Philip Venables, photo Harald Hoffman
I talk to composer Philip Venables. One of the most exciting voices of his generation, his works fearlessly confront issues of sexuality, politics, gender and violence. In 2017 he won a British Composer Award for his opera 4.48 Psychosis and his recently premiered Concerto for Violin, Venables Plays Bartok received critical acclaim after its premiere at the BBC Proms.
Tell us something about your background.
I was born and grew up in Chester. I’m not from a musical family so I started learning the violin in primary school through the county music service. Then I was at a state comprehensive school with, luckily, a very good Head of Music who encouraged my composing. But I then went to study science as an undergraduate. That was ok, but then, after my degree, I decided I wanted to do composing seriously, so I went to the Royal Academy to do a Masters. That was really when I started composing properly, more than as a hobby.
So your early experience was through free tuition…
Yes, I even got a free violin, or at least very cheaply, I seem to remember. In fact the lessons weren’t totally free – we paid a small amount, but it certainly was really accessible.
How did you start composing? What persuaded you to compose rather than, say, play the violin.
Well I was a terrible violinist! There was that!
I saw the video of you playing as a 14-year-old as part of the Venables Plays Bartok piece.
It wasn’t terrible!
Still scratching through grade 6 like that at the age of 14… It didn’t show any signs of professional promise. And also I don’t think I was ever a performer. When I got on stage, adrenaline would make me play worse rather than better so, yeah, I didn’t really have the right temperament for practice and dedication to that level. Anyway, I just started writing bits of stuff when I was a kid and taking them to my violin teacher and later to my piano teacher and, as I said, I was very encouraged by the Head of Music when I was doing composition for GCSE and A level. Then I entered one of these under 18s competitions when I was 17 and won that, which was, I think, Arts Channel Young Composer of the Year. I also went on Steve Martland’s composition course for young people—I think we were all between the ages of 16 and 21. That was massively formative because it was the first time I had met a professional composer. That was Steve. He was just incredible. A big turning point.
So if that was your first success as a composer, what was the first piece you were proud of? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a piece that you now acknowledge, perhaps just something you look back at fondly.
It was probably the piece I wrote (Strike Out) for the Steve Marland Band when I was 17 on that course, because he then picked it up and they did a Radio 3 broadcast of it. The band also did a handful of performances of it, which was really nice. So it was the first time I had had any taste of a professional performance and any kind of exposure for what I was doing. That is very exciting when you are 17.
So you went off to the Academy and studied with Philip Cashian. How was he?
He was incredible. I hadn’t studied music as an undergrad so he was very practical, a very pragmatic composer and a very pragmatic teacher. He gave me a great grounding, not in an overly academic way, but really practical tools for working with musical material and for being a composer – the whole professional skills side of things: notation, clarity, good working habits. He was really, really great. I left in 2004 or 5.
I notice that your works after the Academy and up to 2011 are more abstract then those after 2011, when they become more theatrical and, perhaps, more personal. Would you say that in the time after the Academy you were consolidating your technique and then something changed in 2011?
Yeah there is a big break there and I think there was a period of about a year or two where I didn’t really write much at all. It also coincided with when I moved to Berlin and when I had done a couple of workshops with text. I think that was probably important too. But, after the move to Berlin at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, I suddenly had much more time – that was the whole reason I moved there, just to give myself more time to work on music—and that totally changed everything. I felt more relaxed. It did change my approach to writing quite a bit and I think I was trying to get away from such rhetorical music, if you like.
Would you ever go back to the purely instrumental works? Even now, when you look at your recently premiered Violin Concerto, a perfect opportunity to do so, it did quite work out that way….
No it didn’t! I’m terrified of going back to writing instrumental music and I don’t have any commissions lined up for instrumental music, probably on purpose – I mean I’ve been asked to do stuff, but I’ve generally said no. But there are things that I’d like to write and I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point, but I’m very happy exploring text and theatre and that side of things at the moment. I don’t feel I have a huge number of ideas – I don’t know what I want to do with instrumental music at the moment. So until that changes it would be quite painful to write something.
Would you say that, alongside the discovery of text, there was an increased autobiographical element to the music after 2011 and also a sense of increased confidence. Your music deals with challenging themes: sexuality, violence, gender, politics. A person has to be confident and comfortable to take on such big issues.
