Seven questions to Judith Bingham

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Since 2000, every year JAM has commissioned a major British composer to headline their season to nurture, promote and support the future of songwriting. To date, commissions include Jonathan Dove, Thea Musgrave and Tarik O’Regan. JAM ordered Judith Bingham’s Concerto for clarinet on the occasion of his 70th birthdaye birthday in June. Michael Collins and the London Mozart Players will give the world premiere of Judith Concerto for clarinet on Friday July 15, programmed with by Copland Concerto for clarinet and Grieg’s Holberg suite. by Judith Concerto is one of the highlights of this year’s JAM on the Marsh festival taking place in the intimate medieval churches of Romney Marsh, Kent. Further information and tickets are available via www.jamconcert.org

We met Bingham before the premiere of her Concerto for clarinet.

What is the inspiration behind the Clarinet Concerto?

Initially, it was to write about the character of Barnaby Rudge in the Dickens novel of the same name. As this may not be familiar to many people, I didn’t want to overdo it but rather follow the effect of the plot on the character. So an innocent young man, a child of nature, is drawn into a conflict and nearly dies because of his involvement. He returns to his old life, but is scarred by what happened. He has a companion: a crow called Grip – that was the name of Dickens’ own crow! As I was writing, the current war in Ukraine started and of course I was really upset about it, as we all have been. I was struck by the fact that the treatment of young Russian conscripts was really similar to that of Barnaby Rudge, and my feelings about Ukraine were absorbed into the play. At the beginning of the score, I put a quote from a Russian soldier: “We are members of the armed forces of Donbass, we are simple workers. Children, we are only children. They took us at 18. What are we doing here? Many of us are dead. What are we doing here?’

How would you describe the sound world?

I wrote for two clarinets, B flat and E flat. I asked Michael Collins if he would agree to switch from one instrument to another. E-flat sounds more ethereal to me, B-flat can sound fatter, although both instruments have a wide range of possibilities, from humorous and jazzy to aggression and true beauty. I think they go very well with the string ensemble, which for two of the movements is divided into 11 parts, and the more usual 5 for the other two. I’ve written quite a few concertos now for 11 strings and a solo instrument, I really like that, and it’s also a practical line, and one that doesn’t overwhelm the soloist like a full orchestra can. The clarinet is often out of place with the whole, like a figure in a landscape. I think there’s a lot of English scenery in the sound as well, which I think is really fitting because the premiere will take place on Romney Marsh, such an exciting and archetypal English landscape.

How did you adapt it to Michael Collins’ playing style? Did he ask for something specific?

I was really thrilled that JAM asked me to write for Michael, he’s such a gifted player. I’ve played through recordings of him performing and love the thoughtfulness and nuance he brings to every performance.

Can you tell us about your background?

I come from a very ordinary upbringing. I was born in the 1950s, my father worked for the tax authorities and my mother was a room assistant. I studied in Mansfield and Sheffield, then went to the Royal Academy of Music in London. No one expected me to try to be a professional classical composer, and I was not encouraged. It was unheard of for a woman to do such a thing, many people believed that there were no other female composers. I managed to get commissions as soon as I left the Academy and wrote a lot of chamber and vocal music in the 70s. I’ve always had a good voice and sang to supplement my meager songwriting income. In the 80s I joined the BBC Singers full time and stayed with them for 12 years – it was a great learning curve on the psychology of performance, choir writing, and I met many people in the choral sector. I left the Singers in 1995 and was able to support myself by writing, so I gave up singing. Now, at nearly 70, I’ve written about 400 plays, and I’ve slowed down a lot! When I first got involved with JAM, I loved how they encourage young composers. Without representations of new music, concert life is just a museum.

When did you start composing?

My mom said I started at three but didn’t write anything until I was 11. Instead, I would make up a tune and play it to my parents, but it was something I did quite secretly. At first, writing songs was difficult, but I grew through my teenage years. I was basically self-taught and spent a lot of time pulling scores out of the library and listening to the third program. I was obsessed with Berlioz as a teenager and read his book on instrumentation which is still a brilliant book on the subject. I also joined the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and thus took part in professional concerts with the Hallé Orchestra and famous conductors on the circuit: Barbirolli, Giulini, Arvid Jansons, the young Barenboim. It was exciting and I got very scenic.

Who and what influenced your music?

Originally, romantic composers like Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Chopin etc When I arrived at the Royal Academy, I discovered French baroque music, and I still love it as much. It’s kind of crazy in a way, and yet extremely beautiful. It’s also very theatrical and danceable. In terms of contemporary composers, I was crazy about the London Fires and Peter Maxwell Davies in the 70s, but never very focused on the brutalist and ultra-modern works that dominated the concert hall. I wanted to expand the harmonic vocabulary and include concordant sounds, which was frowned upon. You could use the concords for their shock value, hard to believe these days, but true. Besides composers, I love the visual arts and have been greatly influenced by all kinds of painters and artists through the ages. I often write music about painters, a difficult thing.

What motivates your work?

I think it is of the utmost importance for me to create a secret and non-verbal world; it was obviously something I needed when I was a kid. I’m always chasing the chimera of the perfect piece and never capturing it, always being dragged to the next piece. And I don’t mean to sound pious, but I believe that Great Art is the most important thing that human beings have accomplished: it’s one of the only ways we have to access the complete truth. I think if you can create, even imperfectly, it’s definitely worth chasing after that butterfly and stretching as much as you dare.

For more information on the world premiere of Judith’s Clarinet Concerto on July 15 and to reserve tickets, go to www.jamconcert.org

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