Tag Archives: British composer

Steps Volume 1 – the journey begins

I first encountered the piano music of British composer Peter Seabourne in 2016 when he kindly sent me the scores and recordings of his Steps Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5. Conceived and organised as “a pianist’s Winterreise”, the music is remarkably varied yet highly accessible and recalls the piano music of Debussy, Janacek, Prokofiev and Messiaen in its piquant harmonies, lyricism, and rhythmic adventurousness. Seabourne describes the series as “a compositional travelling companion” and the collection works more like a cycle rather than a progressional series such as Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.

Although composed over ten years ago, the pieces which comprise Steps Volume 1 have now been released (on the Sheva label), performed by Korean pianist Minjeong Shin. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a set of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’ or Janacek’s ‘On An Overgrown Path’,  for example, and the works have evocative titles, many of which are drawn from poetry by Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath, Rilke and Swinburne. The range of expression, character and emotional power of these pieces is impressive, hinting at a lively, inquisitive and all-encompassing attitude to creating music (as the composer says himself, “I am with Mahler: music should contain all of life!“), and the broad scope of the music, together with its inherent expressivity, lyricism and romanticism, makes it immediately appealing. There are atmospheric etudes, aphoristic miniatures, expansive character pieces, and intimate, poetic preludes. Minjeong Shin’s sensitive response to the shifting moods and myriad soundscapes reveals the music’s astonishing variety and virtuosity.

The CD’s comprehensive booklet was written by the composer himself and contains detailed programme notes for each work, together with biographical information on performer and composer.

In Steps Volume 1, and indeed in the other volumes in the cycle, Peter Seabourne has created contemporary piano music which is accessible and appealing to professional and amateur pianists alike (he has also made the score readily available via his website), and it is most gratifying to have such a varied contribution to the ever-growing repertory of new music for piano.

Recommended.

 

Buy Steps Volume 1

Review of the other volumes in the Steps series

 

 

Meet the Artist……Nicola LeFanu, composer

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

My mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy, so clearly I had a role model. As a child I was more inclined towards writing plays but gradually composing music took over. No-one pushed me towards a career in music, it chose itself, really.

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

Four composers: My mother, my husband David Lumsdaine, my first composition teacher, Jeremy Dale Roberts, and my last, Earl Kim.

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

Composition is always a challenge, and one that I welcome. Fashion is a frustration! For example, throughout the seventies and eighties almost everything I wrote was broadcast on Radio 3. Then for the next twenty years very little was broadcast. Now things seem better, as I shall be BBC Radio 3 ‘Composer of the Week’ (April 24-28 2017).

And ‘location’ as well as fashion perhaps, since I moved from London to York in 1994, and UK musical life is very London-centric. (But I love living in York.)

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

It is a pleasure and a stimulus to know the context of a piece – what kind of programme it is part of, who the audience are likely to be and above all, who the performers are. Occasionally it can be a challenge to keep composerly independence while meeting very specific demands of the commission.

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

A good working relationship with a performer is the greatest pleasure. And every medium offers its own pleasure – writing for orchestra is marvellous. Yet the challenge also lies in the medium. For example, composing an orchestral work might take a year, but there will only be two or three hours of rehearsal and maybe only one performance. An opera (also at least a year to write) will have two or three weeks of rehearsal and several performances or a run. A much more satisfactory ratio.

Of which works are you most proud?

‘The Old Woman of Beare’, a monodrama for soprano and large chamber ensemble, is perhaps my best piece. But I would also single out a couple of the chamber operas – ‘Light Passing’, a church opera set in Avignon in the 14th century, and ‘Dream Hunter’ which has a great libretto by John Fuller about the Corsican mazzeera.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Lyrical, dramatic. Harmony and voice-leading create and underpin the structure.

How do you work?

I work every morning (no email till after lunch!); I sketch with pencil and paper, then I use Finale to make the fair score. Sometimes I work at the piano and sometimes at a desk, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

The best days are ones where I work right through but all too often life intervenes and I only get the morning.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I don’t deal with favourites really…Mozart, Janacek? Of my musical friendships, the New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead is a close friend whose music I admire very much.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The first rehearsal of my first big orchestral piece, ‘The Hidden Landscape’ for the BBCSO at the 1973 Proms.

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

Cultivate your inner ear! Then for the outer ear, know how to value silence and be active in combatting noise pollution,

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

In an opera house watching one of my operas.

What is your most treasured possession?

As a child, my cat. Now that I have no cat, and since I am writing this on March 29th when the Prime Minister took UK out of Europe, I’d say my EU (Irish) passport is my most treasured possession.

To mark Nicola LeFanu’s 70th birthday (28 April 2017), Radio 3 will feature her as ‘Composer of the Week’ from 24-28 April.  Upcoming performances of LeFanu’s music include a birthday concert on 10 May in York with the Goldfield Ensemble, the world premiere of LeFanu’s May Rain in Oxford with the Orchestra of St John’s  on 16 May and the world premiere of The Swan with Jeremy Huw Williams at the Beaumaris Festival on 30 May.  

Nicola LeFanu has composed over a hundred works which have been widely played, broadcast and recorded; her music is published by Novello and by Edition Peters.

She has been commissioned by the BBC, by festivals in UK and beyond, and by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists.

Her catalogue includes a number of works for string ensemble, and chamber music for a wide variety of mediums, often including voice. She has a particular affinity for vocal music and has composed eight operas.

She is active in many aspects of the musical profession, as composer, teacher, director etc. From 1994-2008 she was Professor of Music at the University of York. Recent premieres include works for chamber ensemble, for solo instrumentalists, Tokaido Road – a Journey after Hiroshige (music theatre) and Threnody for orchestra.

She was born in England in 1947: her mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. LeFanu studied at Oxford, RCM and, as a Harkness Fellow, at Harvard. She is married to the Australian composer David Lumsdaine and they have a son, Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine.

www.nicolalefanu.com

Meditative stillness: ‘Stations of the Cross’ by Simon Vincent

simon_vincent__stations_of_the_cross‘Stations of the Cross’, a new work for solo piano by British composer and pianist Simon Vincent, was inspired by a visit to Jerusalem in 2015 and by William Fairbanks’ installation in Lincoln Cathedral. Entitled Forest Stations, the installation is a series of sculptures in wood and reflects Fairbanks’ love of timber and his concern about the preservation of forests and trees. The sculptures tell the story of Christ’s death, the ‘Stations of the Cross’ being the places on the route to the place of Crucifixion where Christ is said to have stopped. For the faithful, each station, or stopping point, provides a point of prayer and meditation on the Passion of Christ.

Simon Vincent’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ (2016) is a series of 17 short movements, depicting Christ’s spiritual, emotional and corporeal journey to his death on the cross.

