When did you first start composing?
When I was about 10 years old. It seemed the most natural thing to do at the time. I grew up in a small house in Finchley; my father’s Broadwood upright piano in the back room, and my mother’s upright in the front. Often both were played at the same time! (Fortunately our elderly neighbours were very kind, and also a bit deaf). I would wake up to my father practicing Bach or Chopin and hear my elder brother improvising and composing. My mother loved to take a break from household tasks to play hymns.
Did you have anything performed as a child?
Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say yes! I was extremely lucky, and got a free scholarship aged 11 to the Royal Academy of Music as a Junior exhibitioner. As well as studying piano and oboe, playing in the orchestra, singing in the choir, I was in a theory class where composition was greatly encouraged. For a special anniversary we were asked to write something based on the four notes of the then BBC television news signature tune. I chose to write a piece for 5 part choir, thinking our theory class had enough singers to try it out. I had a strong sense of the news always going round the same issues, such as the troubles in Northern Ireland, and never reaching a resolution. As The Magic Roundabout always preceded the early evening broadcast, I felt it fitting to pop in a bit of that theme tune too. No-one was more stunned than me when the piece got chosen for performance in the bi-centennial concert!
Your experience at the Royal Academy must have been most formative.
Yes. I lived for Saturday mornings, and going to catch the no 26 bus from Finchley to Baker Street. I still have clear memories of wonderful experiences. As well as studying piano and oboe with remarkable professors, I remember several visiting conductors taking the first orchestra. One in particular talked about colour and texture a lot, and I wondered why the music scores weren’t coloured and textured. It was at that time I knew I wanted to write music, but I was also wondering whether I had anything musically worthwhile to say. Nadia Boulanger visited every year, and would talk about the importance of true listening. I even had to play part of a Mozart Piano concerto to her, and she was very kind, talking about the importance of “line”.
But given your enjoyment, you didn’t carry on to formal music studies as an undergraduate.
Well, no. Music was not taken to be a worthwhile option by my school, and as I enjoyed Maths and sciences was encouraged to go in that direction, taking a BSc at Bedford College London, which as it happened was just round the corner from the Royal Academy of Music.
And from there, you went to work for BBC Radio.
Yes. I joined as a trainee studio manager, opting to work for the World Service and the then 44 language services. I found my musical background to be a colossal help. And still actively used it when later a radio producer, interviewer and presenter. To me, so much of radio broadcasting and communication is about sound textures and the musicality of language. It is also partly why I enjoy using recorded sound in some of my compositions today.
And why you made the transition from radio broadcasting back to composition?
Yes, and also wanting to be around for our three children, and elderly parents. I also felt, given my experiences in broadcasting, more ready with something compositionally to say.
Quite a few of your compositions seem to come from the perspective of a child, or the elderly.
It seemed a very natural thing for me to do. I love working through music with the very young, and the elderly. My miniature Recollection for Spectrum 4 ABRSM was inspired by an interview I had with an elderly gentleman in a care home. He kept returning to the most salient important things in his life, and the piece simply encourages the player to do the same musically. Also a Spectrum duet is largely inspired by my own mother living with Alzheimer’s.
And now you also write poetry?
Well, yes; I don’t see this as a departure from composition at all, more as an extension. The poems are very much based on the musicality of language, and I am now experimenting with vocal sound and instrumentation.