a23_inumvx_2019-01-05-17-00-29Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I was always drawn to music from a very young age. We used to live in Poland when I was about five or six, and the house we rented had a piano in it. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I would spend hours trying to reproduce the music that I heard on TV, or write tunes to go along with my favourite books and stories. Soon after I started taking lessons, and when I realised writing music for films and for stage was an actual, real job, well, my heart was set on it.

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

Film and theatre music has always been a huge influence on my life. I didn’t listen to a lot of classical music, so I was mainly introduced to the orchestra by way of the screen and the stage. Bernard Hermann had a big impact on me as a child, as did Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, John Williams, and Alan Silvestri…to name just a few! My parents also had some cassettes of Offenbach operettas which we used to listen to in the car on repeat, so that also really drew me towards the operatic voice. Later, at music college, I was thrown in at the deep end and discovered the world of contemporary classical music. As you can imagine this was quite a change from John Williams and Offenbach! It was a complete revelation for me, opening up a world of textures and sounds I had never even considered.

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

Probably the greatest challenge in my work is convincing directors and producers to fund recording with live musicians, particularly on smaller-scale film projects with very small budgets. A lot of film music is produced electronically with instrumental samples, which can be a great tool for demonstrating ideas or mocking up sketches for editors. But even though there is a huge industry in place working to produce some very refined orchestral samples, nothing compares to real musicians. Without them, the music is simply two-dimensional. It lacks humanity.

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

The greatest pleasure is that it will actually be heard by an audience! As a film composer, we produce huge amounts of material that does not necessarily see the light of day: different sketches, pitches, or music for scenes that end up on the cutting-room floor… So it’s nice to work on something with the knowledge that it will be performed or broadcast. From a more practical point of view, film and TV work always provides a certain framework that music has to fit in to, and I really enjoy being creative within the architecture of the visuals. Often these projects have extremely tight deadlines, and I strangely find something extremely exciting and, ultimately, gratifying about pushing oneself creatively when working to the clock.

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

I’ve been very lucky to work with some fantastic musicians and I particularly value the common understanding that builds over years of working performers again and again. It really is unique. I guess there are challenges to that relationship too: remaining rigorous and not getting lazy with my notation…!

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m particularly proud of my score for Amma Asante’s new feature film ‘Where Hands Touch’, which comes out in the UK on 10 May. It was the first feature I scored and so it holds a very special place in my heart. I also really love working on a series of comedic operettas I’ve been writing for the past ten years which, although something of a side project compared with the film and TV work, are still very dear to me. They are tremendous fun to develop and extremely liberating. I aim to write a new show every couple of years. My current one is called Pygmalion 2.0, a one-woman opera about a scientist trying to engineer a better generation of men using artificial intelligence.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

As you’d probably guess from my first answer, I’d say my musical language is first and foremost cinematic: tonal, narrative and melodic.

How do you work?

I write every day but ideas and projects tend to get finished in focused bursts. As for a particular piece, I work things through mostly in my head so will spend an awful lot of time thinking about a piece of music, envisioning it. Then I move to paper, rather than the piano; I find that if I move to the piano too quickly things can easily get altered by my fingers, which will automatically go into a certain key or add musical idioms that aren’t necessary. So I make it a rule never to play through anything I have in mind until I have written the core of it out on paper first. That way the idea feels somehow truer to its conception.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That’s a hard question. It’s an ever-changing list really, I listened to a lot of Takemitsu over Christmas. I also love Xenakis, Reich, Ravel, Chopin. I’m writing an EP for trombone, viola, and electronics at the moment, and I tend not to listen to any music in the weeks surrounding a project. Instead, during those time sI like to research traditions of music that have been lost. At the moment I’m looking at musical traditions in ancient Greek drama and what modes and scales might have sounded like 2500 years ago.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This is a difficult one to define, I suspect for many other artists too. Often it can be blurred with external perception and audience validation, so for me the important thing is to focus on having personal pride in what I do.

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

A strong work ethic and, above all, perseverance. It’s an industry which can be truly gruelling and often completely contradictory in its nature: one day it feels meritocratic, the next it’s about who you know and not the music you make. Maybe because of this it can be easy to get swayed by hype and trends – but the constant in any musician’s life has to be one’s work, and one’s voice.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love improvising along to narratives, and one of my favourite ‘exercises’ is to put books up on the music stand and improvise on the piano while reading them. At the moment I do this with a Belgian comic book series called Yoko Tsuno.


Anne Chmelewsky is a composer and writer for screen and stage. 

Anne composed the score for Amma Asante’s feature film Where Hands Touch, (TIFF 2018). Past projects include the music for Mark Weeden’s feature film Only People (2018), Sofian Khan’s Do We Belong (The Atlantic Selects 2018) and An Act of Worship, (Field of Vision 2017), as well as the Emmy & Golden Globes nominated Derek (dir. Ricky Gervais, Netflix / C4).

Her third opera ‘Pygmalion 2.0’ has been developed with the support of the PRS foundation, and is currently previewing in the UK. Her second opera, The Looking Screen, was performed extensively both throughout the UK and internationally, as well as broadcast on UK TV and radio. She has also written for The Independent and The Huffington Post. 

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

At 18 I was planning to go to Oxford to read history when I unexpectedly won a 3-year piano scholarship to the Royal Academy. On producing some ‘written work’ at my first interview, the Warden suggested I should also study composition

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

Everything I ever heard but all in different degrees and for different reasons. Schubert, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Bach, Brubeck, Mozart. Handel, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Elgar, Delius , Warlock, Moeran, Butterworth, Franck, ,Orff, Prokofiev, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Bernard Herrmann, Bernstein, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gershwin, Malcom Arnold, Skryabin

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

In 1967 stopping my life as a pianist in order to take over composing/conducting ‘The Avengers’.

In 1971 abandoning a highly lucrative commercial career, not to mention a house in Knightsbridge and my first wife (!) in order to start again and learn to write much better music in the country (Sussex).

In 1981 abandoning a Hollywood contract in order to return to UK to finish my dramatic oratorio ‘Benedictus’, (which I consider my masterpiece) , although had I not done so I would not have then  been in London  to compose The Snowman!

Worst disaster for me professionally for me was in 1998 when my publishers issued a high court writ against me in an attempt to steal all of my music. It involved so many people I had trusted and been happy with and I was let down by them. This took me a very long time to recover from and the fact that they issued the writ on the day my son Robert was born was malicious! .In fact I fought the case and won, but it does illustrate ‘the price of fame in no uncertain way’. My frustrations and sadnesses have most often sprung from people’s envy of my success, which I find very difficult to deal with.

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

Everything one creates is a challenge whether one gets commissioned for it or not. I have 705 opuses listed but these include many false starts and rejects and disappointments. However a very great percentage were commissioned, sometimes quite handsomely, sometimes for nothing, but always because somebody really wanted me to write something for them. One needs to have a performance  to aim at and that won’t happen without an enthusiastic commissioner, nearly always just one person. For instance I remember the head of the Leeds Arts Council saying to me at a reception after the Paralympics: ‘Could you write the sort of violin concerto that would make everybody cheer at the end?’ I started immediately!

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

I always write with a soloist or a group or an orchestra in mind., because I ‘hear’ their sound as I write and often have a sort of ‘conversation’ with the player. For instance when Thea King commissioned a clarinet concerto I knew how much she  loved playing in the low chalumeau register but was not at all so keen on screechy high notes. I wrote for her accordingly and could always hear her playing it.. I would find myself murmuring during the composition process: ‘Oh, she’ll like that!’

Of which works are you most proud?

‘Benedictus’, The Snowman Stage Show, The Piano Quartet, ‘Diversions for cello’, ‘Speech after Long Silence’,  ‘Sleepwalking’,  ‘Elegia Stravagante’, ‘The Bear’, ‘Granpa’, The Flute Concerto,  The Clarinet Concerto,  The Violin Concerto, ‘The Duellists’  ‘A Month in the Country’.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

Gapplegate Review USA 2015 wrote the following which  is very much how I’d like to be thought of, though am rather too embarrassed to express!

An English composer with a pronounced lyrical gift, In his latest album of works for cello and piano ‘Diversions’ the music is of a pronounced tonality but without anything in the way of a neo-classical glance at the past. The works hold their own as contemporary music with a pronounced Blakean signature affixed and the music is filled with inventive flourishes that evince a fertile creative mind at work. It is rousingly good music. It is not high modernist but it is thoroughly contemporary. It has a special quality to it that belongs very much to the musical personality of Howard Blake

How do you work?

I both live and work in a top-floor apartment consisting of two converted Victorian artist studios near Kensington Gardens. The studios are on two levels with balconies. In one there is a Steinway grand piano, a desk, a PC and audio equipment. This is my business office and Anna my PA sits opposite me when we do the accounts and correspondence on Tuesday mornings. Upstairs is a second PC housing a Sibelius music writing system attached to a Yamaha electric keyboard. These are linked to a state of the art Konica Minolta printer from which I can print and publish my own actual sheet music, or place it on my website to be downloaded by musician players or by the public. I write music when it comes into my head, which can be at 3.00am or 12 noon or midnight. I have to write ideas down as they come to me which I am told makes me a very difficult person to live with! But I shouldn’t exaggerate this too much. Mostly I wake early around 7am have breakfast and start working like everybody else. I usually work till about 3pm and then go and have some late lunch. I may have a nap and then start working again or in the evening go out to a concert.  Aside from travelling , I’ve lived like this more or less since 1981 when I bought the studio.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My cellist friend Benedict Kloeckner who now has his own International Music Festival in Coblenz. My great pianist and conductor friend Vladimir Ashkenazy who commissioned ‘Speech after long silence’ and recorded my piano music. My brilliant conductor friend John Wilson who was my protege in the nineties, currently conducting Porgy and Bess [at ENO]. Wayne Marshall with whom I performed concerts of my two –piano music with duo improvisations plus Rachmaninov. Fabulous Norwegian young violist Eivind Ringstad who is demanding a concerto from me. William Chen, professor of piano at Shanghai Conservatory, who made the first recording  of ‘Lifecycle’. Andrew Marriner, principal clarinet in LSO who introduced me to his father Sir Neville Marriner with whom we both recorded with the wonderful Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, not to mention Peter Auty, Aled Jones, Katherine Jenkins, Patricia Rozario, Madeleine Mitchell, Sasha Grynyuk and many many others

As a musician, what is your definition of success

When the public want to hear or  play your music

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

A musician must consider how he can most effectively serve the art of music, whether as a soloist or a member of an orchestra or a singer in a choir or a manager of music business. One should only go into a professional music life if one really loves music more than anything else in one’s life. Many become disgruntled when they cannot rise to the heights of virtuoso soloists, but many many others are happy to be one member in an orchestra, or a chamber group or play jazz or rock or electronic or who knows what?  There is a multitude of possibilities!  Every type of music has its own character and its own particular value in eternity. I often quote my name-sake William Blake: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time

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

Here

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being well and healthy and able to work and create whilst still having time for friends and family

What is your most treasured possession?

My children and good health

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing and performing my music with people who love it.

What is your present state of mind?

I am greatly looking forward to continuing my busy 80th year and packing it even further with concerts, shows, events and composing! First stop a commission just received for a viola concerto!

 

‘The Snowman’ for which Howard Blake wrote the soundtrack, is in its 21st season in London and 25th season overall – the longest continuous-running Christmas show in stage history.

A concert to celebrate Howard Blake’s 80th year takes place in St Alban’s Catherdral on 13th July 2019 as part of the 2019 St Alban’s Festival. Programme includes Songs of Truth and Glory (Op 546), Benedictus (Op 282) and The Rise of the House of Usher (Op 532).

Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that ‘Howard Blake has achieved fame as pianist, conductor and composer.’ He grew up in Brighton, at 18 winning a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music where he studied piano with Harold Craxton and composition with Howard Ferguson. In the early part of an intensely active career he wrote numerous film scores, including ‘The Duellists’ with Ridley Scott which gained the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Festival, ‘A Month in the Country’ which gained him the British Film Institute Anthony Asquith Award for musical excellence, and ‘The Snowman’, nominated for an Oscar after its first screening. His famous song ‘Walking in the Air’ was the chart success that launched Aled Jones in 1985, whilst the concert version for narrator and orchestra is performed world-wide and the full-length ballet for Sadler’s Wells runs for a season every year in London. Concert works include the Piano Concerto commissioned for Princess Diana, the Violin Concerto commissioned for the City of Leeds; the Clarinet Concerto commissioned by Thea King and the English Chamber Orchestra and large-scale choral/orchestral works such as ‘Benedictus’ and ‘The Passion of Mary’ both recorded with the RPO. He is increasingly adding to his catalogue of CDs which includes Sir Neville Marriner conducting the woodwind concertos with The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and ‘Walking in the Air’ – the piano music of Howard Blake – recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1988 and received the OBE for services to music from the Queen in 1994.

Read Howard Blake’s full biography