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

In my Meet the Artist interview posted here on June 13th 2018, in response to the question “Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and take up a career in music?”, I mentioned three teachers who had helped me during the years I was a pupil at William Ellis School in Highgate, North London. The third of these was Julian Silverman, who, I discovered recently, and to my immense shock and sadness, died on Boxing Day 2016, shortly after his 80th birthday.[1]

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Julian Silverman

Julian taught me A-level Music, having been appointed as a part-time teacher at William Ellis School in 1967.  It soon became clear to me that he was an exceptionally gifted and knowledgeable musician. A superb pianist and a fine horn player as well as an accomplished composer, his musical tastes were exceptionally broad, and he possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire.

He was an inspiring teacher, and we immediately established a firm rapport. I was very pleased when he offered to give me private piano and composition lessons. After a while, the teacher-pupil relationship broadened into friendship, and I began to spend time at weekends and school holidays at Julian and his wife Erika’s large Victorian house in Kentish Town, a short journey on the Northern Line from my parents’ home in North Finchley. Surrounded by scores, books and instruments we would discuss not just music, but a wide range of topics, including art, literature and politics. I was a shy and somewhat awkward teenager, and very much appreciated the warmth and kindness shown to me by Julian and Erika. Sometimes, I would make music together with Julian and his friends, even giving the occasional concert. I remember playing trio sonatas at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane – not maybe the sort of venue normally associated with this repertoire.

I remained in touch with Julian after I left school.  Julian himself handed in his notice a year or so later, and began working as a theatre MD. In August 1972, while a BA student at the University of Sussex, I was in the band performing Julian’s haunting and effective music for Yevgeny Schwarz’s The Dragon at the old Half Moon Theatre in Alie Street, Aldgate.

By the time I finished my degree at Sussex, Julian and Erika had moved to Switzerland and were living on the outskirts of Zürich. In the Summer of 1973, my then girlfriend and I hitch-hiked from Rome to London via Zürich.  Julian had assured me that we would both be welcome there, and, initially, we had a very pleasant time. I wrote some short duos for flute and horn, which we played together. Erika, it soon turned out, was less pleased to see us, as we were the latest in a constant stream of visitors from London who had descended on them at Julian’s invitation, and we left after a few days.

Julian and Erika returned to London and, by the late 1970s, Julian was working as Classical Music editor for Time Out magazine. I was a struggling freelance musician, trying to make a living from proof-reading, music editing and suchlike. On several occasions, Julian offered me work writing photo captions for the magazine. The captions were only about a hundred words long, and the pay was good, so I was naturally very grateful to him for this.

I was also very pleased when, in 1982, music by Julian and me appeared in the same programme, when the newly-formed duo of trumpeter Jonathan Impett and pianist Michael Blake commissioned works from both of us for their debut concert at the Purcell Room.

It was at this time that it became obvious from our increasingly infrequent conversations and correspondence that Julian was not entirely happy with the direction my work was taking. I had got to know Brian Ferneyhough when I was working at Peters Edition in the late 1970s, eventually studying with him in Freiburg from 1981 to 1982, so my music was associated in some quarters with the “New Complexity”. Julian was himself at one point intrigued by this tendency. Dizzy Spells, the piece he wrote for Jonathan Impett and Michael Blake, was apparently influenced by Michael Finnissy. He clearly became disillusioned with it, as is obvious from his somewhat dismissive review of the “New Complexity” issue of Contemporary Music Review (1995) (to which I had contributed an article) in the July 1996 edition of Tempo.

This review, which appeared some years after we eventually lost contact, was the last time my and Julian’s lives converged. I was saddened by its tone, and am still sorry that I never had the chance to discuss it with him. Ironically, his last years were spent living within walking distance of my parents’ home. My overwhelming memories of Julian are positive, though. I will never forget his wisdom, his guidance and the kindness he showed me, and, to this day, I will be listening to a piece of music and suddenly think, “Ah, I remember talking about this piece with Julian”.


James Erber was born in 1951 in London. Having gained Music degrees at the Universities of Sussex and Nottingham, he spent a year studying composition with Brian Ferneyhough at the Musikhochschule, Freiburg-im-Breisgau. He has worked in music publishing and education.
His music has been widely performed and broadcast throughout Europe and in the USA, Australia and New Zealand by many eminent soloists and ensembles. It includes Epitomaria-Glosaria-Commentaria for 25 solo strings (1981-84), The ‘Traces’ Cycle for solo flute (1991-2006), two string quartets (1992-94 and 2010-11), Das Buch Bahir for 9 instruments (2004-2005), The Death of the Kings for 11 instruments (2007) and Elided Dilapidations for piano (2013-14).
Matteo Cesari’s recording of The ‘Traces’ Cycle and three other shorter works for solo flute is available on Convivium Records.  Other works can be found on NMC, Metier and Centaur Records (USA).

