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

My music teacher at school, Margaret Semple, instilled the habit of musical curiosity, and didn’t think it strange that I would want to write and perform my own music.

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

As a teenager, playing the oboe in all kinds of rep, from Bach to improv. The lively new musical culture in my youth, the 1960s, both pop and “classical”. Early inspirations included Cage, Stockhausen, Messiaen, John Tavener.

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

The frustration has always been, and remains, the huge amount of time it takes to compose a new piece of music. A perpetual challenge is to sense the right structure and timescale for musical ideas while struggling to write these ideas down for the first time.

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

Composing for friends or close colleagues is like spending time with them – they are constantly in my mind as I write. Conversely, the challenge is writing for people you don’t know – will they understand and sympathise with your intentions?

Of which works are you most proud?

I am usually thinking about recent work – it’s as if the music I wrote long ago can look after itself. Coming to mind immediately are In the Land of Uz (mini-oratorio), The Big Picture (site-specific cantata) and my Oboe Concerto.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Above all it is animated by line/melody and rhythm.

How do you work?

I brood for a long time. I’m trying to think of a concept which will be so irresistible and compelling that it writes itself. It doesn’t always work out that way…

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

They change all the time, it’s impossible to say. To give some kind of answer, I’ve just looked at what is piled on my CD player today: We Go To Dream (a lovely album by Astrid Williamson); Not Now Bernard and Other Stories (composer Bernard Hughes, excellent); Brendel plays Bach, on the piano obviously; an organ album played by Konstantin Reymaier (more Bach, plus Handel, Marcello,etc).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When the work continues to flow in, of its own accord.

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

I wanted to study music because I was interested and curious about it – I still am, almost fifty years later. That has kept me going in difficult times. So my advice is: If you’re not really, really interested in music – the actual dots – don’t bother!

Judith Weir’s ‘Thread’, after a text from the upper horizontal border of the Bayeux Tapestr, receives its world premiere recording on Not Now Bernard and Other Stories, a collection of music for families narrated by Alexander Armstrong, released on the Orchid Classics label on 7 February.


Judith Weir was born into a Scottish family in 1954, but grew up near London. She was an oboe player, performing with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and studied composition with John Tavener during her schooldays. She went on to Cambridge University, where her composition teacher was Robin Holloway; and in 1975 attended summer school at Tanglewood, where she worked with Gunther Schuller. After this she spent several years working in schools and adult education in rural southern England; followed by a period based in Scotland, teaching at Glasgow University and RSAMD.
During this time she began to write a series of operas (including King Harald’s Saga, The Black Spider, A Night at the Chinese Opera, The Vanishing Bridegroom and Blond Eckbert) which have subsequently received many performances in the UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and the USA. The most recent opera is Miss Fortune, premiered at Bregenz in 2011, and then staged at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2012.
As resident composer with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, she wrote several works for orchestra and chorus (including Forest, Storm and We are Shadows) which were premiered by the orchestra’s then Music Director, Simon Rattle. She has been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Music Untangled and Natural History) the Minnesota Orchestra (The Welcome Arrival of Rain) and the London Sinfonietta (Tiger under the Table); and has written concert works for some notable singers, including Jane Manning, Dawn Upshaw, Jessye Norman and Alice Coote. Her latest vocal work is Good Morning, Midnight, premiered by Sarah Connolly and the Aurora Orchestra in May 2015.
She now lives in London, where she has had a long association with Spitalfields Music Festival; and in recent years has taught as a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard and Cardiff universities. Honours for her work include the Critics’ Circle, South Bank Show, Elise L Stoeger and Ivor Novello awards, a CBE (1995) and the Queen’s Medal for Music (2007). In 2014 she was appointed Master of The Queen’s Music in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. In January 2015 she became Associate Composer to the BBC Singers.
Much of her music has been recorded, and is available on the NMC, Delphian and Signum labels. In 2014-15 there were releases of The Vanishing Bridegroom  (NMC) and Storm (BBC Singers/Signum).  Judith Weir’s music is published by Chester Music and Novello & Co.  She blogs about her experiences of cultural life in the UK at judithweir.com.

