AlAstair Penman, composer & performer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was lucky to grow up with an older sister (Katrina Penman) who started playing the flute at a young age and brought music into our house. Being the youngest child, I always wanted to do whatever my brother and sister were doing, and it was Katrina who suggested I learn the clarinet when I was at primary school. Having loved the clarinet, at secondary school I always thought the big band looked great fun, so I later took up the sax at around 14. I was fortunate to have an inspirational teacher in the form of Claire McInerney who really nurtured my love of both the saxophone and jazz music. It was also Claire who encouraged me to join the National Youth Wind Orchestra, where I met Gerard McChrystal, who has been a great supporter of my career and whom I now work with regularly.

Upon leaving school, I went to study engineering at Cambridge (a very tough choice between this and going to conservatoire, heavily influenced by school and parents!), but I continued playing with the big bands and symphony orchestras and met some fantastic musicians – many of those I played alongside in the university big band have gone on to have hugely successful careers, including Misha Mullov-Abbado, Tom Green, Alex Hitchcock and Liam Dunachie to name just a few!

After choosing to study engineering, I had pretty much written off a career in music until a chance meeting with saxophonist Rob Buckland. Rob was playing a concerto with the university chamber orchestra and I played in a masterclass with him the same day, and it was here that he planted the seed that I might consider a postgraduate in music. I jumped at this idea, and after graduating I went to Royal Northern College of Music to study a Masters in Saxophone Performance with Rob. Having only taken occasional lessons since leaving school, it was Rob who really built the foundations of my saxophone technique. He was an incredible teacher, and this is demonstrated by how successful many of his students have gone on to be. It was also Rob who first steered me towards composing. Until I went to RNCM I had never really composed before, and Rob encouraged me to write a 30-minute through-composed recital of music for saxophone, classical guitar and electronics. This later formed the basis of my first album, Electric Dawn.

After graduating I was selected as a City Music Foundation Artist and was able to choose a musical mentor. I requested John Harle, who had been a long-time musical hero of mine, and was delighted when he agreed to be my mentor. At the time I was formulating my first album, and I couldn’t have been more excited when John offered to produce it and release it on his label, Sospiro Records. I learnt so much from working with John, not only from a saxophone playing point of view, but also from a compositional perspective, and also on the production side of things. John has been a huge influence on my career and has also been a great champion of my playing and composition. It was John who first invited me to teach a couple of classes at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, which led to my appointment first as Visiting Professor of Saxophone and Electronics, and more recently as Professor of Saxophone.

Most recently, John has produced my new album, Do You Hear Me?, which is again released on Sospiro Records. This is a highly political disc, focussing on the climate emergency, and once again it was John who helped to shape this. Initially I had vague ideas for an album, but John helped me to refine these ideas and give the disc the clarity of message and impact that we have achieved with it. It was also John who suggested commissioning videos to go with the tracks to add to the impact. (You can find out more about the project and watch Tom Gimson’s stunning videos that accompany it at doyouhearme.info)

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

One of the things I find most challenging is managing time! There’s just so much to do and so little time…! As a composer, performer and teacher it always feels like there are so many plates to keep spinning at any one time. I might be working on a commission, preparing for a recital and teaching classes all in the same week, which can be challenging. My biggest frustration is actually that I don’t find more time to practice. I find that if I’ve got deadlines I’ll do everything I can to meet them, but that usually means not getting in as much practice as I’d like – life is one big balancing game! Other frustrations I have are those that I believe are common to many musicians – often the projects that are the most exciting aren’t always the ones that offer the most financial gain, so again it is a balancing act of pursuing projects that really excite and inspire you musically whilst also making sure to also find time to do the jobs that pay the bills! The two saxophone quartets that I play with, Kaleidoscope and Borealis, are great examples of this. Both are musically inspiring to work with, but the number of hours that get put into creative projects and rehearsals are usually way more than the remuneration provided for them! I feel that I’ve been very lucky in my career to date however, that I’ve mostly been able to pursue the projects that excite me and find time to create my own projects.

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

As both a composer and performer I’ve been on both sides of the commissioning process, which I think has taught me a lot! The biggest challenge with commissions is understanding what the performer wants from a piece (or as a performer, communicating what you want to the composer!). Some people are very prescriptive and others leave things very open, but I think it’s important to check in regularly throughout the process as well. One of the most fun commissions I’ve written was for the incredible recorder player Tabea Debus. This was for a project inspired by Telemann’s 12 Fantasias – new works were commissioned to reflect and be played alongside each of the 12 Fantasias, and I was allocated Fantasia 2. In a way this sounds like quite a prescriptive project, but it was actually hugely enjoyable to dig deep into Telemann’s music and reflect on it in a more contemporary manner. It was great to work with Tabea as well and learn more about the extended techniques that are possible on the recorder and incorporate a number of these into the work. It’s also really satisfying when a commission that you write gets played lots of times, and Tabea has played this work (Mirrored Lines) many times as well as recording it on the album it was written for.

