Piano pieces inspired by Erik Satie

biography-default2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Erik Alfred Leslie Satie, and to celebrate this occasion British composer Richard Fowles has released a personal hommage to Satie and his musical orginality.

Today Satie’s Three Gymnopedies are amongst the most well-known and much-loved music for piano, but during his lifetime, Satie was relatively unknown to much of the musical world. An unremarkable student, he was bohemian by nature, sceptical of established ideas and authorities, and was considered lazy by his teachers. Despite his relatively low profile during his lifetime, Satie helped shape the music of the 20th century: he was an inspiration and mentor to the group of composers known as “Les Six”, which included Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, and influenced contemporaries such as Debussy and Ravel who recognised him as a “new spirit” with a highly original approach to composition. It was not until the mid-20th century that his work became more widely known and appreciated, thanks in part to the endorsement of American composer John Cage.

Composer Richard Fowles was encouraged to pursue this composing project by his piano teacher at Brunel University, Sally Goodworth, after he wrote a couple of Satie-inspired pieces as a student. The result is a suite of 16 piano miniatures in part inspired by Satie’s own music (Knossienne Nos 1-3 being the most obvious, where the eastern melodies of the original Gnossiennes are woven into a harmonic framework redolent of the original, but never an imitation of it) and also by the composer’s life and unusual personality. For example, ‘Sea Bird’ (track no. 6) was the nickname given by Satie to his uncle Adrian, like Satie an eccentric character and an important figure in Satie’s early life. The music juxtaposes quirky melodies which unusual harmonies to create a work which is moody, enigmatic and witty.

In fact, wit pervades these charming miniatures, particularly in the triptych ‘The Velvet Gentleman’ which references aspects of Satie’s attire with which he was most associated, including his identical grey velvet suits:

On most mornings after he moved to Arcueil, Satie would return to Paris on foot, a distance of about ten kilometres, stopping frequently at his favourite cafés on route. According to Templier, “he walked slowly, taking small steps, his umbrella held tight under his arm. When talking he would stop, bend one knee a little, adjust his pince-nez and place his fist on his lap. The he would take off once more with small deliberate steps.”

Robert Orledge, Satie Remembered. French translations by Roger Nichols.

See also: “A Day in the Life of a Musician” by Erik Satie

From: ‘Daily Routines’, a blog by Mason Currey (published in book form as Daily Rituals)

In many of the pieces, Fowles mirrors the “walking beat” that seems to pervade many of Satie’s own piano pieces, a meter which may have been the results of his “endless walking back and forth across the same landscape day after day . . . the total observation of a very limited and narrow environment.” (Roger Shattuck, in conversation with John Cage).

Other pieces in the collection are more melancholy: ‘A Walk to the Chat Noir on a Snowy Day’ conjures up the solitary figure of Satie, dressed in his grey velvet suit, making his customary walk to a favourite haunt in the centre of Paris. Meanwhile the set called ‘Biqui’ recalls Satie’s relationship with Suzanne Valadon and his feelings of devastation when the affair ended. Each piece is offered in Andante and Lento, the slower metres and repeated chord motifs lending a desolate yet intimate atmosphere to the music.

‘Sylvie’, the final track on the disc, is named after one of three poems written by Satie’s friend J.P. Contamine de Latour that Satie put to music in 1886.Its jazz harmonies and winding melody is infused with a tender, almost elegaic air.

Throughout the collection, Fowles avoids pastiche by offering us the essence of Satie’s music, and some of his contemporaries,  viewed through the lens of own originality and inventiveness which fuses eastern melodies with sensuous perfumed harmonies.

The music is performed on this disc by pianist Christina McMaster, whose affinity for this type of music is evident in her crisp articulation, preciseness of touch, and an acute sense of pacing which brings the music to life with vibrancy and atmosphere. And there is an added bonus, for pianists may also purchase the collection as sheet music (roughly Grade 6-8 level). Fowles has scored the music in a traditional way and also without barlines, à la Satie.

There is much to enjoy in this evocative collection, for those who love the piano music of Satie, and for those who are just beginning to explore it.

The sheet music is available now. Order here

The CD is released on 8th April.

