Howard Skempton, composer

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

A few words of encouragement from my music teacher at school.

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

The BBC’s Third Programme and my studies with Cornelius Cardew.

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

The greatest challenges were at the outset when there seemed no possibility of even barely adequate remuneration.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned
piece?

Being forced from a familiar path, only to be surprised by fresh discoveries.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians,
singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Being free to write what one wants; and being sure of a fine performance.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m proud of most of my pieces, but for different reasons. Some, like my ‘Two Highland Dances’ (1970) for piano, seem artless but indestructible. Others, notably ‘Lento’ (1990) for orchestra, are fully resolved. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (2015) and ‘Man and Bat’ (2017) seem strikingly effective, in spite of the fame of Coleridge’s poem, and the everyday character of Lawrence’s.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I am always seeking to develop my language. I hope it is flexible enough to adapt to a wide variety of circumstances.

How do you work?

I am always in touch with my work. I have to be, because of the constant demands of teaching and mundane domestic matters.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My favourite musicians are my colleagues and friends: too many to mention.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being responsible for something that somehow “makes its escape”.

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

Pointing at all times to the possibility of refinement; and thereby honouring complexity, and achieving clarity.

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

Still here.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I associate “perfect happiness” with marriage.

What is your most treasured possession?

A tiny note from my wife, written within weeks of her death.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Engaging in conversation.

What is your present state of mind?

Mildly apprehensive (as ever).

The Piano Music of Howard Skempton (William Howard, piano) is released on 14 February on the Orchid Classics label. More information here

The Piano Music of Howard Skempton – an appreciation by pianist William Howard


Howard Skempton was born in Chester in 1947, and has worked as a composer, accordionist, and music publisher. He studied in London with Cornelius Cardew from 1967, who helped him to discover a musical language of great simplicity. Since then he has continued to write undeflected by compositional trends, producing a corpus of more than 300 works.

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