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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of which works are you most proud?

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

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

How would you characterise your compositional language?

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

How do you work?

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

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

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

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

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


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

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

I was born in the small town of Kavajë on the Adriatic coast. As a child I felt there was always music around me; there was certainly plenty of singing and dancing around, especially at weddings, which were taken very seriously in Albania! They would last for something like a whole week! Starting with small gatherings of family members on a Monday, the music would get louder, as if with a crescendo, reaching a climax with professional folk musicians on Friday and Saturday – and everyone was invited! I must have been about five years old when my uncle (the youngest child in my father’s family) got married, and I remember dancing during the whole week! I also remember that as a child, I would use my spoon and fork as ‘drum-sticks’ at the dinner table, and my mother thought that my ‘drumming’ was a ‘signal’ to her that I was hungry!

These qualities, apparently, didn’t go unnoticed: it was my uncle (he played clarinet in the town’s big-band and, of course, played quite a bit of folk music and sang himself), who ‘alerted’ my parents that I must be sent to a music school – and that is what happened. I enrolled in a professional music school in the neighbouring city of Durrës when I was 14 years of age, studying oboe, accordion, harmony & counterpoint, and composing bits and pieces. Since then, music has been a way of life for me!

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

As a teenager I liked going to the cinema, and the films I liked I watched them more than once! I would learn by heart stretches of dialogues, especially those that made me laugh, and would recite them out-loud at home! But something that has stuck in my memory, and I remember this because I’ve never forgotten it, is that in the main hall of the cinema there was a striking portrait of a very famous actor, Aleksandër Moisiu, whose origin is from my home town. Looking at Moisiu’s portrait and seeing his captivating pictures in various roles (he played, among others, Hamlet, Oedipus, and Faust) was very inspiring, as if he was saying to me ‘you cannot imagine how beautiful the world of art is!’

Moisiu settled in Vienna in his 20s, and began an international career which took him all over Europe and in the Americas in the first half of the 20th Century. He had a particularly musical and resonant voice. I later discovered that Arnold Schoenberg knew Moisiu and mentions him in his correspondence; whereas Alban Berg saw Moisiu playing Fedya in Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse, and in a letter to his wife in September 1917 described him simply as ‘magnificent’!

After the music school in Durrës, I enrolled in the State Conservatory of Music in the capital Tirana, studying composition. It was very tough to get a place in the conservatoire in those days: the year I got in, there were only four places in composition; for the whole country, that is, which is the same size as Wales!

Tonin Harapi, my composition teacher who had studied at Moscow Conservatoire, was a wonderful human being with a sharp sense of humour. He didn’t want his students to write the music that he wrote, so he ‘let me free’ to pursue my own interests – as free as one could be in a Stalinist regime where Stravinsky, among others, was in the government’s bad books and was banned completely. But Debussy, Prokofiev and some Bartok (not the ‘harsh’ works of the middle period) were allowed, so I could listen to them, and managed to hear the ‘Firebird’ secretly! It was a strange feeling of awe and apprehension, created by the raw quality of the music of Firebird, and the fact that it was banned! I also liked the music of Feim Ibrahimi, who I felt was at the sharp end of the Albanian music of the time. I seem to have had an appetite for ‘spicy’ sounds in those days!

I came to England when I was 33, and started all over again – da capo! During my postgraduate studies for a PhD in composition at York University, I studied with David Blake who introduced me to the Second Viennese School, and I immersed myself into the music that was banned in my native country. Bartok and Stravinsky aside, Berio, Boulez, Birtwistle, Xenakis, Lutoslawski et al. have all had their input during my study years at York. But it was with the music of Ligeti and Kurtag that I felt I discovered something very special, which was more than an inspiration to me.

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

I came to England in May 1991, and my English was just two months old! To begin with I spoke French, but my good friends in North Yorkshire gave me only two weeks to speak French; after that, they said, ‘it’s English only; OK?’

And I said… ‘ça va!’

I couldn’t afford to get lessons in English, so I just immersed myself in reading, and ‘invented’ a rule for myself: if I encountered an unknown word (and there were quite a few of them!) three times, I would look it up in the dictionary and write it down. I used an English – Italian dictionary that I had brought with me from Albania; it was easier for me to remember the words from Italian, because quite a few of them had the same root. After six months I was able to give a seminar presentation at York, but the most important ‘new language’ for me was ‘the other one’ – the musical language – which took a little bit longer!

