Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Growing up, our house was always full of music and musicians – a singer-songwriter mum, and stepdad who played drums, as well as their friends who were primarily session musicians and jazz players. Neither of them was a trained pianist or able to sight read, but there was always a piano in the house for me to play on. I had lessons for a few months when I was very young but didn’t take to them and quit by the time I was six. My inclinations were aural, preferring to pick out melodies of songs I’d heard on the radio, and to make songs up. I regret quitting now, of course!
When I got to secondary school the music department was the place to be. My teacher, John Weeks, was an incredible man – first and foremost he created a community. We’d just hang out in the music room for the social side of it, every break and lunch. Once you were part of that community, it was the natural progression to join the orchestra, whether you had a musical background or not.
I was offered trombone, which was my first instrument throughout my school years, but I continued to dabble on the piano and pick out pieces by ear. Once I started music GCSE, I got to try out notation software, and I became hooked on writing pieces. I was a gamer and joined an online collaborative project, working on a fan-remake of the original Final Fantasy. It never saw the light of day, but I wrote a lot of music for it and gained a lot of experience.
When I turned 15 my stepdad, Michael, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour and given just a few months to live. He gave me his keyboard, which he could no longer play. Around that time, I discovered Ludovico Einaudi on Classic FM, and really connected with his music. Inspired by his work I decided to compose an album to give to Michael before he passed away. I threw myself into piano non-stop at that point, writing all day and night, skipping classes to play piano and write music. Sadly, by the time I was ready to record Michael was unresponsive and passed away before I could ever play it to him. But by then it was clear to me that I wanted a future in music.
Shortly after, I took on my first paid job, composing the soundtrack to a computer game made by Steve Ince (writer and producer of Broken Sword), called Mr Smoozles Goes Nutso.
Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?
Ludovico Einaudi’s album, Le onde, was pivotal in my decision to take up music, and had a lasting influence on the way I think about putting albums together, conceptually and structurally. Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu (composers of the Final Fantasy series) got me into writing soundtracks. Bartók really opened up my musical imagination as a teen, and of course as pianist I have huge reverence for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. I’m not sure if it’s an influence as such but Finzi’s Eclogue (Op. 10) is probably the piece I’ve listened to most, closely followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor (K466).
I also love electronic music and rock – Radiohead, Thom Yorke, Muse, Pink Floyd, Sigur Rós, Bonobo, Four Tet, Stimming, Kiasmos, Massive Attack, and Portishead – they’ve all been huge sources of inspiration. I’m particularly fond of crossover instrumental/electronic styles – that’s something you see a lot in my electronic productions.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
A few years ago I decided to get my act together technique wise and to tackle the DipABRSM [performance diploma]. I did a lot of damage to my wrists through over-practise when I was younger, and in the lead up to the exam a lot of that resurfaced with a vengeance, along with new chronic pain that was often debilitating. Throughout this process I also had to learn to deal with performance anxiety, which was a new thing for me. As the exam drew closer, I became hyper-aware of my playing, and found it very hard to get in the zone. I started getting obsessive compulsive thoughts about forgetting the material, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy in one particularly painful concert one week before the exam. Getting back into a flow state on stage is something I’ve had to work on since. I take much better care of myself mentally and physically leading up to a performance now – exercise the day before, limit my practice, eat well, do breathing exercises before the performance. I’m also much more inclined to play from sheet music these days, even if it’s only there as an emotional crutch!
Getting through that exam was a real slog, physically and emotionally. It was a time of upheaval anyway, moving house, getting married, having a kid, taking up a new teaching post, and taking the exam all in the same year. It was just too much. I’m slowly working towards a licentiate now but I’m taking it slowly and staying clear of pieces that are likely to exacerbate any pain. I’m much more careful with repertoire choices now.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Commissioned projects are where I feel most at home – the brief, the deadline, the limitations that it forces you to impose on yourself – all these things help to focus the mind and creative energy. You get a lot more done in a lot less time when you know other people are involved and relying on you – I always feel energised when I’m working collaboratively. I particularly enjoy any project that allows me to develop music from the outset, alongside another medium, rather than as an afterthought. Composing can be quite isolating, so I jump at the opportunity to work with people collaboratively like that.
