Julian Marshall, composer

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

I was very fortunate growing up in a musical family to be surrounded by music from the very start of my life – before, actually, as my mother was a cellist and was playing a lot when I was in-utero! From a very young age, I’d sit in my brother’s room and listen to music for, literally, hours a day. And my brother being almost twelve years older than me, meant that, age five he was seventeen – so the roster could include Miles, Mozart, Stravinsky, Stan Kenton, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Buddy Holly, Basie… and on and on. It was all just music to me.. Magical, incredible mystical stories that seemed to evoke experiences in me beyond my tender years.

Seeing Petrushka, aged 5 at the Royal Opera House with my mum and dad is still an experience I have never gotten over. It was simply too great!

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

Losing the plot on knowing who I was as a composer for several years – really between about 1984 and 2007. Having felt a certain level of confidence as a collaborative songwriter, through the latter years of the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, it was a shock when I realised that as as solo writer I really hadn’t much of a clue. I remember playing a solo album project to my wife, Arabella, in 1984 and her saying, after it had finished, “well , I think it’s really good but I couldn’t hear your voice’’. I knew she was right.

What then ensued was many years of non-musical ‘inner’ work – mainly allowing myself to begin to understand something about what living with the inevitability of human ‘shadow’ really means. When I properly returned to composing in 2007, I discovered, to my amazement, that something had shifted. There had been little, if any, advances to my musical, theoretical knowledge, but an awful lot of life experience had somehow been ‘allowed in’ – aspects that I had previously held at arms’ length. Somehow, something had now shown up where the music sounded as if it knew what it wanted to say. The splurge seemed pretty clear – the craft was catching up, too! (Btw, if I were ever to write more extensively on the creative process, I would like it to be called Splurge and Craft!).

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

The opportunity and the challenge seem to me to wrapped up as one: i.e. it’s such an honour to be invited to compose a piece for an ensemble or artist and a wonderful challenge to have it suit whatever particular requirements they may have but, equally, the very fact that they probably do have at least some particular requirements means that this can feel, in some ways, restrictive. It’s a good balancing act, in my view – but always an incredibly valuable experience.

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

I love working with and composing for particular musicians. For example, composing music for James Gilchrist, over some years now, has opened up so many creative opportunities and possibilities: and what a learning it continues to be, too. Getting to know him as a person, his voice and where we ‘meet’ artistically (and, to some extent, philosophically). The Angel in the Forest was the first piece I wrote for him and the piece we have just recorded for Orchid Classics. Working on this piece together, over a period of about ten years, updating it as we go, has been such a valuable and rich maturation process – and has, I feel, made for a much better recording as a result.

Of which works are you most proud?

That’s an interesting question as these pieces vary a great deal. What they have in common is a sense that, whatever level of commercial success, I have a feeling that something got expressed, that something may be evoked for a listener that I can recognise and feel a sense of ‘’ok yes… that does express something’’. The first cantata I wrote, setting text by the incredible German Jewish poet Gertrud Kolmar, called Out of the Darkness is, in my view, clearly a piece with its flaws, but it still holds a kind of particular expressive potency that I recognise and feel proud of. The Angel in the Forest is a piece that I feel especially proud of. But, cliched as it may seem, the nature of ‘proud’, here, is actually rather quiet in nature – and definitely humbling. I often feel that the creative process is well exemplified as analogous with the work of Monty Roberts, the man who works with horses! Rather than ‘stare down’ a horse, Roberts will, so I understand, sidle up next to the animal and attempt to secure trust via creating a relationship in peripheral vision. I have often felt that creativity works in a similar way. If I make it all about me and try and force the creative impulse into submission, (at my will, as it were) I will very likely scare the piece away and invite in mediocrity instead! If, on the other hand, I more sidle up alongside and invite the creative forces to more do their thing with me, something else might show up: something that seems to come through and somehow make sense – although I may not fully or immediately understand it or know quite how it got there in the first place!