There were many ‘challenges’ for me during this time, which I will not bore you with here, but I will mention one: I applied to settle in this country as a creative artist, but in order to get this status I had to wait for nearly three years; and during this time my father died! Anyone who doesn’t go to one’s father’s funeral must have a very strong reason, and my reason was that I … didn’t know my father had died. My mother had decided not to tell me (and advised all relatives to respect this), because she knew that if I had to leave the country whilst my application was under consideration by the Home Office, I wouldn’t be able to return; and she knew how much it meant to me studying at a western university.

But this is all water under the bridge now; my frustration at the moment is that it’s so difficult to get my orchestral works done in this country. My Concerto for Orchestra, which was awarded the Lutoslawski Prize in 2013, chosen among 160 anonymous submissions from 37 countries, is yet to receive its UK premiere! This is frustrating, especially as I would like to write more works for orchestra, for I feel that I have a lot more to say with orchestral sounds. I recently read Primo Levi’s novel entitled: ‘If Not Now When’.

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

The joy of a commission for a composer is not only knowing beforehand that a new piece is about to start its life, but you also know the musicians who are going to bring this to fruition. My latest piece was written for six musicians of Klangforum Wien. When I first heard Klangforum ensemble live in a concert conducted by Bas Wiegers at HCMF a few years ago, my jaw dropped! So, I was over the moon when was asked to write a new work for them, employing the same instrumentation as Boulez’s Derive I, which was also in the programme. Most importantly, the musical idea for this new piece is closely linked to the ‘composition’ of the ensemble itself –hence the title Klang Inventions! The structure of the new work was then based on what I’ve called ‘family resemblances’, and various ‘instrumental alliances’ within this ensemble. I felt uninhibited when composing this piece, and wrote challengingly for the ensemble as whole, giving each player a meaningful role to play. There are quite a few notes in it, and they played them all!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians?

Knowing who you are writing for is very important to me. My latest String Quartet (No 5), commissioned by the HCMF and first performed in 2015, was written specifically for Quatuor Diotima. Having worked with them for some 10 years, one cannot fail to notice their individual and sensitive approach to sound and colour, and their huge range of expression. I have tried to embody these idiosyncratic Diotima qualities in both string quartets I have dedicated to them. And I am so pleased that, thanks to an award by the PRSF Composers Fund in 2018, both quartets (Nos 4 & 5) and other works (a piano quintet and solo works performed by Joseph Houston, including a new piece written for him), will be recorded later this year for a new CD with the Swedish label BIS Records to be released in 2020 – so watch this space!

Of which works are you most proud?

This is a tough one! There is a saying in the Albanian language: ‘All fingers of one’s hand hurt the same!’ In a composer’s career there are, of course, some works whose significance is greater than others, in that they ‘announce’ stylistic or idiomatic approaches that have an impact on future works and in that sense are considered as milestones in the composer’s oeuvre. But I always feel proudest with my latest works – and there have been a handful of them in the last three years: The Scream for String orchestra based on the iconic painting by Edvard Munch received its world premiere in 2017 performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. The BBC producer said to me after the dress rehearsal: ‘I can see the picture here.’ – this was certainly music to my ears!

Other works include, ENgREnage for Violin & Piano written for Peter Sheppard-Skaerved and Roderick Chadwick, Klang Inventions written for and dedicated to Klangforum Wien, L’image oubliée d’après Debussy, written for James Willshire in response to a commission by the Late Music Series in York to commemorate the centenary of Debussy’s death, and La Leggiadra Luna for mixed choir a cappella, which received its world premiere by the 24 vocal ensemble at the University of York. I can’t wait to hear La Leggiadra Luna at the 2019 ISCM Festival in May, where it will be performed by the Grammy Award-winning ensemble the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir! This is a setting of a poem by Sappho, translated from ancient Greek into modern Italian by the Nobel Prize-winning Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo.

As is the case with all my works selected for the ISCM Festival over the years (and there have been ten of them), this piece too was submitted directly to the international jury, and it is one of the three works representing the UK at this prestigious festival in May. I am certainly proud of this one, for it concisely sums up what I have been trying to do for some years now, to focus on an idiom where ancient and modern aspects of utterance, musical or otherwise, interact and complement each other.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

This is one of those ‘one million-dollar questions’!

