Edward Gregson Interview

Edward Gregson

When we first started communicating by email you told me you ‘had you head down orchestrating.’ Would you like to let us know what you have been writing?

I’ve been working on a Halle commission, a large-scale piece for their Children’s Choir and Orchestra. I’m delighted that they take these kinds of commissions seriously by involving the orchestra as well, because the experience for the children in the choir is so much more enhanced. They have around 80-90 voices, between 8 and 12 years of age, ‘who enjoy singing and love a challenge!’

However, besides trying to write music that will both challenge and satisfy such a choir (a difficult task in itself), one of the other most demanding elements is scoring it for a full orchestra and trying to achieve a realistic balance between the forces. The work also has two narrators (male and female) that add to the overall dramatic story.

Anyway, the work is called The Salamander and the Moonraker – An Adventure Story in Music – with story and text by Susan Gregson (who also happens to be my wife!). It’s around 35 minutes long (so a lot of orchestration!) and will be premiered on 1st July this year at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. So you see why I had my head down trying to finish it when you contacted me. I should add that the choir has had the vocal score since before Xmas, so they have already been working hard on it.

Nevertheless, like many other composers, I also work on more than one piece at a time, and I have just finished writing a Euphonium Concerto for David Childs, someone who has undoubtedly done more to promote his instrument than any other euphonium player since the beginning of time! He was the first euphonium player to win the brass final of BBC Television’s Young Musician of the Year (in 2000), and the first to play a specially commissioned concerto (by Alun Hoddinott) at the Proms. He is an outstanding musician, who happens to play the euphonium. The concerto will have two versions – one for orchestra and one for brass band – with the latter I suspect achieving more performances. He will be recording the concerto next January with the BBC Philharmonic under Bramwell Tovey, for the second volume of The Symphonic Euphonium on the Chandos label.

Tell us a little about your recent Four Études for brass band, which was nominated for a 2017 British Composer Award.

In 2016 I spent a year as Composer-in-Association with the wonderful Black Dyke Band – part of a three-year funding initiative with Arts Council England. The main brief was to write music specifically for the band, which indeed I did, but a ‘sub-brief’ was to try and promote interest in writing for the medium by working with young composers. To this end, it was my idea to try and spread the net as widely as possible, and so I set up seminars on ‘writing for brass band’ at three British conservatoires (those with a particular interest in the medium through performing ensembles). I am pleased to say that this has led to a number of new works being written for the medium by student composers who had never written for the medium before. I am quite proud of that!

Back to my music. One of the works I wrote for Black Dyke was Four Études, which as you mention was nominated for a BCA last year. I have written quite a few large-scale works for brass band, as you yourself know, but with this particular work I wanted to write something much more paired down, concise, and ‘unusual’. The Études only last for 10 minutes with the first three each being less than 2 minutes, but the final one is the most substantial, and the most intense. 

At the time of writing it, the tragedy that was Aleppo was unfolding, and my music tries to capture the outrage that so many people around the world felt at that time at the inhumanity, nay barbarism, of it all. The situation reminds me of your interview with Nigel Osborne, that heroic composer and ambassador who bravely put words into action many years before and achieved something really positive – I wish we were all so brave.

Will there be a recording of this soon? 

The work has been recorded, as part of the Arts Council funding deal, and was released last year on the Doyen label. It contains the three works I wrote for Black Dyke in 2016 (including a Cornet Concerto for their ‘leader’ and cornet soloist extraordinaire Richard Marshall), plus some older works such as Dances and Arias which I wrote in 1984, and the work which also gives its name to the title of the CD. I’m pleased with the CD for many reasons, not least for the amazingly virtuosity (and considerable musicality) of the band, and am proud to say that it was awarded ‘CD of the Year’ by both of the brass band world’s monthly magazines.

To go back to the beginning. What made you want to be a composer?

That’s difficult to say. As with many creative people the urge was just ‘there’ from an early age. I started trying to compose around the age of 11 and very gradually developed a sort of understanding of harmony, counterpoint, and form, which of course are the basis of a compositional technique. Such an understanding helped me to take my ideas forward in a more meaningful way. By the time I entered the Royal Academy of Music (in 1963) to study composition I thought I had ‘arrived’, but then discovered I had to start all over again, and realised that my technique, and my approach to language and style, needed much more work.

