Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
As a child there was no real music in our house, or reading materials as such, mainly due to my mum’s mental illness. As a result of this, and of course other problems in the family, I didn’t actually speak or really communicate until about 6 or 7 years of age. However, I had obviously listened to much music, both radio broadcasts and recordings, mainly at schoolfriends’ houses, or at school itself, which I totally soaked up at each opportunity – everything from the Beatles and the Monkeys to Beethoven and Mancini. When I got my first musical instrument, a guitar which was purchased through a shopping catalogue operated by a friend’s mum, and for which I paid by doing potato picking on farms, and as a newspaper delivery boy, I sort of just started playing back what I’d heard, improvising along the way of course, trying to pin down correct pitch, melody, rhythm, etc. of each song/piece until I’d got it as close as the original. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time of course.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
From above, you can obviously see I didn’t have the possibility of music lessons, so I am completely self-taught in music. However, I studied very hard, seeking the knowledge of this strange craft known as music notation, and how to turn ideas in my head into something I and others might play one day – daydreams, maybe, but a very determined Yorkshire boy/man I became, constantly trying to hear/read more music all the time. Many musicians have been an influence, and still are, on my life really: Elgar, his struggle for recognition as an artist, plus his wonderful musical structures enchanted me early on; Neil Young, his stories of life in both his lyrics and musical arrangements, appealed to a young teenager in the 70’s; Gershwin, with his amazing cohesion of jazz and classical genres were to lead me to carry on this ‘cross genre/culture’ idea in all my later work! Of course, as a fifteen year old boy I truly had no idea where I was going with this magical thing called music, with its strange terms, dots, lines all over the place, but I read everything from ABRSM theory books to Antony Hopkins books on music and listening/analysis,etc and from Ferdinando Carulli’s great little book ‘Guitar Method’ to the symphonies of Mozart, etc. too – all an education. After school, I was determined to write music one way or another and now I had found a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings I was on a roll!!
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
When I left school at 15/16 years of age, I wasn’t sure how I would do it, but boy was I gonna try and write music as I thought it should sound, and whatever meant something to me,`i was really hoping that somehow people would understand my thoughts and what I was trying to say. Of course, easier said than done, but I learnt very quickly how to be flexible, playing in theatre pits, busking, pop bands, teaching, as well as giving recitals with my own music, I managed to build a small, very small, reputation on the large music scene in UK. Persevering however, I accepted my first true commission for a soundtrack to a lecture series at a local art school, which I both arranged and and multi tracked on two cassette players – a truly awful result I’m sure, but people liked and used it, so a win win situation, as people say now, eh. Of course, frustrations come as an artist, as you try to get to where you think your journey should take you, but as always in life, you carry on, taking rough with smooth and never regret artistic choices, or directions, as you always learn something from the experience – well I certainly did, and after over 40 years of being a composer I’m still getting a thrill and learn something new every work I produce.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I work in all genres of music: film, theatre, pop/rock music, animation, concert works,etc, and, or so, because of this cross genre working, I have worked and continue to work and learn from such a variety of musicians and their different backgrounds and approaches to music, its really a truly pleasurable experience and exciting, each time am opportunity occurs for me to share ideas and develop my thoughts into musical sounds form the performers. I am not very computer literate at all, I have no music software, and no idea how it works. When younger, I actually wrote all the parts out by hand, even the large orchestral works, brass band pieces and songs. Luckily, for me, I now have an assistant who I get to turn my stuff into files, which then can be emailed around the world the same day, which I find pretty amazing, although slightly confusing how it does so, at the same time! I am very lucky that I have found a career in something, i.e.; which is truly all I know about, and that people approach regularly for new works – now an animation, then a concerto, now a theatre piece, then an album for a rock band to arrange/produce,etc – all of both equal importance in the musical world and in my life.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I always approach my work in the same way now, as when I was a young boy. First of all, I try to arrange a meeting, face to face, as I don’t like the impersonal, remote meetings; phone, emails; Skype, etc, however, this can be impossible sometimes; for example, I have a long term project in Japan, and another project coming up in Poland, so will have to talk on Skype, etc, until each visit, but otherwise I’ll jump on a train – my favourite form of transport – and meet to discuss/talk through everything over either a lunchtime meal, or a few pints in the pub, as either way is very constructive to me! Meeting musicians, either in concert hall, or in the studio is always a pleasure and, to be honest, an honour too to me. I am very happy to enjoy what I do and also appreciate that I’m fortunate that I found how to both express my life, thoughts, emotions, etc, through music, whilst at the same time making a living at it too. This is important part of my philosophy, as coming from a working class background and growing up on a large council house estate in the north of England, I’m very proud of my roots, therefore wish to share with others! I’m also very lucky that all the musicians I work with from any of the genres, seem to respect my thoughts and expertise in composition, although of course, when it comes down to specific technical things like fingering, bowing, phrasing etc ,etc I am always totally in their hands – a genuine collaboration I like to think.
Of which works are you most proud?
I have composed so much stuff over the years, and have been so lucky that nearly everything I’ve written has been either performed, recorded or broadcast at some point. So trying to pick a particular work out is very difficult, as you could imagine, but maybe I can quickly suggest a few that stick in mind. ‘Suffolk Serenade’ (mezzo,horn+strings) was a joint commission with my wife (writer Gillian) to write a ‘complimentary’ piece to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Serenade’ for the Britten centenary. At the interval, the concert was actually down in Suffolk of course, I was approached with a dilemma – the audience would like to hear it again! Yikes, I thought, as did the conductor too, as it lasted over 30mins in total – although, I may add the orchestra and conductor were very keen and seemed to like it thoroughly too. Anyway, that was amazing that an audience and musicians enjoyed my scribblings so much that they were willing to suffer more tonal distress….hee, hee, from me and was great for a premiere of a contemporary piece of music was accepted on first hearing. Another important piece was a work I wrote for the theatre entitled ‘The In Between Space’. I was composer in residence for Converge at the time, which helps provide student lessons in music, drama, dance, creative writing,etc,for people with mental health issues. I wrote the incidental music soundtrack and was invited to attend the two days of performances – truly wonderful they were too.The last one I choose is the most recent too. I am at present working on a joint project with Japanese composer Nobuya Monta; we are having joint concerts and recordings of our music,both in UK and Japan.On Sunday 17th July this year he visited the UK and we launched our first event: Concert and CD launch of ‘Heading for the Hills’ at Blueprint Studios ( where we recorded it) an album of Japanese and British music for string quartet. First the Strata String Quartet played a selection of the tracks from the CD, then, whilst the studio played back the whole album, we toasted a new adventure in Japanese/British musical culture which we hope to develop over the next few years. It took a lot organising, as you can imagine, bringing performers, studio and record label all together and on board for a journey which was developing as we went along – a truly musical adventure,but if you want it to happen, it will.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I suppose my musical language is really a combination of many styles, it crosses many musical boundaries really. To be honest, I’ve never actually paid any attention to trying to write in any style at all, whatever comes out of my head I scribble down, then wait to hear the performance – either live or recorded. As I have worked with so many musicians and on so many projects over the years on numerous variety of commissions, I’ve no doubt been subconsciously influenced on what I’ve heard and learnt from each experience and each project – which is exactly what I did when I started at this composing malarkey I suppose. One thing I’m very certain of of though a lot of my individual voice emanates from Elgarian melody, jazz harmony and rock/folk rhythms – all styles of music I liked when I was a youngster and still enjoy listening/playing now too!
How do you work?