It is intended that the work opens up reflection and discussion of the image of a sole human figure weighed down with burden, an image which for me raises issues of the relationship of the individual to both a society and state which are not only capable of looking away but also of allowing suffering: themes of truly vital relevance to us today

– Simon Vincent

The work is prefaced by an earlier piece, ‘Meditations on Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane’ (2013) whose sombre, reflective mood prepares the listener for the main work on the disc. Musically, ‘Stations of the Cross’ owes much to Morton Feldman, master of stillness and controlled, deliberate silences, while the concept of a cycle of devotional meditations connects this work to Messiaen’s epic ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus’. 

Vincent’s carefully-placed chords are infused with jazz harmonies, while subtleties of tonal colour are achieved through long, sustained notes and the piano’s resonance. It’s the kind of music that demands to be heard live, preferably in an acoustic which allows the timbres and unexpected fleeting clusters of notes and rhythmic fragments to linger in the air like memories.

It was Claude Debussy who declared that “music is the space between the notes”, and the pauses and fermatas which colour ‘Stations of the Cross’ allow one to fully appreciate every single note and chord. Into this void, the sounds reverberate and resonate with a meditative stillness and restrained expressive gravity. The effect is powerfully cumulative, despite the brevity of each movement, with a sense of the music building inevitably towards its contemplative conclusion.

The work receives its world premiere on 18th April 2017 in a concert given by the composer in the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral. Further information

A Meet the Artist interview with Simon Vincent will be published shortly.

 

Meet the Artist……Vic Hoyland, composer

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

Myself. But then Bernard Rands my tutor and Bill Colleran at Universal Edition (London/Vienna).

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

Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, Messiaen. Historically: J.S. Bach, Webern, and late Mahler.

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

They were the 4 major works written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I have at least 4 new works still waiting on first performances. But I remain patient.

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

Time. I work slowly and with painstaking care. My music is sometimes complex and it is crucial that performers receive as near perfect copy of performance materials as is possible. I do my best and I have a fine copyist. UE taught me this, way back in 1972.

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

The pleasures are being there for rehearsals. Some conductors are exceptional (Sir Andrew Davis), some work seriously hard (Martyn Brabbins), others you may never wish to see again. New Music Ensembles, string quartets and solo performers have been the most satisfying to work with. Lifelong friendships are made.

Of which works are you most proud?

“WULF” for 24 voices (amplified) and 24 instrumentalists – yet to receive a first performance; “The Attraction of Opposites” for 2 pianos; the orchestral trilogy, “Vixen”, “Qibti” and Phoenix”; “Hey Presto!” written for BCMG conducted by Diego Masson, happiest of all.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Proudly European but, like Bartok, drawing on cultures further afield and from the distant past.

How do you work?

In my music barn, composing, still, on manuscript paper. However, most work has been carried out in Sicily. The climate, the food and wines kept me going, and going well, so producing the goods. I also found plenty of time to read, to feed my imagination.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Musicians such as Melinda Maxwell – oboe, Simon Limbrick – percussion, Rolf Hind – piano, BCMG, The Arditti Quartet. Composers I already listed as influential on my work. Still living? The works of Birtwistle, Ferneyhough, Tom Ades, David Sawer, Julian Anderson and Sam Hayden interest me.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Experiences: Simon Rattle conducting all Mahler and some Messiaen with the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

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

Feed your imagination and let it run. I always ask myself the question “What if?” Be your own best critic and bin a lot.

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

Where I am now.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with the right person and being amongst friends.

What is your most treasured possession?

It is my 40-year-old Pavoni, brass and copper, coffee machine.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Walking the hills.

What is your present state of mind?

Pensive.

 

Born in Yorkshire in 1945, Vic Hoyland’s earliest interests were in painting, calligraphy and architecture, but after completing an Arts degree at Hull University and a prize winning work was submitted to the BBC, he decided to concentrate on music. Wilfrid Mellers invited Vic to undertake a doctorate at the then new music department at York University where his tutors were Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Bernard Rands. From 1980-1984 he was Haywood Fellow at the Barber Institute, then after two years at York University he returned to Birmingham as a full-time lecturer responsible for MDD, an interdisciplinary programme between music, drama and dance. He was subsequently Professor in Composition at Birmingham until his retirement in 2011. In 2015 he was made Emeritus Professor, in recognition of his longstanding and valued contribution to the University of Birmingham.

Commissions have come from many festivals – Aldeburgh, Almeida, Bath, Cheltenham, Warwick and Stratford, Huddersfield, South Bank and York – from organisations such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra and ensembles such as Lontano, the Arditti Quartet, Lindsay Quartet, BCMG, Endymion and Vocem. Works prior to 1994 are held by Universal Edition (Vienna). Works after 1994 are held by Composers Edition. Works include In transit for large orchestra which, together with Vixen, was recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra for NMC records. Most of Vic’s music has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The Other Side of the Air and Token are also available on NMC records. The second work in his orchestral triptych, Qibti was premiered at the Barbican on 18 December 2003 and conducted superbly by Sir Andrew Davis.

Read more at Vic Hoyland’s website

Meet the Artist……Richard Barnard, composer

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

Probably many things. I remember sitting at home at the piano, playing (I use the term loosely) Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, trying to work out how the hell he did it. Also my parents, teachers at sixth form and university: Martin Read, Michael Zev Gordon, Vic Hoyland and then Diana Burrell at GSMD.

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

Unfavourably comparing myself to other composers and artists. It’s so easy to descend into a Facebook-style Scroll of Shame where every successful and sparkly new thing makes you panic and think ‘I should be doing that!’ It is challenging to learn how to be influenced by other people’s ideas and techniques without feeling you have to follow their path.

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

First of all, commissions are fantastic. Everyone should commission composers AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE! Pieces often take ages to write and there won’t be much decent new music that defines and enriches our time and culture if people don’t commission it.

It is also incredibly motivating to have that deadline and the vision of a future audience at the first performance anticipating your new work.

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

I write for a variety of people and situations, from professional singers and ensembles to school or community groups who have to learn things quickly and have fun doing so. Learning what works in what context is a tough skill. It takes a long time to master. I love writing for voice and I’ve been working a lot with solo singers recently. It’s great to have their voice in your head as you write and to think about the shape of the text, the breathing, the pacing and the drama of it.

Of which works are you most proud? My two recently commissioned song cycles, ‘Woolf Letters’ and ‘Early Stroll Songs’, which set Virginia Woolf’s letters to her sister and Ian McMillan’s Early Stroll tweets. I’m also very proud to have produced three performances of my opera ‘The Hidden Valley’ at St George’s Bristol this year, working with an incredible team of artists – I did, however, need a very long lie down in a darkened room afterwards.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I like to think it’s an English sound, rooted in nature, often starting from melody and the voice.