Looking from the other side, probably the most successful piece I’ve commissioned is Deconstruct by Jenni Watson. I gave Jenni a pretty free rein on this piece and she based it on my background in engineering to produce an incredible work, that I think I’ve probably now performed more than any other piece! When I commissioned Jenni I didn’t know her very well, but loved her music. Since then we’ve become good friends and now play together in the Kaleidoscope Quartet as well as other projects. This was a true success of a commission!

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

There are lots of elements when working with different people – I think the biggest challenge is often understanding expectations and making sure everyone knows what is required of them. Once that’s understood the experiences are always positive ones. I particularly enjoy getting to know performers from a personal point of view and writing pieces that are specific to them, drawing on their own influences and details such as how they execute certain techniques.

Of which works are you most proud?

I think composers will always say they’re most proud of their most recent works – if we weren’t proud of them we’d keep working on them until we were! So, because of this I have to say my most recent album, Do You Hear Me?. Aside from this, the aforementioned work for Tabea is a highlight, as well as the pieces I composed for my first album Electric Dawn, which were really my first serious forays into composition. Looking back, I’m amazed how well they turned out considering my complete lack of experience at the time!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Having never undertaken formal study in composition, my style can be a little eclectic. It really draws on all my influences growing up, and a lot of my compositions are very hard to describe in traditional genre terms. My main influences are contemporary classical music, contemporary jazz and jazz fusion, but then also more commercial styles. Much of my work incorporates electronics and this is an important part of my compositional signature. It’s interesting looking back on my earlier compositions at how this style has developed not only as I’ve become more experienced with the technology, but also as the technology itself has advanced.

How do you work?

I’m not very good at being methodical when I work. When I’m composing I like to start things as far ahead of a deadline as I can. Alongside writing contemporary music I also write a large amount of educational music. With educational music I’m very good at sitting down at the piano and keeping writing until I’m happy. With other works however, I really have to be in the right zone. I often come up with ideas that then spin round my head maturing and developing for weeks; then by the time I sit down to notate them I’m mostly transcribing from my head rather than starting from scratch. Because I normally allow pieces to form in my head before writing them down, once I do start notating a piece it’s often a very quick process!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think it’s incredibly hard to define success, and like many other musicians I think I will always suffer from imposter syndrome to some extent, which makes it feel like success has never quite been achieved! I also suffer from constantly moving the goalposts for myself. I remember when I graduated from RNCM I decided to give myself five years to make it as a musician, and if I hadn’t then I would fall back on my engineering degree. Five years later, had I made it as a musician? A younger me would have seen recording an album and having taught classes at conservatoires as making it as a musician, but then thanks to social media you can always see someone that’s being more successful than you. So, have I “made it”, or do I need to be as successful as they are? I think this is a hugely dangerous way of thinking that I fall into (alongside many other musician), and as more time passes I become more content with what I have and where I am in life. I think really for me now, success is being able to work on the music I love, and perform with the musicians I love working with. If I’m being musically fulfilled (and still managing to pay the bills!) then I think that is success to me!

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

I think the most important thing for aspiring musicians is to be true to themselves and write the music that they believe in. Whilst studying, musicians are always told so many things by teachers, many of whom will say them as though they are the absolute truth. It’s quite rare that anything said in the music world is more than opinion however, and whilst everyone is entitled to their opinion, you’re also entitled to disagree with them. If you are writing music to please someone else you will never feel fulfilled, so you should write what you truly believe in!

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

I think music education plays a huge part in having a classical music audience. Unfortunately, with the decline of music education in schools fewer children are growing up with a love and understanding of classical music, thus leading to fewer adults that will go on to enjoy going to classical music concerts. I do think that classical music has image problems, but I think there is some great work being done in this area by groups such as the multi-story orchestra. I don’t think that making music fit into pre-defined boxes according to their genres is helpful either. Genres have become so fluid with so much cross-pollination between them that I think contemporary music often would benefit from not being billed as “classical” music at all, but just as music!

Alastair Penman’s new EP Do You Hear Me? is released on 18 December 2020. This 4-track audio release of saxophone and electronics is accompanied by a series of videos created by Tom Gimson. The music itself was inspired by the climate emergency and 50% of proceeds will be donated to the environmental charities Clean Air Taskforce and Coalition for Rainforest Nations.


Having earned masters’ degrees in both Information and Computer Engineering (University of
Cambridge) and Saxophone Performance (Royal Northern College of Music), Alastair has a strong
interest in the fusion of live saxophone performance with electronic effects, backings, and
enhancements to create often previously undiscovered sound-worlds. Although classically trained, Alastair enjoys exploring many musical worlds; such influences can be heard in his compositions and performances, which often transcend genre definition. Alastair is a Henri Selmer Paris Artist, a Vandoren UK Artist and a BBC Introducting Artist as both a soloist and as part of the Borealis
Saxophone Quartet.

Alastair Penman – Saxophonist, Clarinettist, Composer, Educator

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