I talk to composer and founder of the London Graduate Orchestra, Kemal Yusuf. With recent commissions from The Cheltenham International Music Festival, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, The Carducci Quartet and The Fidelio Trio he has also been described as ‘one of the UK’s brightest young composers.’
Tell us something about your background.
I was raised in North London by first generation Turkish parents. The state school I attended, which has since been put in special measures, didn’t have what we would call a thriving music department, so until I had more formal training I had to learn everything myself. This has had its disadvantages in some areas, but certainly has helped in others. It was always clear to me, from around the time most kids begin school, that I was going to write music. My route has been slightly different, I suppose.
How did you start composing?
When I was 7 my sister was given a tiny Casio keyboard as a Christmas present. This was my first experience of an instrument that could put notes together, it fascinated me and I began improvising and composing right away. That was what started me on my path.
What was your first success as a composer?
It’s more of an internal one. The hurdles artists face today are made even more difficult if one isn’t confident in their work, regardless of anyone else. We have unique minds, and so our music, in order to mean something both to the world and to ourselves, must also be unique, or at least personal. Realising this is what has given me confidence to write the music I write, in the way I do, irrespective of anything else.
Who or what has influenced your style?
Much of the music I was making for years was through my own personal discovery through improvisation. Inevitably there are systems in that practice that have contributed to my own language. Since my more ‘formal’ training, the works of Bach, Lutoslawski and other contemporary electronic producers such as Scrillex, Anna Meredith and, recently, Nero’s Day at Disneyland, have all caught my ears. I adored the playing and compositions of Kenny Wheeler, too, and there are certainly some jazz elements to my harmony. Personally, my mentor Peter Maxwell Davies impacted me in a way no other has, and has shaped the way I think about music today. Those were very special years.
What has been your most memorable collaboration?
I had a great time with Judith Weir and the BBC Singers. She, like Max, made me feel heard and respected as an individual artist. They’re such a wonderful group.
What are you working on at the moment
Right now, I’ve just finished a piece for Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Plinio Fernandes for a guitar and cello duet. It has been an immense joy to write! I’ll also be performing various improvised sets in different locations around the UK and Europe called Prop Series. It’s essentially a hotpot of my own influences and practice as a composer. The ‘Prop’ part comes from proportions, meaning that I’m framing the sets around already existing pieces of music. I couldn’t be more excited about it, it feels like an autobiography.
Tell us a little about your work in music education. Would you say it acts as inspiration for your composing?
Absolutely. A lot of the work that I do, outside of helping with technique, is about facilitating my student’s ideas and identity as an artist. From this, I learn so much about what types of music are out there, and what inspires people today. It’s a privilege to teach such talented young composers, and I’m very proud of them.
How can people find out more about you?