Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I was born and educated in the United States in the middle of the last century. My father was an excellent pianist and a college professor of music and humanities. He taught in a number of small colleges and universities when I was growing up so we lived in numerous towns and cities covering a 3000 mile circuit around America: New York, Michigan, Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Florida. My mother was a modest amateur pianist who loved playing hymns and sat patiently with me in my early years of practicing the piano.
As children my younger brother, sister and I were encouraged to be creative, play instruments, sports, try new things, experiment, take chances and not be afraid to fail. My father was also a talented arranger and did a number of works for choirs, small ensembles, and marching bands. His enthusiasm for everything else Life had to offer had a profound influence on me not only as a musician but as someone who continues to enjoy an active life, playing sports, travel and adventure.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Probably the biggest single factor in becoming a musician and composer was a summer music camp 1957 while my father was studying for his doctorate at Florida State University (Tallahassee). Each summer the School of Music had a 6 week Summer Music Camp which attracted around 300 teenage musicians not only from Florida but the neighbouring states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. At 14 I’d become a decent pianist and was advancing on the French horn. The FSU Music Camp was a combination of hard work during the day and wonderful evenings of concerts, dances, barbecues, and pool parties. The array of excellent large ensembles, choirs, theory and harmony lessons, conducting, and creative exercises were prelude to exciting evenings of hot, humid, hormonal socialising and mandatory cold showers. It was the perfect balance. I was excited and learned a lot.
One memorable occasion was a visit to our beginners’ conducting class by Ernst von Dohnanyi, a professor at FSU. He was a lovely old man who clearly enjoyed being around young people. We were told he was Brahms’s favourite pupil and were mightily impressed. He radiated a kind of old world mystery with his heavy Hungarian accent but also radiated a musty, old man’s whiff at close range during the lessons. His heavy accent made his musical life and friendship with Brahms all the more real and exciting. He showed us how to beat in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8 time and told us to keep our shoulders down, our heads up with eyes on the orchestra, not the score. One day, to our amusement, he gave us a treat- how to conduct 5/4- ever so exotic in 1957.
My father later studied conducting with Dohnanyi and I was allowed to sit in on some of his seminars. It’s a pity I didn’t write down some of Dohnanyi’s comments particularly about conducting Brahms. I remember his comments often ran something like: “In zu score it’s written ‘Andante’, but Johannes always liked to take ziss section a little faster, like ziss. Johannes said he’d vished he could change za tempo mark but of course it vus permanently printed… zo No, not possible.” I later studied piano, conducting and composition at Florida State University, then Ohio State University both of which gave me an excellent foundation I only grew to really appreciate later on.
A Fulbright Fellowship to Warsaw, Poland, 1972-74, behind the Iron Curtain, had a profound influence on me. I worked in the Experimental Music Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw which at that time was an amazing state-of-the-art electronic studio. Through that and the annual Warsaw Autumn Festivals I met most of the outstanding composers in that part of the Soviet Bloc at the time: Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Gorecki, Pärt, Schnittke, and many more. The Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1972, ’73, ’74 radically changed my compositional outlook. Each festival was filled with one bone-crunching cluster piece after another and the festival lasted for a solid two weeks! I went to every concert- four a day. I was burnt toast by the end.
What saved me in my final festival (1974) was an English group called Intermodulation. Their performance of Terry Riley’s ‘Dorian Winds’ lifted me out of the clusters up into the clouds. Finally music that spoke to me, and I embraced it full frontal. It was a kind of instant white flag of surrender to the other side. My ‘Paramell’ (1974) for muted trombone and muted piano soon followed- modal and pulse driven. Later, meeting, working, and touring with John Cage completed my eclectic musical education by adding the ultimate tool to my musical toolbox- the idea of chance operations and experimentation. Ironically now is that I’ve moved back to revisit some of the earlier Polish influences in an effort to broaden further my harmonic and textural palette. So, like Henry Cowell, I want to live in the whole world of music, not just one corner.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenge for any freelance person is surely earning a decent living. I’ve been freelancing in Britain and touring worldwide since 1974. Unfortunately the freelance profession has not gotten easier and, in fact, seems much harder, more competitive, and more difficult than ever. In the 1970s and 80s the BBC, Arts Council, and festivals all had much more money. My earnings from Performing Rights then were always a third to half my annual income. Over the past 40 years, in spite of more performances than ever, those PRS earnings have dwindled to irrelevance.