Sample tracks here

Richard Fowles is an English composer, guitarist and teacher. He has worked as both a composer and session musician in some of the UK’s biggest recording studios and has provided the scores for a number of films and television programmes. He is also an in demand orchestrator. ‘Un Hommage à Erik’ is Richard’s debut album and book.

 

 

‘Steps’ is a large-scale cycle of music for solo piano by British composer Peter Seabourne (born 1960). Begun in 2001, it now runs to five volumes and is a project which the composer, by his own admission, anticipates running through his life, as a kind of “companion”. It is significant in Seabourne’s oeuvre not only for its scale, but because piano music was the medium which drew Seabourne back into composer after a 12-year silence. Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5 are available on the Sheva label, and also on Spotify. The composer has also made scores available via his website.

The first volume of the cycle is entitled simply ‘Steps’, but subsequent volumes have subtitles which point to the compositional impulse for each collection – Studies of Invention (Vol 2), for example, are inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s inventiveness and creative genius, and include works with titles such as ‘Flying Machines’, ‘Perspectives of Disappearance’ and ‘Lenses for Looking at the Moon’ (a haunting, luminous piece which utilises the piano’s resonance and is redolent of Arvo PArt’s piano music). Volume 3, Arabesques, is inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Southern Spain, while the most recent volume, Sixteen Scenes Before a Crucifixion, takes the Passiontide paintings of Caravaggio as its starting point, though the music is not overtly religious. The composer describes the pieces as nearer to Preludes and “a pianist’s Winterreise”. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a collection of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, for example, and the pieces display a wide range of technical challenges, so that some are playable by younger or less advanced pianists.

In terms of style, all the works in the volumes are extremely varied and idiosyncratic, with much rhythmic and melodic interest, often very lyrical though not necessarily “tuneful”. Seabourne employs a colourful and piquant harmonic palette which recalls Debussy, Janacek and Messiaen, while the rhythmic vitality of the music is akin to Prokofiev; indeed the brevity and aphoristic nature of the pieces aligns them with Prokofiev’s ‘Visions Fugitives’ and ‘Sarcasms’. The works are challenging, and probably best tackled by the advanced pianist who enjoys such technical challenges as varied time signatures, polyrhythms, myriad articulation, filigree textures and one with the requisite artistic sensitivity and imagination to bring musical colour and invention to the music. It is always gratifying to find new music for the piano, and Steps is undoubtedly an important addition to the repertoire and definitely worth seeking out.

Different pianists appear on the recordings of Steps (Giovanni Santini, Michael Bell, Fabio Menchetti and Alessandro Viale) and all display sensitivity to the material and the varied moods and characteristics of this music, together with clarity of tone and pristine articulation. Pianist Minjeong Shin from Korea will record ‘Steps’ Volume 1 this summer.

Peter Seabourne will feature in a future Meet the Artist interview

peterseabourne.com
 

 

 

 

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

I’m not sure I can really attribute it to any one thing in particular. I always wrote music, even as a child, but I didn’t think it was an unusual thing to do. (Perhaps coming from a family of artists and musicians gave me a slightly odd perspective!) Strangely enough, a really key moment for me in my youth was giving up the violin: I absolutely hated learning the instrument, and once I’d stopped, I suddenly rediscovered my love of classical music, and began to play the piano and compose again.

I was very lucky at school too; we had an incredibly skilled and inspiring Head of Music who encouraged and supported me in my last-minute decision to apply for music degrees rather than languages.

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

Perhaps it’s a trite response, but the musicians who have influenced me the most tend to be those I can identify with on a personal level as well as musically. There’s always been something about Toru Takemitsu’s life and career, his struggle to come to terms with his cultural heritage and the difficulties of writing in Japan after the war, the fact that he was self taught and, by all accounts, an incredibly warm, humorous and unpretentious man that somehow strikes me as a good model of how to be a composer in these complex and ever-changing times.

Billie Holiday has also always been a heroine of mine; her ability to bear her soul in every recording she ever made (and no doubt every performance she gave), in spite of the many adversities she faced in life, inspires me continually.

Of course my teacher, Julian Anderson, also had a profound influence on me as a composer. I couldn’t really compose before I studied with him; I was full of ideas, but only had my instincts and a few very basic tools for realising them. He was incredibly encouraging, but also equipped me with the means to be constructively self-critical, which I’m immensely grateful for.

