M at The Proms: Judith Bingham

Sought-after British composer Judith Bingham wrote the new organ piece The Everlasting Crown for the annual Proms festival this year. It was debuted yesterday at London’s Royal Albert Hall by organist Stephen Farr.

Bingham found her inspiration in the 19th century American book Stories About Famous Precious Stones, penned by the author Adela E Orpen. It contains stories about some of history’s most famous gemstones, and gave rise to the seven movements which make up The Everlasting Crown.

‘It is subtitled “Melodrama”, and it has been very much influenced by silent movies and early Expressionist films, as well as old photographs of European, Russian and Indian royal families,’ Bingham wrote in The Proms programme notes. ‘The Russian element is strong in the work – the most powerful influence for me was the Sternberg/Dietrich film The Scarlet Empress, which takes melodrama to an extreme level.’

However, her career has not been limited to organ pieces; Bingham is as renowned for her choral pieces as she is her scores for brass bands or wind ensembles.

Born in Nottingham in 1952, she began composing aged four and won her first professional commission in the early 70s. She studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music and has picked up numerous accolades in the course of her career, including the BBC Young Composer Award, and two British Composer Awards.

She was a member of the BBC Singers for many years, and between 2004 and 2009 wrote a series of choral works for them. Recently, she was commissioned by the National Youth Orchestras of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland to create the new work Celticity. It was supported by the PRS for Music Foundation’s Beyond Borders 2011 project.

Last week M spoke with Bingham to find out how she sets about composing such a diverse range of pieces, how she avoids being typecast, and what she would pick to work on if she only one more chance to compose…

You composed for wind ensembles, brass bands, choirs and more. How does your approach to each composition differ?
Most of my life I’ve written to commission, there are very few pieces that haven’t been commissioned by somebody. So I suppose with commissions you always start with the brief. Obviously that can vary enormously. Also you might be writing for people in another country, so you’ve got varied briefs. One of the things I think about when writing commissions is that the trick is to give people what they ask for but also a little bit extra. Something that they wouldn’t have thought of, so they can feel it’s been made for them, like a tailor would make a dress. Initially I start with all the details of the brief. And everything, like the building its going to be in, the acoustics, how many people, if it’s a choir, are they adults, are there any children, is it amateur or professional, what’s the conductor like? I take note of all of that before I start writing. I try to tailor it and that’s what starts you off.

Because I write programme music all the time, I go back to something I’ve enjoyed writing about before. Or I might be reading about something and think that I’d like to write a piece about it. I’ve also got millions of ideas buzzing around for things I’d like to do, so it’s a question of bringing together your imagination with the pragmatism of tailoring it to the commissioner.

Normally composers will build up a solid reputation for doing a certain thing, and commissioners will take this into account. How do commissioners know to ask you for such a wide variety of pieces? How do you build up the reputation for diversity?
What happens is, you often tend to wander down one particular road, and sometimes you find you’ve gone a long way down that road. I’ve written a lot of choral music, because I was in the BBC Singers. Before I was 30 – before I joined the Singers – I hadn’t really written any choral music at all. I’d written a great deal of chamber music and I’d just started doing orchestral music. But once I joined the Singers I started meeting choral conductors and I started singing all over the place as well, churches and with other choirs. I met everybody and then I found I had a whole string of choral commissions. Though people then recommend you to others, hopefully. So you wander down a certain road and then every now and again something unusual will happen. Then someone said to me ‘Would you fancy writing something for brass bands?’ They had been ferreting around looking for a new music composer who would do just that. There are unusual things that come up, like writing for the guitar, or the harp, or the organ even. They are trying to bring in new blood all the time, to get people to do it. So, sometimes you find yourself wandering down that road. Everything leads somewhere. If you are careful not to get stuck in one line of work you can find yourself wandering around being led from one thing to the next.

So how easy is it to avoid being typecast?
It’s not easy at all, because people actually like it if they can say ‘you’re primarily known for your choral music’. People still ask if I’m in the BBC Singers and I left 17 years ago! I’ve stopped singing, but people like to have you in a box in their head where they think ‘Ah yes, Judith Bingham is a singer who writes choral music’. People want their image of you. If you write to commissions, it’s very difficult to turn things down. You have to work quite hard then, to be able to do something else. You’ve got to put in a lot of work to not get stuck in a particular rut.

You’ve been commissioned to compose across many genres and for different musicians. But imagine your hands were tied and you could only do one last commission. What would it be for?
Before someone comes into my prison cell and shoots me?! One thing I like doing is solo pieces. I love doing them. I had an ambition years ago, which I’m never going to fulfill, to write a solo piece for every instrument. It doesn’t tend to be the sort of thing people commission though. They rather hope you’ll just do that as a freebie. Last year I did one for timpani. I’d just met a wonderful young timpanist called Philip Hague, and I offered to write him a solo piece. Having said that, it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. But I like doing things like that. There’s something about it being just one person there – it’s very private writing it. If I was in prison cell I’d be writing a solo piece.

Do you see trends coming in? Do commissioners all of a sudden jump on things?
Yes, all the time. I’ve been composing since I was four – 55 years ago now! When I was a student everyone was supposed to be writing like Stockhausen, and you were told off if you weren’t. You were told you were regressive. Then, in the 80s suddenly everything swerved towards Tavener and minimalism and all of that. There are always trends going on, and if you want to, you can be the sort of composer who responds to that. In some ways, people who do media music are always responding to trends but I think most composers who sit at home working alone are doing their own thing. You’ve got to stand by what you’re doing and not be swayed by all that stuff because there’s nothing more fatal than thinking ‘Maybe I ought to try writing a piece like someone or other’. It’s immediately a dishonest stance. You’ve got to stick to your own stance.

At the moment it feels like we’re in the 18th century, and all this sort of popular opera and popular music theatre is extraordinary – it’s almost an 18th century feeling. It’s very much about popular culture and all sorts of people, who in the past would not be thought of as classical musicians, getting involved in things. When I was a student, the idea that a pop musician would be writing an opera for the Royal Opera House would have been unthinkable and yet now it’s absolutely the fashion for people to step into other forms.

At what point did composing become work for you?
I can’t remember not wanting to be a composer. I’ve always kept a diary and I notice that when I was around 16 or 17 I wrote that maybe I could make a living as a composer. So in my late teens it became a possibility. I got my first professional commission when I was about 20 or 21, and it’s been going on since then. Is it a job? Well, yes and no. if it were taken away from me as a profession I would go on doing it exactly the same way. It’s 99% of me. If you take away the composing, there isn’t much left of me to be bothered talking about. I live my work. You go up and down with the terrifying peaks and troughs in your life. This weekend I was sitting next to Paul Mealor at a concert in Kent and I was thinking ‘Gosh, that’s one of the most terrifying peaks I’ve ever come across in anybody’s life’. He’s suddenly become so famous and everyone in the audience wanted his autograph. It’s extraordinary. You have to be able to keep your head and go on in an honest and committed way with what you’re doing and not be affected.

Do you use any new music technologies when composing?
I do usually, but my last score was hand-written. About 20 years ago I moved from using a piano to using a keyboard that I can record onto, and I’ve had the same keyboard for 17 years. It’s a Yahama SY85 and it costs a lot of money on eBay if you try to buy one because they are so solid. You can multi-track onto them, they’re very old fashioned now – they use floppy disks. I don’t like to not use it now. Maybe I should buy another one on eBay. I don’t write straight onto computer because I think it encourages bad habits. I think you avoid doing things that are going to be difficult to do on a computer. And there are lots of things that you might want to do in new music that are quite time-consuming when you try to put them onto computer. I think there is a temptation to avoid doing them. I’ve never moved into using Logic, I’m quite old fashioned. If it came to it, I’d happily go back to sitting with a quill pen and some parchment! I like to see my own music handwriting, I like to see that it’s my product. I don’t like machines to be too involved.

Also in the M at The Proms season: a video interview with composer Kevin Volans.

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