Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

When I started learning piano I quickly found that improvising around the pieces I was learning was far more fun than practising scales! Quite soon after that, I realised I could begin to write these inventions down (inspired at first by an ardent desire to acquire a Blue Peter badge…!).

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

Recently I’ve been especially inspired by composers who have an outward-facing, collaborative approach to their craft. Composers like Nico Muhly epitomise this for me: not only is the music totally brilliant, but it’s made for people, not just the instruments they play.

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

This past year I’ve been writing for the London Symphony Orchestra as one of their Panufnik Composers – this has certainly been a huge challenge, exciting and daunting in equal measure! Having the whole orchestra (under the baton of François-Xavier Roth) at my fingertips was an incredible feeling, but attempting to write not just a good overall piece but also great parts for all 80 phenomenal musicians certainly took a lot of careful balancing!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

It’s the biggest thrill of the process, BUT sharing music that you’ve been living with potentially for months for the first time is a daunting thing! A player’s relationship with the thing you’ve made is so different to your own, which is why I obsess over how parts look. Most performers won’t be religiously studying your score for weeks on end; they’ll be getting under the skin of the notes you’ve written for them, so it’s critically important that what they see is presented perfectly.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

My music is built out of a core I would describe as essentially emotional. I will never shy away from that word (which is often lazily conflated with ‘sentimental’) – I can’t imagine wanting to spend my life writing music if I didn’t want to move, surprise, excite, provoke people, and I’m obsessed with finding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ways of aspiring to do just that. The Requiem that I’ve just written for Laura van der Heijden, Nicky Spence and a fantastic choir that I’ve put together is, in part, a kind of manifesto for everything I love about music. It’s my biggest work to date, and I’ve designed it in such a way as to (hopefully) crystallise the main things which make up my musical voice.

How do you work?

I work in very intense periods where a lot seems to happen very quickly! But of course this is only part of the process… I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ‘pre-composition’ – once an idea is floating around in my head, I find it very difficult to ignore, and it’s constantly evolving, shifting, forming… When these ideas get onto paper, the process has already begun (and a long night at my desk usually follows…)

Of which works are you most proud?

The works of which I’m most proud are the ones where I haven’t felt any pressure to make them something they’re not, or self-consciously ‘new’. One of my favourite Stephen Sondheim quotes is ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you, / Then it will be new’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

My favourite venues and spaces make you feel like the music is happening to you, however big or small they are – but this has a lot to do with the performance too…

Who are your favourite musicians?

The musicians I’m most inspired by are those for whom the notes they play are only the tip of the iceberg – musicians who are obsessively curious, who understand why the music they’re playing exists, and who can make you hear familiar music as if it were completely new.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2017 The Bach Choir performed my carol ‘Nowell’ at Cadogan Hall; there was some very specific choreography at the event which meant that I watched the premiere from onstage, facing sideways, so I was able to take in not only the choir but the full audience as well. This turned an already exciting moment into an electrifying one: it felt like a kind of arena, with 100 voices at the centre… what could be better?!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

My Spotify history at any given moment is a completely bizarre and eclectic mix of music – musical theatre has an extremely special place in my life, and I still can’t beat it for listening to on the go. At the moment I’m trying to discover as much new choral music as possible. I love finding music I’ve never even remotely heard of; those are the most exciting listening moments for me. In terms of playing, I love anything that gets me performing with other musicians – I love accompanying, and recently I’ve been able to delve deep into the french horn repertoire for an upcoming recital at Buxton Festival with Alexei Watkins.

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

If I’ve made something that nobody else could have made in exactly the same way, and which the performers really want to own, I’ve succeeded. The rest is largely beyond my control!

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

Be polite; be punctual; be proactive. The rest will follow!