It’s difficult to describe with words what can be best expressed with sounds! And this is particularly challenging in the musical climate of our time which is characterised by a pluralistic approach towards style, where one cannot speak of anything like ‘lingua franca’! Having said that, I could mention here that there is often something in my works, be that a gesture or a motivic idea, which the listener can latch onto. I could also say that an important characteristic of my musical language is putting together elements from disparate musical cultures. Often, complex chordal structures or multi-layered textural formats are reduced to just one single note which becomes a kind of ‘atomistic compression’ with a magnetic quality, as it were, around which various colouristic elements orbit freely! This drone-based type of linearity is a salient characteristic of the ancient musical aura of the Balkans, and I’ve been interested in it and the resulting heterophonic textures for some time now. This began in the early 80s when I worked as music director in a remote town in Southern Albania, right at the border with Greece, and the first-hand experience I had there, working with some amazingly virtuoso folk musicians for three years, has had a lasting effect in my own music. It was very interesting to read Ligeti’s comments in an interview with Stefan Niculescu published in the Romanian magazine Revista Muzica in 1993, where he sad that “These types of drones, the origin of long and sustained sound that supports melismatic melodies can be found on a large scale especially in Southern Albania….”

If I could mention just one example, it would be my new work for violin & piano, called ENgREnage, and this idea is not only visible ‘on the tin’, but most importantly, it is, I believe, audible in the music. In this work the middle D is prominent throughout, and it is precisely this D which has the ‘authority of the home-key’ to brings this journey to a close!

How do you work?

I work very hard on every single work (small and large) and every note!

Who are your favourite musicians?

This could be a long answer, but I will be as short as possible! I have written a number of works for the so-called ‘ideal’ player, but I’ve always felt good when I knew who I was writing for. This is very important to me, because the performer is my first listener; and over the years I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity of working with some amazing musicians in this country and on the continent. In the UK, it all began with Peter Sheppard Skaerved and the Kreutzer Quartet. I first made contact with Peter in 2000, and asked him if he would be interested in a new work, which had just been premiered at the ISCM Festival of that year, and he replied in seconds, saying ‘I’m always interested in new works for violin’; and when I asked him whether he wanted to hear the recording, he said: ‘oh no, I’m a violinist’! Since then, our collaboration grew steadily, and I have written a number of works for Peter, and the Kreutzer Quartet has recorded two of my string quartets. Most recently, Peter and Roderick Chadwick have recorded four works for another CD, alongside works written for Christopher Orton, and Joseph Houston. Both are longstanding collaborators: Chris commissioned the recorder piece which received a British Composer Award from BASCA in 2009, whereas Joe has performed a number of my works, including the world premiere of Deux Esquisses, which I composed for his Wigmore Hall debut. This CD is due to be released on Naxos Records any day now!

As well as Quatuor Diotima mentioned above, I have worked with some of the finest ensembles in contemporary music such as Klangforum Wien, Musikfabrik of Koeln, and Copenhagen Sinfonietta; and some wonderful soloists, such as Rohan De Saram and Neil Heyde in London, Lorina Wallaster in Vienna, Florian Vlashi in Spain, Petrit Çeku in Zagreb, Klaidi Sahatçi – leader of the Tonhall Orchestra in Zurich and many others!!

Whilst some of my works are more challenging than others, I have written a number of pieces which can be played equally by professionals and amateurs – I even have pieces included in the ABRSM Syllabus. I’ve recently made several instrumental versions (duos and trios) of a folk song, My Beautiful Morea, which uses an ancient tune, whose origin stems from the Albanian community in Calabria, and enormously enjoyed doing it! This remarkable tune of some 500 years old lends itself to any instrument (almost!), in a variety of combinations! There is also a vocal version performed by the 24 vocal ensemble of York University. The newest version (Violin, Cello & Guitar) will be premiered very soon!

