In conversation with Catherine Nasskau
CN: Did you always know you wanted to be a composer?
PC: I started writing music when I was 15 and had my first pieces published in London by Cramer Music when I was 18 (Dance Pieces for clarinet & piano).
CN: What or who were your early musical inspirations?
PC: I loved Wagner, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky from an early age, and Benjamin Britten too. My mother had been a much-loved Australian soprano so it seemed only natural that I would be influenced. But I would say my greater influences have been 20th Century English & American music, and now also composers like Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt and Roxanna Panufnik. I love the Beethoven Symphonies and Mahler of course!
CN: What led you to working in opera stage management?
PC: I always wanted to be a singer or actor, but when I realised I wasn’t going to have the voice I wanted, I moved straight into stage management, starting my long career at English National Opera in 1984. In recent years I’ve also begun to direct opera in my own right and the stage-managing has lessened.
CN: You compose for a range of genres – do you have one you feel more at home with?
PC: Well, I made a name for myself through choral music and through my ‘Requiem For An Angel’ in particular. But I’m really happy writing in all genres; my most recent work is a Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano.
CN: Of your own work, do you have any favourites, or ones you are most proud of having composed?
PC: Difficult question, but it’s true to say that there are some works I feel to be better than others; certainly, my ‘Requiem’ would be up there, although I personally think my ‘Seven Last Words from the Cross’ to be the stronger piece. Of the concertos, the Oboe Concerto would be the one I’ll always be most proud of, although I think my Violin Concerto made an impact too at its premiere a few years ago.
CN: What music do you like to listen to?
PC: My tastes change and are fairly broad. Recently it’s Roxanna Panufik’s ‘Four World Seasons’ which I’ll listen to a lot or Richard Backford’s marvellous ‘Violin Concerto’.
CN: Do you have a special place where you go to compose?
PC: Yes, on my computer with Sibelius 8. The Finn brothers who created this programme have unleashed endless creativity from composers. It’s so wonderful hearing music instantly as you compose! I love the sea and the sky, but as much as inspiration might flow… I’d be lost without my computer.
CN: What led you to the ‘Stabat Mater’?
PC: Some might think it odd that as a non-believer in the “church sense” I should have written so much religious music, but I’ve always had a fascination with Jesus and his story without the need for the God part. My Requiem is a work giving comfort to those who are left to grieve and my Seven Last Words from the Cross is inspired by the suffering of an exceptional man, Jesus, and the brutal wrong-doing he suffered at the hands of those in fear. I am drawn to Jesus and also to the suffering inflicted on his mother.
CN: Could you explain the Baroque influence?
PC: The Stabat Mater has been a subject I’ve wanted to write for some time, and this is in fact my 3rd attempt. Having been asked to write a new work for the English Arts Chorale I decided to give it another go, only this time I had just finished stage managing Handel’s opera, ‘Alcina’, and to my surprise found my creative sensibilities being heavily influenced by this; so I have embraced the Baroque sound-world of Handel and also Bach in this work. Not that it sounds like Handel, it doesn’t, it sounds like me; but there’s clearly a nod to Handelian traditions, and the use of 2 oboes and strings is obviously a Baroque-styled orchestration, only with a harp instead of harpsichord. Bach’s miraculous Prelude in C makes a very obvious appearance in the final movement, and anyone who loves Arvo Pärt will recognise the influence from his ground-breaking ‘Credo’ based on the same Prelude.
CN: What makes a good performance of choral work? What should the EAC try and remember?
PC: Haha! Well, good tuning always helps, but basically an understanding of, an embracement and enjoyment of the music you are performing will always win through under any circumstances. That’s true of life, isn’t it?!