Composer Sally Beamish has received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to music. Here she shares some insights into her influences and inspirations, the pleasure of working on commissioned pieces, and how talking to audiences can help explain the creative processes involved in making music.


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

My mother, a professional violinist, taught me to read and write notes when I was four – before learning to read and write letters. As soon as I grasped the relationship between the dots on the staves and the sound from her violin, I began to create my own music. It is something I still recognise in myself – the compulsion to ‘do it myself’ – to make, to draw, to write stories.

I don’t think I ever doubted that I would be a musician, and I was lucky that the professional musicians in my family were all female, so there didn’t seem to be any problem with that. My father’s sisters were both musicians, as was my paternal grandmother – though she had been discouraged from a professional career.

However, none of them composed, and I was not aware of any woman who did, apart from Clara Schumann, whom I adopted as my role model from an early age – even though I didn’t have the opportunity to hear much of her music. It was enough for me that she existed.

But, like her, I didn’t consider composition as a possible career, and decided to study viola to achieve a level whereby I could support myself, in order to be able to compose.

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

My mother and paternal grandmother were hugely important. Granny would play piano duets with me, teaching me to sight-read by refusing to wait for me, or slow down, when we played piano duets together. I had to keep going, even if it meant playing one of two notes per bar.

We gave many family concerts – my brother is an excellent trumpeter, and my father was a good amateur flautist and singer. Only my mother and I were shy about singing. Everyone else was happy to perform lieder, show songs and parlour duets, and I was the house accompanist.

Later, as a violin/viola student at the RNCM, I found myself in demand as accompanist and chamber pianist in lessons and master classes, and was able to learn first hand about the instruments I didn’t play myself.

But maybe the biggest influence was my father’s record collection. He worked for Phillips, and was often responsible for taking first-edit records home to check for faults. They were in brown paper sleeves: Ravel’s La Valse, Prokoviev’s Classical Symphony, Schubert’s piano trios. Through his collection I discovered Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter, Walton’s viola concerto, and the classics – such as Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Arnold and Walton, in particular, had a profound affect on my orchestration and musical language.

When I was 15, a friend introduced me to Lennox Berkeley, and he became a mentor – encouraging me by telling me that I was ‘a composer, and must not forget it’.

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

During my time studying viola at the RNCM I was quite often asked to write for friends, and also for my teachers – writing a violin sonata for Bronislaw Gimpel and a viola piece for Atar Arad. Several pieces were performed by students who went on to have solo careers. I gained confidence through these opportunities, and applied to study composition as a post-graduate at several institutions. I was turned down for all of them, one of them citing my tonal language as a barrier. This was a blow, and it was hard to keep my confidence. In those days, it simply wasn’t acceptable to write tonally, but I was baffled by the sounds I was hearing from the well respected composers of the time. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t have to try and fit in with something that was alien to me, when I was still developing my own voice.

Later, as a viola player in London, I played a great deal of contemporary music, often with the composers conducting, and I became more comfortable with different languages to my own.

Many of these composers were extremely generous with their time and advice, and this was my period of study – with Oliver Knussen, Nigel Osborne, John Woolrich, Luciano Berio, Peter Mawell Davies and others, who kindly agreed to look at my scores.

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

I love the boundaries that come with a commission. I love having the scoring, length, and sometimes an extra-musical theme set out, so that I have parameters to work within. And it is always inspiring to listen to the players I’m writing for – to imagine the occasion of the premiere, and what I would like to hear them playing. I even, in a way, love the deadline – because it takes away a lot of the agonising. Like playing Sheep May Safely Graze with my granny, I just have to keep going. As the deadline approaches, there’s no time to look over my shoulder and wonder if it’s ‘any good’, or what people will say/think.

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

Each musician brings something individual, and the alchemy between composer and performer is very important to me. Often a performer has their own idea of what the piece might be about, or of filling a particular gap in the repertoire – for instance Håkan Hardenberger, who wanted a lyrical trumpet concerto, and Evelyn Glennie, who asked for marimba plus ‘handbag-sized’ percussion; and Robert Cohen, who wanted a cello concerto to draw on his family roots in Poland and South Africa. These are the things that immediately start making sounds in my mind. My three piano concertos were all written within a year, and the inspirational starting points suggested by the three soloists (Ronald Brautigam, Martin Roscoe and Jonathan Biss) made it possible to find a fresh world for each work. The Cairngorm Mountains. The whirlpool at Corrievreckan. Beethoven’s first concerto/the 2016 US election…

Of which works are you most proud?

