Christopher Painter – interviewed by Peter Reynolds
What are your strongest musical memories from your childhood?
I’m told that my first musical experiences would have been pre-birth, which sounds awfully pretentious. My mother, who was confined to bed when she was in the last stages of her pregnancy, spent her time listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies. Apparently, when I was a baby, to get me to sleep they would play me recordings of his symphonies and then I would go to sleep! I’m still very fond of Shostakovich’s music and return to it frequently.
So you came from a musical background?
My mother was a writer, short stories mainly, and a journalist. My dad was a sportsman and worked for the railway, and later, the local steelworks. But there was always that Welsh thing about the importance of culture. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Thomas Owen David, was a poet and a composer. I still have some of his poetry but the majority of it and all the compositions were lost when my grandmother gave it away for war salvage.
There was an extraordinary degree of culture in rural Wales in those days.
Yes. My great-grandfather died very young and I can understand why. He would work in the steel works all day and then sat up all night writing poetry or music. He wrote in the English and Welsh languages (writing in a particularly elegant and grammatically correct Welsh) and was a member of the Gorsedd of Bards under the name Owain ap Japheth. There was an awareness that work was what you needed to do to get by but that culture was the important thing. There was also the Welsh-thing of always striving to better oneself.
So, was there much cultural activity in Port Talbot when you were growing up?
Oh yes. There was, and still is, a great deal of artistic activity – literary groups, amateur dramatics, brass bands, choral societies and artist’s groups. There was a lot of amateur music making going on and I was able to try out many things. We were very lucky in that we had free instrumental tuition in school – I tried out several instruments, including recorder, ukulele and violin. Fortunately, I ended up deciding I wanted to play the trumpet which was probably the best move I ever made. It brought me into contact with Walter White, from Ystradgynlais, who started out as my trumpet teacher and later went on to become my classroom music teacher. He not only pointed me in the direction of the local brass band (I still play in brass bands now) but encouraged me to take music seriously, I have a great deal to thank him for.
So is that how you began to compose, through that teacher?
Yes. There was a prevailing ethos that music isn’t in a vacuum. You don’t just play it or you don’t just write or talk about it, try composing and conducting it. We used to get pieces performed in school and this encouraged us to be adventurous. I wrote a lot of brass quintets and pieces for the local brass band that I played in. I’ve still got a Requiem that I wrote when I was about fourteen! Severely sub-Verdi!
So you were writing, really, from your early teens?
Yes. We also had a magical store cupboard in the music room which was full of recordings and scores and I remember taking records home. You could just help yourself. You were very privileged when you were told that you could just go there whenever you wanted to. You didn’t have to have permission and I remember taking records home. We had quite a record collection at home. Again, we were fortunate in those days that there were a lot of local record shops. I don’t think there’s one classical record shop in Port Talbot, now. Or one shop when you could even buy classical records.
So you were obviously at a good school…
There was a very strong brass tradition, so my original influences were brass and one was encouraged to write. I was expected to conduct school assembly every morning, so I had the experience of actually having to get up and do it as well.
What kind of things were you listening to at that kind of stage?
I was heavily into Berlioz and started to find Stravinsky and Britten. I didn’t formally study for ‘A’ level; I chose double maths and physics and was going to be a civil engineer and actually got a place in Swansea to do civil engineering. Just before I left school, the economics teacher came over to me and actually talked me out of it. That summer, I went on a brass band course at Marlborough College (I had been several times before) which was led by Edward Gregson. I had composition and conducting lessons with him and he reinforced the advice to follow a career in music. So I went back to school for an extra year, did my ‘A’ level and, on the recommendation of Walter White, went to Cardiff University, partly because in my third year I heard a lot of Hoddinott records and wanted to study with him.
So, in fact, it was Hoddinott being Professor at Cardiff that led you to Cardiff University.
What kind of Hoddinott pieces were you hearing before you came to Cardiff?
Walter White pointed me towards the orchestral works and I just loved the sound world. The most notable works were The Sun the Luminary of the Universe, Third Symphony and Variants, whilst the Fifth Symphony just knocked me sideways; one of the pivotal pieces. You could really hear the planning and the piece’s integrity.