My composition teacher was Alan Bush, a distinguished composer whose music has sadly declined in terms of performances. But he is too good a composer for that to be the case forever. His early string quartet Dialectic is one of the finest works for the genre by any British composer before the 2nd World War (don’t take my word for it, just look up Hugh Wood’s opinion in his chapter on English Music in European Music in the 20th Century). 

Anyway, Alan was a fairly strict disciplinarian (as most teachers were in those days) and set about engaging me in a study of strict counterpoint amongst other things. I did ask him to teach me something about serialism, but he was rather dismissive, and said all I needed to know could be found in textbooks, or he could teach me it in an hour! Although he never used such a methodology for his own compositions, he certainly knew his Schoenberg. He was also a fine pianist (he studied with Artur Schnabel in Berlin), besides studying politics and philosophy. That was the time when he was converted to Marxism, something he believed in for the rest of his life, although I must say he never tried to ram his beliefs down the throats of his composition students.

Do you remember writing your first piece?

Yes, but I wouldn’t want anyone to hear it now! It was a Sonata for piano, written when I was about 10 or 11, but it never really got out of F minor, if you see what I mean. Things did get better after that, but it took a long time…

What was your first success as a composer?

My first success was the work I wrote in my final year as an RAM student – a Quintet for Brass. It won the annual prize at the Academy for the best composition submitted in that academic year (1967). Trumpet player Philip Jones was in the audience at the premiere, and at that time he was the doyen of the brass ensemble, with his own group performing, broadcasting, and recording widely. I was very fortunate that he liked the work and asked if he could take it on his British Tour the following year (that was a ‘no-brainer’). 

The Quintet then reached the final of the then BBC Young Composer’s Competition, and following on from that was recorded by the Halle Brass Ensemble on the Pye Collector’s label (how many of your readers are old enough to remember that I wonder?). And finally, and most importantly, it was the first work of mine to be published by Novello, who remain my publisher to this day.

And your biggest setback? 

That happened the following year (1968). As a result of the success of my Quintet, I was approached by the English Chamber Orchestra and commissioned (with a generous fee it must be said, or at least I thought so, mainly because I didn’t have much money at the time) to write a work for their forthcoming South American Tour. Such a commission was obviously a huge opportunity for a 22-year old composer, and I produced my first substantial orchestral work: Music for Chamber Orchestra. But here’s the rub: the recently appointed Music Director was a fairly young pianist turned conductor by the name of Daniel Barenboim! 

I was asked to meet him to go through the work, which I duly did at his flat, somewhere in Kensington if I remember correctly. I was greeted by Jacqueline Du Pre, who asked if she could sit in and listen! Barenboim and I read through the work on the piano (his score reading was something to behold) and at the end various pleasantries were exchanged. Jacqui was very complimentary about the work, but alas, as I discovered a little later via a rather embarrassed phone call from the ECO, Maestro Barenboim was obviously not so smitten. The result was that the work was not taken on their tour, was not even performed, and was put in my metaphorical (and probably literal) bottom drawer, not to emerge until considerably later on.

I am pleased to say that the work was re-introduced to the light of day following a request from Radio 3 – one of those fortuitous conversations with a producer – and was broadcast in the 1980’s by the BBC Concert Orchestra – as it happens the same orchestra that much later recorded the work in a volume (now extending to a four-volume series) of my concertos and orchestral music on the Chandos label.

You are especially known for your works for brass band. What drew you to this medium?

Well, as a teenager I played in a brass band, so I guess the sound of the medium stuck with me for a long time. In addition, some of my first compositions were for brass band, for the simple reason that it was easy to get them performed. I should also add that I think the sound of a really good brass band is a very exciting one, and some of my earliest memories as a teenager were listening to original repertoire by composers such as John Ireland and Herbert Howells, as well as genre-specific composers such as Ray Steadman-Allen and Wilfred Heaton – names not known outside the brass band community but fine composers in their own right.

But you have also written widely in other forms… 

Yes, that’s true, and indeed most of my writing since the late-seventies has been for genres outside the brass band (ie orchestral, instrumental, choral, chamber etc). I’ve also dabbled in writing for the theatre and the occasional television commission. In the late ’80’s I was commissioned to write the music for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new History Plays cycle – titled The Plantagenets – involving writing the music for five plays. It was amongst the most enjoyable, but also the most pressurised, time I’ve had as a composer. Working with actors of the calibre they have was an inspiring experience.

The other genre which has occupied me for most of my career is that of the concerto. To date I’ve written around a dozen, the first in 1971, the most recent hot off the desk! My aim is to complete a concerto for every instrument of the orchestra, with my next two being for oboe and viola.

