Composer/Choral Conductor/ Workshop Leader
Doctoral student in composition at the Royal College of Music
Undergraduate and postgraduate lecturer RCM
What was your first musical memory?
I started piano lessons very young, and was a terrible – and grumpy – student! But my fondest childhood musical memories revolve around the Fisher-Price tape recorder I shared with my brother. We’d spend many hours recording the sounds of our voices, making up songs (I fear those cassettes still exist in a box in my parents’ attic).
What was your route into composing?
During my last few years at school, I was spending much more time creating music than practising. So much so that my trumpet teacher – who shared a passion for composing – suggested that we spend 50% of our lesson-time working on small pieces I’d bring along each week, rather than playing. (I should add that by now I was doing much more practice on the piano and singing – my first instrument – and was soon to give up the trumpet to focus on those things). I went on to study music at Cambridge, took a few years out to build up a portfolio (whilst working as a choral singer and teacher), and then attended the RCM for Masters and Doctoral Study.
Which composer do you wish you could have met – or could meet if they are still alive?
The French composer Gerard Grisey (1946-1998)
What would you ask them?
Grisey passed away very suddenly, after penning his master work, Quatre Chants. This piece offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been next – and we’ll never know what that was.
What do you wish you’d known about composing when you were 18 years old?
Not to panic! I arrived at university and felt a little overwhelmed by the people around me, and everything they seemed to have achieved with their composing. I spent a lot of time worried I ‘wasn’t’ a composer: maybe they could all hear complete orchestral works in their head? Perhaps they would wake up each night in a cold sweat, reaching for their manuscript paper? It took me a few years to pluck up the courage to put my music out there, and to believe that maybe I could be a composer too. And that ‘composer’ perhaps wasn’t all those mythical things I had built it up to be.
What music do you like to listen to – that’s not work related?
Tricky one. I feel all listening is work related (in that it feeds into what we create). I’m currently listening to an album of lo-fi lushness by fellow composer, Michael Cutting.
Some excerpts here: https://soundcloud.com/eilean_...
If you weren’t a musician, what might you have become?
I love to tell the story that, as a keen childhood footballer, I pulled out of my Derby County U11s trial. It’s semi-true. Might I have become a footballer had I gone? I think probably not.
What do you like to do when you’re not composing?
Watching the people who did become footballers running around a pitch for 90 minutes (especially if they’re wearing red and white and playing for my team, Sunderland!) Otherwise, when I’m not composing, I’m invariably spending my time music-ing in some form – whether conducting, singing or accompanying. After many solitary hours sitting at your desk scribbling away, being involved in the actual hands-on making of music can be a liberating experience.
Where do you get inspiration from?
Working with players; the music of composers I admire (Rebecca Saunders, Salvatore Sciarrino to name a few); exchanging ideas and concepts with friends (especially those involved in other disciplines); strange extra-musical concepts; lost languages...
What do you do when you’re stuck in a compositional rut?
When I’m stuck, I tend to zoom out as far as possible, and view the work from the outside. I often reduce an entire piece – or what I have of it – to graphics or symbols. I look for shapes and patterns and think (non-musically) about how they might continue or evolve. One of my teachers often talks of ‘leading with the pencil’ in these moments – briefly using the eyes, rather than the ears, to free up one’s imagination.
What are the most useful aspects of musical theory to understand/learn/help composition?
Clean notation is a must, and performers will thank you for it. Your Grade 5 Theory will come in handy!
What are your 5 top tips for young composers?
- Write for real people – your friends, family (they don’t need to be pro). Try out ideas, get used to the physical reality of instruments – how they sound in space, in certain registers. In the long run, these experiments will be so much more helpful than Sibelius playback
- And write for yourself…
- ...Which means, keep playing your instrument. Further down the line, this will be a great outlet as a composer – whether playing your own music, or that of friends (who will of course return the favour)
- Take your time! There isn't one route into composing, and everyone’s journey is different
- Listen widely, and track down as many scores as you can