Well I do feel quite comfortable, I hope. We’ve all got issues, haven’t we? I enjoy writing about issues that matter to me. Whether it’s autobiographical or not is possibly less important than whether it simply matters. Yes, so it’s more about writing things that I’m actually passionate about
To talk about one of those things you’re passionate about. What do you feel about our current political predicament?
Right now? Well, let’s just say I’m applying for German citizenship at the moment. Part of me is hoping that it gets worse in the UK, because I feel it will all have to dissolve if we’re to get a decent outcome i.e. another referendum. I think the government needs to collapse before that is possible. If they muddle though, then we’ll get the Chequers deal or worse.
Tell us a little about your approach to text setting. You seem to adopt an almost reverent approach, often to the point of allowing a text to remain spoken.
My starting point is that the text is really important, especially if you are making a music theatre work or anything that’s narrative. I have seen so much new opera—not just new, but mainly – where I couldn’t understand what was going on. It’s true I’m not particularly attentive or skilful at hearing and understanding opera: when I go with friends who are better at it we’ll come out of something and I’ll say ‘what the hell was that about?’ and then they’ll explain it to me. I just think it defeats the whole purpose of the exercise if you can’t understand what’s going on. And I love going to the theatre, that’s a big influence.
Is this also partly borne out of a sense of respect for writers? For example, it is notoriously difficult to get permission to set the words of Sarah Kane, but you were allowed to use the text of her last play 4.48 Psychosis. Did this inspire you to take special care in dealing with those words?
Well, I chose it because I thought that it was an amazing text, and very musical, so I thought it would be strange to choose it for that reason and to then destroy it. But I mean on a very practical level I was obliged to keep the text intact in terms of not cutting or reordering it too much. Of course the comprehension of it was up to me. But there was also a lot of text to fit into an hour and a half so, partly because it is practical and partly because it is a theatre piece, it made sense to have some spoken word in there. I also just feel that that kind of multifaceted approach, with different ways to present text, is exciting. I think I’m generally aiming for a 50-50 hybrid of spoken theatre and sung opera.
How did you come to collaborate with David Hoyle in Illusions, Canal Street and The Gender Agenda?
In 2015 the Sinfonietta were doing their Notes to the New Government project for the general election that year and they asked me to do a five-minute piece – they’d asked a load of composers to do something. I had been a big fan of David’s. I’d been to so many of his live shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I’d never met him and I’d always been completely terrified of approaching him but we did have a friend in common who I’d worked with before and who is now working with David. So when this Sinfonietta thing came along I thought it would be only five minutes – I didn’t know what it would be like to work with him – so I thought this would be a manageable project to see how we worked together, and also the political brief was a perfect fit for David’s work. I asked him, he said yes and we had an amazing time. He was absolutely fantastic. That started it and we did the extended version of Illusions for the 2017 New Music Biennial, also coinciding with another general election. I asked him to do the sound installation Canal Street at exactly the same time, in the summer of 2017 for the Manchester International Festival, and then we asked him to do Gender Agenda as well the following year.
Illusions is a powerfully political piece. I wonder, given our current political predicament whether it is time for an Illusions II?
We did talk to the Sinfonietta about making an evening-long serious political event based on Illusions. There could still be mileage in that. We’ll see. Certainly David is someone with whom I hope to work in the future. We work together so well and, obviously, our outlooks are very similar. There will be opportunities in the future, I’m sure.
What are you working on at the moment
I’ve just finished the re-scored German version of 4.48 Psychosis, which is happening next year at Semperoper in Dresden. We are now working on my next opera with Ted Huffman directing again, and also writing the libretto. It’s going to be produced next September by Philadelphia Opera, and will come to Europe with Music Theatre Wales and Montpellier Opera in 2020. It’s a very small, two performer, four cello chamber opera – a true story about two Russian teenagers who died in 2015, which was reported around the world because of the strange circumstances. The opera is about the fetishization of tragedy and teenage love through the lens of social media – kind of like theatre about theatre It’s like a reconstructed documentary, very meta. We’ve been doing research and interviews with people. Stuff like that. We’re off to Russia next week to do some research. And then I’m off to New York in January for the American premiere of 4.48 Psychosis.
And looking even further into the future, what plans do you have?
I am discussing some other music theatre/opera projects which will stretch me through the next five years, but a lot of things need to fall into place before we get the green light. But I have some smaller projects in discussion too, also theatrical or multi-media concert pieces. And I want to find some time to make some electronic music at some point!
To find out more about Philip Venables:
Philip Venables Illusions, with David Hoyle: