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

My mother initially taught me the piano at home and I also took regular violin lessons. However, in what may be a glaring example of ‘instrument-determinism’, I never really enjoyed music until I found the guitar via a new Headmistress that arrived at my primary school: a wonderfully charismatic singing, accordion and guitar-playing nun from Ireland called Sister Annunciata. Incidentally, I’m still in touch with her – I always send her my ‘products’; my CDs, book, etc.

She taught me the guitar via Elvis/Beatles/Abba songs and everything just clicked from then, there was no question that I was not going to be a musician. I spent much of my teens playing guitar in rock bands, the fiddle in Welsh folk groups and after a brief fascination with jazz (specifically Django Reinhardt) I arrived at composition via classical guitar in my later teens; taking it joint-first study with guitar at The Royal College of Music.

I suppose it was a natural progression from emotive immediacy to complexity as one matures; having said that, I always loved Bach even when I was young and often raided my father’s vinyl collection; to listen to his organ music especially.

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

Sibelius – the incredible logic than you can hear clearly even on the first hearing and the sheer physicality of how the music moves through time.

Messiaen – outstanding, transcendental beauty an ‘other-worldly’ character that one cannot quite explain, his strong religious belief and spirituality transcends the notes, in a similar sense to how one can almost ‘taste’ the humanity and idealism in Beethoven.

Lutoslawski – precision, concise argument, clarity and large scale sweep of energy, what a craftsman!

Britten – he’s someone I grew into much later I have to admit but his skill in handling musical time, expectation and narrative is second to none of his time and he can be incredibly moving.

Shostakovich – such profundity; I can‘t understand how people can hold up figures like Stravinsky as being that important or even interesting when a giant like Shostakovich was around.

John Dowland – perfectly exquisite songs, not bettered since that I’m aware of – his songs are easily on the level of Schubert’s and I actually personally prefer them, although this is subjective (I also play the lute). Also, that British songwriting sound (still clearly audible in The Smiths for example – who are in a sense the true heirs to the Elizabethan school) means a lot to me.

Sweelinck – he’s truly remarkable and original – sitting on the divide between the Renaissance and Baroque periods; so lyrical yet a real contrapuntal animal to his guts!

I, together with the pianist Sergei Podebedov, have recently made some arrangements of his organ music for semi-acoustic archtop guitar and piano. We are premiering these at 4pm on July 21st at The Studio at St. James Theatre in Victoria. It is a great privilege to play this music. He is one of the best composers I know of – from any period!

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

Finding a modus vivendi that allows for the necessary peace of mind to compose and practice while earning enough money to have a civilised existence (as much as one can at this early stage of our evolution). I have finally achieved this by also working as a journalist, this frees me completely from teaching commitments and from doing any music that is not 100% on my own terms. Time is not an issue, I have no interest in sport or other such distractions – I find composing for more than 3 hours a day to be counterproductive, for me at least.

Another massive challenge – ‘though one that has largely disappeared now – was getting people to play my work. Very hard to do when you’re first starting out. One solution was to play/conduct it myself, the other is that I have a number of loyal friends from my college days, who are first class musicians and have helped me a lot by performing my work. This has naturally led to other contacts and opportunities

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

Commissions are truly a double-edged sword, and although I’ve been fortunate to receive a fair few, I would never want to rely on them for a living unless I had quite a choice to pick from – although I’m not sure anyone has that luxury.

It is vital – to me anyway – that I follow each piece with the logical outcome that follows it, i.e. each piece informs and points to the next, even if only by contrast. To have this guided by someone else (or worse a ‘panel’) for mere cash is not something I could ever accept.

The last commission I had was for the incredibly well-armed (technically) choir, Chapelle du Roi for a piece at St. John’s Smith Square, I really loved doing this as I never had to think about limitations and writing for a cappella choir is about as pure as it gets.

Having said this, I’m not interested in dense complexity, experimental screeching, or other such dated things: it’s rather that the choir would know how to interpret and phrase a line and bring a piece of music to life without me having to guide them.

Other commissions, such as a few film scores I did, were less interesting really. Essentially the role of a film composer is that of a decorative artist, you’re not free to follow any musical logic but rather just provide a bunch of audio moods, signals and wallpaper.