The World Premiere of Alex Woolf’s Fairfield Fanfare will take place on Wednesday 18th September 7.30pm as part of the Fairfield Halls gala reopening concert with the London Mozart Players:

https://www.fairfield.co.uk/whats-on/london-mozart-players-fairfield-halls-gala-opening-concert/

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

Whilst on a German school exchange to Munich when I was fifteen I was taken to a performance of Berg’s Lulu in the Nationaltheater. I had never seen or heard anything like it before in my life and decided on the spot that I wanted to be a composer, especially of dramatic music (i.e. theatre, opera, ballet, film)

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

Meeting Olivier Messiaen while I was a student at the Royal College of Music confirmed my lifelong passion for his music. At that time I studied and loved Britten’s operas, and learned much about dramatic timing and word setting. I’ve also had a lifelong love of the music of Leoš Janácek, who still remains a strong influence. The concision of his writing, his limitless imagination in the development of motifs and his sophisticated melodic curves of speech continue to fascinate me.

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

I had the good fortune to be offered a lot of film commissions in my thirties and forties. One of the challenges was to put aside enough time each year to compose at least one major concert piece. It sometimes became frustrating not to have enough time in the year to develop compositional ideas. It was for this reason that, when I retired from film music four years ago, I decided to take a PhD at Bristol University in order to really get to grips with composition technique and to become more familiar with what is being written today.

Of which works are you most proud?

One of the works I wrote for the PhD was called Kalon, for string quartet and string orchestra. What is unusual about it is that the two string groups perform almost throughout in different simultaneous tempi. I nearly abandoned it twice, so difficult was it to write clearly in polytempo without it sounding a mess. When I heard the Czech Philharmonic play it for the Signum Classics recording I felt so glad that I had stuck with it and that the piece really works.

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

I’ve always needed to work to a deadline, even if the deadline is three years off. I have a fear of the piece either not being ready or not being the best I can write, so I tend to finish a commission months before it is due for delivery. This means I can sit with it, re-visit and change or improve large or small things before it is published and the parts are sent to the performers. With my second violin concerto Niobe I persuaded the Czech Philharmonic, who commissioned it, to let me have a playthrough with the wonderful soloist Tamsin Waley-Cohen four months before the first rehearsal. I learned so much from the experience and, as a result, revised several passages to give it even more punch and dramatic impact. In such circumstances my publisher Nimbus Publishing were endlessly patient in allowing me to re-print the score and parts for what turned out to be the definitive version that we premiered and recorded.

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

Knowing the choir, orchestra or soloists is always a pleasure.

Pietà is my third commission for the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and as well as knowing the choir very well I am always thrilled to work with their conductor Gavin Carr. Gavin heard the piece at different stages of the composition and made a number of incisive observations about voicing and the overall impact of the work’s structure and climaxes. I feel very lucky to have worked with collaborators like him, and Pietà is dedicated to Gavin in thanks for all his support and encouragement over many years.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

Hard to answer this one meaningfully. I’ve always felt a need to communicate with my music and consequently have tried, without limiting the freshness or originality of the work, to make it accessible and direct. Having experimented with atonal and serial music in my twenties I am now more interested in using different forms of modal music, or even triadic harmony in new ways. During the PhD I chose my thesis topic as polyrhythm, polymetre and polytempo, and I think my music is characterised by a rhythmic dynamism and freshness. People have also told me that my music is very melodic, and creating well-crafted melodic material remains one of my preoccupations.

How do you work?

I mostly work in my studio in the village in Oxfordshire where I live. The studio has inspiring views on a small lake and I work on a lovely Yamaha grand piano that is also aligned to a computer on which I write with Sibelius. I often sketch on manuscript paper, then go into short score or full orchestral. Occasionally I have ideas in the middle of the night and come downstairs to work for an hour or so. Mostly, I put in about eight hours a day and never work during the evenings, as my brain would be too stimulated to be able to sleep.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having people want to perform and hear my music is entirely my definition of success. Creating music that is good to play, sing or listen to is all I can hope for. If at a concert someone comes up after a performance and says they sincerely enjoyed the piece, or were visibly moved by it, makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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

If asked, I always tell composers to follow their hearts and their instinct, to write what they want to write rather than what is considered fashionable or in vogue. I hope they will write or perform out of love for what they do, rather than for the critics or the approval of a small elite. But this is just my own experience, and every musician has to follow their own path and create their own truth.

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

At this stage of my life I have decades of experience behind me of writing music in every genre, from commercial to art music. I hope that, energy and good health permitting, I still have my best work to come. I am a great admirer of the Japanese artist Hokusai, who said that nothing he created before his seventieth year amounted to very much, but by the age of seventy he was just getting the hang of painting. I like to think that, aged 65, I am beginning to get the hang of writing music.

The world première of Pietà, a new work by Richard Blackford, which will take place at the Lighthouse, Poole on Saturday 22 June 2019. Pietà is a setting of the Stabat Mater, with additional poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The work will be recorded for Nimbus shortly after the first performance. The London première will be on Saturday 19 October 2019 at the Cadogan Hall. 

Further information


Richard Blackford studied composition with John Lambert at the Royal College of Music, then with Hans Werner Henze in Rome. Early awards include the Tagore Gold Medal, the Ricordi Prize and the Mendelssohn Scholarship. He was first Composer-in-Residence at Balliol College Oxford, and later Composer-in-Residence to the Brno Philharmonic in the Czech Republic. His works were performed in the major music festivals of the world, including Adelaide, Berlin, Brighton, Montepulciano, Cheltenham, Long Island. He has composed in virtually every medium, including opera, choral, orchestral, theatre, film and ballet, with his most recent ballet Biophony (2015) in collaboration with Bernie Krause and Alonzo King, winning “Best Contemporary Performance 2016” in the Italian dance magazine Danza&Danza. As a media composer Richard was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music for his 4-hour score for the CNN/BBC series Millennium, and in 2015 was awarded Die Goldene Deutschland for services to music in Germany. His literary collaborators include; Ted Hughes, Maya Angelou and Tony Harrison. He is a Director of the charity Music For Youth, President of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, a Trustee of the Aberystwyth MusicFest and Trustee of The Bach Choir.

Richard Blackford’s music is published by Novello and Nimbus Publishing.

 

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

One of my earliest memories is going to our neighbour’s house to play on their piano. Irene had been a professional singer and I remember spending a lot of time making up music – I must have been 4 or 5 – and she was really encouraging.

I got hold of a recording of Debussy’s La Mer when I was 11 or 12. I grew up a few minutes walk from the beach and I remember being absolutely blown away by Debussy’s ability to paint pictures with sound. The piece is still one of my favourites.

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

I went to the Royal Academy of Music junior department when I was 14. I was at a very sporty comprehensive boys school and those Saturdays opened up a whole new world of opportunity. My lessons were supported by a county council scholarship and it saddens me that these specialist opportunities for ‘normal kids’ from ‘normal schools’ are now so scarce. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that experience.

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

I had a real crisis of confidence about my composition at university. There’s a real pressure nowadays to have everything sorted early on I definitely feel that it took me until my 30s to write music which I was happy with and which I felt was honest and representative of me. Some composers do get themselves sorted very early on and the composing and publishing world perpetuates that, but through my teaching work, I’m aware how off-putting this can be for those who need to develop their creativity more slowly.

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

I always feel that the rough guideline of a commission helps to put a few marks on the terrifying blank piece of paper. Some ideas of timing, instrumentation and occasion do help to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write some pieces for special occasions [wedding anniversaries/birthdays/weddings] and it’s lovely to be reminded in this context that music is a gift: we are as composers giving music to an audiences and performers and its important to be mindful of that when we’re composing.