How do you work?

I work best early. I have a lot of ideas doing other activities (gardening, showering etc.) as it gives space and time for the brain to process ideas. When I was writing ‘Early Stroll Songs’ I got into a routine of starting composing first thing (6.30-ish) for a few hours: At the keyboard, with pencil, Manuscript paper, black tea. I could usually complete 1 short song each day or two. My wife often acts as an editor, offering a second pair of ears to help me hear the music from an audience’s perspective. Later in the day, if not teaching, I would do computer / admin-type work: Typesetting, emails, checking twitter too much, grappling with a labyrinthine funding application etc.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Starting out, my heroes were Bach, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Britten and Steve Reich, but I’ve recently been more drawn to the vocal music of Purcell and Handel, Mozart’s Symphonies, Schubert’s song cycles and the music of David Lang and Laurence Crane. I’m always interested in opera composers and I enjoyed Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds at ENO and Fairy Queen at Iford recently.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

When I was 16 or 17, I went to a performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Southampton. We sat right at the back. After the concert, walking out into the car park, I couldn’t speak. It was such a visceral experience.

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

Listen to and interrogate lots of good music. Like what you write. Befriend performers. Don’t follow advice too much.

Richard Barnard is a composer based in Bristol. He studied at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and University of Birmingham. He has written operas, song cycles and choral works for Welsh National Opera, Opera North, BBC Singers, Bristol Ensemble, Juice Vocal Ensemble, Siân Cameron and others. He has composed music for dance and theatre, and his chamber pieces have been performed internationally by groups including Delta Saxophone Ensemble, Juice Vocal Ensemble and Kungsbacka Trio.

Richard curated the acclaimed new music series Elektrostatic at Bristol’s Colston Hall and Arnolfini for five years. He has taught orchestration and composition at University of Bristol and is one of the UK’s foremost composition workshop leaders, working with WNO, CBSO, London Sinfonietta, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Philharmonia Orchestra and Eighth Blackbird.

Richard Barnard on YouTube

Twitter@richardmbarnard

richardbarnard.com

Meet the Artist……Keith Burstein, composer

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

My parents were both professional violinists, so the likelihood is that I was an embryo even as my mother played in the midst of all the instruments- quite an introduction to music! In addition my aunts were also musicians and so it seemed that music was the stuff of life.

To be a composer was the earliest desire I recall having for myself, although after that I tried many other ambitions as a growing adolescent, including going into politics.

I think a turning point came when I discovered Mahler at age 16, that’s when I understood what music can be more fully than before. Then when I went to study at the Royal College of Music, I was introduced to the avant garde of that time, i.e. Stockhausen etc, and I saw how music can be at the cutting edge. Since then I have attempted to redefine the cutting edge as once again melodious and to rededicate music to what it does best – the expression of emotion.

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

I would cite the late romantic era as the single greatest influence – the grandeur and vision combined with the emotional intensity are hall marks of that era.

But as a child of the mid 20th century I was also deeply influenced by film music Bernard Hermann, John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone – and of course these were in turn influenced by the late romantic.

I would also mention the great American musicals

Amongst people who have influenced me, firstly my parents who provided an environment in which music making was like the air I breathed, whether it was my parents accompanying one another on violin and piano or playing the Bach double for two violins or my father playing the accordion, or both with my aunts on piano or violin not forgetting my brother on drums, or my older cousin Paul Lewis who is a distinguished composer of TV and film music and now increasingly of concert music. Then I should mention my extraordinary piano teacher in Brighton, the late Christine Pembridge. She taught at Roedean girl’s public school and privately at home in Port Hall.

A remarkable musician and teacher, she transmitted her passion for music with a northern directness. It was she who animated my ability to play and through her I gained direct exposure to the great music of Bach Beethoven Schubert Debussy and Rachmaninov. Among her other pupils, before me, was composer Howard Blake of ‘The Snowman’ fame. Her fine teaching prepared me for the Royal College of music which was my next great field of influence. Here I met contemporaries and great friendship with William Mival, now head of composition there. William was a devoted connoisseur of new music and introduced me to Tippett, Stockhausen and Boulez. I would later go on to rebel against the atonal establishment as I came to see it, but the initial stimulus of exposure to its heartlands and the decade I then spent exploring and writing in its styles was the essential formative experience that made my later enlightenment possible.

Once this rebellion happened I was in trouble but almost immediately found a distinguished friend in the form of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. I was introduced to him in the mid 90s by his publisher and we got on immediately. I believe he identified with my struggle having had a struggle himself to escape the Soviet Union. He liked my music and gave me very direct help by splitting a commission fee with me to write music for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral. He wrote ‘The True Vine’ and I wrote my Missa Brevis. A remarkable man of vision and personal humanity.

Then a few years later, while working with South Bank Sinfonia I discovered their patron was the legendary Vladimir Ashkenazy when he came to conduct them. I asked for and was given an introduction. We found affinity immediately on the issue of tonality and he wrote to me positively about the music I was writing for the orchestra. Within a couple of years he arranged for my Symphony ‘Elixir’ to be recorded and released on Naxos. He remains a great friend and support.

Another great friend was the actor the late Corin Redgrave of the Redgrave clan.He produced my opera Manifest Destiny at the Tricycle Theatre and Ralph Steadman designed the sets. Corin, an activist campaigner along with his sister Vanessa Redgrave and wife Kika Markham( my close friend) have all supported my sometimes controversial pathway. Without them it would have been much more difficult and lonely.

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

For the first decade of my career broadly my twenties i ran an ensemble for the performance and commission of new works, The Grosvenor Group. We made some radio 3 recordings and were well supported by various trusts. Then as I approached 30 I underwent a Road to Damascus type conversion to Tonality as I began to compose more full time myself.

Simultaneously I understood that the unmitigated tonalism of my works would not be acceptable to the new music establishment as serious new music and thus began the greatest challenge of my career.

The establishment view was – and remains – based in the atonal paradigm. To challenge this is the same as challenging any establishment- very dangerous.

I felt that I needed not only to produce the work but at the same time to speak out- or even demonstrate. In particular I became involved in a group who booed a Birtwistle opera in 1994.This produced the most incredible outcry and rumble in the press that went on for years

This was captured on television here

and eventually led me to have to sue News International for libel which I did successfully in 2000.

The in 2003 I wrote with playwright Dic Edwards my opera ‘Manifest Destiny’ about suicide bombers who renounce violence and become peace makers. The press nevertheless accused me of glorifying terrorism , a serious criminal offence. Again I sued this time the Daily Mail Group. I won in the High Court but was defeated at Appeal and bankrupted by Associated Newspapers Ltd

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

Knowing that it will be performed and I will be paid.

