Composing in Residence
Twice in my life (so far) I have been privileged to be given positions as a composer-in-residence; the first time from 1979 – 82, for the Eastern Arts Association, the second time from 2016 – 19, for Homerton College. Two very different situations, and at a considerable distance in time. So, what does a composer-in-residence actually do (or is supposed to do)?
With Eastern Arts, this was at a time when several regional Arts Associations (local versions of the Arts Council) were experimenting with the idea of hosting such a person, and in my case, the brief was very simple (though in fact, rather difficult to carry out). Eastern Arts covered the extensive area of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Herfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex. My task was defined as ‘doing anything I reasonably could to promote the awareness and appreciation of contemporary music.’ Contemporary music was at that time interpreted to mean the output of so-called modern ‘classical’ composers – you’ve guessed it, the kind of music that nobody wants to hear!
What I actually did was to set up a number of workshops in various places: in schools, in libraries (out of hours, naturally), in adult education settings, and to encourage people who came along to make their own music, using a variety of percussion instruments that I carried around in the boot of my car. Each county’s Music Advisor was a natural ally in much of this process, and the county youth orchestras of Norfolk, Suffolk and Hertfordshire offered some performance opportunities. Alongside this, I gave talks to music clubs, to WEA classes, and anywhere else that people would give me an ear, to discuss why and how ‘contemporary music’ sounded like it did. Along with a generous bursary, I was also able to write new works for any regional organisation that was prepared to apply for a slice of the commission cake that Eastern Arts had baked for me to spend. Among the commissions I carried out were a choral work for Norwich Cathedral, a piece for the Samuel Ward Upper School’s orchestra in Haverhill, a chamber piece for the King’s Lynn Festival, a couple of other pieces of chamber music for the University of East Anglia and for the Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire). There were some others, but one of the crowning moments was conducting the Suffolk Schools Orchestra in a new work in the concert hall of Snape Maltings.
But all good things come to an end, and so the residency with Eastern Arts came to a full stop after three years, and I was then in the unenviable position of trying to make a living from writing music. This has never been an easy task, at least not since the French Revolution. The Arts Council itself came to my rescue with a major bursary for the first year, and in the meantime I built up a certain amount of private teaching together with a part-time position as composition teacher at what is now Anglia Ruskin. In parallel with that, a reasonably steady flow of commissions enabled me to create a substantial list of works, and a publisher helped to find performances.
The real difficulties start once you stop being a ‘promising young composer’. There is always a steady supply of even younger and more promising composers coming along behind, and eventually only a select few manage to break into the top flight where something called ‘being established’ is achieved. In my case, a lucky break lead me to a part-time lectureship at Homerton College in 1988, since when my working and composing life was been based there until retirement. Of course, the College has seen many changes since those early days, and my work at Homerton developed first into a full-time appointment, then a University Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, and finally in the Faculty of Music. I like to think of that part of my career as an ‘Odyssey-on-the-spot’; a variant of that experienced by Hans Castorp, the anti-hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a novel that has been a constant factor in my life since I first became acquainted with it at university. Indeed, it was the source of one of my most successful works, a concerto for piano and orchestra which I named after the book. This achieved a number of performances, including ones by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra as part of the ISCM Festival in Aarhus, Denmark. Its first performance can still be heard on my SoundCloud, at
I was not one of those members of Regent House who voted to allow the University of Cambridge to continue its policy of (basically) compulsory retirement at 67. So it was an enormous pleasure when towards the approach of that ominous date, Geoff Ward spoke to me after a Fellows’ Dinner at Homerton and suggested that I might like to become not just an Emeritus Fellow, but to be Composer-in-Residence for the College. Naturally, I agreed at once to this kind offer, and held several conversations with Geoff to decide what exactly I might actually do in this role.
Unlike the brief with Eastern Arts all those years ago, the role’s definition was always a bit vague. I was to supervise Homerton music students who wanted to submit compositions as part of their Tripos, and to write some new ‘occasional’ pieces, as and when such occasions occurred. The most substantial work that I wrote for the College was called Elevation, for the concert in 2018 which celebrated the 250th anniversary of the College’s foundation. This unfortunately did not manage to get recorded, but it was very well performed by an augmented college orchestra, conducted by Toby Hession. In addition, I have also written a number of pieces for the Charter Choir, which have featured in the weekly Evensong services at St. John’s, and have also been taken abroad by the choir on its summer tours. Most of these performances have been excellently prepared and conducted by Daniel Trocmé-Latter, and a group of Four Latin Motets featured on the Charter Choir’s first CD. These can also be heard on my SoundCloud, at
As with the Eastern Arts residency, the one at Homerton came to end as well, though in this case it was largely down to my own decision. I rather foolishly attempted to establish a professional concert series, in the wake of the 250th celebrations, a project which was enthusiastically supported by Geoff Ward. However, the running of this series proved to be by far the most difficult aspect of my ‘undefined’ brief in the role. There was no shortage of keen young ensembles willing to come to the College to perform (and this was at the time we also had the Ligeti Quartet in residence, in partnership with the Faculty of Music), but there was at that time no obvious venue for these events. Neither was there much interest on the part of the student body, nor indeed the Fellowship. The experiment of using the Paston Brown Room for concerts was brought to a sad end by a failure to be able to give access for an audience member who arrived in a wheelchair. This broke the service lift and nearly involved an accident, and so that was that. Although running a concert series was never a part of my official role, I felt that I ought not to continue as composer-in-residence at that point. Sometimes, I think now that I made the wrong decision, but there it is and I have had to let it stand. Nevertheless, I am immensely grateful to Geoff Ward and to the College for enabling me to have a ‘second-coming’ as a composer-in-residence.
I wanted very much not to end on an a ‘dying fall’, but I do feel that the contrast between my experiences of those very contrasted periods of time during which I was a ‘composer-in-residence’ do reflect the enormous changes in the way in which ‘classical music’ is regarded in our society and in our country. You may have been aware of Simon Rattle’s unprecedented recent speech to an LSO concert audience, in which he stated that ‘Classical music is fighting for its very existence’. This came at the same time as the furore about the BBC’s decision to make substantial cuts to its own orchestras and to scrap the BBC Singers completely. Although these decisions have been reversed due to the extent of the public outcry, I am told by those in the know that the decisions are really just ‘on hold’. The arts generally have been drastically marginalised in our schools, and without good, imaginative education in these areas, today’s young people are being deprived of the opportunity to engage with the best that the past and the present has to offer as valid, life-affirming experiences.
In order to continue doing my bit for the cause, I have recently become involved with a group of people who run the Cromer Artspace, a gallery on the prom which features new visual art by both professional and amateur artists. Having established the gallery on a secure footing, the plan is now to organise an Arts Festival for the town, including as many other art forms as we can, naturally involving music as well. There are some wonderful venues available, such as the beautiful parish church, St. Mary’s, and a superb theatre on the end of the pier. The Festival will be in the later part of October2024, and I hope to involve the Charter Choir, current organ scholars and other ensembles from the College and the University in this project. I shall end with a restatement of one of my basic beliefs from the time of my first residency: If we truly understood the music of the past, we would have little difficulty in appreciating the music of our own time (and I am NOT just meaning pop music….)
JH 22 May 2023