Meet the Artist interview with James Erber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Roger Silverman, In Memory of Julian Silverman: https://weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/2017/01/in-memory-of-julian-silverman.html

 

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

Music has always been a large part of my life.  My granddad used to play 7 instruments and work in radio, my Nana was a great pianist, my dad plays guitar and my cousin is a songwriter, so I was always surrounded by music. Playing music from a young age, I always wanted to play my own music and make things up rather than do my classical practice. Playing guitar, saxophone and piano gave me a diverse range of music to play and from which to draw influences.

It was only in my late teens that the prospect of pursuing a career in music became a real idea that would never leave me. My dad being a cinematographer meant that I was always going on set from a young age, so that, plus music, is probably where my love for film music came from, and from wanting to know more about the relationship between music and visual elements.

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

My family have played a vital role in my musical life.  If it wasn’t for their constant support and belief in me, then I might not be doing what I love today. I got my break into the film music world working with and alongside composer, Ilan Eshkeri, working my way up as an assistant then to additional composer where I then met more composers on different projects. Through this I was able to learn a variety of skills required to succeed in this industry.

It’s important to have a mentor to offer advice and guidance. I definitely learnt the art and skill of film music writing from Ilan; also from film music producer Steve Mclaughlin.

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

One of the greatest challenges so far would be taking the step away from working as an additional composer on larger films under composers to focus on my own composing career. It didn’t happen overnight, it was a gradual process over a few years. Film music is very much a service industry and as a composer, you need to be willing to adapt and shift your music style to accommodate each particular project. The key thing to remember is that the film is the most important thing, so being able to maintain a form of musical language that is true to one’s self whilst being able to accompany the visuals perfectly can sometimes be difficult, especially under the frequent tight time constraints that occur.

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working on film and tv scores?

The greatest challenges in working in film is to remember that composing is really only a small part of the job.  You need to understand film and how to help tell the story alongside the images with which you are working . You also need to be accepting to the constant changes that might be asked of you and to be made in the music you are writing.

Working in film is all about collaboration, either with the director, producer or another composer. This can be such a rewarding process and hive of creativity. I am always blown away in how a particular scene from a film can be changed so much by the music. The pleasure comes when you know that you have got it right and the two art forms are working seamlessly together.

Of which works are you most proud?

Alongside my debut album PASSAGE that took about 3 years to write and release, I am most proud of the score I wrote to a documentary called ‘Three Identical Strangers’. I had a tight budget so resources were small but this forced me to think of different ways to achieve an immensely cinematic score. It was also probably one of the hardest films I had worked on. Tim Wardle, the director, knew exactly what he wanted which made the process so much easier and by the end we both had a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve in the music.  This is all a composer can ask for.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

I am classically trained but I like to combine a lot of electronics in my writing with more classical instrumentation. I feel that my writing style pulls me between smaller more intimate emotional music to then much larger, epic styles of music. My album PASSAGE touches on a line between the two, interspersing the more euphoric pieces with intimate solo piano works.

How do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?

Most of my initial ideas will start in their simplest forms either in my head or on the piano. Other times an idea can be inspired by a sound or a rhythm, depending on the kind of music I am writing. I love to record a lot of found sounds and turn them into instruments using a sampler such as Kontakt,, making something unique and new.

Sometimes I can be working on a piece of music or cue to a film and be so focussed that 5 hours can slip by in a blink. It’s only when you take a break and listen back that I sometimes think, “how did I do that”?!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Growing up, I listened to a large variety of music but it was listening to the music of Hans Zimmer (most notably his score to ‘The Last Samurai’) that got me interested in film scores, then film composers like Thomas Newman, Brian Tyler, Alan Silvestri, and the choral work of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. I am also very inspired by more minimalist composers such as Michael Nyman, Phillip Glass, Brian Eno, The Cinematic Orchestra and Nils Frahm, to name a few.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success to me is doing that which you love for a living and enjoying every minute of it. Music was my hobby and is now my career.

