Graham Fitkin, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

When I was about 6 I started playing the piano. My Mum taught me. When I was about 6 and a half I gave it up. When I was 7 I was tempted to have another go, and my ever patient mother taught me once more. When I was 7 and a half I gave it up once more. This pattern continued for another three years. My Mum cleverly did not force me to continue doing something I didn’t have an interest in. But I was constantly drawn to it, sidling up to the instrument, improvising and wanting to know more. And as I learnt more, in this stuttering fashion, I wanted to make up my own compositions. And sometimes I wanted to improve on other composers’ work. For instance, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was written in C# minor, which I considered a pig of a key, so I refreshed it, chucked it in A minor and ‘improved ‘on some of the unnecessary elements, adding a few blue notes as I went. I hoped that he would be both happy and impressed by the makeover.

Since then I’ve not really stopped mucking about with the piano, although mercifully I’ve left other composers’ work alone. I haven’t however ever made a decision to pursue a career as a composer. I’ve just sorted of carried on.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

Well I suppose starting with the ‘who’ – my family first.

My Mum for her adept way of dealing with her youngest child’s flighty early interest in music. My Dad for tirelessly carting me round night after night to band practise, orchestral rehearsals, clarinet lessons, percussion workshops and so on.

Equally significantly my brother constantly fed me new musical experiences, introducing me to Stravinsky at 11, Philip Glass, at 13, Stockhausen at 14, Mugsy Spanier and Keith Jarrett at 15 and so on. This was crucial early influence.

Thereafter it’s tricky to choose. My first composition teacher Peter Nelson for his boundless encouragement at the right time. My Dutch mentor Louis Andriessen for questioning me constantly over every compositional and life decision. My long standing friend and compositional colleague Laurence Crane for tons of things.

As for the ‘what’, well hearing things – Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Anton Webern for the first time, seeing things – the work of choreographer Wim Vanderkeybus, the work of Sol Le Witt and Richard Serra, reading things – Small Is Beautiful by EF Schumacher, the writings of Richard Long, anything by Leonard B Meyer.

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

Battling the ever-present feeling that what I do is pointless. Battling a natural but unhelpful tendency to please. Finding the line.

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

Oooh, where to start. Everything is exciting. The possibilities, the journeys, the research, trying to work out exactly what it’s all about. And then narrowing things down, making sure that the central tenet is solid, making lists, writing text about what the music is doing (helps me in the more troublesome moments). And then ditching stuff. Throwing away things which have been worked on. Deciding how much to throw away. The music’s great but ultimately irrelevant. Then going back, re-routing things, getting things back on track. Hoping the stamina holds out to focus on the same piece for a long period of time. Working with musicians on particular bits. The dawning feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile. Then things start going really well. Too well? Have I missed something? Am I going down a rabbit hole again? No this time it’s right. The scent of something special. Then honing, polishing, tweaking. Completing. Hearing the musicians for the first time. Perhaps a moment of contentment. Tinged with a slight nagging restlessness and a desire to be back at it.

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

Working with musicians is a hugely pleasurable side of my work. I am lucky enough to know musicians and singers who are completely obsessive about trying to get exactly what I’m after. I couldn’t ask for more. Quite often these relationships develop over a number of projects and I get to know the particular sound or technical specialities of a musician. Then I can really compose specifically for that person. Working with an orchestra or really large ensemble is different. There’s an excitement about working with a large group of people and the special sound that you can create but of course you don’t get the person to person nuances quite so easily (although it can happen). One challenge of orchestral writing is a simple practical one – rehearsal time. Often there is only one rehearsal. Maybe two. And in that time you have to amass all these musicians to play a music from one perspective. This maybe fine for a piece written in a style that is well-known, easily accessed and comfortable, like a favourite armchair. But newer music hasn’t had that history and often requires understanding of a language which hasn’t been fully assimilated yet. Even if it’s technically very easy. So I have certainly taken note of that in my more recent orchestral pieces.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t know. In the aftermath of completing a piece I suppose I am proud of the fact that I’ve made something that I like or feel is important to me in some way. But sadly that feeling doesn’t last very long. So it’s a feeling that is often just out of reach.

