Piano music commissioned and recorded during lockdown to support musicians struggling during the Covid-19 crisis

There have been many initiatives to keep the music playing and support musicians during these difficult times. What all of these initiatives demonstrate is that musicians are, despite straitened circumstances, determined to keep playing and to continue to share their music with audiences. It also sends a powerful message to government that the industry is determined to survive, to let the music play, come what may.

I have a personal interest in this wonderful project by pianist Duncan Honeybourne: Duncan and I are friends, and also colleagues – together we run a lunchtime concert series in Weymouth.

During the UK lockdown, Duncan decided to offer short video recitals from his home every day. He called them ‘Piano Soundbites’. The series proved very popular and within a few weeks, Duncan had the idea to approach composers to ask them to write new piano pieces for him, to be premiered as ‘Contemporary Piano Soundbites’ in his video recitals. Alongside this, Duncan set up a Just Giving page to raise funds for Help Musicians UK (formerly the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund). The response was incredible – the project, which was ranked in the top 10% of Just Giving fundraisers nationally during April 2020, has already raised well over £2000 for Help Musicians UK, supporting musician colleagues struggling in the current situation.

‘Contemporary Piano Soundbites’ celebrates the diversity of styles embraced by a broad cross-section of professional composers working today. Featured composers include Sadie Harrison, Graham Fitkin, John McLeod, David Lancaster, Francis Pott, Luke Whitlock and John Casken, as well as younger and emerging composers, and each piece is no more than 6 minutes long at the most. These piano miniatures represent an important contribution to the ever-expanding repertoire for the instrument, to be enjoyed by amateur, professional and student pianists alike.

pianist Duncan Honeybourne

“….it was an invigorating experience to record an entire disc of pieces which hadn’t existed less than four months earlier! Especially stimulating and exciting is the juxtaposition of several leading senior composers with some of their most gifted younger colleagues. Several young composers make their first appearances on disc.

My objective, as I stated in my invitation to composers, was fourfold: to imaginatively harness the zeitgeist of our present situation: to bring comfort and enjoyment to a large ready-made audience stuck at home, to aid musicians badly affected by the “cultural lockdown” and to add to the contemporary repertoire, creating an artistic keepsake of this extraordinary phase in our history.

My long term plan is that, as well as helping our colleagues at a time of need, the collection will provide a snapshot of reflections and musings by some of the finest and most distinctive composers of our time at a unique and unprecedented moment in our history. I hope the disc will make for a refreshing, enriching, stimulating and quirky listening experience too!”
Duncan Honeybourne, September 2020

The music was recorded in late July 2020 in the new Gransden Hall at Sherborne Girls School, Dorset.

The disc is released on the Prima Facie label and is available to order now

For review copies, sample tracks, interviews with Duncan and other press information please contact Frances Wilson


Meet the Artist interview with Duncan Honeybourne


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

I started my musical journey by having group trombone lessons at school ran by my local music service in Wolverhampton and then soon took up the clarinet, too. Unusually, I did not grow up in a home filled with music, as my parents and wider family have no musical training and there was certainly no music playing in my house at all. Therefore, my formative musical experiences rely mostly on my involvement with my city youth orchestra. My parents have always been extraordinarily supportive of my ideas so at age 14 they bought me a piano and then I began improvising on it and then notating it down. This became something I did rather frequently, although my motivation for doing so was purely just for the enjoyment of it; I didn’t really consider it the act of ‘composing’ as such. A few years later I attended a BBC Proms Inspire workshop in Birmingham and there, due to a chance encounter, I found out that conservatoires existed. I then applied to and attended the Junior Royal Northern College of Music and won the BBC Proms Young Composer’s competition in the following year, which had a large influence on my decision to take composing seriously. Since then, my career has expanded in directions that I could never have imagined or dreamed of. I, therefore, can’t recall the exact moment that I decided to become a composer and pursue a career in music, as I just simply followed the path of what I loved doing. I’m extremely grateful for all the opportunities and experiences that it has afforded me so far.

Which composers have most influenced the development of your music?

When I first started listening to classical music it was mostly Russian composers from the classical canon! Since then, however, the composers that I’m interested in do change frequently and vary widely. I think that the people that have had the most influence on my development would probably be those immediately around me, such as those that I meet, the musicians I write for, and the composers I interact with.

You compose for diverse ensembles, orchestral arrangements, choirs, solo voices, even operatic forms. What drives your experimentation?

I think mostly wanting to develop a musical language that is able to transverse a variety of instrumental ensembles or combinations drives my composition. My method is often the same regardless of what the ensemble is. It’s really important to me, however, to know what the instrumentation is going to be for a long period of time before I begin composing, as I like to imagine a sound-world that utilities that particular instrumental grouping effectively.

