Howard Skempton on composing
By Anwen Greenaway
Composer Howard Skempton is one of the mainstays of British contemporary classical music. He is an experimental composer who writes in a style completely his own, un-deflected by trends in composition or performance. Having developed, under the tutelage of Cornelius Cardew, a musical style characterised by its elegance and simplicity, Skempton’s catalogue of compositions is now extensive and diverse. His music encompasses many genres, from the numerous miniatures for solo instrument which he considers the “central nervous system” of his work, through to works for full orchestra such as Lento, written for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and beautiful choral writing.
Howard Skempton turns 65 on Halloween (31st October) and as he approaches his birthday he shares his thoughts on how he approaches ‘writing down music.’
On what inspires him to start composing:
“Two experiences are crucial in rousing the passion to compose: the impact of live performance and the sight of the score. Both are immediate. One knows in a flash that one is dealing with genius; and, if one is a composer, the urge to compose is quick to follow. We begin with little more than an inkling of what we want and how to achieve it, but an inkling is enough. These two things — what we want and how to achieve it — are engaged in some sort of dance, the product of which is music, which seems both inevitable and miraculous.”
On how he develops an idea into a complete piece of music:
“The technique has to be personal for something as tiny and fragile as an ‘inkling’ to be nourished and protected sufficiently to grow into a real piece. How best to begin? One might sit at a piano or one might switch on the computer. Or one might work in silence. In a wonderful book entitled Instrumentally Speaking, the legendary arranger, Robert Russell Bennett, writes that ‘a blank piece of music paper is a beautiful thing, waiting to take a message from someone to someone, and there’s a certain reward in covering it with anything from a cymbal crash to a symphonic poem’. He ends his Introduction, ‘It’s never easy to decide just what is the most important tone of the harmony, or the second most important and so on. If anyone tries to give you a rule to cover all such cases, listen respectfully and go on struggling. Your inner ear is the final judge. The inner ear is hard to educate but it has a direct wire to the heart.’”
On his preference for writing music by hand:
“Essential Materials: paper, pen and pencils, ink, erasers, rulers, blotting paper, etc.
“Time to compose!”
Explore the music of Howard Skempton:
Howard Skempton has worked as a composer, accordionist, and music publisher. Renowned for the distinctive clarity of his musical language, in recent years he has concentrated increasingly on writing choral and vocal music. His choral commissions include works for the BBC Singers and the Belfast Philharmonic Society.
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Image credit: Composer portrait. ©Sandra Farrow. Used with permission.