How do you work?

I like working. So I do a lot of it. Often mornings are good. But more recently evenings too. I had restricted evening composition for the sake of my insomnia but I have noticed that it’s quite a good time again. Afternoons are less useful I find. Though salad for lunch helps.

I like a pencil and a piece of paper. I use software and a computer. I occasionally use microphones. But the pencil and paper are the most useful especially at the start of a piece. While I’m composing I like to have a guiding A4 sheet of paper on my desk which outlines what on earth this piece is about. It is a reminder not to go off-piste and be lured away by lovely sounds. Thereafter I tend to continually telescope from concentrating on overall broad brush parameters to focusing on minutiae. The broad brush parameters include not just the span of the piece, its structural elements and how to navigate, but further out from that there is the positioning of the piece in the venue and its relevance to the people involved in it. Some of these things I’m still not very good at.

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

This is a fine question which I feel inadequate to answer. Easy answers, platitudes and clichés won’t be very helpful and yet they’re trundled out a lot in this sort of situation. If I could cogently outline a few key things I suspect that I would disagree with myself very soon after. I also suspect that it can’t be compressed into a few key things. So my apologies for this one.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

This question has the aura of a fundamental question. Something which we can base other questions on. But I feel that there might be more fundamental questions lurking below which would then change this one. I haven’t formulated that question of course. That would be too much. But it might be – what is the relevance of classical music nowadays? Or – what are the benefits that communities can derive from classical music events?

This may not be relevant but I’ll put it down anyway. I planned a project which was based around a birch tree in northern Sweden. I had data from the tree (yearly growth, temperatures, snowfall etc) and created a large orchestral piece based on that information. Some time after the premiere performance for European City of Culture in Umea, I wanted to celebrate the tree’s 150th birthday. (Classical music is fond of celebrating mystifyingly obtuse dates such as the 250th anniversary of the death of someone, so I thought it would be nice to celebrate a living anonymous tree.) I planned a series of events from Sweden on a route through seven countries ending in the UK. The tree was central to the project so what better thing to do than plant trees on this journey. I would cycle the entire route, and perform piano concerts in communities small and large with music from the piece and join local communities in planting trees in their area. We would create a metaphorical line of trees crossing borders. Music would be central and the audiences for those concerts would not be ‘music’ audiences accustomed to attending concerts. The concerts would provide a central pivot around which a community did something else equally or more important which had longevity. And then covid hit.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Great question. I think this is very closely tied up with how I might view my life. Success might not be the word I use, but I think that aligning my music making with the way I live my life is an important personal aspiration. There are particular moments when I think, and even say to myself – ‘I am really comfortable doing what I’m doing at this moment in time’. There may be multiple reasons for that, and I may also need reminding of that fact too, as I am a sucker for the word ‘should’. But life is a series of decisions and I have made many which I now view as dubious at best. And these might include writing a piece for the wrong reason. Or writing a piece which on reflection I wish I hadn’t. These pieces, other people might view as successes. Perhaps they like them. But I might still feel that they detracted me. Perhaps I need that guiding A4 sheet of paper on my metaphorical life desk all along.

What is your present state of mind?

On a knife edge.

‘The Age of Aspiration’, Graham Fitkin’s new work for solo countertenor, narrator, choir and orchestra loosely based on the chemist Humphry Davy, receives its premiere at Truro Cathedral on 20 November 2021, performed by the Three Spires Choir and Orchestra to celebrate their 40th anniversary. 

Graham Fitkin is a British composer, pianist and conductor. His compositions fall broadly into the minimalist and postminimalist genres. Described by The Independent in 1998 as “one of the most important of our younger composers”, he is particularly known for his works for solo and multiple pianos, as well as for music accompanying dance.

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