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

When I was very young (2 or 3 years old) I would visit my grandmother and watch her play piano. She was amazing – she could play by ear. The memory that is the clearest for me is listening to her play “Harlem Stride” piano – mostly songs by the great Jelly Roll Morton. She would have this incredible laugh. It was pure joy. I was captivated and I wanted that for myself. It‘s funny – at 3 years old I don’t think I knew what “that” was…

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

How much time do you have? (laughs) I think the single biggest influence on me has been film music. I have been listening to film music since seeing “Fantasia” (Disney 1940). I have always been amazed at how music and visual could work together. Even now, my recordings are so programmatic. I love creating “scenes” and characters in my songs. People ask if my songs are about me… or if I am the central person that the song is based on. The answer is a resounding “no”. Music is an opportunity for me to inhabit the lives and experiences of others – just like in the movies.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My new recording “Cupid Blindfolded” has been one of the most satisfying of my life. I think it started with the writing. I was very, very focused and disciplined and I think all of the preparation made a huge difference. Many of my other piano recordings have been either completely improvised or partially improvised – “Cupid” stands out as a triumph of performance and composition for me. I also think “Cupid” is the best sounding piano recording I have ever made. Engineer Tom Eaton is a genius and he did an amazing job. You can watch a “mini-documentary” about the making of the recording here:

 

Watch the first video here:

The other album that I am very proud of is: “The Shadows of October.” It’s a collection of my ‘classical’ chamber works including my two string quartets. You can listen to my String Quartet No. 1 here:

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

It’s hard to say because I only perform live 5 or 6 times a year. Frankly, I hate playing my pieces exactly the way I recorded them. In concert, I use the melody as a “jumping off point” and I take the audience on an adventure musically. It’s been fun to take a very popular melody like “I Have Loved You for a Thousand Lifetimes” and watch it evolve over the last 15 years. In the case of that song, I do NOT mess with the melody. I think there would be a riot at the performance! (laughs)

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Last year, I did a concert for about 75 people – lovely space. No chairs. People laid on matts. Some did yoga (quietly). Some napped. Some held hands with their friends and partners and just “vibed” to the music. A woman even laid down UNDER my piano! It was wonderful. The audience loved it. I might do it again with all this new music I have created.

How would you describe your compositional style?

I think my language changes based on the type of music I am creating. I am something of a “chameleon” in this way. I might be creating a “rock” track for a jingle that has a very different musical language than a classical piece versus my solo piano music which is maybe the ONLY place in my musical life where I take shards of all the musics I create and press them into their own palette. On my new album, “Cupid Blindfolded”, you can hear my pop, jazz, soundtrack, classical and even my bent towards chromaticism – even avant-garde. I love the idea of self limiting systems in music. For example, a string quartet is the most rigorous kind of system where you have these four instruments and centuries of repertoire. Writing for solo piano is a similar challenge but you can surf more easily inside of “style” or “genre”. Recently, a reviewer on the radio said: “it’s ridiculous to call Michael Whalen’s music on ‘Cupid Blindfolded’ ’new age’”. (laughs) Honestly, I have to agree. I am pulling together 30 years of experience when I make my music. The only problem is that I trip over my limitations as a “pianist” while trying to execute the music I have created often!

How do you work?

Oh, this is TOP secret! (laughs) Honestly, it changes from project to project. However, for my recordings – – I do two things: first, I create the NAMES of the songs before writing a note of music. Secondly, I like to have some idea on the cover artwork as early in the process as possible. Having these elements helps me focus on the “story” and the “character” of each piece. I love writing programmatically. I guess it is from writing so much music to picture.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Freedom. Artistic, financial and creative freedom. Two out of three ain’t bad! (Laughs)

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

Integrity. I think for musicians coming up to be true to who they are as artists versus trying to create “content” to be popular. I have friends my age who battle with this idea. They think to be relevant they have to be well liked. That is nonsense. To be relevant you need to be saying something that is connecting with people authentically. Fans can smell a fake a million miles away. You can’t fake soul, emotion or pathos.

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

Exactly where I am.

 

Michael Whalen’s new album Cupid Blindfolded, his first solo piano album in 20 years, is available now. Stream or buy “Cupid Blindfolded” here


Michael Whalen is a two-time Emmy® Award winning composer and music supervisor (with 8 nominations) who has worked in advertising, television, film and video games for over 30 years. Some of his best-known work: “Veronika Decides to Die” (2014), “What the Bleep Do You Know?”, “As The World Turns”, themes for HBO, CBS News, ABC News’ “Good Morning America”, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, dozens of specials for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, The BBC, NHK and the History Channel and television films for Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. Michael is also an internationally known recording artist with 32 solo and soundtrack recordings to his credit. Well-known for his beautiful and thematic music, he performs when time allows. He has also produced and executive produced over 100 recordings for other artists. His work as a executive producer resulted in a Grammy Nomination in 2000. 

michaelwhalen.com

 

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