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

There were some very difficult periods for me as a student. Composing has always been something of an emotional outlet for me, and I think it’s sometimes very exhausting to confront your emotions when life can seem so complex and uncertain. But then composing is always so much harder than you expect it to be anyway!

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

It’s always a privilege to be commissioned to write a new piece, but it’s not really that different from writing in your own time, apart from having the pressure of a deadline. That can be a useful catalyst for getting the piece finished though!

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

It’s always a great honour to be commissioned by a specific performer. Knowing that they have selected you to write for them based on their appreciation of your previous work is hugely reassuring as a starting point, and of course, it’s always wonderful when you can work closely with them on the work in progress, and even better when they’re pleased by the final composition and play it with enjoyment and commitment.

Working with Richard Uttley recently on my new Dance Suite has been fantastic. We live close to one another and the process really has been very collaborative. I’ve written bits of the piece, played or shown them to him, and he’s then responded and helped me with very practical suggestions; I’ve learnt so much from the process, and it’s only really possible to do that when you’re writing for a particular soloist.

On the other hand, it can be quite scary when you’re writing for a really prestigious group. I remember composing for the LSO and occasionally thinking – oh god, the LSO’s first violin section are going to play those notes: they’d better be good. I try not to let myself worry about that too much, however; otherwise I’d never be able write anything at all!

Which works are you most proud of? 

Someone recently told me that when a composer admits that they’re proud of a piece, it usually means they know it’s not very good! Personally I find it difficult to be completely happy with anything; the critical faculties you need to write your best music are also those that can make it difficult to enjoy them afterwards, because you’re always aware of what you could have done better.

Having said that, I am quite fond of a few short pieces that I had to write very quickly (one of them in just one day!) – perhaps it’s because I had somewhat reduced expectations of myself in those circumstances. Many others I’m relatively pleased with, but still have niggling doubts about passages I think could have improved with slightly more time and a better sense of focus.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That’s hard to answer; there are so many, and I’m always on the look out for new pieces and performances to give me ideas and enrich my listening.

I suppose I would certainly want to name Guillaume de Machaut, Tomás Luis De Victoria, Henry Purcell, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Szymanowksi, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Oliver Knussen, Henri Dutilleux, Hans Abrahamsen, Jonathan Harvey, Claude Vivier, Gerard Grisey and Franco Donatoni, but that’s far from an exhaustive list.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’ve many fond memories of concerts and it’s hard to rank them, but one that really sticks in my mind is a Chick Corea gig I went to with some friends back in 2004; he and his band just gave an utterly sensational live performance.

More recently I attended an incredibly good concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra that included Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and the premiere of Julian Anderson’s Violin Concerto; it was an exquisite performance of the perfect programme. I also loved the Orchestra of the Age Enlightenment’s performance of the St Matthew Passion directed by Mark Padmore just before Easter this year.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Retiring, once I’m old and tired of working, to somewhere beautiful in Italy where I can eat amazing food everyday and enjoy the good weather.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Walking and cycling in the countryside and making things for the flat. (My dad is a furniture restorer and instilled a love of woodwork and DIY in me as a child.)

(interview date: June 2015)

Born in London, Matthew Kaner studied Music at King’s College London and was jointly awarded the Purcell Prize for graduating top of his year in 2008. He then gained a distinction for his Masters at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, supervised by Julian Anderson, where he subsequently continued his studies as a Composition Fellow for a year. He has been teaching on various undergraduate courses at both King’s and the Guildhall School since 2009, becoming a Professor of Composition at the latter in 2013, in which year he was also made a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Matthew has composed works for the London Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Philharmonia, members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Workers Union, Siglo de Oro, King’s College London Choir and Orfea amongst others, and soloists including Richard Uttley, Julia Samojlo and Sam Corkin. His music has been performed at various venues in the UK and abroad, including Seiji Ozawa Hall, the Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room, LSO St. Luke’s and Snape Maltings. It has also been broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and featured in the Aldeburgh, Norfolk & Norwich, City of London and Victoria International Music Festivals.

In the summer of 2012 Matthew was the Margaret Lee Crofts Fellow in Composition at the Tanglewood Music Center, Massachusetts, where he worked and studied with composers George Benjamin, John Harbison, Oliver Knussen and Michael Gandolfi. He attended the Britten-Pears Contemporary Composition course in 2011. In 2013, he was one of the winners of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize and was consequently commissioned to write a new work for the Philharmonia’s Music of Today series,  premiered in the Royal Festival Hall on 31 May 2014. He was also the recipient of a London Sinfonietta Writing the Future chamber commission. His quartet for flute, clarinet, viola and cello, Chants, was premiered in the Purcell Room as part of the New Music Day on December 8, 2013.

Matthew was the 2013 Composer-in-Association with the Workers Union, composing a work with electronics entitled Organum which they premiered with the support of the PRS for Music Foundation, culminating in a final performance at LSO St. Luke’s on 9th November 2013. His commission for the London Symphony Orchestra, The Calligrapher’s Manuscript, was premiered under the baton of Robin Ticciati in the Barbican Hall in September 2013 and received with critical acclaim.

matthewkaner.com

Guest review by Karine Hetherington

I don’t go to the British Museum as often as maybe I should. My education in ancient civilizations sadly ceased the minute I left primary school. However I still love the Greek myths. I have happy memories of fashioning the Greek gods and heroes from papier-mâché and chicken wire in class and recall my felt tip drawing of Prometheus writhing in agony as an eagle pecked out his liver!

When I received an invitation to attend a talk and musical concert at the British Museum about the Parthenon Frieze in June, it seemed the ideal opportunity to renew my interest and to learn something of the precious exterior ornamental band which ran around the 2,500- year-old Parthenon temple.  I also wanted to know what all the fuss was about, why lawyer Amal Clooney, one month after marrying superstar George, was taking up the Greek cause to return the priceless marbles to Greece. Today, around 60% of the frieze is housed in Room 18 of the British Museum, the majority of the remaining 40% resides in the Acropolis museum.

The Parthenon Freize at the British Museum (picture source: Wikipedia)

So I set out on a gloriously sunny evening in June with the words of my friend Molly Borthwick (generous supporter of that day’s event) whirling around in my mind: “You haven’t met Ian (Jenkins), you haven’t heard him speak! He’s the world expert on Greek and Roman sculptors. You’ll lurvv him!”   When Molly says these things, I listen.

An hour later I was in the back row of the lecture hall. Without any ceremony a silver-haired Ian Jenkins walked on stage, looking the part of Victorian gentleman and flamboyant academic in his slightly creased, pin-striped suit and a silver watch chain, from which hung his museum key. From his lectern he perused the audience. I scanned the room myself. My gaze flitted across the packed lecture hall composed of suited men and women in heels and summer dresses, over to a younger crowd nearer to where I was sitting, in jeans, sneakers and dark tee-shirts, some of whom, started to canoodle the minute they sat down.

I went back to reading the programme: “Ian is the curator of the Museum’s critically acclaimed exhibition ‘Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art”. “The body” I thought to myself, a theme which is bound to get the punters in at the British Museum. Tonight however, Ian’s angle had changed. We were being offered: ‘The Parthenon Frieze: a symphony in stone’. As I am a great classical music lover and a Wigmore Hall regular, I was intrigued by the musical connection. This, coupled with the fact that we were going to be treated to a live UK premier of newly commissioned work entitled Panathenaia which had been inspired by the Parthenon frieze.

Ian explained that the frieze was the decorative sculptural upper band of marble, which originally ran off the entrance to the Parthenon temple.  The frieze evokes the ‘Great Panathenaia’, the festival held every four years to celebrate the birth of Athena. Here we had to imagine it in situ: two parallel processions progress along opposite sides of the building towards their finishing point on the east wall. We see horsemen, chariots, animals for sacrifice, young women and magistrates or tribal heroes. There are chariot races that day and music competitions, the prizes special jars, filled with olive oil, with a depiction of the event on them.   The high point of the ceremony is the presentation of the peplos or sacred cloth, newly woven, to adorn an ancient olive statue of Athena.  Presiding over these festivities are the gods and goddesses. The interesting thing, Ian tells us, is that there is a question mark over whether the gods are viewing these events from on high – that is from Mount Olympus – or down at the Temple in Athens, suggesting perhaps the merging of the human and the divine. Have humans become godlier or have the gods become more plebeian? There is a pause whilst we take this in. A man in front of me stops tapping the screen on his iPhone and looks up, as if he has just woken up to this momentous question left hanging in the air.  He looks around vaguely then bows his head again and resumes his silent tapping.

