Judith Bingham Interview
Posted on 20 November 2009. © Copyright 2004-2014David Bruce
C:T talks to British composer and mezzo-soprano Judith Bingham|
Tell us something about your background.
I was born in Nottingham and brought up mainly in Sheffield. My parents did normal jobs Ė my father was an inspector of taxes and my mother a nurse. My father was very musical and played the piano so I was brought up on a diet of the classics, nothing more modern than Sibelius, though my father did try Tippett gingerly. I remember the profound shock of hearing the Rite of Spring on the television when I was about 12. I became more adventurous in my listening through my teens but still found anything modern very shocking. I was taken to concerts at the City Hall, usually the Halle, and remember once hearing the Penderecki Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima Ė the whole audience where incredibly shocked and moved, everyone was talking about it. In many ways this was still a pre-technological age and recordings of new music were not widely available. But mainly my influences were romantic music, especially Berlioz, and pop music Ė this was the end of the 60s.
How did you start composing?
I think I was about 4. It was very much about improvising pieces at the piano. It was a response (I think) to a dysfunctional home! A need to create a secret world. I remember playing a piece to my father when I was 8 but I didnít write anything down until I was 11, and then realised how difficult that was! I was completely unencouraged, - even my teachers at school tried not to encourage me. Nobody would ever have expected a girl to become a composer and there was no precedent that they could draw on. And although I was singing and having singing lessons there was no encouragement to follow that up either. Although it was obvious to anyone that I had an unusual gift, the idea of being a composer was seen as just a fantasy. I didnít know there had been any women composers until I got to the Royal Academy. The situation for women here has changed out of all recognition but it still continues around the world, and although women students can recognise their own gift and have a longing to write they are still battling ludicrous parental disapproval, and their own programmed feelings. It makes me more angry than I can say.
What drives your work, what are you passions?
Well, I think my need to write is compulsive, and profoundly psychological. Itís not possible for me to contemplate a world where I wouldnít write, even though I find it harder and harder. But beyond that, I think I am always following some stream of thought that is underpinned by reading and films. I feel that I am always feeding my imagination. Of course, a piece is generally informed to some degree by the brief as well. I like to bring theatre and drama into the concert hall. British performances can be very passive, given the short amount of rehearsal time and the British character. This is very true of choirs. I felt a while ago that if it is hard to get people to perform dramatically, then why not just write it into the piece? Use the space, split up the way people stand? Get people to respond to each other. In a piece I did for the BBC Singers, The Hired Hand, everyone just stood around as if they were in a pub, and there was no conductor. Unexpectedly, the more actorish of the singers reacted to this brilliantly. These are simple devices that donít require any extra expense, but they really draw the audience in, engage people more, unsettle people more.
You write a lot for vocal groups. Given the way texts inevitably affect the structure and content of a piece, how do go about approaching purely instrumental writing?
I spend a lot of time thinking about a piece before I start it. I usually start with a non musical idea, the idea of writing about a painting say, or some sort of unfolding drama. I will collect pictures, write ideas down in a note book, even do artwork myself or write a poem. Sometimes I use a poem instead of expression marks in the score. Itís a long road down to the moment when I feel I am ready to start. If I try and start quickly things never go well! I like to ruminate for a long time Ė while Iím writing the previous piece or two, and then once I start try and write quickly and smoothly. I like simple forms, I canít do these enormous constructs. It is important to me to compress a great deal of emotional content into a piece, and I like the form of a piece to help people listen, not impede them. Elaborate forms can be a smoke screen for a lack of ideas. I also think you need time to get into the sound world of what youíre writing for Ė I hate music that isnít idiomatic. You can be as challenging as you like but I like respecting the fact that itís a violinist not a flautist.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer (for both vocal and instrumental works if the approach is different). Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
As Associate Composer for the BBC Singers I have done several pieces about London. I thought for my last piece I would do something about hunting in medieval London. We agreed that I could have a quartet of horns. I started reading medieval tracts about hunting but couldnít get into it. Then I was watching Dido and Aeneas on the TV, and you might know that a handmaid sings an odd little aria at one point where she says Ė this is the spot where Dianaís hounds tore Actaeon to pieces. And I was reminded of Ovid and bought a new Penguin translation of it my David Raeburn. It struck me that it was a story about what happens to you if you aspire too high creatively and that Ovid might have seen himself as Actaeon. I thought I could distribute the horns round the hall so that the audience felt they were being hunted. And the women in the choir who are the nymphs and the goddess sing in Latin whereas the men sing in English Ė they are from different planets! The Ovid was very hard to set and I found the whole piece very difficult and painful to write. The moment when Actaeon wanders into the sacred grove and makes eye contact with Diana is one of those pivotal moments, very filmic. When I write I imagine the music as if it were staged, and I try and create a stage set of pictures in front of me. In this way every piece is very separate and when I take the pictures down it is like a door has shut on that world.
Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?
Films, and art. I think I prefer art exhibitions or looking at art more than going to concerts. I find the whole thing of listening to music in public very difficult, especially new music. Having been a performer, I would much rather be giving the concert than be listening, although having said that, the magic of music is in its immediacy and newness, its non-permanence, and in the extraordinary risk of performance. I really wish every composer would perform even if only for a while. Nowadays so many composers just conduct a bit, which isnít the same as facing audience and putting yourself on the line for the music. There is so much about performing that you canít learn, you have to do it. I donít like endlessly just listening to things once, I like to really get to know things and will play them over and over again. This way you have a relationship with a piece that is akin to an affair.
What is your musical philosophy?
You have to tell the truth. If only that were as easy as it sounds.
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?
That is a much more complicated question than it sounds. Any really creative person is like a sponge, and as your life changes so you absorb all sorts of different things. When I was young it was Berlioz, pop music, French Baroque music and then The Fires of London, their craziness. They were a thinking manís pop group really. I was lucky to have a teacher (Hans Keller) who wasnít a composer. A lot of composers can have an unhealthy effect on their students. But Hans had a huge effect on me Ė he was the first person to really look at my work (this is back in the 70s) and he helped me to become a lot more disciplined. As a student, nobody took me seriously enough when I was young to suggest I went on the new music grand tour of Europe Ė Messiaen, Berio etc. Thank God for that.
What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?
It isnít for creative people to think about what their role is! They have to tell the truth as they see it and work hard to put their work out into the world where hopefully it will have a beneficial effect. People apologise too much for new music Ė to me itís just more music. All music is new. When I play Mendelssohn or Tallis it sounds as new to me as something that I just wrote myself. Individual creators cannot affect the great swathes of history, nor should they. They can only try and refine the truthfulness of their work. The music world can seem incredibly unfair sometimes, and it is easy to start chasing after it and trying to curry its favour. Forget it! The only important thing, if you have a gift, is to try and be as much like yourself as you can be. Everything else is pointless. It is players and audiences who decide on the future of new pieces.
What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?
I think I may have blotted them out, but I did write a series of pieces when I was a student called A Festival in Hell.
Which work are you most proud of and why?
The way I feel about my work changes all the time. I can feel something is wonderful and then 5 minutes later despise it utterly. Itís neurotic I know. I never feel proud of something, protective of it maybe. I never feel anything is good enough.
What does the future hold for you?
Iím writing a singspiel about a tomcat for Christopher Maltman at the moment Ė string trio and piano, itís for a festival in Lincoln called Convivium. Then a set of canticles for Wells Cathedral, and then an hour long organ piece for Stephen Farr.
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Interview by David Bruce © Copyright 2004-2014
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