Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I definitely feel as if I came to composing music quite late in my music education. I was no wunderkind. In coming to composition at the age of seventeen, I felt that I had to catch-up with my peers: a feeling that I now understand as being totally irrational, but the weight of all that music that have come before used to make me want to walk away from the manuscript. Saying this, over the past few years, I continue to come across interviews by other composers who have said the same thing. Being a masochistic sort of bunch, I suppose we constantly – and often unconstructively – compare ourselves to what has come before. Mozart, Britten; or, more recently, Adès.
Nobody ever told me that composing music would make a good career choice. I remember seeing a concert of exclusively new music when I was 15 years-old at the then recently opened BBC Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff. Years later I realised that it was the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ New Music:Wales project in which composers from around Wales would have their orchestral works showcased, a project I ended up being part of myself. I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, “how can they get away with this?” A whole concert of NEW music. Being brought up, in hindsight, in quite a stoic and conformist area, the thought of having a concert of Beethoven and Mozart would have been very artisan, learned or even incredibly uncool. Let alone a whole concert of new orchestral music for the concert hall. It was alien to me. Alien, but the contrarian in me thought it was incredible.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Perhaps a cliché, but teachers have always had the most significant impact on me. The meetings that we have, often stumbled upon rather than planned in advance, are the driving force for me. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
I remember meeting my first composition tutor, Robert (Rob) Fokkens, at Cardiff University. It was like being knocked over by a bus. The wind got knocked out of you. That lightbulb moment. He had opened up a new world for me. Endless listening of composers I had not heard until then. Debussy, Crumb, Ligeti, Berio, Boulez and Volans. He provided me with the tools, made sure that I knew how to apply the cement, and then guided me through the construction of the wall. We built quite an open and honest means of communication. What worked in my music; what did not (this being the majority of cases); what to trim; what to build upon and how – I constantly questioned how I came to these decisions.
Ironically the other person to have had such an impact on me not only as composer but how I go about everyday life as a composer was Rob’s former teacher, Michael Finnissy. I met Michael only in 2014 and we have built such a special relationship since then. When talking about one of my works [hafan for orchestra; later selected for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ New Music:Wales Project], he remarked that it was “like a classy drag act and it’s screaming for the gaudy feather boa to be taken off”. Bizarrely, I knew exactly what he meant. I was going through one of those difficult hiatuses in my music. I no longer liked the music that I was writing. The honesty and frankness that our conversations were from that moment was refreshing for me. Where Rob and I would discuss how, Michael and I would discuss why. Michael and I now perform one another’s work, giving premieres and collaborating on projects. That’s what it;s all about. In turn, how Rob and Michael treated me as a young composer is the measure of how I teach students now.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
I have already mentioned this, so won’t labour the point: playing catch-up. I remember leaving school and being so intimidated by all the ‘big, scary professional musicians’ out there who were infinitely better that I would ever hope to be. With hindsight, this is bullshit. We all have our own demons and personal agendas, and as the old adage goes, “we’re our own worst enemy”. It took me a while to shift these insecurities and the unhelpful comparisons I was pulling between myself and others who had twenty years on me. They naturally still often find itself rearing its ugly head, but I think you learn to deal with this as you get older. Perhaps because there are unfortunately bigger or more pressing things to worry about, like paying the bills? Even with much of what I do is centred on the making of music, the boring stuff always manages to creep into the periphery.
One other thing that I have reconciled myself to is the fact that having our own agenda (albeit sometimes masochistic or unrealistic) can be far healthier for us than to comply with the agendas that other people have for you. The sooner you nip the latter in the bud, the better. Be the best person you can be.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I actually take great pleasure in working to a brief or having a set of limitations to work with, which I have often found in the commission work I have had. I know many composers who love the freedom to let their ‘artistic juices flow’, but at the moment I could not think of anything worse. It must be all that ‘teenage’ angst (or the hangover of) still built up inside of me, but if I were left to my own devices it would be riotous. Saying this, perhaps I should let go? I could be writing very different music.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
The collaborative aspect of it all. It seems pretty obvious, but I think composers don’t really grasp that when they start working with ensembles regularly for the first time. I certainly didn’t. Whether it’s the initial nerves of hearing your music performed live for the first time, or you are yet to discover that the way your parts are laid out is a minefield for a musician, you have to go through the rough to understand just how smooth the process can be. Having luckily worked with several ensembles on a frequent basis, now, you start to discover effective methods of communication or simply what makes them tick, with the aim of creating the best music possible. As a composer (even more so than a conductor) I see myself as a facilitator. I create the framework (the notes on the page) in which people can step into (the performer/listener). If the margins that I have created are correct or the best fit possible, then hopefully the outcome will be mutually beneficial and people begin to get on-board with what the music is trying to say.
It is the convivial nature of music which excites me. People coming together for one common cause: to create music. Full stop.
Of which works are you most proud?
