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Conversations with a Cambridge Composer

Jay Richardson (2015), second year Music undergraduate at Pembroke, has been made Composer in Residence at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

In March this year Kit Smart wrote about Jay’s original composition laulan, which was performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Here, Jay talks more about his plans for the year, how he writes, and the Composer in Residence position.

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Photo courtesy of Jay

You have two pieces planned for the Corn Exchange this year.  Could you talk about those in more detail?

Details are restricted on the second piece, which will be a chamber work for the 2017-18 Series Launch, but my first piece is currently being written. It’s a short piece for massed brass and solo trumpet, with the solo part played by Alison Balsom, with whom I’m very excited to be working! I’m also very optimistic about the acoustics of a brass orchestra in the Corn Exchange — it’s a big space in all dimensions and I’ve heard orchestras in there sounding very good indeed, so hopefully the same will be true at the premiere of my new piece in February.

What does composing mean for you? And what do you find are the best conditions for creativity?

There are no ‘best conditions’ for writing music, and I think if you talk to writers or artists or choreographers they’ll say the same thing about their art. I guess that’s what keeps us going: if there were one place or one frame of mind in which I wrote my ‘best’ music then the whole exercise would be pretty boring and pointless. For me writing music is an opportunity to think, a medium of thought. So I guess composing means everything for me.

Does being commissioned as composer in residence affect your process at all?

I think you have to try and keep the same mind-set [as when you’re not being commissioned] and not let it bother you. I get briefs but that’s more a matter of being sensitive to the occasion than of restricting myself. Handling briefs is a skill that composers need to have so I’m very happy with that.

Do you have periods where you find it difficult to write?

I have periods when I’m not writing anything very good and I throw it all away. The analogy I use is keeping the oven hot, so after a long period of not writing I find it very hard to write anything decent.  I like to think that composers are the kind of medium for a lot of different things, in so far as people are the expression of their environment, so music written by someone is I think the expression of that person — I try not to impose too much of my own self-conscious personality but inevitably that happens too!

If you were struggling, what would you do?

Just look around me really. I’ve been composing since I was about 12 – so after a certain amount of time spent doing that things just sort of come into your head depending on how you’re feeling. It would be very hard to write if I were depressed or if I had any other kind of emotional or cognitive numbness.  But as long as I’m thinking something, I’m also usually by default thinking musically.

I think being sort of in a comfortable place for a long time and not stretching yourself is bad.  You’re necessarily being stretched when you’re in an uncomfortable emotional situation, but that’s not the only way.

What kind of music inspires you, and which composers are particular icons?

I try and keep them mostly to living icons. Tom Adés is a big inspiration, particularly since he did the same music degree at Cambridge that I’m doing now. Tom Adés is I think the most significant composer alive.  There’s the sort of, now old school of minimalism, not even minimalism, but nobody can deny the influence of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. I try to keep my listening diverse. I’m listening to a lot more pop music, a lot more jazz than I used to.

I admire most composers who can express something emotionally intelligent with enough intellectual and technical capability to make their music nuanced and multifaceted, which I think is a perfect description of Adés. I’m a massive fan of Arvo Pärt and of John Tavener for using their own voices, even if it provokes people to describe their music as ‘samey’, partly because another way of putting that word is ‘recognisable’. Nico Muhly is definitely one to watch and I’m also captivated by John Adams, particularly by his effortless stylistic synthesis, and his strength in dealing with critics — he named his new chamber symphony ‘Son of Chamber Symphony’ rather than ‘Chamber Symphony No. 2’, much to the chagrin of his publisher, which I absolutely love. Things like Nixon in China: a lot of his operas are political and some of them have caused a huge amount of strife, at least by the standards of the opera world.  The Death of Klinghoffer was quite controversial as well.

A lot of undergraduates are kept busy with the academic year.  How does composing fit around your student life and commitments?

With difficulty! I think John Cleese once said the two things you need in order to be creative are sacred time and sacred space (in the unreligious sense), so I try to keep my weekends free for just composing and turn off my phone. Inevitably things like rowing have to abide by a schedule, but it’s actually quite nice to have some breaks: composing is extremely draining, physically and emotionally, so I don’t think I could do it all day!

What are your hopes for the future of the Composer in Residence role, as you are the first?

Long may it continue! I really admire the initiative, trust and forward thinking of Steve Bagnall and the whole team at Cambridge Live for reaching this point and I hope to be the first of many, many composers who have been helped and inspired by the value they place on new music.

I also hope to get the message out to young composers everywhere that if you have something to say, there are plenty of people who want to listen.

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