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

It’s a real treat to write music for musicians we’ve got to know. I wrote quite a few pieces for the Schubert Ensemble and it was a real pleasure to develop a real working relationship with an ensemble. The concerto I wrote for Simon Blendis [From Crystal Heav’ns Above] grew out of my relationship with the Schubert Ensemble and it feels like a very personal piece because of that.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’ve written a series of concerti over the last while. Aside from the violin concerto for Simon, I was commissioned by the Presteigne Fetival to write a new concerto for pianist Tom Poster [Laments and Lullabies] and wrote an oboe concerto [The Rider from Artemision] for Magdalen College School in Oxford last year. There’s something about the concerto genre which I love – the inherent narrative and drama seems to suit me.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

So this is the question I’ve been dreading. I mentioned the crisis of confidence I had in my late teens and twenties and it was due in part to spending time with composers with a very clear idea about what was ‘good contemporary music’. I’m delighted that many of the composers I teach now have a delightfully broad and eclectic outlook but I really felt a bit suffocated by what I felt was a very narrow band of composers writing music which didn’t speak to me.

People often describe my music as lyrical, a label which I’m happy with. And I always consider audiences and players when I’m writing – that triangle between composer, audience and performer is the holy trinity of composition as far as I’m concerned!

How do you work?

I was the slowest composer I ken for a very long time but I do write more quickly and more instinctively than I used to. I think you get better at trusting your own judgement.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I mentioned Debussy earlier and my interest in his music is a constant. Michael Tippett has always been a big inspiration: his music is so full of energy and colour and he was someone who very much ploughed his own furrow: the music is very distinctive, adventurous and creative. In the same mould, perhaps, is Judith Weir. I know a piece of hers after I’ve heard 2 bars: her musical language is not really like any one else’s and I’m always drawn into her sound world immediately. I’ve shared my life for many years with composer Alasdair Nicolson and he’s a great inspiration personally and compositionally. His music has real clarity and he’s one of the finest orchestrators I know.

I grew up in a music-loving household. Mum and Dad spent their 20’s at concerts of all of the jazz greats [Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong]. I know the great American songbook recordings back to front and Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations are second to none.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I’m delighted when an audience member pops up and says how much they got from a performance of one of my pieces.

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

Be yourself, trust your instincts.


David Knotts first came to public attention as a finalist in the 1994 Young Musician of the Year Competition when the London Sinfonietta premiered his first large scale work, Songs of Parting. The exceptional warmth and lyricism of these Whitman settings brought interest from many quarters and a string of commissions from some of the country’s finest soloists, orchestras and chamber-music ensembles followed.

These have included the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Endymion Ensemble, English National Opera, the Composers Ensemble, the Britten Estate (to celebrate the re-opening of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall) and a series of pieces for the Schubert Ensemble.

Born in West Sussex in 1972, David Knotts began formal piano tuition at the age of seven. His interest in composition soon followed and he studied for five years as a junior exhibitioner at the Royal Academy of Music. He went on to study with Robin Holloway at Cambridge University, Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and completed a doctorate in composition with Martin Butler in 2004. In 2007, he was made an honorary associate of the Royal Academy of Music where he has taught since 1994 and is also a member of staff at Trinity College of Music.

The genesis of David Knotts’ intensely lyrical and personal style can be traced back to his early settings of Walt Whitman. Since their première, he has been preoccupied with poetry and prose as a source of inspiration. Many of his titles reflect this interest in writers ranging from Virgil (Secret Gardens) to Viginia Woolf (…and fall and rise, and fall and rise again…/To the Lighthouse) and Tasso (Adorni di Canto) to Zhang Dai (Nightwatching: ways of looking at the moon). There is also a keen interest in folk poetry: Albanian laments in A Sea Green Partridge of April, Cretan love poetry in Bring Down an Angel and Spanish ballads in The Count Arnau.

David has also been drawn to compose for the stage. He has worked extensively with writer, Katharine Craik, a relationship which has produced two chamber operas, Stormlight and Bake for One Hour. His 2006 opera, Mister Purcell – His Ground was premièred at the Royal Opera House and his latest operatic venture, a macabre cabaret opera with writer and singer, Jessica Walker entitled An Eye for an Eye was premièred at the 2013 Bath and St Magnus International Festivals.

Recent highlights have included The Count Arnau for Bassoon and Orchestra, commissioned by the BBC and performed by all of the BBC Orchestras and a new piece for the Schubert Ensemble, On such a night as this is! premièred at the South Bank in a concert to celebrate the birthday of composer, Howard Skempton. This piece was subsequently featured in a tour of the US and was featured in the BBC’s festival of the music of Judith Weir and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Recent commissions have included a collaboration with Barnsley poet, Ian McMillan for Robert Ziegler and the Matrix Ensemble, (Outstruments: A Sound Adventure)The Long Way Home for the Lawson Trio (recorded on the Prima Facie label) Tsirana for Pipers3, Fossegrimmen for cellist Gemma Rosefield and a violin concerto for Simon Blendis, From Crystal Heavn’s Above. Recent commissions have included Laments and Lullabies, a piano concerto for Tom Poster for the 2015 Presteigne Festival,Toads on a Tapestry, a large scale cantata with poet John Gallas commissioned for the nationwide Magna Carta celebrations and Grimm Tales for guitarist, Craig Ogden. Future plans include an opera based on Shakespeare’s late romance, Pericles.

davidknotts.co.uk

 

 

(Photograph by Alasdair Nicolson)

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

It was hearing Monk’s Dream (Thelonious Monk Quartet) at 17, amidst the sea of UK garage and US Hip Hop I was listening to, that really made me want to play. I’d wander into the music rooms at my school between lessons and start hitting notes; school wasn’t the best of times (probably a universally applicable statement), and the sense of being able to assign inexpressible feelings to keys and sequences of notes, however primitively they may have been expressed and constructed, was completely absorbing.

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

It’s probably no exaggeration to say Tourette’s Syndrome (TS). I didn’t know it by its name when I was a teenager (and wouldn’t until my early twenties) but I did know that the piano – the immersion I felt in it, the satisfaction of this innate [again universal, yet arguably slightly amplified [in the case of TS] craving for rhythm – offered me relief from my own body.

I think I would always have felt some draw to the instrument on a musical level – but without TS I’m not so sure that I would have stayed at the piano.

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

The greatest challenge has probably been sticking with things, over months and years, trying to carry on persevering in spite it feeling delusional/completely unachievable at points. But I’m not actually sure this was a challenge; I didn’t really view doing what I wanted to be doing as a choice.

As an aside – I’m not sure I’d call my relationship to/involvement with music a career as such – partly because I try to split my time relatively evenly between sonic and visual areas but also because I’m slightly uncomfortable with the word ‘career’. I’ve always associated that word with the people who came to my school, asked me some questions and then suggested I was destined for one in the catering industry.

‘Career’ seems to evoke a sense of detachment or distinction from a life that must exist around it, in spite of it…personal life versus career. For better or worse, I’ve wanted to avoid doing anything with my life that I’d feel any need or desire to escape or detach from.

Career’ to me at least, is the imposition of artificially constructed expectations – from society and self it implies trajectory, outcome, above all – an attempt to quantify that which perhaps should exist outside the realm of metrics.

So perhaps one of my biggest challenges is to remember quite how much I don’t want to build a career. I don’t ever want to retire from what I’m choosing to give my time and my life to. And I suppose within that lies the ever-present question of whether what I’m choosing to give my time to is something I should be giving my time to.

My biggest frustration would definitely be the amount of time I need to spend in front of a screen to facilitate my engagement with a world that exists beyond it.

Another challenge I’m becoming increasingly aware of is how to communicate simple ideas without sounding detached and pretentious.

