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'I keep doing it whether there are problems or not !' : Bob Briggs talks with Graham Fitkin  about a life devoted to composing  - March 2011 (BB)

Graham Fitkin (Left) and Bob Briggs enjoying a joke. Picture © Ruth Wall

Graham Fitkin was born at Crows–an–Wra in West Cornwall in 1963.  Over the past thirty, or so, years he has created a large body of work, starting with pieces for piano, his own instrument, both solo and in multiples, to works for orchestra, dance, and opera. In the 1990s he was composer–in–residence with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1994, Graham won the International Grand Prix Music for Dance Video Award and his Reel (2008) won the Stage Works category of the British Composer Awards in 2009. His music is tonal and rhythmically complex.


I have known Graham and his music for some 25 years and it was a real pleasure for me to meet him at the BBC Studios, in Maida Vale, just before the world première of his new Concerto for MIDI–Harp that evening, for a chat about his life and work.  

I started asking the question I always start with, did you discover music, or did music discover you.

My mother was a piano teacher, probably a fairly conventional teacher, so I was brought up hearing the sound of the piano. In time she started teaching me, but I kept losing interest. I'd have a few months of lessons and then take a few months off. But I always came back to the lessons. And all the time I was improvising, based on the music I was listening to.

My older brother gave me a recording of The Rite of Spring when I was 11 and stuff like that, and in between the classical things he'd give me some Gil Evans, Muggsy Spanier or something like that. So as far as I was concerned I was just listening to music, and improvising things based on what I was listening to.

It was a short step from improvising to writing music on paper. I still have a piece I wrote when I was about 8 and it's OK. When I was at school we were encouraged to perform and it was performed there. Mind you, I wouldn't want it to be played now!

And then you went to Nottingham to study.

Yes, with Peter Nelson and Nigel Osborne, but it was more with Peter because Nigel had a sabbatical while I was there. I met Laurence Crane there. Peter was very good for me, very encouraging and he accepted the various different ideas I had. Then I went to Holland to study with Louis Andriessen. We met once a week for a lesson. But it wasn't just a lesson because sometimes we didn't even talk about music. We'd discuss politics, the place of art in life, everything. He taught me so much. We'd discuss, argue, shout at each other. Louis would look at a piece and say something like, "your bass lines are weak," and he'd play it and point out what was wrong and explain how to put it right. It was while I was with Louis that I wrote Sciosophy. I wrote it in a week and I took it to Louis and he said "Let's look at the piece for flutes, oboes and clarinets you've been doing" and I said, “well I've done this," and showed him Sciosophy. He looked at it, said, "OK", returned the score to me and said, "now let's look at what you're supposed to be doing." And I thought, "well this is what I want to be doing!" and I got Sciosophy out again and we had an argument! It's the first piece I'm really happy with.

I like to write for ensembles of a similar kind, a sort of monochromatic sound.  When I was in Holland I got a group together and I sent off 150 letters to venues in England, got four replies and two gigs! I wrote to two venues in Holland and got two gigs! One of them was a national radio show. Imagine doing that in England?

I came back to London in late 1986 and shared a place with Laurence Crane. I had a few jobs, such as sub-caretaker at the Wigmore Hall.   I was writing and I formed the Nanquidno Group, four pianists at two pianos, and I wrote some of my earliest pieces for it.

How did you come by a name like Nanquidno? Does it have anything to do with forty fingers?

Laurence and I did a lot of gigs and we formed groups with names after places in Cornwall, and Nanquidno is a place in Cornwall!!

It was about this time that we first met and I heard your music. I was bowled over by what I heard, it was so fresh and I was really excited at the way you'd managed to marry together jazz, funk, classical in a unique fusion.

I've never thought of it as fusion, you're one of the few people to use that expression, but it is a fusion, but in my mind, because of what I listened to as I grew up it was just music to me. I drew on everything I knew.

We did a lot of concerts but after six years of living in London I'd had enough. The pollution where I lived, the noise, the break-in, so many things to go to but no money so I couldn't go to them! So I took a risk and returned to Cornwall and it worked!!

And it was about this time that I got my first commission - for money! About this time there were a lot of new ensembles getting started - Ensemble Bash, the Smith Quartet, Piano Circus and so on - and they had to create a repertoire and I was lucky. Ensemble Bash asked for a piece and they said "which of the hundreds of instruments we use would you like to write for?" Well I like monody, and similar sounds, so I chose to write for four marimbas!! Nothing else. I called the piece Hook and it's had a number of performances, we've sold over 150 copies to America alone. That must be the limit!!


And then I wrote Loud, Log and Line in 1989, 1990 and 1991 and Argo Records recorded them, which was a big help in getting the pieces, and me, in front of a larger public.

In 1995 and 1996 I was composer in residence for the Liverpool Philharmonic and that's when I wrote my first orchestral pieces. I have to admit that they're the pieces of mine which I'm least happy with. There's a fanfare, Metal, which works, and Henry, a piece for Purcell's tercentenary, but it's only been done once so nobody knows it! I did a Piano Concerto, called Granite, for Peter Donohoe, but I don't feel as comfortable with it as I do with Ruse [the recent Piano Concerto, with an orchestra of strings and timpani, written two years ago].

