Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I grew up in a musical family and never seriously considered pursuing a career in anything other than music. I was a rather reluctant piano/violin pupil, however, and I found music theory much more appealing. So I learnt to write down my musical ideas at an early age.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Certainly my parents, and not least my first piano teacher, Eva, who was always running late, and set her pupils music theory papers to do while they waited. And I think she noticed I enjoyed theory more than I did practising the piano, and she encouraged me. I remember playing my very first piano piece “The Bouncing Ball” at a pupils’ concert in 1977. Composing gave me a musical freedom I didn’t have when I was practising. And there are so many influences. I could mention sitting on the organ bench when my dad was playing for a Saturday afternoon wedding, or going with my dad on his motorbike to hear the Liverpool Phil; singing Christmas concerts in the huge acoustics of St George’s Hall in Liverpool, or secretly taping pop music from the radio while my parents were out. School assembly always finished with a piece of classical music, and we sang every day. Anglican church music has been a central part of my musical upbringing, and it’s probably within that context that I learned the ropes of writing for voice.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Every piece brings with it fresh challenges, and usually frustration at some stage or other. Perhaps the greatest challenge for me personally has been to build my self-confidence and trust my musical abilities, and not to compare myself with others. On the other hand, it’s important to be self-critical, but rather than go back and revise a piece (that may never get another performance) I’ll implement those revisions in the next one.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I’ve always felt very privileged to be asked to write music. A commission usually means I can look forward to being performed and hopefully being paid. Perhaps travel somewhere new for the performance. Challenges can be rewarding, such as getting to know an instrument you haven’t written for previously. The conditions of the commission might sometimes be a challenge to meet, for example if it’s a short deadline.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I believe in writing music that the performers will enjoy performing. I’ve been fortunate in having the chance to establish ongoing relationships with a handful of choirs and vocal ensembles, which makes it easy to imagine their sound when I’m writing. A skill I’m constantly attempting to achieve, is to write pragmatically, simply, without renouncing my “voice” or the original idea I had in mind.
Of which works are you most proud?
There are moments in many of my pieces that, on revisiting, make me think “Wow, that’s good, did I really manage to come up with that?” (and there are moments that produce the opposite reaction too) but I would definitely say that the Requiem is the piece of which I’m most proud. Which might seem a bit of a paradox, since it’s the most collaborative work I’ve written, giving up a good chunk of compositional control; but the end result is better than anything I could have written. When you listen to Trygve Seim on saxophone, you realise that any attempt to dictate or notate the minute details and nuances of his style would fall short. So it made sense for his part to be improvised. Again, it’s about finding the best path to the result you envisaged.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
To answer this I would like to quote Alexandra Coghlan, who wrote in a programme note for a concert in the US about my music “blurring the modal clarity of plainchant with vivid cluster-chords and dissenting moments of chromatic or dissonant color.” I think that sums it up very nicely.
How do you work?
Bit by bit. I like to sketch a very basic shape and then I gradually fill it in. Ideas come from all sorts or sources, but often either at the keyboard, or while I’m trying to memorise the text I’m setting. Pencil on (bits of) paper, then I stitch it all together and engrave it in Finale. I love the composing process and there’s always a sense of loss when I leave the sound-world of a finished piece. But I usually have more than one project on the go at a time, so there’s always something new to turn to.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
That would have been a much easier question to answer in my late teens and early twenties; now it’s more a question of being inspired by individual works. There’s so much I admire, it’s difficult to pick out a favourite. But I am very much in awe of Norwegian composer-performers such as Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim, Maja Ratkje – they combine improvisation and composition with such deep musicianship. It’s music that defies categorization. What I listen to and enjoy is such an eclectic mix that it’s really difficult to pick out any favourites.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
There are so many different kinds of success. I like to say that the biggest compliment a composer can receive is a good first performance. Knowing I have the motivation and desire to keep writing music means I’ve succeeded in making a good career choice. Or perhaps success is a word of appreciation after a performance, knowing that my music has made a connection.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To an aspiring composer I would say: Have patience. Write from the heart.
Andrew Smith’s Requiem, with the Nidaros Cathedral Girls’ Choir, Ståle Storløkken (organ), Trygve Seim (saxophones), conducted by Anita Brevik, will be released on the 2L label [2L-150] in mid December; the score is published by Norsk Musikforlag, available direct from www.musikkforlagene.no
Photo credit: Tom Henning Bratlie