June 7, 2015
Guardian Q and A for ‘The Immortal’
What’s the idea behind The Immortal, the new oratorio you’ve written for Mif?
I read John Gray’s book about occultism and the paranormal, The Immortalization Commission. The piece is based on Frederic Myers, who founded the Society for Psychical Research; Melanie Challenger made a libretto out of the Society’s automatic writings. You realise that what these people were searching for was lost love. They were grieving. The idea of the piece is to make listeners feel as though they are in a seance themselves. It’s kind of a requiem – a sound installation with these mobiles of text. It’s symphonic, too. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done.
The Mif website says The Immortal “explores the obsession with death that lies at the heart of the human experience”. Is that true? Is this music obsessed with death?
If anything, it’s more about the search for love. In Frederic Myers’s case, it was his childhood sweetheart who drowned herself. I’m intrigued by the supernatural and by deep personal tragedy. Maybe I’m using the backdrop of death to give the piece an eerie quality. Certainly the pairing with Mozart’s Requiem isn’t accidental. But obsessed with death? It couldn’t be further from.
You were on TV a lot aged 17, when you won both both the BBC young musician and young composer of the year awards. Do you ever get daunted by anything?
I have a restless ambition. I have an overactive brain. Sometimes I need to meditate to calm myself down. There’s a million things I want to do: set up a contemporary music festival in Liverpool, perform all over the world, write the best possible music I can. I used to throw myself into everything that came my way; sometimes I’d stop and be like, “Oh crap”. But once I told myself “You’re doing this”, I’d be off again. Now I try to be a bit more thoughtful about things.
It was at the back of my mind for a while. Time is so precious and when I’m composing, I work flat out every day. I can’t play the clarinet during that time. But when I pick it up again, sometimes after months, it seems to be OK. I have to keep playing because I am a performer at heart.
What got you started in music?
I was given a recorder by my headteacher at primary school. If it hadn’t been for her enthusiasm, who knows if I’d have ended up down this path. I started playing clarinet in the Liverpool Youth Orchestra aged 13, and because we were in the youth orchestra, we got £2 tickets to Liverpool Philharmonic concerts. My friend and I went to everything, and we’d sneak into the Royal Box, right by above the double basses. The rest of the audience must have wondered who the hell those two cheeky little kids were.
When did you start composing?
I was about 12, messing about with manuscript paper and a piano. A couple of years later, the Psappha ensemble gave workshops in Liverpool. One of the other kids turned up with the percussion part to Sibelius’s Finlandia and pretended he’d written it. I turned up with a 32-page, four-movement piece called Space.
What happens to you when you listen to music?
I’m convinced that if there was some kind of neurological study into the part of the brain that makes a person spiritual and the part that makes them musical, there would be similar things going on. If a concert really grabs me, the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I have chills down my body. It’s a physical experience. I can feel the part of my brain that’s on fire. There have been moments when I’ve stopped breathing in concerts.
When was the last time that happened to you?
George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin. It rang true for me. The clarity of the narrative, the commitment of the performance.
• The Immortal/Requiem is at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 4 July. Box office: 0844 871 7654