An important part of my output is Soliloquy Cycle – a series of solo works for various instruments, where a protagonist speaks in different languages, as it were; or to use a metaphor from the theatre, an actor playing different roles, where each character makes a considerable use of its own dialect. I have so far written six works in this series, and there are more to come! Composing for Sarah Watts and Chris Orton was a memorable experience – they booth encouraged me to push the boundaries of the bass clarinet and recorder as much as I could – and I did! I am currently working on a new project with the Paris–based clarinettist, Jérôme Comte – member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Most recently I met Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and heard them live playing solo and together – I hope I will one day be able to work with them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There have been a number of such experiences over the years! For me all the world premieres are memorable, in that they announce the birth of a ‘new baby’! Here I will mention the premiere of Soliloquy I for Solo Violin, which is certainly memorable; it was given at the 2000 ISCM Festival in Luxembourg. Before submitting the piece to the international jury, I showed it to Ferneyhough during a summer school at California State University, and he looked at it in some detail, and encouraged me to send it to the ISCM Festival. And so I did, and it was selected – Irvine Arditti, among others, was in the jury. In the rehearsal I had with the violinist Vania Lecuit, I asked her how many music stands she was going to use in the concert, and she replied: ‘I don’t know, but I’ve learnt it by heart’!

I was flabbergasted! I know it too well the challenge this piece represents for the performer and it was never my intention that it should be performed by heart, but there you are!

Vania played it from memory at the ISCM Festival – this was a breakthrough for me, my first real success on international level. And there have been a number of works selected at this festival, but here I would like to mention one performance at a local level: in a concert in York last November, where my String Quartet No 5 was performed by the Diotimas, a member of the audience, unknown to me, seemed to have enjoyed the piece very much, and said to me during the interval, ‘can I buy you a drink’? A friend of mine had already offered and was getting one for me, so I said: ‘there is a queue, I’m afraid, but this is the best compliment I’ve had’!

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

Being a composer in our modern time, where everything seems to be driven by a culture of doing things fast, in order to get rich and famous as soon as possible, is not an easy thing to do! Our work is measured with minutes, and we spend hours and hours to compose a minute of music, but I do it because I can’t do without it! I am still optimistic, for me the glass has always been half-full. My belief is that, when it comes to creativity, one should at least try to speak with one’s voice, however small that might be! I’ve been teaching composition for some 20 years now, and often say to my students: ‘Write the music that you want to hear, not the music that I want to hear, because that one, I can write it myself!’


Multi award–winning composer Thomas Simaku graduated from the Tirana Conservatoire and gained a PhD in Composition from the University of York, where he studied with David Blake. Simaku was the Leonard Bernstein Fellow in Composition at Tanglewood Music Centre, USA studying with Bernard Rands, and a fellow at the Composers’ Workshop, California State University with Brian Ferneyhough. Thomas Simaku’s music has been reaching audiences across Europe, the USA and further afield for more than two decades, and it has been awarded a host of accolades for its expressive qualities and its unique blend of intensity and modernism.

For more information about Thomas Simaku and his music, please follow the links https://www-users.york.ac.uk/~ts8/

https://soundcloud.com/thomassimaku

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

I have a musical family and so my brother and I would hear music every day. I guess the music got into my soul and I started writing when I was at school from the age of about 12.

That said, I only started composing professionally in my mid-thirties. At that time I found that I really started to get satisfaction from creating music and particularly music that other people enjoy playing.

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

My parents warned me that the musician’s life is not easy! However, I’ve always enjoyed performing whether on piano, singing or on trumpet. It was a natural step for me to form, run and conduct a swing band at my school, and then two more bands when I went to Cambridge University.

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

I think, probably like many people, I find the marketing aspect of writing (i.e. blowing one’s own trumpet!) to be a challenge. I guess it is constantly having to judge the best use of time and money in how to reach the right people with my music.

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

It’s always a pleasure to write a new piece of music – and especially so as a special request. Coming up with an original, catchy and visual title can take time though.

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

I perform regularly with very talented UK jazz musicians in a variety of ensembles. It’s highly satisfying to try and play up to their standard and I always get ideas for new pieces after my gigs.

Of which works are you most proud?

Gosh – that’s a tricky question! I’m particularly proud of my JukeBox book series which has taken a great deal of work and seems to be popular so far. If it comes down to a particular piece, then at the moment the duet ‘Little Green Men’ makes me smile.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would say that it is a blend of jazz and other popular styles. As long as there is a melody and nice chord progressions, then I’m happy.

How do you work?

