Who or what inspired you to take up composing?
I was introduced to the world of new music fairly late on. Composing wasn’t really something that I expected to do professionally when I was growing up. Although I’m lucky to have had a family who really cultivated my interest in the arts, I just wasn’t aware of the career options that were out there; even during my undergraduate degree in Leeds, I didn’t know whether the way I made music was anything I could take forward outside the world of film and media. Trying to make it in music, to my knowledge, was either honing your craft at an instrument and go into professional performance, or forego the classical world altogether and try and make it in the tumultuous “pop” industry — neither of which I felt I could achieve. My first taste of proper “composing”, I guess, would be when I started making semi-improvised minimalist piano pieces in my student halls when I lived in Leeds, and my subsequent introduction to electro-acoustic music at Leeds University. I guess that would be around 5 or 6 years ago at this point. I wanted to make music that expressed the way I was feeling, without needing to put a band together, or write teenage angsty songs, or deal with the promotional baggage that goes with it. I would say that’s what inspired me to start down this avenue of work.
Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
The first artists to have a significant impact on me weren’t from the classical canon. I grew up listening to bands like Linkin Park, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, and later pop punk bands such as The Wonder Years and Four Year Strong; that’s still my musical language, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake that influence from my work. I remember getting a CD of the first Gallows album from my older cousin when I was really young, and the viscerality of that record — the intensity and emotional catharsis — really resonated with me. I was an angsty kid.
Some of my most formative experiences in music also come from my time living in Leeds. I did study music when I was in the city, but my focus was on musicology much more than composition. The city itself, though… it was such a vibrant place. I was an active member of the DIY music scene in Leeds, first as someone with a vested passion for live shows, and later as a member of skate-punk trio High Visions (we’re still going strong!). I remember one thing that I loved about the DIY community in Leeds was how everyone knew each other; you could go to a show in a dingy warehouse, there’d be a few bands playing that you might not know, but you’d straight away be able to pick out a few friendly faces you could talk to. It was an incredibly warm environment.
In terms of composers nowadays, I’m lucky to be surrounded by incredibly inspiring artists, both through the cultivation of an outstandingly supportive community at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and the amazing composers I’ve featured on my online magazine, PRXLUDES. I’d be remiss to not mention my tutors — Ed Bennett, Edwin Roxburgh, and Howard Skempton — as well as other amazing composers in our department, such as Emily Abdy, Joe Cutler, May Chi, Millicent James… there are too many to mention. I tend to take inspiration from the people around me; their work, their ideas, their perspectives. I always aspire to be the least smart person in the room. Despite the fact I can be really outspoken sometimes, I’m of the belief that there’s always something I can learn from everyone’s different approaches, no matter what that may be.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The biggest issue I’ve faced is probably my own self-confidence as a composer. That comes from the fact that I’m still in the early stages of my career. I’ve only been involved with the new music world for a couple years — if that — and the entire time, I’ve felt like I’ve needed to play this insolvent game of catch-up with my peers. There’s a lot of experience that I just don’t feel I have yet. Perhaps this is just my own insecurities coming through — I am still a “young composer”, after all — but when you see so many emerging composers who’ve been able to take advantage of some incredible opportunities from such a young age, and gain so much experience and guidance from the classical establishment… It does feel like the older you start, and the less money you have, the more doors are closed to you, and the less chances you have to establish yourself.
