Who or what inspired you to take up piano and composition, and make it your career?
I’ve played the piano since I was very young have always wanted to perform music. That impulse gradually developed into more concrete desire to become a professional musician in my early 20s, after I had graduated from University.
Growing up, I didn’t compose at all and never really imagined I would be a composer. That changed at Trinity College of Music, where, already interested in new music and improvisation, I was encouraged to start composing by my piano teacher Hilary Coates, and it grew from there with support also from Daryl Runswick, Alwynne Pritchard and Douglas Finch, which I’ve always appreciated.
I had also come to realise that I wasn’t likely to have, nor did I particularly want, a career performing purely classical repertoire. I wanted to do something a little different from what I was seeing the majority of pianists at college doing, and performing my own music felt like a good start. I had been writing poetry for many years so it was not a big leap to then incorporate poetry into my compositions, and from there go into song-writing as well.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career?
My teachers. Beyond that, the musical / artistic influences are far too numerous to list. I’d like to give a quick shout-out to my peers at college though, in particular Aleksander Szram, Danny Ledesma, Laura Moody, and The Elysian Quartet.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Bob Dylan. Also Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, The National, REM, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Wussy, Tricky, Haydn, Ligeti, Rzewski, Scarlatti, Bartok, Golijov, Glen Gould, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk…This could go on a long time.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Continuing to persevere in music after leaving college when there was little coming my way and a lot of self-motivation required. I think nearly everyone goes through that spell when you suddenly find yourself without the support network you’re used to and a fraction of the opportunities. Suddenly no one’s asking you to do anything. It seems to be a continuous backdrop to an artistic career. Perseverance and self-motivation, often in relative isolation and always in relative obscurity, are a challenge.
More recently I also had a bout of tendonitis, which was tough. Though I continued teaching, I stopped performing and practicing for over a year, and it was really two years before I felt sufficiently recovered to take on a proper practice workload and then start to regain confidence in my body and my playing. It made me realise how fragile the body can be, especially as you grow older, but also how much I wanted to play the piano (having been a little disenchanted with it previously). I still have to manage it now, but I am far more body aware than I was.
Which works (performance / recordings) are you most proud of?
‘Lingering Hope’, a large-scale work I wrote and recorded a little while ago. I feel it most represents what I’m about as a musician, and I think successfully combines quite different genres, something I wasn’t sure would be the case when I started.
How would you describe your compositional language?
Is there a short answer to this? My best answer currently would be to just play my music to people.
A couple of interesting general points might be, firstly, that most of my compositions involve the piano as I’m writing primarily for my own performance. There are exceptions but usually it’s solo piano or piano ensemble, unless I have a good reason to do otherwise.
Also, I often don’t include many technique and expression markings in my piano pieces, which isn’t necessarily everyone’s method (nor always to the liking of other pianists). I like playing the old baroque scores where there’s almost nothing there except the notes and you get to choose all the dynamics, tempo, phrasing, etc. and my piano scores are similar. As I learn them I work out how I want to play them but I don’t write my markings on the master score because if anyone else plays them, I want them to find their own way of doing it. I put more into ensemble scores, but I try to keep it to a minimum.
My songwriting is straight-forward. I write pop/rock songs which I sing at the piano with a microphone, like the bands and singer-songwriters I like. Usually they’re scored as just a chord chart with lyrics, and I sketch and memorise the vocal line. They’re not what would be considered classical or contemporary classical songs.
How do you work?
I work hard in a rigorous, well structured, effective and clearly thought-out manner. I really wish that could be my answer.
Unfortunately, if I had to pick one word for composition, it’d probably be sporadically, certainly in more recent years.
I’m more structured and disciplined with my piano practice, but again there are many improvements I could make to how I practice and when. There always are. I look back in amazement at the days in college when you could practice for 5 hours every day and still have time for composition, other work and leisure.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I probably play my own pieces best. And I perform them more as well, so they get longer development time and more practice, which obviously helps. Generally I’m good at contemporary music, improvising and graphic scores, that kind of thing. I also think Haydn piano sonatas suit me well, technically and temperamentally, and Scarlatti.
My mother has always liked my ‘Clair de Lune’, but she’s continually asking me to play ‘nice melodies, like you used to’ (nothing against ‘Clair de Lune’ there, I also really like it).
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
This is difficult. There is far more music available than I’ll ever play, and for some reason I keep buying more of it. Generally the choices are governed by what opportunities are coming up and what I’ve been composing. I always try to include some of my own music if possible.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
They are too numerous to mention when it comes to listening. In terms of performing, I like presenting my own music. I don’t really enjoy composing (I much prefer practicing and playing the piano) so there must be a reason I put myself through it.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
In Bristol, where I live, it’s St George’s on Brandon Hill. Great acoustic, fantastic piano, and when I played there the staff were lovely. The venue I’d most like to play is the QEH, though it’s a little above my pay grade at the moment. But I’m not fussy – if there’s a decent piano and an audience and it won’t leave me horribly out of pocket then I’m not going to complain. I played a few dives in my time with my rock band and as a singer-songwriter.
When it comes to listening, it’s more about the performance. I’ve seen some great gigs in pretty mediocre venues. There are some venues I dislike, but many that I like and I don’t really have a favourite.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
In terms of my development as a musician, it was probably watching Frederick Rzewski at the South Bank in the early 00s. He performed ‘The People United…’ and a setting of Oscar Wilde’s ‘De Profundis’ using spoken word at the piano. It showed me that a pianist using a mic to do vocals could work in a contemporary classical setting, and that I could do it too. I was already heading that way but it really helped me see the possibilities.
As a performer there have been a few but I’ll never forget my first concerto performance (Schumann) when I was at school – it was one of those nights when it all just came together and I played better than I had done in practice or rehearsal. It helped me believe that I might have something to offer, and I was at an age where it made a big impression.
My first Springsteen gig was unforgettable.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Do it for the right reasons, and be sure it’s what you really want to do because it isn’t easy. Then absolutely go for it. Despite many messages you’ll receive to the contrary, it is a worthwhile thing to be an artist, both personally and for society as a whole.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been putting on some Sunday afternoon concerts in Bristol as I work my way back from tendonitis, and I’ll be doing more of them. I’m also starting work on a long-overdue large-scale piece for piano and violin, but I’m a slow writer so it may take a while…
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would like to be more comfortable with my own mortality and to continue to have good relationships with my children. And be knocking them out in concert halls from Tokyo to New York of course.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
You can’t measure happiness. Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re not, you can’t plan it. I was surprised by how much fun it was spending time with my children compared to being the singer in a band. When you watch other people do those things, it looks the other way around. It’s not always the things you expect that make you happy.
What is your most treasured possession?
My mental and physical health, and that of my family. And the music, songs and poems I’ve written (even the bad ones).
What do you enjoy doing most?
Now that would be telling. It’s not composing though, in case you hadn’t noticed.