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

Having the opportunity to work within a dialogue in which changes and adjustments can be made as part of the working process

Of which works are you most proud?

I would have to cite first ‘Manifest Destiny’. This is a work which aspires to reflect and process the current geo-politics and translate then into a convincing human drama and then transmute the content onto a higher plane of transcendence. In this regard the opera seems to serve its purpose having had over 30 performances and several productions. With Dic Edwards the librettist we also managed to produce a work which has proven prescient to this day.

Also ‘The Year’s Midnight’, a meditation on the Holocaust which was broadcast on radio 4 on the first Holocaust memorial day in 2001; my music in memoriam the 51 people who drowned in the Thames in the Marchioness river boat disaster of 1989, Requiem for the Young; and my music in memoriam the former Leader of the Labour Party John Smith,  ‘A Live Flame’ .

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Super Tonal

How do you work?

I type straight into the computer like writing a letter, with no sound, just hearing in my head

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Prince, Miles Davis, John Barry, Eminem, Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, Bach, Elgar, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Scriabin

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Karl Bohm conducting the last three Mozart Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Royal Festival Hall in 1978 – life changing visionary experience.

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

Music is a unique portal into the human soul

Keith Burstein was born in Brighton, England. He came from a musical family; both parents were classical violinists who played for Sadlers Wells Ballet, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Ulster Orchestra and the Halle Orchestra as well as for the Royal Opera House. (Originally of Russian-Jewish extraction, the family name had been anglicised to Burston). Burstein held two scholarships at the Royal College of Music in London where he studied composition with Bernard Stevens and John Lambert. Post-graduation, he continued his composition studies with Jonathan Harvey. This was a period of great discovery for him.

Read more about Keith Burstein here

Meet the Artist……Bernard Hughes, composer

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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 once 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 influential 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. I have had a number of excellent teachers along the way, but 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. I had a commission that got more and more precise; in the end it had to be a wordless choral work based on a visual work of art by an artist I knew. And the piece turned out to be quite unusual as a result.

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. When you have a piece sung by them you can be confident they will get it right – working with children as I do much of the time, there is always the possibility for a collapse. But technical expertise is only half the battle; it is particularly fun to work with groups and individuals who enjoy the challenge of new music.

How would you describe your compositional language?

A question composers tend to dread. First, I would certainly say that my language is different from piece to piece, depending on the circumstances and context. Next, I would say that I am interested in using tonal materials in a non-tonal way, if tonality is interpreted narrowly as meaning music that has a sense of home key and a hierarchy of other keys, and that modulates away from and back to the home key. Under this narrow definition, Steve Reich’s music, for example, is not tonal, although it uses diatonic chords. This is a fertile ground for me (although my music sounds nothing like Reich). For example, my choral pieces often use diatonic chords, but I am rarely able to write a perfect cadence. I am also interested in the use of modes, such as the octatonic collection, or invented modes. In summary, my musical language tends to be a bit ‘safe’ for those who like hardcore modern music, and a little bit tricky for those who like straightforward ‘classical’ music.

How do you work?

I use a mixture of pen and paper and computer. I am at the tail-end of the generation trained pre-computer notation – I first got Sibelius in my 20s, when it was a new (and by today’s standards, primitive) software. I now don’t know how I ever managed without a computer. First thoughts for a piece usually come on my feet, either walking round the block or in the shower. Notes will often first come at the piano, sketched onto manuscript. I also often print out music at an intermediate stage and write onto the printout with amendments. I think it is so useful to have visible drafts – one of the downsides of a computer is that once you change a note, the original is gone. But the main use of the computer is for checking the pacing of a piece – which is, for me, the ultimate challenge. Do the events of the piece happen at the right psychological moment?

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces I have 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.

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), Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Adès, Julian Anderson and a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who I only discovered through reviewing a CD.

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 tape 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.

‘I Am The Song – Choral music by Bernard Hughes’ was released in April 2016 on the Signum Classics label. More information

‘The Knight Who Took All Day’ from the book by James Mayhew with music by Bernard Hughes will be performed on Sunday 29th January 2017 at Hertford Theatre, Hertford, conducted by Tom Hammond. More information

Bernard Hughes studied Music at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, graduating with a first-class degree. He subsequently studied composition at Goldsmiths College, London under Peter Dickinson, and privately with Param Vir. Bernard Hughes was awarded a PhD in Composition from Royal Holloway College, London, studying with Philip Cashian. Bernard Hughes is Composer-in-Residence at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London.

Bernard Hughes’s music has been broadcast on Radio 3 and King FM in Seattle, and he appeared as a conductor on the Channel 4 series Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century Greats. Bernard writes regularly for theartsdesk cultural review website.

More about Bernard Hughes here

Piano Raags

How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano

A guest post by composer John Pitts

howtoplayindiansitarraagsonapiano20front20john20pittsJohn Pitts’ somewhat unusual book How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano is designed for adventurous pianists. Indian raags have an extraordinary musical heritage dating back several centuries (from the area that is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) – a truly unique musical genre of fascinating melodic beauty and rhythmic intricacy – freely combining elaborate composed melodies with carefully rehearsed improvisation. But now the amazing world of Indian raags has been opened up in a sympathetic but thorough reinvention for piano solo (or duet or two pianos) by an award-winning British composer.

In this guest post, John explains how his fascination with Indian raags began, leading eventually to his new book…..

My fascination in Indian raags (also spelled raga/rag) was sparked back in 1994-95 during a gap year in Pakistan before going on to study Music at Bristol and Manchester Universities. I had the great pleasure of several late night music sessions in a rural farming village in the Punjab, with local amateur musicians and a visiting classically-trained and highly accomplished ‘radio singer’, known to me only as ‘Ustaad’ – an Urdu term of respect. He accompanied himself on a harmonium – a little equal-temperament reed organ with the bellows pumped by his left hand. Drone notes were held down in the mechanism and his right hand loosely doubled some of his sung melody. Our generous host, a keen music enthusiast, provided the percussion layer on a pair of tabla. It was enthralling music, exotic to my youthful ears, gradually developing from a slow and atmospheric exploration of a tiny handful of notes to fast and frantic, highly rhythmic, full of passion and energy and intoxicating vocal virtuosity. The following year I had a few sitar lessons with Baluji Shrivastav in London – on an instrument I’d bought in Lahore’s music bazaar.

Both as pianist and composer I found an affinity with this music. There’s a peacefulness (and a certain self-indulgence) which I love – a focussed and absorbing stillness – in slowly improvising, with an evocative scale only gradually emerging, initially without the restrictions of a regular pulse. There are beautiful, richly ornamented melodies, and the organic sense of journey and destination. Then comes the thrashing rhythmic drive and the rapturous metric games, the fast and the furious. For the performer the pleasures bear many of the hallmarks of intelligent free jazz, along with a rich eastern mystique.

As composer I explored various aspects of Indian musical thinking in a number of my own pieces, in 2011 culminating in a virtuosic piano duet Raag Gezellig. This sounds partly improvised but is actually through-composed within a fairly typical raag structure. While composing that duet, extensive googling of ‘piano’ plus ‘raag‘ or ‘raga‘ resulted in very little. Harmoniums have been used by Indian classical musicians for the past 150 years; pianos on the other hand have generally only gained a small foothold in Indian pop and in Bollywood film references to western classical music – but not in raags – the highest classical musical art-form of India.

The raag is a genre of highly ornate, partly-improvised music with a typical set of conventions and a typical structure.  The nearest equivalent western musical term might be a cross between ‘air’ (a composition dominated by melody) and ‘sonata’ (a musical form with established conventions).  The word raag literally means ‘colour’ and from that also ‘passion’ or ‘emotion’.  Each individual, named raag is defined by a set of musical ingredients which determine its distinct ‘colour’.  Raags are typically played by a melody instrument (or voice) accompanied by a drone instrument and rhythmic percussion, with performances lasting anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours.

Englishman William Bird published from Calcutta his “Airs of Hindustan” way back in 1789 – a collection of short keyboard pieces in a European classical style using Indian melodies (albeit largely major scale) that he’d collected.  The result was European music with a slight Indian twist. Subsequently there have been plenty of other musicians – classical composers through to jazz and rock guitarists – who have found a fascination with music from the east and who have created European music inspired by features of Indian music.

But in the past very few years there has been a newly emerging development, on Youtube at least, which has quite suddenly featured a number of musicians, both Indian/Pakistani and European/American, playing classical raags on a piano – ie: using the piano as an Indian instrument playing truly Indian music – not some kind of crossover or simply one genre of music influenced by another. I’d recommend looking up videos of Utsav Lal, a brilliant young raga pianist from Scotland.

As a secondary school music teacher I wrote a simple piano version of Rag Desh in 2013 to help our GCSE students develop an understanding of how raags work. From there came the idea of a bigger piano book containing a number of raags plus instruction on typical ways to improvise on the different sections of musical material. That summer, the book’s scope and size quickly grew because there are countless different and interesting raags to choose from – so many exotic scales, so many characterful motivic permutations and interesting time signatures and rhythmic cycles (talas). Now in December 2016 the finished 258-page book is a collection of 24 raags – reflecting the idea that individual raags are associated with a particular time of day. As well as the sheet music, there are loads of musical examples and a section of ‘Pick and Mix Ingredients’.

The purpose of “How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano” is first and foremost to open up the astonishing world of Indian classical music to pianists from western classical or jazz traditions who otherwise have no easy way to engage with Indian raags.  The aim is to help enable you to perform a (pretty much) authentic, improvised raag, having understood the structure and having practised using, playing around with, and generally enjoying the key raag ingredients, and immersing yourself in a whole new emotional experience.  I also hope that some more adventurous pianists will be encouraged to develop the raag tradition further in interesting new directions. The book is for good amateur pianists through to virtuosic professionals.  It is suitable for any pianist who enjoys discovering new music, or who has an interest in music from other cultures, or who knows the pleasure of jazz noodling and wants to explore a rewarding and fresh (but centuries-old) form of improvisation.

What exactly is a raag?

At the age of 18 it was difficult for me to get my head around what a raag is, because as a concept it is really rather different to any western music. Western music is written by a composer, who chooses the notes – the pitches, the rhythms and the order they go in etc etc, it is all written down, and the completed piece of music has a title by which it is identified and copyrighted. Performers then play (more-or-less) what the composer has written. But traditional raags just don’t work like that. If ‘Raag Desh’ is listed in a concert programme, for example, all an informed audience can tell from that is that the performance is likely to contain a set of conventions and musical ideas that are historically associated with that raag – ie: improvisation using a particular scale, particular rising and falling versions of that scale, a particular set of little musical motifs etc etc. It does not specify the key, time signatures, rhythms, tempi, character, mood etc. And it probably doesn’t tell us anything that is affected by copyright laws – for instance it doesn’t tell us the name of the tune(s) being used, or who composed it.  It is about as specific as saying that the performer is going to play ‘a boogiewoogie blues’

The term ‘Raag Desh’ conveys only this approximate set of historical musical ideas and conventions. This approximate set of ideas is then used by different performers as the starting point for creating a whole range of very different pieces, ie: live performances. Each of these pieces/performances is named ‘Raag Desh’ (despite frequently using completely different melodies), and on paper is distinguishable from the numerous other ‘Raags Desh’ only by the name of the performer and date of performance.  To make matters worse, the pre-composed melody (the gat) rarely even has a name (unless it is taken from a song) and is not usually identified anyway, so you don’t know whether it is a variant of an old traditional melody or a newly composed one (by the performer or anyone else). Countless melodies may be associated with a particular raag. To help avoid this issue in “How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano”, as well as the Indian name I have given appropriate English titles to each of the 24 raags, which I hope my readers will find attractive and evocative.  These titles have two functions – first to help you quickly capture the right atmosphere when learning the music, and second, as usual in western classical music, to give a formal identity to these particular melodies and raag adaptations – not least for the benefit of the Performing Right Society – I’ve got kids to feed!

Raag Kalyani “Bliss”

Raag Hemvati “Golden Mountain Stream”

Raag Latangi “Little Girl”

Raag Desh “Sweeping Landscape”

Raag Vachaspati “Wise Old Man”

Raag Gezellish “Gazelle”

Raag Kalavati “Moonlight”

Raag Bageshri “The Waiting Bride”

Raag Neenda “Sleep”

Raag Paraj “Pollen on the Breeze”

Raag Lalit “Elegant Mischief”

Raag Jogiya Kalingra “Aroma of Saffron”

Raag Chakravaak “Ruddy Goose”

Raag Kofi “Intense Coffee”

Raag Suraja “Morning Sun”

Raag Bilaskhani Todi “Mourning”

Raag Asawari “Full of Hope”

Raag Todi “Lady in the Forest”

Raag Gaud-Sarang “Lunchtime Bell”

Raag Madhuvanti “Flowing with honey”

Raag Patdeep “Stealing my heart”

Raag Charukesh “Beautiful Hair”

Raag Poorvi “From the East”

Raag Puriya “Satisfaction”

Order the book

www.pianoraag.com

john_pittsJohn Pitts is a British composer who lives in Bristol, England, with his wife and four children.  He composes mostly chamber music, especially for piano solo and duet, in styles perhaps best summarised as melodic, motoric, motif-driven, jazz-tinged, post-minimal impressionism.  His pieces for two pianists have been performed at concerts and festivals in several European countries, Armenia, Australia, Russia, Ukraine and the USA, including in March 2015 a concert dedicated to his music in Perpignan’s “Festival Prospective 22ème siècle” by French duo Émilie Carcy and Matthieu Millischer.

His 2009 album Intensely Pleasant Music: 7 Airs & Fantasias and other piano music by John Pitts, performed by Steven Kings, was released to critical acclaim – receiving a 5 star review in Musical Opinion Magazine, several 4 star reviews including the Independent newspaper, with descriptions such as “beautiful, moving and relaxing”, “delicious”, “lovely”, “colossal… stunning and seriously impressive”, “great character and emotional integrity”, “exciting stuff all round… toes – prepare to tap.”

John studied at Bristol and Manchester Universities, under composers Wyndham Thomas, Adrian Beaumont, Raymond Warren, Geoffrey Poole, John Casken, John Pickard and Robert Saxton, and briefly with Diana Burrell in a COMA Composer Mentor scheme.   He won the 2003 Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and two of his chamber pieces were shortlisted by the Society for the Promotion of New Music.  He has also written music for four plays and two short operatic works – “Crossed Wires” (Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 1997), and “3 Sliced Mice” (commissioned by Five Brothers Pasta Sauces).  He writes music for Christian worship, with two hymns on Naxos CDs recorded by his eldest brother composer Antony Pitts and Tonus Peregrinus, including one in Faber’s The Naxos Book of Carols.  In 2006 Choir & Organ magazine commissioned “I will raise him up at the last day” for their new music series.

John was the secretary of the Severnside Composers Alliance from its inception in 2003 until 2015, with a special interest in music for piano triet by living composers.  His own first triet “Are You Going?” (“a toccata boogie of unstoppable, unquenchable verve” Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International) was premiered at the 2010 Kiev Chamber Music Session Festival by the Kiev Piano Duo (with Antoniy Baryshevkiy), for whom he wrote “Gaelic Faram Jig” for 2 pianos and 2 percussionists for the 2012 festival.  John has conducted four Bristol Savoy Operatic Society productions, arranging Pirates of Penzance, Gondoliers and Iolanthe for small band.  In January 2010 he became the Associate Conductor of the Bristol Millennium Orchestra.

In 1994 he spent a gap year in Pakistan, which led to a number of chamber pieces heavily influenced by Indian classical music, including “Raag Gezellig”, a piano duet composed as the compulsory work for the Valberg International Piano 4 Hands Competition 2011, subsequently recorded by French duo Bohêmes (Aurélie Samani and Gabriela Ungureanu) and released by 1EqualMusic/Hyperion.  Hearing that virtuosic Indian piano duet performed by a number of superb duos led to the idea of writing this book – and to the desire to make Indian raags accessible to many more pianists.  The sheet music for “Raag Gezellig” is available in the book “7 Piano Duets & Triets”.     

www.johnpitts.co.uk

 

 

 

Meet the Artist……Jonathan Woolgar, composer

1f-xbxgwWho or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I started composing as soon as I started learning the piano. Going to the theatre as a child was an important inspiration – I wanted to write theatre music, and still do. Serious composition started when I went to Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester for 6th form and I suppose I have never looked back.

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

Influences have come and gone over the years, but Stravinsky and Wagner have loomed large – somewhat disparate figures but as with most music there are connections under the skin. The early Stravinsky ballets naturally had a huge influence on me as a teenager, though now I would take Symphony of Psalms any day. Wagner came later. There is nothing like the sense of immersion you get from being in the middle of Tristan or Parsifal. In terms of teachers, each has had an important impact on me in different ways, although I’m especially grateful to Giles Swayne for teaching me to cut the crap – he is that rare thing, a composer completely without bullshit.

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

While I can’t think of anything specific, the sense that a piece hasn’t lived up to what I wanted it to be is always agonising. On the other hand, that’s what leads me to write the next one. They’re all steps along a road and I have no idea where it leads.

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

The greatest challenge and the greatest pleasure is that there is a deadline. The piece would never get finished without it.

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

More pleasures than challenges – knowing who or where I am writing for provides a focal point.

Of which works are you most proud?

I feel the work which has come closest to what I wanted it to be was a piece I wrote for a very good friend of mine, pianist Philip Sharp, called ‘Five Anatomical Sketches’. The music is unusually austere for me, but I felt that I was able to boil the material down to its expressive essence, and Phil performed it superbly.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Communicative without compromise.

How do you work?

I compose whenever I can, I have no special routine. Time and space always yield better results. I also take frequent long walks to work ideas through. Many compositional breakthroughs have come on those long walks.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I’ve already mentioned Stravinsky and Wagner as influences, and other musical loves include Chopin, Mahler, Adès, Beethoven, Adams, Britten, Monteverdi, and so on, and so on… In terms of performers, while I don’t have any particular favourites, I have recently been enjoying Boulez’s Mahler symphony recordings and also luxuriating in the voice of Iestyn Davies.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a performer, it was singing in the chorus for Walton’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ at the Royal Festival Hall with the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Hill – who brought along the Bach Choir too. It is a silly piece in many ways, and yet it works so incredibly well and the ending is wonderfully ecstatic. As a listener, I will always remember my first Prom fondly, which was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles performing Adams, Mozart and Strauss. I was swept away by the wonderful atmosphere and the wonderful repertoire.

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

I don’t like the phrase “be yourself” – I would rather say “do what you must do”. Have something to say and discover the best way in which to say it – that is the communicative impulse. I don’t mean communication in the lowest-common-denominator sense, I mean the sharing of music between humans on any scale. Writing and performing music is a way of saying “HERE I AM” and “HERE WE ARE”, nothing more and nothing less.

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

Writing music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Companionship.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Hearing great music with great people in great places.

What is your present state of mind?

Existentially drowning.

Jonathan Woolgar is the joint Cambridge University Musical Society Composer in Residence for 2016-17. This includes writing a piece for the Cambridge University New Music Ensemble, which will be premiered on 2nd February 2017 and conducted by Patrick Bailey

Composer Jonathan Woolgar is particularly interested in music as drama and music for the stage, and his work draws from a wide range of musical experience, aiming to engage every kind of listener.

