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Composer Martin Butler in 10 questions

We asked our composers a series of questions based around their musical likes and dislikes, influences, challenges, and various other things on the theme of music and their careers. Each month we will bring you answers from an Oxford University Press composer, giving you an insight into their music and personalities.

Here’s what OUP composer Martin Butler had to say:

Martin Butler, credit: Katie Vandyck

Which of your pieces are you most proud of and/or holds the most significance to you?

Tough question! The most personally significant piece is probably Night Machines, an electronic piece from 1987 that opened up all sorts of musical landscapes and pathways for me – not least improvisation as one means of composition – and which I found incredibly liberating. But overall I’m probably most proud of my opera for English National Opera, A Better Place. It was a great collaborative effort (as operas should be) and I think we hit all our targets after a lot of very hard work.

Which composer were you most influenced by and which of their pieces has had the most impact on you?

As usual with this question, the answer tends to change on a daily basis! But overall: Beethoven. I only realized this in more recent years: I keep coming back to his spirit, preoccupations and technique whenever I need a jolt. To me, he’s the composer’s composer: blood and guts on the page, every corner, transformation and twist in the argument sweated over, every problem majestically overcome.

Can you describe the first piece of music you ever wrote?

From the age of eight I was always improvising, making up pieces at the piano. But the first thing I remember committing to paper was a Handelian fanfare for recorder – I must have been 9 or thereabouts. It really wasn’t much more than a rehash of the sort of thing we all played on recorders every week at school; but it was *my* rehash.

Have the challenges you face as a composer changed over the course of your career?

If you think of composing as a ‘career’, then yes – like any other. I suppose success brings new opportunities, experience makes new things possible and familiar things easier. But the important challenges, as with any creative endeavour, remain the same: to stay true to an idea, to resist one’s habits, to reach for higher levels of meaning and pertinence, and to get out of bed each morning and just keep doing it.

If you could have been present at the premiere of any one work, which would it be?

Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus. So many people I know who were there have said it was a life-changing experience, and I can well imagine it. Brilliant, intoxicatingly powerful music theatre – even on disc. And it seems in retrospect like the pinnacle of a whole era of opera/music theatre that has since receded and most likely will never recur.

What is the last piece of music you listened to?

A number of songs by the folk singer Chris Wood; and only partly because I’m starting work on a big collaborative project with him. I think his is a wonderful, honest and utterly distinctive musical voice and I admire his work enormously.

What might you have been if you weren’t a composer?

At the age of 10, I thought either a footballer or a bishop. Since then my inability to make a meaningful contribution to anything outside music has become painfully and increasingly obvious.

Is there a piece of music you wish you had written?

Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Does that count as a single piece? It is, of course – despite being written over a 25-year span. It’s musical story-telling of such a high order, so imaginative, patient, innovative, disciplined, politically charged, passionate and confident. It’s not so much a ‘piece’ as a manifesto – a game-changing achievement.

A playlist of music by Martin Butler:

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