A Decadal Reflection

Other than not get around to updating this blog as frequently as I promised (the last was in May – BIG OOPS!), I’ve been giving some thought about who I am as a musician. What is my musical identity as I approach my 62nd Christmas season.

Perhaps this is, in part, because my mother died recently. Is this a time at which most of us take a step back to reflect on time passing and times to come?

Not long before Mum’s death, came the news of the death of another significant person in my life, the great composer and teacher Anthony Gilbert. We corresponded frequently, in fact right up to the day before he died. Time to grow up then, time to move on and work a few things out for myself…

I am a composer, conductor and music educator. I was born and brought up in Wrexham, living for my first 9+ years right opposite the glorious red gates of what I will always call The Racecourse (it was never named in Welsh in my childhood). I studied composition with Tony at RNCM and later with Martin Butler and Ed Hughes at the University of Sussex.

Much of my music has its heart in the Celtic tradition of my surroundings. I focus on physical gesture, the illusion of synchronicity, folk idioms and non-octave-repeating scales, the illusion of synchronicity, and open textures, with the underlying restlessness of what Tippett describes  as ‘The Noise in the Pool at Noon’. It increasingly finds its stimulus in other creative forms – eg. poetry, photographs, paintings – physical surroundings and nature. When I write, I hear the sounds of my north-Walean childhood, I see its imagery.

I have spent the greater part of my creative life working with young people and amateurs, in community theatre, dance and both instrumental and vocal/choral ensembles. I have composed and arranged music in English and Welsh (and many other European languages) for these musicians. 

For many long and happy years, I collaborated with Bob Wallbank, writing musicals, cabaret and youth theatre shows, composing songs and incidental music for his plays. Writing collaborations since have been with the poet and librettist Stephen Plaice; and and I’ve just started work on a song cycle of poems by my one-time friend Stephen Tunnicliffe.

The clarinettist Pru Whitaker once told me to make my music clearer, more transparent. This led me to embark on a period of focus on chamber pieces, collaborating with clarinettists Joseph Shiner and Steve Dummer and, more latterly, with my oboist daughter, Elen. In 2019, my oboe & piano piece Fripperies and Frazzles was the First-prize winner of the 4th International Music Composition Contest, Contest, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Carlos, Valencia, where it was premiered by the oboist Vicente Llimera, for which he later orchestrated it, and pianist Stefanos Spanopoulos.

Being hospitalised twice in the space of six months between the winter of 2019 and spring 2020, I developed a strong friendship with a remarkable man, the artist Roger Cowen. We met in hospital. He died 18 months later. I became mesmerised by the mask paintings on his website and immediately (in my hospital bed!) began work on a large duo for flute (=piccolo) and oboe (=cor anglais) – a parade with refrains representing the dreams these paintings gave me. Two other pieces sprang from my knowing Roger, the second of these, A Further Obscuration of Roger’s Masks, was shortlisted for BBC National Orchestra or Wales – Composition: Wales 2023 and was premiered at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Ryan Bancroft and was premiered in March.

In May 2021, the same forces had performed my love song to my wife Julie, Canzoni d’Amore da Lontano (Cavatina for Small Orchestra), which was similarly shortlisted, performed and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in March last year.

My day-to-day life involves teaching – privately and for the Junior Department of Trinity Laban Conservatoire (online, these days). This keeps me young and, I think, relevant. I am coming to terms that I shall never pass my induction as househusband, although my cooking and baking (take a look at my IBBC pages) are PDG! And I compose and arrange music for my beloved Cor Trefaldwyn – a swarthy ensemble of delightful locals.

I’m 61 now. I wonder what this decadal reflection will read like in 2033…

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