Jonathan has had works performed at the Bridgewater Hall and the Royal Albert Hall by ensembles such as Manchester Camerata, Onyx Brass, Aurora Orchestra and the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, as well as broadcast on BBC Radio 3. In 2010 he won the BBC Proms Young Composers’ Competition. His music has been recorded for commercial release by the choir of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and he also enjoys close associations with contemporary music ensembles The Hermes Experiment and Khymerikal. Jonathan is Composer in Residence at Eton College for 2015-17, and will be Composer in Residence for the Cambridge University Musical Society in 2016-17. His one-woman opera, Scenes from the End, ran in London and Edinburgh this summer, while future projects include performances at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice and St John’s Smith Square.

Whilst currently based near London, Jonathan originally hails from Pontefract in West Yorkshire. He attended Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester from 2008-10, studying composition and conducting with Jeremy Pike and Gavin Wayte. From 2010-13 he read music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge where he graduated with First Class Honours and studied composition with Giles Swayne, going on to study with David Sawer at the Royal Academy of Music.

jonathanwoolgar.com

Meet the Artist……Peter Byrom-Smith, composer

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

As a child there was no real music in our house, or reading materials as such, mainly due to my mum’s mental illness. As a result of this, and of course other problems in the family, I didn’t actually speak or really communicate until about 6 or 7 years of age. However, I had obviously listened to much music, both radio broadcasts and recordings, mainly at schoolfriends’ houses, or at school itself, which I totally soaked up at each opportunity – everything from the Beatles and the Monkeys to Beethoven and Mancini. When I got my first musical instrument, a guitar which was purchased through a shopping catalogue operated by a friend’s mum, and for which I paid by doing potato picking on farms, and  as a newspaper delivery boy, I sort of just started playing back what I’d heard, improvising along the way of course, trying to pin down correct pitch, melody, rhythm, etc. of each song/piece until I’d got it as close as the original. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time of course.

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

From above, you can obviously see I didn’t have the possibility of music lessons, so I am completely self-taught in music. However, I studied very hard, seeking the knowledge of this strange craft known as music notation, and how to turn ideas in my head into something I and others might play one day – daydreams, maybe, but a very determined Yorkshire boy/man I became, constantly trying to hear/read more music all the time. Many musicians have been an influence, and still are, on my life really: Elgar, his struggle for recognition as an artist, plus his wonderful musical structures enchanted me early on; Neil Young, his stories of life in both his lyrics and musical arrangements, appealed to a young teenager in the 70’s; Gershwin, with his amazing cohesion of jazz and classical genres were to lead me to  carry on this ‘cross genre/culture’ idea in all my later work! Of course, as a fifteen year old boy I truly had no idea where I was going with this magical thing called music, with its strange terms, dots, lines all over the place, but I read everything from ABRSM theory books to  Antony Hopkins books on music and listening/analysis,etc and from Ferdinando Carulli’s great little book ‘Guitar Method’ to the symphonies of Mozart, etc. too – all an education. After school, I was determined to write music one way or another and now I had found a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings I was on a roll!!

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

When I left school at 15/16 years of age, I wasn’t sure how I would do it, but boy was I gonna try and write music as I thought it should sound, and whatever meant something to me,`i was really hoping that somehow people would understand my thoughts and what I was trying to say. Of course, easier said than done, but I learnt very quickly how to be flexible, playing in theatre pits, busking, pop bands, teaching, as well as giving recitals with my own music, I managed to build a small, very small, reputation on the large music scene in UK. Persevering however, I accepted my first true commission for a soundtrack to a lecture series at a local art school, which I both arranged and and multi tracked on two cassette players – a truly awful result I’m sure, but people liked and used it, so a win win situation, as people say now, eh. Of course, frustrations come as an artist, as you try to get to where you think your journey should take you, but as always in life, you carry on, taking rough with smooth and never regret artistic choices, or directions, as you always learn something from the experience – well I certainly did, and after over 40 years of being a composer I’m still getting a thrill and learn something new every work I produce.

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

I work in all genres of music: film, theatre, pop/rock music, animation, concert works,etc, and, or so, because of this cross genre working, I have worked and continue to work and learn from such a variety of musicians and their different backgrounds and approaches to music, its really a truly pleasurable experience and exciting, each time am opportunity occurs for me to share ideas and develop my thoughts into musical sounds form the performers. I am not very computer literate at all, I have no music software, and no idea how it works. When younger, I actually wrote all the parts out by hand, even the large orchestral works, brass band pieces and songs. Luckily, for me, I now have an assistant who I get to turn my stuff into files, which then can be emailed around the world the same day, which I find pretty amazing, although slightly confusing how it does so, at the same time! I am very lucky that I have found a career in something, i.e.; which is truly all I know about, and that people approach regularly for new works – now an animation, then a concerto, now a theatre piece, then an album for a rock band to arrange/produce,etc – all of both equal importance in the musical world and in my life.

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

I always approach my work in the same way now, as when I was a young boy. First of all, I try to arrange a meeting, face to face, as I don’t like the impersonal, remote meetings; phone, emails; Skype, etc, however, this can be impossible sometimes; for example, I have a long term project in Japan, and another project coming up in Poland, so will have to talk on Skype, etc, until each visit, but otherwise I’ll jump on a train – my favourite form of transport – and meet to discuss/talk through everything over either a lunchtime meal, or a few pints in the pub, as either way is very constructive to me! Meeting musicians, either in concert hall, or in the studio is always a pleasure and, to be honest, an honour too to me. I am very happy to enjoy what I do and also appreciate that I’m fortunate that I found how to both express my life, thoughts, emotions, etc, through music, whilst at the same time making a living at it too. This is important part of my philosophy, as coming from a working class background and growing up on a large council house estate in the north of England, I’m very proud of my roots, therefore wish to share with others! I’m also very lucky that all the musicians I work with from any of the genres, seem to respect my thoughts and expertise in composition, although of course, when it comes down to specific technical things like fingering, bowing, phrasing etc ,etc I am always totally in their hands – a genuine collaboration I like to think.

Of which works are you most proud? 