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

Try not to compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own path so it’s an impossible ideology that one composer’s path could be compared to a path of another composer. Try to enjoy the ever-changing road that lies ahead, there is no need to rush. I am naturally quite an impenitent person, so there have been times where I have had to tell myself to take a step back and reflect on my own achievements.

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I am about to start work on Season 8 of SKY ONE’s action drama STRIKE BACK with Scott Shields. In ten years time I hope to have written a few more solo albums as well as working on larger scale films and productions, a goal which I am sure is shared with many other composers.

Paul Saunderson’s debut album Passage is available now. More information


Paul Saunderson is a British film composer with a career spanning over 40 feature films and 8 TV shows. His work includes RAW’S latest award winning documentary THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (Tim Wardle dir.), Jim O’Hanlon’s 100 STREETS (Idris Elba + Gemma Arterton), Bill Clark’s heartbreaking true story STARFISH (Joanne Froggatt + Tom Riley) and most recently Justin Edgar’s gripping noir thriller, THE MARKER (Frederick Schmidt + Ana Ularu). Other works include collaborating on hit SKY One action series STRIKE BACK now in its 8th season, SKY Atlantic’s mystery thriller RIVIERA (Julia Styles) and MTV’s action adventure series THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES. Saunderson also wrote the music to Aram Rappaport’s debut feature RomCom SYRUP starring Amber Heard & Kellan Lutz and John Shackleton’s psychological gothic horror THE SLEEPING ROOM.

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

When I started learning piano I quickly found that improvising around the pieces I was learning was far more fun than practising scales! Quite soon after that, I realised I could begin to write these inventions down (inspired at first by an ardent desire to acquire a Blue Peter badge…!).

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

Recently I’ve been especially inspired by composers who have an outward-facing, collaborative approach to their craft. Composers like Nico Muhly epitomise this for me: not only is the music totally brilliant, but it’s made for people, not just the instruments they play.

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

This past year I’ve been writing for the London Symphony Orchestra as one of their Panufnik Composers – this has certainly been a huge challenge, exciting and daunting in equal measure! Having the whole orchestra (under the baton of François-Xavier Roth) at my fingertips was an incredible feeling, but attempting to write not just a good overall piece but also great parts for all 80 phenomenal musicians certainly took a lot of careful balancing!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

It’s the biggest thrill of the process, BUT sharing music that you’ve been living with potentially for months for the first time is a daunting thing! A player’s relationship with the thing you’ve made is so different to your own, which is why I obsess over how parts look. Most performers won’t be religiously studying your score for weeks on end; they’ll be getting under the skin of the notes you’ve written for them, so it’s critically important that what they see is presented perfectly.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

My music is built out of a core I would describe as essentially emotional. I will never shy away from that word (which is often lazily conflated with ‘sentimental’) – I can’t imagine wanting to spend my life writing music if I didn’t want to move, surprise, excite, provoke people, and I’m obsessed with finding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ways of aspiring to do just that. The Requiem that I’ve just written for Laura van der Heijden, Nicky Spence and a fantastic choir that I’ve put together is, in part, a kind of manifesto for everything I love about music. It’s my biggest work to date, and I’ve designed it in such a way as to (hopefully) crystallise the main things which make up my musical voice.

How do you work?

I work in very intense periods where a lot seems to happen very quickly! But of course this is only part of the process… I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ‘pre-composition’ – once an idea is floating around in my head, I find it very difficult to ignore, and it’s constantly evolving, shifting, forming… When these ideas get onto paper, the process has already begun (and a long night at my desk usually follows…)

Of which works are you most proud?

The works of which I’m most proud are the ones where I haven’t felt any pressure to make them something they’re not, or self-consciously ‘new’. One of my favourite Stephen Sondheim quotes is ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you, / Then it will be new’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

My favourite venues and spaces make you feel like the music is happening to you, however big or small they are – but this has a lot to do with the performance too…

Who are your favourite musicians?

The musicians I’m most inspired by are those for whom the notes they play are only the tip of the iceberg – musicians who are obsessively curious, who understand why the music they’re playing exists, and who can make you hear familiar music as if it were completely new.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2017 The Bach Choir performed my carol ‘Nowell’ at Cadogan Hall; there was some very specific choreography at the event which meant that I watched the premiere from onstage, facing sideways, so I was able to take in not only the choir but the full audience as well. This turned an already exciting moment into an electrifying one: it felt like a kind of arena, with 100 voices at the centre… what could be better?!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

My Spotify history at any given moment is a completely bizarre and eclectic mix of music – musical theatre has an extremely special place in my life, and I still can’t beat it for listening to on the go. At the moment I’m trying to discover as much new choral music as possible. I love finding music I’ve never even remotely heard of; those are the most exciting listening moments for me. In terms of playing, I love anything that gets me performing with other musicians – I love accompanying, and recently I’ve been able to delve deep into the french horn repertoire for an upcoming recital at Buxton Festival with Alexei Watkins.