And what did you get from Hoddinott when you went to him?
I didn’t get to study with Hoddinott until I returned as a postgraduate. My initial, undergraduate, study was with Timothy Taylor who went through the basics with us and then I spent two years studying with Richard Elfyn Jones who taught me to handle material more efficiently and economically and helped me to attempt extended forms.
What kind of pieces were you writing as an undergraduate? Had they moved from your school days, or were you discovering lots of new things at that time?
I was trying everything and anything, to be honest. I was very lucky in the year I was in college, we had a lot of good performers and a lot of people wanted to play new music. I was lucky to have a number of friends who were good players and would come and say “Write us something”. So it was a chance to write for odd combinations, or for established ensembles.
Was postgraduate study a good experience for you? What did you get from your sessions with Hoddinott?
When I came to study with Hoddinott I had to think a lot harder to justify what I was doing and tutorials were very intense but also enjoyable. Hoddinott focused my mind on what I was doing and encouraged me to be much more critical of my work and to concentrate on the minute details.
So Hoddinott focused your mind on the integrity of the material?
And slowed me down, because I used to write very, very quickly; I was very fluent and I could write pieces easily but there was very little substance to them although they helped to develop my technique.
Alun Hoddinott himself was a very facile composer, in the best sense, but he worked it all out in advance. It’s interesting that he should have slowed you down.
Yes. Even when copying his music, I couldn’t keep up with him. In our lessons he’d comment, “Why have you put those notes here? If you can’t explain why they’re there, they shouldn’t be there.” And it was that process that slowed me down to condense what I was doing.
So that was actually a milestone, really, in terms of developing your technique?
He’d say, “Well, if you want to do this seriously, then you have to approach it seriously”. There was much more emphasis on the thought behind it. I think he believed, at that stage, that putting notes on the paper wasn’t difficult; it was the thought behind the notes which was important.
And the professionalism of being a composer?
Yes. If you take something on, you do it and it’s always done to the highest standards, and you behave properly. One of his maxims which have stuck with me: “There’s no such thing as a good or bad composer, there are just those who give up.” You keep at it. If you believe in what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if other people say it’s no good, as long as your faith in your technique is good.
What happened after university, in terms of your development as a composer?
I basically sat in my flat and worked, and didn’t get a piece played for ten years. I naively thought “Right, if I start writing, people will start playing it” – I learnt a very hard and useful lesson there! There were at least thirty pieces, all now destroyed, I started but never finished. I just thought “There’s no point! Nobody’s going to be playing this!” I also, at that time, preferred the big form, rather than chamber music, so I was writing pieces that wouldn’t get performed.
What got you out of that cul-de-sac into writing again?
I had a very uncomfortable dinner with Alun and Rhiannon. And I had two hours of brow-beating from the two of them about wasting my time, and “What the **** do you think you’re doing?” They challenged me to write a small work so I wrote a carol and that got me back into the swing of it. Also, a Lower Machen Festival commission also came in - the first thing I actually had performed publicly, for ten years.
How do you view things these days? Do you have a forward plan, or do you think in terms of responding to commissions as they come along?
Both, in a way, and they’re linked. In the past, I’ve tended to want to write big pieces. I’ve been trying to write big orchestral pieces and I’ve been lucky in the last three years: I’ve had two played. My big ambition was to get a BBC commission but I’ve realized that it is not the be all and end all.
What about the composition process itself: how does a piece begin? Is the process a very long one, or does it actually happen quite quickly?
It’s a slow process. I find once I’m past the first page, it’s OK. I have a tendency always to want to write the big opening. I’m trying to consciously move away from that and be happy to write a slow opening, or a quiet opening. Just to write exactly what I think I should be writing, not what I think will please. I’m well along the road back from serialism, because I did get into total serialism at one point, which was useful at the time. It didn’t have a good future though. Once you’ve done it, I don’t think you can keep on being so prescriptive. So I use elements of serialism and adapting them.
But it does provide a backbone and way of moving notes around the page I suppose.
