Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?
I have been improvising and composing as long as I’ve been making music. I knew from very early on that I’d like to make music my career but didn’t know how feasible it was. Meanwhile, I found music appeared in my head and I loved writing it down.
The more time I spent studying and composing the more I wanted it to be a fundamental part of my career. It’s important to me that composing isn’t the only musical activity I do – I teach, mentor and run workshops and I take part in local music ensembles – but I feel all of those inform my composing and vice versa.
Who or what were the most important influences on your composing?
This is a tricky one! I believe that any composer is the sum of all their musical experiences – and that those they love the most shine through. Javanese gamelan, church bell ringing, Debussy, Bartok and musical theatre are definitely key influences, but there are many others – works I’ve spent a long time learning and have grown to love (by any composer!), lecturers and teachers (especially Stephen Montague, who taught me at Trinity Laban) and contemporary composers I follow.
I think it’s a bit like life. Life changes every day – you are a different person by the end of each day because of the experiences you’ve had in those past 24 hours. Similarly, each piece of music you hear changes you as a composer slightly – whether it’s pushing you away from something, pulling you towards a dissonance you love, or making you inquisitive about a new technique or style.
As a composer, how do you work?
I have two children, so my working hours tend to be spread around school runs. Day times are often spent scribbling ideas down on bits of paper, mentally rehearsing and revising lines until they make more sense, or reciting texts until rhythms appear. Walking seems to be quite important to my processes – I’ve been caught air-conducting and singing a couple of times while wandering! Actually, anything that keeps me busy physically seems to help me compose – walking, driving, hoovering, or playing memorised/repetitive pieces. In the evening I tend to sit down at the computer and piano to write things down ‘properly’, which I then spend the next day revising.
I normally have at least a couple of pieces on the go, so I can go where the inspiration flows. If it’s not, more walking, listening to and/or playing lots of music tends to help.
How would you describe your compositional style/language?
My compositional style is mainly tonal. My language is relateable to a wide audience, but yet is still identifiable as “contemporary”. As with most composers I go through phases and at the moment I’m drawn towards unusual, quirky time signatures and secundal harmonies.
Which compositions are you most proud of?
This is a tricky one – but I can think of three. ‘Rains’, a short work for solo piano, is a piece that lots of people seem to relate to and love. It’s not too tricky (about Grade 5), and professionals and students alike seem to like it. The same can be said of age ranges – I’ve performed it to primary school students who’ve given me inspired responses about it, used it in compositional workshops and had adult learners enjoy it. ‘Quangle Quadrille’ is another piece I was very proud of due to the passionate responses from performers and listeners alike.
I’m also very proud of ‘Cracked Voices’, my song cycle written in collaboration with writer Graham Palmer last year, premiering this March. Working with a partner on a project gives you the opportunity to bounce ideas off of one another and ultimately produce better work (or at least, it has for me). Having the opportunity to work with a living writer is wonderful too – and quite a rarity really. It does mean you have to ensure your setting is true to the spirit of the text though, and the writer’s intentions. Capturing the spirit of the words and the essences of the characters contained therein is a challenge, and something I feel we’ve achieved in the Cracked Voices songs.
What are you working on at the moment?
Two big projects for me at the moment are Ada Lovelace – The Musical and a choral work to commemorate the centenary of World War I, based on a text by Vera Brittain. Both completely different in style, but equally exciting challenges!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Striving to find balance is probably the greatest challenge. Being a composer doesn’t just involve composing – in fact more time is often spent applying for funding, admin, PRS forms, chasing people and updating website than writing music. When you do have those wonderful flashes of inspiration it’s then balancing the urge to spend hours absorbed in a new piece when there are workshops to plan, emails to write and lessons to teach.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Not really, to be honest. I’ve performed in many venues, and had my works performed in a wide range. As long as a venue is accessible, friendly and has appropriate acoustics for what’s being performed then it has potential to be somewhere wonderful for a concert.
I feel that the right audience is as important – if not more so! – than the right venue. I’ve performed in school halls and packed churches which have been ok acoustically but have had wonderful receptions from the audience, but unappreciative audiences in more formal venues.
Having said that, one work of mine – Quangle Quadrille – was premiered in a venue with a wall of windows, overlooking a magnificent vista which formed a fundamental part of the piece – that was pretty special!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
When it comes to listening, I love big, powerful pieces of music like In The Hall of the Mountain King and Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets. When it comes to downtime at the piano I tend to go more towards Beethoven and Mozart, and chorally it’s Fauré’s Requiem and the Chichester Psalms. I love pieces with those moments of harmony that make you melt – be they contemporary, classical or perhaps even musical theatre.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I must admit that I don’t really have favourites. Professional musicians who dedicate hours to their craft and who can communicate passion and wonder through their music are amazing. Equally amazing are the amateur musicians who have other careers but dedicate their free time to making music they’re passionate about.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There are a few, but one in particular is Steve Reich’s prom celebrating his 75th birthday at the 2011 BBC Proms series. I was particularly mesmerised by Ensemble Modern’s interpretation of his Music for 18 Musicians. As for performances of my music, the aforementioned performance of Quangle Quadrille by the Quangle Wangle Choir and the premiere of Revolutions by the Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra are both very memorable to me.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think one of the most important things to remember is that music is for everyone. There is so much music out there, in so many different forms and styles. A piece that may be unimportant to one person may be the world to another. Similarly, a performance by your local amateur choir may mean more to those collective musicians than a concert by a leading choir. Music is what you make it, and what it means to you is a very personal thing. Make sure you listen lots, practice as much as you’re able, and above all keep your eyes and ears open.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To have people enjoy your music and feel inspired to react (in whatever way means something to them) is important – to make them feel something. I think this is the case whether you’re performing or composing.
Jenni Pinnock’s new song cycle ‘Cracked Voices’ receives its premiere at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge on Saturday 10th March, with a further performance on 28th April in Royston. Full details and tickets here
British composer Jenni Pinnock’s music has been described as ‘refreshing’, ‘imaginative’ and ‘tantalizingly beautiful in smoothness and soul’. Quirky time signatures, soaring melodies and moments of quiet stillness can all be found within her music which has received performances both across the UK and around the world. She is passionate about music in all forms, and loves writing for and collaborating with artists and musicians – be they beginners, amateurs or seasoned professionals. Giving performers the artistic freedom to make the music their own is an important element of her work.
Jenni studied at Kingston University and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. In recent years she has had works performed by the Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra, Red Note Ensemble, the Quangle Wangle Choir (as part of Adopt a Composer 2013/14) and Equinox Voices. In 2017 she also had her carol Christmas Bells recorded by the Kantos Chamber Choir for their Silver Stars at Play album. Alongside composing she runs music and composition workshops, performs with local ensembles and teaches piano and woodwind.
In addition to Cracked Voices, Jenni is part of the composing team working on Ada Lovelace: the musical. She is also a mentor for Making Music’s Adopt a Composer scheme.