What I have seen, though, that has really helped to alleviate this fear of mine, is this sense of community and camaraderie in the new music world, particularly among composers of my age and generation. It doesn’t feel like we’re competing with each other — even if, technically, we are, commissions-wise — it’s more that we’re able to bounce ideas off of each other, and share our perspectives with like-minded people. The online space has been really good for this. It’s one of the reasons why I started PRXLUDES — to help cultivate and build up this network where we can all support each other, whatever our style, level, or experience.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Well, for a start, it’s always a nice boost to know that your music resonates so much with certain people that they want you to write for them [laughs]. For me, the best thing about commissions is the bouncing back and forth of ideas. You’re not cooped away in some basement working on some delusion of a “magnum opus” — the idea is tangible, you’re discussing it. Sometimes you’re even trying things out as you go. While I’m no stranger to things like “here are your forces, go and write this thing for xyz”, I tend to find the strongest works are produced collaboratively, be that through a commissioning process, working with specific ensembles, working across disciplines, or in any manner where concepts can be discussed, explored, and reflected.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
For me, the biggest challenge has always been notation. A lot of my practice has revolved around me performing my own work along with musicians, and that kind of approach is something I always take with me to rehearsals when I’m working with performers. I remember how long it took me to get a solid grasp on the concept of notation — I’m used to playing in punk bands and jazz ensembles, things where you can shout “yo, play it like this”, and mime a drum pattern and they get it immediately. That was a huge hurdle when I first transitioned from playing alongside performers to working with them as a composer; there’s almost this language barrier I had to overcome, switching from what was essentially an aural tradition to a semiotic one. But once you are able to establish that rapport and that relationship with performers — particularly those of instruments you may not be intimately familiar with — it becomes an incredibly rewarding process. I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve struggled to notate exactly the kind of sound I want to get out of an instrument, and the feeling you get when a performer is able to recreate that sound you were looking for is amazing.
Of which works are you most proud?
That’s a very hard one — as I mentioned, I only really got into the new music game fairly recently, and a lot of my public works so far aren’t what I consider the best realisations of my artistic ideas. The work I’m producing now is totally different to the work that I was producing this time last year, and is almost a world away from the work I was creating two years ago — and this time next year, I’m sure I’ll find the pieces I’m currently working on (and probably this whole interview!) to be hopelessly naïve, or something along those lines. That’s always how it goes.
Out of my published works — I’d say my most recent studio album, Always Believe, is up there as one of my largest-scale works so far. I wrote and recorded it way before I got involved with contemporary music, all the way back in 2018 — I was still somewhat based in Leeds at the time — and I got together with rock producer Will Cook, who helped me out with a lot of the part-writing for guitars. It’s a mix of my old minimalist style of piano-writing with post-rock, ambient and metal soundscapes. It’s definitely no longer indicative of what I’m working on, but I think it’s the most accessible introduction to what I do. I still remember wandering around ArcTanGent Festival in 2019, just before the album’s release, handing out CDs to pretty much anyone who would have one… just to move to Birmingham and decide to go in a completely different direction [laughs].
I guess in terms of my recent work, the work I’m currently most proud of is a chamber opera I’m in the midst of writing. Only the libretto (which I’ve written myself) and a few fragmentary musical ideas are done at this point — and I can’t really talk about many of the details, here — but it’s my first large-scale opera I’ve undertaken purely as composer. I’d say it’s almost my reflections on the collective trauma we’ve faced through covid, in a sense; but it’s nowhere near as overt with those themes.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I always find it difficult to categorise my work. James Mcilwrath once described my practice as “something completely different, every six months”, and it really does feel that way; in just the past year my work has taken me in a multitude of different directions, writing for many different forces and structures across a wide variety of disciplines — instrumental, opera, electronics, jazz, sound art — I’ve even created an unfiction series. I guess the main driving factor — as it was with my initial explorations into the world of composition — is that I want to find new ways to express myself and my own artistic visions, using the languages and crafts that are available to me.
Interestingly, I actually had a conversation with Howard Skempton about this very question awhile back. He described many composers in new music as either innovators or radicals; that is, their interests lie either in pushing the boundaries of what’s been established and taking things to new heights, or going back to the fundamental, exploring the root of what music is and what music does… the dichotomy of what music can be and what music is. I guess I’m much more of a radical, by that definition. I experiment all the time — but I feel that my sonic and artistic experiments have some sort of fundamental root at the core of them. I see all these different facets and strands of music, of art, of everything, and try and realise them in my own way — whatever that is.