 

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

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

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

I had an wonderful music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music and I carry that with me. I also learned a lot about commitment and integrity from the composer Param Vir. Apart from my teachers the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

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

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

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

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. When the requirements of the commission and you are aligned it is really fun: writing my narrator-and-orchestra piece ‘Not Now, Bernard’ was one such – I realised it was a story I loved to tell, and that the music could add to. I’m really looking forward to it getting a wider audience on the forthcoming album – I’m very fond of it.

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

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers over many years, including on an album of my music released in 2016. The fun of writing for them is also the danger – they can sing anything and make it sound good, but if you push the boat out too far no one else will ever sing it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language changes with each piece I write, so I don’t have a personal style as such – although I am sure there are recurring tricks if you look for them. Writing a piece is finding a solution to a problem, and when the initial restrictions vary, so does the end result. But when I write a piece like ‘Not Now, Bernard’, which is very tuneful and ‘accessible’, I don’t think of it as any less a ‘proper piece’ than my more avant-garde pieces – they are all aspects of my compositional voice.

As a composer, how do you work?

On a practical level I move between the keyboard, handwritten music notation and the computer. They each have their role within the process – although often first ideas come when I’m on my feet, either walking round my neighbourhood or in the shower. I like the handwritten element because you can trace your ideas back archaeologically if you change your mind. But I also love the opportunity the computer offers to check things like pacing, and complex harmony that is beyond my fingers.

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it. I also had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece in 2012 called ‘Anaphora’ which again caused me a lot of grief in the creation but which I am in retrospect very proud of.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music – she is also an extremely kind and generous person and it was a pleasure working with her on the forthcoming album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories, which features the premiere recording of her piece ‘Thread!’ alongside my own music. My current enthusiasm is for a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who is very little known in this country but I think is brilliant and deserves much wider programming.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

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

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s cassette collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.

Bernard Hughes co-produced the album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories which is released on 7 February 2020 on the Orchid Classics label. It features his music alongside pieces by Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold and John Ireland, narrated by TV star Alexander Armstrong and played by the Orchestra of the Swan.

Bernard’s choral music is being showcased in a portrait concert by the BBC Singers on 30 January, for broadcast in February 2020, which includes the new BBC commission A Ternary of Littles. The BBC Singers album I am the Song is available on Signum Classics.

More information about Bernard at www.bernardhughes.net

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

My music teachers at school. They were so enthusiastic about it that I thought they must be in on some very special secret….it turned out the music I’d hear in my head wasn’t that different to what they were doing….it has to get out some way or another. They helped me to get it out!

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

At an early age ( 8-9) it was seeing three films at the cinema within a two week period….”You Only Live Twice” , ” The Jungle Book” and ” Oliver”. All astonishing musically and visually, but music was so front and centre for these films that it made me feel like  I wanted to be a part of the process that had made me feel the way I did when I saw them in that dark theatre.

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

Challenges and frustrations are almost the same thing for me….the most fretful being the first day of composition when you have nothing but a blank page and a lot of people are waiting somewhere for me to send them something of which  they have very high expectations

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

The pleasure is getting it done and people being happy with it…the challenge is getting it done so people are happy with it

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

I’m fortunate that I’m able to work with the best in the world in terms of performers. Anything I  put in front of them, they will play brilliantly and make it sound and feel immediately better. I’m spoiled in that regard. It’s important to treat individual performers with care and  attention so that they feel free and secure enough to give it their all. Then the relationship, much like that which I have with directors, is one of part therapist, part musician.

Of which works are you most proud?

I generally don’t like much of what I do, in as much as I can’t hear it without thinking I wished I had done it differently, mostly better, but there’s not much I’d change about ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea’; it’s a piece that feels about right to me, it makes me happy to watch it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Sympathetic to what ever I’m writing about or for.