I’d certainly turn down another film score offer unless it was something truly amazing such as a time-loop science-fiction film that allowed me to do interesting things with the formal structure. I think in the future the idea of music serving film may be reversed as people’s listening habits become more sophisticated; although who knows, anything can happen – no one saw the internet coming!

A move towards more musical sophistication appears to be happening though: the hold of the more primitive forms of popular music is finally slipping as seen in the arrival of such things as ‘post-rock’, the strong interest in the often highly-complex music of other cultures, and the innovative programming ideas of holding classical concerts in more social settings such as Wilton’s music hall.

People love music – the problem that (good) popular music faces is the greed and associated controlling aspects of major recording companies that spoil it all.

I would be very happy indeed to see the major labels all collapse through piracy and file sharing – poetic justice! The smaller independents such as Linn/Toccata/Guild are amazing – models of enthusiasm and true love of music. These would flourish without the obsolete behemoths of Virgin, et al around.

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

It is a pleasure when working with good people who have an inquisitive mind and are not there simply for the money. Otherwise it is a compromise and is frustrating. I have been pretty fortunate though in that I have, more often than not, had first-rate players and sympathetic people who really get what I’m trying to do.

Although I had a brief spell as a ‘hairy-chested’ modernist, I have moved away from this over time and generally have very few or no problems in rehearsals as I try and make everything totally clear and natural for the players in the score.

Going back to modernism for a second I would like to say I that I have come to the conclusion that it is now largely (with some obvious exceptions) unfortunately morphed into intellectual onanism and appeals to no one at all outside those composers and academics who rely on it for their very living from the various grants/arts funding bodies that support it.

It has become a dictatorial institution with Boulez as its ‘Dear Leader’. This is ironic given that it started as a rebellion. However, the fire that existed in those early modernist works is long gone as it has now become the establishment. The same thing happened to Rock and Roll, which is why punk was absolutely necessary in order to kill it stone dead and allow new things with real integrity to then flourish.

This doesn’t mean we have to write in pastiche or turn to simplistic popularism, we clearly need to look ahead, but the standard fare of atonal, or just ugly, meaningless squawk one always hears at contemporary music concerts is now a hackneyed cliché and insulting to intelligent open-minded people who have paid good money to come and hear music – I can no longer bear to attend such things. I, like most of the public, would rather go to the cinema and see a well-made artwork which has cultural relevance.

I would say to a young composer – be a rebel! Write something in D major, annoy your professor, but make it so damned interesting and beautiful that he/she has nothing to say; that is the real challenge for us now.

Contemporary classical music in the UK occupies exactly the same space as bullfighting does in Spain – it is entirely supported by the state and is ignored by 95% of the population. Take that support away and allow it to attempt to function as a genuine living art form that is an honest deal between listeners and composers – it would most certainly die in the time it takes to play a Bach prelude (one of the short ones!).

Given a choice – although I believe very strongly that all funding should be cut for new music and given to hospitals instead – in order to breathe new life into it, I would sooner see all funding cut from bullfighting of course!

Which works are you most proud of?

Hard to say – they all have something(s) that could be improved. The setting of Pablo Neruda I did for soprano and string quartet, ‘Morning’, works ok. I’ve had very strong feedback about it – people seem to love it. It’s the first track on my current CD with Toccata Classic. Steve Reich called this piece “Very honest stuff” so I suppose I got something right.

I’ve been writing a lot of lute and guitar music recently which I perform myself – I enjoy this so much, it feels so free playing one’s one music, I can change, improve things – improvise a little here and there. It’s a wonderful thing. I always feel it’s a shame that so few composers perform their own music (or even perform at all) I think they’re missing out on tactile, immediate and invaluable feedback on what works the best and most importantly – why.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I love the Wigmore’s sound but it needs to bring in a younger audience or it will turn into a museum. This cannot be done by pulling in DJs and other trendy things that they tried to do recently – that just insults intelligent people.

They should give free tickets to all music students as matter of course. They should also give free hire (as opposed to the £1400 it costs) for music graduates for their first 4-5 years after college.

