Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life?
I’m influenced by an enormous range of music, and I listen very widely, though tend to get quite addicted to particular pieces for a while! Classically, I’m hugely influenced by Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninoff (to name a few!). I’m also increasingly influenced by modern minimalist/post-minimalist composers including Philip Glass, Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, as well as more rhythmic contemporary composers like Nikolai Kapustin, Graham Fitkin and Elena Kats-Chernin. I also love the musical fluidity of jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis and enjoy modern jazz-influenced piano trios like GoGo Penguin. I also listen to a lot of soundtracks, film, dance, and electronic/cross-over music. In the past decade or so, I’ve really got into traditional Scottish and Irish folk music (despite the worrying absence of piano!).
When did you start playing the piano and what have been the most significant influences and inspirations on your development as a pianist?
I started learning piano when I was 7, wrote my first piece around the age of 9, and have never really stopped. My grand piano is my most treasured possession! I’ve been lucky enough to be inspired by many musicians, but probably my greatest influences are my two main piano teachers – Clare Wilding (as a child) and Heli Ignatius-Fleet (as an adult) – whose extensive musical knowledge and boundless enthusiasm for the piano fuelled my own passion for the instrument. I’ve also participated in numerous masterclasses and summer schools over the years, which are always brilliant fun and never fail to make me want to play more and practise harder.
Your album ‘Open Up’ is released on 16 July. Tell us more about the conception behind this album, and how your recorded and produced it.
I’ve always written music, but – perhaps unsurprisingly, given my broad interests – I’ve taken a long time to find my musical voice and compose in a consistent style. The idea behind the album was to create a coherent set of compositions that indulged my love of piano but also explored the orchestral potential of the instrument. My musical ideas usually extend rapidly beyond solo pieces into multipart writing and different instrumentations, but I decided to constrain myself to only sounds I could make on the piano and use multitracked recording. The creative process involved a mixture of composing, improvising, and arranging. Despite the obvious challenges of making good recordings, I was keen to avoid using samples or MIDI, to maintain both an acoustic and improvisatory feel to the music. So everything was recorded on – or inside – a real grand piano. This meant numerous recording sessions for every track, as well as detailed mixing to achieve the right balance between different parts. The album is available at www.charliefoxtrotpianocollective.com
How would you characterise your compositional language/style?
Rhythmic and energetic, sometimes melodic, with lots of tonal and modal harmonies.
As a composer, how do you work?
I mostly write at the keyboard and I compose fairly intuitively with a lot of improvisation. Sometimes I have a concept that I want to express in music, sometimes I have a musical motif that I want to develop; sometimes I write fully notated scores, sometimes I just record sounds. Increasingly, I have a plan for the overall structure of a piece, as well as an idea about the sound world I want to create. I almost always run out of fingers at the piano, and usually hear additional parts in my head that I immediately want to add, hence the use of multitracking on the album! That said, I’ve also written solo piano scores for several of the tracks, which I hope to make available at some point in the future, as well as a few small chamber and orchestral works that have been performed previously.
How does being a pianist feed into and influence your composing activities, and vice versa?
Honestly, I can’t imagine one without the other. The more I play, the more I write, and the more I write, the more I want to play.
Why did you decide to release the album under a moniker (Charlie Foxtrot Piano Collective)?
Lots of reasons really. Firstly, I see myself much more as a composer more than a performer, so I felt more comfortable using a different name for the recordings. Secondly, I think the music on the album sounds more like a collection of people playing different parts on multiple pianos, and the fact that I personally played all of them doesn’t seem that relevant. Thirdly, I have a career outside of music, which I prefer to keep separate. And finally, I just think it sounds more interesting! (“Charlie Foxtrot” comes from my initials spelt using the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet and is a name I’ve always used for myself since my grandfather taught it to me years ago.)
How would you define “success” as a musician/composer?
Because I’m someone who makes a living outside of music, I’ve spent a long time thinking about that question. In the end, I think what matters most is to love what I’m doing and to not be constrained by the expectations of others. As a composer, success for me is making music that I like and find interesting, and that other people can hear – and hopefully like too! Putting your own music out into the world is a daunting prospect, but if you don’t try then you’ll never know what opportunities and exciting new connections you might be missing.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers?
I wouldn’t presume to know really! Except to listen widely, play often, and enjoy yourself.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
For me, I would say being creative and not being afraid to do things a bit differently. That could mean mixing more popular modern pieces with classical, or old favourites from the classical canon with more edgy modern compositions, or perhaps using additional media (spoken word, art, dance, film, whatever) to help people access musical language that might otherwise be unfamiliar to them. I think humans are fundamentally musical beings, and the more we hear, the more we like.
What’s next? Do you have any other musical projects coming up?
Not sure – it’s taken quite a bit of focus to bring this album to fruition! I’m currently working on some solo classical piano pieces, which force me to practise rigorously and work on my technique. I’m also arranging some popular songs for solo piano, plus I’m starting to think about writing some more orchestral pieces, probably with piano. I made some short films for a few of the pieces on the album, which was surprisingly fun, so I’d like to do something like that again (see below, for example – an homage to the piano). I’m sure the future will hold a mixture of learning, playing, improvising and composing.
‘Open Up’ is the debut album from the Charlie Foxtrot Piano Collective, released on 16th July 2021. Written and produced by Caroline Wright, the album includes 11 tracks of original multitracked piano music. More information