Mark Lewis, composer

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

I have to put my mother first in this list. My mum has a wonderful ear, and a beautiful voice, and no doubt was singing lullabies to me from before I was born. She’s also a gifted piano player, although, as she says, she “gave it up to raise a family”. But every once in a while she would sit down at the piano and wonderful music would come out from her fingers. I was brought up with Joni Mitchel, Barbara Streisand, and the great American song book.

Elton John is the reason I play the piano. I found I couldn’t deliver a convincing ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ on the guitar I had been playing for 3 years, so…

After this I moved on to Stevie Wonder, who became a huge influence. Actually, a couple of years ago I was talking to someone about my love for Stevie, and it made me wonder why I hadn’t written anything directly influenced by him since I was a teenager. I decoded to redress that omission with ‘I Wonder’ (if you play the video on YouTube I make a cameo appearance…)

After this it was my music teacher at school, Malcom Pierce, who introduced me to the ‘Rite of Spring’ (life changing!), Messiaen, Shostakovich, and so much more. The powerful affect music from these masters has on me has stayed with me my whole life. Through my own explorations I also started delving into jazz, discovering Sarah Vaughn, Bill Evans, Gill Evans (and Miles), Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea… I could go on!

It wasn’t till my 40s, in the midst of a life crisis, that I got into Mahler in a big way. And I think it’s fair to say that Mahler, in no small degree, helped me get through this crisis. Bach has of course been a continual inspiration throughout my whole musical journey. But really, other than Bach, I’ve always been more drawn to 20th-century music. But ‘sonorous’ 20thC music. So Messiaen over the serialists!

My life experience as a music listener has been about the powerful ability of music to take you away from your everyday life and into a completely new world of wonder. A journey that is transformative and stays with you even after the music stops. This for me is the purpose of music, and what my greatest aim for my own music is.

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

The greatest challenge is undoubtedly building an audience. Finding people who respond positively to my music, and letting them know I am here, I exist! and that I have music here for them. My greatest frustration is if people do listen to my music, but don’t ‘get it’, or don’t respond to it in the way that I do, or that I hope they will.

I should say I have had some wonderful reactions to my music. A listener in Florida wrote to me saying “Your music always takes me to places I’d like to be more often”. Another lister in Ukraine wrote “I adore your music! It reminds me of my dreams.” When I get feedback like this I can walk on air for days. So I know people that respond well to my music exist out there, but finding them and getting my music to them is a challenge.

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

I’ll let you know when I’ve done one!

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

You clearly hope that they will love the piece, that the notes will fall nicely under their fingers, and that they will enjoy playing it. The joy is hearing them bring it to life, and when what they produce is so much more than you ever imagined before they added their magic to the performance.

Of which works are you most proud?

A composer friend of mine refers to our creations as ‘our babies’, and I know exactly what he means! And just as I am proud of all my children, I am proud of all my ‘musical babies’ – if not I wouldn’t release them. Having said that, “Chordal Equinox” has a special place for me. Why? I think because it started with a very simple idea: to luxuriate the listener in gorgeous harmony. Harmony has always been the centre of my love and interest in music, and I wanted to create a piece that has no melody, (almost) no rhythm, just lush, rich, scrunchy, delicious chords, that the listener can get completely lost in, and I feel I succeeded with this piece. It also builds, slowly, into an exultant, ecstatic, semi-religious experience, that leaves you refreshed and uplifted. At least that’s the effect it has on me! And it is one of my most streamed pieces, so some others get it as well. Someone in Chicago listened to it 15 times in one day…

How would you characterise your compositional language?

One of my challenges in marketing myself is that I work in many different styles of music. I have my ‘modern classical’/orchestral music, but I also have my jazz side, and many others in between. And yet the people that know me, and my music, best tell me they can always identify my music pretty clearly, irrespective of the style or genre. I think it is a focus on rich ‘interesting’ harmony, typically non-functional. The (at least the attempt to) avoid clichés or over-used phrases and progressions, even voicings. I am always looking for something that surprises my ear. Hopefully it surprises the listener’s ear as well. But my highest aim is ‘beauty’. However subjective this might ultimately be, that is my ambition for all my music: to increase the world’s supply of beauty.

How do you work?

Most of my time in my life in music has been me sitting at the piano improvising. I have done this since I could play my first few notes. Most of these ideas have of course been lost the moment they were created, but over time some of these have been captured, and often form the basis of my works. Some works are through-composed (improvised) from beginning to end. ‘Bird Of South’ was one of these ( ) – although the work of arranging and orchestrating took much, much longer! So after the initial improvisation, that’s really when the hard work of composing starts. Depending on the piece, I tend to compose direct into orchestration, entered into my notation software (Dorico). For other types of music I may play parts directly into Logic, feeling as I go, and build the composition up in there.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That my music makes an emotional impact on those who listen to it. The ‘dream’ would be that they are ‘changed’ by it (for the better) but that in any case their life is enriched – even in a small way – by hearing it.

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

Play from the heart. Try to make musical statements that are true to you. Don’t write or play to impress or show off. But to reveal a truth about the world, in however an abstract form that might be. Aim for the listeners’ life having been made better for the hearing of it.

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

Music education in schools needs to be boosted. And it needs to be genre-less. Show the children how different music from across the world plays its role in enriching our lives. Make the point that it doesn’t matter what ‘type’ of music it is. It’s what it does, how it makes you feel. And within that context of acceptance of all sorts of music, introduce them to amazing classical music as well.

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

An established composer with an audience of listeners who find solace and sustenance in my music. To be a small (but increasing) part of the live concert repertoire. Perhaps even to have a fine orchestra (or two) commission works from me.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Watching my children thrive, grow, develop, learn, enjoy their lives.

What is your most treasured possession?

This might be a cliché…but I’m going to have to say my piano!

What do you enjoy doing most?

My daughters are 25, and while I still love to be with them, they are on a different part of the journey now. So my focus is on spending time with my 6 year old son. Playing, discovering, laughing, teaching, showing, sharing all the wonders this life has to offer, including music. And after this it is to try to create the most beautiful music I can.

What is your present state of mind?

Pretty good! I’ve enjoyed talking about myself answering these questions. I do feel flat, quite cyclically regularly, when I feel I’m not finding an audience, or not connecting with those who have found my music. But this is always a fairly short phase, until I feel inspired to  again and create something even better next time!