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

At the age of 5, having heard classical music on the radio and piano lessons at my mother’s school, I asked my parents if I could have piano lessons. After piano lessons started I decided I wanted to be a concert pianist and a few years later I began writing pieces for myself.

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

Contemporary dance. People, songs, dance and the landscapes of my native Jamaica. The music of Bela Bartok. Later also the music of J S Bach, Birtwistle, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Robert Cohan.

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

Two things: issues of race and gender in as much as they have defined me in the minds of others.

Not having had what is considered a thorough and proper university education as a composer.

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

Deadlines; they are as energising as they are terrifying.

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

Finding out and knowing about the special strengths of particular soloists or groups. I found that working with, for instance, Mary Plazas whilst writing my opera was a big influence in how that role was shaped. Ditto writing my first violin concerto for my violinist husband, Thomas Bowes.

Of which works are you most proud?

‘Snow White’ as it was my first piece for that size of orchestra. Far from being intimidated I felt instantly at home.

My three String Quartets I can now look back on with great pride. I managed three quite substantial pieces I feel, and that they are all very different from each other pleases me especially now that they have been recorded.

The Opera ‘Letters of a Love Betrayed’ because it so clearly moved people when they saw and heard it.

I was also proud of ‘Arise, Athena!’ which I wrote for the last night of the BBC Proms.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I have a language which ranges from things clearly derived from my Jamaican childhood and heritage through to the sort of sounds people more often associate with modernism. There always seems to be a sliding scale of the proportions of these two extremities. This has been a problem for some people – even me – at times. But I’m now quite relaxed about this. I write to be me.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are those I’ve admired from afar; composers Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Messiaen, JS Bach; pianists Martha Agerich, Sviatoslav Richter, conductors Kleiber and Furtwangler amongst others.

And then those who I’ve actually had the pleasure of hearing or getting to know or working with – Jeremy Huw Williams, Mary Plazas, Thomas Bowes, Joseph Swensen, Joanna MacGregor, Peter Ash, Harrison Birtwistle to name a few.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Sensing an audience has been moved or thrilled or for whom one senses time has stood still during a performance. All three at once is good.

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

Be serious about what you are doing. Be persistent, dedicated, disciplined and passionate. Be yourself – that’s the tricky bit.

What is your most treasured possession?

My home.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing, playing. Relaxing with my hubby and friends.

 

London’s premiere youth orchestra, the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, will mark Eleanor Alberga’s 70th birthday with a performance of her musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at London’s Barbican Hall on 23 September. More information


With her 2015 Last Night of the Proms opener ARISE ATHENA! Eleanor Alberga cemented a reputation as a composer of international stature.  Performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Chorus and conducted by Marin Alsop, the work was heard and seen by millions.

Her music is not easy to pigeon-hole.  The musical language of her opera LETTERS OF A LOVE BETRAYED (2009), premiered at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury stage, has drawn comparisons with Berg’s Wozzeck and Debussy’s Pelleas, while her lighter works draw more obviously on her Jamaican heritage and time as a singer with the Jamaican Folk Singers and as a member of an African Dance company.  But the emotional range of her language, her structural clarity and a fabulously assured technique as an orchestrator have always drawn high praise.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Alberga decided at the age of five to be a concert pianist, though five years later she was already composing works for the piano.

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eleanoralberga.com

Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

When I started learning piano I quickly found that improvising around the pieces I was learning was far more fun than practising scales! Quite soon after that, I realised I could begin to write these inventions down (inspired at first by an ardent desire to acquire a Blue Peter badge…!).

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

Recently I’ve been especially inspired by composers who have an outward-facing, collaborative approach to their craft. Composers like Nico Muhly epitomise this for me: not only is the music totally brilliant, but it’s made for people, not just the instruments they play.

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

This past year I’ve been writing for the London Symphony Orchestra as one of their Panufnik Composers – this has certainly been a huge challenge, exciting and daunting in equal measure! Having the whole orchestra (under the baton of François-Xavier Roth) at my fingertips was an incredible feeling, but attempting to write not just a good overall piece but also great parts for all 80 phenomenal musicians certainly took a lot of careful balancing!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

It’s the biggest thrill of the process, BUT sharing music that you’ve been living with potentially for months for the first time is a daunting thing! A player’s relationship with the thing you’ve made is so different to your own, which is why I obsess over how parts look. Most performers won’t be religiously studying your score for weeks on end; they’ll be getting under the skin of the notes you’ve written for them, so it’s critically important that what they see is presented perfectly.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

My music is built out of a core I would describe as essentially emotional. I will never shy away from that word (which is often lazily conflated with ‘sentimental’) – I can’t imagine wanting to spend my life writing music if I didn’t want to move, surprise, excite, provoke people, and I’m obsessed with finding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ways of aspiring to do just that. The Requiem that I’ve just written for Laura van der Heijden, Nicky Spence and a fantastic choir that I’ve put together is, in part, a kind of manifesto for everything I love about music. It’s my biggest work to date, and I’ve designed it in such a way as to (hopefully) crystallise the main things which make up my musical voice.