How do you work?
It’s always hard to say. I guess as a composer, you’re supposed to say something profound, or something really short with a lot of loaded meaning attached — but really, my compositional process is probably no different to most other composers, in that I get a point of inspiration from somewhere, or someone, and then sit down at either a piano, or my DAW, or notation software, and the state of flow just comes to me. It’s not a good answer, I know. [laughs] I’d say my compositional process is quite intuitive, and comes fairly easily to me once I have the inspiration. I tend to find inspiration in all kinds of places — I’ve been told once that I’m the kind of person that could be inspired by a tree — but I get most inspired by being around people, exposing myself to new ideas and perspectives, and being stimulated, challenged, and humbled by the work of my peers.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
As with all composers, I guess my list of things I’m listening to changes all the time. While I can always appreciate the classical “greats” — Ravel, Berg, and Duke Ellington have been on my rotation lately — I tend to find that the music of living composers excites me a lot more. I don’t know why that is.
In terms of what I’ve been enjoying lately — I’ve really been getting into the work of Emily Abdy, Amelia Clarkson, and Neil Luck. I’ve interviewed two of them as part of PRXLUDES, and I attended an incredibly enlightening presentation by the latter. Each one of their approaches is drastically different from the others, and each is fascinating in their own way; I’d highly recommend checking them out if you haven’t already. I’ve also been really enjoying SOPHIE’s debut (and sadly, only) album recently, as well as the music of Bob Vylan, Havelocke, and Soviet post-punk band Kino.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
As much as I feel inspired by the work of my peers, it’s hard not to compare your own career trajectory to that of those around you — particularly when you’re on social media — and I find that’s always a bit of a slippery slope. For me, success would just be being able to do what I do, in a way I want to do it, that doesn’t compromise my artistic integrity — and if I’m able to make a living out of it, that’s an absolute bonus. But there isn’t a universal definition of success out there, and nor should there be. It’ll be one thing for some and something completely different for others.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
For me, though I’ve cycled through a lot of different perspectives, opinions, and ideas with regards to the music world, there are two that I think are absolutely paramount, both in new music but also in life generally: be amicable, and be humble. Learn how to form connections with people, be it on a surface level or a grander one — see the inherent good in everyone you interact with. Stay humble — you can learn something from everyone. I’m still learning how to compose every day. I’ve still got a long way to go before I’m even close to satisfied with my craft. While everything on a surface level can change around you, I always find I fall back on these two principles in every part of my professional life.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
When I see the current state of classical music, I see a dichotomy of two things that are almost diametrically opposed to each other. I see this incredibly vibrant and diverse community of artists, composers, creatives of all kinds and all generations, willing to support each other in the creation of genuinely thought-provoking, breath-taking, truly brilliant art in every sense of the word — and I see boundaries and barriers to entry erected by an old-school establishment of elitists and industry gatekeepers who, unfortunately, hold a lot of the cards when it comes to the curation and promotion of new music, and which quite frankly need to be torn the fuck down.
It’s upsetting that some elites continue to perpetuate the myth that classical music is something unchanging, or only for the older generations. It frustrates me to no end that in 2021, composers and practitioners of new music need to navigate a landscape that still discriminates based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, neurotypicality, and class, amongst a whole host of other factors. It frustrates me that the establishment favours those who could afford to be classically trained, or have the money to attend these exotic schemes all across the world, or are able to secure just the right funding — and those who have the familial connections can sidestep even these limitations.
I’m far too young and naïve to have all the answers to these issues — but I think a start would be education and democratisation of classical music. Make music education accessible to everyone, no matter what their background; make the act of music-making in all its forms, both in schools and extracurriculars, more inclusive. Democratise the concert hall: stop making classical music out to be this static, unchanging monolith dedicated to a select few dead white men from across the centuries. Make concerts affordable for all. Get rid of the notion that the Western art music canon — or the twelve-tone octave system — is universal truth. Embrace the breaking down of boundaries of genre and sound world — there’s no reason why a gayageum ensemble, a black metal band, or an oud jazz trio shouldn’t be taken as seriously in the concert hall as a symphony orchestra. I know these steps seem quite simple and like a no-brainer to a lot of us in the new music world — but it’s no secret that avant-garde music communities outside of the classical spectrum have managed to evolve, thrive and be culturally relevant among the wider music populace. You have to ask yourself why classical music isn’t reaching those same heights.
That all being said, I’m quite optimistic about the incredible dedication, passion, and care that many new music establishments are putting into resolving the current accessibility issues of classical music. It inspires me when I see the new music world shining a spotlight on composers who are women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, disabled or neurodivergent, those who have been historically oppressed in the musical landscape. It inspires me seeing such prominent organisations as Sound and Music, Nonclassical, the Royal Philharmonic Society, Wigmore Hall, and so many others actively taking a stand and making an effort to broaden the accessibility and horizons of new music. As the world of classical music as a whole starts catching up with the times — and I do believe this is starting to happen, though much work still needs to be done — new audiences will follow, ones who don’t feel alienated by the inflexibilities of the classical elite.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Probably my most memorable experience was a show I played with my band, High Visions, back in 2018. It was the final show of our first ever UK tour. We played this dingy little pub in south London with a load of our friends in the British punk scene. It was incredibly energetic, really sweaty… I remember there being a load of mosh pits, a conga line, and even a human pyramid at one point. When we played our final song, a load of our mates came and invaded the stage and sang all the vocals with me; there’s probably a photo somewhere of all of us outside the venue, drunk as hell, super drained and sweating like crazy after playing the show of our lives. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Making fulfilling art that resonates with people. It’d also be nice if it paid the bills, as well. -laughs- I’d also like to be living outside of the UK. I never really resonated with wider British culture. I’ve never felt at home in Britain. I think I’d fit in much better elsewhere.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
At the risk of sounding like an absolute hypocrite: perfect happiness is being content no matter what your circumstances. It all comes from within. It’s great to have all these desires to make great art, to cultivate an audience, to resonate with a fanbase, to take contemporary music in interesting directions and fulfill your artistic potential — but if you can’t learn to be happy within yourself, outside of all these external factors, it doesn’t matter what successes you have, you’ll never feel satisfied.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’m trying to let go of the idea of treasured possessions… But if I was to be honest, I’d have to say my laptop. For better or for worse, my professional life pretty much revolves around the software on my Macbook. I’m meticulous with my data — three backups of everything, two physical, one virtual, made every three days.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Getting roasted on social media about my views on classical music.
What is your present state of mind?
A bit scattered, but otherwise determined.
Zygmund de Somogyi (b. 1996, London) is a British-Filipino composer, artist, and performer
based between the UK and Germany. He is currently pursuing a Masters at Royal
Birmingham Conservatoire, studying with Ed Bennett, Joe Cutler, and Howard Skempton.
Zygmund’s music explores highly expressive themes of escapism, reverie, and
interdisciplinary performance, with his nonclassical background and punk rock upbringing
greatly informing his practice as a composer. His work has recently been performed and
workshopped by ensembles such as Quatuor Bozzini, Fidelio Trio, Thallein Ensemble, and
Tresonant. Zygmund has released three studio albums, and written music for ThinkTank
Planetarium, OSO Arts Centre, and Chris Hadfield’s Rare Earth.
Zygmund is the founder of online magazine PRXLUDES — with the goals of giving young
composers the opportunity to talk about their work on a public platform, and fostering a
network of young practitioners of new music from across the musical landscape. He openly
has Asperger’s Syndrome, and helps run an online network for autistic musicians and
Image credit: Leah Becker