Since I’ve been teaching I can see students thinking in the way I used to. I used to have in mind who might analyse my music. I thought “You have to do the right thing, because somebody’s going to go through this and look at it” and then you get to a point where you think “I don’t really care who analyses it: that’s what I want to write”.
Are you influenced at all by external stimuli, or are they always purely musical ideas? I remember seeing a harp piece, I think, based on Lake Vyrnwy.
Yes. I got very hung up on Lake Vyrnwy and was influenced by its folklore. It’s a fantastic part of the world. I can understand how all the folklore has evolved up there when one sits in the forest there watching the birds, especially when it gets dark. There is also external stimuli in the piece Toward the Light which I wrote for the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama Symphony Orchestra here. It came out of a walk from Birling Gap to Eastbourne over the Downs along the edge of the cliffs past Beachy Head. It was a terrible foggy day. There was a boat that had been blown up onto the cliffs and smashed. That made a big impact on me, and the whole piece is this journey, really. Things like that affect me. Poetry and painting also affect me to a certain degree and I have been greatly influenced by the poetry of Vernon Watkins.
What about writing a piece? Do you write for a set number of hours a day, or is the
process more piece-meal?
It’s become piece-meal through necessity. I originally started music copying as a means to be able to compose, but the hours required for copying meant that the composition time became increasingly squashed. The Britten thing of getting up at a set time and working set hours has always been an attractive idea of that, but it’s never, ever worked yet.
Do you tend to through compose or do you need to sketch a lot to discover the structure?
I prefer to write straight into full score and rarely sketch. I tend to have a structure in mind before I start. But it’s not set in stone. I know roughly where we’re going. It’s just getting the balance right and as I go through I’m continually going back through the score and adjusting the structure.
We just talked about you going back over pieces. When a piece is finished and performed, do you go back and revise, or is it finished by then?
One thing that was said to me, certainly by Alun, and I seem to remember by Tim Taylor as well, was that the time it takes you to revise a piece, you could write a new one. So don’t get bogged down with continually revising. I do go back sometimes and look at things. But you could tinker forever, going back and forth.
And are you a piano composer or a desk man when it comes to composing?
A desk man: I can’t play the piano to save my life but I do try things out.
Verticals and things?
Yes, and just to see if things work. I forced myself very early on to hear things in my head rather than rely on the piano. This has, unfortunately, become more difficult since I developed tinnitus.
Do you ever play your score back on the computer?
I try not to. I got into a habit of doing it, and I suddenly realised I was destroying a lot of stuff that was actually going to work. I’ve started to preach to all my students: “Don’t play it back on the computer!”
Your music suggests a pre-occupation, to my mind with classical forms. Do these the classical forms of the past, the traditional form of symphony, concerto and so forth, play a big part in your music?
They have done. I had an e-mail about three years ago from somebody from an American contemporary music group saying they’d looked at my web-site, and they’d looked down my list of works and they said “You write sonatas and quartets. Are you sure you shouldn’t be dead!” Fair enough! There was a fairly heated exchange of e-mails, but I thought, “That’s charming!” I don’t agree with the sentiments, but part of the point was well taken.
Or are you one who has been trying to move away from those forms, in a sense?
I’m starting to. I think it’s a confidence thing. Again, when I first left college, I felt: “Well, you have to write a symphony, you have to write a quartet in the style of...” And if you’re going to call it a quartet, then you write the four movements. As time goes on, you start getting more and more confident and you think “I can write a quartet but it doesn’t have to be a four-movement quartet with a scherzo and so forth. Logically, if you think of it that way: there is no reason to follow the form because no-one ever has. The form has evolved. I like the idea of sonata form. My ultimate preference is continual variations. I like the idea of: “I’ll start there, and that will evolve right through the piece”. You may not recognize it by the time you get two-thirds of the way through, but it is based on the original.
It’s like a bit of material working for you.
I love puzzles. I love working out puzzles. I love working out how things come together. To a certain extent, I approach composition like building a puzzle. You get your building blocks and you ask “How can I manipulate these to get me from here to there?” When I can really get down to doing that, I really enjoy it.
So, in a sense, it’s a bit more about manipulating material rather than that straight-jacketing that we were talking about as serialism and pre-plans of pre-composition, and so on.
That’s the part of serialism that I hated. The bit I like, and still use, are sets of row rotations. I use a lot of row rotations. I don’t do it strictly though and have my own way of doing it. But I end up with sheets of blocks of notes but then there’s no strict use of them. I can just use them when I want within a fairly fluid tonal framework.
It’s more like what the Americans call “Set Theory”.
Yes. It’s a set of notes. In one piece I ended up with 300 different sets that all inter-related and I could cut together. You could just pick one or two. If I write a big orchestral piece I tend to use those row rotations.
In terms of what’s going on in music today, how would you feel about the contemporary music scene? How do you see what’s been going on in the last few years?
I like the diversity. I like the fact that, for the first time, I can write what I like without worrying that it doesn’t fit in with some current trend. I have to say, I see some contemporary music as “Emperor’s New Clothes”. If a certain composer with a certain standing writes something, he’s always going to be regarded as good, and those ones that criticise him will be called “Imbeciles” for misunderstanding it. But there are those who can write what they like and it will be said “That’s wonderful!”, because it’s the thing to do, as it were. You’re perceived as being intelligent by supporting them.
How do you see the interaction between composer and performer? Do you like writing for any particular performers, and is that quite important in the way that it was for someone like Britten?
I think it’s great to know who you’re writing for. I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with performers and find out from people what might work better or something that takes you down a really different route. I was Ensemble Cymru’s first Composer in Association and wrote a substantial part for the guitarist Craig Ogden as part of an education project. I’d never written for guitar before and I didn’t have a clue. But it was great, partly because he’s such a nice guy anyway, and took me to one side and said “This ain’t gonna work, but if you do it this way…” Not only did it work, but I went away and re-wrote the thing, and it completely changed the shape of it because that opened another avenue which I didn’t realise I could do. That’s how it should be.
How do you feel about the opportunities for composers in Wales, today?
There are a lot of positives and negatives. Performance-wise, there are a lot of positives but I think we have a problem in thinking we’re a little country. We don’t have much self-confidence. We’re not very good at telling the world how good we are.
Do you think there’s enough promotion done inside Wales?
Frankly, no; there’s a lot of promotion done by voluntary bodies and ensembles but our official bodies, who are charged with doing their day-to-day work, could do a lot more. There’s a lot of talk of new initiatives and we, as practitioners, are told that we should be innovative, but I don’t see much innovation or support coming out of the bodies that tell us to be innovative.
It also seems to me that notated music using classical musical instruments is seen as being a less and less of a priority these days.
It’s an awful phrase but “dumbing down” is an apt term for what we are doing. The kind of music I write is seen as elitist. That makes me furious. I don’t want to be elitist; I want everyone to listen to what I do. Rather than trying to raise the standards so that everyone can take part in so-called “serious music”, they want us to lower our standards then we’re accused of being elitist when we refuse. It’s not elitist, but if you want to play the piano, you have to be able to play the piano. You can’t just come along and open the lid, and expect it to play itself. It’s like anything. You wouldn’t call sport elitist.
No, and you have to reach very high technical standards to be a good sports person.
Yes. So there’s a disparity. There was an instance back last year where there was an issue about raising money to send sportsmen to the Commonwealth Games. I don’t see a lot of fuss being made about raising money to send musicians overseas, or to promote music in communities. We have the odd nod towards it, but people don’t start screaming and shouting that there should be more money going into music to encourage the “ordinary person” to get involved in music, whatever the “ordinary person” is.
But surely there are good factors as well?
There’s a growing confidence, and I’m very heartened by the number of ensembles that are working in Wales and who have a willingness to perform Welsh music. I was talking recently to a number of younger musicians starting out in their career who want to perform Welsh music. The more of that we get, the better, because I don’t think we’ve had a Welsh identity for years. In the past, people have not wanted to be seen as being Welsh and promoting their own culture; fortunately, that is changing.
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff: 1.4.03
Edited by Chris Painter: 30.12.13