Ian’s talk becomes more and more fascinating as he draws all sorts of modern artistic parallels with the frieze. He sees the same arrangement of horses in a work painted by the great artist Mark Gertler in 1916, ‘The Merry go round’ and so on. And then comes Ian’s tour de force. “The symphony” which is to be found in the Parthenon Frieze. Ian starts to show us slides of his transcription of the frieze, which he has converted into a sort of Braille, in which the numerous figures seen from above, are represented by simple shapes. And here I quote from the Panathenaia librettist Paul Williamson, as I’m not a musicologist : “The heads of the horsemen, for example, are shown as ovals, laid out in rows to indicate the depth of field. The effect of the semibreve-like ellipses arranged on staves, as it were, is incredibly like musical notation.”

Oh my! My brain is now reeling, I am eager to hear the music to give it a rest.

Full of anticipation we leave the lecture hall, and make our way up a grand staircase to Room 18, the Parthenon frieze viewing gallery.

Twenty minutes later, having finally settled in our seats, we are able to admire the frieze for real; we stare at the sections of white marble sculptures on the walls, beautifully lit, looking so clean, the figures so beautifully fluid and lovingly preserved, though incomplete. It is hard to believe that they are so ancient. The TV camera is there with Patricia Wheatley, formerly with the BBC and head of the BM Broadcasting unit, the photographers with their telescopic lenses, all now aiming at the stage, for the choir, two sopranos, the orchestra and lead violinist Hugo Ticciati (soon to be playing at the Wigmore I noticed with interest) has just stepped in. The enthusiastic Ticciati starts speaking a little fast on the stage, but it doesn’t matter, all I need to know is in the programme, namely that it was he who had the idea of commissioning this work in the first place.  Ticciati enlisted the services of award-winning composer Thomas Hewitt Jones (Winner of the 2003 BBC Young Composer Competition) and they chose Paul Williamson to write the libretto. Ticciati and his orchestra performed the finished work once in Sweden last summer, at a summer festival he organises, and instead of the Parthenon, a rock-balancing artist was called in to reconstruct his own frieze with some stones from a nearby lake. Apparently the last irregular diamond of stone was put in place as the music ended.

Wow! I thought, not bad, not bad at all. But even a rock-balancing artist cannot compete with these beautiful smooth, sculpted warriors running along the wall.

A young bearded conductor steps up on stage with tight corkscrews curls, followed by two late musicians, who, cowering with embarrassment and grasping their violins quickly find their seats.

Panathenaia is a Cantata in eight movements for string orchestra, timpani, soloists and choir. The hugely talented composer, Thomas Hewitt-Jones drew his inspiration from certain figures from the frieze and temple statues.

The instrumental Prelude opens with the tense plucking of strings and jagged rhythms, then the full orchestra enters into a slow lumbering movement of strange, mysterious sounds marking the start of the Athenian procession or is it the wars that preceded the building of the Parthenon temple, as there is the rumble of drums.   We are transported back to c. 495-429 BC, where the instruments one imagines to have such different discordant sounds.

In marked contrast, the following “Temple” movement with the Choir, is one of beautiful high, ethereal voices, denoting the harmony and beauty of the land and holy building where justice reigns: “This ancient land’s an orderly/Arrangement, wrought from flowing forms”.

“The Weaver’s Song” following, sung with great feeling by the fine blonde soprano Paulina Pfeiffer is both mournful and serious in tone – serious because she is weaving the sacred cloth which will clothe the statue of Athena, therefore a great responsibility – mournful – because she is alone, separated from her warrior boyfriend who is taking part in the chariot races during the festival: “Eros, has made me dull”. Apparently in rehearsals, Paulina, was disturbed by her voice ricocheting off the frieze in Room 18. She was, I was told, holding back tonight, and I noticed her shoulders stiffen a little as one particular high note echoed around our heads. The effect however was thrilling!

I loved “The Lyric Suite”: Hugo Ticciati’s achingly beautiful violin, sometimes so haunting and then the unsettling bassoon, plucking of strings and tympani which crescendos into a full-blown orchestral swell setting things up for Prometheus and his challenge with the gods.

