Composer Q&A: Edwin Hillier

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?

  1. 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
  2. And write for yourself…
  3. ...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)
  4. Take your time! There isn't one route into composing, and everyone’s journey is different
  5. Listen widely, and track down as many scores as you can 


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Tuesday 18 June, 8.18pm