Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
The first big influence on me was David Bowie. I started listening to his albums in my mid teens and was struck not only by how good they were but also how different they were to each other. His work encouraged me to be more experimental and more eclectic in my own songwriting.
However, the area where Bowie had the biggest influence on me was his extended electronic instrumentals on the B side of his ‘Berlin’ albums Low and ‘Heroes’. I had never heard anything like these before and they greatly impressed me. I knew he’d done these tracks in collaboration with Brian Eno so I started listening to Eno’s own music and then, to cut a long story short, I got into ever more experimental music. A name that kept coming up was Stockhausen. So, in my early 20s, I abandoned rock music altogether, gave up my job and went to Huddersfield to study contemporary classical music composition
It was at Huddersfield that the other big influence on me first made itself felt. This was the overall work – not just the compositions – of Pierre Boulez although, unlike with Bowie, I had more mixed feelings about Boulez pretty much from the outset. I studied his writings carefully – particularly his book, Orientations. I was sceptical from day one about his view of how music evolved over time and, consequently, his feeling that serial music was necessary and that the public would catch up in due course. As far as I can see, they never have. Nevertheless, I liked the fact that he practiced what he preached in this respect and became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s to ensure the public were given every chance to ‘catch up’. He gave first rate performances and made first rate recordings of the early twentieth century repertoire that he felt the post World War 2 avant-garde grew out of. Some of this – notably his conducting of Webern – was revelatory. I learned a huge amount from Boulez in this respect. I liked some of his own music and felt it was as good as that of any of his colleagues. But it was permanently avant-garde from bar one to the end and this total exclusion of more traditional music seemed to me to be a consequence of his questionable views of how music history evolved. To me, atonality is like a couple of entirely new colours on an artist’s palette. They have their place – and can bring things to the party that nothing else can – but I, for one, don’t want to just use these new colours. So, in summary, I learned a great deal from Boulez but some of it was learned by reacting against him. However, on the basis of what he himself has said about the dynamics of his own musical apprenticeship, I do not think he would’ve had an issue with that.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Finding the time to write music – I have a full-time job as an Arts Development Officer – and getting my music known.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I am tempted to say ‘the money!!’ However, I am not sure the writing of commissioned pieces is particularly different from writing non-commissioned ones. At least, I don’t find it so.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
The main pleasure is the chance to try things out before the first performance. I recently had a piece for oboe and piano premiered in York. The piece uses quarter tones in one section and the oboist – James Turnbull – was very helpful and supportive before the first performance itself. Consequently, thanks to James’s help, the first performance went very well.
However, I think the real pleasures of this start when an ongoing professional relationship develops. I have worked closely with the Delta Saxophone Quartet for many years and, between us, we have achieved many things and have some exciting future projects at the planning stage.
More recently, I have worked with Duncan Honeybourne. The first time we worked together was on the Hundred Years of British Piano Miniatures CD to which he contributed about two thirds of the repertoire and performed brilliantly. That CD has done very well: Austria’s main radio network devoted a 45 minute documentary to it and Paul Morley includes it in one of the playlists in his book A Sound Mind.
Another project I have worked with Duncan – and Luke Whitlock on – is the CD Penllyn, the complete piano music of Peter Reynolds which has recently come out on the Prima Facie label. We are delighted with this CD and believe it will have a very long life. Please check it out.
Of which works are you most proud?
My songs. The right text brings out music from me that I would otherwise not have been able to write. Take this poem by Ronald Duncan, for example
Remember me when I’ve no place
But as a shadow on your face
Remember me as we once lay
A wave of love with limbs of spray
Remember me and do not grieve
When I am ash for the wind to weave
Remember me now all is past
Your memory alone my looking glass
A beautiful and poignant poem, I am sure we’d all agree. But the word ‘now’ in the second last line pulled me up short. It seemed to mean the narrator in this verse was speaking from the next world. Duncan could easily have written ‘when all is past’ but he didn’t. Moreover, the in the light of this, the second verse could mean the narrator was still alive but too ill to make love. But it could be that this verse is also spoken from the next world. So the poem as a whole could be read as a kind of hovering between worlds. This greatly intrigued me and suggested a very sparse, meditative accompaniment whereas without the two worlds interpretation, I would probably have done a more conventionally poignant accompaniment. So that is an example of how the right text can suggest music to me that, otherwise, I wouldn’t have written. Anyhow, here it is. See what you think.