In “Prometheus” we had the gorgeous pairing of the blonde soprano and dark mezzo-soprano, Karolina Blixt. Blixt looked very striking in her Grecian ivory dress and liquid eye liner eyes which flashed at the audience, causing quite a ripple amongst the male members who looked up at her in complete reverence (I see a star in the making). “Ah but the gods have lost their spark” they sing signifying the decline in the influence of the gods, making way for Prometheus who “…freed the agent of change/That far-seeing rascal”. The sopranos snarl the word “rascal”

In “Shadows in a dream” the choir asks what harmony is possible when humanity inherits the earth? Tympani – storm rumblings loud then soft and distant, set the scene for the following “Birth of Pandora”, Zeus’s revenge on humanity. I loved the amazing anarchic dance of the satyrs attending the birth of the beautiful, ‘baneful’ Pandora. “Caper on your crooked legs” – wonderful alliteration by Paul Williamson the librettist. And finally the Coda – plucking of double basses like footsteps fading away. The music has turned full circle. We are back to where we started.

Loud applause. Ian Jenkins the curator, the musicians, singers, composer, librettist and conductor, had transported us into another world, another time. It had been an exciting, illuminating experience, one that I am very keen to repeat. These sorts of happenings however are rare and require money, time, commitment and passion. Vision too. I felt privileged to have attended such an event.

Since then I have returned to admire the frieze in the British Museum twice!

Discover this extraordinary composition performed by orchestra and singers for the first time ever in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery, which houses the Parthenon Sculptures. Surrounded by these stunning carvings, Panathenaia celebrates their artistry and tells the story portrayed in the timeless stones.

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer who lives in London. A dual-British and French national, with a Russian ancestry thrown in, her short stories and novels reflect her passion for both the detail and grand sweep of European history. After studying creative writing at Birkbeck College in London, Karine has been telling stories that have brought history to life, with tales of love and adventure that draw on the detail of real events and real lives. Karine’s novel ‘The Poet and the Hypotenuse’ is available now. Read an extract here

Meet the Artist……Thomas Hewitt Jones

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

I grew up surrounded by a family of musicians. Everyone played in the local brass band and my grandparents were really my first teachers. When I was 15 I received a scholarship to study at Chethams School of Music in Manchester and whilst there a friend and I sneaked out of school one day to see a production of the Rite of Spring. It was the first time I’d experienced orchestral music and dance performed live together and I found the whole experience hugely overwhelming. As soon as I left the theatre I knew I wanted to write music.

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

Early on in my career it was brass bands that provided me with a way into music. I grew up playing the tenor horn and moved onto French horn when I started at Chethams. It was here that I experienced orchestral music for the first time. The music of Stravinsky, Turnage, Prokofiev, John Adams really struck a chord with me. Even now I find those early influences really underpin what I want to do as a composer. My music is often very fast, driven and rhythmic. It’s immediate, and for me that’s important.

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

I’m about to start working on an opera. I think this will be my most challenging project, but I can’t wait to get started on it.

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

For me the aim of the process is to hear my music performed. I’ve never been good at writing music without a performance in mind. The process is hard, long and at times frustrating but to finally hear the music performed is what drives me. Of course when you are working to a specific commission or brief you can’t necessarily write whatever you want, but the restraints that come with a commission are good for me; it gives me structure and a guide.

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

I love collaborating with other artists. As a composer you spend a great deal of time alone and this can sometimes be counter productive. So the opportunity to actually create music with other musicians, artists or choreographers is something I thrive on. I really work my best when I’m working with others, so when I’ve collaborated with choreographers or librettists I feel I’ve written some of my strongest pieces. When you know the ensemble you are working with so well it can help drive the creative practice. I have a great relationship with Tredegar Town Band, for whom I have written two large works now. Since I know the players and conductor so well we can just get straight the heart of the music. It’s wonderful.

Which works are you most proud of?  

