1- Who was your first music teacher and what was your musical instrument of choice at the time?
I started taking piano lessons with my Dad - who’s a jazz musician - at the age of five. I was not a particularly gifted student, and I gave up the ABRSM grades after a few years, although I continued to teach myself popular music throughout my teens. At Weaverham High School I received a great deal of encouragement in my very early attempts at composition from the head of music, Mrs Helen McKenna, herself a graduate of the Guildhall School.
2- Is your family musical?
My Dad is a professional jazz pianist and singer, and my brother works as an actor-singer in London, also both of my sisters were keen musicians growing up. Family occasions nearly always centre around the upright piano in the dining room of my parents’ house. My parents are keen listeners of classical music, so I was lucky to be introduced to Beethoven and Bach at a young age, but it’s a struggle to get them to sit through anything written after about 1915!
3- After achieving a BA honours in Music from the University of Liverpool in 2014, you won a scholarship to undertake an MMus in composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying composition with Laurence Crane and conducting with Tim Redmond and Jack Sheen. How was it like to train under these two masters?
I am still in the early stages of my training at Guildhall, but so far my principal study lessons have been very inspiring. One of my biggest concerns about studying at a conservatoire was whether my teachers would try to mould me into a typical British-Modernist - though I admire such music, it is very different to what I compose - but my teachers been very supportive in helping me to find my own voice.
I was largely a self-taught conductor before coming to London, having started out as a theatre music director, and then conducting the wind band at Keele University, and so I was very keen to get more detailed instruction at Guildhall. I study with Tim Redmond as part of my degree, but I have also been taking private lessons with Jack Sheen, a young composition fellow of the school, who is embarking on a similar career path to myself.
4- Shortly after enrolling at the Guildhall School in 2016, you founded the Sundial Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble of Guildhall students that specialises in 20th/21st century music. Their debut concert very recently included the concert premier of Julian Philips’ Maxamorphosis. Clearly this is an accolade and are you happy with the way the ‘vision has turned into reality’?
The truthful answer is that after falling in love with the piece on Soundcloud, I asked Julian if we could perform it in our concert, which luckily he agreed to! Maxamorphosis was written as a multi-disciplinary piece incorporating music and dance, so this was the first time that it has been performed without physical movement. The challenge was for myself, the viola soloist (Sarah Mcabe) and the ensemble was to convey the dramatic journey of the piece purely through the music, which they did with terrific skill! For our next concert I’m planning on performing some new repertoire by other postgraduate students at Guildhall.
5- One of your upcoming performances will be a song cycle - Girl with Roses: reflections on a painting by Lucian Freud - will premiere at the Courtald Gallery in May 2017. Can you tell us more on this production and the thought behind this mixing of artistic traditions?
Before coming to London, much of my background as a composer and music director was in Theatre - shortly after leaving Liverpool I worked with Oldham Theatre Workshop and Youth Music Theatre UK - so when we were asked to compose a short piece that responds to the gallery in some way, I was thrilled to have a chance to engage in some more direct storytelling, and also to show off my work as a lyricist.
Girl with Roses is an early painting by Freud of his then fiancé Kitty Garman, depicting a rather anxious bride-to-be. Obviously this gives tremendous scope for psychological exploration, with the music being divided into two contrasting reflections on their relationship, told from Kitty’s perspective by the soprano (Kayleigh Mcevoy). Sondheim fans will see the clear influence of Sunday in the Park with George, which interestingly was part inspired by Young Woman Powdering Herself, also on display in the Courtald.
In my view, any sort of mixed-medium composition, and particularly one which uses the human voice to tell a story, requires a grounded attitude from the composer. The voice is inherently expressive, and the use of a text enters the listener into an arena of expectation with the music that differs from that of an instrumental concert piece. Therefore my approach to this piece has been from the outset less academic-technically orientated that my other compositions.
The biggest worry when working with a respected piece from another art form is that you will not do it justice, and this was especially on this project. I make no pretence to knowing much about fine art, and my take on Freud’s painting may well be totally asinine, so I suppose the subtitle of the piece is an attempt to clarify that this is not a musical re-imagining as Freud might have liked it, but simply my personal reflections.
6- Obviously this is a classic question to composers, but what is your technique in this work of inspiration and perspiration?
I’m not sure that I have a meaningful answer to give as I’m still developing a technique. I usually start with a vague background structure and a very limited amount of material - usually one bar or less - and then set about twisting it in various ways. I tend not to follow any preconceived plans to closely; even when I decide on a fairly detailed structure I nearly always end up changing course. In any case, at this current stage in my studies my approach to composition is constantly changing.
7- What are your fondest musical memories, privately or performing?
I remember hearing the preludes and fugues from Bach’s WTC book I as a very young child - I think my dad was practicing some of them at the time - and also the more famous Beethoven piano sonatas. It would be a lie to say that I loved this music as a child, as I was far more interested in Queen and David Bowie, but those pieces still have a nostalgic quality for me.
8- Do you play a musical instrument, and if so is it purely to aid your composing?
My first instrument is the piano, which I thought I could play quite well until I came to Guildhall. I mostly play jazz, and I still occasionally play for musical theatre, but I also studied classical piano as an undergraduate. I currently support my income by playing jazz piano and double bass at functions, and I have a very bad habit of composing my music sat at the keyboard.
9- Would you consider teaching in the future?
I am very keen to include teaching as part of my career portfolio, I am hoping to study for a PhD in composition in the near future, with a view to lecturing at a conservatoire or university afterwards. I’ve found higher eduction to be an intellectually and creatively stimulating environment to work in, where the teachers learn just as much from their students, so both are in a continuous state of intellectual and artistic development.
10- What advice would you give to young musicians at the start of their journey?
I’m not sure that I’m in the best position to give them any, as I went about the beginning of my musical education in a very unfocused and inefficient way, and I’m only just beginning to find my niche. That said, I would encourage young composers to listen widely and with an open mind; you never know what you might find in genres you once thought you hated. The other thing, and this is easier said than done, is to be yourself while learning as much as you can from others, even if their music is utterly different to yours. The best teachers will not try to mould you into their protege, but will help you to find what it is that makes your music different.