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

My main, and relatively limited, experience of ‘commissioned’ music has been through film scores (a few shorts, documentary / narrative and a feature documentary). It’s a real privilege to be trusted with someone else’s work – and exciting to be able to respond to it.

I think part of the challenge is to factor in an awareness that what I’m doing should be informed but not limited by my response to the material. At the end of the day it’s someone else’s film – something they’ve potentially been working on for years and poured their life into, they’ll be attached to certain ideas when it comes to soundscapes and it’s important to be respectful of those ideas whilst also knowing when to be assertive and speak out and constructively disagree.

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

At its best, collaboration really takes me outside myself – there’s a lowering of inhibitions and a confidence that doesn’t quite exist when playing solo. There’s also far more objectivity – good ideas mean so much more and crap ideas get removed so much earlier – or at least the process of working to redeem them begins much earlier.As far as challenges go – giving / being open to receiving feedback. But then if communication’s good and there’s mutual respect that’s 90% of the work done.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m particularly proud of the mini album ‘Weightless’. I’d been holding on to four little piano tracks for a few years  – almost as a safety net to be used if felt like my involvement in music was really slipping away.

I decided to try to commission a non-remix style remix album (one which wasn’t comprised of four C-grade club remixes) that could extend the small scope of the piano tracks into something more expansive and offer a more cohesive listening experience. I approached some friends whose music I loved and asked them to respond as honestly as possible to the themes of titles, to go wherever they felt musically led but just asked they remained tethered, however loosely, to some part of the original. I loved the resulting reworks and the musical variety that had spawned from these four very simple piano pieces- all credit for that of course goes to the four artists involved (Tom Adams, Siavash Amini, Hedia, Transept).

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I’m interested in attempting to bring a variety of influences and feelings to the piano. I like leaving room for slight variety in performance, space for improvisation at points. That gives me room to grow in my existing compositions and for them to grow with me too. I like melody but am trying to push my understanding and use of harmony further along. Whilst I love sparser music that I can get lost in, I find I’m generally more interested in narrative – I’d say most of the music I make, on piano at least, has some sense of journey attached baked into it. I can fully appreciate and welcome simplicity but equally don’t like easy answers so I try to not to offer those through my music either – life very rarely, if ever, finds itself exclusively steeped in one end of the existential spectrum so it doesn’t make sense to me for music to do so either.

How do you work?

Occasionally something will come out of nowhere but usually the process is fairly slow. I tend to play things over and over, record primitively on my phone (when camera phones were smaller I used to put one in my mouth and film what my hands were playing. Now I just record audio on my phone and hope to remember the fingering), listen back, play back, add, subtract, listen, listen – extend this process over weeks or months. By the end ideas have either been near fully formed or if I start to find them boring I let go of them.
Time becomes a filter, through which only the stuff that still interests me passes.

Even with my upcoming album – I’m listening to it on almost daily basis to make sure, at least up to the point of release, that I still feel accurately represented by it and sufficiently interested in it.  I don’t mind if I change my mind at some future point but I need to know that at the moment of release it is music that still means something to me.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I really love Stevie Wonder’s albums from the 1970s. Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck. My favourite album of 2018 was Baloji’s “137 Avenue Kaniama” and having him seen him perform it live last year can easily say he’s one of my favourite performers.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To remember that expression isn’t a commodity and music isn’t a competition. To balance your strengths and limits over that fine line between thinking you’re shit / THE shit.

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

To have confidence in your story and own it, don’t expect everyone to get it or the music that comes from it – make stuff for yourself primarily and treat anyone else wanting to listen in as a welcome bonus.

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

Primarily outside.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Finding stability in transition and being free from expectations.. with a football in one hand and a frisbee in the other.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love walking and being outside as much as possible. I used to love playing football almost more than anything else – I really miss it.

What is your present state of mind?

Honestly – conflicted and unsettled. Trying to question things without getting completely lost.