In 1993, violinist Anthony Marwood asked me to write him a concerto. I knew his playing well – having played for several years with him in the Raphael Ensemble. He sent me Remarque’s book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. I had never read it, but as soon as I did, I knew what he meant about it being a fantastic starting point for a concerto. The violinist as the protagonist – the lone soldier, pitted against the horrors and futility of war. It chimed in with my own pacifist convictions, and I think produced one of my strongest works. I was still very inexperienced at writing for orchestra, but almost for that reason, was bold and sometimes rash in my instrumental choices, which makes the work one of my most daring for orchestra.

The concerto Seavaigers is one of the few pieces I decided to write and then looked for performance opportunities. I knew I wanted to write for Scottish harpist Catriona McKay and Shetland fiddler Chris Stout, and to put them together with the Scottish Ensemble. The solo parts are mostly notated, but the idea was that Catriona and Chris took them off the page in their own direction, so their recorded version is in places quite different from what I originally wrote. The piece can be performed by non-improvising soloists, and even by soloists on different instruments – which have included nyckelharpa, accordion and recorder – but I loved that original conception of the piece, with the soloists responding freely and spontaneously to my music by extending, ornamenting and expanding.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I find myself speaking different languages, and sometimes become quite a different composer for different projects. My music is very often informed by other genres – for instance jazz, and folk music. Increasingly, I let go of any anxiety about being ‘original’, and try to think of how I can use musical language and idiom to express the broadest range of emotion and ideas.

How do you work?

When I first started composing full-time, I was limited by the 4 hours a day that I had child care, and this worked extremely well. Once I no longer had this limitation, I struggled for years to regain that self-discipline. In 2013, a friend recommended the Pomodoro Technique. I have used it ever since – planning eight 25-minute composing sessions per day. One advantage is that I know when I have finished for the day! Another is that I never have the excuse of it not being worth starting, thinking I have too little time. One pomodoro can be crossed off the list in a spare half hour.

I work straight into Sibelius software, having made notes and planned a structure. Sometimes I start drafting the programme note before writing any notes at all. Now that I’m playing the viola again I do occasionally try out ideas, and I have a keyboard next to me which is useful.

But I tend to start by listening in silence, and waiting. Sometimes 25 minutes is simply a silent preparation. Showing up at my desk is vitally important.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

The folk musicians who’ve inspired me, such as Chris Stout, Catriona Mckay, and Donald Grant (member of the Elias Quartet, for whom I wrote a folk inspired fiddle part in Reed Stanzas). The American saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who I met in 2016, has become very important to my work and inspiration, and I’ve written several classical pieces for him, while planning a jazz collaboration which we hope will come to fruition in the next 10 years or so..! Composers I return to again and again are Knussen, Turnage, Bartok and Gubaidulina.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Communication. If I can express something through a score, via performers, to an audience. If someone in that audience is changed, moved or affirmed in some way by hearing the music.

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

I think it’s important for composers to be in touch with performing. Whether they sing, conduct, or play an instrument, they should be aware of how it feels to be onstage, and to be the direct transmitter of sound and emotion.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

It’s important to share the creative process – to talk to audiences. The pre-concert talk is good up to a point, but it tends to be talking to the converted. Much better for the composer to come onstage just before the new work, and talk about their process, their inspirations – preferably with examples. It is very difficult for a listener to assimilate a work on one hearing, and therefore to get something from it beyond a vague impression. This applies to the historical repertoire too, and in fact I think the language of the classical canon is very hard to identify with, if it is outside your experience. All the more reason to break down the 4th wall and chat to the audience, being careful not to use exclusive language (such as pizzicato, fugue, sonata form etc etc).

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Collaborating on joint projects. My work with choreographers David Bintley and David Nixon on full-length ballets was transformative, and when I met my husband, a playwright, in 2016, I realised this was the way I wanted to continue to work. He is very often a ‘dramaturg’ in my work, suggesting stories, structures and dramatic trajectory. Our discussions are my idea of perfect happiness.

And being with my family!

What is your most treasured possession?