As a pianist I did lots of studio recordings and broadcasts for the BBC and many European stations. I had non-stop grants and commissions which seemed rather easier to come by then. Commission money now is definitely in shorter supply with far more of us chasing the dwindling sources. The challenge as a freelance composer is to earn a living using the expert skills we have all developed and dearly paid for over the years, and not to flip burgers at MacDonald’s to make ends meet. The arrival of Brexit does not look like a promising solution.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The challenge of a commissioned piece is usually the brief, the time frame and negotiating a proper fee. I like having a decent brief because it makes the first few decisions easy- the size of the ensemble, the duration, the context, the venue, and of course the deadline.
Where it can be a challenge is when the brief is too specific and uninspiring. My recent 40 min. orchestral score for David Bintley’s ‘The King Dances’ for the Birmingham Royal Ballet was an excellent combination of an exciting topic, a good scenario, and almost complete artistic freedom to do what I wished compositionally. The choreographer even wanted to use 10 minutes of music I’d already written for another occasion. The BRB commission was a delight, exciting, wonderfully realised by choreographer, lighting designer (Peter Mumford), and the costumes & staging artist (Katrina Lindsay). We even had generous rehearsal time for the production. The result? An extremely happy and rewarding experience. (See the BBC TV film of the making of the ballet – The King Who Invented Ballet which at c. 58:40 min has the complete performance of BRB performance of ballet, ‘The King Dances’). The downside however was the rather modest commission fee for 6 month’s hard work and not nearly enough money for copying the score and parts which had to come out of my fee.
The opposite end of the spectrum was an extremely well-paid commission for a 3 minute brass quintet. The commissioner in this case dictated a nightmare scenario: the mini piece which they stipulated was to reflect/echo the commissioning institution’s strengths in “medicine, science & technology, climate change, environmental sustainability, astrophysics, culture, human behavior, and philosophical beliefs.” A jaw-dropping brief for a 3-minute processional! The real passion-killer, however, was it had to be no harder than Grade 5 since the musical talents of their university students were modest! Now there was a true challenge (!), but all part of earning a living as a freelance composer. I managed to write the work and it worked. Fortunately no one asked me which notes were “astrophysics”, “medicine” or “climate change”.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I think every composer has people, ensembles and venues they like to work with, and certainly some you never wish to see again. I worked for many years in a duo with the pianist Philip Mead, a first rate musician and educator. We travelled all over Europe and North America touring programmes of new music and electronics. It was great fun and always exciting to perform together.
My work with John Lubbock and his OSJ chamber orchestra was always a complete pleasure and the source of several exciting commissions and recordings. The Smith Quartet is another ensemble that has been wonderful over the years, the results of which are two excellent recordings.
I have always had a good relationship with the BBC Symphony and working with them is always exciting and rewarding. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia with Paul Murphy was a wonderful experience because of Paul’s enthusiasm, expertise, and their brilliant realisation of ‘The King Dances’.
Venues are also vitally important. My ongoing relationship with Richard Heason, Artistic Director of St Johns, Smith Square, for example, has been absolutely exemplary in his enthusiastic production of large scale events for both my 75th and now my 80th birthday concerts, amongst the other collaborations.
With all these associations the enjoyment comes from the people who understand what you are trying to do and who work with you enthusiastically to help you realise just that. It is a symbiotic relationship so when we feed each other properly the results can be magical.
How would you describe your compositional language?
My music is tonally based but often makes use of the full panoply of harmonic possibilities from tonal/modal harmony/melody to bone crunching tone clusters and tone rows for dramatic effect. The musical structures are often based on the shapes of earlier centuries but modified to suit and exploit a modern format for each new commission.
How do you work?
Mornings are my best, most creative time. I get up early (05:30) and work 5 – 6 hours taking a short break every hour or so. I work on A3 landscape manuscript paper with a 2B mechanical lead pencil and a large pointed eraser. I hear the music in my head but check it on a keyboard. I have good concentration so can write under almost any conditions. I’ve never missed a deadline. Afternoons and evening are used for business work, copying music, promotion, meetings etc. I love having the evenings off going to the cinema, a concert, theatre, or out to eat.
Which works are you most proud of?
Most composers give birth to many ‘children’. A parent probably should not have favourites but with so many children, we all do! As in real Life, some kids just turn out better than others no matter how much time you put into their house-training, manners, education and grooming.
Of the nearly 200 or so ‘children’ I have, those who have turned out best are my String Quartet No. 1: in memoriam Barry Anderson & Tomasz Sikorski (with electronics), At the White Edge of Phrygia (chamber orch), Southern Lament (piano- for Stephen Kovacevich), Requiem: The Trumpets Sounded Calling Them to the Other Side (soprano, orchestra, chorus, fog horns), Varshavian Spring (chorus, orch), The King Dances (orchestra score for the ballet), A Dinner Party for John Cage (theatrical event for 12 singers in a chaotic chance determined dinner), Wilful Chants, (BBC Prom commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Brass and O Duo percussion), Snakebite (chamber orch), Dark Sun – August, 1945 (large orch, chorus, radios), Haiku (piano, electronics, tape), Paramell (muted trombone and muted piano), Paramell V (2 pianos), and Christmas Triptych (sop, baritone, chorus, orchestra). I like many of the others but some still need a little more grooming and my detailed attention before I let them out to play too often. And yes, I should really try and visit them more often too.
As a musician, what is your definition of “success”?
For me success is writing a piece of music I’m proud of and having those feelings re-enforced by an enthusiastic audience response. My goal is to reach out to an audience and reel them in to a place they may never have been. Seduction is perhaps the best word. And it flies in the face of an attitude in the 1960s where it was popular to say “who cares if they listen!” as Milton Babbitt and the post Webern movement declared. For them, alas, the audience voted with their feet at the exit. I’d much prefer an audience on their feet at the end.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Pianists: Stephen Kovacevich in full flight playing solo, chamber works, concertos of core repertoire. Rubenstein and Ashkenazy playing Chopin, Marc Andre Hamelin playing anything hard, Philip Mead playing my music, and Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, and Dave Brubeck doing their thing.
Conductors: Toscanini, Solti, Bernstein, John Lubbock, Gregory Rose, Stephen Jackson, Grant Llewellyn, Paul Murphy, Sian Edwards.
Composers: Gesualdo, JS and CPE Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Ives, Bartok, Henry Cowell, Gershwin, Varese, Cage, Nancarrow, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Hoagy Carmichael, Tomasz Sikorski, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Bob Dillon, Stephen Sondheim, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, and Helmut Lachenmann.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Playing the European premiere of Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra on the Huddersfield Music Festival and breaking 9 strings with my forearm clusters in the opening movement.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The first 10,000 hours I figure gets you through the basics for stepping into this profession. The next 10,000 listening to music, analysis, and engaging with other art forms gives you insight, bench marks, and perspective. The next 10,000 consolidates the first two and takes you to a higher level but not to the top. The very top is determined by an X Factor which is the mysterious Joker card. Nobody can explain why some up there are the winners while similar, or better talents, can be the ‘also-rans’. What is sure, however, is that it always takes longer than you think to get where you want to go and the path is full of wrong turns and traps! The trajectory of your professional career is a marathon, not a sprint. Keeping your eyes on the horizon but working hard on the daily detail is vital. Infernal desire and dogged tenacity as much as talent can be the key that unlocks that X Factor and deals you the Joker when it counts most.
If all you want is just a little fun in music, ignore all this. That works too, and you may lead a happier, more balanced life. Professional musicians have a rather chequered history in the ‘happy relationships’ department which makes interesting reading post-mortem but not at the time.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Having a well paid commission to write something I’ve always wanted to write for instrumentalists, singers, conductor and a large ensemble of my choosing for an exciting venue that is to die for. Perform it, tour it, then record it with the ideal post concert location an exotic hideaway with the one you love overlooking a warm sea in the Caribbean or a rocky perch on the Amalfi coast.
My schedule? Work 5 hours in the morning, lunch al fresco, a couple sets of tennis, afternoon drinks into the sunset, a candle lit dinner for two, something visually and musically stimulating in the evening, and a late-night cocktail on a moonlit sea followed by an erotic poem in bed.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you enjoy doing most?
Try to imagine.
What is your present state of mind?
The ancient Arabic saying: “Live for this day, for tomorrow is only a dream, and yesterday, only a memory.”
Stephen Montague celebrates his 80th birthday with ‘Snakebite’, a special concert with Southbank Sinfonia at St John’s Smith Square on Thursday 16 March
This interview first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist site