The following interview of me by Alexander Blustin was published first on the Cool Fusion website in August.
When did you start composing, and what inspired you to do so?
I was composing in some strange way before I knew anything about music, certainly at a stage when I knew little about writing it down, and nothing about the technicalities of harmony and counterpoint. I just always imagined themes, and musical structures; I was imagining how big ideas could be built up in abstract music about the age of 10, without being able to make any progress in realising these on paper. I recall at some stage at school we were put into groups in the music class, with a few instruments each, and each group had to come up with their own piece. Most of the groups came up with some nice little rendition, by ear, of some piece they had heard. But in my group I actually took charge and drew up a plan and instructed everybody what to play – but it was not notated in the standard way. The result was a piece of semi-improvised but directed abstract music with a structure – something probably like you might get in a Cornelius Cardew performance, or something like that – more free and modernistic than anything I would do now. But the impulse was the same as what I do now, and at the end the music teacher said to me, speaking so as to be heard by the whole class, something she said to no-one else: You are a composer! I took that to heart.
My real acquaintance with, and interest in, serious music started not from school, or with family in the usual way, but from a Disney record. The record told the story of the Arabian Nights. But it also included substantial chunks of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherherezade, and I became fascinated by this. I was actually missing the beginning of the work as the record had been dropped on its side just outside the HMV shop in Oxford Street and had lost a chip from the edge! So I asked for the record of the whole work. When I got this at Christmas, I also got Holst’s The Planets and a record of Tchaikovsky excepts. Interestingly, the Tchikovsky was the one that it took me longest to understand and appreciate. The Planets and Scherherezade remain amongst my favourite scores, as do the works of Tchaikovsky.
Your distinctive compositional style draws upon the music of the 19th century. Why this era in particular?
It seems that the music of the 19th Century grabbed me immediately, as is apparent from the above – though when I first heard the Holst, it did not occur to me that it was “more modern” music than the other pieces, and I accepted it immediately on the same basis. It took me longer to appreciate the formality and abstractedness of 18th Century music, and the 20th century music that I have preferred has always been that which has extended the earlier traditions, rather than been an antithetical reaction to them. In the end I write what I like: I have no reason to do otherwise. And I hope that what I like, others will do too. I think that’s the only basis on which you can proceed.
My musical god is Beethoven. That spirit of imposing order on chaos (like the chaos of the group of schoolchildren tasked with coming up with a piece) that you get at the opening of the 9th symphony, the force of personality shaping the musical material, that slammed down the lid on the polite courtly music of the 18th century with the First Symphony in 1800 and laid down the law of the music of the new century in no uncertain terms: I find that so amazing and inspiring. And then there is his sense of a never-ending journey of personal exploration. You get that with a few other of my favourite composers, such as Vaughan Williams.
I find the broad principles of 19th century music are the framework which best allows me to express what I wish to express. I think that too much freedom in music is potentially bad, you can have too many choices (e.g. if you try something other than the usual 12-note scale), and in life generally I don’t like having too many choices. Once you have decided basically what conventions you are going to work with it becomes, from my point of view, actually easier to forge a personal style, when you have set some limits. There is more common ground with the audience and more cultural context to what you are doing as well if you are in recognisable territory. You are sort of half-way there with the audience already before you start. That’s my point of view: don’t re-invent the wheel, go with what is known to work. For some this is a recipe for limiting creativity, but I find it liberating.
Also I suppose my affinity for the romantic era in music is because I am a romantic at heart. But in another sense I am a classicist, in that to me music is basically narrative, not basically sound that you hear. My fascination is with structure, repeats and variations, development, modulation and resolution, all that stuff. That stuff is easiest to explore if you limit yourself harmonically (arguably). And again, what I am saying is that in my concept of music, sound is very secondary, though I am fascinated with orchestration (maybe that comes from the Rimsky-Korsakov and Holst). And I was a singer before I learned any instruments, so the pure line of melody is my touchstone, where I basically start in composition, not with harmony, timbre or counterpoint.
As both a musician and an astronomer, do you see any fundamental connections between the two?
I don’t tend to find direct inspiration for music in astronomy or science (though I did once write music for an astronomical documentary). I’ve mentioned The Planets a few times, but that work is really not about astronomy but human characteristics, emotions and fantasies: it’s based on the imagined personalities of the gods or influences after whom the planets are named. There are clearly connections between astronomy, which is physics and mathematics demonstrated in the universe, and music, which is an expression of mathematical order modulated by human design, a balance between symmetry and asymmetry, concord and discord. The music of the spheres has been a concept since Pythagoras demonstrated that the same mathematical laws underlie music as rule the the heavens. But in the end science and art are different worlds, the methods of science and art are different, and I don’t take any connections too far. It’s all part of the rich tapestry of human culture. Science is an imaginative creation based on observation, a structure of theories, speculations and imaginings, and all art of course is an imaginative creation as well. But the two have different uses, and justify themselves differently. Personally, I’ve never been able to decide which side of my personality, that the two represent, is the more important. But I suppose my search for satisfying structure in music is rather like a physicist trying to come up with an elegant theory. Both are in a sense logical, but also, importantly, beautiful, which is really why we seek them out.
Cool Fusion is a conscious attempt to reach out to new audiences and introduce them to the music being written by today’s composers. What are your thoughts on how the audience for newly-composed music can be developed?
Certainly linking new music to contemporary events, as Cool Fusion does – the link to the Olympics – is one good method. Some of the best modern composers have done this well, for example John Adams in his stage works. And linking to the activities of other artists, such as writers, choreographers, designers, can help. But then new music has often done those things in the past.
In general, if you want to be understood as a composer, as I have indicated above, you do need to limit your self indulgence and self-expression, to an extent. There is no point talking a completely foreign language and just hoping the public will eventually catch up with you, because they probably won’t (not that we get much of that in London Composers Forum, but you do in some new music groups). It does also really start with the music being well written, as in well-crafted – composed with an understanding of instrumental technique and the practicalities of performance. That’s basic professionalism, in my book, which applies whether or not you are paid to compose.
Over-intellectual methods of composition tend to go wrong, in my view. Too much calculation is bad, and if, as a composer, you are doing that, perhaps, to go back to the previous topic, you should be doing science rather than music! Whatever style you write in, the result has to be true to you, and it has to be in a way instinctive, a genuine expression of your personality. That’s my baseline, and I think if you meet that requirement, audiences will always respond.