The viola made for me by my daughter in 2014. Having had a beloved instrument stolen in 1989, and then to have sold all my instruments in 1995 because I decided I simply didn’t have time to play any more, this viola has brought me back to a communion with performers, and reminded me what an important part of my life it is to perform.


Sally Beamish was born in London. She studied viola at the RNCM with Patrick Ireland, and in Detmold with Bruno Giuranna, and was a founder member of the Raphael Ensemble. She also performed regularly with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the London Sinfonietta, and was principal viola in the London Mozart Players and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

She moved from London to Scotland in 1990 to develop her career as a composer. Her music embraces many influences: particularly jazz and Scottish traditional music.

She has recently moved to Brighton, and is married to writer Peter Thomson. She still performs regularly as violist, pianist and narrator.

Read more

Sally Beamish to receive OBE – article in The Strad magazine

Photo credit: Ashley Coombes

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

They always say that you don’t choose music as a way of life, it chooses you. From when I was about six years old I remember endlessly doodling  at the family piano, generally making up my own pieces rather than  learning how to play what was put before me by my piano teacher. I  couldn’t write down what I was making up until a few years later, but the impulse to compose something of my own was always there. I was fortunate to go to a school where music was an important part of the curriculum, I sang in the school choir, and by the time I was in my  teens I was showing up my little compositional efforts to our director of music Edward Chapman, who was always encouraging and never tried to  steer me into any particular style or genre. I was immensely enriched by  a friendship that developed between me and John Tavener, who was a year  ahead of me in school and streets ahead of me in compositional  technique and sophistication. It wasn’t until he left to go on to the Royal Academy of Music and I went to Cambridge that I came out from  under his shadow, but I owe him a great debt for the encouragement he gave and the example he offered. There was never any doubt that he would  become a professional composer, but I had no thought of that happening  to me, and in fact I was advised by my headmaster to go for an academic career (not in music), advice I’m very glad I didn’t take. 

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

This really follows on from my previous answer, and I’ll confine myself to  those I have known personally; I could give you a long list of composers  and other musicians from the past who have inspired me. My kindly college at Cambridge allowed me to do a music degree, even though I had applied to study modern languages, and I was fortunate again: I was assigned Patrick Gowers as a composition teacher, who was a considerably  gifted composer now remembered mainly for his atmospheric and finely-crafted music for a TV serialisation of Sherlock Holmes which ran  for many years, but who was open to all sorts of music (he was a very  good jazz pianist) and who let me go my own way. Also at Cambridge I met  and got to know Sir David Willcocks, the renowned director of King’s  College Choir who believed in my compositional talent and took me under  his wing. It was thanks to him that my first little compositions (a  group of Christmas carols!) were published, and this led to my  association with Oxford University Press which has lasted for a very  long time. David continued to champion my work, and he remained a mentor  and friend to me for the rest of his life. I could list many other key  figures who have offered me opportunities, encouragement and support, I  have been so fortunate: no one I respect has ever told me ‘look, you’re  no good, retrain for another profession’. 

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

The greatest challenge is to keep yourself fresh, not repeat yourself too  much, and find a balance between exercising the skills you know you’ve  already got and learning new ones. Finding the will power and stamina to write when you’re tired and busy with other work is hard. Every day of my life I’m shamed by the quantity and quality of music that so many composers have succeeded in writing when there are only twenty-four hours in a day. I’m not prolific, but then I divide my energies: composition is the compulsion, I guess, but conducting is the pleasure, and being among musicians, sometimes in the role of recording producer,  is a great joy and privilege. My only frustration is that I don’t get  more done. 

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

It’s many years since I’ve undertaken commissioned work. In the 1980s I contracted a debilitating illness, ME (also known as post-viral fatigue syndrome), and, like malaria, it cycles on and off so you have good weeks and bad weeks. When you accept a commission there is a binding obligation to deliver on time, and I had to accept that I might not always be able to do that, so I stopped. After about seven years I made a  full recovery, but did not by then want to go back to what had become a  treadmill, so I continued in a pattern that I have stuck with ever since: from time to time I respond to invitations and suggestions from  the outside world, but then I also work on my own projects. I’m less  productive than in the years I was doing commissions, but I’m less  stressed. The challenge with a commission is to come up with something  that fits the required specification, the pleasure is to be told that it  does fit and that you have actually surpassed expectations. 

