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Howard Skempton

Q&A

Composer Howard Skempton’s 70th birthday is celebrated in a special concert this autumn. He reflects on a creative life that began with Cornelius Cardew, with Helen Wallace

In 1969 you helped found the Scratch Orchestra, with Cornelius Cardew. What did you learn from him?
I studied privately with Cardew and I learnt from him what it means to be professional. Breaking the barrier between player and composer was always central to his thinking, and that remains a priority for me.

Who influenced you most?
The most important composers for me, in the late Sixties, were Webern, Feldman, G.recki, Cardew and Britten. I must have taken the Beatles for granted, because they could well have been the biggest influence of all. Feldman promoted sound as the experience of music, and that still means a great deal.

The distilled nature of your music seems to have given it a timeless quality.
There’s little stylistic difference between the piano pieces of different decades. Stylistic changes have largely, but not entirely, come about through the challenge of a new medium. Writing for strings, for example, prompted an exploration of counterpoint and chromaticism, both of which are now central concerns.

‘Feldman promoted sound as the experience of music, and that still means a great deal.’

Which work are you proudest of? And which fondest of?
It has to be Lento. At the moment, I’m fondest of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, possibly because it’s still quite new.

Tell me about Expectancy, to be performed in this concert ?
Expectancy was composed in 2008 for the Coull Quartet at Warwick University. I was pleased to have a reason to set a strong poem by a favourite Warwickshire poet, John Drinkwater. The repertoire for mixed choir and string quartet is quite small – Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang is a fine example.

What role does the accordion play in your musical life?
I bought the accordion I still play in 1971. The original idea was to play experimental pieces, and to improvise, but I soon discovered that it was a most expressive melody instrument. In guiding me towards melody, my accordion remains of paramount importance.

Highlights of your time at Kings Place since it opened?
William Howard’s piano recital was magical, as were Marielle Lab.que’s performances of my piano pieces a few years ago. I remember a series curated by Graham Fitkin, one of which included Chimes for 8 cellos.

What are you working on?
A second big setting for baritone Roderick Williams, of DH Lawrence’s Man and Bat for baritone, piano, string quartet and bass.

I was struck by your 1971 statement ‘without economy there is no power, and without self-control there is nothing’.
I still hold to that bold statement. It’s mainly about form, something which still preoccupies me.

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