And if you like it, you might be interested to know that a CD of my Songs has just come out on the Prima Facie label. Full details here – 29 Songs
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I find it difficult to characterise my own compositional language and I expect many other composers would say the same about their work. So I will fall back on what others say. The word ‘atmospheric’ is used a lot and the word ‘original’ is sometimes used. All my pieces are short – and quite a few are miniatures – and this is commented on from time to time as well.
How do you work?
Mostly by improvising at the piano and singing. My electronic music is written by recording synthesizer music onto my laptop and working with it using Logic, although my earlier ones were created on Cubase. On the rare occasions I write guitar music, I improvise on the guitar.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
When my music is performed, I like to listen imagining that I didn’t write my piece. If, in those circumstances, I can honestly feel my piece was one of my favourites in the concert, I feel that is success. Doesn’t always happen, of course!!!
What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?
Don’t be afraid of writing simple music. My biggest success to date is my Eight Miniatures No 2 for solo piano. It has been performed many times, recorded by Duncan Honeybourne on the ‘A Hundred Years of British Piano Miniatures’ CD, released in 2018 on the Naxos Grand Piano label, broadcast on the Republic of Ireland’s main radio network and secured nearly two million online streams on Spotify alone. In terms of difficulty, it’s probably a grade 2 piece.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
When I started buying rock albums in my mid teens, I soon noticed that on my fourth or fifth play of the album, the tracks that had made the most impression on the first play had receded somewhat and tracks that I had initially scarcely noticed had now become my favourites. I later learned that these latter tracks are referred to as ‘growers’ in the rock world.
In the contemporary classical world, it seems to me that virtually every piece is a grower as they are too complex to fully grasp on one listening. In a live performance context this is a problem. My performance stats are as follows. I have written about 50 pieces. A few have never been performed, about half of them have had one performance and only five have had ten or more performances. Even when there are repeat performances, it is often a different audience that is hearing the music.
So I have had an idea – and I am sure I am not the first to think of this – which is to put on concerts in which the second half is the same music as in the first half, so every piece in the concert is heard twice. I have called these concerts ‘Double Concerts’ and, in the circumstances, it seems fairest to let the audience decide how much or how little they will pay for attending at the end of the concert, so that’s what we’ll be doing.
My first step was to speak to my friend, the composer Tom Armstrong as I really like his music and find him easy and very professional to work with. He agreed to contribute a piece to the concert. We both felt we wanted music by Roger Marsh in the concert as we both feel the best of his music is very under-rated – some of his Pierrot settings, for example, are exceptionally good and well worth checking out, especially the first few on the second CD. Roger has agreed that Tom can do an arrangement of his Ferry Music for the concert. Another composer we both greatly like is Sadie Harrison and we were delighted when she agreed to write a new piece for the concert. The ensemble Trifarious has agreed to give the concerts. So this is the programme
Double Concert – Trifarious Ensemble
Tom Armstrong Consort Music
David Power Four Platinum Pieces
Roger Marsh Ferry Music
Sadie Harrison New Work (first performance)
Tom Armstrong Consort
David Power Four Platinum Pieces
Roger Marsh Ferry Music
Sadie Harrison New Work (second performance)
The excellent Late Music Concert series in York has confirmed a concert for Friday 6th October 2023 and we are also talking to Surrey and Bristol Universities and others about further performances. So please keep watching out for these.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?
Interesting question. I am not really sure I can think of anything. Classical musicians generally strike me as pretty switched on people – witness, for example, the informed reactions to the news that the Arts Council has cut their funding for the English National Opera, Britten Sinfonia and others. My impression is that if things need to be talked about, they get talked about and that is how it should be.
David Power was born in London in 1962 but spent most of his childhood in York. His initial interest was rock music. However, the electronic instrumentals on David Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ albums led him to become increasingly interested in more experimental music and, in due course, he discovered the music of composers such Boulez and Stockhausen. This prompted a change in direction. He studied composition with Richard Steinitz, Steve Ingham and Roger Marsh.
David Power on SoundCloud www.soundcloud.com/dave-power-1