Leo Geyer, composer

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

I started composing more or less as soon as started learning to play. When I was 11, I was very fortunate to sing in a treble chorus for the Royal Opera House’s production of Martinu’s A Greek Passion. It was a lifechanging moment and I decided there and then that I would like to dedicate my life to music!

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

Next to my desk, I have my “wall of inspiration” comprising of artists that continue to inspire me. It includes:

Stravinsky – Needless to say, Stravinsky’s music is incredible and there is much to learn from his work. Further to this, he also wrote a number of, what I call, opera-ballet’s, which is what my company Constella OperaBallet specialise in.

Dame Barbara Hepworth – I find Hepworth’s sculpture absolutely stunning and over the years I have oddly become a specialist in writing music inspired by her work! Most significantly this included a dance piece for the Chelsea Flower Show

Bernstein – For me, Bernstein transformed the concept of the conductor. Rather than just beating time, he put forward the idea that the conductor should inspire the music-making and bring new, fresh ideas to a score.

Tito Puente and Astrud Gilberto – I have a somewhat secret passion for Latin Jazz. I find the rhythmic energy and harmonic progressions endlessly fascinating. Tito represents the fast and furious mambo and Astrud, the luxurious and melancholic Bossa Nova.

Stevie Wonder – Stevie’s extensive catalogue is perfect example of how to be musically intelligent AND accessible to everyone. Inspirational – certainly for contemporary classical composers…!

John Skinner MBE – John was my music teacher at school. He immediately noted my love of music and took me under his wing and over 7 years, helped me to become the musician I am today. Tragically he passed away after a battle with cancer. Many musicians including myself, are indebted to John, and he is sorely missed.

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

Funding is by the far the greatest obstacle. I have so many ideas for cool projects and partnerships with inspiring artists but if the money ain’t there, it ain’t possible!

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

A commission is usually both a challenge and a pleasure. It will present, very specifically, what the confines of the composition will be – e.g. length, instrumentation, performance venue, theme etc. This can often feel very restrictive but, the same constraints force you to think creatively and sometimes opens up new possibilities that you would never have dreamt of otherwise!

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

Composing is a lonely pursuit. We have to spend weeks on our own, scribbling away. The moment we can finally share our work can be quite nerve wracking. You’ve spent all this time working on your ideas, what if they don’t work? Or the musicians hate it!? After this phase, it is usually enormous fun to collaborate and work things through and see the music come alive!

Of which works are you most proud?

I think probably my comic opera-ballet Sideshows. It’s my most performed work having been toured across the UK and US and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It’s also received a couple of awards. Most importantly though, it’s just great fun to perform! I get to dress up as a Ringmaster and quite literally, clown about!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would say that I my music can take quite different guises depending on the project. I suppose if I had to be more specific, I would say that my language is contemporary classical whilst not shying away from ideas of beauty.

How do you work?

I always start with the concept then work out a structural plan. Then I will sit down and start writing from the beginning. The process is never straightforward and I regularly get stuck or spend a morning writing one note and then in the afternoon, crossing it out… The breakthrough moments often occur very unexpectedly. Most recently when I was unloading the dishwasher…!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

For me, success is performing. There’s nothing I love more than conducting my own music, sharing it with both the musicians and the public. It’s an huge honour to be able to do this and I am grateful for every opportunity.

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

Don’t wait for the phone to ring – make it ring! Get out there, set up an ensemble or company and do the work you want to do. If you keep doing it, people will take notice!

Award-winning young composer and conductor Leo Geyer showcases his most acclaimed works to celebrate the publication of his composition catalogue at Kings Place, London, on 11 March 2020. More information

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