Francis Pott, composer & pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

William Byrd, when I was a chorister in the mid-1960s.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

For widely divergent reasons, Byrd, Bach, Nielsen, Robert Simpson, Frank Martin, Vaughan Williams, Martinu, Mahler, Shostakovich. Also Robin Holloway and Hugh Wood as teachers, and Raymond Humphrey, who taught me Palestrina-based counterpoint to an extremely advanced level at school.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Breaking out of the typecast role of ‘church composer’ and into the orchestral world. I am an agnostic humanist and no longer have any direct connection to an established church, but the label sticks and my perception is that it tends to work against other opportunities. Given the nature of *some* church music, I assume this to be a matter of erroneously-perceived ‘guilt by association’.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Three times I have been asked to compose memorial pieces. Plainly the hopes and emotional needs of the commissioning party are acute and particular in such a case. They impose an immense weight of responsibility on the composer, but are also among the most fulfilling things one can do. The other obvious pressure is deadlines – I’m a full-time university professor and I commute 500-600 miles a week by car!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

The sense that people you respect and care about are straining every sinew for the sake of your compositional efforts and their realisation is a uniquely humbling experience. At times it has made the music seem to stare back at me, externalised and somehow become ‘other’. Such moments remind me of Henri Matisse saying that he wasn’t too sure what he truly believed in spiritually, but yet he knew that the creative artist must put him-/herself ‘in the condition of prayer’. Working with dedicated and brilliant artists is a unique pleasure and perhaps the best reward, even if the true reason for it all remains the potential audience.

Of which works are you most proud?

I thought I was doing this anonymously! Ok then, so I’m not… Despite the comments above I have to mention sacred choral pieces. My memorial motet ‘The Souls of the Righteous’ has consistently attracted deeply-felt comment from strangers as well as friends and colleagues, and I know that it has since resonated deeply in the USA with some who were caught up in the horrors of 9/11 only the year after the music was written. I believe my oratorio ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ is a serious and worthy response to things of the deepest human importance and achieves also a telling synthesis of disparate verbal texts. In terms of concert music, my short solo piano piece ‘Farewell to Hirta’ [1985] is an evocation of the evacuation of the island group of St Kilda in 1930, and is also something that never fails to touch the right nerve with audience members, judging by the comments I have received.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

A perceptive critic once noted that ‘tonality fades in and out like a radio signal, but you know it originates somewhere and is strong there’. I would characterise it as broadly tonal, but embodying extensions of that both in its moment-by-moment harmonic language and in a structural overview which is rooted in tonal relationships and long-term progressions – hence my mention of Nielsen and Simpson earlier. I think my choral music harks back perceptibly to the technical models of the 16th century, whereas the models and precedents for my chamber and instrumental music and my orchestral work are naturally much later, and the chamber music makes no bones about an awareness of the 19th and early-20th centuries.

How do you work?

Mainly at weekends and at night, owing to the pressures of my other job! If I start in the morning I can sometimes carry on productively all day, but if I try to start in the afternoon I am much less likely to be successful – the intuitive thing seems to get dimmer later on. I work both at and away from the piano. I am a professional pianist as well, so using my instrument is simply gratifying – it also assists in creating idiomatically ‘grateful’ writing for the performer, where the piano is involved. – I *never* compose onto Sibelius, ever, unless the piece is very short and the time in which to complete is very limited. I compose in longhand, as neatly as possible, before typesetting when the task is finished. However, occasionally the clarity of print will reveal something unsatisfactory that might have been harder to spot from the manuscript. In that instance, I might revise and redraft – but again, I would work that out with a pencil before returning to Sibelius. I don’t ‘through-compose’ all that often, though it’s a far more natural and logical response to writing choral polyphony, where the content has an organic and text-based dimension.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As a pianist I am proud to be on friendly terms with Marc-André Hamelin, one of music’s most unassuming and humble geniuses (genii?). I greatly like and revere Stephen Hough too. I was a pupil of Hamish Milne and share with him an enthusiasm for the music of Medtner, which I play and which in my case has led also to academic research. I particularly admire the violinists Janine Jansen and Nikolai Znaider, and the young French pianists Bertrand Chamayou and Lucas Debargue, also the Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams, whom I taught compositional techniques briefly at Oxford (he knew it all already, and probably at birth!). Others tend to be those who have done me the honour of bringing my own music to life. These include the violist Yuko Inoue, the ‘cellist David Watkin, the oboist Nicholas Daniel and the choirs Tenebrae, Vasari and Commotio – also the wonderful Philadelphia-based choir, The Crossing.

I have been hugely privileged to enjoy a composer/performer collaboration with my close friend Jeremy Filsell stretching back to 1981, and regard him as one of the half dozen or so finest organ virtuosi in the world today, with a particular style and authority which are entirely his own – he is also a superb pianist. My organ music has also been performed with enormous distinction by several other major artists, including Robert Quinney, Christian Wilson, Tristan Russcher and the late, much-lamented John Scott, who was the first organist of international profile to champion my works.

I also owe a huge debt to my old friend David Hill, under whose inspired direction I sang throughout the 1990s as a member of the Choir of Winchester Cathedral. Nowhere have I encountered more innately natural musicianship or a more penetrating ear.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Although it is very recent, I know it will stay with me for ever: Marc-André Hamelin gave a recital in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre last August. It concluded with Schumann’s C major Fantasy, opus 17. This was quite simply the most selfless, moving and penetrating performance I can remember of anything, anywhere, any time. He is a musical force of nature.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Too complex to address in any detail. In summary: patience, optimism, commitment and determination; gratitude for opportunities and kindnesses; consideration for others; willingness to learn from perceived setbacks and turn them to good account for the future; thoroughness and self-discipline; modesty, backed by quiet confidence that your best compositional efforts can ‘do their own talking’ and do not need obnoxious blowing of one’s own trumpet; willingness to be charitable to colleagues in the profession (this may involve intuiting when they themselves feel insecure or uncertain of their ground); a core belief in the importance of communicating what one has been given to feel and perceive; a polished ability to speak in public and, if it arises, onstage; the willingness to be an ambassador for the profession and a good human advertisement for it.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

At home, composing, or attending events that arise from composing.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with my wife and children.

What is your most treasured possession?

If I’m allowed to count this, then a large, stable, close-knit family and the memory of a happy upbringing with loving parents.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing when it’s going really well and the floodgates suddenly open; practising the piano (the urge tends to increase as compositional ideas abate); working with performers and producers on recordings of my own work; going for long walks with my daughter; writing prose about music; reading (especially poetry, of many nationalities).

What is your present state of mind?

Basically happy and purposeful, but time-challenged and (as usual) low-level stressed by endless commuting plus juggling two careers (gets harder every year). Able still to count my blessings.

Francis Pott [b.1957] has acquired an international reputation over the past thirty years. His dramatic, challenging music unites a distinctive personal voice with a highly-disciplined but versatile technique rooted in a keen awareness of the past. To date his works (including a steady flow of major commissions) have been heard in concert and on radio across the UK and in over forty countries worldwide. They have been published by such major houses as Ricordi [UK], Novello, United Music Publishers and Oxford University Press. In December 2013 Francis signed an exclusive agreement with Edition Peters (London, Frankfurt, Leipzig and New York) which will entail publication of all his future choral and organ works and of his hitherto-unpublished back-catalogue. His piano and chamber music is published by Composers Edition.




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