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

One of my earliest memories is going to our neighbour’s house to play on their piano. Irene had been a professional singer and I remember spending a lot of time making up music – I must have been 4 or 5 – and she was really encouraging.

I got hold of a recording of Debussy’s La Mer when I was 11 or 12. I grew up a few minutes walk from the beach and I remember being absolutely blown away by Debussy’s ability to paint pictures with sound. The piece is still one of my favourites.

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

I went to the Royal Academy of Music junior department when I was 14. I was at a very sporty comprehensive boys school and those Saturdays opened up a whole new world of opportunity. My lessons were supported by a county council scholarship and it saddens me that these specialist opportunities for ‘normal kids’ from ‘normal schools’ are now so scarce. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that experience.

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

I had a real crisis of confidence about my composition at university. There’s a real pressure nowadays to have everything sorted early on I definitely feel that it took me until my 30s to write music which I was happy with and which I felt was honest and representative of me. Some composers do get themselves sorted very early on and the composing and publishing world perpetuates that, but through my teaching work, I’m aware how off-putting this can be for those who need to develop their creativity more slowly.

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

I always feel that the rough guideline of a commission helps to put a few marks on the terrifying blank piece of paper. Some ideas of timing, instrumentation and occasion do help to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write some pieces for special occasions [wedding anniversaries/birthdays/weddings] and it’s lovely to be reminded in this context that music is a gift: we are as composers giving music to an audiences and performers and its important to be mindful of that when we’re composing.

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

It’s a real treat to write music for musicians we’ve got to know. I wrote quite a few pieces for the Schubert Ensemble and it was a real pleasure to develop a real working relationship with an ensemble. The concerto I wrote for Simon Blendis [From Crystal Heav’ns Above] grew out of my relationship with the Schubert Ensemble and it feels like a very personal piece because of that.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’ve written a series of concerti over the last while. Aside from the violin concerto for Simon, I was commissioned by the Presteigne Fetival to write a new concerto for pianist Tom Poster [Laments and Lullabies] and wrote an oboe concerto [The Rider from Artemision] for Magdalen College School in Oxford last year. There’s something about the concerto genre which I love – the inherent narrative and drama seems to suit me.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

So this is the question I’ve been dreading. I mentioned the crisis of confidence I had in my late teens and twenties and it was due in part to spending time with composers with a very clear idea about what was ‘good contemporary music’. I’m delighted that many of the composers I teach now have a delightfully broad and eclectic outlook but I really felt a bit suffocated by what I felt was a very narrow band of composers writing music which didn’t speak to me.

People often describe my music as lyrical, a label which I’m happy with. And I always consider audiences and players when I’m writing – that triangle between composer, audience and performer is the holy trinity of composition as far as I’m concerned!

How do you work?

I was the slowest composer I ken for a very long time but I do write more quickly and more instinctively than I used to. I think you get better at trusting your own judgement.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I mentioned Debussy earlier and my interest in his music is a constant. Michael Tippett has always been a big inspiration: his music is so full of energy and colour and he was someone who very much ploughed his own furrow: the music is very distinctive, adventurous and creative. In the same mould, perhaps, is Judith Weir. I know a piece of hers after I’ve heard 2 bars: her musical language is not really like any one else’s and I’m always drawn into her sound world immediately. I’ve shared my life for many years with composer Alasdair Nicolson and he’s a great inspiration personally and compositionally. His music has real clarity and he’s one of the finest orchestrators I know.

I grew up in a music-loving household. Mum and Dad spent their 20’s at concerts of all of the jazz greats [Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong]. I know the great American songbook recordings back to front and Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations are second to none.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I’m delighted when an audience member pops up and says how much they got from a performance of one of my pieces.

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

Be yourself, trust your instincts.


David Knotts first came to public attention as a finalist in the 1994 Young Musician of the Year Competition when the London Sinfonietta premiered his first large scale work, Songs of Parting. The exceptional warmth and lyricism of these Whitman settings brought interest from many quarters and a string of commissions from some of the country’s finest soloists, orchestras and chamber-music ensembles followed.

These have included the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Endymion Ensemble, English National Opera, the Composers Ensemble, the Britten Estate (to celebrate the re-opening of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall) and a series of pieces for the Schubert Ensemble.

Born in West Sussex in 1972, David Knotts began formal piano tuition at the age of seven. His interest in composition soon followed and he studied for five years as a junior exhibitioner at the Royal Academy of Music. He went on to study with Robin Holloway at Cambridge University, Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and completed a doctorate in composition with Martin Butler in 2004. In 2007, he was made an honorary associate of the Royal Academy of Music where he has taught since 1994 and is also a member of staff at Trinity College of Music.

The genesis of David Knotts’ intensely lyrical and personal style can be traced back to his early settings of Walt Whitman. Since their première, he has been preoccupied with poetry and prose as a source of inspiration. Many of his titles reflect this interest in writers ranging from Virgil (Secret Gardens) to Viginia Woolf (…and fall and rise, and fall and rise again…/To the Lighthouse) and Tasso (Adorni di Canto) to Zhang Dai (Nightwatching: ways of looking at the moon). There is also a keen interest in folk poetry: Albanian laments in A Sea Green Partridge of April, Cretan love poetry in Bring Down an Angel and Spanish ballads in The Count Arnau.

David has also been drawn to compose for the stage. He has worked extensively with writer, Katharine Craik, a relationship which has produced two chamber operas, Stormlight and Bake for One Hour. His 2006 opera, Mister Purcell – His Ground was premièred at the Royal Opera House and his latest operatic venture, a macabre cabaret opera with writer and singer, Jessica Walker entitled An Eye for an Eye was premièred at the 2013 Bath and St Magnus International Festivals.

Recent highlights have included The Count Arnau for Bassoon and Orchestra, commissioned by the BBC and performed by all of the BBC Orchestras and a new piece for the Schubert Ensemble, On such a night as this is! premièred at the South Bank in a concert to celebrate the birthday of composer, Howard Skempton. This piece was subsequently featured in a tour of the US and was featured in the BBC’s festival of the music of Judith Weir and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Recent commissions have included a collaboration with Barnsley poet, Ian McMillan for Robert Ziegler and the Matrix Ensemble, (Outstruments: A Sound Adventure)The Long Way Home for the Lawson Trio (recorded on the Prima Facie label) Tsirana for Pipers3, Fossegrimmen for cellist Gemma Rosefield and a violin concerto for Simon Blendis, From Crystal Heavn’s Above. Recent commissions have included Laments and Lullabies, a piano concerto for Tom Poster for the 2015 Presteigne Festival,Toads on a Tapestry, a large scale cantata with poet John Gallas commissioned for the nationwide Magna Carta celebrations and Grimm Tales for guitarist, Craig Ogden. Future plans include an opera based on Shakespeare’s late romance, Pericles.

davidknotts.co.uk

 

 

(Photograph by Alasdair Nicolson)