Jonathan Woolgar, this year’s joint CUMS Composer in Residence, tells us about his influences, his compositional techniques, and the ideas behind Rattle His Bones, which will be premiered by the Cambridge University New Music Ensemble on 2 February
1. Tell us about your musical background. When did you start composing, and why?
I started composing as soon as I started learning the piano. Going to the theatre as a child was hugely important. It made me want to write theatre music – which I still do – and also gave me a fundamentally theatrical conception of music. The more technical aspect came later when I went to Chetham’s School of Music for the Sixth Form and had composition lessons for the first time. Everything before that was instinct and, very fortunately, some open-minded local teachers who exposed me to a wide range of music.
2. Do you have any particular musical influences, or is there a particular piece which really inspired you?
I’m not sure that the music I love most deeply comes out in my own music much at all, but that’s hard for me to judge. Pieces which have had a big impact on my life at different points include The Rite of Spring (naturally), Parsifal, Adès’s Arcadiana, Harvey’s Song Offerings, Kurtág’s S. K. Remembrance Noise, Das Lied von der Erde, Stockhausen’s Tierkreis pieces… Perhaps there are trends there? I wouldn’t knowingly or willingly subscribe to any particular style or school. I don’t want to be a “British composer” particularly…
3. How did your time at Cambridge shape your compositional career?
I was very fortunate to have Giles Swayne as my composition teacher while in Cambridge, and he shaped my music and my attitude to composition enormously. Highly orthodox though it is to say, the study of harmony, counterpoint and history at Cambridge was also fundamental, particularly in retrospect. It’s akin to a Christian religious upbringing – even if you reject the doctrines later, you have a much deeper understanding of Western cultural history. And some doctrines can be hard to shake off. But it’s better to have something to push against than to be floating in an arbitrary, zero-gravity sort of world.
4. Tell us about the compositional process for Rattle His Bones. What ideas are behind this piece?
The piece is based on a little chorale which I wrote, appropriately enough, during my time as an undergraduate in Cambridge, but which I never really got out of my system. The instrumentation is fairly unusual in a Stravinsky/Varèse sort of way (wind, brass and “rhythm section”), largely because it was a new challenge and I had been working on a piece for violin and viola duo just beforehand.
5. Did you come across any particular challenges when composing Rattle His Bones?
Composing is always a challenge, but in the case of Rattle His Bones the main challenges were structural. I have tried to create a narrative trajectory which doesn’t slot into a hackneyed shape but is still coherent and satisfying. The listeners can judge if I’ve been successful in that.
6. What advice would you give to aspiring young composers?
Have something to say and work hard until you find the best way in which you can say it. Question musical orthodoxies of all kinds – “new music” still has its own orthodoxies of course, though they’re subtler than they used to be. The Emperor is often naked, and that’s fine. And listen, listen, listen of course. Listen to everything.
Don’t miss the world première of Rattle His Bones this Thursday, 2 February at West Road Concert Hall, in an innovative and exciting concert which also features music by John Hopkins and Mark-Anthony Turnage. See here for more details and booking.