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Thomas Tallis, in an engraving by Niccolò Haym after a portrait by Gerard van der Gucht


I get asked a lot about what a composer’s life is like — what we do from day to day, how we work, how we plan ahead, how we keep the wolf from the door. Every composer is different, so there is no template; but life is based on each of our priorities and specific personal motivations, at least in terms of the kind of music we compose.

For example, I love choral music, but I have spent my life writing for orchestras too, including a number of concertos, and, so far four symphonies. Presently, I’m working on a Fifth Symphony, but it’s a choral one. It involves two separate choirs (one chamber, within which emerges a group of soloists, and a larger chorus) and orchestra. The premiere date is next August, so I will have to deliver it soon to my publishers, Boosey and Hawkes, who extract the performing materials (orchestral parts and vocal scores) from my original.

I have missed the computer score revolution where composers can now create beautifully crafted, completed, self-published works on their own. I write my music with pencils and pens, using rulers, erasers and Tippex; and then hand it over to the publishers, who do all the extra production work. My only concession to modern technology is my electronic pencil sharpener.

One fascinating current project grew out of my conversations with choral singers and aficionados about our great love and admiration for Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem In Alium. This is a superhuman polyphonic feat, written around 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each, thought by many to be the greatest work of early English music. There was a craze for multi-part music at the time, and some have tried to resurrect the practice in recent times. My attempt is another 40-part work, Vidi Aquam, which is just about ready to deliver to the commissioners.

I had been terrified of writing this piece since I was asked a few years ago, but when I settled to work on it, it became strangely therapeutic. I became obsessed with making the counterpoint work — and like Tallis there was a superimposed “harmonic” outline which enabled me to control the structure, but  also to make the micro-polyphony palpable and fluid from moment to moment.
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