I have composed so much stuff over the years, and have been so lucky that nearly everything I’ve written has been either performed, recorded or broadcast at some point. So trying to pick a particular work out is very difficult, as you could imagine, but maybe I can quickly suggest a few that stick in mind. ‘Suffolk Serenade’ (mezzo,horn+strings) was a joint commission with my wife (writer Gillian) to write a ‘complimentary’ piece to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Serenade’ for the Britten centenary. At the interval, the concert was actually down in Suffolk of course, I was approached with a dilemma – the audience would like to hear it again! Yikes, I thought, as did the conductor too, as it lasted over 30mins in total – although, I may add the orchestra and conductor were very keen and seemed to like it thoroughly too. Anyway, that was amazing that an audience and musicians enjoyed my scribblings so much that they were willing to suffer more tonal distress….hee, hee, from me and was great for a premiere of a contemporary piece of music was accepted on first hearing. Another important piece was a work I wrote for the theatre entitled ‘The In Between Space’. I was composer in residence for Converge at the time, which helps provide student lessons in music, drama, dance, creative writing,etc,for people with mental health issues. I wrote the incidental music soundtrack and was invited to attend the two days of performances – truly wonderful they were too.The last one I choose is the most recent too. I am at present working on a joint project with Japanese composer Nobuya Monta; we are having joint concerts and recordings of our music,both in UK and Japan.On Sunday 17th July this year he visited the UK and we launched our first event: Concert and CD launch of ‘Heading for the Hills’ at Blueprint Studios ( where we recorded it) an album of Japanese and British music for string quartet. First the Strata String Quartet played a selection of the tracks from the CD, then, whilst the studio played back the whole album, we toasted a new adventure in Japanese/British musical culture which we hope to develop over the next few years. It took a lot organising, as you can imagine, bringing performers, studio and record label all together and on board for a journey which was developing as we went along – a truly musical adventure,but if you want it to happen, it will.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I suppose my musical language is really a combination of many styles, it crosses many musical boundaries really. To be honest, I’ve never actually paid any attention to trying to write in any style at all, whatever comes out of my head I scribble down, then wait to hear the performance – either live or recorded. As I have worked with so many musicians and on so many projects over the years on numerous variety of commissions, I’ve no doubt been subconsciously influenced on what I’ve heard and learnt from each experience and each project – which is exactly what I did when I started at this composing malarkey I suppose. One thing I’m very certain of of though a lot of my individual voice emanates from Elgarian melody, jazz harmony and rock/folk rhythms – all styles of music I liked when I was a youngster and still enjoy listening/playing now too!

How do you work? 

When I receive a commission, for film, concert hall or studio work, I tend to think a lot about the project and meet with the performers to discuss my ideas. Collaboration is very important to me as a composer,sharing thoughts with the players is pretty inspiring to me,as we bounce around ideas off each other and I get to know them and likewise – this so important,I feel anyway. Then I think a little bit more, often walking around, or on my many train travels, until the piece is completed in my head and I have a clear vision of the finished work. I then sit down to use pen and paper to write the score; it doesn’t matter if it’s for full orchestra or a soundtrack for animation etc, I still like the intimacy and immediacy of ink and stave – transferring thought directly to paper. If I need to get score/parts to the other side of the world, I’ll get someone to turn my manuscript into computer ‘stuff’ and email it to players,otherwise I’ll pop in post, or better still, I’ll revisit them and hand over in person.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I love concerts and enjoy the ‘buzz’ even the tuning up at the beginning has always made the hairs on the back of neck stand up – although,alas, a few less hairs these days! I enjoy a wide variety of musical genres, but I suppose Elgar, Rodrigo, Michael Nyman, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead are all composers and musicians I enjoy listening to regularly and still get great inspiration from. I enjoy listening either live performances – which I much prefer – although I enjoy broadcasts and recordings too of course.I used to do a lot of teaching, which I really enjoyed and which taught me a lot, I actually think we learnt off one another, they from my knowledge and experience,me from their open minds,new exciting ideas, my students would bring along a selection of stuff they were enjoying,o ften from musicians I’d never heard of, which have become favourites, like Arcade Fire, and Einaudi too. Whilst I do a little teaching now, mainly as a guest lecturer at different universities/colleges, etc, I still find it invigorating to listen, explore and find new sources of musical sounds and ideas – I think this is very important for a composer.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Other than the excitement at my first rock concert aged 12, by prog-rock band Hawkwind, which was scary and amazing, in equal measure, I seem to remember one of the most memorable and truly overwhelming was a performance Elgar’s cello concerto – many years ago, at York University Central Hall. In the final, agitated fast movement, there occurs a refrain from the slow movement, of that delicious, hauntingly beautiful melody, which builds then dies away bit by bit. Well, in this performance as the slow theme dissipates to Elgar’s dynamic instruction, probably a ‘ppp’ the melody did just this and also something else, which I still can’t quite figure out how, but however the cello sings totally solo then ..gets, quieter ….quieter, quieter, slower……….then almost inaudible. At this moment I and I believe everyone else in the audience held their breath………then after what seems like ages the baton beats and were off for the final orchestral flourish and crashing last few bars. But,the few seconds took me to a really musical and totally magical place that I still recall, not all the concert, but that moment, and I wish I had experienced more of these moments in time – although I’ve been at a few others,close but not so sublime!

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

I think, just my personal thoughts these of course, that a musician should always strive to be themselves. Yes, learn from others, study the works of others, but please develop your own style. As composers, we feel we have something individual to say, so it’s very important that we develop our own voice to say and express this. Also, to enable this to happen I feel it’s very important to listen to as wide as possible, and practical, as much music from as varied sources and genres as possible. It’s very important to not become stagnant, or complacent in your music, audiences and musicians deserve better than this and more importantly so do you as a composer. I enjoy writing, listening and learning, still, absorbing from anywhere and everywhere; art, theatre, concerts, broadcasts, socialising, travel, all are very important to me to help keep my feet on the ground, except on a plane of course, but also keep my mind, eyes and especially my ears open and help me continue to work in the 21st Century.

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

I hope I’ll continue to learn more of the art of composing music from around this small world of ours. It’s a small, but beautiful planet with a wide variety of peoples and cultures and as the technology develops it brings both closer together and hopefully understand one another through art, and particularly in my case music.Sharing our musical ideas across the globe helps composers across the globe develop a new ‘palette’ from which to draw their individual colours to express. I for one, will strive for another ten years to do this. Continuing to have the opportunity to explore new new musical horizons, writing more compositions which cross the boundaries of musical genres.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sitting in a pub beer garden drinking a nice glass of cold cider and eating a cheese ploughman’s with my wife; I believe the nicest things in life are often the simplest.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My Parker fountain pen, with which I sign all my finished scores.

‘Heading for the Hills’, Peter Byrom-Smith’s new album for string quartet is available now

Peter Byrom-Smith is an internationally renowned composer. Writing for and performing with many musicians from across a wide spectrum of genres, Peter’s musical journey has taken him on many trips around the world. His music has been performed, broadcast and recorded in U.K, Europe, Singapore,  Japan and U.S.A. by numerous musicians. He is as happy to have his music performed in small country churches as he is at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. 

His music crosses boundaries: a melange of sounds, bringing together elgarian melody, jazz harmonies and rock rhythms. 

In an ever growing portfolio of work, which includes pieces written for full orchestra and chamber musicians. He also regularly works with pop/rock musicians, both in the studio and in live performance, as well as writing sound tracks for film and theatre.  Peter’s work is performed regularly and he receives frequent commissions for new music.  

www.peterbyromsmith.com