Joanna Marsh

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

I think it was watching ‘Young Musician of the Year’ on our black and white telly in the 1970s ignited my competitiveness and made me get on and do some practice. Although much of that ‘practice’ was improvising and composing because that is what principally interested me – though I took a long time to acknowledge it. For ages I thought the only way to have a career in music was to be a performer.

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

One day when a pupil hadn’t turned up I decided to show some of my music to a talented composer friend. His reaction was pretty straightforward – I needed to do more and to get my work “out there”. I hadn’t had any real affirmation of my music before and although it sounds ridiculous, I was on a high for about a week after that.

Later I met Judith Bingham who became a tremendous friend and mentor. Early on, she insisted that I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough, which forced me to examine my approach. Organists can be a bit “throwaway” about the production of music, which is so often done on the spur of the moment with very little thoughtful preparation. Composing is different, not because of the speed of creativity; it’s about the preparation and decision-making in advance. It is the pre-compositional process that leads to the depth and meaning of the music which is eventually created.

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

When I moved to Dubai because of my husband’s job, my worry was, “That’s it. Game over”. But actually, the experience has taught me a huge amount about seeking out opportunities and making things happen rather than waiting around hoping to be noticed by others.

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

I really enjoy the sense of “team involvement” and having people invested in you. Knowing there is someone else interested in what you are producing is such a relief because composing is such an isolating process. I also deeply appreciate having deadlines. Luckily I have never had a commissioner who has “got in the way” of the process.

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

Having dedicated professional musicians rehearse and perform your music is always a revelation. They breathe life into the thing you have struggled and grappled with for weeks or months. They’re the chefs who turn your recipe into a feast, checking with you that the taste is just as it is intended to be.

Working with musicians who haven’t prepared or even thought about your music is all about damage limitation. It’s very draining.

I once wrote a piano piece for a pretty well respected European pianist. He’d had a run of completely insane projects (including playing the complete Liszt in 48 hours!) and hadn’t opened the score before he arrived at the venue to rehearse. He sight-read very roughly through my piece while I sat there cringing and it was not much better in the performance the next day. I’m sure he felt bad about it, but I definitely felt worse because I had to sit there in the performance pretending my piece was really supposed to sound like that. It was nothing like!

Which works are you most proud of?

Immediately after finishing a piece I usually worry that it is complete rubbish. It’s often only years later that I get any kind of perspective. In my second year of living in Dubai I wrote my orchestral piece Kahayla and had the idea that I could write the score out on a giant piece of paper so it looked like a picture of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. So I did it and it always gets mistaken for an actual drawing. But the musical content was the only important thing as I was writing. The ideas behind it were strong and a sense of flow was there.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Among my composer contemporaries I love the music of Joseph Phibbs. He has a unique voice: beautiful and extraordinary, especially orchestrally.

I find pianist Katya Apekisheva’s playing wonderfully lyrical. And what a communicator! I hope she is huge in the future.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

I recently heard the Syrian ney flute player Moslem Rahal in Abu Dhabi play a solo accompanied by rabab and Arabic percussion. It was a partly improvised piece derived from a mediaeval Spanish folk melody; very lyrical and rhythmically complex. He found a huge number of voices and colours in that instrument and virtuosic multiphonics appeared and disappeared seamlessly in the texture. There was no sign of him taking a single breath in those 20 minutes. I was riveted with awe: it was quite an outer-body experience.

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

You need to be open to what life brings you. Don’t just think of the next thing coming up as the real opportunity, what you have on your plate NOW is the opportunity.

What is your present state of mind?

Slightly wired. I have lots of projects going on at the moment.


Joanna Marsh’s new work “Arabesques” is being premiered by The Kings Singers at Kings Place on 29 January as past of the London A Cappella Festival 2015. “Arabesques” is inspired Middle Eastern culture and is a setting of three poems by three contemporary Arab poets (Sa’adi Youssef, Abboud al Jabiri and Khaled Abdallah) each about a woman they have known. The music is also infused with mesmerising repetitive motifs which characterise each movement.

Joanna Marsh is a British composer who has been living in Dubai since 2007. The inspiration for Joanna’s compositions often comes from seeing contemporary subjects in a historical perspective. For example, “The Tower” (2008) for the BBC singers, (John Armitage Trust) was a reflection on the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s famously tall tower, and its curious parallels with the mythical Tower of Babel. Her other piece about the Burj, Kahayla – written two years later, uses allegory to look at Dubai’s desire to ‘win’, comparing building the tallest tower in the world with winning a horse race. Horse racing is the national sport and a big part of Dubai’s cultural heritage.In addition to her concert music, Joanna composed the music for the short film “The Morse Collectors” which has won prizes at seven international film festivals including the Chicago Children’s Film Festival. Her songs for children’s choirs based on the poetry of Brian Patten, have been performed at festivals and choral competitions internationally and across the UK including Choir of the Year. In 2005 she wrote a musical installation for the Pier 6 Bridge at Gatwick Airport which is still playing in 2014.

Joanna is Programme Curator and Composer in Residence for THE SCORE, which most recently put on the region’s largest choral festival in Dubai: ChoirFest Middle East 2014.

Joanna (b. 1970) studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was an organ scholar at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge. She studied composition with Richard Blackford and Judith Bingham. Joanna was selected as one of the composers on the ROH2 “Composing for Voice” programme at the Royal Opera House, which culminated in a performance with members of the London Sinfonietta in 2008.

Her experience of the Middle East has provided inspiration for many of her compositions including “Arabesques” for The King’s Singers and “A Short Handbook of Djinn” for harpist Catrin Finch, “The Travels of Ibn Battuta” for the Maggini Quartet and “The Hidden Desert” for pianist Gergely Boganyi.  The British Embassy in Dubai commissioned her brass fanfare “The Falcon and the Lion” written for H.M. Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Abu Dhabi in November 2010.

Gabriel Crouch

Who or what inspired you to take up you singing and make it your career?

My mother is a violinist, and one of my earliest childhood memories involves being asked what I wanted for my 4th birthday. My answer (“A violin!”, or hopefully “A violin, please!”) precipitated more than a decade of torment for everyone within earshot, but it also led me to choir school (for free violin lessons) and from there to singing. Since I first started singing in earnest, I’ve never wanted any other profession.

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

As a boy treble I was taught every day by the great Simon Preston. Those of us who grew up under his direction now aspire to make music with the same ferocious energy and personality, however exhausting it may be. Then I fell under the influence of Dr Richard Marlow at Cambridge University and his musical personality could not have been more different – a scholar-musician of great humility who taught his students to place themselves in the service of the music score and allow it to speak for itself. I hope I carry a little of both in me.

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

I would say that learning to adapt to the needs of my American students has presented me with my biggest career challenges and greatest pleasures. I conducted Princeton University’s staging of Britten’s Albert Herring recently, and for someone with zero experience in the world of opera this was absolutely terrifying. The score is mind-bendingly complicated, and when one is attempting to unite two groups of musicians who can’t see each other, and can only partially hear each other… well, I know why opera conductors get the big bucks.

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

Never mind the clichés – it really is greater than the sum of its parts. My colleagues are some of the best in the field and each one has something to ‘teach’ the group. When the ensemble is socially harmonious, learning from its members, discovering things together, and making wonderful sounds… I don’t know anything that beats it.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

‘Dialogues of Sorrow’ is the recording that defines what I would like our group to be. It involves a little scholarship and a lot of adventure. Much of the music is completely unheard but it’s all ravishing and I hope our love for it comes across. The story behind the music is compelling too…