Again, being your own-worst-enemy and all-that-jazz, I am only as good as my most recent piece. I take what I enjoyed or disliked from my most recent work and apply it to the next. Either as a compliment to the one gone before, or as a rebuttal.
I had the opportunity to write a work for CHROMA ensemble in 2015 and that was a real turning point for me. I feel I had hit upon something with blind bells, cry out. There is a certain economy in the treatment of musical gesture that created a sincerity and desired austerity. When they were playing it through for the first time, I turned to the person next to me (composer Helen Grime) and said “I’ll keep that!” It is now one of the only works of mine that I turn to now-and-again when I start to recalibrate or review my latest work. How did I achieve that, and can I recapture that moment? I don’t think I ever can. The music is so wrapped up in that work and the input the ensemble had in its creation.
I genuinely like the work that I am doing at the moment as I feel it actually has something to say. What I mean by that is that for the first time I am quite comfortable for this music to stand there naked without me having to dress it up in anyway or justify it (Finnissy’s words linger on subconsciously). I currently have a large-scale project entitled ‘national anthems’. It’s the first project that I devised myself and can feel proud of. I see these new works as my postcards for the world around us. More like anthems on a state of a nation, rather than something as literal as a set of verse-chorus anthems. The first was for six pianos (performed by New York-based, Grand Band, as part of the 2017 Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music); the second for solo clarinet (for Manchester-based, Chris Gibbons; a set for piano quintet and flexible ensemble (premiered by Mary Dullea, Tippett Quartet and musicians from Royal Holloway University of London at Kings Place in June 2017; and with projects lined up with Michael Finnissy and Carla Rees next year as part of it plus an anti-fanfare (for Magnus Lindberg, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Foyles Future First Players). Watch this space, I suppose.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
This is a difficult one, as I am still trying to establish that myself. I am fascinated with expressing myself in the clearest and most minutia way possible. I enjoy layering small cells of musical material on top of one another and often relish when these cells react with one another, sometimes creating a blanket of dense texture or of organic richness.
Friends and colleagues have said that my work is ‘minimalist’ or ‘post-minimalist’, but I am quite apprehensive with regards to labelling music. Particularly in an age where labels (not exclusively related to music but society as a whole) can be so divisive and misleading. I understand our need to compartmentalise things but I find that the fabric of my musical aesthetic is made out of all sorts of different things. Charlie Parker. Beethoven. Julius Eastman. Ligeti. Aphex Twin. Stockhausen. Meredith Monk. Victoriana. Hildegard of Bingen. Bronski Beat. My mind runs dry now, but these interests constantly change. Ironic considering many of the composers considered ‘minimalist’ categorically show disdain of this term. I am less militant in my disregard, but rarely think of myself as such.
How do you work?
As of often as I can.
I have found over the past few years, meeting all sorts of composers, of all ages, at residencies, concerts, universities, or at the bar, that the act of composing is painfully individual. Almost sacrosanct.
I use all the tools available to us today. Sometimes different variations of resources for each project. Despite being a person of routine in the everyday, there tends not to be a routine when it comes to the act of composing. Sometimes I map out the entire piece on paper, often I write out a substantial percentage of the work on manuscript before typesetting and occasionally (becoming more frequent, however unapologetically) I go straight to the computer. It’s personal to each project for me and often simply comes down to the timescale for the project.
There is a part of me that is mystified when composers living today say that they have a strict daily routine for composing music. The sort of building-block, compartmentalised, forever unpredictable career that I am shaping unfortunately doesn’t allow for this. There is no way I could carve out this sacrosanct slot every day solely for composing. I often find myself working in very intense short periods. Living with the work for weeks or months on end. Walking away from it. Allow it to rest a little. And then return to the old friend (or enemy, dependent on how the process is going). This seems to work well for me.
The one consistency that I do have however, one that I have found unmoveable, is that I need at least 25% (crassly charted) of the overall time spent on a project just living with the concept. Not writing a note. Just thinking. This always at the beginning of a project. I need to live with it for some time. Perhaps I have trust issues and I find it difficult letting this new thing into my life. Mentally rationalising it. Either way you want to think of it, this has proven an important part of the process for me.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
There are so many.
There are musicians and composers that I continually return to (Rameau; Beethoven; Cage; Andriessen; Lang) or I go through phases of listening to a whole back catalogue of a particular ensemble ad nauseam. I am currently listening to a lot of Anna Meredith’s work (Black Prince Fury, 2012; Varmints, 2016). I feel this conveyor-belt of listening and ‘Flavour of the Month’ model is quite common.
Likewise, and perhaps something I have already touched upon, my favourite musicians or composers are those that I am most recently working with. Certainly not in a superficial, kiss-ass sort of way. That sort of thing, or the people that inhibit these traits, I tend to stay clear of. I pump a lot of my energy in the here-and-now, and love investing time in the musicians I work with, getting to know them, what makes them tick. Get most from the process of making music.
There is also something to be said for the students that I work with. I get a lot from working with young people on new music. The immediacy. The idea that they (and I) are experiencing something totally new for the first time produces music that is so earnest and alive.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There are so many flicking through my mind. The first time I performed at the BBC Proms (in the Semi-Chorus I hasten to add, naturally not a solo spot). First concert that I curated. First concert I conducted. First premiere (one of the first was a real triumph as an elderly lady made a dramatic and affirmed exit during the opening 2-miniutes of a work of mine. Rather proud of that one).
However, the one that really sticks in my mind was the first classical concert I had been to. Thierry Fischer. BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Beethoven’s Fifth. I had an insanely supportive secondary school teacher. Carting me to concerts, open days and vocal workshops all across the country. As I had shown an interest in music during our classes (I must have been either 12 or 13), she had offered to take a few of us keen-beans to this concert in Cardiff. To open our eyes (and ears). And that was that. I knew instantly that I wanted to be part of something. To make music. I was unsure what that might have been at that stage, but I knew I wanted to be part of it.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I feel a little wary of imparting any such wisdom to aspiring musicians as I still feel like I am still finding my way through a dark room.
There are a few things that I usually find myself saying to students though.
Ask yourself why? Repeatedly. Why are you doing this? For composers, what makes this 5-minute work better than 5-minutes of silence? What are you trying to say? The more you venture deeper into the music world, you begin to realise just how small it can be. However, this is not always the case. We lose ourselves in our work and sometimes feel that this short new piece for violin and piano will simply get lost in the ether and sometimes we don’t ask what difference it can make to you as an individual or others. Embrace the product of your craft and appreciate what it may mean to you and others. Otherwise, what is the point?
In the same breath, take your work as a seriously as it deserves but the moment that you take yourself too seriously, the worse off you are. Music is a wondrous, marvellous, all-embracing thing, but we are not cardiothoracic surgeons. Thus endeth the lesson!
What is your present state of mind?
Having taken part in this interview/project and having had the opportunity to reminisce on all parts of my life, I feel lucky to be able to do what I love.
I am also wondering whether I should have another coffee?
Nathan James Dearden (b. 1992) is a composer and conductor, whose music is regularly performed across the UK and overseas by a variety of different instrumentalists and ensembles, from both community ensembles to internationally renowned musicians.
Nathan’s music has been commissioned, performed, featured and workshopped by a variety of established performers and ensembles including London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Tippett Quartet, Genesis Sixteen, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, National Youth Orchestra of Wales, The Heath Quartet, Grand Band, the Fidelio Trio, CHROMA ensemble and The Dunedin Consort. His music regularly features in concerts across the UK and overseas, including at the Cheltenham Music Festival, Dartington International Summer School and Festival, International Young Composers’ Meeting and Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music. Nathan was an inaugural Young Composer-in-Residence with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and Music Creator for Sinfonia Newydd in 2013.
Recent notable performances include i sleep alone at Nagoya University/Japan (Jeremy Huw Williams; Paula Fan), anti-fanfare at St. John’s Smith Square/London (London Philharmonic Orchestra; Foyles Future First Players; Magnus Lindberg), two national anthems: it’s not working at Kings Place/London (Tippett Quartet, Mary Dullea, students of Royal Holloway University of London) and the bright morning star, commissioned as part of the Choir & Organ New Music Series (Choir of Royal Holloway; Rupert Gough).
Upcoming projects for 2018 include a new choral work for Cantemus Chamber Choir and Huw Williams, a multimedia collaboration with Carla Rees and rarescale, and a song-cycle collaboration with composer and pianist, Michael Finnissy.
Nathan has recently been awarded an Early Career Public Engagement Grant from the Institute of Musical Research in support of Spotlight Series: Finnissy at 70 and was selected as a London Philharmonic Orchestra Leverhulme Arts Scholar for their 2016/2017 season. In May 2017, it was announced that Nathan will be the inaugural recipient of the Paul Mealor Award for Outstanding Young Composers by the Welsh Music Guild.
Based in South East England, Nathan is currently Performance Manager, Visiting Tutor in Music Composition, Conductor of the New Voices Consort and New Music Collective and Postgraduate Research Scholar (MPhil./PhD) at Royal Holloway, University of London. Supervised by Mark Bowden, Helen Grime and Julian Johnson, Nathan’s research interests include parody in music, and music as a form of social commentary.
Nathan holds a Bachelor of Music (with Honours) from Cardiff University, where he was awarded the David Lloyd Music Prize for excellence in vocal studies and choral work (2012) and the Elizabeth Griffiths Award for his outstanding contribution to the musical life at Cardiff University School of Music (2013). He later graduated from Cardiff University as a Master of Music (with Distinction) in Music Composition with Robert Fokkens, Louis Johnson and Arlene Sierra, where his studies were kindly supported by Cardiff University, the James Pantyfedwen Foundation and the RVW Trust.
(Photograph Marije van den Berg)
Photography | Marije van den Berg