I was born in Liverpool to a non-musical, but incredibly supportive, family. I joined Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral choir at eight. After my voice broke, I joined the Merseyside youth orchestra and then the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I was fortunate to have all my early orchestral music performed by these orchestras (a fond memory was working with the late Vernon Handley around this time, a thoroughly enjoyable if daunting experience). I continued my musical studies at St. Mary's music school in Edinburgh and a little later at the Royal College of music. After my first post-grad I attended the Tanglewood summer course in 1995 where Henri Dutilleux was in residence. The summer of '95 was certainly one of the most special years of my life for reasons both musical and personal. I stayed in the USA to pursue a Masters degree in Composition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and during this time I was awarded the Shakespeare Prize scholarship from the Toepfer Foundation in Hamburg which, on the completion of the degree, allowed me a stay of almost 2 years in Berlin. I returned to London in 1999 where I took up the Constant and Kit Lambert Fellowship at the RCM. After two years I began to teach at the RCM.
How did you start composing?
In 1977 when I was nine, I composed my first work on a toy banjo-ukulele. The result of such work was not particularly promising. Eventually, having access to a piano and piano lessons, I began to compose very much as a by-product of enjoying piano repertoire and certainly ‘a la manière' of all sorts of composers (Renaissance, Baroque contrapuntists, classical symphonists etc.). I started writing instrumental music for friends in the local youth orchestra and my first orchestral piece at 13. However it was after taking part in a performance of Messiaen's Turangalîla symphony with NYO in my late teens that I really sought out something much more interesting, colourful and organised.
What drives your work, what are you passions?
I have always been stimulated by a deep love of the arts in general as well as being intrigued by myth and folklore; the myths we cling to and the myths we create. Connected to this, I'm fascinated by subjective re-tellings of the same story - the idea that no one version is totally accurate, completely true. My interest with scientific thinking follows on from this - science never seeks to say something is 100% true, only that it is most likely to be true, confronting the provisional and temporary nature of existence. Rituals that are constructed to put the here-and-now into some sort of hierarchic order, and the means by which these are communicated, tend to influence much of the art I‘m drawn to.
One aspect that is ever-present of course is the solving of problems thrown up by musical materials throughout the compositional process. The problems might be completely abstract and technical (pacing , pitch, harmonic, instrumental), but often there is also a need, an inner necessity, to communicate a type of emotional state. This need to find a musical means of articulating a concept, be it abstract, specific, extra-musical, or scientific, regularly underpins my music. With regards to the scientific, more often than not I'll be interested in a proof or ‘truth’ which has proven to be fallible and ultimately incorrect. Constructivist and spontaneous elements are usually in competition in my work - flurries of notes, dead-ends, unreliable machines.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
Usually a specific concept, or idea, seeps into my consciousness via any number of sources (for example I have a large amount of bedside reading which gets added to regularly. I'm not sure the books ever get read in one go as one idea will remind me of another book that deals with the same subject as an aspect of another one!) The first attempt to bring all this into some kind of compositional focus is to decide duration, instrumentation (which will often evoke certain instrumental situations), structure and rather importantly for me, the title of the work. All this is worked out on paper (doodles, words, vague pitch contours, rhythms, pictograms). The structural blue print has to be firmly established at least on the macro level, bur local details may change according to the moment. The generative organisation behind my harmonic language changes from piece to piece depending on the demands of the work. The fortuitous error (the slip of the finger that Stravinsky talks of) is certainly taken advantage of.
Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?
The list has lengthened considerably over the years and a partial list would include the fantastical, Expressionist art and Avant-garde film, visual art and literature (Classical, Russian, Czech, Polish, English) and classical thought (Ars Memorativa, Rhetoric).
What is your musical philosophy?
Try to constantly push one's own musical boundaries and ideas, never be complacent, and avoid repeating musical goals. An idea or concern may be obsessive in one's work but the way to achieve it should be different each time. Music must work on its own terms, whatever the composer thinks or seeks to suggest, and so it must communicate something direct and striking via its abstract means.
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?
Ah, the question no composer wants to answer straight-out! I would say that musical modernists and avant-gardists of whatever stripe have been important to me for a long time, and many composers have no doubt bled into my subconscious. Unconscious synthesis is part of every composer's inner compositional machinery I believe (John Sloboda's book The Musical Mind is very revealing on this subject). However, medieval and renaissance music have also left their impact on my thinking. All exhibit certain constructivist tendencies I think.
What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?
Make sure you concentrate on craft and invention in equal measure as one can often assist the other in a compositional pinch. Don't be afraid to make mistakes so long as you're striving for interesting goals. If a piece doesn't work, move on and don't bother about correcting it (though I don’t think this advice is as applicable when one gets older!) but learn the lessons in the next piece. Compose, don't just think about composing. Listen to as much music as you can, and remember, if you want to make lots of money from your work, try another profession.
What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?
Probably a vocal duo about dealing with ever-increasing Tourette's symptoms between sufferer and carer accompanied by metronomes, prepared piano and desk bells to be performed in a church. The work has since been withdrawn…
Which work are you most proud of and why?
So far, I'm most happy with a work from 2008, Wunderkammer(konzert) for large ensemble. It pushed me hard during its composition and thinking about how to realise its substance was demanding. However, the result pleased me and it says everything I hoped it would. Each new piece has enormous time and effort invested in it and so I tend to feel most attached to the last piece completed. Wunderkammer(konzert) will be released on a CD with the Ensemble 10/10 conducted by Clarke Rundell in the near future. It was written for them and they did a wonderful job as they have with all my work.
What does the future hold for you?
I've just completed a work for percussionist Joby Burgess (KLOK) and I'm writing a work for the Baritone Jeremy Huw Williams (Ungaretti Settings for baritone and orchestra). I'm also working on a new opera after a short story by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (titled Traps). After that, my first foray into the string quartet medium beckons.
Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced
My website is a good place to start and has recordings, score extracts, articles and reviews: