M at The Proms: Simon Holt

For our third instalment of M at The Proms, we spoke to Bolton-born composer Simon Holt about his life and work.

To date, Holt has been commissioned to write three major orchestral pieces for The Proms, and this year the classical music festival will host the London premiere of his double concerto Centauromachy.

Previously, in 1987, he was commissioned to write Syrensong for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This was followed by 1992’s viola concerto Walking With the River’s Roar, premiered by Japanese violinist Nobuko Imai and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. His third Proms commission Troubled Light debuted in 2008.

Holt has found inspiration in, amongst other things, the world of Greek mythology, and this year’s Centauromachy takes the two opposing personalities of the mythical centaur as its starting point. It will be performed by clarinetist Robert Plane and Philippe Schartz on flugelhorn.

You’ve composed for ensembles, orchestras and opera; how does your approach to each differ?
I don’t think my approach differs much from one piece to the other. I just aim for what I’m after in whatever genre it happens to be, always with a sense of excited trepidation, but also with a considerable sense of adventure. The most adventurous I ever get is when writing music – I’m spectacularly unadventurous in real life. When writing, I just try to make sure that I don’t get bogged down in doing the same thing over and over again. It has to be exciting for me otherwise nothing happens. I have a dread of repeating myself, although I’m sure I have and often. It’s as if at the core of every new piece there’s the same old piece trying to escape. When revising/re-orchestrating some of my old pieces over the last four or five years, I found that I could get back into all of them instantly as if I’d only just finished them. They never really leave me or I them. They’re always on my mind one way or another.

This is your fourth Proms piece. How does your concerto for Clarinet and Flugel Horn differ from your previous works?
The other pieces  were all written on the steepest of steep learning curves as I had no experience of writing for orchestra when, for instance, John Drummond asked for Syrensong for the 1987 Proms. There were inevitably problems with it, but since I revised it, it now seems to work well. The best composition lesson is to walk into an orchestral rehearsal of a new piece. You can hear immediately what works and what doesn’t. Pride has to be swallowed and lessons learned.

Apart from your premiere, what else are you most looking forward to at The Proms?
I try and listen online (I live for most of the time in Southern Spain) to as many Proms as I can.

Where do you get your inspiration from? Is it fair to say that you draw a lot of inspiration from nature and Greek mythology?

I try to be open at all times to whatever possibility comes along. Everything has some kind of potential for being the beginnings of something. If not at that particular time, then it can be stored away for future reference.

I understand you’ve been composing professionally since the early 80s. Has the advent of music technologies changed the way you create music?
It has completely changed the way I go about writing. I write directly into the computer. I never thought I would say that. I was very much a pencil and paper with back breaking at an upright piano type until the computer arrived. I have transferred pretty well all my work into it, revising and re-orchestrating as I go. It’s been a huge help in so many ways. I now have an orchestral catalogue whereas before it all seemed to be in a dreadful state.

What avenues are there for composers to get their works performed today?
There seems to be a huge number of composers these days. When I first went down to London there seemed to be a tiny handful, and now I hear of about four or five new names a week. I know that the London Sinfonietta and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, for example, keep ears close to the ground and that they rely on teachers, conductors and established composers from universities and colleges to suggest people for various projects. I suppose the rest of the time, composers just make themselves known at concerts and send scores out. With email, PDFs, MP3s etc,  it’s made things a lot easier, but there’s a huge amount to get through. People have to be patient and prepared to wait.

How difficult do you think it is for young composers in the UK to get heard?
Very difficult, but at the same time with perseverance . . .  It’s always the ones that persist that get on. They’re not always the best ones though, sadly.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming composers?
Get tough and don’t take any nonsense. Don’t do anything for nothing. You must be treated like a professional. So behave like one. If you hear the deathless, time-honoured phrase ‘There’s no money, but we will play it’, walk on by and wait for a more compassionate offer. You have to eat. They’re on a salary and it’s their job to pick up a phone and get you your fee. Don’t be used.

Have you found that the pool of talented musicians available to perform your work has increased or shrunk since you began composing?
It has also massively grown. For the first time in history we have players who are well in advance of the composers, so if they say it’s not possible, it probably isn’t possible. But, what’s great is that they’re now more than ever willing to try for whatever the composer wants (within reason), whereas there used to be a lot of complaining. The sense of adventure amongst players generally has increased enormously. It’s a live and collaborative art and players are marvellous things.

Way back in 2006 we asked you what was on your iPod for an M magazine piece, and you said there was a lot of rock, Iggy Pop and Swedish death metal on there! Has your taste remained the same? How does your wider taste in music inform your composition work?
I don’t have an iPod now. I almost never listened to it in any case as I found that I disliked walking round listening to music. I listen to things on iTunes on shuffle when in the house. Occasionally. Or on my CD player in the bedroom – anything from Pauline Oliveros to Elliott Carter to Heinz Holliger to Henry Cowell to you name them – or Radio Classica in the car. My surface listening is continually in flux, but the bedrock music that I need to survive never really changes. I really do listen to everything and nothing. It’s the art form that I’m most interested in, but not solely, and so I’m always willing to lend an ear, even to composers that I don’t much like as people. Everything gets listened to eventually. But, taste? What’s that? I know that at the moment I can’t listen to Strauss at all, but maybe I will more in the future. I can’t listen to Brahms either. For long. It’s all a marvelous moveable feast and the only deadly thing to avoid is snobbery. There’s good and bad in all areas of music.

Simon Holt’s Centauromachy will receive it’s London premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on 9 August 2011.

You can find further M at The Proms coverage here, including interviews with Judith Bingham and Kevin Volans.