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

It always helps if you have the sound of a particular artist or ensemble in your head as you write: you’re writing specially for them. I always try to find out as much as I can in advance about who I’m writing for.  If it’s a group I’m thoroughly familiar with – King’s College Choir in the radiant acoustic of its chapel – I’m half way there before I start.  It’s a poor composer who can’t craft a piece well for its intended  performers. The problems can start when other groups, perhaps not as skilled as those you have written for, have difficulty and think your  music is unreasonably hard, or maybe they just don’t get it. 

Of which works are you most proud? 

That would be like admiring yourself in the mirror. I don’t think about my past work except when I find myself conducting it. I just want the next  piece I write to be the best yet. 

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Eclectic. Conservative. Accessible. But I hope recognisable as my own. 

How do you work? 

Hard, but not as hard as I used to. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Too many to list. There’s no reputable musician/composer from whom you can’t learn something. If I dislike what I’m hearing, I tend to blame myself.  

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

To have achieved at least part of what you set out to do. 

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

Be very, very good at what you do if you possibly can. Work harder and more perseveringly than anyone round you. Prepare thoroughly. If you are a performer, try to be true to the composer’s vision; if you are a composer, be true to yourself. If you have a spark of something, it will communicate, regardless of style. 

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

Still on this earth and working. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being too busy to think about it. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

I don’t rate possessions. 

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Enjoying a meal with family and friends after a concert or recording has gone well. 

What is your present state of mind? 

Immersed in my current projects.


John Rutter was born in London in 1945 and studied music at Clare  College, Cambridge. His compositions embrace choral, orchestral, and  instrumental music, and he has co-edited various choral anthologies  including four Carols for Choirs volumes with Sir David Willcocks and the Oxford Choral Classics  series. From 1975-9 he was Director of Music at Clare College, and in  1981 formed his own choir, the Cambridge Singers, as a professional  chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording. 

Rutter’s choral works, including his Requiem and Gloria, are frequently performed around the world. In 2003 Mass of the Children, a major work for adult and children’s choir, soloists, and orchestra,  was premiered in New York’s Carnegie Hall conducted by the composer.

johnrutter.com

 

 

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

As a child my aunt was a pop singer, and released music; she also recorded my first song. My music teachers at school were supportive, and luckily Northamptonshire had a great music service when I was a child.

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

As a composer I have been lucky to have great female role models – Rhian Samuel, and Diedre Gribben briefly taught me at post-graduate and undergraduate levels.Sadie Harrison is a great mentor and teacher, an inspiring woman. I am also incredibly lucky to have worked with Kuljit Bhamra on his Tabla notation project. I was commissioned by Sound and Music to learn a new notation system for Tabla and compose new work for Kuljit, Anne Denholm and Joe Richards, mentored by Colin Riley. Most recently, the amazing soprano Gweneth Anne Rand is advising and mentoring me on composing for voice for my new work for Téte å Téte Festival in September 2020.

The music industry is tough and it is so important to have guidance and support. I have been lucky to be surrounded by strong female spirits throughout my life; even now my own grandmother has been teaching my son piano over Skype through lockdown. Her mother was a pianist (whom I never met), born in Greater Manchester, and studied in Vienna as a young girl. She married a lovely man from Lancashire who worked in the cotton mills and she ended up teaching and playing in the pubs of Oldham. My Grandma was keen to buy us a piano when I was little, so we got one from a pub in Wellingborough, where I grew up, and I began lessons as a child. Later I learnt cello, through the Northants Music Service at Junior School. I probably resonated with the cello after listening to the Bach Cello Suite’s, by Jaqueline Du Pré, on a tape cassette of my Mum’s that I think she was introduced to through contemporary dance. I grew up listening to a mixture of Bach, Dave Brubeck, Nina Simone, Carol King, The Specials, Madonna and Soul to Soul. Lisa Stansfield was my first proper concert at Sheffield City Hall with my Aunties, Mum and sister. As a young person I went to concerts at The Stables, a 40mins drive from where we lived, and performed in Youth Orchestra Concerts at The Derngate, Northampton. There was also a local Jazz night at a local pub which had some good players that my sister’s saxophone teacher let us know about, my Dad has always been really into Jazz and Blues and has been a huge influence on my listening. Latterly I became introduced to all kinds of music, North Indian Classical, Bartok, Shostakovich, Mahler, Saariaho, Cage, Oliveros, and all kinds of dance music, from electronica, drum and bass and Techno.

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

On leaving Newcastle University, I initially found it really difficult to find work, and was on The New Deal for Musicians. It was amazing as I got business advice and support from various professionals. I also got a Prince’s Trust grant to buy a computer as I had never owned one and then when I began working professionally as a cellist I had some guidance and awareness of the industry. A year later I was performing on The Mercury Music Prize (2000); perhaps without the chance to learn the ropes of being a self- employed musician I would not have had that opportunity. An RSI injury in my late 20s and early 30s was a real low point. My inspiring cello teacher at the time, Sue Lowe, built me back up again, emotionally and physically, which took several years. Luckily my composing career has been building slowly since then. My most recent career high was hearing my work for Tabla and String Quartet performed at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter just before lockdown in March. The work was for amateur performers from the Devon Philharmonic with professional Tabla player Jon Sterx. The musicians were amazing – with very little rehearsal time they performed with such vitality and commitment.

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

The pleasures often outweigh the challenges; however since the Covid-19 lockdown I feel many musicians and artists in general are facing huge barriers to their livelihoods. Currently I am composing new work for Fenella Humphreys, and have contributed to her Caprice’s project, funded mostly by Kickstarter (see her website). It is thrilling when performers like Fenella agree to perform and record your music. Fenella has a Youtube channel which is enabling new work to be premiered to wider audiences, so moving on from the devastating lockdown challenges, people are really trying to overcome them through digital platforms, and I just hope people can continue to contribute to artists’ projects financially right now, as so many freelance artists have lost so much work and income.

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

So much of my work, commissions and premieres have either been postponed or cancelled, and as an emerging composer, it is especially tough and heartbreaking. I only began composing again seriously after my son was born, so I am a bit of a late starter, and I just hope my energy and determination carries me though this unstable period. Some amazing opportunities have still managed to happen. I am currently working on a new Imaginary Opera project Song of Isis, Goddess of Love, for the Tête-à-Tête Festival 2020, which is a truly inspiring, inclusive and exciting festival to be part of. This wonderful opportunity is a lifeline as it is still going ahead in September, regardless of Covid restrictions. See the wonderful blog from Bill Bankes-Jones for more information. The practicalities of working on this are huge – devising and rehearsing new work with actor/singer Sèverine Howell-Meris over Zoom will be particularly unique to these times. I will be documenting this process online on the blog but really also hope to share our work in a real live format somehow.

Our performance date is, hopefully, 9 September 2020 (please follow us on @imaginaryopera or @laurareidmusic to find out when/if the performance will be going ahead live at The Cockpit Theatre, London). Again finances are tight, and Tête-à-Tête are fundraising for the festival on their website.

I am working with writer Chris Aziz, and animator Martha King to provide online content. I am hoping to include a virtual chorus, using singers and friends around the UK to participate in some capacity from their homes. Working with an all-female team is exciting, but as it is our first opera it is incredibly daunting at the same time. Networks such as Engender, run by producers at the Royal Opera House, are proving to be so important right now to get things to happen. Hearing leading figures like Gweneth Ann Rand and director Adele Thomas talk at the last meeting was inspiring and really encouraging.

Of which works are you most proud?

My commission for the Dorset Moon ‘Celestial Bodies’, performed to over 1,000 members of the public via headphones underneath Luc Jerram’s amazing Museum of the Moon.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Eclectic, diverse, contemporary folktronica.

How do you work?

Sporadically. In the old days pre-covid, I had routines and time to think. But now it’s in odd moments when I am not doing childcare or home-schooling, mostly in the evenings since lockdown, although I am usually a morning person. I am really looking forward to, and feel incredibly lucky to be going to Made at The Red House, Aldeburgh, hosted by Wild Plum Arts, which will be an amazing opportunity to compose and think away from domestic responsibilities.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My tastes are always evolving and changing. I currently love listening to Jill Scott, Tallis, and Bach. I really enjoyed listening to After Rain by Hildegard Westerkamp recently at the UK and Ireland soundscape conference in Sussex.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Happiness balanced with enjoying the process of composing and playing, and working on projects that inspire change and amplify narratives from the margins.