This would allow for fascinating and energetic projects to happen naturally and the players would bring all their friends and probably fill it – it’s not that hard – I’ve nearly filled it once. It would bring strong and long-lasting loyalty to the hall among the young and would actually make economic sense over less than a decade even. Otherwise, the way things are going, it could become another shop for expensive medical products like the others on Wigmore Street, this would be a tragedy. They also need to stop commissioning composers – one contemporary piece on a programme is enough for many music lovers to not attend. This is a sad truth and something that composers need to address urgently by re-engaging with the public instead of experimenting on them!

I also love the Barbican main hall though I’ve not had a piece done there. I love its clean modern lines and bright acoustic bounce. The Southbank is great too – a real feel of democratic openness pervades the entire complex: I love it. I’ve had a couple of Southbank things, it’s always been brilliantly done from their side and the halls really have something special about them.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Performers (living): Baroque violinist Andrew Manze, lute players Jacob Lindberg and Paul O’Dette, Julian Bream, Marta Argerich, Murray Perahia, the Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Emma Kirkby and Johnny Marr.

(Dead) – Glenn Gould, Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, Solomon, Wanda Landowska, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Thomas Beecham

Composers – largely covered above in the answer to Q.2 above though I love so many others too of course.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Julian Bream at the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in the early 1990s – it was perfect. It’s not only that he sings though the instrument but rather that he is the greatest such singer of all that I’ve heard (since Gould died). I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

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

Ignore all fashions such as atonality, the new tonality, minimalism, new complexity, etc., and listen to your instinct, never compromise on your values for any reason.

Ask yourself why you want to be musician, if the answer is anything less than – “because I have to /I’m compelled to” then give up the place to someone who can say that.

Try to listen and understand everything, even music you don’t like, to find out why you don’t like it. Is it because something in it doesn’t work (this can be the case – don’t feel bad about coming to that conclusion) or is it because you have cultural blinkers on? This is not easy.

If you’re going for composition learn counterpoint and fugue properly – don’t just brush across it like they teach at the colleges here (skimming it in ‘techniques’ lessons is not even close to being good enough for a composer).

Write about 15 of them in different ways, chromatics, doubles, 6 voice, the lot. Study Bach and Buxtehude very closely. This will show you how the vertical and linear aspects of music combine to make music with depth; one dimensional music is not acceptable.

Once this is mastered you can apply it to any style: Fugue is not a form but a way of thinking. If you can’t be bothered doing this then do not expect to be a strong composer, go and work in the city instead – at least then you’ll have a good wage and is much easier than music!

What are you working on at the moment?

Funnily enough given my advice above, I’m writing a prelude and double fugue for clarinet, semi-acoustic archtop guitar and piano. I will premiere this at The Forge in Camden in January.

What is your present state of mind?

My standard nervous alternation between grim dissatisfaction and bliss plus total confusion as to the absurd state of mankind and the world – this is very good – it compels me to act!

David Braid performs at the 1901 Arts Club on Friday 9th May with pianist Sergei Podobedov. They will premiere their new (2014) transcriptions of works by Sweelinck plus Byrd, Gibbons and other composers from the C.15th/16th Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, alongside first performances of new duos and solos by David Braid, plus various solos by Chopin and other later composers. Further details here

London-based Welsh-born composer David Braid studied at the Royal College of Music from 1990-94, taking joint-first study in Guitar with Charles Ramirez and Composition with Edwin Roxburgh; also attending the composition classes of George Benjamin.

David later attended the Cracow Academy of Music in Poland, studying composition with the late Marek Stachowski and Zbigneiw Bujarksi, subsequently going on to The University of Oxford (St. Anne’s College) under Robert Saxton.

In addition to the UK, David’s work has been performed in the USA, Germany, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Sweden and South America. Recently, the string orchestra version of his setting of Pablo Neruda’s poem Mañana, ‘Morning’, Opus 3, was premiered in Moscow.

David Braid’s full biography

David’s debut recording of Chamber and Instrumental Music is available on CD or to download from Toccata Classic. Further information here


Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I have never thought of it as a career. It is something more than that.  As far back as I can remember music has been the thing in my life, is and will be.

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

Dr. Gordon McPherson, Ravel, Morton Feldman, John Adams, Steve Reich, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Olav Anton Thommessen, Harrison Birtwistle, Bartok, Shostakovich, Talk Talk, Prefab Sprout, Bach, Admiral Fallow, A-ha, John Martyn, Ligeti, Koechlin, Satie, Nicole Lizee, Nancarrow, Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Webern, Yannis Kyriakides, John Cage, John Lautner, William Boyd, Steven Hall, Zoe Strachan, Primo Levi, Van Gogh, Rothko, Rembrandt, Pollock, Renee LeGrande, David Hockney, Stanley Kubrick, John Keats, Robert Burns, Norman McCaig, Wilfred Owen, Marion Colyer, Shakespeare, Star Trek, Sergei Leone, nature, travel, science and space flight.

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

Every piece offers its own challenges. If I were to pick one it would be the first proper piece I wrote for orchestra – Ridge A. It is all about the coldest, driest and calmest place on earth which was discovered in 2009.

I spent nine months writing it alongside the rest of my folio in the final year of my BMus  and the technical leap it required from me was significant. I studied a lot of the orchestral repertoire and sat in on orchestral rehearsals at college. I realised afterwards that Takemitsu and Sibelius were important influences on the piece.

Standing in front of eighty people and answering questions about your work is quite intimidating, but it was a great experience in the end. The orchestra played it beautifully. The conductor, Christian Kluxen, was fantastic and I hope I can work with him again.

Which compositions are you most proud of?

I was very proud to be commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on their collaboration – ‘Heart of Govan’ – with CRAN Theatre to celebrate the peoples and history of Govan and their historic Govan Parish Church.

Also my piece ‘Sober Observer Sees (HD)’ to be selected by Ensemble Modern for performance in 2012.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

My favourite venue in Glasgow is The City Halls, which sound fantastic.

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

Ravel’s ‘Piano Trio in A Minor’ and ‘La Valse’, The ‘Adagietto’ from Mahler 5, Ligeti’s String Quartets, Thomessens ‘From Above’ and ‘Beyond Neon’ .

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Lots! Many for different reasons. I love Glen Gould, especially his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Nina Simone is a very powerful performer.

I have been lucky enough to have had some incredible performances of my work and I am very grateful to the hard work and dedication shown by those musicians.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

The guitarist Pavel Steidl visited the RCS twice and each concert, all solo guitar, were amazing.

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

Work hard, be true to yourself but admit to yourself when you know other people’s advice is valid. Always do what is best for the music, not yourself, and have fun. Only write music you love and write about what you want.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently making final edits on a 15 minute solo guitar work called ‘Treasures’. It is in three movements and is about the relationship between memory and objects, such as old photographs. It is dedicated to Anthony Winton.

I am about to start work on a new piece and there are a few projects in the pipeline.

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

Living on the coast of the Mediterranean and supporting myself by commissions!

Richard Greer was born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland where he has recently completed a Masters in Composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland studying with Dr. Gordon McPherson.  His works have been performed by various individuals and ensembles, including Guitarist Sean Shibe, Soprano Claire Thompson, Trumpeter Andrew Connell-Smith, MusicLab, the Viridian Quartet, The Expedition, Red Note Ensemble, Said Ensemble, the RCS Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on their ‘Heart of Govan’ Project, and Ensemble Modern.


Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I started improvising and composing as soon as I began playing. My teachers, friends and family were very supportive, nurturing and inspiring throughout, and I spent all my breaks and lunchtimes at school singing, playing, improvising and composing nonsense songs with friends. I would write songs and play and sing in school concerts, and I remember helping to arrange music for the school orchestra at middle school! I knew from quite early on that writing and making music was what I had to do.

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

I believe my music comes from a melting pot of everything musical I’ve encountered – whether it’s music I’ve played, loved or hated, just experiencing it has an effect on my musical voice. However, some influences will have more sway than others. Javanese gamelan music has played a large part in my life for a number of years, and its influences can be heard throughout my music. Musical theatre is another huge influence on my music, alongside big band music, Beethoven, Debussy and Karl Jenkins. I must also mention that I find a lot of ‘current’ composers hugely inspiring – including many I’ve met through social media such as Twitter.

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

I think the greatest challenge to many who work in the arts is the issue of balance in their lives. For me, it’s balancing composition with family life – especially when I’m looking after a toddler and a new idea bounces into my head!

Which compositions are you most proud of?

That’s a hard one! I’m proud of Surakartan Haze as it was the first full orchestral piece of mine that was workshopped and performed. I’m also proud of Bells in the Rain as it’s a piece I’m very happy with, and that I wrote in the first couple of months of my daughter’s life.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

As with most composers, I’m quite happy with any venue in which my music is to be presented! However, I’m becoming more interested in less traditional venues, which are consequently more accessible to those who are not normally accustomed to classical music. We need to do something to help engage others in classical music, and the traditional concert hall seems to be a large obstacle – so why not remove it from the equation? Venues such as Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and St Ethelburgas church in Liverpool Street, London are examples of venues I’ve visited or performed in recently that I feel make good, accessible venues.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I wouldn’t say I have specific favourites to perform, but two that would make the list (choir wise) are Fauré’s Requiem (as an alto) and the Chichester Psalms. I love playing in orchestras and big bands, but I find there’s something so personal and powerful about the voice. Listening wise, there are too many favourites to pick. Epic, powerful pieces tend to be my music of choice, with In The Hall of the Mountain King and Wieniawski’s Szcherzo-Tarantelle being high on the list.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Again, I don’t really have favourites. The qualities I admire and seek out in musicians are that they are skilled at their craft, but that they communicate through their music, and add that all important extra dimension to their performance.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are a few, but one in particular is Steve Reich’s prom celebrating his 75th birthday at the 2011 BBC Proms series. I was particularly mesmerised by Ensemble Modern’s interpretation of his Music for 18 Musicians.

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

I think the most important concept is to remember that music is an incredibly powerful force, and that in the end it’s just that – music. It’s an organisation of sounds in time, and there are no rights or wrongs. Composers and performers of years gone by lived in musical societies where certain styles of music were the order of the day, or certain performance practices had to be conformed by to be accepted. That’s no longer the case, and we live in such a free musical society that nothing is wrong. However, as a result, there is a saturation of music everywhere, which can mean as composers we have a battle to be heard. My advice would be to be determined and keep working at it – and to value all your colleagues, as you never know who may help you find your next opportunity.

What are you working on at the moment?

My composition practice tends to involve working on several pieces at the same time. Right now I’m working on a Requiem (my labour of love, which gets some attention in between other projects!), a string quartet, and a collection of works for piano.

What is your present state of mind?

My state of mind at the moment tends to flick between happy and at peace, and slight frustration. I think I’m finally achieving balance and have a nice range of projects ongoing –the frustration comes in when the rest of the world takes over and I have the next section of a work in my head but no time to get it down on paper (or on computer!).

A unique combination of influences and interests help make composer Jenni Pinnock a distinctive voice in contemporary composition world. A versatile performer on piano, oboe and saxophone, a range of ensembles and opportunities have given Jenni an incredibly varied musical diet of genres, instrumentation and styles. Alongside more typical ensembles are the Javanese gamelan and church bell ringing.

Recent performances include her work Ori for small ensemble and electronics, her bassoon and ‘cello duet Double Helix and her art song Bells in the Rain. Current projects include a string quartet, a Requiem, and a work for brass quintet and electronics. In recent years she has had works performed at the International Youth Arts Festival, the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music (as part of the Orgelbüchlein project), and at Colchester New Music workshops and events.

Originally from Hertfordshire, Jenni graduated with first class honours from her BMus (hons) at Kingston University and then embarked on an intensive Masters in composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance studying with Stephen Montague and Greg Rose. A member of the ISM, alongside her compositional endeavours she teaches instrumental lessons and arranges music, both of which act as constant sources of inspiration. She is a member of Colchester New Music and Liquorice composers collectives.


Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I’ve always been interested in melody, and when I started to learn the piano at about 8 years old, as well as learning the standard repertoire, I was also fascinated by how melodies worked and wanted to compose my own tunes. It was much later, when I studied at music college, that I realised that I wanted it to be my career. Although I love playing the piano, I was much more interested in creating and composing my own music.