That’s a tough one because I am very self-conscious about the music I write. In most of my works there are moments that bother me, either because listening now I find it naïve or I feel I could do it better if I was able to write the piece again. But I suppose the two pieces I’m most proud of are Dark Arteries, a ballet I’ve just completed about the miners’ strike, and Velocity, which was commissioned to open the Last Night of the Proms in 2014. It was such an honour to be asked to write that piece, the whole experience was just incredible.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

A few years ago I heard the Berlin Philharmonic play Brahms 2 in Oxford at 10:30 in the morning. I have never heard such an incredible sound in my life. Every single player, from the front desk to back, played like they were leading the orchestra and the performance was thrilling. I heard them play the whole of the Firebird score last year at the Proms and I was in tears at the end. They’re such an incredible group of musicians.

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

A career in music is tough and is full of challenges and frustrations and so you have to work hard and practice your craft every day. Go to lots of concerts and listen to lots of different kinds of music. Take what you do seriously and be self critical, but don’t be self critical it impedes on you improving, know when to give yourself credit!

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

Happy, comfortable, maybe taking a walk in the Blue Mountains.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having a lovely time on my roof with my London family…. Also eating sushi….

What is your most treasured possession? 

My pictures of my friends and family.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Time in London. I love this town and it breaks my heart to see what’s happening to it at the moment. I just hope that we can get it back on track, it’s the most amazing city in the world and we shouldn’t allow greedy, corporate villains to take it from us. It is the centre of cultural universe and we must fight to keep it that way.

 

 

 

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

I don’t recall a specific moment when I thought of becoming a composer. It’s something I have always done, as far as I can remember. Singing my own little tunes on long family walks was probably the way it emerged.

There was, however, a significant event when I was around nine years old. I had been playing the piano all day and searching for new harmonies (or new to me at any rate) on a rather gloomy day. At a particular point in the progression of chords the sun suddenly filled the room with golden light. I can’t remember what the notes were now and I wouldn’t have attributed this event to a supernatural cause but I do remember the jolt of pleasure at the coincidence and I have imagined music as a force of nature ever since.

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

Moods and emotional states affect me more than events, although they are naturally interlinked. Internally I have an almost constant flow of music which seems to shape itself to my environment. I don’t suppose this musical flow is of any great quality – that is the aim of the process of refining and reinforcing. Of course, I’m influenced by powerful creative encounters and it must be apparent in my music but I rarely experience this as direct emulation; it’s more like osmosis.

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

I don’t want to be too negative but sometimes the challenges of being a composer seem overwhelming. Leaving aside the difficulties of the creative process, which are usually absorbing, intriguing and rewarding, there are the difficulties of offering the results in a world which has less regard for the values I hold dear. The current cultural climate, at least in the West, seems to favour the extrovert and I often wonder whether someone like Schubert would have attained even the modest success he did if he were alive today.

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

Ideally, perhaps, composers would write what they want or need to write when ready to do so. This is the old notion of ‘having something to say’ – and there is something to be said for that. There are innumerable practical reasons why this is rarely the case but, if one has a supple enough imagination, it is often possible to work under the illusion that the premise for the commission is entirely one’s own. For me it is essential to feel this way in order to generate confident ideas. I don’t think it’s just ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome. As for the pleasure, it’s always a fascinating sensation bringing something into existence – perhaps a feeling that it was waiting to appear like the sculpture in the marble block.

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

To my mind, nothing represents the internal state as revealingly as music. When people play my music with insight and sensitivity there is a strong feeling of transformation, even if it differs from my own way of thinking. It’s important to say that this is not fundamentally a matter of ego or self-importance; flaws are equally revealed. It’s a sense of joining with others.

Which works are you most proud of? 

As with many artists, I tend to think of my works as offspring; I have an affection for them all – even the less successful ones. The most recent piece is, probably naturally, the one I’m most interested in. I’m preparing my piano quartet for publication and I must admit to being quite pleased with it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Beethoven is evergreen for me. His music is nearly always open at the piano. Others who give me ‘nutrition’ as well as pleasure are Sibelius, Bartok, Britten and Tippett. Actually the list could go on and on and spans the centuries. As for living composers it’s more complex because you have to disentangle friendships, admiration of technique, bravery and determination from the mix, as they are different things. I’m more inclined to think of favourite works by contemporary composers than a list of favourite composers. Any composer with a feeling for the best qualities of tradition as well as a restless search for freshness is likely to appeal to me. A snapshot of what’s in my mind at the moment would feature the symphonies of David Matthews and Kalevi Aho

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing Bernard Haitink conduct The Midsummer Marriage at ROH in the late nineties was unforgettable. The performance was wonderful and Tippett was there to receive some of the warmest applause I have ever witnessed. Many things came together for me, in that moment, which reaffirmed my own sense of purpose.

