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

I started my musical journey by having group trombone lessons at school ran by my local music service in Wolverhampton and then soon took up the clarinet, too. Unusually, I did not grow up in a home filled with music, as my parents and wider family have no musical training and there was certainly no music playing in my house at all. Therefore, my formative musical experiences rely mostly on my involvement with my city youth orchestra. My parents have always been extraordinarily supportive of my ideas so at age 14 they bought me a piano and then I began improvising on it and then notating it down. This became something I did rather frequently, although my motivation for doing so was purely just for the enjoyment of it; I didn’t really consider it the act of ‘composing’ as such. A few years later I attended a BBC Proms Inspire workshop in Birmingham and there, due to a chance encounter, I found out that conservatoires existed. I then applied to and attended the Junior Royal Northern College of Music and won the BBC Proms Young Composer’s competition in the following year, which had a large influence on my decision to take composing seriously. Since then, my career has expanded in directions that I could never have imagined or dreamed of. I, therefore, can’t recall the exact moment that I decided to become a composer and pursue a career in music, as I just simply followed the path of what I loved doing. I’m extremely grateful for all the opportunities and experiences that it has afforded me so far.

Which composers have most influenced the development of your music?

When I first started listening to classical music it was mostly Russian composers from the classical canon! Since then, however, the composers that I’m interested in do change frequently and vary widely. I think that the people that have had the most influence on my development would probably be those immediately around me, such as those that I meet, the musicians I write for, and the composers I interact with.

You compose for diverse ensembles, orchestral arrangements, choirs, solo voices, even operatic forms. What drives your experimentation?

I think mostly wanting to develop a musical language that is able to transverse a variety of instrumental ensembles or combinations drives my composition. My method is often the same regardless of what the ensemble is. It’s really important to me, however, to know what the instrumentation is going to be for a long period of time before I begin composing, as I like to imagine a sound-world that utilities that particular instrumental grouping effectively.

How would you characterize your compositional/musical language?

I think my musical language is mostly characterized first and foremost by the use of texture to create atmospheric sound-worlds, which are formed out of linear melodic fragments often inspired by art, poetry or literature to take a listener on a narrative journey… or something along those lines!

How do you work?

I often use extra-musical sources such as contemporary artwork or poetry as my starting point to inspire my music. I will then ruminate over my ideas before taking them to the piano where I improvise musical fragments, and develop the overall structure of the work, before I begin to notate the music down on paper. My compositional process is highly intuitive, almost always in response to my own thoughts and feelings and, therefore, I don’t have a specific writing technique that I can replicate for each piece. I suppose the most fixed aspect of my working process is instead the environment that I choose to compose in, which is often past the midnight hour in that form of silence that you can only achieve whilst everyone else is asleep.

We first heard ‘beneath the silken silence’ at LSO St Lukes as part of the Panufnik Composers Scheme. The work is beautiful and striking, and contains rich tonal harmonies set against more atonal underpinnings. Can you explain how you achieve this unity?

‘Beneath the silken silence’, like a lot of my works, was written in response to a poem, which in this case was Sara Teasdale’s ‘The Faery Forest’. The piece is inspired by both the imagery and phrase structure within the prose and therefore, acts as an unspoken vocalization of the poem. The work seeks to create an atmospheric sound-world to reflect the dream-like movements of nature portrayed in the poem. The harmonic content of the work is also based on this poetic setting, as it is created as a linear line and then loosely reoriented to achieve a tonally centred foundation.

The sophistication of your music seems to belie your age. ‘Fireworks’ is another striking work. How was the piece conceived? Can you tell us something of the process you use in composition?

To compose ‘Fireworks’, a piece for solo soprano voice and orchestra that I wrote in 2018, I began with the text, which is a poem of the same name by the American poet, Amy Lowell. After altering the text by changing and adding a few lines, as I often do, I set it to music as a fragmentary melodic vocal line, which becomes the basis of the work. I then also used this to inform the harmonic and structural shape of the piece. This, as I explained previously, is all a very intuitive process.

Each of your works seems to be associated with or inspired by a specific story, idea, image or illusion. How important is this in your work?

The concept behind each work is extremely important to me. The first step of composing any piece begins with my interaction with an extra-musical source inspiration, and from that I form the idea and the all-important title, which becomes the identity of the work. The story, idea or image that is associated with the work is what enables me to become energized to write and envelop myself in the world of the piece that I’m creating.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? Which compositions are you most proud of?

The greatest challenges are probably trying to avoid being over-critical during the composition process and also creating a good balance between composing and life. The compositions that I’m most proud of are always hopefully the next ones!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think definitions of success are highly subjective and will be different for every musician but, for me, it is being able to continually strive to impart the music of my own particular ‘musical voice’ with genuine clarity. Something I love about the arts is that each person can have their own differing experience from the same piece of music or artwork, whether that’s emotionally or something else, through their own perception of that specific work and the lens of their own influence, and so I’d also like to write pieces that allow space for people to explore themselves through the work whilst simultaneously remaining faithful to my own self-expression.

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

Be true to yourself, explore the music you are passionate about, and don’t be afraid to experiment!

What’s next for you? Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? For the future, do you have a dream project or collaboration in mind?

I feel very fortunate to have worked with brilliant organizations, musicians and ensembles and my interactions with them have certainly shaped my work, how I think about music, and its relation to the wider community. I am always coming up with dream ventures and thinking far into the future about musical, and non-musical, passion projects. I think two of my dream pieces that I would really love to write (and ones that I often daydream about in any spare time!) are to write both the music and the libretto for a full- length opera, and a concerto, possibly for viola or something….. I would really love that.


Grace-Evangeline Mason is an award-winning composer based in the UK. She has worked with ensembles and artists including members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, BBC singers, Trio Atem, Royal Northern Sinfonia, London Early Opera, Aurora Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s new music group, Ensemble 10:10, in venues across the UK and internationally. Her music has been performed at festivals including the New Music North West Festival, the Open Circuit Festival, London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, Cheltenham Music Festival, Southbank SoundState Festival, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Connecticut, and the 2017 BBC Proms. 

Mason is the recipient of awards including the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composer of the Year (2013), the Rosamond Prize (2016), the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Christopher Brooks Prize (2017) and the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize (2018).

graceevangelinemason.com

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

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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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