How do you work?

I hear lots of music in my head whilst just being around and about so I sing ideas into the phone or sketch the odd sequence down, depending on where I am.  Then it’s to an instrument for working out an idea  which will either survive or be abandoned – and that’s on guitar or piano working ideas up in a DAW [digital audio workstation] so others get the idea too and there’s something tangible to play to people. If it’s a film,  I’ll watch it once and then walk around with the film in my head and let it all percolate.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

So many. Probably the most influential would be John Barry, Stevie Wonder, Debussy and Tchaikovsky. As I get older, there’s a bit more Mahler but mainly I love great melody

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Not having to do anything other than music and to be happy with what I’m doing and with whom I’m doing it

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

Don’t try to please others, write honestly and maybe think this:  if the person whom you admire most in the world musically was standing next to you, could you play them whatever it is you’re working on right now and not have to make an excuse for it?

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

If I’m alive in ten years time, I’ll be happy to be anywhere doing anything

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having nothing to worry about

What is your most treasured possession?

I have things that I love but they’re just things and I’ve stopped thinking about things being precious. My family will always be the greatest and I have no desire or ability to own them

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being childish and also cooking

What is your present state of mind?

Tangled, Busy, Yearning, Hopeful, Cynical, Stupid

David Arnold composed the score for the recent tv adapation of Judith Kerr’s classic children’s story ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’. The soundtrack is now on CD and digital format from Sony Music Masterworks.


David Arnold is a multi-award-winning British film and television composer.  Best known for his work on blockbuster films such as Independence Day, Stargate and Chronicles of Narnia, he also took over the mantle from John Barry to compose the music for five James Bond films (including Casino Royale, for which he was nominated for a Grammy, a BAFTA and won ‘Best Song’ at the World Soundtrack Awards).  Other films scores include Godzilla, Shaft, Zoolander, Hot Fuzz and Stepford Wives.

David Arnold’s television work includes Sherlock (Emmy winner for best score with Michael Price) Little Britain, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Dracula and Good Omens.  Over his 20-year career, he has won Grammys, Ivor Novello, International Emmys and Royal Television Society Awards. He was recently twice nominated for an Emmy for the Amazon /BBC production “Good Omens”

In 2012 David Arnold was appointed to the prestigious role of Musical Director for the London Olympics & Paralympics Closing Ceremonies and was also involved in one of the highlights of the Jubilee Thames Flotilla, composing a new arrangement of the ‘James Bond theme’ as HM The Queen passed by the MI6 headquarters.

As well as being a world-renowned score composer, David Arnold is a highly esteemed artist, record producer, songwriter and conductor who has worked with some of the biggest names in music, including Queen, The Who, Kate Bush, kd lang, Bjork, Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop, George Michael, Massive Attack, the Kaiser Chiefs, Shirley Manson, Shirley Bassey and Sir Paul McCartney.

 

Photo credit: Julie Edwards

 

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

I started my musical life as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire. Exposure to the greats of choral music was the basis for becoming a composer and conductor, and was a great introduction to the technical as well as the aesthetic aspects of music.

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

In my teens I corresponded quite a bit with Benjamin Britten in the later years of his life, and he gave me a lot of ideas and encouragement to become a composer. Studying music at Christ Church, Oxford as an undergraduate was also an important step on the road.

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

The greatest challenges revolve around presenting pieces to audiences which require active listening on their part. People are everywhere bombarded with noise, and commercial music of all kinds, which requires no active participation from the listener. This puts them off the idea of listening to something and being challenged to think about what the music is trying to say to them.

Of which works are you most proud?

The Sonata for Organ, which was premiered and recorded by Clive Driskill-Smith; Suite – King Richard III for Solo Violin, premiered and recorded by Rupert Marshall-Luck; the works I have written for Christ Church, Oxford (especially King Henry VIII’s Apologia); the setting of the Jubilate Deo (in Zulu) which I wrote for the 750th Anniversary of the foundation of Merton College, Oxford; and a number of choral pieces for choirs in Germany, especially the Frankfurt Canticles and Responses, and the Berlin Canticles and Responses. I have also had a number of commissions from the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. My Sonata for Piano is just about to be premiered in London, and this is a major piece.

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

Making sure that we are all agreed at the outset as to what exactly is being requested, and the reason why the person is commissioning the piece. However, it is a very rewarding experience to deliver a new work to someone who has commissioned it. People are very generous in their appreciation of new works like that. It is very exciting to be writing for a distinguished performer or ensemble, in particular to write a work which fits their style of performance, their character, and their ethos. The challenge is to write something which is appropriate to the performer, and is a work that they will want to play frequently and be identified with. Of course, they can be very demanding (!), but that is also good, because it means they have thought a lot about what they are looking for and why.

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

Mainly this is a great pleasure, because the reason they will want to play your music is because they choose to. This enables one to develop a longer-term relationship with performers who are looking to include this type of music in their repertoire. Then a very fruitful discussion about new pieces can ensue, and trying new things which enhance the appeal of the performer to the audience.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

It varies from very simple tonal pieces (especially some of the pieces for church choirs), through to more complex works, like the larger Sonatas. Maybe it could be see as being a continuation of the English musical tradition, from VW, Howells, Finzi, Britten, Tippett, Leighton, Lutyens.

How do you work?

I do like things to be organised, because I really do not like missing deadlines! A lot of planning goes into each piece. They will have been forming in my mind for many months (sometimes even years) before the pencil even hits the paper. I tend to write things out long-hand, and then put them onto Sibelius. Then it’s off to the publishers.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That people are interested enough to listen to the music, and that if they studied it in detail, they would appreciate the logic, structure, and meaning of the pieces I have written. Where listeners have done this, they tell me the music appeals to the ear, the heart, and the brain. It’s lovely when you get feedback like that.

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

To work hard, listen to the great music, and enjoy what you are doing. You have an individual voice as a composer or performer, and you need to find ways to express yourself. Others will guide you, but your voice is your own.

Richard Pantcheff’s Piano Sonata is premiered by Duncan Honeybourne on 6 November 2019 at the 1901 Arts Club, London. Introduction by Richard Pantcheff. More information


Richard Pantcheff is internationally renowned as a composer in many genres, and has established a prominent reputation as a composer of Choral, Organ, Chamber and instrumental music of the highest quality. His musical career commenced as Head Chorister at Ripon Cathedral, in England. During his five years as a Music Scholar at senior school, he corresponded regularly with Benjamin Britten, who acted as occasional mentor to him in composition. Thereafter, he graduated with Honours in Music at Christ Church, Oxford University, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier.

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You can see most of Richard’s music on his publisher’s website : www.musicaneo.com

Calling female musicians, composers and conductors to take part in the Meet the Artist interview series

 

Established in 2012 by blogger Frances Wilson (“The Cross-Eyed Pianist”), Meet the Artist is a series of interviews in which musicians, conductors and composers discuss aspects of their creative lives, including inspirations, influences, repertoire, performance, recording, significant teachers and more. The interviews offer revealing insights into the musician’s working life and each one provides advice to young or aspiring musicians.

The interview takes the form of a short questionnaire. Originally hosted entirely on the The Cross-Eyed Pianist site, the series has grown in popularity to such an extent that it now has its own dedicated website.

If you would like to take part in the Meet the Artist series, please download an interview questionnaire and return it to Frances Wilson (contact details on questionnaire).

Meet the Artist questionnaire – musician/performer

Meet the Artist questionnaire – Composer

Meet the Artist questionnaire – Conductor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadlines; they are as energising as they are terrifying.

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

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

Of which works are you most proud?

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

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

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

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

How would you characterise your compositional language?

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

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

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

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

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

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

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

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

What is your most treasured possession?

My home.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing, playing. Relaxing with my hubby and friends.

 

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


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

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

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

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eleanoralberga.com