How do you work?

I work in very intense periods where a lot seems to happen very quickly! But of course this is only part of the process… I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ‘pre-composition’ – once an idea is floating around in my head, I find it very difficult to ignore, and it’s constantly evolving, shifting, forming… When these ideas get onto paper, the process has already begun (and a long night at my desk usually follows…)

Of which works are you most proud?

The works of which I’m most proud are the ones where I haven’t felt any pressure to make them something they’re not, or self-consciously ‘new’. One of my favourite Stephen Sondheim quotes is ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you, / Then it will be new’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

My favourite venues and spaces make you feel like the music is happening to you, however big or small they are – but this has a lot to do with the performance too…

Who are your favourite musicians?

The musicians I’m most inspired by are those for whom the notes they play are only the tip of the iceberg – musicians who are obsessively curious, who understand why the music they’re playing exists, and who can make you hear familiar music as if it were completely new.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2017 The Bach Choir performed my carol ‘Nowell’ at Cadogan Hall; there was some very specific choreography at the event which meant that I watched the premiere from onstage, facing sideways, so I was able to take in not only the choir but the full audience as well. This turned an already exciting moment into an electrifying one: it felt like a kind of arena, with 100 voices at the centre… what could be better?!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

My Spotify history at any given moment is a completely bizarre and eclectic mix of music – musical theatre has an extremely special place in my life, and I still can’t beat it for listening to on the go. At the moment I’m trying to discover as much new choral music as possible. I love finding music I’ve never even remotely heard of; those are the most exciting listening moments for me. In terms of playing, I love anything that gets me performing with other musicians – I love accompanying, and recently I’ve been able to delve deep into the french horn repertoire for an upcoming recital at Buxton Festival with Alexei Watkins.

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

If I’ve made something that nobody else could have made in exactly the same way, and which the performers really want to own, I’ve succeeded. The rest is largely beyond my control!

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

Be polite; be punctual; be proactive. The rest will follow!

The World Premiere of Alex Woolf’s Fairfield Fanfare will take place on Wednesday 18th September 7.30pm as part of the Fairfield Halls gala reopening concert with the London Mozart Players:

https://www.fairfield.co.uk/whats-on/london-mozart-players-fairfield-halls-gala-opening-concert/

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Whilst on a German school exchange to Munich when I was fifteen I was taken to a performance of Berg’s Lulu in the Nationaltheater. I had never seen or heard anything like it before in my life and decided on the spot that I wanted to be a composer, especially of dramatic music (i.e. theatre, opera, ballet, film)

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

Meeting Olivier Messiaen while I was a student at the Royal College of Music confirmed my lifelong passion for his music. At that time I studied and loved Britten’s operas, and learned much about dramatic timing and word setting. I’ve also had a lifelong love of the music of Leoš Janácek, who still remains a strong influence. The concision of his writing, his limitless imagination in the development of motifs and his sophisticated melodic curves of speech continue to fascinate me.

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

I had the good fortune to be offered a lot of film commissions in my thirties and forties. One of the challenges was to put aside enough time each year to compose at least one major concert piece. It sometimes became frustrating not to have enough time in the year to develop compositional ideas. It was for this reason that, when I retired from film music four years ago, I decided to take a PhD at Bristol University in order to really get to grips with composition technique and to become more familiar with what is being written today.

Of which works are you most proud?

One of the works I wrote for the PhD was called Kalon, for string quartet and string orchestra. What is unusual about it is that the two string groups perform almost throughout in different simultaneous tempi. I nearly abandoned it twice, so difficult was it to write clearly in polytempo without it sounding a mess. When I heard the Czech Philharmonic play it for the Signum Classics recording I felt so glad that I had stuck with it and that the piece really works.

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

I’ve always needed to work to a deadline, even if the deadline is three years off. I have a fear of the piece either not being ready or not being the best I can write, so I tend to finish a commission months before it is due for delivery. This means I can sit with it, re-visit and change or improve large or small things before it is published and the parts are sent to the performers. With my second violin concerto Niobe I persuaded the Czech Philharmonic, who commissioned it, to let me have a playthrough with the wonderful soloist Tamsin Waley-Cohen four months before the first rehearsal. I learned so much from the experience and, as a result, revised several passages to give it even more punch and dramatic impact. In such circumstances my publisher Nimbus Publishing were endlessly patient in allowing me to re-print the score and parts for what turned out to be the definitive version that we premiered and recorded.

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

Knowing the choir, orchestra or soloists is always a pleasure.

Pietà is my third commission for the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and as well as knowing the choir very well I am always thrilled to work with their conductor Gavin Carr. Gavin heard the piece at different stages of the composition and made a number of incisive observations about voicing and the overall impact of the work’s structure and climaxes. I feel very lucky to have worked with collaborators like him, and Pietà is dedicated to Gavin in thanks for all his support and encouragement over many years.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

Hard to answer this one meaningfully. I’ve always felt a need to communicate with my music and consequently have tried, without limiting the freshness or originality of the work, to make it accessible and direct. Having experimented with atonal and serial music in my twenties I am now more interested in using different forms of modal music, or even triadic harmony in new ways. During the PhD I chose my thesis topic as polyrhythm, polymetre and polytempo, and I think my music is characterised by a rhythmic dynamism and freshness. People have also told me that my music is very melodic, and creating well-crafted melodic material remains one of my preoccupations.

How do you work?

I mostly work in my studio in the village in Oxfordshire where I live. The studio has inspiring views on a small lake and I work on a lovely Yamaha grand piano that is also aligned to a computer on which I write with Sibelius. I often sketch on manuscript paper, then go into short score or full orchestral. Occasionally I have ideas in the middle of the night and come downstairs to work for an hour or so. Mostly, I put in about eight hours a day and never work during the evenings, as my brain would be too stimulated to be able to sleep.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having people want to perform and hear my music is entirely my definition of success. Creating music that is good to play, sing or listen to is all I can hope for. If at a concert someone comes up after a performance and says they sincerely enjoyed the piece, or were visibly moved by it, makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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

If asked, I always tell composers to follow their hearts and their instinct, to write what they want to write rather than what is considered fashionable or in vogue. I hope they will write or perform out of love for what they do, rather than for the critics or the approval of a small elite. But this is just my own experience, and every musician has to follow their own path and create their own truth.

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

At this stage of my life I have decades of experience behind me of writing music in every genre, from commercial to art music. I hope that, energy and good health permitting, I still have my best work to come. I am a great admirer of the Japanese artist Hokusai, who said that nothing he created before his seventieth year amounted to very much, but by the age of seventy he was just getting the hang of painting. I like to think that, aged 65, I am beginning to get the hang of writing music.

The world première of Pietà, a new work by Richard Blackford, which will take place at the Lighthouse, Poole on Saturday 22 June 2019. Pietà is a setting of the Stabat Mater, with additional poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The work will be recorded for Nimbus shortly after the first performance. The London première will be on Saturday 19 October 2019 at the Cadogan Hall. 

Further information


Richard Blackford studied composition with John Lambert at the Royal College of Music, then with Hans Werner Henze in Rome. Early awards include the Tagore Gold Medal, the Ricordi Prize and the Mendelssohn Scholarship. He was first Composer-in-Residence at Balliol College Oxford, and later Composer-in-Residence to the Brno Philharmonic in the Czech Republic. His works were performed in the major music festivals of the world, including Adelaide, Berlin, Brighton, Montepulciano, Cheltenham, Long Island. He has composed in virtually every medium, including opera, choral, orchestral, theatre, film and ballet, with his most recent ballet Biophony (2015) in collaboration with Bernie Krause and Alonzo King, winning “Best Contemporary Performance 2016” in the Italian dance magazine Danza&Danza. As a media composer Richard was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music for his 4-hour score for the CNN/BBC series Millennium, and in 2015 was awarded Die Goldene Deutschland for services to music in Germany. His literary collaborators include; Ted Hughes, Maya Angelou and Tony Harrison. He is a Director of the charity Music For Youth, President of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, a Trustee of the Aberystwyth MusicFest and Trustee of The Bach Choir.

Richard Blackford’s music is published by Novello and Nimbus Publishing.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of which works are you most proud?

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

How would you characterise your compositional language?

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

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

How do you work?

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

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

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

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

Be yourself, trust your instincts.


