Daryl Runswick, composer

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

Hearing Elgar’s Cello Concerto at the age of 10. My grandmother was throwing out a pile of old 78s after she changed to LPs – Brahms Piano Concertos, Elgar Symphonies, Tchaik, Holst, Dvorák… I chose to ease myself in gently with the album with the fewest discs. 30 minutes later my life was committed to music forever.

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

Elgar, then Prokofiev, then Duke Ellington, then Miles Davis, then the Beatles, then Coltrane, then Boulez, then John Dankworth, then Joni Mitchell, then Berio, then John Cage.

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

You should have asked me 40 years ago, when I did have challenges and frustrations. Now I am at peace with myself and everyone else.

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

Trying to give the commissioner both something they want and something they don’t expect.

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

I’ve always written for the exact people who are going to perform the work. With the King’s Singers I was lucky enough to know the six voices as individuals, and my style was based on their characters, musical and personal. When a King’s Singer left and a new one joined the group my style of writing for them changed too. The same with Electric Phoenix, of which I was a member. This comes from my early experience as a jazz player and composer, and in my maturity I’ve been composing for improvising classical players and singers as well. You have to know them to write well for their improvising skills.

Of which works are you most proud?

Too many to mention, but see my discography and my website.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Theft from everyone – those I don’t admire just as much as those I do. High formal rigour, extreme interpretational looseness. Scafra, fractal structures, dot music, free serialism, modes, canon. (See my website for explanations of these terms.)

How do you work?

These days, on a computer. I often begin with a matrix (serial, fractal, scafra) on top of which I invent freely. Often the free invention starts as an improvisation which I edit, process, invert, change.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Beyoncé, Pollini, Hilary Hahn, Keith Tippett; Knussen, Fujikura.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Years ago, on a beach in the South of France, a morning rehearsal in the open air. Sonny Rollins’s backing group were noodling, tuning up, waiting for him to arrive. All at once from a dune 100 metres away the strident tones of a tenor sax rang out. Rollins strode toward the stage, playing all the time. The band picked up the tune and suddenly it was cooking. Rollins didn’t take the mouthpiece out of his mouth for 20 minutes, playing fiercely, more and more intense, wilder and further out, until he just stopped and walked away. I turned to my friend the drummer John Marshall and said, let me die now. (The actual concert that evening was tame – Rollins had played himself out at the rehearsal.)

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

Don’t compose to please others – write music you yourself like. Then at least one person in the world will like it.

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


What is your idea of perfect happiness?


What is your most treasured possession?

My hearing.

What do you enjoy doing most?


What is your present state of mind?

In process.


12 May: release of two CDs – ‘daryl runswick, dot music’, Runswick’s solo piano music performed by Tony Hymas; and a 2-CD set of ‘Daryl Runswick – The Jazz Years’ of historic live recordings including some top British jazz stars from the 1970s, never previously released

– 6 June at Cadogan Hall – Gala Concert with special guests including The King’s Singers to celebrate Daryl Runswick’s 70th Birthday (https://www.cadoganhall.com/event/gala-concert-with-the-kings-singers-170606/) This includes the World Premiere of Daryl’s Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments with pianist Aleksander Szram.

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