Proms 2021: pre-première questions with Bernard Hughes

by 5:4

Tomorrow evening’s Prom concert given by the BBC Singers features three world premières, one of which is Birdchant by British composer Bernard Hughes. By way of an introduction to the piece, here are his answers to my pre-première questions, together with his programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Bernard for his responses.

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

I write a lot of choral music, which I got into almost accidentally, but which I really love. (I have no background in the choral world.) My pieces go from large-scale BBC Singers commissions to single-line junior choir songs, and I try to approach each in the same spirit: to write the kind of piece I’d like to listen to. I have also written music for orchestra, including pieces aimed at young people, but I like to feel that everything I do is approachable by listeners of all ages and experiences. I have no interest in being an ‘ivory tower’ composer – I want to be heard and enjoyed.

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

A lot of people write music as students and most stop at some point: I just never stopped. I have an urge to express myself through music which was apparent at a young age – I was writing things down when I was 8 or 9 – and hasn’t really gone away. There are certainly other careers I could have contemplated but I have an all-encompassing passion for music – writing it, teaching it, listening to it – that is central to my life, and would be whatever path I had chosen.

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

I did my first degree at Oxford, followed by a Masters in composition at Goldsmiths and finally a PhD at Royal Holloway.  My teachers were Hugh Collins Rice, Peter Dickinson and Philip Cashian, and I also studied privately with Param Vir.

My music has been informed above all by my discovery of the music of Stravinsky as a teenager – The Rite of Spring, the Symphony of Psalms and the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto above all. I love Stravinsky’s rhythmic games and inherent energy, and I love his reinvention of inherited materials – both of these are things I deal with in my own pieces. Of other contemporary composers who have been an inspiration I would mention: Judith Weir, Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Adès and Guillaume Connesson; and I am delighted by the recent music of Anna Meredith.

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 think of a piece as a unique solution to a specific set of problems. The biggest compliment I can think of is that a piece ‘worked’ for what it was trying to do. Did I successfully answer the question, or not? I often use pre-existing materials, either quotation or transformation, and the Proms commission is an example of that. I’ve also used Stravinskian rotation, or passacaglia, or other pre-existing forms to get me started. They are all ways of avoiding the agony of the blank page.

In practical terms, I often get the first idea for a piece out walking or in the shower, and this is usually a non-musical image that gradually gets refined into notes. I then work between the piano, writing by hand on paper, and using notation software (I love Dorico and would strongly recommend it!)

For me music is all about pacing, so I use the software playback to judge the rate at which things happen. I’m constantly tinkering, then stepping back to check, like a sculptor. I started out before computer notation existed and sometimes I can’t believe I ever wrote a piece without the help of a computer. Back in the day, you had to really want to be a composer, partly just because the whole business was such a faff.

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

I wrote the particular piece to meet the fairly strict terms of the commission: as a contemporary response to an old piece, namely Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux. I was aware I was being asked to write this piece on the strength of my previous work, so I didn’t want to branch out in a completely new direction. In its use of rhythmic irregularity, tonal harmony that breaks down into block chords, often in contradiction, its use of pre-existent material and structure, and my combination of passages of simplicity with those of real complexity, I think it’s pretty representative of my choral music. The piece is designed to be at the end of the first half of the concert and to round off that sequence of music in a high-spirited and energetic way – and I hope it does that.

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

The BBC Singers released an album of my choral music, I am the Song, in 2015, which includes my two big pieces written for them, the ‘radio-opera’ on the Norse myth The Death of Balder and A Medieval Bestiary. For something lighter I’d recommend my family piece Not Now, Bernard, narrated by Alexander Armstrong, that came out just before lockdown. And I’m proud of my orchestral piece ANAPHORA, which is available online, and Gooseberry Fool, which represents my work for young people.

7. What’s next?

The brilliant London choir Epiphoni are recording an album of my recent choral music in September, for release on the Delphian label in early 2022. A recording of my complete piano music by the pianist Matthew Mills will be out later in 2022, including a new suite written specially.

Birdchant: programme note

Birdchant is a companion piece to Clément Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux, in which the choir evokes birdsong in Janequin’s fanciful musical transliterations. Birdchant segues directly after the first section of the Janequin (about two minutes in), developing and expanding its material, and using the same structural proportions. Where the Janequin is polyphonic throughout, Birdchant’s refrains are chordal and rhythmically unpredictable. In the intervening birdsong sections I add my own stylised transcriptions of another twenty or so European birds, in an increasingly complex melée. The music is propulsive and high-spirited throughout, building energetically to its unexpected ending.

—Bernard Hughes

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