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

Keep a sense of your self and what feels right to you. Learn the rules, and then how to break them. Nothing matters very much, except staying sane and positive. We all face challenges so try and focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t.

What is your most treasured possession?

My cello J

 

Song of Isis. Goddess of Love, with music by Laura Reid, will be premiered by Tête-à-Tête on 9 September. Further information here


www.laurareid.co.uk

@laurareidmusic

@imaginaryopera

https://imaginaryopera.wordpress.com/

7372kArthur Sullivan, Haddon Hall

Following the critical success of ‘The Mountebanks’, John Andrews’ recording of Sullivan’s late opera ‘Haddon Hall’ with the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers  and a cast featuring Sarah Tynan and Henry Waddington was released at the weekend.

Further information and buy CD

Meet the Artist interview with John Andrews


 

img_5978En Pleine Lumière volume 1 – Sandra Mogensen, piano

This first album in the “en pleine lumière” project features 10 composers born in the mid-19th century, including Mel Bonis, Cecile Chaminade, Germaine Taillferre and Amy Beach.

Further information and buy CD

Meet the Artist interview with Sandra Mogensen


 

Guest article by William Howard

howardskempton_forwebsite
Howard Skempton

Howard Skempton is one of the UK’s most engaging and distinctive composers. Now in his seventies, he has produced a large and varied body of more than 300 works. Amongst these are over 100 pieces for solo piano, which he describes as the ‘central nervous system’ of his work. It is a treasure trove for both amateur and professional pianists, in which most of the pieces are very approachable from a technical point of view (in contrast to a great deal of contemporary piano music) whilst being at the same time hugely rewarding to explore and perform.

Almost all of Skempton’s piano pieces have been written for friends and colleagues or for special occasions. They are predominantly short, tonal and sparingly composed, with very few notes to the page. Many of them look very simple and are, in fact, quite easy to sight read, but, in my experience the only time these pieces are ever easy is when you are sight-reading them. As soon as you start practising them the challenge begins. Their apparent simplicity is deceptive, a conclusion reached in an excellent programme on BBC radio 3 recently called The Simple Truth, in which Tom Service explored the subject of ‘Simplicity in Music’. Commenting on one of Howard Skempton’s short piano pieces, he said “Simple, isn’t it…well, you try composing it!”. I would add “try playing it!”.

One of my favourites is Solitary Highland Song, which he wrote in 2017 for a collection of love songs for solo piano that I commissioned. When the piece first arrived, I immediately read it through and found it deeply moving. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. It consists of a simple and haunting eight bar tune, repeated six times, each time slightly differently. The dynamics start at pp, progress to mp and return to pp. Nothing complicated here. And yet I remember practising the piece for hours and hours before I gave its first performance, and I still practise it a lot before a performance. Why? The simplest answer that I can give is that it takes time to really hear the music. Skempton’s musical language is so distilled and pared down that every note, chord and musical gesture must be perfectly calibrated. Quite apart from the question of mastering total control of touch and voicing, the performer must seek out the essential character of each piece by learning to be open to what is interesting within the music, rather than trying to make the music sound interesting. There are no short cuts in this process. Skempton deliberately gives only minimal performance instructions, so that performers are invited to participate in the music and develop their own awareness of subtle changes and shifting patterns. The more I play Solitary Highland Song, the more I become aware of the genius behind every choice the composer has made: the subtle changes of register, for example, or the distribution of notes in chords and unexpected changes of harmony and rhythm. For me the piece is an enduring delight, and, I think for others too, since it has recently achieved the wonderful landmark of being heard over a million times on streaming platforms.

An example of an even sparser piece would be the third of the Reflections, a collection of eleven pieces that Skempton wrote for me between 1999 and 2002. It consists of four two note chords, a ninth or tenth apart, which are repeated in a different order eight times. The only performance instructions given by the composer are that the chords should all be played approximately two seconds apart, ppp and pedalled throughout. Where is the challenge here? Well, for a start, it is not easy to sustain molto pianissimo playing with a consistent sound, even for just over a minute. The more you play the piece, the more your listening becomes tuned in to the slightest blemish, or bumped note. And the more you listen, the more you start to become aware of the harmonic resonance shifts in different ways as the order of the chords change. By the time I came to record this piece, my ears were highly sensitised to the point where the tiniest imbalance in a chord would sound like a catastrophe. But it became very clear in the recording sessions that what brings a performance to life for the composer are the tiny unexpected or unplanned things that happen and the way a performer responds to them. In his characteristically gentle and encouraging manner, Howard Skempton decided that what we might have called ‘blemishes’ should be referred to as ‘involuntary refinements’! For him, the most important thing is to keep the music alive at every moment rather than aim for clinical perfection.

I recommend this repertoire strongly to fellow pianists at every level of ability. You will find pieces that are hauntingly beautiful, others that are quirky and playful; they are always imaginative, beautifully crafted and unpredictable. As well as giving a huge amount of pleasure they can teach us a great deal about our relationship to the keyboard and about how we listen to ourselves. Having totally immersed myself in Skempton’s music recently, I find that all the other repertoire I am coming back to sounds new and refreshed to my ears.

Scores are easy to obtain. Oxford University Press have published three volumes of Skempton’s piano pieces, which are reasonably priced. Most recently Howard Skempton has taken on the challenge of writing 24 Preludes and Fugues, an intriguing cycle of miniatures covering all 24 major and minor keys, written last year and lasting barely 23 minutes. These will be published by OUP in the coming months.


William Howard’s recording of Howard Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019), Nocturnes (1995), Reflections (1999-2002) and Images (1989) will be released on Orchid Classics (ORC100116) on 14th February. Pre-order here.:

Anyone who pre-orders the album can enter a prize draw to win one of five copies of Solitary Highland Song, signed by the composer. Please forward your order confirmation email to mail@williamhoward.co.uk before 14th February.

The album will be launched with a recital by William Howard at Kings Place on Wednesday 12th February at 7.30pm in which he will play works by Bach, Schubert and Howard Skempton. Tickets and further details here

Meet the Artist interview with William Howard

williamhoward.co.uk

orchidclassicsorc100116

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

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

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

I had an wonderful music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music and I carry that with me. I also learned a lot about commitment and integrity from the composer Param Vir. Apart from my teachers the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

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

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

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

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. When the requirements of the commission and you are aligned it is really fun: writing my narrator-and-orchestra piece ‘Not Now, Bernard’ was one such – I realised it was a story I loved to tell, and that the music could add to. I’m really looking forward to it getting a wider audience on the forthcoming album – I’m very fond of it.

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

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers over many years, including on an album of my music released in 2016. The fun of writing for them is also the danger – they can sing anything and make it sound good, but if you push the boat out too far no one else will ever sing it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language changes with each piece I write, so I don’t have a personal style as such – although I am sure there are recurring tricks if you look for them. Writing a piece is finding a solution to a problem, and when the initial restrictions vary, so does the end result. But when I write a piece like ‘Not Now, Bernard’, which is very tuneful and ‘accessible’, I don’t think of it as any less a ‘proper piece’ than my more avant-garde pieces – they are all aspects of my compositional voice.

As a composer, how do you work?

On a practical level I move between the keyboard, handwritten music notation and the computer. They each have their role within the process – although often first ideas come when I’m on my feet, either walking round my neighbourhood or in the shower. I like the handwritten element because you can trace your ideas back archaeologically if you change your mind. But I also love the opportunity the computer offers to check things like pacing, and complex harmony that is beyond my fingers.

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it. I also had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece in 2012 called ‘Anaphora’ which again caused me a lot of grief in the creation but which I am in retrospect very proud of.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music – she is also an extremely kind and generous person and it was a pleasure working with her on the forthcoming album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories, which features the premiere recording of her piece ‘Thread!’ alongside my own music. My current enthusiasm is for a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who is very little known in this country but I think is brilliant and deserves much wider programming.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

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

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

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

Bernard Hughes co-produced the album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories which is released on 7 February 2020 on the Orchid Classics label. It features his music alongside pieces by Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland, narrated by TV star Alexander Armstrong and played by the Orchestra of the Swan.

Bernard’s choral music is being showcased in a portrait concert by the BBC Singers on 30 January, for broadcast in February 2020, which includes the new BBC commission A Ternary of Littles. The BBC Singers album I am the Song is available on Signum Classics.

More information about Bernard at www.bernardhughes.net