Monday 30 November 2015

OPUS2016 shortlisted composer - Neil Smith

Full Name: Neil Tòmas Smith
(c) Stefan Beyer
Age: 27

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you think this is relevant to understanding your music?

I am from Scotland originally but for the last decade I have lived in England and, from 2010-2013 in Stuttgart, Germany. For the last year and a half I have lived in Birmingham, which I think is a wonderful city for the arts. No one place has had a huge influence on my music but I’ve enjoyed moving around and living in different cities and countries as you get to meet different composers and receive various influences.

How will you approach writing your OPUS2016 composition for Britten Sinfonia?

The piano trio is a really established genre with so many great pieces written for the line up. Therefore I’ll start by revisiting some of those great pieces from the past. So much of chamber music is defined by the relationship between instruments of the ensemble – whether the piano is dominant or provides the accompaniment; whether the instruments work together or independently. I will consider this first of all to try and begin to forge my individual response.

Who have you worked with previously? What ensembles / orchestras / organisations?

I have had the pleasure of working with a number of great ensembles and performers on my music: these include the Hebrides Ensemble. Red Note Ensemble, Ensemble 10/10, L’Orchestre de Philharmonique de Radio France, clarinettist Jonathan Sage, the WDR Symphony Orchestra, pianist Joseph Houston, cellist Jennifer Langridge, Ensemble Dark Inventions and percussion quartet Schalgquartett Köln. I am currently working on the Sound and Music and Making Music-supported Adopt a Composer scheme with the Thame Chamber Choir, which will result in a new work next year.

When did you first start to write music?

It was only when I began composing that I realised that music would become my keenest interest. This was at secondary school and down to encouragement from music teachers at the comprehensive I attended in Edinburgh. I will always be grateful for their enthusiasm and support during that vital time.

Describe your growth as a composer to this point. What were the pivotal points?

Probably the most important period for me was after first realising I was interested in composition. I studied at the RSAMD junior academy – taking the train through to Glasgow on a Saturday – and then went to St Mary’s Music School. In both institutions I was taught by Tom David Wilson, who gave me a fantastic start to my composition, and indeed more general, education.

There are perhaps two further key periods that defined my development – the first at the University of York during my undergraduate degree and the second in Germany. York really gives students a lot of freedom to explore and I was involved in so many different musical activities, including analysis, performance (contemporary and Baroque) and of course, composition. This was a fantastic all-round education.

In Germany I was able to attend many of the world’s largest new music festivals and heard a great deal of music of which I would have otherwise been unaware. I was also able to meet and hear some of the leading composers in central Europe – it was a very inspiring time.

How do you start a new work/ what is your composing method? 

For me, my pieces need to have a central theme – whether musical or extra-musical – and some method of exploring it. This can then be the central pillar which will support the rest of the piece. Sometimes I draw a lot of rough diagrams, lines and shapes to try and work out what this central pillar might be; other times I write a lot of words to try and pin down what will make this particular piece unique.

How do you feel about the opportunities that are available to composers?

There a lot of people who want to be composers and opportunities are very competitive. There will only be a chosen few who can make it their full time profession. I am engaged in creating a portfolio career which includes and supports my compositional activity.

What would be your advice to other young composers today?

Study abroad, at least for a time. It can give you a whole new perspective on your practice, and is, in most European countries at least, far cheaper than the UK!

What does the future hold for you? What are your next steps going to be as a composer?

I have a number of premieres lined up for next year, including a choir work for the Thame Chamber Choir and a new piece for cello, horn and clarinet. These will help me expand my practice – writing for (very good) amateurs for example and for new performance contexts.

Other than that the future is uncertain: I finish my PhD next year and must consider my next move while other factors mean I don’t know where I’ll be living in 6 months’ time!

Perhaps most excitingly, my first piece on disc will appear in 2016, in a new solo CD by clarinettist Jonathan Sage. It’s been a joy working with him on it and I think the final product will be fantastic.

You can join Neil and the other OPUS2016 shortlisted composers on 22 & 23 January 2016 for two days of workshops at the Barbican in London, with discussions and performances of the pieces these composers have been working on. Find out more and how to reserve your place here.

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