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

There were two big influences. One was a music teacher at the Junior department at Trinity College of Music, Philip Colman, who instilled a passion for music-making and a love of inprovisation which I’ve taken through into my professional life. The second was my composition tutor at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Buxton Orr, who was an inspiring and brilliant teacher.

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

Writing large scores in a very short space of time is always a challenge, but it’s something that I find much easier now than I did, say, 10 years ago. It’s a skill that is acquired with experience, and recently I scored a film called “The Whale” in just 3 weeks. The film had 45 minutes of orchestral music. My score for the film “Wilde” was written in just three and a half weeks, with around 60 minutes of orchestral music.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece, and on film/tv scores? 

The great delight of working on a film is that the inspiration is right in front of you, on the screen. It’s also hugely rewarding to hear your music performed by the very best orchestral musicians, usually as the ink is still drying on the manuscript paper! The challenges are always the time constraints – everything is composed to a deadline, and the deadlines seem to be getting tighter and tighter!

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

We are so fortunate in London to have the most talented musicians to perform our music. I am constantly amazed by the professionalism, skill, and musicality of our session musicians and orchestras. I’ve worked with a vast array of brilliant session musicians, and I have also recorded many times with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Which works are you most proud of?  

I’m very proud of my score for the French film “Arsene Lupin”. It was an enormous challenge as there was over 2 hours of music in the film, and a huge variety of musical styles within the score too. We recorded over 3 days with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios and it was wonderful hearing the score brought to life by the orchestra.

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

I’ve been very fortunate to have conducted at both the Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall and I love both venues! I have a concert coming up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on December 8th at Cadogan Hall which is always great fun. Come along! (Details here)

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I have many, but I do love the playing of Maxim Vengerov. He always tells a story with his performance which appeals to me as, when you’re composing for pictures, you are constantly aware of the story and the drama, and that the music must help the telling of the story.

What is your most memorable concert experience (as performer and/or as composer)? 

The last concert Christmas concert that I conducted at Cadogan Hall with the RPO was wonderful. The hall was packed and the audience were very responsive – we even had them clapping along during the encore!

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

To be dedicated, hard-working and completely focussed on the music, whether playing it or writing it.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

I enjoy being at the piano, writing music. It never loses its wonder and magic.

Interview date: October 2013

Judith Bingham (photo credit: Patrick Douglas Hamilton)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I started when I was very small – my mother said I was 4, but I don’t think she really knew. The attraction was its secrecy I think – I was already playing the piano, and liked the fact I could have a secret world that no-one else could influence. I think the person who influenced me to make it my career was Berlioz, my teacher and friend during my teen years when no-one else took me seriously.

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

Apart from Berlioz, two people really encouraged me when I was young, Colin Davis and Hans Keller: both were very selfless with their time though, of course, I didn’t appreciate that until I was much older. I was very lucky to have Hans as a teacher, – his Viennese background with its rigors and psycho-analytical slant suited me very well. He had a hugely improving effect on my writing and was also very kind. Musical influences were The Fires of London, French Baroque music, and probably singing in big choirs.

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

Being a composer for a living is continuously challenging! But I think the biggest challenge is being truthful in a world that worships fashion. Inner voices make you doubt what you are doing but there is no Art without Truth. I think as I get older there is a challenge of being brave and fresh and not just doing what you know you’re good at.

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

I like the fact that every commission inhabits a separate world, it’s a totally different project from the last. As I was a performer myself for so many years I love working with musicians – I know that sounds obvious, but it is such a magical experience, the transformation from the page to the open air. Trying to get it right – the act of fulfilling the brief – while remaining uncompromised is the great challenge, especially in church music where there are so many restrictions.

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

Whether they can do what you’ve written! That’s the heaven and hell of life for composers. All composers get a lot of bad or inadequate performances either through their own fault, – having written something that’s miles too hard for the commissioners – or short rehearsal time – or lack of empathy, or all three. A piece has to be very banal for people to get it straightaway, but often there isn’t enough rehearsal time for people to get beyond the stage of getting the notes right. This is the English disease. Often it isn’t to do with money but with a British distaste for too much emotional involvement. There is an idea that repeated performances take the place of rehearsal. But it’s tragic when people commission a big piece, only do it once, and spend most of the rehearsal time doing the Beethoven. The pleasure is when people really engage and go the extra mile – of course, they get more out of it this way, and the experience for everyone becomes extremely uplifting. The real magic happens when people feel free from worry about the notes and start to bring themselves to the performance, then the piece can really travel.