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The main hall at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. It’s a beautiful hall and a great acoustic, but that has nothing to do with this answer. I have never felt such warmth from an audience, willing us to give our very very best. They are enlightened and educated, but completely unfettered by any sense of etiquette or propriety. They show their feelings in a way which makes them part of the music-making process. Being on stage there makes me realize what live performance could and should be. It’s been years since I was there so I hope it’s still the same!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I will travel a very long way to watch Martha Argerich play. The late Anthony Rolfe Johnson was the first singer I ever enjoyed listening to as a little boy, and I remain haunted by his singing. Closer to my own field, I love the way Robert Hollingworth talks about, thinks about, and makes music and I rejoice in all his latest crazy schemes. I don’t want to sound like the proverbial Geography teacher at the school disco, but Thom Yorke, Sufjan Stevens and James Blake have all made me wish I was a different kind of musician at various times…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are several King’s Singers concerts that stand out. There was the gig in Heidelberg where the audience were so insistent that we deliver that 7th encore that they were still yelling for it when most of us were changed and packed and ready to go. We went out to sing for one last time, and our bass strode out in immaculate jacket and tie, shoes and socks… but no trousers. The audience blew the roof off. At the more serious end, I can remember quite clearly the concert in Calgary where Simon Preston (see above) was in the audience. We knew he was there and were all desperately anxious to win his approval but we couldn’t pick him out in the audience. But towards the end of the concert, after we finished a piece by Byrd, there was a gasp of rapture from the balcony, and the voice was unmistakeably his. I think we were all ecstatic at this moment.

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

I’m a terrible pianist but I love Brahms piano music and will often hack away at an intermezzo if nobody is listening. The second part of your question is impossible to answer I’m afraid. I don’t restrict my musical diet at all.

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

As a student (a brash one, with quite an ego) I thought it was all about me imposing my musical will and proving myself. I’m embarrassed to remember all that now, and I try my best to ward my own students away from this approach. Being truly ‘musical’ is not about the concentration of your musical ideas, rather it is about the empathy with which you interpret and deliver the score.

What are you working on at the moment?

Lassus – the ‘Lagrime di San Pietro’. It’s astonishing music – his last work, and what a way to finish.

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

I’ll be nearly 50… perhaps planning my eventual return to England??

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

How embarrassing and worrying that I have no answer to this question! I hope I’ll have worked this out by the time I next have to answer it…

What is your most treasured possession?

My dog, Moses (a pug who came with my fiancée as part of the deal…)

What do you enjoy doing most?

Standing at the counter of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, taking in the smells and waiting for my first free sample of cheese.

What is your present state of mind?

Well you’ve made me think about cheese now. I’m hungry.


Gabriel Crouch is a Senior Lecturer in music at Princeton University, USA, and has been musical director of Gallicantus since its inception in 2008. He began his musical career as an eight-year-old in the choir of Westminster Abbey, where he served as Head Chorister and performed a solo at the wedding of HRH Prince Andrew and Miss Sarah Ferguson. After taking up a choral scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, he co-founded and directed the male vocal ensemble Henry’s Eight, and was offered a place in The King’s Singers in 1996. In the next eight years he made a dozen recordings with the King’s Singers on the BMG label (including a grammy nomination), and gave more than 900 performances in almost every major concert venue in the world, from New York’s Lincoln Center to the Suntory Hall in Tokyo.

In 2005 Gabriel was appointed ‘Director of Choral Activities’ at DePauw University in Indiana, since when he has maintained an active career on three fronts, as choral conductor, singer and record producer. In the last twelve months he has conducted at Choral Festivals in Washington DC (Chorworks Festival), Illinois (ECICF festival), Oregon, and at the University of Queensland’s Renaissance Choral Festival in Brisbane, Australia. In January 2008, the Gabrieli Choir’s CD The Road to Paradise, which Gabriel produced, was nominated for the title of ‘Best Choral Recording’ in the BBC Music Awards.

About the group

The core of Gallicantus is six highly motivated and skilled singers. Their will to found a specialist six-man group came from many years singing together in ensembles which include The King’s Singers, the choirs of Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, but above all the virtuoso ensemble, Tenebrae.

GALLICANTUS – ‘COCK CROW’ From the Aberdeen Bestiary – 12th Century

‘The crowing of the cockerel at night is a sweet sound, not only sweet but useful; like a good partner, the cockerel wakes you when asleep, encourages you when worried, comforts you on the road, marking with its melodious call the progress of the night. With the crowing of the cockerel, the robber calls off his ambush; the morning star itself is awakened, rises and lights up the sky; the anxious sailor sets aside his cares, and very often each tempest and storm whipped up by evening winds moderates.’