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

I didn’t begin to compose until I was sixteen. At that time I had given up piano lessons (I learned the piano between seven and thirteen) and attended a school where there was no music teacher, so composing was something I had to teach myself, or rather with the collaboration of my younger brother Colin, who also began to compose shortly after me. What made me start to compose was hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time, and thinking that this was the most wonderful music I’d ever heard and that I must write a symphony of my own – so I did, and spent the next two years writing one, and when I’d finished, writing another. Beethoven is still my favourite composer, the ideal of everything I believe in. Meanwhile Mahler, all of whose works I’d got to know, became a huge influence, not just the music itself, but also what he stood for as a composer in Beethoven’s succession. Many other composers too were influential, Sibelius and Stravinsky pre-eminently, as I spent all my spare time listening to music and studying scores.

When I left university – where I read Classics as Music wasn’t possible as I hadn’t got music A level), I had the great good fortune to have got to know Deryck Cooke, who had made the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and whom Colin and I later helped with a comprehensive revision. Deryck introduced me to a number of significant people in the musical world, among them Donald Mitchell, who had just founded Faber Music, mainly to publish Britten’s music. I began working freelance for Faber Music and quite soon Britten needed someone to help him with editorial work. Donald suggested me, and I then worked part time for Britten for four years. As the greatest living composer in this country, he was probably the most important influence in my life. He didn’t give composition lessons but I learned from him how to be a composer – see your later question, how do you work?

Other important influences were Michael Tippett, whom I also got to know and on whose music I wrote a short book – I liked his music even more than I liked Britten’s; Nicholas Maw, who became a friend and an unofficial teacher – I thought him the best of the younger composers; and the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whom I met in England in 1974 and who became a close friend until his death in 2014. I visited many him many times in Australia and we collaborated on three film scores. Peter said that the music of the whole world was tonal, so why we should we pay attention to a few central European composers who said tonality was no longer possible? From Australia I saw music in a new light.

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

The greatest challenge was getting my music played when I was young. As I hadn’t been to a music college I knew virtually no musicians. But I did send the score of a string quartet to the BBC when I was about 23 – they then had a reading panel – and it was played and broadcast; and when I was 26 I sent two orchestral songs to the Society for the Promotion of New Music (which sadly no longer exists) and they were performed at the Royal Festival Hall by Jane Manning with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar (who became a friend and who commissioned my Symphony No.1 – I’d withdrawn my three earlier ones). That was a big step forward. However, I didn’t get a full publishing contract from Faber until 1982.

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

It’s easier, I find, to write a piece if you are given some limitations – i.e. how long it should be, the instrumentation, etc. I wouldn’t want too precise instructions, but that rarely happens. I’ve just written a flute piece for Emma Halnan for the Hertfordshire Festival of Music and what was ideally wanted was a solo piece rather than flute and piano, and a duration of about two and a half minutes. I’ve been able to compose a piece of exactly that length.

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

Well, to carry on with Emma Halnan, I know her and know how she plays, and she’s performed two of my pieces before. So I could imagine her playing it as I was writing. I much prefer writing for musicians I know (as Britten almost always did). I’ve recently written an Oboe Sonata for Nicholas Daniel, someone I know well and for whom I wrote a Concerto. He has a very individual sound, a wonderful ability to play long sustained passages without taking breath, and extraordinary virtuosity. It was a real pleasure writing for him and hearing his special sound in my head.

The same with singers, of course, and with string players. I’ve written two CDs worth of solo violin music for my violinist friend Peter Sheppard Skaerved, and his Kreutzer Quartet are recording all fifteen (so far) of my string quartets, of which five were written especially for them. They know exactly what to do with my music as they’ve played so much of it. I’m not a string player but Peter has taught me so much about string technique. And with orchestras, I have a special relationship with the BBC Philharmonic, for whom I’ve written three of the last four of my ten symphonies. I can write for them knowing just how they will sound, and I’m also careful not to write anything that they won’t enjoy playing.

Of which works are you most proud?

I enjoy listening to my own music – well, if the composer doesn’t like his own music he shouldn’t expect anyone else to! There are quite a few pieces I’m proud of; for instance among my symphonies, No.8, several of my string quartets; also my Cello Concerto, Concerto in Azzurro, written for Steven Isserlis and recorded on CD by Guy Johnston. The piece I’m most proud of is my choral and orchestral piece Vespers, of which there is a splendid recording by the Bach Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. And in the last two years I’ve composed my first opera, which hasn’t yet had a stage performance, only a run-through with piano, but I hope I’ll be proud of it if and when I hear it with orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It’s tonal, though usually not in a traditional way. I use very wide-ranging harmony. I use counterpoint modelled on the way the great masters of the past used it, and above all I try to write memorable melodies. I think the loss of memorable melody in most contemporary music is very sad.