Is there a genre in which you harbour unfulfilled ambitions? Opera perhaps?

Well, I want to write a lot more choral music. It’s a genre that has historical associations for me, as I was brought up with the sound of choirs in my head – Sunday services! I have written two large-scale works: The Dance, forever the Dance for Choir and Orchestra, and a Missa Brevis Pacem for boys’ choir and wind ensemble, plus a few smaller scale pieces (both ‘a capella’ and with piano, organ, or ensemble), but I want to return to the genre many more times over the next few years. The human voice is, after all, the oldest of all instruments, and in many ways the most rewarding for which to write.

You are also known as an educator – at Goldsmiths College, as the Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music, with youth ensembles such as the National Youth Brass Band of Wales and on educational boards. How would you say that your work in education has influenced your life as a composer?

I started my teaching career as a peripatetic ‘creative music specialist’ in primary schools. That led on to my working in two Colleges of Education, then Goldsmiths College (University of London) where I taught for 20 years, the Royal Academy of Music, and finally the RNCM. During my academic life I taught composition to many students of varying abilities and application.

The teaching process itself is interesting. When one is working with children or amateurs it is a question of how to motivate and inspire, mainly through practical application. In the university or conservatoire situation it becomes, by necessity, more theoretical and analytical, although of course I always tried to ensure that the students heard their works in play-through and rehearsal via practical workshops. I taught first year undergraduates, all the way through to PhD students, and so the range of experience and ability was enormous. 

When I was Head of Composition at Goldsmiths College I organised composition workshops for every first year BMus student at Goldsmiths College as part of their course (if I remember correctly in five groups of around 12, each taught by a different composition tutor). My proudest moment came when certain students who had previously neither had the confidence nor the interest in pursuing composition, decided after that first year course to take up composition for the rest of their degree, and beyond. In at least one case that has led to a professional composing career – very rewarding!

As to what you learn yourself from the process of teaching composition, well I would say quite considerable. Although the general presumption is that the teacher constantly gives out ideas to their students – which of course is true – the reverse is also true. Sometimes, by looking at the way a particular student meets a challenge, be it structurally, harmonically, contrapuntally, or through the orchestration process, you can solve a problem you might be having with one of your own compositions – now that’s what I call mutual satisfaction!

What would be your perfect commission? You may pick any performer/s, alive or dead, any venue, any form.

To be honest, I don’t think I have such a concept in my head. One of the joys of being a composer is meeting new musicians – instrumentalists, singers, conductors – nearly always highly stimulating. For example, I was Composer-in-Residence at last year’s Presteigne Festival, when their wonderful Artistic Director and Conductor, George Vass, introduced me via rehearsals and performances of my music to a number of such musicians. The result, in more than one case, has resulted in me writing new works specially for these performers over the next few years. 

What advice would you give to a young composer starting out?

Believe in yourself, and work, work, work! Talent in itself is never enough. Try and be collaborative and humble (as opposed to arrogant) when working with performers and conductors. Remember that we composers need musicians to take our music off the page and into the performance arena; and finally, try not to compose via the computer! It can become a dangerous tool for the lazy composer.

Describe your composing routine?

I’m one of the generations of composers who still use pencil and ms paper. I work with two copyists (both composers in their own right) who computer set (on Sibelius) my music much faster than I ever could. That also gives me a certain detachment from the printed score that is useful during the proofing process.

I spend a lot of time ‘thinking’ about a new work before I commit anything to ms paper. The gestation period can be quite long. Then, when ideas come, I gradually create an overall structural plan to envelop these ideas and their development. I mainly use traditional forms and an extended tonal language, using tonal centres rather than keys. Melody is an important factor in my music, and I have quite a highly-charged sense of rhythm, often using asymmetrical metres and phrasing. My orchestration has been described as ‘colourful’ and I work quite hard to be ‘practical’ in my writing for instruments, avoiding the extremes that some composers seem to delight in (and that players mainly dislike intensely!).

What are your future plans?

Well, one thing we composers are blessed with is that we can continue to write music until we reach the ‘end zone’! My future plans are to continue to compose for many years to come. The most exciting thing is always the next composition, the next rehearsal, the next performance.

More information about Edward Gregson:

Personal Website – the best starting point; contains a wide range of information including links to numerous other articles

Recordings (Chandos Records)
New Grove (login required)

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology