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Julian Anderson interview

What exactly does composing entail? The award-winning composer reveals all

© Maurice Foxall
He started writing music as a way to avoid football at school. Now, at 46, Julian Anderson is a multi-award-winning composer, whose orchestral piece ‘Harmony’ opened this year’s BBC Proms season. Formerly Professor of Composition at Harvard, and now Professor of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he is currently finishing his massive opera ‘The Thebans’ and this Saturday, he will be the focus of a day of music at the Wigmore Hall. Along with his ‘Prayer for solo viola’, and the enticingly titled ‘Tiramisu’ and ‘The Bearded Lady’, the highlights include the world premiere of his work for solo violin ‘Another Prayer’, performed by the violinist András Keller. But what kind of music does he write? Having studied with experimental composers Alexander Goehr and Tristan Murail, Anderson is unsurprisingly forward thinking, often exploring electro-acoustic sounds and pitches that fall outside the western tuning range. But he got there the traditional way. In order to be a composer, he says, ‘ you need a very extensive musical training in music notation, aural, melody, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, form, playing an instrument etc. All this typically takes at least ten years and probably nearer twenty.’ It’s worth the slog though. ‘The vast increase in new media – eg the internet – is a huge advantage to the composer in reaching the public,’ he says, ‘contemporary classical composers are often more respected now than they were in Mozart’s day.’ Unlike pop music, he says ’classical music does not have to conform to mass marketing criteria. So it allows for a lot of creative latitude and imagination.’

That’s something he clearly has plenty of, although as he admits himself, inspiration is a strange and unpredictable thing. ‘Often quite a vague sound is floating around your head. Or you just start from nothing. As the Czech composer [Leos] Janacek said, one starts with ‘an empty head’ into which come ideas.’

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