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

If I’ve made something that nobody else could have made in exactly the same way, and which the performers really want to own, I’ve succeeded. The rest is largely beyond my control!

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

Be polite; be punctual; be proactive. The rest will follow!

The World Premiere of Alex Woolf’s Fairfield Fanfare will take place on Wednesday 18th September 7.30pm as part of the Fairfield Halls gala reopening concert with the London Mozart Players:

https://www.fairfield.co.uk/whats-on/london-mozart-players-fairfield-halls-gala-opening-concert/

The Stabat Mater, a Medieval hymn which portrays Mary’s suffering as Christ’s mother during his Crucifixion, has been set to music by numerous composers, most notably Pergolesi, Schubert, Dvořák, Pärt and Macmillan. In this new setting, Pietà, a co-commission from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and St. Albans Choral Society, British composer Richard Blackford interweaves the text of the Stabat Mater with poems from the ‘Requiem’ cycle by Anna Akhmatova, whose husband was taken away and ‘disappeared’ by Stalin’s KGB; her son was also arrested and she feared she would never see him again. In our troubled, turbulent times, contemporary Pietàs are tragically all too familiar – refugee parents desperately cradling babies and children, mourning mothers in war-ravaged communities, the anger and grief of victims of tragedies like the Manchester Arena terrorist attack or the Grenfell Tower fire…. Through the settings of Akhmatova’s poetry, Blackford makes the Stabat Mater a universal reflection on grief and loss – and the attendant rage, pain and incomprehension.

For seventeen months I’ve pleaded

Pleaded that you come home,

Flung myself at the hangman’s feet

For you, my son,

For you, my horror

from ‘Requiem’ by Anna Ahkmatova

Blackford chose the title after seeing Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in Rome, and, like the sculpture, his new work encompasses grief, rage and sorrow with tenderness, poignancy and, ultimately, beauty and hope. The work is scored for string orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, mezzo-soprano, baritone and solo saxophone. While the chorus and soloists present the main narrative – the pain and grief of Mary and Anna Ahkmatova – the saxophone provides a third, abstract voice, the voice of every grieving mother. Blackford chose the soprano saxophone to create “a modern instrumental dimension, very close to the sound of the human voice”.

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Michelangelo’s Pietà (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome)

In its world premiere performance on 22 June 2019 at Poole Lighthouse, Pietà was preceded in the first half by Fauré’s Requiem, which was given a meditative, other-worldly performance by the excellent BSO Chorus under Gavin Carr, with soloists Issie Curchin and Stephen Gadd. This provided a wonderful foil to Blackford’s music, which is intellectual and sophisticated, yet accessible in its use of carefully-crafted melody and counterpoint. Rooted in tonality and modality, Pietà is characterised by rhythmic dynamism, breadth of expression and lush textures, redolent of Janácek and Syzmanowski. The use of a children’s choir (in the fifth movement of the work) is a nod to another of Blackford’s influences – Benjamin Britten – and provides an episode of innocence and sweetness in this grief-scorched narrative.

With powerful, operatic singing by mezzo Jennifer Johnston and baritone Stephen Gadd, a fine, emotionally engaging performance by the BSO and BSO Chorus (whose intonation, timing and precision was impressive), the entire work has a filmic, visual quality with its gripping narrative and vividly descriptive scoring – tumultuous strings, passionate dramatic climaxes, ‘snapping’ pizzicato in the cellos (to represent Christ’s flagellation), jagged syncopated rhythms, an acapella movement of intense concentration and beauty. Organised in three parts, Pietà moves from grief and rage to redemption and hope via nine distinct movements. The obligato saxophone, eloquently played by Amy Dickson, provides a unifying link between the movements, initially haunting, mournful and timeless, evocative of an ancient shawm, and later calm and tender as the music moves towards its hopeful, redemptive close.

An absorbing and committed performance by all, supplemented by detailed programme notes by the composer with translations of the text.

This arresting, emotionally intense and accessible work for choir and orchestra receives its London premiere at Cadogan Hall on 19th October. A recording on the Nimbus Label is expected very soon.


Meet the Artist interview with Richard Blackford

 

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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