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

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

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

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

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

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

davidknotts.co.uk

 

 

(Photograph by Alasdair Nicolson)

Guest review by Doug Thomas

Gavin4_400x400
Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

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

Both of my parents are musicians, and while neither of them work in the classical world, I was always aware that music was a very valuable and worthwhile thing to make and listen to. I was certainly (thankfully!) never pushed, as evidenced perhaps by my deep reluctance to practice the trombone, my first instrument. This reluctance meant that my achievements on the instrument peaked at about grade six, though I was a lot more engaged with the guitar in my late teens. I had a somewhat healthier relationship with this instrument, which also, through various bands, led me into writing music of my own. As time went on, I wrote more and more progressive stuff for my band, meaning that when I started writing for classical instruments aged nineteen it wasn’t too much of a leap, stylistically or technically. I think I came to realise that writing the music was a lot more enjoyable for me than playing it, or, crucially, the practice time required to play it! As a composer you get to practice by just composing, and that seemed like much more fun to me.

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

There are two composition teachers to whom I owe an enormous amount: Dmitri Smirnov, and Edmund Finnis. Dmitri was my first composition teacher, and a lot of the lessons he imparted upon me have stayed within my consciousness to this day, whether I decide to follow them or not! Using examples from Bach and Beethoven to Webern and Ligeti, he stressed the importance of balancing a logical, systematic method with a more intuitive approach. Edmund, who I studied with for two years at the Royal Academy of Music, taught me the importance of following my ears, and the importance of sound in a tactile, perhaps experimental sense. He was always keen to introduce me to the music of composers with a similar sensibility like Rozalie Hirs, James Tenney, and Jonathan Harvey.

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

I actually quite enjoy the strictures of a commission, especially when this means I end up with an instrumentation I never would have thought of or chosen of my own devices. For some examples, my piece ‘Zorthern’ for Sound and Music/NMC’s Next Wave 2 scheme, which was for the rather odd and somewhat imbalanced lineup of oboe, trumpet, horn, percussion, solo accordion and two violins, or my trio ‘Kalimotxo’ for clarinet, harp, and double bass for the Hermes Experiment. In both of these cases, I feel like the challenge of finding my own way into the world of the ensembles lead to some unexpected results that I ended up enjoying a lot. Often, writing for established, well known ensembles like string quartets or orchestras can lead to a certain comfortable (yet dangerous) sense of how things should be done, so usually I will try and find a way to approach a piece as if it’s a more unusual ensemble (for example, by having a string quartet that imitates howling dogs as in my piece ‘Samoyeds’).

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

It’s really wonderful to work with players and ensembles you know well. This particularly applies to The Hermes Experiment and The Ligeti Quartet, both of whom I worked with last year and both of whom I’ve been lucky enough to see in performance many times. This kind of connection not just to the musical personalities of the players, but also to them as people, can make a world of difference in how I approach a piece. To work with such gifted professional musicians is a real privilege, but I also really enjoy getting to write for young people or amateurs. When writing music for non-professional musicians, I put a lot more thought into how much the performer will get a sense of fulfilment from what they’re playing, which of course has to be balanced with my own musical aims. I find that writing for both ends of the professional to non-professional spectrum can really inform my work as a whole.

Of which works are you most proud?

I wrote a short comic opera called ’The Man Who Woke Up’ in 2014, and I still consider that to be my earliest piece that I’m still happy to put to my name. This felt like a very big statement at the time; more than twice as long as anything I’d ever written before at thirty minutes, my first time writing for an orchestra, and I even took on the challenge of writing the libretto myself. That original version had its problems, such as some rather inelegant orchestration, but over the years I’ve refined it a bit, and the more compact version for an ensemble of six players will be getting premiered in Chicago with Thompson Street Opera Company in April this year. Across its three versions, it’s my most performed piece, which seems paradoxical as its also my longest; I can only extend the deepest thanks to Thompson Street for continuing to champion it, and Jules Cavalie and Goldsmiths Chamber Opera for commissioning it in my undergraduate years.