Ideally, I start with a title, perhaps from my growing list of potential candidates. Then I consult my spreadsheet of current compositions so that I try and avoid repeating the same combination of style, grade, key etc. I guess that’s my engineering background coming into play!

In reality, what tends to happen is that I get a melodic idea or rhythmic groove (often in the shower) and then try to find a title that works with it.

Either way, I’ll then sit down at the piano and experiment. Sometimes it works… sometimes it doesn’t!

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Al Jarreau, Oscar Peterson, Prince, Jamie Cullum, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Simon, James Taylor…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If I can write and record a piece of music, then listen to it weeks or months later and think, “that sounds good!”, then that to me is a success. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does.

Also, if I write a piece and someone, somewhere in the world plays that piece and enjoys it – then that is a success.

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

I think it is essential to love the music you’re writing or performing right now at this moment. We all have hopes and dreams of what might be in the future, but it’s probably best not to cling to those too tightly.

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

Still gigging and writing most likely in the UK.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being aware of the present moment – for example, during a gig and being in ‘the flow’.

What is your most treasured possession?

Materially, my piano.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Reading, watching and learning.

What is your present state of mind?

It varies, but mostly happy!


Olly Wedgwood has been playing the piano, singing, composing and performing in public since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. It all kicked off at school, many years ago in 1986 when he won a music scholarship to Hampton School and started to write for his favourite instrument – the piano

After four years of formal music training, Olly discovered Jazz and formed, conducted and managed the Hampton School 15-piece ‘Big Jazz and Blues Band’, also recruiting from the girls’ school next door ;). Hooked on jazz, he began to study jazz piano under top UK jazz pianist Roger Munns.

At Cambridge University, Olly performed in and directed ensembles ranging from pop and rock ‘n’ roll outfits, to jazz trios and big bands. He formed ‘Selwyn Jazz’ big band with his partner-in-crime, Jon Hooper, in 1993 and the band is still gigging to this day.

(Editors note: actually Olly studied an Engineering Degree, but he and his partner in crime, Jon Hooper, probably spent more time on the gig circuit than they did in the engineering lab…).

After University, Olly worked as an engineer and physics teacher by day, also conducting the Magdalen College School big band. By night, he gigged with various jazz and soul ensembles, both as a wedding pianist-vocalist and as a ‘front man’ wedding entertainer.

In 2004, he handed in his notice for his day job and went pro, playing frequently with the Oxford Jazz Quintet (one of Jamie Cullum’s previous ensembles). Olly now runs his Jazz Soul Boogie Band – an awesome wedding entertainment band on the professional gig circuit in the UK, performing a variety of music styles from jazz swing, Latin to funky 70s soul. Wherever Olly is playing, you’re guaranteed a great night’s music and dancing!

Also in 2004, Olly co-wrote ‘Wedgwood Blue’, a landmark piano collection which brings together the extraordinary talents of the Wedgwood family. Olly’s younger brother Sam Wedgwood is a talented singer/songwriter and their mother Pam Wedgwood is recognised around the world as one the UK’s most prolific and successful composers of popular repertoire for young instrumentalists.

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

 

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

The piano was the biggest and loudest thing in the house so I turned to playing the piano and never looked back. Both my mum and dad worked on their own projects in life and so the concept of working for another was alien to me. A life in music was always on the cards and I just kept doing what I loved and after a few twists and turns, here I am.

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

I know it sounds cheesy but it’s just all and everything that’s going on in my life at the time. Who I meet. I don’t listen to music anywhere near as much as people may think but fill my days going down various rabbit holes usually around technology or some collaboration. Recently working on the play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,  I learned a LOT from Gareth Fry, the sound FX designer, that I found as a constant source of inspiration for the music. Growing up I loved going to raves and have always loved the energy but equally would the next evening go to hear a performance of some Arvo Paert. I’ve not really been someone so into lyrics. Perhaps the biggest influence on my lyrics was working with Guy Sigsworth when I was in the duo Frou Frou. Here I learned not just what it’s like to sing my lyrics, but actually more importantly what it’s like to listen to them. I’ve never just let anything go as as result since!

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

The music industry, the slowness of payments (if at all), not knowing what’s going to come in or how when I was signed to various labels over my first 10 years of my career. Later in life, with the development of the Mi.Mu gloves, it was funding and lack of resource to good advice in growing small businesses. All my creative endeavours I would never change but the business side is 90% tiresome when it comes to recorded music and flow of rights. I am actively hoping to help this shift toward a music industry that makes sense for music makers in the emergence of a music maker database via a decentralised Identity tool we call The Creative Passport.

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

The new set of limitations in each collaboration I find is actually that which drives my creativity the most, or learning a new subject matter. Time is also one of those limitations when you’re working with others but this is equally welcome. It’s the art of letting go and just sometimes being happy with being good enough rather than always going that extra last mile at 5 in the morning for a month. The diversity is what keeps me feeling alive and if there’s one constancy in my creative life, it’s that I’m always take on projects I literally know nothing about at first because I want to be taken to new places in my mind.

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

In my career I’ve always been able to choose the people I work with so I can honestly say I have had no real challenges, the pleasures are endless and if I find someone I really love to work with, I try my best to have an excuse to work with them again as the best combo is when you get to work with people you love to be with, not just find the collaborations challenging or interesting.

Of which works are you most proud?

It’s not just coz it’s my latest but I am very happy with the album of music from the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play. It’s given me a real chance to share so much of my musicality in one body of work. It tested my theory skills in the many transitions between so many different tempos, key and time signatures as a result of weaving together 100 cues into a hopefully enjoyable album. I’ll probably never have another excuse quite like it to share so much past work in a new context. Also for many people they consider me a song writer yet here there is only a minute’s worth of lyrics amongst 78 minutes of music, so I get to shine a light on all the other parts of music making I so enjoy.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’m finding answering this question quite hard! I’ve never had to try and describe it before. A sound for me often has precedence in the studio above a chord structure and I tend to write and produce at the same time. I do seem to have lot of arpeggios in my work and for pop music, or whatever it is I write, it’s pretty dynamic. I do play with patterns and layers as I like to get a lot out of a motif. I get a bit tired of my old tricks and so actively seek out projects to help me move on, this could be working in a different country or taking on writing music for a different format or media.

How do you work?

I generally work alone on the music in my studio though enjoy collaboration with others greatly.  I work long hours at a stretch If I’m lucky and get into a flow. I’ve always done this in the small hours though with a child and so many projects outside of making music, I’ve had to get better and finding that flow on tap whenever I have half a moment spare! To be honest though, how I work or approach a song is often wildly different each time I start as usually the distance between pieces is months these days, I feel I almost have to learn how to do it all over again! The Harry Potter & The Cursed Child play is the first time in my life I’ve ever reused old work. I’ve always started from scratch, as I’ve never really got around to having a particular way of writing as even when something really works I am so forgetful I’d not remember to try it again.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I find it quite exhausting and upsetting to know there’s so much music out there that I’d love but may never get to know. My friend told me the other day that it’d take 170 years of constant listening to everything on Spotify once and that’s nowhere even near all the music in the world to be discovered. To add to this I don’t make time to listen to music amongst everything else. I am lucky to know many incredible musicians and composers and just their creations alone sustains and enable me to enjoy the time I get to listen to music. Jon Hopkins always has me revelling in awe of his sound works and attention to detail, Improvisationally with live electronic music has to be the genius that is Tim Exile. Mica Levi I love as she’s written both film and pop music I’ve loved and I’m just discovering the tech prowess of Emilie Simon, so after I’ve listened to her music, I may add her to the list too!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To be sustained by your creative output but to never have to repeat yourself musically to generate more income.

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

Find things that interest you and see where it takes you. Say yes to things you feel are slightly out of your comfort zone often. Always complete a project if others are depending on you.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I would like to be in a place where there is little to no admin in my life around getting work discovered and paid for. The inefficiency of the music industry and how little it really supports music makers irritates me so much. I hope in 10 years time The Creative Passport or something else will be helping to solve these issues. If there’s any musicians reading this and curious to know more, please go to myceliaformusic.org/creative-passport. And so with that, I long and live for flow in my creative, family, social and business lives, so they seamlessly coexist as often and effortlessly as possible.


Imogen Heap is a self-produced British recording artist. She has written and produced four solo albums, one as one half of Frou Frou, and has collaborated with countless and varied artists including Jeff Beck, Taylor Swift, Mika and Josh Groban. She has two Grammys, one for engineering and another for her contribution to Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’, and is also the recipient of the Ivor Novello Award, The Artist and Manager Pioneer award, the MPG Inspiration Award and an honorary Doctorate of Technology for her MI.MU Gloves work. Earlier this year she won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, out now on Sony Classical.  In 2014 she envisioned a music industry ecosystem through Mycelia and released ‘Tiny Human’, the first song to use smart contracts on a blockchain. This month, Heap embarks on a year-long music and technology world tour.

imogenheap.com

(Photo: Emilio Madrid-Kruser)

 

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

Free instrumental lessons in primary school in the 1970s were pretty important. Someone from the London Borough of Brent music service came into our class and we all did various kinds of ear tests which involved saying if a note was high or lower than another, or louder or quieter. Apparently I did ok which meant I was allowed to learn the violin. From then onwards, I was always making up my own tunes and improvising. Then I struck lucky going to study at Huddersfield Polytechnic in the late 1980s. It was very immersive time, what with the festival, and we were really encouraged to compose and present our own works in performance.

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

Both Dutch and Polish contemporary music has been very influential for me. I spent three years studying composition in Poland which was a very liberating time, and I was attracted to the physicality of sound in a lot of contemporary Polish music. There is also a directness and rawness to a lot of Dutch music, and a sense that everything can be accommodated; that we can draw upon everything that has been a meaningful part of our musical past irrespective of genre. But perhaps the biggest influence in the last decade or so has been spending such a lot of time with my composition colleagues and students at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I’ve learnt so much from them.

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

I think challenges and frustrations can be positive as well as negative. In recent years, my time for composing has been quite stretched, with a pretty demanding teaching position and also having a young child, but then it’s meant I have to use the time available well, whilst also challenging the way I work. It means I have to be more relaxed and let go of the inner-perfectionist demon, which has perhaps resulted in a different sort of music.

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

Every piece brings both pleasure and pain, although hopefully much more pleasure ultimately. There’s the struggle of the blank page at the beginning, and then the joy of something previously unimagined coming into being little by little. The context of the commission is important to me; who is it being written for? Whose commissioned it? What’s the context for the performance? I want to bring as much if that as I can into the piece and create something intimate.

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

I’ve been lucky to work with a few very special performers quite regularly over a number of years, people like the Fidelio Trio, Orkest de Ereprijs, Sarah Leonard and my own collective Noszferatu. They’re close friends and that sort of relationship leads to a special trust or bond that develops over time. That’s a really great pleasure.  Then there are new projects with people you haven’t worked with before, and there’s often a great excitement and energy to these as you begin to work out what makes each other tick.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m proud of all the pieces on my latest NMC album, ‘Elsewhereness’, and also the previous albums Bartlebooth (NMC) and Boogie Nights (Birmingham Record Company).

How would you characterise your compositional language?

The language can be quite multi-faceted, drawing upon broad range of influences from post-minimalism and jazz through to the baroque and experimentalism. I aim to absorb these influences, not pastiche them, allowing them to come out as something else through the filter of my own individuality. There is often a broad emotional range from exuberance to introversion, darkness to technicolour.

How do you work?

Generally quite slowly, searching for a way in to the piece, an idea, a concept. Sometimes the material leads the way, showing its own possibilities.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Lots. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Louis Andriessen, Martijn Padding, Errollyn Wallen, Howard Skempton, Michael Wolters, Ed Bennett, Sean Clancy, Andrew Hamilton, Bach, Trish Clowes, Richard Ayres, Laura Mvula, Schubert, Andrew Toovey, more, more, more….

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To keep going and to help others along the way

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

Try and improve the world a little; be serious about what you do, but don’t take yourself too seriously; don’t be an old composer when you’re a young composer; perfection is dull; “success” isn’t everything; don’t lose sight of the magic of music; be generous, kind and help others.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with my family, today I walked in the woods with my wife and son and it was the most beautiful autumn day.

What is your present state of mind?

I’d say it’s in a pretty good state, but in need of sleep (my little boy was awake most of last night….)

*The title track on the new CD ‘Elsewhereness’ was commissioned for the launch concert of the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. 

Joe Cutler : ‘Elsewhereness’. Released 19th October 2018. NMC Recordings / NMC D246

Launch concert for ‘Elsewhereness’ at Birmingham Royal Conservatoire on 16th November 2018


joecutler.com