Composer Spotlight Q&A: Joe Stollery

Joe Stollery is a composer from Aberdeenshire who graduated with an MMus in Composition at the University of Aberdeen (2016) and is currently working through his PhD. 

Joe recently composed a work for Any Enemy, North East Scotland's new music ensemble which was premiered during soundfestival 2019. 

sound has also supported works by Joe including operas The Maiden Stone (2014), The Mither Kirk (2017), and a set of three children’s operas that were performed in primary schools around Aberdeen in February 2019.

When did you start composing?

From at least the age of 7, I have been improvising and experimenting on the piano, also with computer programs like Morton Subotnick’s Making Music, though I started creating my first serious compositions a bit later, roughly at the age of 13.

When and what made you decide to pursue composition as a career?

Difficult to tell for certain: it’s mostly a combination of encouragement from my parents and school, and of hearing enough works in concert to feel confident in pursuing it. I think the first real push came from when my music teacher at secondary school asked me to write a piece for a large ensemble comprising many of the players at school, including the concert band and string orchestra.

Where and with whom did you study?

Early on in secondary, I had a few lessons with Geoff Palmer, but it was mainly at the University of Aberdeen where my teachers were Phillip Cooke, and more recently John de Simone. I have also had sessions with composers James MacMillan, John Casken and Gareth Williams.

What stage are you at in your career right now? 

I’m currently halfway through a part-time PhD in Composition (started in late 2017). In terms of career stage, I feel like I’m still new to things like commissions and residencies, particularly as most of my pieces to date have only been performed locally; but in recent years, I feel I have made good strides in getting my works performed beyond the North East, and am very pleased to have received performances in Edinburgh as well as international performances in Germany and Switzerland.

How would you describe the type of music you write?

Quite eclectic; mostly conventional in language and structure, but at the same willing to embrace more complex and experimental practices when I feel I need it. A lot of diverse influences seem to feed into my music (such as Germanic symphony and opera, English pastoral music from the likes of Vaughan Williams and John Ireland, French neoclassicism (mostly Ravel and Poulenc), Renaissance and Baroque counterpoint (not necessarily strict!), a few serialist techniques, Scottish folk music (particularly pibroch), gamelan harmonies, jazz, rock & metal, cartoon film music, video game music, a hint of second-wave minimalism, and individual composers such as Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Copland, Messiaen, Britten and Ligeti - phew!). I tend to switch mood and character between each new piece: very often a large-scale dramatic piece would be followed by a smaller, lighter work, and vice versa. Usually, though not necessarily always, there is an extra-musical stimulus in my work.

Is there something that inspires or helps you structure your compositions?

One of the things which I find particularly interesting right now is finding ways to exploit tropes found in nature, whether they be certain animal calls, gaits or behaviours, and translating them in a musical manner as leitmotifs or even formal bases. I have also made use of the sounds of certain humans in this manner too (I’m currently working on a piece where Trump’s speech patterns are emulated by a euphonium)! I also always like to make use of fantastical tropes whenever possible, as they seem to help me compose more actively, and I think also music can give such ideas a heightened visibility

What forces do you prefer writing for and why? (Instrumental, orchestral, chamber music, choral…?)

I like writing for a wide variety of forces involving both voices and instruments, though while I’m pleased with the achievements I have made with several vocal-based works, including several operas, I do tend to have a personal preference for exclusively instrumental writing. When it comes to size, I tend to enjoy writing for orchestral forces, though I’m also happy to compose for smaller ensembles as well. I will admit I do find it easier and quicker to write chamber music, but at the same time I’m always excited upon starting a huge orchestral work because of the potential for variety and dramatic expression that often begs to escape from my subconscious

Which composer (dead or alive) has most inspired you and why? 

I really struggled with this one as there are so many composers that inspire me, but if I have to pick one that stands out, it would most likely be either Peter Maxwell Davies for the sheer exciting versatility of style and character in his output, or Oliver Knussen, through his lyrical yet uncompromisingly inventive style, often stimulated by similar interests in fantastical ideas. I could also suggest Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein, both relatively accessible and yet able to challenge listeners at the same time.

Name a piece of music (or two) that you listen to over and over, or find inspiring and why? 

This is another tricky challenge for me, as I tend to get inspiration from a huge variety of pieces, but I recently listened to a concert of Stravinsky’s three early ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring) one after another, and realised just how influential they have been on my music, with their excitingly large, varied sound worlds that border on the cinematic at times. I also enjoy listening to much of Britten’s music, particularly his Four Sea Interludes (I particularly love the harmonies of the ‘Dawn’ and ‘Moonlight’ interludes). Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf has also inspired me recently, especially with the characterisations of instruments throughout, a process which has influenced the roles I give the wind quintet in my piece Aesop’s Duos.

What do you do to take your mind off composing?

Usually I take a stroll outside, do some reading or bake something delicious, but I find the best way to break from composing is by playing other composer’s works on the piano (ironically enough!)

What are you working on right now? 

Right now, I’m currently in the middle of a sonatina for baritone saxophone and piano, which I’ve based on Aesop’s fable ‘The Donkey and the Lyre’. After that, I’m going to start the fourth and final movement of my big orchestral project Reverdie.

What would your dream commission be? 

Either a commission for a large-scale piece for orchestra, or a full-sized opera. I’m also interested in writing for films or video games.

Is there anything about the current lockdown situation that is affecting your compositional activity, whether positive or negative?

I’ve actually been very productive as a composer during lockown. I’ve managed to get through to the end of a few pieces which I began earlier in the year, and (perhaps because I’m on lockdown in a rural location with my parents instead of in the city of Aberdeen where I normally live), I’ve found it easy to get new inspiration because of the peace and quiet here, and more so the opportunity to explore outdoors. I guess this is easy for me at the moment also because I’m studying for my PhD, and currently not relying on income as a composer. At the same time however I am aware of the challenges many musicians are facing, and I’ve been considering a few ideas for compositions which could hopefully help them in this current situation.

Find out more about Joe and his music here.