The other piece would probably have to be ‘In Feyre Foreste’, a piece for five recorder players that I wrote in 2016 for a project at the Royal Academy of Music. This was my first collaboration with recorder player Tabea Debus, who I’ve since written two more pieces for, ’Twenty One Minute Pieces’ and ‘Aesop’, both with the LSO’s Soundhub Scheme. I think that ‘In Feyre Foreste’ was one of the first pieces where I started to shake off some of the very serious, no-nonsense contemporary music sensibility that I think had been dragging my music down somewhat. In this piece I was finally able to get back into the fun of composing and music in general, and this is something I’ve been trying to continue in all of my pieces since, even if they sometimes do take a more serious tone. A few weeks after completing my masters degree I got news that this piece was nominated for a British Composer Award, which was a very big shock; it was even more of a surprise when I found out the piece had won a few months later!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would say that I have a preference for simplicity of sound, though this often manifests itself in music which is still difficult to play! I try and make my music clear in terms of what’s going on where; I have a great admiration for composers who create incredible complex textures by layering things up, but that’s not for me. My philosophy is, would there be genuine musical value in dividing the violins into eight independent parts, or could I make music that is just as good with a solo, or the section in unison? Much of my recent music has taken the form of fast dances, usually jigs; this is something that just crept into my music around 2016 when I wrote ‘In Feyre Foreste’, and it has just stuck around since. In the last year or so I’ve simplified my harmonic palette a bit to mostly triadic chords, dominant 7ths, diminished chords; essentially the makeup of common practice harmony. This is usually to try and evoke a memory of some other kind of music, which I’m really interested in. Harmony made by spinning hexachords around is great when used by great composers, but it’s difficult to use that kind of harmony to evoke anything that doesn’t relate to 20th and 21st century classical music.

How do you work?

Almost all of my composing is done on the computer, on Sibelius. A very small amount might be done on a big of loose paper; a structural diagram for example, but other than that the entire process takes place within my laptop. Sometimes my music is based on transcribing things, so I might begin by transcribing something onto Sibelius and then just mess around with the material until I find something interesting and go on from there. The actual moment to moment work once I get down to it consists of me putting things in, listening to them on playback, and then changing them until they sound or feel ‘right’. This is exactly the kind of composition process that lots of professors tell their students specifically not to do, and that is probably very good advice for someone new to composing. I’m quite happy to work like this now because I’m confident I know how it will sound played by real performers, and because I know I’ll write better music this way than I would if I was just working on paper.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

These days, I’m really into composers like Gerald Barry, Cassandra Miller, Richard Ayres, Sky Macklay, and Andrew Norman. These are all people whose music has a close connection to triadic harmonies, but always executed in a way that turns things upside-down somehow. I’m also really into orchestral light music composers at the

moment; David Rose, Angela Morley, Clive Richardson; it’s such joyous, spirited, rhythmically charged music for orchestra, which is not something we hear a lot of nowadays, and always wrapped up in a neat three minute package! I also have a huge admiration for the multi-genre multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier, whose music can be profoundly complex in its rhythm and harmony but always in service of an appealing sonic exterior. I really like that idea of there being so much going on “under the hood” which you can’t see, all for the purpose of (in this complex and extended automotive metaphor) making the “car” run as efficiently as possible.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For a piece to be successful means, to me, that I like it, and that other people like it. A lot of composers say they don’t care what anyone else thinks about their music but for me, it has almost always been about a desire to write something that people would connect with and want to listen to again. This isn’t to say that I sit there thinking “how do I appeal to this or that demographic?”, rather I write music that is as much as possible what I like, and hope that there are people out there who value what it is that I as an individual have to say.

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

Something I always try to do as a composer is think about whether the way I’m doing something is in service of the music, or a result of fitting within a certain norm of the genre. Have I used that rhythm because it’s the rhythm I really want, or just because it’s the rhythm that’s expected of me? Did I pick this chord because it’s makes the most compelling musical sense, or did I do it because it’s like the chords I’m used to writing, that I spent a lot of time analysing in my early twenties? It can be really hard to sit down and question those moment to moment decisions, and I know I should do it more, so I encourage all composers to try doing the same.

My advice for performers is, simply, to play music by living composers as much as possible! This probably is an obvious and expected piece of advice coming from a composer, but I still want to get it out there. And you don’t have to get the money together to commission new things, while that’s a great thing to do, as one of the biggest hurdles can often be raising those funds; composers have tonnes and tonnes of existing pieces which have never been played past the premiere just itching to be taken for a spin. I know if I were a performer I’d get great fun out of browsing through composers’ websites looking for interesting repertoire. With pieces like that, you have the opportunity to really put your stamp on what could be a great piece of music that you then get to introduce to your audiences as well.


Robin Haigh is a composer from London. In 2017 he became one of the youngest ever recipients of a British Composer Award at the age of 24. As well as being commissioned by the UK’s most prestigious ensembles and institutions such as the LSO, Britten Sinfonia and Sage Gateshead, he has collaborated closely with leading ensembles of his own generation including the Ligeti Quartet and The Hermes Experiment.

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