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

It’s more important than ever to value the non-verbal intelligence of music and not to let material exigencies and social politics dominate this precious form of communication. It can be used as a prop for ideas but we shouldn’t forget that it’s a wonderful idea in itself.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

So many of the supposed satisfactions in life are illusory. Just as in music, there is the anticipation of an event and then the receding resonance of it but the event itself can be practically non-existent. I find I’m at my happiest when I’m in a state of effortless concentration and ideas and abilities seem to come almost without the sensation of thinking – alas all too rare. Oh – and then there’s throwing my seven-year-old daughter in the air and making monster noises. Now that’s fun!

James Francis Brown studied composition firstly with Hans Heimler (himself a pupil of Alban Berg) under the scholarship from the Surrey Scheme for Exceptionally Gifted Children and subsequently at the Royal Academy of Music. From 1994, James Francis Brown’s major works have been heard regularly at the South Bank and Wigmore Hall and have included a Piano Sonata (1994), a Viola Sonata (1995), and the String Trio (1996) for the Leopold String Trio which, following its première at the Deal Festival, has enjoyed numerous performances in London, Glasgow and as part of a British Council tour.

The English Chamber Orchestra with soloist Jack Liebeck gave the première of his Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra at the Barbican in February 2001. His Sinfonietta, commissioned by Faber Music, was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 2002 by the London Chamber Orchestra. He has been a regular visitor to the Presteigne Festival and his song ‘Words’ is included on a CD of the collaborative song-cycle ‘A Garland for Presteigne’, on the Metronome label.

In March 2003, he was awarded a five-year NESTA fellowship. Recent works included a Piano Quartet for the Fidelio Piano Quartet and a piece for the Philharmonia Orchestra premièred at the 2004 Three Choirs Festival and subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. In 2005 he scored a short film “The Clap” which has won several awards at major international film festivals and he was invited to be the first ever composer-in-residence at the International Musician’s Seminar, Prussia Cove.

2006 saw the première of the cello and piano version of Prospero’s Isle at the Hampstead and Highgate Festival as well as the Trio Concertante for the string trio and orchestra at the Presteigne Festival. Prospero’s Isle has subsequently been recast as a symphonic tone poem, which was performed by the State Academic Orchestra of St Petersburg in November 2007 as part of a major British music festival.

An accomplished arranger he recently reconstructed and orchestrated sketches for Wagner’s projected opera Männerlist großer als Frauenlist for the Royal Opera House, which was performed in October 2007. He has also arranged Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for the 2008 City of London Festival. His Clarinet Concerto for Catriona Scott was performed at the 2008 Presteigne Festival.

In 2009, James was the composer-in-residence for the Ulverston International Music Festival, the composer-in-residence for the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove (at the request of cellist Steven Isserlis). He also gave a talk with David Matthews on the inspiration of dreams in music in August that year.

In 2010, the Badke quartet premièred James’ String Quartet (which was commissioned by the London Chamber Music Society), and 2011 saw the release of his CD Prospero’s Isle.

2012 was a good year for the composer, there were world premières of the piano solo version of Dunwich Bells (performed by Clare Hammond), the Piano Trio (by the Barbican trio who later toured it), Fanfare and Chorale (at the Jersey International Music Festival, by Jersey Premier Brass), the song Ozymandias (by Simon Lepper on piano and soprano Gillian Keith). James became an associate of the Royal Academy of Music in July 2012, and – in 2013 – the world première of A Dream and A Dance (by the Nash ensemble) took place in honour of the composer David Matthew’s 70th birthday.

Successes in 2014 included a stunning performance of the string quartet at the London Chamber Music Society, and a new theatrical version of Prospero’s Isle performed by Matthew Sharp and Clare Hammond at Sharp’s RE:naissance festival. His new work Rigaudon, part of a collaborative anthology ‘Le Tombeau de Rachmaninov’, was premiered by pianist Noriko Ogawa at Bridgewater Hall in April 2015.