Which works are you most proud of?  

That would be a variable thing, and pride isn’t quite the right word, more a transient sort of satisfaction. But I would choose ‘The Ivory Tree’, a kind of dance drama I did for the Cathedral at Bury St. Edmunds. It was a project that went on for years and had some extremely fraught moments, but ended it fantastic performances.  I like mixing dance and singing, and would love to write an opera-ballet.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I am really eclectic with composers, though I have stopped listening to any sort of pop music. This might sound snobby, but it is more that there is only so much time. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Prokofiev. He is a composer with enormous range, and I love the ambiguity of his music. I am trying listen more to women composers, as more and more music is being recorded now, alas, generally by women. I like the discovery of Italian baroque music by nuns, which is gorgeous. Favourite musicians: Roger Norrington, Philippe Herreweghe, Marc-André Hamelin, and people I’ve worked with – Stephen Farr, Tom Winpenny, Peter Skaerved Sheppard, Chamber Domaine, Andrew Carwood – too many to mention.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

There are some terrible ones! But I can’t really do a league table of the good ones. When I was a student, performing in the Proms was overwhelming, especially Berlioz and Mahler. My first experience of the great roar of a full Albert Hall was extraordinary. Sometimes it is the small unrecorded events that stay with you, or a particular feeling of telepathy with other performers. You might expect big events, big names to be memorable. But it is often something more intimate where a transcendental kind of communication happens.

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

I like what Peter Maxwell Davies said to students: ‘my first piece of advice is – don’t listen to anything I say!’ or words to that effect. I think I would say that integrity matters: this is even more true in today’s world, where things are remembered for ever on the web. The more you dilute your ideas and your identity the less anyone will value what you do. In the (very) long run what people want from a composer is individuality, and truth. It doesn’t mean an easy life though. Develop your ideas – the music doesn’t think for you. Read and think, and develop ideas on the big mysteries of life. There’s a lot of junk out there: the world doesn’t need any more.

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

Still alive, please, and compos mentis.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

No such thing.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Thinking, starting a new project, researching pet subjects.

What is your present state of mind?

Stressed as usual.

Born in Nottingham in 1952, and raised in Mansfield and Sheffield, Judith Bingham began composing as a small child, and then studied composing and singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was awarded the Principal’s prize in 1971, and 6 years later the BBC Young Composer award. Recent composition prizes include: the Barlow Prize for a cappella music in 2004, two British Composer Awards in 2004 (choral and liturgical) one in 2006 (choral) and the instrumental award in 2008.

Read Judith’s full biography here
Interview date: October 2013


Since I featured young composer and pianist Alex Woolf in the early weeks of my Meet the Artist interview series in 2012, I have been following his fortunes via Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing platform which enables people to fund projects of all shapes and sizes.

The recipient of a number of important awards, including BBC Young Composer, Cambridge Young Composer of the Year and the NCEM Young Composers Award 2012, and principal composer of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Alex’s work has been praised by Gramophone magazine and International Record Review, and has been performed and recorded by top artists including the Tallis Scholars, tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Malcolm Martineau, and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Now Alex is about to fulfill a long-held ambition, to compose and record his first album, ‘Red Handed’, featuring music for his first love, the piano. All the tracks on the album are performed by Alex and are inspired, in one way or another, by colour. Alex’s successful Kickstarter campaign provided the funding for the recording, and the album presents a journey through Alex’s unique sound-world: breathtakingly vibrant and deeply moving in equal measure.

The album will be released on 1st October and is available as a physical CD or digital download. For further information about Alex Woolf’s album please go to http://alexwoolf.bandcamp.com/album/red-handed. Join me in supporting this exciting young artist.

A taster of Alex’s new album:


Alex’s Kickstarter page

Meet the Artist……Alex Woolf


Hear a sample of Alex’s work