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.

www.jennipinnock.com

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

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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

http://alexwoolf.net/

Hear a sample of Alex’s work

Ben Parry, composer, conductor, arranger, singer and producer

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

I guess my dad was my biggest inspiration – he was a church organist all his working life (he had a stroke 6 years ago and can’t play any more) and I immersed myself in church choral music from a very early age. All my brothers and sisters sang in the choir, as did many other local families, and I fondly remember great choral evensongs at the end of each month, including music by Stanford, Parry, Howells, Britten and so on.

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

The British choral tradition – and, most importantly, Benjamin Britten. I was born and brought up in Suffolk – and have recently returned to live here (in fact I direct Aldeburgh Voices, the resident choir at Snape Maltings). I attended concerts at the Aldeburgh Festival and met Britten once in his sports car! The harmonic language of my own music is also tinged with my love of a cappella close harmony – the Great American Songbook, Latin styles and so on.

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

My managerial and administrative roles as a director of music at St Paul’s School and Junior Academy in London have been challenging, as well as character-building! Having to make strategic decisions, which are sometimes unpopular, is difficult but often necessary, and sometimes I wish I could just get on with the music-making.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I conducted a production of Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors in Scotland – and Menotti staged it for us. I’d met him at a concert in Haddington by my vocal group Dunedin Consort (which I co-founded – something else I’m proud of) and he promised to work on it with me. My choral pieces Flame and Three Angels are special to me – Flame was my Proms debut last year, and Three Angels was sung by King’s College Choir on the TV last Christmas.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I’ve performed in many, many venues – New York, Los Angeles,Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, – but Snape Maltings Concert Hall takes some beating, as does King’s College Chapel for sacred music.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I love performing Stockhausen’s Stimmung! It becomes other-worldly after a while, and quite trance-like. I’m not sure the audience feels the same way. I love listening to Beatles songs, which are timeless and so inventive. The Sergeant Pepper album is genius.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Who would I pay money to hear?!

Classical – Tenebrae Choir

Jazz/Contemporary – The Real Group (5 part Swedish a cappella group)

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Take Six at the Barbican in 1991, or The Rolling Stones at Wembley 1982.

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

Practice, of course, but love what you do, and always remember to learn from your experiences.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A piece for choir and orchestra, and strategic planning in my new role as Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. Plus all the other stuff!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A good work/life balance – but is it ever achievable?

Ben Parry has made over sixty CD recordings and his music is published by Peters Edition and Faber Music. He works regularly with young musicians as a director of the Eton Choral Courses and as Director of Junior Academy at the Royal Academy of Music. He has just been appointed the new Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.

Ben is co-Director of the professional choir London Voices, and worked with Sir Paul McCartney on his classic choral work, ‘Ecce Cor Meum’, as well as conducting and singing on many major film soundtracks. He regularly collaborates with writer Garth Bardsley, and their choral piece, ‘Flame’ was performed at the 2012 BBC Proms. He is also Music Director of the Aldeburgh Voices.

As a singer Ben has worked with Taverner Consort, Gabrieli Consort and Tenebrae and was a singer and music director with The Swingle Singers. As a conductor he has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Ensemble, National Youth Orchestra, Royal Symphony Orchestra of Seville, Vancouver Youth Symphony, Cumbria Youth Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Philharmonia Voices.

www.benparry.org

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

My grandfather was a composer, so he definitely inspired me. My mum did a music degree when I was about 9 years old so we had a small music studio at home where I learnt to use Cubase. It was around then that I remember writing my first composition, a Morris dance that was used in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (my mum wrote the rest of the music for the production).

As for making it my career, I actually came to it fairly late – 8 years after completing my degree. At the time, I didn’t think it was possible to make a living from composing and I didn’t want to teach, so I took an office job to bring the pennies in. It’s only since getting married and having a baby that I’ve been able to stay at home and write music, but it’s been the best decision I ever made!

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

I consider myself to be a self-taught composer, as I don’t recall ever receiving much direct feedback on my work. Even at university, our composing sessions consisted of listening to new music rather than learning compositional techniques and tips. This is my memory of it anyway! So my composing hasn’t been directly influenced by any teachers.

Instead, I would say that my main influence initially was music I had played in orchestras. I used to say that I wanted my music to have the harmonies of Debussy, the rhythms of Stravinsky, the Englishness of Vaughan-Williams, and the passion of Rachmaninov. However, since returning to composition in 2011, I’ve opened my ears to the wealth of new music that has been written since the time of those composers, right up to music being created in the present. As a result, my style has changed a little, I have learned a lot, and my ideas are more creative. I’ve started to look outside of music to find influences, for example ancient history and nature.

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

As I left it so long after university, I didn’t have any tutors to promote me, enter me for competitions, or show me how to turn this from a passion into a career. I have had to do a lot of research into how composers get paid, how to be noticed, how to get my music performed, etc. I have also had to find the performers for myself, something which would have been a lot easier had I still been at university and surrounded by musicians. This has actually been a good thing though, as I have made connections with a lot of fantastic performers.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I’m extremely proud of winning the Yorkshire Late Starters Strings composing competition 2011/12 with my 15 minute piece “Battle of the Winwaed”. The piece was written for the YLSS, who comprise adult string players of grades 2-8. To get round the challenge of writing for mixed abilities, I split the cellos into parts 1 and 2, along with the usual 1st and 2nd violins, violas and basses. I also wrote parts for a solo violin and solo cello, to add more complexity for those players of the highest standard. The orchestra performed the piece twice in 2012.

I’m also very proud of my third string quartet, “Cross Quarter Days”, which was recorded in 2012 and has been released on iTunes, Amazon, and on my website. The piece is in 4 movements, each representing one of the four key dates in the Pagan calendar that divide the year into quarters. It represents a big leap in terms of my development since the second quartet, written just a year earlier, and I feel it’s the work that best represents me as a composer.

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

One of my favourite pieces to listen to is Michael Torke’s July for saxophone quartet. It’s so funky, I don’t think I could ever get tired of it! Other favourites include the Rite of Spring, Turangalîla, the Planets, Ravel and Debussy’s string quartets, White Man Sleeps by Kevin Volans, Gabriel Prokofiev’s Jerk Driver… I also listen to a lot of 80s pop music and Steely Dan!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Performing Turangalîla with the County Youth Orchestra at Snape Maltings, I think it was in 2003. Such an overwhelming piece to perform, and in such a fantastic venue. I feel very privileged to have had that experience. I remember walking off stage with my cello at the end and saying to the conductor, “wow, that was amazing!”.

Regarding performances of my own work, the most memorable is probably when I performed my own concerto for cello and string orchestra at university in 2002. Having my Christmas carol “On A Gentle Winter’s Night” performed in Guildford cathedral in front of 1000 people in 2001, and then its second performance in New Zealand last year, are also very memorable occasions!

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

Be true to yourself. Don’t give up. Have an open mind. Listen. Network. Take criticism constructively. Make things happen, don’t sit around waiting to be noticed.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’m currently about halfway through my largest commission so far – a 25 minute suite for full symphony orchestra entitled “Legends of the Tor”. The work will be in 5 movements, each referencing a different legend relating to Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. The piece has been commissioned by my local symphony orchestra, after they successfully applied for a highly competitive “Community Music” grant from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. The community element will be the involvement of 5 local schools, who will each have a group of children composing their own music on the theme of “Myth and Legends”, with the help of workshops led by myself and members of the orchestra. The children will perform their pieces at the concert in June when the orchestra will premiere my piece.

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

My goal is a commission for the BBC Proms! I’ve set myself a 10 year target, so we’ll see what happens! Failing that, I’d be happy to have my music performed regularly and to continue receiving commissions so that I can carry on writing.

Alison Wrenn’s new work for piano trio Between the Mountains and the Sea receives its premiere at the Halstatt Classics Music and Literature Festival on 17th August. Further details here

 

Alison Wrenn (b.1981) is a British composer, whose style brings together influences from the English Pastoral Tradition, elements of popular music and media music as well as strains of Celtic and some aspects of American minimalist music.

Full biography