To be honest, I am most happy working with a small group of musicians, sitting in a rehearsal room, discussing the works and playing them. When a piece is commissioned for an orchestra nobody in that orchestra has asked for the music.  The piece is given to them and the poor musicians don't have a vested interest in it. That's why I prefer writing for a group like Fibonacci Sequence, Smith Quartet, Piano Circus or Powerplant because they've commissioned the work, it's theirs so they have a vested interest in playing the piece. The members of an orchestra are playing the new piece because they've been told they're going to do it and it's their job.

Of course, they're professionals and they do their best to deliver a good performance but I still feel happier with musicians who have directly asked for the music, more intimate compositions and performance groups.

Mentioning the Piano Concerto reminds me that it was about the time of the Liverpool appointment that I met Kathy Stott and she's played quite a few pieces of mine, and I recently wrote Ruse for her.

Last year you appeared with a new band. Lawrence Crane said to me that you're never happier than when you're leading a band.

Yes, I love working with my own group. This isn't the first one I've had. There was an earlier one for which I wrote things like Ironic and Beethoven 7 - a synthesis of Beethoven's Symphony and The Carpenter's Goodbye to Love - and we recorded too. The new band is also excellent. They're a real pleasure to work with. We've done about 15 concerts and have just been in the studio.

Mention of Beethoven 7 makes me ask about your titles, you're always giving pieces cryptic titles. Things like Huoah, Hook and so on.

Well I find naming pieces really difficult. But I don't want the title to give too much away. So a piece like Loud is obviously going to be loud but Stub? What does that mean ? The stub of a cigarette? A ticket stub ? Something short? Mainly I hope it gives a frame of reference for the punchiness of the music. I wrote a short piece called Jim and Pam and Pam and Jim because the relationship between those two characters in [the TV soap opera] Neighbors fascinated me.

Which brings us to your new work, the Concerto for MIDI Harp, which you've called No Doubt.

Yes, well it’s a kind of anti-Harp Concerto in a way! It's such a new instrument, and this is the first time it will have been heard in public, and we've had a few teething problems, but I think we've got them ironed out for tonight. The instrument is fascinating! It can do so much, and I had everything demonstrated to me, but I decided to use only a small part of the capabilities of the instrument.

Harp Concertos are, because of the nature of the instrument, small scale, fairly quiet works! The midi-harp is amplified so there's really no problems of balance, so I've scored the piece for a large orchestra and sometimes it overwhelms the harp and sometimes soloist and orchestra balance ebb and flow. It's all written out as music - it looks, on paper, just like a piece of music - but what you see is not necessarily what you hear. The midi-harp is connected to a computer and I've sampled politicians talking about weapons of mass destruction. Sometimes you hear complete sentences sometimes syllables and, quite often, just the sound of part of a word which is less syntactic. So, say, if in a certain passage the harpist plays a low D, the audience doesn't necessarily hear a D but a vocal sound.

Are the samples you use set in stone or, were a performance to be given in Berlin next year, would you have to make a whole new set of samples.

No. Every performance, supposing there will be further performances after today, will use the same samples. I chose the samples because it's a piece about macho political posturing! (Ideal for the supposedly docile harp!) And to return to my titles, this piece is called No Doubt because you might hear, in the samples, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condeleeza Rice etc telling us that there is no doubt about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

So now this piece is safe and about to be released into the wide world, what comes next, what will you be doing tomorrow morning.

I've got to write a new piece for the my group for our South Bank performance on 24 March, I'm doing a short opera for the Royal Opera House and there's a collaboration with LCO for next year.

This might seem like a silly question but do you enjoy writing music?

It's not an odd question at all. I think every composer has a love/hate relationship with the act of composition. Usually, and when the work is going well, I absolutely love writing music, but when there's a problem and you're stuck with the piece I hate it! But I keep doing it whether there are problems or not !

And how do you feel when you have a piece performed, say, if you have a work which is placed between a Beethoven Overture, another short classical piece and a Schumann Symphony.

If I get a commission and I'm told that it will be placed as you've described then I might be heedful of this with regard to what I might write.   But when it gets to the concert there usually so many things to think about that my focus is on technical issues rather than the rest of the programme.

You publish your own music don't you?

Yes, in general. Ricordi publishes the orchestral works and I do the rest. Nowadays it is very feasible to distribute music  over the web, and of course do all the other things associated with it, score setting, recording, liaising with geographically separate musicians etc. that I tend to be involved in it all.  In the past you'd need to get a photographer, printer, designer, someone to set the music, etc and now (unfortunately!) you can do it all yourself.

And what’s next?

The next thing I have on is the concert on 24 March at QEH which features my band.   It really is one of the most exciting things I feel I do, working with these brilliant musicians together on new projects.   The music is some of the most complex and rhythmically intricate music I've written but with a slightly bawdy, gypsy-tinged vibe.   In this particular concert we're also joined at the end by a hundred or so other performers from Trinity Laban to perform a new commission that I've been working on so I'm really looking forward to that.

For full details of Graham’s works please visit his website

Bob Briggs


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