New Music Biennial 2017 – Composer’s Q&A at Southbank

The New Music Biennial is down in Southbank this week after a successful few days in Hull last week. Southbank’s Director of Music Gillian Moore hosted a Q&A on Friday 7 July with composers Mark Simpson, Hannah Peal, Errollyn Wallen, and Daniel Elms covering the experience of being a composer today. Below is an edited transcript of some of the discussion.

What is the most challenging aspect of creating music from scratch?

Daniel Elms – It’s probably the topic of the music – it’s the topic I feel passionately about or I want to address. The process of questioning that topic will introduce me to research. The process of creating the building blocks is not that difficult – but doing so in such way that you’re satisfied is. Its just a permanent battle for me. The fundamental thing for me is the topic – the ‘why’ you’re doing it.

Gillian Moore – is the topic an abstract thing?

DE – it’s the story, or the issue I want to address. Hull has been a key point for me. There’s a strong undercurrent of artistry in Hull right now, and 2017 is helping, but it’s also upsetting the older generation. I’m interested in that kind of thing.

GM  – Mark do you start from a point, or are you reinventing an abstract form every time.

Mark Simpson – I normally start with the latter and end up in the former. What I notice during the Piano Trio I wrote was that the level of self-doubt throughout the process made it really difficult. I’ve tried to analyse what happens in that process.

The older I get and the more experienced I become, I realise its something you have to be aware of – there’s a mystery to it. The minute you over-analyse it you block yourself. It’s the actual connection with something inside you that makes you think ‘go with this’. The challenge for me is keeping in tune with that creative spirit.

GM  – Hannah, what’s your experience of fear and doubt in the creative process?

Hannah Peal – I’m lucky enough to have carved my career on the basis of me deciding what I want to do. For me, it’s like Mark said, it’s about being in tune with what’s going on. It’s very Zen. I find it really freeing. I’ve learnt how to shut things down which don’t work for me rather than ploughing on with something that it isn’t right.

What’s the greatest challenge for you when starting?

Errollyn Wallen – When I’m starting that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the beginning of the piece. What I find hard is knowing when the piece is finished. When I send off a piece I often still think “I wonder whether I’ve missed something.” Knowing when you’ve finished a piece – being able to let it go – thinking about that end stage is really important.

What is your relationship with who performs your music?

MS – When I write pieces I don’t necessarily work closely with a performer. I know what the capabilities of the orchestras or soloists that I work with. I don’t push performers with extended techniques. My music tends to have an intense kind of energy. There’s alevel of virtuosity in that.

GM – Do you ever have that moment of fear when you deliver an orchestral piece to 85 players – what is that like to you?

MS  – I try not to annoy people with my writing. The only thing that annoys musicians is my lack of page turns. I tend to write too much music. That’s a practical matter.

EW  – I love working with handpicked orchestras. What’s fantastic is that the process is relaxed. I don’t mind pressure. But when its relaxed I learn so much from performers.

DE – It totally depends. If I’ve been commissioned and the group is large, I can’t have the luxury of interacting with everyone on a one-to-one basis. But if you’re working with the right group, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had sitting in a room with players and crafting something.

HP – I do have a group of players I work with consistently. When I find someone I connect with I do tend to work a lot of them. It does upset me when they have to go and do other things. When you’re performing on stage you need that trust because with that comes attention to detail. I write muysic that demands an emotional response so I need to be able to work with people I trust.

What composition inspired you?

EW  – I went to school in Tottenham – pretty deprived area. My music teacher taught us writing music – Miss Beale – we would all play. Then she played us Prokofiev. She wasn’t apologetic about it. Everyone loved it. I used to retune the radio to find music that I could fling myself around and dance to. That was the point when things changed for me.

MS  – I had a brilliant primary school teacher. She played us music. I didn’t know what it was but we just listened to it. We used to play recorders too. There was a very musical atmosphere in my primary school. I remember being enamoured by Rhapsody in Blue, but thinking it was Tchaikovsky but my parents didn’t know. The real life-changing moment was hearing The Rite of Spring – I was 12. It was life-changing. I had no idea what it was. I just heard it and there was this thing coming at me. I heard it by accident when I was flicking from Classic FM and Radio 3.

HP – The very first moment I heard a song that changed me in that made me grow up. Everything just comes alive. We’d moved from NI to Yorkshire. The next door neighbour was a massive music fan. He said to me: “I’m going to give you a record and I want to know what you think of it.” It was Carpenters. It was amazing. I remember thinking this is what music is meant to be. It turns your stomach.

MS  – You’re always chasing that moment when you’re writing. You want to capture that for other people. I’m always wanting to create the experience I had of sitting in the National Youth Orchestra.

EW – I was composing things in my head before I realised I was a composer. It was my uncle who said to me I was a composer.

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