sounds and styles. I would sometimes perform them to friends and family, and got great fulfilment out of that. However, I didn’t have formal tuition until secondary school, which was a place where I had the chance to open myself up to even more kinds of styles, and refine my composition techniques as well as learning new ones – there was the beginning of my life-long search to find my own compositional voice, integrity, and individuality

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents and my teachers – they have been very supportive with my musical passion ever since the beginning, and have always been there for me. I feel very lucky indeed.

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

For me, the most difficult thing about playing music is not technique – rather, it’s finding the most musical, communicative, faithful, fresh, authentic way of interpreting music, that is true to yourself and to the composer. One of my old piano teachers always emphasised about making the music sound as natural as possible. The process of learning and performing a piece is a deeply fulfilling, but never-ending journey to find the real spirit, character, depth, and true understanding of the piece in terms of its theme and stylistic context, and then, it’s the question of how to convey all that into the interpretation, bearing in mind that, if you’re practicing the right way, every time you work on a piece, you discover something new. The greatest pianists all manage to somehow achieve this – it’s this very essence on how they express and communicate the music that can give audiences goosebumps, move them to tears, or drop their jaws and think ‘wow’. Music is one of the few things in the world that, when unleashed to its full potential, has the power to do just that – to summarise, the biggest challenge for me in music is making music! I am somewhat relieved that this process is never leisurely for me – it’s what motivates me to carry on, and is one of the soul reasons why I love music so much.

As for composition, it’s always a flow of inspiration which leads to many good ideas forming a piece to be written down – the challenge for me, however, is overcoming the self-doubt that usually follows immediately after this. I’m always questioning myself about every minuscule idea I put to paper, and then forgetting about it and continue to do what I’m currently doing. The end result has mainly been positive and gratifying for me. Of course, there’s always the challenge of rehearsing the piece with the player(s), but it’s always the feeling that you want your next piece you write to be somewhat even better than your previous piece that drives me forward, and makes me continue!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I always try to put in the same effort and concentration into each performance and recording I do. I am however, pleased with my debut album for Orchid Classics, which will be released in September this year!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I always strive to try and bring the same amount of justice to whatever it is I’m playing – I try to convince myself that I’m fully versatile with all kinds of works and styles.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It always varies, and usually depends on my mood and my taste at that particularly time. I strive for a kind of variety, and try to include at least one of my own compositions.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

For me, every single venue, be it large or small, has its own uniqueness and story. I try to look for the best in every venue I play, and what matters for me is how to convey the music in the best way that suits whatever venue I’m in at the time. Also, the warm receptive and enthusiastic audience matters to me more than the venue. I do, however, love venues that are architecturally stimulating.

You are also a composer…. Which musicians/composers have had a significant influence on your composing?

Practically everyone! I’m influenced by such a wide range of genres, styles and composers, that I can think of very few composers and styles I don’t like. But sometimes, I even LIKE listening to a piece just because I DON’T like it, as I find it challenging to digest in someway, which leaves me wanting more. Music that I don’t like is like a puzzle for me – I would spend time listening to it in secret to try and ‘decipher its puzzle’. I’m a big like a vacuum cleaner – everything somehow makes their way into me creative thought-process. This is also why I sometimes find it dangerous to ‘open my doors’ too wide – sometimes I get an ‘influence overload’, which can then lead to the self-doubt I was talking about earlier on. But yet, that’s also a good thing, as it expands my knowledge and makes a mark on the inspiration in my subconscious – it’s a bit of a paradox!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’ve always had a natural affinity to write in any style/genre required or thrown at me. I’ve enjoyed writing filmic music, pop songs, folk music pastiches, and hope to write musicals and film scores as well in the future. I have done lots of arrangements of Chinese folk songs and other well-known tunes – usually all through improvisation.

