Adam Swayne, pianist & composer

Who or what inspired you to take up a career in music?

As a teenager I was lucky to have Jeremy Carter as my piano teacher. I also revered the rock’n’roll pianism of Jerry Lee Lewis (and still do).

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I struggled during my first couple of years on the demanding joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM, but my third year was something of a revelation. I learnt reams during my piano lessons with John Gough (including, crucially, a fresh and non-stuffy approach) and also took composition lessons with John Casken and lectures in postmodern music from Kevin Malone and Shostakovich from David Fanning. It was at this point I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. Fulbright studies in the US with Ursula Oppens sealed the deal.

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

Juggling a range of disciplines and trying (hard!) to do my best in all of them. Alongside piano I compose frequently for many varied ensembles (that, strangely, hardly ever include piano – for example this one) and I regularly conduct performances of (mainly) new music. My work with CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) is really important because it involves getting amazing people from all walks of life participating in the music, and I also serve on the board of the Riot Ensemble in order to get the most cutting-edge of this stuff out there in concert. I love teaching and am lucky to have worked at the University of Chichester and Junior Royal Academy. These days I’m a full-time lecturer back at my alma mater the RNCM and am once again learning tonnes of new music and new ideas from colleagues and students every day of the week. It’s a remarkable place – surely the true definition of ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’ve just recorded my first solo CD featuring some of my favourite pieces. I love the Four North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski, and especially ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’. There are also some pieces on the CD that are unique/ special for me. I commissioned Kevin Malone to write a politically motivated work in the wake of Brexit/ Trump and he responded with ‘The People Protesting Drum Out Bigly Covfefe’. There’s a real crowd protesting along on the recording …

Away from the contemporary scene, grandstand romantic concertos are also a big part of my life. I feel very lucky whenever an enthusiastic orchestra asks me to play the Rach 2, Grieg or (even better) one of the left-field concertos I have under the fingers such as the John Ireland concerto or one by the great (and unfairly forgotten) Ferdinand Ries. I’m also pleased to have performed Lutoslawski’s terrific concerto – here’s a clip of the ending in a performance with the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra and Victor Yampolsky.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Probably pieces by Shostakovich. I relate well to nervous energy, tragedy…. and comedy. Real life stuff.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Lately it’s all been politically motivated. I can’t really separate these musical choices from non-musical matters which I also deeply care about.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Hmm, tricky one. I like venues where it is easy to blur the boundaries between the performers and the listeners, so it’s more of a community experience. So give me a cosy or draughty village hall over the Wigmore any day.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

Kevin Malone also wrote me a wonderful and hilarious piece involving plenty of theatre called Count Me In. You can watch a performance here. I also love the sound of wind orchestras and have been lucky to have been involved in quite a few over the years, most lately in the percussion section of the Manchester Wind Orchestra.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’d have to include Pierre Boulez – a great musical polymath with an amazing conducting style. You can see every single composerly detail in the gesture. My American conducting teachers (especially Mallory Thompson) taught me the importance of this. At other ends of the spectrum I love Eddie Cochran and The Who.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably my first outing of Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’ in which I have to adopt (vocally) the persona of two female goddesses as well as play some really imaginative piano music. This one’s on the recording too – another premiere which I’m dead chuffed about.

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

Just to give 100% energy and commitment to whatever is being asked of you, however big, small or unusual.

What are you working on at the moment?

Mozart Double Concerto – a new one for me. I’m playing it in Macclesfield next year with Neil Taylor.

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

The Riot Ensemble is growing more and more every year, so I hope we’ll be playing even more exciting new pieces (that haven’t even started being thought about by anyone yet).

What is your present state of mind?

Anxious, twitchy, cross about politics but generally very happy.

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

I’m not sure, but I’d probably ask some of my former students from Chichester University who are some of the most exciting and engaging primary and secondary school teachers working in the UK right now. That’s real success in my book.

Adam’s Swayne’s new CD (SPEAK TO ME) New Music, New Politics is released on the Coviello Contemporary label on 17 January 2019. Further information

Adam Swayne works with a vast range of musical media and styles that go beyond conventional labelling. He is just as at home giving a solo piano recital or conducting an orchestra as he is organising musical installations in art galleries or composing for amateur ensembles. He takes an inclusive, informative and innovative approach to his music making that is drawing an increasingly large audience.

Adam is a graduate of the joint course between Manchester University and the RNCM. He gained first class degrees from both institutions, and an MMus from the RNCM. Manchester University gave Adam their highest award (Sir Thomas Beecham Medal) along with other prizes including the Recital Prize. Prizes from the RNCM included the John Ireland Prize and an award for performances of contemporary music.

In 2003 Adam was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to begin doctoral studies at Northwestern University, U.S.A. He graduated in 2006 with distinction, having presented several U.S. premières of works by British composers.

Adam is Lecturer in Music at the RNCM and pianist for the Riot Ensemble.

Adam’s Swayne’s full biography can be found on his website:

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