How would you characterize your compositional/musical language?

I think my musical language is mostly characterized first and foremost by the use of texture to create atmospheric sound-worlds, which are formed out of linear melodic fragments often inspired by art, poetry or literature to take a listener on a narrative journey… or something along those lines!

How do you work?

I often use extra-musical sources such as contemporary artwork or poetry as my starting point to inspire my music. I will then ruminate over my ideas before taking them to the piano where I improvise musical fragments, and develop the overall structure of the work, before I begin to notate the music down on paper. My compositional process is highly intuitive, almost always in response to my own thoughts and feelings and, therefore, I don’t have a specific writing technique that I can replicate for each piece. I suppose the most fixed aspect of my working process is instead the environment that I choose to compose in, which is often past the midnight hour in that form of silence that you can only achieve whilst everyone else is asleep.

We first heard ‘beneath the silken silence’ at LSO St Lukes as part of the Panufnik Composers Scheme. The work is beautiful and striking, and contains rich tonal harmonies set against more atonal underpinnings. Can you explain how you achieve this unity?

‘Beneath the silken silence’, like a lot of my works, was written in response to a poem, which in this case was Sara Teasdale’s ‘The Faery Forest’. The piece is inspired by both the imagery and phrase structure within the prose and therefore, acts as an unspoken vocalization of the poem. The work seeks to create an atmospheric sound-world to reflect the dream-like movements of nature portrayed in the poem. The harmonic content of the work is also based on this poetic setting, as it is created as a linear line and then loosely reoriented to achieve a tonally centred foundation.

The sophistication of your music seems to belie your age. ‘Fireworks’ is another striking work. How was the piece conceived? Can you tell us something of the process you use in composition?

To compose ‘Fireworks’, a piece for solo soprano voice and orchestra that I wrote in 2018, I began with the text, which is a poem of the same name by the American poet, Amy Lowell. After altering the text by changing and adding a few lines, as I often do, I set it to music as a fragmentary melodic vocal line, which becomes the basis of the work. I then also used this to inform the harmonic and structural shape of the piece. This, as I explained previously, is all a very intuitive process.

Each of your works seems to be associated with or inspired by a specific story, idea, image or illusion. How important is this in your work?

The concept behind each work is extremely important to me. The first step of composing any piece begins with my interaction with an extra-musical source inspiration, and from that I form the idea and the all-important title, which becomes the identity of the work. The story, idea or image that is associated with the work is what enables me to become energized to write and envelop myself in the world of the piece that I’m creating.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? Which compositions are you most proud of?

The greatest challenges are probably trying to avoid being over-critical during the composition process and also creating a good balance between composing and life. The compositions that I’m most proud of are always hopefully the next ones!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think definitions of success are highly subjective and will be different for every musician but, for me, it is being able to continually strive to impart the music of my own particular ‘musical voice’ with genuine clarity. Something I love about the arts is that each person can have their own differing experience from the same piece of music or artwork, whether that’s emotionally or something else, through their own perception of that specific work and the lens of their own influence, and so I’d also like to write pieces that allow space for people to explore themselves through the work whilst simultaneously remaining faithful to my own self-expression.

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

Be true to yourself, explore the music you are passionate about, and don’t be afraid to experiment!

What’s next for you? Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? For the future, do you have a dream project or collaboration in mind?

I feel very fortunate to have worked with brilliant organizations, musicians and ensembles and my interactions with them have certainly shaped my work, how I think about music, and its relation to the wider community. I am always coming up with dream ventures and thinking far into the future about musical, and non-musical, passion projects. I think two of my dream pieces that I would really love to write (and ones that I often daydream about in any spare time!) are to write both the music and the libretto for a full- length opera, and a concerto, possibly for viola or something….. I would really love that.


Grace-Evangeline Mason is an award-winning composer based in the UK. She has worked with ensembles and artists including members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, BBC singers, Trio Atem, Royal Northern Sinfonia, London Early Opera, Aurora Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s new music group, Ensemble 10:10, in venues across the UK and internationally. Her music has been performed at festivals including the New Music North West Festival, the Open Circuit Festival, London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, Cheltenham Music Festival, Southbank SoundState Festival, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Connecticut, and the 2017 BBC Proms. 

Mason is the recipient of awards including the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composer of the Year (2013), the Rosamond Prize (2016), the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Christopher Brooks Prize (2017) and the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize (2018).

graceevangelinemason.com

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

I began singing in school and church choirs – while I’m not particularly religious, my first church choir director encouraged me to take private lessons in musicianship and voice from her (an organist) and her husband (a baritone). I was inspired by my sister (a cellist) to go to conservatory for my music degree and pursue the career, and parents were (and still are) 100% supportive of my artistic goals.