Alex Kozobolis’ new album ‘Somewhere Else’ is released on 26 April and is an album with the piano at its heart. Alex describes the piano as possessing a therapeutic magnetism for him, having originally turned to the instrument as a way of regulating the symptoms of his Tourette syndrome. A jazz-like preoccupation with improvisation is embedded within the album, each track was brought to the studio slightly incomplete allowing for spontaneity during the recording process.


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(Photos by Özge Cöne)

ireland-england-cover-resizeGuest review by Adrian Ainsworth

A fascinating work to review, this. A deliberate hybrid of artforms: the soundtrack element combines features of electronica, classical composition and sound art, while the video it accompanies is more verbal than visual, a series of facts and figures displayed over an unchanging, neutral background colour.

As Clancy is first and foremost a composer, I paid most attention first time through to the music. It is described as ‘drone-based’, so –repeating and sustained patterns of notes and chords, occasional percussion… here, all created on synthesisers. It’s an intense listen: the rhythmic taps near the start reminded me of Reich’s ‘Drumming’, and the flurries of ‘blips’ which follow increasing the sense of bustle, agitation. Even at its most stretched-out, there are often elements of dissonance or slight distortion that underline this unsettled vibe.

As this composer was new to me, I listened to some of his previous work, in particular the album ‘Small, Far Away’. In many ways, much of that record seems to capture – in bite-size tracks – an approach that Clancy is pushing to almost ‘concept album’ limits on ‘Ireland England’. The music suggests to me a grounding in an ambient, freeform soundworld, invaded by more industrial, hyperactive influences… where a Brian Eno recording might be respectfully – but not too reverently – taken apart by sonic disruptors like Aphex Twin or Shackleton.

I’ve now mentioned the ‘concept’ – and this is where ‘Ireland England’ in fact becomes a multimedia proposition, as you watch the text video while listening. Like art in a gallery, then, the interpretation is provided to us – we’re not left to our own devices. There are two key strands running through the piece. As ideas, they are linked, but as the music plays through, they run more or less in parallel without meeting.

The whole work represents the flight Clancy regularly takes from Dublin to Birmingham. He has divided it into seven sections (“safety announcement / taxi / take-off / cruise / descent / landing / taxi”). This is all explained in the opening stages of the video, which then pursues the second strand, detailing other journeys made by Irish travellers to England, and their reasons for doing so. My impression is that while the stages of his own commute have given Clancy a framework, his composition really takes flight with this second idea – as the intensity levels of the piece seem to increase at points where the migrations are at their most heart-rendingly stressful (fleeing unrest, seeking abortions).

I suspect that if the visuals had pushed into even artier territory – maybe found some way to illustrate the commuter flight alongside the statistics – the piece could have soared higher. But that is to review something the work isn’t, rather than focusing on what it is.

In the face of such emotive subject matter and such a strong folk tradition, it’s fascinating in itself that a composer has sought to express these scenarios through the ‘colder’ medium of electronics. There are ghosts in the machines.

I like to think that ‘Ireland England’ – outside its mission, so to speak – will find a future as an opportunity for electro-classical musicians and groups to experiment with levels of extremity across single, extended performances. The score Clancy has prepared for the work (some instructions and a single sheet’s worth of notation) seems to allow players to re-interpret almost every element, including its length. The composer’s own 35-minute recording is as precision-tooled as it gets, with the sheet music allowing for performance times of up to an hour or so. It would be interesting to hear a ‘cover version’ and see where someone else might take this blueprint.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking out with interest for whatever Clancy decides to do next.

ireland england by Seán Clancy. Released 1 February 2019

Album available to stream/download here


Seán Clancy is a composer and performer who writes music for electronic and acoustic instruments. Through defamiliarisation, repetition, fragmentation, and the use of drones, his music tries to reach out to people and say hello… He lives in Dublin and is a senior lecturer in composition at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK.

Sean Clancy’s website


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Twitter: @adrian_specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

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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