My regret with commissions is that tight budgets often mean there isn’t money for musician and studio hire. I much prefer to work with humans, preparing a score for live performance rather than in a DAW with VSTs. The different compositional approaches lead to very different musical outcomes I think, and I find scores much more liberating. I also love the process of actually creating a score. I don’t get anywhere near the same satisfaction from automating key switches.
Of which works are you most proud?
My last instrumental album, Change, was a pretty big undertaking, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It’s a 10-track album written for piano, string quintet, guitars (acoustic and electric), and some electronic elements too. The album is a reflection on the process of becoming – uncertainty about, resistance to, and – ultimately – abandoning yourself to the inevitable process of change.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
It’s always interesting to think about how to categorise music like this. When writing Change, most of the inspiration came from rock and electronic music. I remember that I was listening to a lot of Pink Floyd when I wrote Inertia, and Sigur Ros when I wrote Prelude. Some pieces, like the title track, Spirals, and Prelude, started out as techno productions. At some point I veered off course and started playing piano over them instead, and these improvisations developed into full pieces. The electronics were gradually stripped back (in the case of Change) or removed entirely (Prelude and Spirals).
Certain pieces do draw from classical harmony, but I wouldn’t describe any of my music as classical. Some people might say post-minimalist or post-classical. I quite like the latter term, but it’s strongly associated with the hyper-trendy felt-piano/una-corda aesthetic, which is a path I’ve avoided.
How do you work?
For my instrumental music, it’s mostly through improvisation in short bursts, usually in between teaching or other jobs. When I have time, I like to start off with a more abstract, expressionist improvisation to loosen up. Although my writing is diatonic, I find ideas come much more freely if I take the opposite approach first. Once I’m warmed up, I’ll then start improvising something more songlike. If I stumble across something I like I make a short recording on my phone.
I rarely develop ideas immediately. Craftsmanship requires a lot more energy and patience. I leave that for when I’m in the right headspace. When I find myself that way inclined, I drop everything else and get to work. A few months ago I was in this phase, collecting improvisations I’d made over the last few years and developing them into two or three albums worth of material. Obviously for commissions that’s different, you have to force yourself into that mindset. But I find that a lot easier – you have other factors that help to inspire and focus you.
My approach to electronic music is very different, I start with a clean slate, usually with a particular idea in mind that I want to try out, then just bury myself in the track for two or three days. If an idea is fertile enough, that’s usually enough time to get it done. If a track doesn’t get finished in that time it’s rare that I pick it back up.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?
To answer this question, I think it’s helpful to separate traditional classical music from contemporary (with the latter not including Einaudi and the like – I mean the more complex forms). Traditional repertoire is a relic, but it’s still magnificent one, and musicians like Yuja Wang continue to capture the public imagination and inspire younger generations who are experiencing this work for the first time. I think there will always be a market for world-class musicians performing this repertoire, but I’m not sure if contemporary classical is able to connect with the wider public in the same way.
There’s clearly an audience for instrumental music more broadly speaking. The post-classical/post-minimalist styles – while not really part of the classical tradition – are doing plenty to grow and maintain the audience that the classical music left behind over the last century. And that is how I see it – people didn’t abandon classical music; classical music abandoned them. That’s not a criticism of new music or its composers in any way. Cutting-edge, challenging music is always going to be a niche interest. So long as there’s great, innovative music around which the wider public are able to connect with, I’m not sure it matters which tradition it originates from.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
If, sometime after finishing a piece, I listen to it and am able to enjoy it in just the same way I’d enjoy any other piece, I’d count that as a success on a musical level.
New book of sheet music out now: Change for Solo Piano from Musica Ferrum
Josh Winiberg is a composer, pianist, and electronic music producer from the UK. Josh’s music has been used in over 30 award-winning films, video games, contemporary dance productions, radio documentaries and theatre shows.
Josh’s music can be purchased and heard on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music and Amazon Music