Not blowing his own trumpet - Ben Foskett interview

Living in a posh bit of Paris, with his BBC Proms commission 'From Trumpet' about to be performed, composer Ben Foskett could be forgiven for feeling pleased with himself. Perish the thought, discovers Jonathan Lennie

  • Not blowing his own trumpet - Ben Foskett interview

    Ben Foskett relaxes at home in Paris © Zoe Forget

  • Heading down Rue de Turenne, in Paris’s third arrondissement, it becomes increasingly clear that Ben Foskett lives in a rather chic part of town. Even as we meet in the leafy Place des Voges, a taxi pulls up and disgorges Carol Vorderman and her partner, who proceed to wander hand in hand around the square, looking in the windows of the many art galleries and boutiques, serenaded by a busking countertenor, his high haunting voice echoing in the colonnades.

    Of more interest to Foskett is a more permanent presence in the area: his neighbour, the Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki. By remarkable coincidence, she is conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in his new 12-minute piece, ‘From Trumpet’, at the BBC Proms, and so he hadn’t far to travel to chat to her about the work.

    In T-shirt and jeans, the 31-year-old composer looks in good shape. He should do, he has just completed the Ironman competition in Nice: a 4km swim, 180km cycle (including 2,000m climb), followed by the small matter of running a marathon. He did it in under 14 hours: disappointing, apparently.

    So why does he live in Paris – is he following in the footsteps of fellow English composers George Benjamin and Julian Anderson? Has he a fascination with Messiaen, Murail, Grisey or Boulez? Apparently, it has nothing to do with music at all but is rather because of his French girlfriend, Delphine Ciavaldini, whom he met early last year at a dance project in India (for which he wrote an 80-minute piece for electronics and singer). She is also the reason that he presently has flecks of white paint in his hair, evidence of some recent DIY; and, as he explains, when your partner is a set and costume designer, you just do what you’re told: ‘It began as a white room, then Delphine arrived back with orange paint and finally pink for the kitchen ceiling.’

    Foskett, it seems, has little interest in self-promotion, yet makes engaging company as we tuck into Sunday lunch in a local restaurant, pleasingly attended by surly waiters. He clearly enjoys living here, not least because he ‘found living in England psychologically a barrier to the music of mainland Europe’. It certainly hasn’t affected his career. Since leaving conservatoire (he attended both the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music) he has been quietly building a reputation. His 2004 Violin Concerto was well received, announcing his pared-down musical language, intrinsic rhythm and spare harmony, and he now has a high enough profile to be included among the British composers commissioned to write a work for the ‘NMC Songbook’ CD (‘Driving’, a setting of a specially written poem by George Szirtes).

    From concert hall to cinema and the charts - a very modern career

    ‘I don’t like the idea of a career,’ he reflects earnestly, ‘as it’s not really a career because you can’t earn much money writing classical music – I don’t like the idea of a career becoming more important than what you want to write.’ He is fortunate then that he has a dual career as a composer and, paying the bills as, arranger of film scores and pop music for orchestra – his projects have included the films ‘Son of Rambow’ and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, plus ‘Aluminum’ by the White Stripes. ‘I love it,’ he declares. ‘You don’t have to compose the music. They give you a symphony orchestra; you just have to score it. So you have the satisfaction of getting a beautiful result without having to compose and spend too much energy. Orchestration allows me to return to classical and give it everything.’ And his influences? ‘I have never been one to latch on to specific composers. I have the standard influences that everyone should have having studied at music college: Stravinsky, Debussy, Boulez, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Wagner and Bach…’

    Foskett sees himself as a modern composer, clearly bemused by the work of some of his peers. It is something he reflected on while writing his Proms commission: ‘In this piece I reached the conclusion that from all the music we study at music college over the past 40 years, you get the idea that it is contemporary music. But it’s not, it’s in history, and for a lot people it is now repertoire. Writing this piece I found for myself that music has to be written now with everything you have experienced; I’m not trying to write a piece of Boulez from 1965.’

    And the title, ‘From Trumpet’? ‘Titles are the hardest piece of writing,’ he explains. ‘You are lucky if an idea comes up early on, but if you finish it without a title, you have to make one up, along with some rubbish about why it is called that.’ Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for this piece as it stems from a more personal source. ‘I used to be a trumpet player – not a terribly good one,’ he smiles. ‘In this piece I had wanted to begin with the first trumpet up at the front, then the orchestra to collapse over him and for him to return to his seat, but it didn’t work out. Also, the trumpet was the first instrument I played, so maybe it becomes autobiographical in that the piece is telling me where I am now, and the title may be telling me where I came from.’

    Ben Foskett’s ‘From Trumpet ’ will be performed at the BBC Proms on Sun Aug 2.

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