Although, for my concert music, I don’t think my style has settled down firmly yet – it’s continuing to evolve. I’ve always been more fascinated by the inspiration and concept behind a piece, and the musical ideas and how they are used, and that’s why I infrequently think about my music as being ‘tonal’ or ‘atonal’ or not. Having said that, a few years ago, I was enjoying writing music that ended up being almost inadvertently atonal or mixed tonal music, but now it’s starting to edge towards the more tonal side. I’m starting to think there is so much I can experiment and play around new ways to use tonality, and combining them both. Some may say that this is unfortunate, but I personally feel very lucky to be living in a time with so many musical languages at our disposal, and we can write whatever we want – like a painter having lots of different types of paintbrush. I feel lucky to be fluent in so many ‘musical languages’

How do you work (as a composer)?

I’m always improvising and recording myself to help generate ideas. I usually compose with pen and paper, and then put it into a notation programme. I now have several good ideas for pieces I want to write, but haven’t started yet, because I’m currently writing another piece. I try not to write several pieces at once, as I feel it clogs up my mind.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Again too many to list here! I’d feel guilty mentioning someone with the worry of missing someone else out! Although there’s never really been a pianist or composer that I love 100% of everything he/she plays/writes – it’s always a few or more pieces that are my favourite interpretation, or a particular piece by a particular composer that I really love, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I love all other pieces written/played by him/her.

That said, pianists include Argerich, Sokolov, Zimmerman, Horowitz, Hoffman and Cortot to name just a very few. Apart from the great composers of the past eras, such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Bartok, Szymanowski, Stravinsky etc., more recent composers include Arvo Part, Gorecki, Oliver Knussen, James MacMillan, John Adams and many more. Film and musical composers include John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and many more

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I have a few, but from the recent period, I won’t forget performing a solo piano tour in Portland, USA, and as an encore, I offered to do an improvisation on the spot – I’d ask for any member of audience to either come onstage to the piano and play any random notes (which I will base the improvisation on) and any style/composer – this rather intellectual member in the audience shouted ‘how about a piece using only notes G and F#, in the style of Weber and Oscar Peterson’! I accepted the challenge – turns out the audience liked it very much, and they gave me a very warm reception.

Here is an improvisation I did on a famous musical motif from ‘The Hunger Games’ in an Impressionist style: http://sg.abrsm.org/en/about-abrsm/abrsm-blog/article/my-musical-journey/791/

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

For me, as clichéd is it might sound, it’s about being able to see between the notes of what the composer wrote to really convey a performance that is special, memorable, moving and deeply musical. For aspiring composers, it’s important to open up your mind to as many different kinds of music as possible. Always strive to do everything in music to the very best of your ability and not to compromise your quality. Above all, enjoy it, cherish it, and allow music to take over your life!

What is your present state of mind?

Happy and contemplative.

 

Yuanfan Yang’s debut disc of music by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Philip Cashian and his own compositions is available now on the Orchid Classics label


Born in Edinburgh, Yuanfan began learning the piano when he was 6, passed Grade 8 with Distinction at the age of 8 and achieved a Diploma of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (DipABRSM) when he was 10. He was awarded the AMusTCL Diploma in Music Theory with Distinction in 2015, and is a Scholar of the Drake Calleja Trust.

Yuanfan has won numerous piano competitions. He has won 1st Prize at the Cleveland International Young Artists Piano Competition in the USA in 2015, and 1st Prize of the 4th International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Weimar, Germany in 2014, with which he was awarded the Special Prize for Best Interpretation of a Classical Sonata, the Special Prize for Best Interpretation of Works by Liszt, the Special Prize for Best Composition and Improvisation, the Junior Jury Prize, and the European Union of Music Competitions for Youth (EMCY) Prize for Most Outstanding Contestant. In 2013 he won the 3rd Prize in the Minnesota International E-Piano Competition. He has also won 1st Prizes in the 2010 RNCM James Mottram International Piano Competition (under 19), and the 2009 Manchester International Piano Concerto Competition for Young Pianists (age 16 and under). Yuanfan is also a fluent sight-reader, having been the champion of the ongoing Michael Abraham Sight-Reading Award six years in a row, ever since he joined Chetham’s. He has also won 1st Prizes in the UK Liszt Society International Piano Prize 2015, the Royal Academy of Music’s Sterndale Bennett Prize 2015, and the 9th Grand Prix Interlaken Classics International Piano Competition 2016. He was the Keyboard Category Winner and a Grand Finalist of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition 2012, and won both category and overall prizes at the European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA) UK Piano Competition 2010. Most recently, as the youngest participant and top eight semi-finalist in the Cleveland International Piano Competition 2016, Yuanfan’s performances earned him the Special AAF (Alink Argerich Foundation) Prize.

Yuanfan has performed for many eminent music societies, festivals and key events throughout Britain, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and the US, and has performed concertos by Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, Grieg, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky with many eminent conductors and leading orchestras including the Northern Sinfonia, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Romanian Radio National Symphony Orchestra, the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra, the Canton Symphony Orchestra in Cleveland, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Leeds Sinfonia, and the Manchester Camerata.

Yuanfan is also a versatile composer and an accomplished improviser. His ‘Fantasy in G’ for piano was broadcast on BBC Two in 2007 and 2008, and his arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’ was shown on BBC Four in 2010. His piano composition ‘Waves’ won the Overall Award in the European Piano Teachers Association UK Composition Competition 2011. This piece also won Highly-Commended in the BBC Proms Young Composers Competition 2011. His ‘Haunted Bell’ won first prize in the Junior Group of the Golden Key International Piano Composition Competition in 2012, and it was broadcast on BBC Four and BBC Radio Three. He was a finalist in the National Centre for Early Music Composers’ Award 2013, where his piece ‘Crushed Suites’ was premiered and recorded by the leading early music ensemble Florilegium. In September 2014, Yuanfan’s new Piano Concerto – ‘The Wilderness’, scored for solo piano and full symphony orchestra, was premiered in Qianjiang, China; the concerto was performed again at Wuhan University as part of his China tour in November 2014, and it had its UK premiere with the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra in June 2015 – all the performances were enthusiastically received with critical acclaim from the press and audience. This concerto will be performed in 2017 at the Beijing Concert Hall with the Beijing National Theatre and Dance Orchestra.

Yuanfan has recently recorded his debut album for Orchid Classics, which is due for international release in mid-2017.

www.yuanfanyang.com

 

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

I remember being drawn to the piano as a very young child. I had a French aunt who was a superb pianist. When she came to visit and sat to play at the old Bechstein grand that we had at home, a kind of magic descended on the household. I naturally enjoyed starting lessons at the age of seven. It was only quite late in my life that my mother confessed to me that she had listened to gramophone records incessantly while she was pregnant with me, with the express intention of producing a musical child (my older brothers had not shown great interest in music…). I was a bit taken aback to think that I had been brainwashed in the womb, but, on reflection, I am quite grateful!

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I could make a long list of people who have been important in shaping my musical life, amongst whom would be many composers and colleagues, not least my fellow players in the Schubert Ensemble (which has remained unchanged for 22 years). But three teachers stand out above all others. My greatest debt of gratitude goes to Rosemary Hammond, a local schoolteacher and choir director, who took me under her wing when I was eleven years old and floundering at an unmusical boarding school. She was no great performer, but had an infectious love of music and was an inspirational teacher. She introduced me to playing on clavichord and fortepiano as well as modern piano, taught me to compose and encouraged me with astonishing warmth and generosity. In my twenties I was lucky enough to study with Vlado Perlemuter, whose honest and unmannered musicality is still an inspiration to me, and also with Peter Feuchtwanger, a maverick and unorthodox teacher who taught me to open my eyes and ears in unexpected ways and gave me the courage to shape my career by following my enthusiasms.

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

It may sound simplistic to say this, but the biggest challenges of my career have been developing that career in the first place and then sustaining it. I can honestly say that I have loved my professional life, but for years it involved a huge amount of hard work and uncertainty about the future, together with the constant battle of trying to juggle travelling and working at unsociable hours with bringing up a family. These pressures are common to many freelance professions, but we pianists inhabit a world overcrowded with dazzling talent and I can’t think of a single moment over the years when I have felt I could take my career for granted. The musical challenges (of which there have been many!) have felt easy by comparison.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Without any hesitation, I would hold up my recording of Pavel Zemek Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, which came out on Champs Hill Records in 2011. It is a monumental work lasting around 75 minutes, which was written for me over a 17-year period from 1989 to 2006. I found the pieces incredibly difficult to play (and to read – they were written in manuscript and almost every page was covered in dozens of corrections!) and the recording took a huge amount of preparation. It was a labour of love, but massively rewarding. The Preludes and Fugues comprise some of the most important and original piano music that I have ever played. Pavel is not hugely well known outside the Czech Republic, but I am convinced that his music will become better and better known. Of the 45 or so CD recordings that I have made over the years, I think this is the one most likely to outlive me.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I am probably the last person who should try to judge what I play best, but I feel especially at home playing Schubert, Chopin, Fauré and Janáček, and if I had to single out one work of each composer, they would be the Wanderer: Fantasie, the First Ballade, the Sixth Nocturne and In the Mists.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I like to introduce new works into my repertoire each season and to return to works I have not played for a while. Recording plans and new commissions also affect the make-up of programmes, and large-scale projects too at times. At the moment my programmes are built around love songs for solo piano, both romantic pieces and a large collection of newly commissioned works.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I tend to judge venues as much by the pianos they offer as well as their acoustic. The Wigmore Hall ticks all boxes for me. While I love performing in its acoustic, it also has one of the best-maintained Steinways in the country. Next year will be the fortieth anniversary of my first concert there, so I can add familiarity and decades of happy memories to its attractions! Competing with the Wigmore is the medieval Great Hall at Dartington, which is a beautiful space to perform in, and is also full of memories for me. I heard many of the most memorable concerts of my life there as a student at the Summer School in the late 60s and 70s and it always gives me a huge thrill to be playing there myself.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

It would be too difficult to choose my favourite pieces to perform – they tend anyway to be what I am working on at any given time. Naming my favourite pieces to listen to is easier. They would be Mozart’s G minor String Quintet and Janáček’s Second String Quartet.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have too many favourite musicians in the present who I could list – composers, instrumentalists and fellow pianists who are friends and many others who I admire from afar – so I will stick to those from the past who I heard play live and whose recordings I still love to listen to Artur Rubinstein, Vlado Perlemuter, Shura Cherkassy, and Rudolf Serkin.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Nearly 20 years ago the Schubert Ensemble launched a project called Chamber Music 2000, in which we commissioned several dozen new chamber works for young pianists and string players. We put on over twenty public concerts in venues all over the UK, including the Wigmore Hall and South Bank Centre, in which young musicians, mainly teenagers, performed whole concerts of works by living composers. These concerts had a wonderful spirit of engagement and adventure and were some of the most memorable I have attended as a listener.

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

It is the privilege of older musicians to specialise (if they want to!), but I think for younger and aspiring musicians a broad experience of music is essential. It is important to hear lots of live performances and to study as wide a repertoire as possible, and, very particularly, repertoire beyond that written for your own instrument. And I firmly believe that working with living composers can teach us an enormous amount about how to approach interpreting music from the past.

What is your present state of mind?

I feel very positive about life at the moment! I am enjoying playing the piano more than ever right now and I have a number of projects on the go that I am finding fascinating and challenging. 

William Howard is established as one of Britain’s leading pianists, enjoying a career that has taken him to over 40 different countries. His performing life consists of solo recitals, concerto performances, guest appearances with chamber ensembles and instrumentalists, and regular touring with the Schubert Ensemble of London, Britain’s leading group for piano and strings and winners of the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Best Chamber Ensemble. He can be heard on around 40 CDs, released by Chandos, Hyperion, ASV, NMC, Collins Classics, Black Box, Champs Hill, Nimbus and Orchid Classics.

His solo career has taken him to many of Britain’s most important festivals, including Bath, Brighton and Cheltenham, and he has been artist in residence at several others. He has performed many times in the Wigmore Hall and the South Bank in London and has broadcast regularly for BBC Radio 3. For many years he has been invited to perform and teach at the Dartington International Summer School. His recording of Dvořák Piano Works was selected in the Gramophone Critics’ Choice, and his recording of Fibich’s ‘Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs’ won a Diapason D’Or award in France.

Recent solo engagements have included a performance at the 2015 Bermuda Festival, the premiere of David Matthews’s Four Portraits at the Spitalfields Festival in London and performances at the Cheltenham, Deal, Leamington, Petworth and Paxton Festivals, at Kings Place in London, in Brno (Czech Republic), Italy and Oregon, USA. In 2011 he made a recording of Pavel Zemek Novák’s extraordinary 75-minute cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. A double five-star review in the BBC Music Magazine described the performance as “superb” and the music “a real discovery”. His most recent album, Sixteen Love Songs, released in June 2016 on Orchid Classics was selected as ‘Drive Discovery of the Week’ on Classic FM.

He is passionate about 19th century piano repertoire, especially Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Fauré. He also has a strong interest in Czech piano music, and has been particularly acclaimed for his performance of Janáček, for which he received a medal from the Czech Minister of Culture in 1986. Many leading composers of the present day have written for him, including, Sally Beamish, Petr Eben, Piers Hellawell, David Matthews, Pavel Novák, Anthony Powers, Howard Skempton and Judith Weir. In 2016 he launched a project to commission sixteen love songs for solo piano from leading composers in the UK and abroad, including Elena Kats-Chernin, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry and Judith Weir. He also set up an international composing competition for writing piano love songs that attracted over 500 entries from 61 countries.

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

Despite my parents efforts to convince me not to, I started the violin when I was three. Throughout my childhood I was determined that I would be a violinist, but when I was eleven I went to a course called The Walden School, a composition course for teenagers situated five minutes away from my step-grandmother’s place in New Hampshire. I wanted to go to a performance course but my mother convinced me to try it… she’d noticed that most of my ‘practice’ time was spent improvising.

Walden and the world of new music was a revelation to me and I fell quickly and deeply in love with the madness and freedom of the vast array and different sorts of music that I heard there. Walden’s motto, ‘Music is Sound organised in Time’, was emblazoned across the top of the recital hall and I took it to heart. It was ear and mind opening and although I continued to claim to want to be a violinist for the next year or so, I kept returning to Walden and spending my time writing… as my mother says, ‘you vote with your feet’.

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

I’m always looking for new sounds from any musical genre to excite me and spark thoughts. I also look outside of music: my mother is a sculptor (you can have a look at some of her works here: Josiespencer.com), and my father is a theatre manager and producer, so I grew up with influences from all sorts of art forms.

Certain pieces catch me at certain times in my life, and I suppose they become part of me, whether or not their influences can be heard in my music – among these, Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae and Black Angels, many pieces by Hildegard Von Bingen, Kurtag’s Hipartita, Pauline Oliveros’s philosophies of deep listening, and many works by Oliver Knussen – especially his Songs for Sue. Alongside these classical influences, I like to sneak little bits of R&B, pop, folk, and rock into my pieces.

I’m lucky enough to have had three wonderful composition teachers and each of them challenged me and helped me grow as a composer in different ways. I studied with Giles Swayne during my undergraduate degree and afterwards in London, Simon Bainbridge during my masters and the first years of my PhD, and Oliver Knussen currently. They each have been insightful and supportive mentors as well as being composers whose music I deeply admire.

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

Starting each new piece always feels like it’s an insurmountable challenge… until it isn’t.

I think this is true of any career – but keeping life in balance is another constant challenge. It’s how you spend your time each day and what those days add up to as a life in total.

I don’t think either of these two will ever become less challenging.

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

Commissions give me deadlines, certainty, and variety. These are all things that are both pleasures and challenges at the same time.

Of which works are you most proud?

A few years ago, I had the slightly impractical idea that I’d like to create a piece of music for an especially designed space. I wanted to create a way for people to interact acoustically with a piece of music and physically walk around interwoven lines within a piece to explore how they relate to one another and what they’re doing individually.

Along with my sister, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, and two architectural designers, Finbarr O’Dempsey and Andrew Skulina, we made ​Permutations​, a playfully immersive & interactive artwork. It was developed on an Open Space Residency at Snape Maltings and premiered at the 2017 Aldeburgh Festival along with the release of a CD by the same name on Signum Classics.

I’m unbelievably excited that it will be going on tour starting later this year! The tour will launch at the Dartington Festival during week four, After that ​Permutations ​will travel to the Royal Academy of Music for their ‘Festival of Space’ in November, and on to the Royal Institute of British Architects North, in Liverpool for May 2019. Other venues & dates will be announced later.

Finbarr and Andrew designed six chambers, each lined with rotating doors, with polished timber on one side and corrugated felt on the other. The chambers have Amina Technologies’ invisible speakers built into the wood of their ceilings, and each one plays a different one of the six recorded violin parts, all recorded by Tamsin. If you stand in the middle of the space with the six chambers surrounding you, you can hear the 18 minute piece, equally balanced. You can interact with the music in several ways: you can walk around, in and out of chambers, you can acoustically isolate a solo or a duo by rearranging the doors, you can fully rotate the doors of a chamber to change how resonant the acoustic is, or you can find a seat and place yourself in one particular place and listen from there. There’s also a social element – you can decide whether to create a private closed off space to listen from, or move into the more open communal spaces with other listeners.

It’s a multi-sensory experience – so the best way is often to show rather than tell… here’s a video from the premiere:

I’m also really proud of the string quartet I wrote for the Santa Fe Chamber Music festival last summer. It’s called Snap Dragon and the Heath Quartet are going to be playing it again this summer at Dartington. You can listen to the fantastic Flux Quartet playing it in this recording:

 

How do you work?

I start by sketching on paper and writing pages of semi-nonsensical scribbles (in both words and music notation) in various notebooks. Depending on what is forming, at some point I start to move towards working in Sibelius (music notation software). I go back and forth a bit between paper and Sibelius during the writing process, but at a point of critical mass I work almost entirely on Sibelius.

Currently, I’m writing a piece for the concert series Listenpony, which I co-founded along with Josephine Stephenson and William Marsey in 2012. We started Listenpony to produce concerts where we would hear the music we love – regardless of genre – in a friendly atmosphere, while also providing a platform for outstanding young musicians.

In May, we had our first ever tour, including at date at the Playground Theatre in London among my mum’s sculpture exhibition ‘Murmurations’. For the tour, I wrote a piano piece for pianist George Fu – it’s influenced by Scottish folk music and the clarity of texture in Couperin’s keyboard works as realized on the modern piano.

I’ve also recently completed piece for 12 players (string quintet, clarinets, flutes, oboe, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion) from the Philharmonia Orchestra for their Music of Today Series. It was performed in May at the Royal Festival Hall.

 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My favourite composer is Messiaen, although some days I think it’s Bach, Schubert or Stravinsky.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is clarity of vision mixed with the flexibility to allow for discovery during the process. If I am getting this balance right, composing is a joyful and playful experience.

Success in the broader career-minded sense is best left out of the creative process – concern with it can poison the waters.

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

As much as you can, free your work from your ego – ego will hold you back from learning and growing. Presumably you’re doing it because you love it – so don’t let anything compromise that joy in creation. Don’t compare yourself to others. Write music that you want to listen to.

 

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

Anywhere, composing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness comes in flashes, when I’m not searching for it, and its beauty is often in its imperfection. One of my favourite poems is ‘Happiness’ by Jack Underwood. It’s probably not legal to print the whole thing here but if I can quote a line: ‘we know happiness because it is not always usual, and does not wait to leave’.

 


 

Described as “at once intimate and visionary” by BBC Music Magazine Freya Waley-Cohen’s music has been heard in the Wigmore Hall, Sage Gateshead, St John’s Smith Square, The Barbican Centre, The New Mexico Museum of Art and at Aldeburgh, Tanglewood, Santa Fe, Dartington, Cheltenham, St Magnus, Ryedale and Spitalfields festivals. 

Winner of a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2017, Freya is associate composer of Nonclassical, NightMusic at St. David’s Hall, and Reverie Choir, and will be a featured artist at this years Dartington Festival. Freya held an Open Space Residency at Snape Maltings from 2015-2017, where she created the collaborative artwork Permutations, which will tour to Dartington, the Royal Academy of Music and RIBA North in 2018/19.

In 2017 Signum Classics released a CD of Freya’s music including Permutations and Unveil – both of which are recorded by her sister Tamsin Waley-Cohen. Her works have also been released by Nimbus Records, Listenpony, and McMaster Records.

Upcoming commissions include works for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series, CHROMA ensemble, and the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series.

She is a founding member and artistic director of Listenpony, a concert series, commissioning body and record label that programmes classical music, both new and old, alongside a variety of other genres including folk, jazz and pop, in beautiful and unusual venues. 

 

http://www.freyawaleycohen.com

http://www.permutations.co

http://listenpony.com

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

I had a sort of mundane epiphany when I was sixteen, the realisation (while sitting on a cramped coach with fifty other sweaty and tired musicians) that I could spend every day for the rest of my life doing music and not mind. This was quite a big deal considering that I minded the possibility of pretty much anything else being a serious pursuit; my attention span was very unpredictable, and I didn’t tend to truly persevere at much except doodling ferociously in lessons.

We were touring Holst’s The Planets in Sweden, I was playing first oboe with my youth orchestra and over those ten days I just fell helplessly and unglamorously in love with music, having spent twelve years coasting along at the piano and at rehearsals without ever fully committing. I also fell a bit in love with a cellist which may have helped the decision-making process…

I subsequently had a weird spiritual experience back home in Newcastle where I felt that composing was my one true calling and that I had no option but to pursue it obsessively. The first piece I wrote was a strange and dissonant duet for violin and cello, and the second was a terrible ‘Chopin-with-a-hangover’ piano sonatina. I had no concept of structure, form, or large-scale harmony, so these pieces are still my most, and least original compositions.

It was necessary to learn the ‘big picture’ at university first before specialising. Oxford was a slightly mad choice, as the workload left rather little time for creativity, but I learned a lot there, and I started my string quartet which I have just finished this year! The career bit came during my Masters at RNCM as I needed time to work out how on earth people made it work full-time. Sometimes I look back at eight-year-old me, dancing around in bizarre, one-woman musicals on the living room stage for her dear parents, and wonder how she got here.

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

The biggest milestones so far have probably been: hearing Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet at a concert with my mum when I was seventeen; discussing one of my first compositions with Nicola LeFanu at St Hilda’s; meeting Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and sending him one of my scores (he replied); getting my first professional commission with Streetwise Opera after my Masters; working with Rambert Dance Company as the Music Fellow last year.

Streetwise Opera showed me the power that music, and new music, can have in people’s lives, and how collaborating with performers can inspire me to make something completely different. Working alongside everyone at Rambert taught me more in a year that I think I’ve learned in the other twenty-three. My teachers gave me the tools to write and helped to equip me with the resilience and the perspective you need as a professional musician.

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

Undoubtedly the first summer was the hardest. I was juggling eight different jobs/commissions and I was still broke because none of them were going to pay me until September, so I got a café job on top of that. I had just moved house and all of my friends were away, I was ill every week so lost a teaching assistant position, I hadn’t had any holiday in over a year, my mental health was awful and I had zero inspiration for any pieces. It was hard to see how it was going to work out, but it did! I think it was J.K. Rowling who said “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” I don’t think I was anywhere near rock bottom but I wasn’t feeling very confident about the future, and it has all seemed less bad since that August.

The other greatest challenge was that of producing my chamber opera, which was a much bigger task than composing it! I spent a whole year on it with RNCM musicians, and it resulted in a collaboration with choreographer Dane Hurst at Tete a Tete opera festival, funded by the Arts Council and by the generosity of individual sponsors. I was very, very nervous before the August performance and barely slept for a week, but my team were amazing so I shouldn’t have worried so much.

It’s always frustrating when you get rejected from things, but I’ve made a ‘folder of failure’ that helps me to find the pitfalls funnier. If you want to know the really good anecdotes, you’ll have to ask me in person!

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

I love commissions as they give you restrictions within which to be creative! Sometimes they verge on being too restrictive, and if you don’t get to choose your collaborators it can be tricky at times, but generally I find it easier to write when I have a clear brief. Context is all. It’s also really lovely, every time, to be asked to write something for a special occasion or exciting new project.

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

It’s their unique tastes, characteristics, personalities, strengths and weaknesses that give me my musical language for that piece, and the collaboration process generally produces something more original and exciting than I would have made on my own. Working with amateurs provides great variety as every group is different. Most of my pieces are tailored quite carefully to the ensemble that I am working with, but I also aim for some adaptability for future performances.

As well as working with other musicians, I love collaborating with writers, dancers, and artists with different specialisms. This work can be challenging in terms of communication and teamwork, but I love these messy and dynamic processes and their results.

Of which works are you most proud?

The chamber opera-ballet, Citizens of Nowhere, my string quartet, Antiphony, my choral piece, Fall, Leaves, Fall, and my two electronic pieces made with choreographers Carolyn Bolton and Julie Cunningham, Solo Matter and Imaginary Situations.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Sometimes it’s like Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, Machonchy and Sibelius in a blender, and sometimes it’s like Sondheim and Bjork got drunk together and fell asleep on my keyboard.

How do you work?

If you could tell me that, I’d hire you immediately.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That changes every month, but I will always love the four old B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Britten and The Beatles, and the lieder/piano pieces by Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann and Josephine Lang are just gorgeous. I grew up listening to my parents’ ceilidh band, my granddad’s jazz favourites, my grandpa’s bassoon practice, the best of Simon and Garfunkel on LP, and my siblings’ CD collections. I have not yet heard a piece by Stravinsky that I didn’t like. My contemporary playlist changes every week but it usually involves some classical, some electronic music, some pop, some jazz, and some silence…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Putting your heart into your music so much that other people can hear it beating, without exhausting yourself or exploiting anyone else. Success at the expense of others looks empty to me.

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

Everyone will tell you that it isn’t easy or sensible, but life isn’t easy or sensible, so think about whether you are happy for music to cause a lot of those problems for you, or whether you want it to stay safe as a side profession. Be prepared to fail as it will help you improve, and be prepared to compromise but not so much that you lose sight of your boundaries. Surround yourself with musicians and artists who can help you and whom you can help in turn, don’t be afraid to walk up to interesting people at drinks receptions and ask them about their work, but also have some friends outside the music world who can help you to have time off!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Something completely spontaneous like going for a long walk and taking photos of weird things that I see, or dancing full-whack after sitting at my desk for hours, or eating a huge homemade curry and playing pool with my housemates, or talking about life until the small hours, or praying / meditating / reading when I’ve realised that I have lost perspective, or looking at the sea when I visit my parents in the North East, or going to an art gallery in a new city, or getting on a train to meet an ensemble that I’m about to work with and then becoming part of their community for a time. And then, really, the two things I enjoy most of all are starting a piece and finishing a piece.


Anna Appleby is a multi-award-winning composer based in Manchester and is part of both the RSNO Composers’ Hub and the Making Music / Sound and Music ‘Adopt A Composer’ scheme for 2017/18. Anna has been the 2016/17 Music Fellow with Rambert Dance Company. She has written for artists including the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the Cavaleri Quartet, the Hermes Experiment, the BBC Singers, Manchester Camerata, Jonathan Powell, Het Balletorkest and A4 Brass. Her work has been performed on BBC Radio 3, and in venues including the Holywell Music Room, the Southbank Centre, RNCM Concert Hall, HOME theatre, RADA Studios, the National Theatre River Stage and the Sage Gateshead. Anna has recently been a composer in residence with Streetwise Opera, Quay Voices, Brighter Sound and the Cohan Collective.

Originally from Newcastle Upon Tyne, Anna has a great love of folk and jazz, and now specialises in writing contemporary classical music. Her work often consciously revolves around the human voice or body, with opera and dance being particular interests. Collaboration is at the heart of her creative practice.

Anna has worked with numerous choreographers including: Dane Hurst, Michael Naylor, Jacqueline Bulnes, Nina von der Werth, Igor & Moreno, Peter Leung, Pierre Tappon, Julie Cunningham and Carolyn Bolton. 

www.annaappleby.com