How do you work?

When I’m composing, I like to work every day from after breakfast until lunch. I may go back for a while in the late afternoon. I learned regular hours from Britten. But I’m always thinking about the piece I’m writing, and I quite often wake up at night with ideas.

I try to start a piece well in advance of the deadline (another thing I learned from Britten: always meet deadlines). I think a lot about what character the piece will have, and its shape, and then I have the first musical idea, generally a melodic idea, and after that I may leave the piece to grow inside my head for some while before I start it properly. Once I’ve started, I don’t often get stuck – just for a day or two perhaps. I revise a lot while I’m writing, and don’t usually write more than ten to twenty bars a day, though sometimes more when I’ve almost reached the end.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My music is concerned with my feelings about life, expressed to the best of my ability in melody, harmony and counterpoint, and in a form that I hope conveys what I intended. I’m happy if I think I’ve done my best with these aims. I also hope that the musicians, who work so hard to bring my pieces to life, will enjoy playing what I have written.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Don’t write pieces that present impossible difficulties to players. Also, be patient, it may take a long time before you can get your pieces played regularly. And find your own voice, don’t get led astray by fashion.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Of course it worries me that a lot of people who are brought up on a constant diet of pop music find classical music difficult, and especially modern classical music. Because of this, audiences for contemporary music are almost always small. It’s this that worries me most: I feel that a lot of new music today supplies very little to move audiences, if it’s written in a virtually incomprehensible language, and often a very aggressive, off-putting one. And then, except (rightly) for the Kanneh-Mason family, none of the brilliant young musicians around now are being praised by the mass media, which now largely ignores classical music. Their extraordinary talent should be widely celebrated.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you really think we should be?

I’m worried that decisions about what new music to programme, by the BBC for instance, are no longer based purely on quality, which I think they should, but on other criteria. I’m very happy to hear music by women composers, but it must be good music. To play it just because it’s by a woman is in fact insulting.

What next – where would you like to be in 10 years?

Still alive – as long as I can keep my current good health, and still composing reasonably well, if I’m still able to.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sharing a meal at home with my wife.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Apart from composing: reading, drinking good wine, walking in the countryside, and watching and listening to birds.

British composer David Matthews is this year’s Featured Living Composer at Hertfordshire Festival of Music (2-11 June). David’s music will be performed throughout the festival, by flautist Emma Halnan and guitarist Jack Hancher, the Hertfordshire Festival Orchestra, and the Maggini Quartet. David will also be in conversation with fellow composer and HFoM Artistic Director James Francis Brown. Full details on the HFoM website.


With a singular body of work spanning almost 60 years, David Matthews has established an international reputation as one of the leading symphonists of our time. Born in London in 1943, he began composing at the age of sixteen. He read Classics at the University of Nottingham – where he has more recently been made an Honorary Doctor of Music – and afterwards studied composition privately with Anthony Milner. He was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw and spent three years as an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the late 1960s. In the 1970s a friendship with the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (leading to collaboration and numerous trips to Sydney) helped Matthews find his own distinctive voice.

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David Matthews’ website

An interview with cellist Louise McMonagle to coincide with the release of her recording of Round by the Ness by Trish Clowes, to celebrate International Women’s Day 2022

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents sent my sisters and I along to the local music centre on Saturday mornings – it was called Bannerman Music School at the time, now called East Glasgow Music School. I am certain they had no idea how this would shape the rest of my life! It was here that I had my first cello lesson aged 6 and was lucky to have a very special teacher. Pamela Duffy had studied at Guildhall in London before returning to Glasgow. She was a buzz of inspiration and impossibly exciting stories from the big smoke, and she made lessons incredibly fun! Without this early influence I’m sure it would never have crossed my mind that I could end up a cellist in London!

After that there are so many influences and inspirations we would be here all day. But I want to mention a couple that stand out. When I was 12 I joined the Music School of Douglas Academy, a state funded centre for excellence in Glasgow. I can’t speak highly enough of my education there, where every music teacher made a huge impact on me. In our first term I remember the composition teacher William Sweeney playing us Alban Berg Violin Concerto. I heard only a random confusion of notes and remember us 12 year olds sneaking glances at each other – what is this! A few years later we listened to the piece again in music history and I was so shocked to discover it now sounded beautiful and was a piece of music that made sense to me. I remember having a little moment where I saw how much I must have learned without realising it.

Another really warm memory of my formative musical years was my time in Glasgow Schools Symphony Orchestra, who met once a year for a summer residency at Castle Toward on the Argyll peninsula. It can’t be overstated how magical it was for a bunch of city kids to spend a week by the sea in a remote castle! The conductor of the orchestra was composer John Maxwell Geddes, an extraordinary man and an inspiration to a whole generation of musicians from Glasgow. We often played pieces that he wrote specially for us, his Castle Suite for example, which I instantly loved. I remember being fascinated by the way the time signature kept changing!

When I look back at these experiences, and then look at the path I have taken it hammers home to me how important working with young people is, and the impact it can have.

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

Finding an instrument! This is a huge issue for string players in particular. I moved to London when I was 18 to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and I couldn’t believe my luck when they loaned me their stunning Testore cello for a number of years. It was a gorgeous instrument with incredible depth of sound. I’d never had an old cello before and enjoyed imagining how the cello had probably played my repertoire countless times before me! The experience will stay with me forever. But of course eventually it had to be returned, and on my budget searching for a cello to follow it was an impossible task!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

During the pandemic I took a very unexpected turn and decided to develop a YouTube channel. The idea came from my love for performing cello repertoire that steps outside the mainstream. Over the last 10 years I have worked on so many wonderful contemporary cello pieces directly with composers, but it struck me as sad that I had no record of most of these live performances. In lockdown I suddenly found myself with lots of time on my hands so I decided to challenge myself to start recording.

Live music has thankfully now returned, but I enjoyed my lockdown project so much that I’ve decided to continue on my mission. Today, on International Women’s Day, I have added a new piece written specially for me by composer and jazz saxophonist Trish Clowes. Although her background is jazz, Trish listens widely and her compositions have many influences. Trish has always held a particular fascination with a cello piece she heard me perform years ago, Heinz Holliger Chaconne from the Sacher Variations. It’s a piece that showcases many extended techniques and timbres that the cello can offer. Inspired by this, Trish decided to write Round By The Ness for me and I was intrigued to see how she took some of these techniques and translated them into her own musical language. You can watch the performance here:

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

These days I’m most known for performing music by living composers, and playing in contemporary music group the Riot Ensemble.

I joined the group 5 years ago and have given around 200 world and UK premieres by composers from more than 30 countries in that time! I’ve learned so much through this experience – unique notation, extended techniques, prepared cello… I honestly think nothing could surprise me anymore! What I love about this genre of music is the huge contrast of styles and sounds I’m exposed to. And the beauty of it is, there is so much variety in the music of the last 50 years that I think you can find something to suit every taste.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Listening to other performers is the most inspiring thing for me. Any genre, style instrument. Dancers, gymnasts, actors. Watching performers who communicate and who make you forget about everything else – that is the most inspiring thing to me.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

When I’m listening to music a lot of the time I want to hear something new. Most of my repertoire choices come from listening journeys online where one discovery leads to another in an endless chain.

When I hear something new that I love, I’m instantly thinking where and when would be the perfect situation to programme it. I always loved making mixtapes back in the day, and I like to think of programming in the same way, handpicked for each audience.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I’ve played in some wonderful halls around the world – Bucharest, Berlin, Shanghai, a stage built off the side of a cliff in Italy, Alhambra in Granada, but my favourite performances tend to be in smaller intimate venues where you feel more connection to the audience. I enjoy playing in settings where people don’t normally hear cello, where you feel you can surprise them and maybe even make them think differently about classical music. I have worked a lot with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who regularly tour the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and playing in those community halls have been some of my favourite performances.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Music is for everyone. A lot of people tell me they don’t listen to classical music yet they experience it in films and tv and find that they love it! Some people feel classical music isn’t for them because they never had the chance to learn an instrument. The number one way to reach more people is to invest in music education, and tackle the notion that classical music is just for the privileged. Schemes like Big Noise in Scotland, and Every Child A Musician in Newham east London are visionary, where every child in a whole year group is given an instrument and regular lessons completely free. I wish every child in the country could have this experience as part of their school education.

Classical music can also be associated with a lot of pomp and circumstance – evening dresses, tailcoats and bow ties, knowing when to clap, grand buildings. This might be glamour and showbiz to some, but can seem old fashioned, too formal, or alienating to others. “Why does that violinist get to bow on their own?” someone once asked me after an orchestral concert. I think we forget that concerts are a string of traditions and rituals that can be baffling to the uninitiated. While I hope there will always be space for traditions and a bit of showbiz in our presentation, I think classical music also needs to exist outside of concert halls – in schools as I’ve said, but also in less formal spaces, and at different times of day. There is a thriving music series in London called Daylight Music.  Concerts take place on Saturday afternoons, and tea and cake is served. The curator lines up three sets with performers from different genres, and what draws the audience is the chance to experience something new, to hear styles of music they might not normally hear, all in a comfortable friendly setting. Time and time again this series has come up when I chat to people who have never attended a ‘classical concert’ but tell me they enjoyed watching an instrumentalist at one of these events. Their new season will be announced soon so do check it out!

Growing audiences is a big and complex topic, but certainly investing in music education, rethinking the formal concert paradigm, and more risk taking and imaginative curation have important roles to play.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In January 2019 Riot Ensemble travelled to Reykjavik to play at Dark Music Days festival. The snow was deeper than my boots and daylight came only for a few hours in the middle of the day. We were giving the world premiere of a piece written for us by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas called Solstices. It’s a 70 minute ensemble piece to be performed in pitch black darkness. We’ve played it in a few venues now and the challenge is always getting the hall dark enough… covering every crack and even emergency exit signs has not always been possible. But at this venue, the darkness was perfect and so intense that I could not see my own hand when I held it in front of my face! The ensemble had a central position in the hall and the audience were seated all around us. I think it’s true that we listen differently in the dark. The atmosphere was like no other concert I’ve ever experienced and I’m not sure anything could ever quite compare to my memory of it!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having concerts that excite me. Playing with other musicians who inspire me. Reaching the end of a concert and feeling I did a good job, that I gave everything I had.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Listen listen listen to music and artists you love, admire and who inspire you! Practice! And know that it happens in small steps, so have the courage to put yourself forward for the summer school/audition/performance opportunity that you have been mulling over, and incrementally one thing will lead to another!

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

Cuts to music and instrumental lessons in schools. Classical music won’t have a future if it is only for the privileged.


Scottish cellist in London, Louise McMonagle is a versatile performer who enjoys making music in many environments.

Highlights include winning the Ernst Von Siemens Ensemble prize (2020), performing at Wigmore Hall (London), playing as soloist in Boulez Messagesquisse at the VIVA Cello Festival (Switzerland), recording Berio Sequenza XIV with Four Ten Media, and performing with eminent jazz musicians such as Trish Clowes (BBC NGA), Kit Downes (Mercury prize nominee), Evan Parker etc.

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Guest post by Doug Thomas


I create in order to learn; there has not ever been a piece of music that I have composed without the wish to discover something and develop my artistry.

While it is, I believe, observable in all my works, it is most obvious in Portraits, and the soon to be released Landscapes

With both projects, I intend — through microscopic study — to portrait composers that I have found influential or with whom I have spent considerable musical time. My creative approach consists of identifying the subjective elements that define these composers and, through a process of translation, make them mine. 

Through a broad selection that spans over each main period of Western classical music, I have selected Couperin, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Glass and Stravinsky. Some influences are quite noticeable in my works already, some much less, and some will perhaps become more prominent as I evolve musically.

Let’s take “Vienna 2”, the first of the eight pieces of Landscapes that I have recorded and released, and examine how I have composed it and what the result has been. 

The first phase of creation for this piece is one of learning; through a selection of some of Schubert’s motifs, and rhythmic, melodic or harmonic cells, I analyse, transcribe and identify the elements that make the music so interesting to me. I immerse myself in the composer’s world in order to bring the personality traits out and understand his creative process. It is similar to the work of the archaeologist, who brushes the dust and reveals the keys and symbols. It is a process of listening, reading and copying. 

The second phase is then an opportunity for translation and creation. It is how I adapt Schubert’s vocabulary to mine, how I reappropriate his sentences and make them mine. 

This last phase is crucial for me as it is the one that decides whether the piece will sound like a simple pastiche, or whether it will have the flavours of Schubert’s music, while being truly my own musical DNA. It might translate into improvising over the elements until something emerges or an intellectual process of shuffling the pieces and structuring new elements together. 

What I find truly interesting with such an approach, aside from the enrichment, is the end result. What I see as being very much Schubert’s words out of my mouth has actually become my own expression. Had I not mentioned Schubert, “Vienna 2” might have been perceived very differently, and the secret would have been intact. 

When Richter wrote Infra, a large inspiration was also Schubert’s, and his Impromptus, yet although the musical material is very similar, it is no one else but Richter’s works. 

Hopefully, I can say the same about “Vienna 2”, Portraits and Landscapes. Ultimately, I feel richer. 


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London. He also publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a regular contributor to this site and its sister site ArtMuseLondon.

Doug Thomas

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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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.


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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