Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Dobrinka Tabakova

This evening’s Prom concert, given by the BBC Concerto Orchestra, is another tribute marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Henry Wood, founder and first conductor of the Proms. In addition to various piece premièred or orchestrated by Wood, the concert includes the world première of a new work, Timber & Steel, by Bulgarian composer and the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Dobrinka Tabakova. To provide a bit of context for that piece, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note of the piece. Many thanks to Dobrinka for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

The best introduction would probably be my first album String Paths (ECM New Series). I feel the compilation of pieces there expresses much of what is at the core of my reason for composing – melodies, textures, and layers of materials, a desire to connect and communicate, and an interest in shaping time though sound.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I was about 6 or 7 when I asked my parents if I could start piano lessons: although they are scientists, there was always music playing at home, and they took me to concerts from when I was young. I remember going to an audition in my home town of Plovdiv, and really liking one of the piano teachers. She was an excellent solfège teacher too. I often improvised around the pieces and would make up melodies, which gradually turned into small piano pieces that I started to notate. Once I was in London, I applied to study composition at the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department when I was about 12. I received further encouragement when I wrote my first orchestral piece for my school orchestra at Alleyn’s.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

Alongside my studies at the Junior Academy with Ruth Byrchmore and John Webb, I applied to go to summer courses. The first one was really diving into the deep end. I was 14 and was accepted to go to the Centre Acanthes in the south of France. Iannis Xenakis was going to be the guest composer and I really wanted to attend his classes. Although my music was very different to his aesthetically, there was something which really drew me, particularly to his percussion pieces. There were also lectures with Yvonne Loriod, which was the closest I could be to Messiaen, who is probably the composer I most wish to have had the chance to listen to in person and meet. I completed my Bachelor and Masters degrees at the Guildhall School of Music, studying with Simon Bainbridge, Andrew Schultz and Diana Burrell. I loved my time there, as it really brought so many opportunities to put on concerts. I became the president of the Contemporary Music Society and organised winter and summer festivals every year. This experience led to me getting my first job, organising the Cutting Edge series at the British Music Information Centre. I could not have wished for a better environment to hear so many premieres and meet many of the composers who I now am good friends with and admire. I completed my Ph.D. at King’s College, where I studied with Rob Keeley and Silvina Milstein, and attended George Benjamin’s lectures. These were really important years, and another aspect I value is being able to be part of the very rich cultural scene in London. As a student, I would often go to rehearsals at the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall and these were important lessons as well. Absorbing information, listening to the opinions and experience of others, while still retaining your voice is one of the most important skills to learn.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

I enjoy the research part of each new commission – this can be research about the performers, the programme and context of the première, the building where the première will be, and the instrument/s. These are my main starting points, and often I start very early, building a picture in my mind of what the piece could be, how it will fill the time I’ve been given. The material can come from previous sketches or can be sparked from interesting findings related to the commission. For example, I spent almost a year preparing for the Shakespeare cantata [Immortal Shakespeare]: researching the plays, making a structure, choosing the texts. Also, I enjoy hiking, so I look forward to writing pieces about places I can visit, like the orchestra and choir pieces On the South Downs or Kynance Cove, which we recorded recently at Truro Cathedral.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

As composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra, I was invited to compose a piece to celebrate 150 years since the birth of Henry Wood. It is a great honour, not only to be writing a piece for the Proms, but for that piece to be celebrating the founder-conductor of the festival. During some of the many concerts I have attended at the Royal Albert Hall, I have thought about the acoustics and what it would be like to fill that space with sound. I admit that I always imagined I would approach a piece for the hall by exploring the softer, quieter, more transparent textures of an orchestra. Well, this isn’t that piece, the occasion somehow didn’t fit that vision. I kept coming back to the idea of the Industrial Revolution and Henry Wood’s birth right at the height of that development.  The world was the most connected it had been in the late 19th century and machines were freeing up working people’s time, so now they could expand their interests. The momentum started then has kept increasing, and these were some of the thoughts I was having while writing the new piece.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

My double piano concerto Together Remember to Dance, the Suite in Jazz Style for viola and piano, the Fantasy Homage to Schubert as well as the Concerto for Cello & Strings, Centuries of Meditations for choir and strings and the Truro Canticles.

7. What’s next?

In a month’s time my first choral album will come out on Regent Records, created during my residency at Truro Cathedral. There will also be a tour of my Centuries of Meditations to UK cathedrals and the premiere of a new string quartet, which will be toured across Europe this coming season. I am also working on the following sections of the Concerto for Orchestra (‘Tectonic’ was the first movement, premièred in December 2018), which I’m writing as part of my residency at the BBC Concert Orchestra.


Timber & Steel – programme note

Celebrating 150 years since Proms founder Henry Wood’s birth, the title of the piece includes the nickname by which the beloved figure was known among Proms goers and musicians – “Timber”. As I was contemplating what Henry Wood would have made of the world today, it also made me think of the world that he would have found himself in on his arrival in 1869. I kept coming back to the great industrialisation over the century that preceded Wood’s birth. Machines freed up time, which people could now invest in learning about the world, educating themselves, enjoying cultural activities- an opportunity, which, ultimately, inspired the concept of the Proms concerts.

Throughout the piece I wished to create a sense of drive, movement, progress. After all, we’ve seen the most astonishing advancement in technology in the last century, and this relentless energy is what motivated my new work. The title also alludes to the founding elements of industrialisation and, helpfully, has a connection to the materials found most broadly among orchestral instruments themselves- woods and metals. These two sound worlds are constantly being pit against each other, beginning with the woody marimbas, which lay the foundations for brass sparks. A series of musical ‘cells’ slot together throughout the piece- many of these cells carry material made up of the musical equivalent of Henry Wood’s name and the title of the work- some examples are the opening figure in the marimbas or the jagged first full orchestra outburst.

As well as being an accomplished painter, carpentry was among Henry Wood’s various hobbies and I would hope that he would have enjoyed the jigsaw of ideas which form the spine of my humble homage to a great figure in British musical life.

—Dobrinka Tabakova

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