When I receive a commission, for film, concert hall or studio work, I tend to think a lot about the project and meet with the performers to discuss my ideas. Collaboration is very important to me as a composer,sharing thoughts with the players is pretty inspiring to me,as we bounce around ideas off each other and I get to know them and likewise – this so important,I feel anyway. Then I think a little bit more, often walking around, or on my many train travels, until the piece is completed in my head and I have a clear vision of the finished work. I then sit down to use pen and paper to write the score; it doesn’t matter if it’s for full orchestra or a soundtrack for animation etc, I still like the intimacy and immediacy of ink and stave – transferring thought directly to paper. If I need to get score/parts to the other side of the world, I’ll get someone to turn my manuscript into computer ‘stuff’ and email it to players,otherwise I’ll pop in post, or better still, I’ll revisit them and hand over in person.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I love concerts and enjoy the ‘buzz’ even the tuning up at the beginning has always made the hairs on the back of neck stand up – although,alas, a few less hairs these days! I enjoy a wide variety of musical genres, but I suppose Elgar, Rodrigo, Michael Nyman, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead are all composers and musicians I enjoy listening to regularly and still get great inspiration from. I enjoy listening either live performances – which I much prefer – although I enjoy broadcasts and recordings too of course.I used to do a lot of teaching, which I really enjoyed and which taught me a lot, I actually think we learnt off one another, they from my knowledge and experience,me from their open minds,new exciting ideas, my students would bring along a selection of stuff they were enjoying,o ften from musicians I’d never heard of, which have become favourites, like Arcade Fire, and Einaudi too. Whilst I do a little teaching now, mainly as a guest lecturer at different universities/colleges, etc, I still find it invigorating to listen, explore and find new sources of musical sounds and ideas – I think this is very important for a composer.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Other than the excitement at my first rock concert aged 12, by prog-rock band Hawkwind, which was scary and amazing, in equal measure, I seem to remember one of the most memorable and truly overwhelming was a performance Elgar’s cello concerto – many years ago, at York University Central Hall. In the final, agitated fast movement, there occurs a refrain from the slow movement, of that delicious, hauntingly beautiful melody, which builds then dies away bit by bit. Well, in this performance as the slow theme dissipates to Elgar’s dynamic instruction, probably a ‘ppp’ the melody did just this and also something else, which I still can’t quite figure out how, but however the cello sings totally solo then ..gets, quieter ….quieter, quieter, slower……….then almost inaudible. At this moment I and I believe everyone else in the audience held their breath………then after what seems like ages the baton beats and were off for the final orchestral flourish and crashing last few bars. But,the few seconds took me to a really musical and totally magical place that I still recall, not all the concert, but that moment, and I wish I had experienced more of these moments in time – although I’ve been at a few others,close but not so sublime!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think, just my personal thoughts these of course, that a musician should always strive to be themselves. Yes, learn from others, study the works of others, but please develop your own style. As composers, we feel we have something individual to say, so it’s very important that we develop our own voice to say and express this. Also, to enable this to happen I feel it’s very important to listen to as wide as possible, and practical, as much music from as varied sources and genres as possible. It’s very important to not become stagnant, or complacent in your music, audiences and musicians deserve better than this and more importantly so do you as a composer. I enjoy writing, listening and learning, still, absorbing from anywhere and everywhere; art, theatre, concerts, broadcasts, socialising, travel, all are very important to me to help keep my feet on the ground, except on a plane of course, but also keep my mind, eyes and especially my ears open and help me continue to work in the 21st Century.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I hope I’ll continue to learn more of the art of composing music from around this small world of ours. It’s a small, but beautiful planet with a wide variety of peoples and cultures and as the technology develops it brings both closer together and hopefully understand one another through art, and particularly in my case music.Sharing our musical ideas across the globe helps composers across the globe develop a new ‘palette’ from which to draw their individual colours to express. I for one, will strive for another ten years to do this. Continuing to have the opportunity to explore new new musical horizons, writing more compositions which cross the boundaries of musical genres.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Sitting in a pub beer garden drinking a nice glass of cold cider and eating a cheese ploughman’s with my wife; I believe the nicest things in life are often the simplest.
What is your most treasured possession?
My Parker fountain pen, with which I sign all my finished scores.
‘Heading for the Hills’, Peter Byrom-Smith’s new album for string quartet is available now
Peter Byrom-Smith is an internationally renowned composer. Writing for and performing with many musicians from across a wide spectrum of genres, Peter’s musical journey has taken him on many trips around the world. His music has been performed, broadcast and recorded in U.K, Europe, Singapore, Japan and U.S.A. by numerous musicians. He is as happy to have his music performed in small country churches as he is at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.
His music crosses boundaries: a melange of sounds, bringing together elgarian melody, jazz harmonies and rock rhythms.
In an ever growing portfolio of work, which includes pieces written for full orchestra and chamber musicians. He also regularly works with pop/rock musicians, both in the studio and in live performance, as well as writing sound tracks for film and theatre. Peter’s work is performed regularly and he receives frequent commissions for new music.