A few other pieces I feel proud of are: Garden in Summer (scheduled for release in late spring, 2023) and the film Yearning (see https://julianmarshall.co.uk/media). Both these pieces were created in collaboration with some awesomely talented young creatives – and hugely rewarding for this being the case,, too.

Then there are the songs Nice Girls, Hunger Pains and Time Flies, (Eye to Eye band) and Coming Home, Back to the Green and good old Dancing in the City (Marshall Hain)… At the time, in days of comparative innocence, these were songs to treasure… and, for me, still are.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

A right old mixture! I am someone who is in love with the multi-hued languages and dialects of musical expression! I wonder if we really are now approaching a time where genres, styles and boundaries are not created as such and put in categories, but where each work may respond in its own way in accordance with the expressive invitation and opportunity as suggested by a particular concept or idea?

For me, this invitation to celebrate and explore all styles of musical language in service to intention is incredibly exciting. How well I may do this, in actuality, is, of course another matter – but I’m certainly up for the challenge…!

How do you work?

Sibelius software finally got me off the piano stool and into a much less ‘filtered’ world. I’d pretty much go as far to say that if it wasn’t for notation software, I may well not be composing today. It has been a true liberation.

I work best project by project – and then as intensely as possible. It may well be that several months (or even years!) of ‘maturation’ process (loads of re-drafting and editing) then takes place, but the initial burst and keeping on it at that time, as much as possible, is when I work the best.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

1. Feeling that I have created something pretty much as good as I can muster at any one time.

2. That it connects with some people such that that they are left touched, moved and inspired in some way. It’s not about quantity of listeners, but it is about a quality of felt connection. Of course, if this then translates to a wider listening public, then that’s a wonderful thing, too.

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

For composers and songwriters, really allowing ourselves to dwell in a mode of enquiry as we begin to engage with a new piece – and resisting trying to get to any sort of outcome too soon.

Embracing the idea of splurge and craft – whereby a sketch can begin to emerge, however rough, and then gently start to be moulded, redrafted and crafted for as long as it needs to in order to take a more defined form. For me, this process can take anything from a single day to several years.

Keep listening to as much of a variety of music as possible. Try going from Mahler to Purcell to Kendrick in close juxtaposition… It’s a great rollercoaster of a ride!

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

Making sure that young (and very young) people are exposed to as much of a variety of music as possible. The language of music is rich beyond measure – and a deeper appreciation of this can only start to take hold once we open our ears and hearts to as much of a cross section of it as possible… cross culturally, cross genre, cross style and with a keen historical openness and engagement. When the language begins to gain such appreciation, demand and engagement must surely follow.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Ever more curious, ever learning and emptier as a human being…taking up less ‘Julian space’ and ever more open to, in the words of my favourite writer on the arts, J F Martel, the ‘radical mystery of existence’.

As keen, open and excited as the day I first heard Petrushka, in fact…

The Angel in the Forest EP by Julian Marshall will be released by Orchid Classics as a digital-only release on 11th November 2022. The recording features James Gilchrist (solo tenor), Chamber Players of The Philharmonia Orchestra (Philharmonia Cello Sextet) and singers from The Rupa Ensemble.

Shortly after graduating from the Royal College of Music in 1975, Julian’s professional life as a composer and songwriter took flight with the internationally successful bands Marshall Hain, The Flying Lizards and Eye to Eye.

His compositions include work for film and theatre and a new chapter as a composer of longer-form work (specifically, the cantatas Out of the Darkness and The Angel in the Forest), along with other, shorter, choral-based pieces, began in 2009. Out of the Darkness and The Angel in the Forest both feature settings from Welten, the seventeen-poem cycle by Gertrud Kolmar.

With the addition of two further works from the same cycle (the film, Yearning, and the spoken word and music piece, Garden in Summer), in October 2021 Julian founded The Welten Project. The project’s mission is to conduct research and produce a series of works inspired by, re-imagining or setting poems from Welten. For further details about The Welten Project, click here.

In addition to composition, Julian teaches and coaches creatives of all ages. He works with clients privately and is also a Teaching Fellow at ICMP, London.

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