Tom Smail, composer

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

From the age of six, my parents would regularly take me to the first half of a classical concert: just enough to whet the appetite and fire the imagination, never too much. Our house was not filled with music, as people frequently assume (though my father played – and still plays – the piano well and often), but whatever records there were, I devoured: everything from classical favourites to Paul Robeson, from Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson to Danny Kaye‘s Hans Christian Andersen. Vernon Elliott’s music for The Clangers, one of my favourite TV programmes of the late sixties/early seventies, was a memorable early influence. My mother’s love of the horn guided me in that direction and early encounters with the playing of Dennis Brain and Barry Tuckwell were inspirational. A Buddy Rich recording in my early teens was life-changing (I became a drummer).

Seeing a world-renowned oboist, again in my teens, get wildly out during a concerto, stop the orchestra, explain what had happened to the audience with a smile and re-start the piece from the beginning taught me early on the value of communication. Ultimately music is about communication. Hearing Beethoven for the first time was extraordinary. I was eight and while most of the class fiddled or looked bored, I was transfixed. 

Schubert, Janáček, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Ligeti, Kaija Saariaho, Anders Hillborg, George Benjamin, Thomas Adès, Tansy Davies: all influential. 

Seeing Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 1978 was pretty seminal too.

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

A permanent sense of ‘being late’. I did not start composing in earnest until my late twenties (before that I was a professional jazz drummer). One morning I awoke with a fully formed piano piece in my head. I recorded it and wrote it down. And it happened again the next day and the next. Wonderful! (Though the pieces are perhaps less worthy than I thought at the time…) But at 28 or 29, not 3 or 4 like certain well-known Austrians (not that I am remotely comparing). So I often find myself thinking ‘this would be fine if I were 32’. Which is ridiculous. You are when you are.

On a specific note, I write the occasional film score and the most recent – for Jonathan’s Nossiter’s Last Words (which was selected at Cannes in 2020) – began with an instruction from the director that ‘the orchestra should consist primarily of stone, wind and metal’. Which was unusual.

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

That someone or some institution has enough faith in you, based on what they have heard of your work thus far, to commission something from you is an exhilarating feeling. And a source of anxiety… What if they don’t like the new piece?

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

To be able to write for people you have worked with, often and successfully, is a great joy. With every note you write, you see a face you know and trust and you sense how they will react.

Of which works are you most proud?

My new opera, Blue Electric

Music in the Marble, a symphonic work in 7 short movements – reactions to 7 sculptures

What Is the Word, a setting of Samuel Beckett’s last poem

How would you characterise your compositional language?

A reviewer described me recently as ‘neo tonal’, which I suppose is fair, though I do have atonal inclinations, which are much in evidence in some of my pieces. Like many composers today, I am many things and every work will contain different amounts of the various ingredients that make up my palette. 

How do you work?

I work best in the early morning. I work all day, of course, but the most productive time is the morning. I rarely work beyond 7.00 in the evening.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To feel that I have done myself justice and to know that I have touched people in some way.

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

To be true to your inner voice. Influences are vital and valuable criticism is essential, but ultimately you must write what you feel.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Education is the key. Every child should be exposed to music of all sorts from an early age and in an enjoyable way. It is a myth that classical music (and opera in particular) is an ‘elitist’ art form. It is simply a matter of exposure. To that end, I wrote a series of Fairy Tales for children with words by my friend Emma House. They have been widely performed and reactions among the young have always been deeply satisfying. ‘I am inspired’ said one 7 year old after he saw Jack and the Beanstalk at his Hackney primary school. You can’t ask for more than that.

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

In a beautiful rural spot, with running water nearby, safe in the knowledge that the world has truly woken up to the climate emergency and acted with speed and powerful resolve to rectify the damage we have inflicted on this long-suffering planet.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

The above, with my wife by my side and a long list of commissions on my desk.

What is your most treasured possession?

If a dog is a possession (which it’s not), then my dog. Other than that, I am remarkably un-material. Though possibly my house, which I worked on painstakingly with my wife. And which I love.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Walking in beautiful surroundings. Travelling with my wife and stepchildren. Binge-watching a good series. Reading. Sitting down with a glass of wine after a long and rewarding day’s work. 

What is your present state of mind?

I am tired of the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought. Nothing is plan-able. I am very worried about the state of the planet and I don’t see any meaningful attempt from anyone in authority to address the problems. I am quietly optimistic about the future of my new opera. I am eagerly anticipating getting back to composition after months of scoring, parts writing, organisation and rehearsals for the opera.

Tom Smail is a composer of orchestral, chamber, choral and vocal music. His best known works include the five Fairy Tales for large ensemble and narrator, with words by Emma House. Two of these were toured nationally by English Touring Opera and recorded narrators include Michael Gambon and Harry Enfield.

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