Daniel Elms, composer

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

As a teenager, I inherited my sister’s record collection when she left home. It contained goth, punk; everything alternative. In my age of rebellion, those sounds, moods and lyrics were a revelation to me and, very quickly, music became a way of life — not just something that entertained or pacified. I grew into other genres and influences, but it was that record collection and the path that it led me down which changed me irrevocably. For many years, I studied to become a guitarist and that, very naturally, led to composition, which I found to be a better means by which to express myself.

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

There are moving and exciting facets to hear, comprehend and utilise from almost every genre of music, so I make sure I leave myself open to inspiration outside of the concert hall. If I had to pinpoint a single moment in my musical life that really fuelled the fire of composition, then my study with composer Kenneth Hesketh had a dramatic impact upon me and my work. I studied with Ken for years and I remember leaving every lesson feeling fatigued from the concentration I was having to exert and from “keeping on my toes”. Though my voice has diverged from Ken’s, many of the principles and methodologies by which I approach my work grew out of this period of study with him.

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

Having the confidence to create and release my music has always been a huge challenge. I suffer greatly from anxiety and, for years, that would force me to second guess every single beat – every pitch, gesture and rhythm — in a piece that I was writing. Over time, I found a way to suppress that anxiety while composing. A large part of that suppression came from taking my focus off the end result and, instead, putting my focus on the day-to-day process of composition and enjoying that for all it is worth — regardless of the outcome by the end of the day.

Tell us more about your new album ‘Islandia’….

The album is a collection of 5 concert works that I created at the end of a long period of questioning myself, my music and the influences around me. Though each of the pieces have their own subject, they are all united by being the product of an incredibly turbulent, yet artistically potent, period of time. They are a visceral response to my frustrations, burgeoning ideologies and grand plans, and have since become my personal manifesto to pursue art at all cost.

How would you characterise your compositional/musical language?

Post genre. 21st-century principles of composition filtered through the aesthetics and instrumentation of mainstream genres. Technically, that often looks like ordered sets and principles of 12-tone composition, but applied to fewer pitches — the resulting “gaps” in the systems create polymodal material and it is then something of a balancing act to reconcile implied tonics with methodology devised to obscure any sense of tonic. All of this material is then filtered through the instrumentation, timbres, harmonic subdivisions and rhythms of other genres and influences. The result is dense harmonic material that is broken into small, accessible fragments that are, by themselves, suggestive of music outside of the concert hall. A lot of material on the album is based upon, or filtered through, traditional folk and maritime music.

How do you work?

Subject, research, pre-composition; composition. The bookends (subject and composition) are visceral, emotive parts of the process, while the research and pre-composition are meticulous processes: developing my understanding of the subject and building a “colour palette” with which to represent it. I try to keep the final stage of composition fluid and preserve the “brush strokes”: preserving evidence of the energy and spirit by which it was created. I borrow a lot of principles from visual art and often try to think in terms of shape, colour, gesture and motion.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Loving the process — the act — of composition. If I can find joy in the everyday act of writing then I can think of no greater success. If I am reflecting upon a completed work then I would define it as successful if it is a true reflection of the moment in which it was created — if it is honest unto itself.

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

For performance and learning your instrument, work with your body and not against it. It is amazing how many musical problems stem from discomfort and unnecessary effort put into obscure parts of the body that seem unrelated to your instrument. I’d recommend reading ‘The Art of Practicing’ by Madeline Bruser and ‘The Natural Classical Guitar’ by Lee F. Ryan — there is a lot in each book that is applicable to the playing of any instrument. For composition, subconscious processing is one of your most powerful tools, as long as you “feed it” with tasks to process: don’t wait for inspiration, instead confront the empty page and work on it; put the time in. Even if you discard everything by the end of the day, it is the process that stimulates the subconscious and you’ll find that inspiration follows.

Daniel Elms’ debut album ‘Islandia’, inspired by Beat Poetry, islands, isolation and the composer’s home town of Hull, is released on 21st June 2019 on the New Amsterdam Records label


Daniel Elms’ distinctive voice as a contemporary composer, humanist and prolific collaborator is captured in emotive soundscapes, which effortlessly fuse intricate orchestral textures with the electroacoustic instruments and urban sounds synonymous with his hometown of Hull in the North of England.

Elms studied composition at the Royal College of Music under Joseph Horovitz and was mentored by Kenneth Hesketh, Peter Stark, and Carlos Bonell. Taking inspiration from progressive and humanist ideologies, his work addresses disparate social, economic, and political relationships between people and cities, and offers intimate commentaries on the human condition.


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