Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
While still at primary school I was lucky enough to perform in pieces like Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto and – most significant for me – Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. I got to experience the music from the ‘inside out’, immersing myself in how it was achieved technically. This was all because of a very progressive music teacher called Clement McWilliam who got me playing in all those. Then at secondary school I came into contact with the avant-garde through pianist Nicolas [Nic] Hodges, who was two years older than I and getting heavily into Stockhausen. By the time I was sixteen, in 1988, I had digested a huge amount of this repertoire, from Steve Reich to Judith Weir. People normally come into contact with this repertoire at university, but for me it was my own personal discovery while I was still a schoolboy. Nic had a much more academic grasp of the music than I did, while I soaked it up in an intuitive way. The first piece by Harrison Birtwistle I heard was The Mask of Orpheus, in 1987. Can you imagine that? I knew that I was hearing something special, and it reinforced for me the fact that I had to be a composer. (I had my first thoughts about composing after seeing Star Wars in the cinema.) Also in 1987, Michael Finnissy came to adjudicate a composition competition at my school (at the insistence of Nic) and that was the first time I met a serious composer in person. From then on I studied privately with Michael, who was very encouraging and generous with his time, right up until I went to university in 1990. My parents ran a pub, and we paid him with bottles of wine.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenge is to have a career as a composer! Some composers are natural ‘operators’ – or very lucky – but I am not. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2002, which cut my career stone dead. The following decade was spent in recovery, and consequently I missed out on a lot of opportunities. The challenge is therefore to play ‘catch-up’ in an environment where ageism is subtly at play. I’ll be 50 next month, and it seems there are more ‘gatekeepers’ than ever.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
I tend to write in an almost transcendental way for performers, which some performers find daunting and others thrilling. My music is physically and mentally demanding to perform (not always but usually) and it’s great when performers see the value in my approach – a kinetic orgasm of expressivity. Ivo de Greef of Nozsferatu mentioned to me that he never feels more alive than when he’s performing Bubblegum. I was flattered to hear this, because my object in composing is to make people feel more alive in any case. When performers get this and rise to the challenge, they are a joy to work with. EXAUDI got this when they performed Pocket Universe, which went on to win an Ivor [award], and it was a great pleasure to work with them.
Of which works are you most proud?
I’m usually most proud of the most recent piece of work, hoping that I can do better with the next one. I have a soft spot for Rigmarole, my first mature piece, as it won the Gaudeamusprijs back in 1998. I would like to hear Ascension to the Celestial Bureaucracy, a putative piano concerto I wrote last year, as I think it does interesting things like being a single movement span pretending to be a three-movement span. I think Information Pack is pretty strong – it purports to be about a certain thing when it is actually about something else – but again I would need to hear it before being certain of that. We’re back to the subject of gatekeepers.
Tell us more about ‘Within a Certain Time and Place’, your project with Chinwe D John, Andy Staples and Alisdair Hogarth. How did this project come about and what attracted you to it?
Chinwe John, a GP in the United States, contacted me in March 2021 asking if I would like to set some of her lyrics. They resonated with me, and so I set them for tenor and piano. Originally it was going to be one song, but the project grew to three songs. We contacted tenor Andy Staples who was interested in doing them, and he and pianist Alisdair Hogarth recorded them last June in the magnificent St Jude’s Church in Hampstead, London.
How did you respond to Chinwe’s lyrics, and did Andy’s voice influence your writing in any way?
Chinwe’s lyrics have a quiet, assured authority to them which draw you into their world. Each song explores a theme – hope, fate, love. When setting a text I have to respond to it, or meet it, in an honest way. Practically speaking this means setting aside my own compositional predilections as the primary motivation. As a result you could say that my setting of texts results in ‘occasional’ music. My response to the text is to present it in the best light. I don’t worry about cohesion of style or anything like that, on the assumption that my musical voice will ‘carry’ all the same. (By analogy, your handwriting remains the same no matter what you’re writing about.) ‘Now As Before’ was written before I had heard Andy, and so his voice had no influence on how I wrote. Once I had heard him, I simply knew that what I was doing would suit his voice very well. He’s done a lot of Britten, among other things, and his voice has a combined lightness and gravitas that make it remarkably expressive.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
When I began professionally, in the late 1990s, there was in Britain an official contemporary music ‘sound’ that I had to get out of my head, and I did this by writing pieces with material borrowed from a large variety of sources. For instance Bubblegum consists of 17 prefabricated ‘objects’ from David Bowie’s Space Oddity to Chick Corea’s Bessie’s Blues to Gerald Barry’s Diner. Once I had rinsed my ears in this way I outgrew the borrowing phase. I confess I don’t know how to write atonal music and so I fake it sometimes, by using Xenakian principles of non-octavating scales. (I think there’s a lot of things to be done there still, especially when you’re using fewer notes than Xenakis.) Or the music is roughly diatonic. What remained from the borrowing phase is the modular organisation of the musical materials: bits and pieces snap together in various ways like pieces of Lego. It’s rather like assembling a wardrobe from IKEA but without the instructions. This is an approach rooted in screen dialectics: give ten editors the same footage and they come up with ten very different films. What the material is doesn’t matter so much as the way it’s put together. You could say, then, that my compositional language is a dialectical one rooted in the relationships between things. I’m interested in alchemy in the sense that the relationships should produce something more interesting than the constituent parts. I used to be in contact a lot with Chris Newman, and I remember discussing Beethoven’s ‘rock bottom’ material with him. Beethoven had the knack of transfiguring it in his structures. I try and try and try again to do that. I want people to be moved, astonished, entertained and bothered by what I do. Sometimes I succeed.
How do you work?
I work in intense bursts and am obsessive by nature. I just can’t keep office hours. The most hours at a stretch I have worked is 24, when I wrote Twisted Biscuit for string quartet in one sitting. I have a desk where I sketch on paper, and another with a computer and controller keyboard on it. I will do whatever it takes to get the music ‘out there’. Sometimes I’m writing on paper, sometimes in Sibelius and sometimes in Logic Pro. There is a lot of listening in my compositional process: I think it’s probably 95% listening against 5% actual composing. I have found that if I listen very carefully, the music tells me what it wants to do, and it is my job to step out of the way to allow that to happen.
As a composer, what is your definition of success?
Who wouldn’t like to be commissioned enough to live off their composing? That’s one definition. Another is to be appreciated. Then another is to enjoy what you do. I think if you get too caught up in the trappings of success you lose sight of why you’re composing at all.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
I can only reiterate what Nadia Boulanger said, which is that if you don’t feel that composing is as necessary and as urgent as breathing, then do something else. Otherwise the inevitable disappointments won’t be worth it.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
That this question continues to be asked suggests there are no easy answers. I think it’s something to do with divesting the public of the idea that classical music should only be listened to if you’re of a certain age or of a certain class. I think it has an image problem in that sense, which is unfortunate. It’s no longer easy to browse records in a high street shop like HMV – online is becoming the norm – but I remember once coming across an album by James Dillon right next to an album by Neil Diamond. It had been wrongly classified, but I delighted in the error all the same. It reminded me of a remark Nigel Kennedy made, a propos music, that it should be filed alphabetically rather than by genre. I fear that despite our best efforts, people’s listening habits in our online world will be entirely dictated by genre, and consequently there will be only ‘islands’ of listening. This will militate against growing audiences for classical music. I think the recording, rather than the concert, has become the de facto musical experience for most people, and I know that I’m inclined to enjoy a concert more if I have first come across the repertoire on a recording. This has ramifications for new music, which is played in concerts first before being recorded. There I think the trick is to make new music concerts first and foremost a social event. There is a lovely venue in Dublin called The Sugar Club whose seating isn’t just rows of chairs but tables as well, and you can visit a bar at the back and bring drinks back to your table. I’ve been to that venue for story slams as well as concerts and it has a unique, ‘inclusive’, cabaret-like atmosphere. I’m just about to begin writing a chamber opera, and would love it to be performed there. Pre-concert talks depress me – they sound too much like a university lecture – and I feel it would be more immersive for the audience to attend and participate in Q&As once they’ve heard the repertoire. How classical music is marketed, and the extent to which it is, is obviously important. The shows of Loré Lixenberg, one of my librettists for the chamber opera, have been publicised on billboards on the streets of Berlin which means that there is public awareness of our kind of work which tends in general to happen under the public radar.
What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the classical music industry which you really think we should be?
Ageism. I think all the other bases are being covered.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Having a beer outside a Paris café and watching the world go by.
What is your most treasured possession?
That has to be my iMac Pro.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Socialising with friends.
What is your present state of mind?
I’ve been pretty calm for a good while now, thank God.
Geoff Hannan was born in London, UK, in 1972. He studied composition privately with Michael Finnissy before reading Music at Manchester University where he graduated in 1993. In 1998 he was awarded the Gaudeamusprijs for Rigmarole, his first mature work, and in 2007 the 5th International Marenco Prize for Lifeblood. His music has been performed at many festivals in the UK and elsewhere, including the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the London Sinfonietta’s State of the Nation and SOUNDINGS at the Austrian Cultural Forum, and been heard on British, French and Dutch radio, notably ‘The New Music Show’, ‘Hear and Now’, ‘Music Matters’, ‘Sounding the Century’ and ‘In Tune’. He has been been performed by, among others, the London Sinfonietta, IXION, the Ives Ensemble (Netherlands), CONTINUUM (Canada), EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble and tenor Andrew Staples. In 2019 he was awarded an Ivor Novello Composer Award for Pocket Universe.
Geoff has also written the music for the multi-award-winning animation Kahanikar (dir. Nandita Jain) and the BAFTA-nominated short film Take Your Partners (dir. Siri Rodnes). He has worked as orchestrator on the feature films Permanência (dir. Leonardo Lacca), and Miss Christina (dir. Alexandru Maftei) which won the Gopo Award for Best Original Music Score.
He also works as an arranger, having transcribed Elgar’s Enigma Variations for piano quartet and John Williams’ Prologue and Main Title Music from Superman the Movie for piano duet.
Geoff lives in Dublin, Ireland, and his music is represented by Donemus.
His music is not harmless pastoral panacea or cream cake. It can be a bracing tonic, or open windows onto magical and insane soundscapes” — Michael Finnissy