I was inspired to specialize in contemporary vocal music by two groups of people – (1) my college classmates in the composition department, who exposed me to new music and encouraged me to use my creativity in creating unique sounds, and (2) a whole lot of singers who are true entrepreneurs; something that blew things wide open for me was seeing singers use their voices in their own artistic ways and creating opportunities for themselves, as opposed to conforming to the traditional operatic career. My voice has never been traditional, so seeing artists who think creatively like I do was a game changer.

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

Again, composers are my greatest influence. Composers remind me to remain curious and to create sounds that are fresh and genuinely inspired. Collaborating with composers is one of the most fun things about my job, and performing/listening to new works has brought me nothing but exhilaration and rejuvenation.

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

One of my greatest challenges was regaining my confidence. I lost my confidence, and almost lost my voice, in college, and after college I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with my singing, let alone how to obtain joy from singing. I knew I loved contemporary music, but taking the step to curating my first show was hard. I had to create the smallest bud of confidence for myself, and I think I did that my just focusing on my love for the music I wanted to sing, and I had to abandon the need for validation from others. I achieved this, but it took a lot of self-reflection, some therapy, and a huge leap of faith.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Several, but one that comes to mind is a collaboration that was in the jazz / avant-garde scene. La Operación, a work for solo soprano, two saxophones, two double basses and two drumsets, was written this year by bassist Nick Dunston, and the work is an abstract interpretation of a historical phenomenon involving colorism in Puerto Rico, eugenics, medical malpractice, second-wave feminism, and American colonialism. The piece is a structured improvisation consisting of tone rows, construction sounds, and a massive pile of extended techniques. I loved singing and improvising in this work, and it opened up a new vault of sounds which I now use in my repertoire.

Within the “new classical scene”, a couple of performances that come to mind are the chamber music experiences I’ve been a part of, particularly with Wavefield Ensemble and Ekmeles Ensemble. The repertoire from each of these collaborations (including works by Kaija Saariaho, Bernhard Lang, Lewis Nielson, Victoria Cheah and Nathan Davis) was very challenging, but both groups were incredible to work with and we made some pretty incredible music. I grew immensely as an artist working with each group.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

One of my staple works is Georges Aperghis’ 14 Recitations for solo voice. I learned this work a couple of years ago, and the work is rarely performed in its entirety. I’ve performed the full work several times already, and each time I feel that I get better and better. The work fits me like a glove, and I just love singing it.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I have a bucket list of works that I want to learn and perform. But when I go through my season, I try to strike a balance between learning new works and rehashing old ones so that I don’t over extend myself.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, NY. The music that comes out of this place is stellar. From the Resonant Bodies festival, to avant-garde improvisers, to interdisciplinary artists… This place is just filled with crazy amazing music-making.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Like, everyone. But here are a few: Claire Chase, Sarah Maria Sun, Barbara Hannigan, St. Vincent, and Janelle Monet.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I recently gave a TEDx Talk and Performance (called “Your Voice Is A Fingerprint”) about contemporary vocal music in Waltham, MA. That was pretty amazing.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Honestly, being happy with how music balances your life. It’s different for everyone, which is super important to be aware of, and finding that balance can lift a huge weight of your shoulders. Plus, it makes for better music-making because you’re making music for yourself above others.

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

See above. I’m a huge proponent of music being a personal journey and a self-chosen journey. Whether that choice is traditional, entrepreneurial, or even a hobby, choosing how music is a part of your life (and not dictated by society or mentors or whoever) is an important part of being an honest, creative and liberated artist.

What is your most treasured possession?

I have a keepsake box in which I collect notes and such from performances. I also keep negative notes that people have sent to me or taped on my apartment door when I practice. Everything, good and bad, intelligent and ridiculous, reminds me to lock into my confidence, remain curious, and to keep going.


Colombian-American soprano Stephanie Lamprea is an architect of new sounds and expressions as a performer, recitalist, curator and improviser, specializing in contemporary classical repertoire. Trained as an operatic coloratura, Stephanie uses her voice as a mechanism of avant-garde performance art, creating “maniacal shifts of vocal production and character… like an icepick through the skull” (composer Jason Eckardt). Her work has been described as “mercurial” by I Care If You Listen, and she “sings so expressively and slowly with ever louder and higher-pitched voice, that the inclined listener [has] shivers down their back and tension flows into the last row.” (Halberstadt.de) She received a 2019 Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, and she was awarded 2nd prize in the international John Cage Awards, sponsored by the John Cage Orgel Stiftung in Halberstadt, Germany. Her curatorial work received a 2018 grant from the Puffin Foundation. Stephanie was a featured TEDx Speaker in TEDxWaltham: Going Places.

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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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