Joseph Phibbs, composer

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

My parents did all they could to help and encourage me, and with limited means, and for that I’m always grateful. I’ve also been fortunate to have some wonderfully kind, inspirational teachers and mentors, including Colin Matthews, Param Vir and Steven Stucky. In terms of influences, the music of Britten and Lutoslawski has always been close to my heart. Although very different composers, I find their music both emotionally direct and beautifully constructed. Non-classical influences include Bulgarian folk music, and the songs of Lhasa de Sela.

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

Writing ‘Juliana’, a chamber opera commissioned by George Vass, a friend and supporter over many years, was the hardest I’ve ever worked – sometimes 20 hours a day. The fear of not finishing, and letting everyone down, was the most stressful situation I’ve been in.

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

Working with musicians who connect with what you’ve written is as good as it gets for me. To hear a musician applying his or her decades of experience to your music is the greatest privilege imaginable. I’m very excited to work with ORA singers, Guy Johnston, and Suzi Digby – an amazing ensemble of musicians – on my next piece, ‘And there was light’, which will premiere on Sunday 2 October at the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival. This piece takes light as its inspiration, an idea suggested by Suzi Digby, and responds to this in a literal and spiritual sense. The line from Genesis ‘Let there be light’ recurs throughout, with its earlier translations in Hebrew (Yehi ohr), Greek (‘Genetheto phos’), and Latin (‘Fiat lux’) interwoven among the English.

Of which works are you most proud?

It tends to be recent pieces that I connect with most – so, to that extent, it would be ‘Juliana’, my Cello Sonata, commissioned by Guy Johnston, and ‘Night Paths’, a piece just recorded by Huw Wiggin (who commissioned it) and Noriko Ogawa. Sometimes much smaller works, such as ‘Night Songs’, where specific challenges have been met, feel like relevant steps along the road. Earlier works – ‘The Canticle of the Rose’, ‘Letters from Warsaw’, Clarinet Concerto, and ‘Partita’ – I feel close to, partly as they look such a long time to write, and in some cases were commissioned by friends. Although, as the composer, the shortcomings feel hard to accept, the sincerity behind what you were trying to achieve still feels meaningful.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My music tends to use fairly transparent textures, and the harmonic language is broadly speaking triadic, though not usually in a conventional tonal sense. I enjoy exploring sharply opposing moods in different sections (or movements) of a piece. A favourite composer is Prokofiev, whose music fascinates me in the way it combines intense lyricism with violent dissonance.

How do you work?

I try to work two hours early in the morning, followed by a walk, then a couple more hours before and after lunchtime. The walk is a particularly helpful way of hearing the piece differently. I generally compose equally at the piano and desk, create lots of sketches, especially with larger scale pieces. It’s then a matter of assembling and binding these different ideas together. I find it’s helpful to at least feel happy with the opening of a piece, as this gives you some inspiration to keep going. It’s also the starting point from which everything else will follow, and so ideas tend to form unconsciously from what the material implies.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To feel I’ve done the best I can, and hopefully given some pleasure to others. What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

To listen to what you truly want to say musically, and then have the courage to say it. There’s a photo of Stravinsky staring at the camera with a hand cupped over his ear. In a way, it’s the greatest composition lesson: to listen intensely, and then find the means and technique to write what you really hear.

There’s usually a moment, when grappling with an idea (an opening of a piece, for instance), when I think “That’s it. That’s good enough” – and I think that’s a voice to be respected. Steven Stucky used to say that the ideas in a piece you’d feel embarrassed about your friends and colleagues hearing are usually the best ones.

It’s sometime also useful to remember that wonderful, relevant music doesn’t have to be obviously innovative or ground-breaking. Britten, to my mind, was being just as radical in 1960s as Boulez, though in a quieter way. Where does the sound world of ‘Curlew River’ come from? It’s extraordinarily innovative.

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

I was at the Presteigne Festival recently, where almost every concert was sold out. It’s crucial to keep audiences engaged, but it’s great to see such enthusiasm for classical music, especially new music. Significantly reducing ticket prices, or allowing free entry, for younger people, such as Wigmore Hall’s Cavatina Scheme, is a really good idea, and one that keeps audiences expanding.

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

I studied in US for several years, and it was then that I realized how lucky we are to have the BBC, which is such an important part of the music industry here (radio, orchestras, Proms, commissions etc.). So much of my musical education came directly from BBC. I hope it will always be protected.

‘And there was light’ by Joseph Phibbs receives its premiere on Sunday 2 October in the finale concert at Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival. Further information

Joseph Phibbs was born in London, and studied at The Purcell School, King’s College London, and Cornell University. His teachers have included Param Vir, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and Steven Stucky.

Described by BBC Music Magazine as “one of the most successful composers of his generation”, Phibbs’s works have been championed by some of the world’s leading conductors, including Edward Gardner, Gianandrea Noseda, Sakari Oramo, Vassily Petrenko, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Alexander Shelley, and Leonard Slatkin. Rivers to the Sea, the first of several large-scale orchestral works composed in recent years, was premiered to acclaim in 2012 by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, and has since received numerous performances in the UK and abroad, winning a British Composer Award in 2013.

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