Oliver Davis, composer

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

As a child I learned to play classical music on the violin and piano. By the age of 11, perhaps as a reaction against my classical musician parents, I started to listen to Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Depeche Mode and started to write electronic music at around that age. It was only in my late teens that I started to truly discover classical music and would listen to Shostakovich, Britten, Glass and Nyman. It’s this eclectic mix of bands and composers that has influenced my music, as opposed to a single composer or genre. However, when I set out as a composer, I didn’t have the luxury of establishing myself as a solo artist and had to rely on being commissioned to compose music for television and film, running a small music production company in Soho. Every brief was essentially “can you make it sound like this?” It was only in my late 30s that I began to develop my own style and that’s when those genres and composers mentioned really came to influence me.

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

The biggest issue has been the inability to perform my music on any one instrument to a professional standard; I have always focused purely on writing the music. Though I can play the piano, I’m not a pianist; I may just about be able to wave ¾ in the air but I’m not a conductor. I can sing to a degree but would never have the confidence to sing live on stage. Composers who can perform or conduct their own compositions have some advantages, not least, getting their repertoire into the concert hall. In addition, being dyslexic didn’t exactly propel my academic studies in music…

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

The initial challenge is the age-old problem, fearing that you won’t be able to come up with anything despite the fact that you’ve managed it for the previous two decades. There are practical things to consider too which can have a direct impact on the piece you are writing. For example, when I’m scoring a ballet I have a completely different mindset from when I’m writing a piece of chamber music. With chamber music you are more free in the form of the piece you are writing but in ballet it’s a very different story. When scoring a ballet I will be thinking about what the choreographer is trying to achieve, for example, should the second section include a duet and is this an ensemble section? etc.

The real pleasure for me is the response from musicians or choreographer when you’ve created something they genuinely enjoy, and the reaction of the audience at the premiere. With larger scale stage works I really enjoy working as part of a team and watching it all come together.

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

Generally speaking there is no greater thrill than hearing an orchestra play your piece for the first time, especially since you’ve only ever heard it on a laptop or a piano. It can of course reveal a different sonority from what you’re expecting, or passages that are challenging to get together at the tempo specified. I really enjoy writing a piece for a musician and then hearing their interpretation of the piece. Musicians can transform your work in ways you hadn’t predicted, adding their character and ideas of phrasing into the performance.

Of which works are you most proud?

It would have to be between Flight, Anno and The Infinite Ocean. Flight was the very first piece I wrote for Kerenza which we recorded with the LSO. It’s the piece that started the whole process of making these albums. Anno was my first song cycle and was something I wrote in a very concentrated period of time so that it all feels like one homogenised cycle. It was also the reason I met Grace Davidson whose voice has played such an important role in my albums. The Infinite Ocean was my first large-scale commissioned ballet score. It was written for the American choreographer Edwaard Liang and commissioned by San Francisco Ballet, its premiere marking the beginning of a series of ballets for Edwaard.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Some liken me to minimalist composers but my music only really hints at minimalism in style. Minimalism is often characterised by repetitive patterns that have incremental changes, those changes being the true focus of the experience of an often meditative form of music. My compositions, however, often use those repetitive patterns as a ‘backdrop’, over which I place the melody. Catchy tunes combined with very rhythmic patterns are a feature of my music.

How do you work?

I have a recording studio ten minutes drive from my home. I go there as soon as I wake up (around 5:30am) and write until about 5pm, stopping for occasional games of pool with composer George Stroud who writes in the studio above me. I often write at either the piano or straight into the laptop. Sometimes a tune will come to me when I’m out of the studio and so I reach for my phone and record myself singing on that. I have to pretend I’m on the phone if in public! Better than the old days when the only way I could record ideas when away from the studio was by leaving a message on my company answer phone, leaving other employees baffled when they checked the messages the next morning! Once I’m happy with what I’ve written I transfer the music from the Cubase software to the scoring software called Sibelius. It’s with this software that I complete the orchestration by adding dynamics and phrasing etc. For some projects it will go directly to the musicians’ stands but invariably it will go via my publishers’ excellent editorial team who help avoid delays in rehearsals by making the orchestral parts very musician friendly.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Awards. Sadly I don’t have any!! But joking aside, perhaps the true definition of success is a really enthusiastic audience reaction. I guess success can also be measured by the amount of airplay and the number of people who get something from a piece of music. That’s at least a tangible marker.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring composers?

When starting out it can be a balancing act of saying yes to everything whilst avoiding being exploited. Avoid ghost writing (composing under someone else’s name) and be extremely wary of what you sign and always get good legal advice. If you want to score films and television series then get involved with student film makers, especially when they are making their graduation films, some of which are stunning. It’s good experience, an introduction to tomorrow’s industry and gives you a ready-made showreel. If your expertise lies in vocal writing try approaching choirs and then choral publishers. If you are interested in music for the stage then research the competitions for musicals and operas. Ballet commissions are rare but there are always young choreographers looking for new material. Try to connect with a soloist; writing for individual artists is a better approach than waiting for an orchestral commission. Bizarrely the pop/rock industry is not too far away from this approach, creating something specifically for an artist that will immediately connect with them, that they will then take and potentially tour. In essence, you need to get out there and be relevant.

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

Classical music is presently facing challenges on multiple fronts: the decline in music education in our schools, dwindling concert hall audience figures and, of course, the devastating impact of the pandemic. It is therefore essential that we find ways to grow the audience. Perhaps one issue is that the classical music industry, despite various good initiatives in the arts sector, has yet to face its biggest challenge – attracting younger audiences to the concert hall. I’m focusing on the concert hall because areas such as opera and dance appear to be less affected by the decline. It certainly appears that way.

Classical stars, for want of a better expression, are a way to engage a larger audience. It’s also possible that more immersive experiences might attract younger audiences. Despite the challenges, I believe that there has never been a better time to be a contemporary classical composer as we are in an era that is far more accepting than when I was studying in the early 90s. Perhaps the more we encourage young people to write classical music the more relevant the idiom will become and the brighter its future will be. One area that is getting it right is radio. Television, on the other hand, has been arguably neglectful in exposing contemporary classical music to the wider public.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?

I mentioned the decline of classical music in British education. We have yet to feel the full impact of this. I recently read that A-level music is now not always on the curriculum in state schools. If we are to reverse this decline then perhaps we should be debating and arguing the enormous benefits of classical music in education. We should be lobbying the government on the relevance of classical music and the potential detrimental financial effect on areas such as tourism should we allow its demise in schools to continue.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario to better explain my point. Imagine you are standing in front of a prominent British orchestra and you ask the players how many of them would be in this orchestra if studying classical music at A-Level hadn’t been an option for them when they were younger. Without A-Level music it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to study at a conservatoire and without that conservatoire training it’s almost impossible to pursue a career in classical music. So talking about the relevance of classical music in UK state education is extremely important and failure to address this has far reaching implications. We have to undo the ‘Gove effect’ if we are going to produce world-class musicians and continue to be at the forefront of classical music at an international level.

What is your present state of mind?

One of anticipation about the release of my next album Air. I have no idea what the reaction to it will be and am as nervous as I am excited, after all the work that has gone in to it.

Oliver Davis’ new album Air is released on 6 May 2022 on the Signum Classics label. Find out more / pre-order here https://orcd.co/oliver_davis

Oliver Davis graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 1994 and has since composed numerous concertos, ballet scores, albums, soundtracks and television scores working with many of the major London orchestras.

Davis’ debut album Flight, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra with soloist Kerenza Peacock, was released in March 2015 and quickly rose to number 2 in the UK Specialist Classical Charts with 5-star reviews in both the UK and US. In addition, it was chosen as Featured Album of the Week on Classic FM and was broadcast daily on the station. Several pieces from the album Flight were used for a ballet choreographed by Ma Cong for the Tulsa Ballet Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma.