Composer Q&A: John De Simone

Lecturer of Composition and researcher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Lecturer at Aberdeen University 


What was your first musical memory?

Listening to my dad’s record of Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto.

What was your route into composing?

I was at music school as a tuba player, feeling like I wasn’t able to express all that I wanted to by playing Tuba repertoire. At that time I was studying Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School for A level, which gave me a lot of food for thought about different ways in to writing music. This built up a curiosity inside me and I was so inspired after an orchestral concert I was playing in (as a tuba player I get to sit and listen a lot in orchestral music) that I went home to write something of my own.

Which composer do you wish you could have met – or could meet if they are still alive?

I am not sure I want to meet any of them, as I always assume the people whose music I respect are lovely and welcoming, and don’t want to be confronted with the reality that we might not actually get on. Also, I get really socially awkward at these sorts of meetings. However, teenage me would have said Shostakovich.

What would you ask them?

I probably would have just thanked him for providing a meaningful soundtrack to my teenage years. 

What do you wish you’d known about composing when you were 18 years old?

That I am not alone. I thought I was the only composer around. It wasn’t until I went to a course in Poland in my early twenties that I realised there was a massive context in which I was situated – and many people I could find support and inspiration from. Also, that you learn the most from your friends- so always find opportunities to get together, listen, play and talk about the music you love.

What music do you like to listen to – that’s not work related?

When you are a full-time musician, there is not really such as thing as not work-related listening- all that I listen to is part of my musical fabric and often becomes part of my musical language when I least expect it.

If you weren’t a musician, what might you have become?

A nurse – I was an auxiliary nurse for ten years supporting my studies, and often thought about switching to nurse training when things were looking insurmountably challenging.

What do you like to do when you’re not composing?

I would like to say something like rock climbing or international travel; however, I am at my happiest cooking a good meal and watching a binge-able box set at home with my wife Emily.

Where do you get inspiration from?

Other music, big ideas and things that connect me to other people. My music often explores notions of identity, community and mental wellbeing and translate my inner feelings in to something tangible for people to hopefully relate to and get something from.

What do you do when you’re stuck in a compositional rut?

I have found performing something menial can really help get the ideas flowing again – do the dishes or mow the lawn! 

What are the most useful aspects of musical theory to understand/learn/help composition?

Firstly, learn that there are no rules, only conventions. You do not need permission to try something different.

Secondly, experiment and reverse engineer – most of my early compositions were based on me score reading the music I loved and trying to recreate it in my own music. This is how I really learned how things worked in a way that I could deeply
understand, rather than getting confused about seemingly arcane notions such as
correct voice-leading.

Beyond that, it is hard to disentangle what is important and not- it all has value,
but you have your whole life time to explore it!  However, my personal (surprisingly old-fashioned) take on theory is that learning first species counterpoint can tell you loads about the interplay of consonance and dissonance and how harmony and melody are in fact the same thing, which is helpful when you start inventing your own modes and forms.

What are your 5 top tips for young composers?

  1. Write what you want to – do not spend time writing music you dislike because you think it’s what others expect from you.
  2. Don’t give up – it’s a lifetime pursuit if you want it to be.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take a break- you do not need to compose 24/7 365 days a year – sometimes you need to let your creative well fill up- you can stop for years and still come back with something amazing.
  4. Listen, listen, listen! The best composers in my opinion have great taste – they know what sounds combine well. This sense of taste can be developed by listening to as much music as possible and always being curious about music you haven’t yet heard.
  5. Get your music played – this might sound easier said than done, but as a young composer you may well know folk who are just as keenly developing their instrumental performance - ask them to play your pieces, they will probably say yes!
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