Andrew James Johnson, composer & pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Although I started playing the piano from around seven years old I didn’t actually have my first piano lesson until I was fourteen. Prior to starting lessons I spent many years learning on my own. It was completely second nature for me to just improvise and play by ear on the piano I had at home. I couldn’t read sheet music and didn’t even know what that was! I relied solely on what I heard around me; from the TV and radio mostly. It was an eclectic mix of classical, pop, jazz – you name it! I had a go at playing it all as best as I could. No scales or technical work for me, I played what I wanted and expressed myself freely without anyone to tell me right or wrong. I just knew I loved the piano; it was like a soulmate to me, calling me and transporting me away to a wonderful world of sound and tonality. These years really defined my experience with music and I have never felt more comfortable or at home than when I’m sitting at a piano. Composing and improvising have always been a part of my musical paradigm.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The turning point for me came when I was around fourteen years old. I was in a lot of trouble at school (hard to believe, right!?) and as a result, I was frequently grounded by my parents. It felt like solitary confinement but I spent this time playing the piano and listening to an old set of ‘Readers Digest’ records that my Mum had on vinyl. I discovered it quite by accident but it was a major turning point in my life. It was a box set called ‘The Classical Collection’ and the first record was all solo piano pieces. The opening track was the first movement of ‘Moonlight Sonata’, then ‘Für Elise’, Chopin ‘Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2’, Liszt’s Liebestrüam No. 3, a pure stream of masterpieces one after the other. I listened to this record over and over again it just hypnotized me and I fell in love with the music. It moved me like nothing I’d ever felt before and I knew that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I booked a piano lesson without even telling my parents and scrounged the money from my sister. They supported me of course, after they realised I was serious about learning properly. In two years I’d got to Grade 8 and was playing all of those pieces from the record and more. Music consumed me from that point and still does to this day. It was only natural for me to combine my newfound pianistic skills with my habit of improvising, and this led me to discover composing as a proper craft and discipline.

I must also mention at this point my mentor and teacher from London College of Music, Dr. Laurence Roman. He had the most profound influence on me. He taught me the tools of the trade. I was an apprentice in the hands of a master of form, style, orchestration, notation – everything! I wouldn’t be a composer without his guidance and great teaching. It was perfect timing for me to meet him and be taught by him. Fate intervened, I’m sure.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I feel like I have been playing catch-up my whole life from a technical point of view. I couldn’t even read music until I was fourteen. I had this incredible enthusiasm for classical music, a real passion to learn but I had so many doors slammed in my face as I just wasn’t (on paper at least) qualified enough or experienced enough to play with the ‘big boys’, for want of a better phrase. ‘I felt like I didn’t really fit in with the classical community either. I wanted to be involved in what was going on musically at the time so I frequently entered piano competitions, workshops, masterclasses but everyone I encountered just seemed so different to me. It felt like a lot of posh people looking down on me. It wasn’t at all, but that was my impression at the time and I didn’t want any part of it. I totally rebelled as a result and spent the next ten years playing in bands and writing songs. I easily fitted in with the rock and pop scene. The musicians I encountered were genuine and expressive individuals that respected my talent and it was just amazing to be playing so many gigs and rocking out! And wow what a wealth of incredible music to discover during that period of my life – Bowie, Elton, Pink Floyd, Radiohead… so many great artists.

I eventually went to university at twenty-seven to study a BA in Music Technology at the London College of Music. I also managed to get private composition lessons from some amazing professors and they completely transformed me as a composer. They loved my compositional style and made me believe in what I was writing. They dis-assembled me, put the pieces back together and out the other end came a composer! It’s my story and I have no regrets. Every experience, good and bad that I went through is what makes me unique.

Looking back, I see it all so differently. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! Having worked in the industry I see that the really talented musicians are in fact the most critical of their own work and far from looking down on people they really want to engage and communicate more than anything.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

The best part is when the musical demands of a commission force you to go above and beyond your skillset. It’s great when you can write whatever you like, for whatever instrument, but when someone is paying you to meet their musical expectations, you work so much harder and as a result often produce something far superior. I remember the first time I had to compose a piece for a full symphony orchestra and had to meet a tight dealine. I composed all day and through the night to get the music perfect. It elevated my game massively and set a new ‘personal best’ for me in terms of what I could produce.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve been lucky enough to play in amazing, mind-blowing bands over the years, and I’ve also had the opportunity to have my music played by professional orchestras and classical ensembles. As the composer, people look to you for leadership, so there is an inherent responsibility to the musicians you work with, and of course to your audience. ‘It’s a lot of pressure to deal with but I actually don’t mind this at all. I always seem to do better when I have a challenge of some kind. I thrive on this but it’s not always easy. I had to conduct a 14-piece string orchestra recently for a recording session because the conductor dropped out last minute. Instead of panicking, I picked up the baton and led the session. The first half an hour was as scary as you can get and so nerve-wracking… I was flying by the seat of my pants! Fortunately the ensemble were consummate professionals and the session was a success. I enjoyed it so much I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to do more conducting in the future!

How would you describe your compositional language?

It’s amazing to be a composer in the 21st century! To have complete freedom to choose for yourself whatever style, genre, language, tonality, structure you want to work in at any given time is quite incredible. I don’t think composers of the past had the artistic freedom we enjoy today. I have composed in many different musical languages over the years, it all depends on how I wish to express my creativity at any given time.

The album I’m about to release is very much a re-invention of Romantic piano music. The pieces that make up the ‘Winter’s Heart’ album display a musical language that is tonal, harmonically rich, and explores moods through thematic development with a subtle approach to modulation. Some pieces have a nocturnal feel about them, others are more virtuosic, even rhapsodic at times. Also in terms of structure I always include  strong development sections, changes in tempo and recapitulations. Despite the many parallels with Romantic-era composition, my sound is still very much contemporary. The contemporary piano ouevre is a busy place these days, but I’ve never felt comfortable writing in the ubiquitous sound of the ‘piano mood playlist’, which is so static and repetitive. My fingers demand more from me than that and I like to focus more on pianistic textures.

I enjoy using the entire register of the piano from low to high. In particular I’m very fond of using ‘ghost harmonics’. This involves having deep bass notes usually in octaves with the sustain pedal held down and then building layer upon layer of suspensions, chords, melodic figurations and letting it all hang in the air in a huge climax of sonority. Sometimes for ten seconds or more so you get this choir-like sound; not unlike voices in a cathedral. It’s very effective on a large grand piano!

Examples of this can be heard in ‘Moonlight Shadows’, ‘Out of Solitude’ and ‘Winters Heart’.

In my concerts I often talk about my pieces before I play them, to try and help an audience understand the new music they’re about to hear. I will be doing this at my album launch in November too. 

Of which works are you most proud?

The recording session I just mentioned, for my composition ‘Winter’s Heart’ (also the album title) which took place at the end of August this year was one of my proudest moments. It was the culmination of two years of extremely hard work and creative stamina. I’d recorded twelve pieces of original solo piano music for my album and had spent so much time in a studio getting perfect takes of each track. I had this burning desire to put an additional string arrangement on one of the tracks from the album – it was so epic and huge in my head so I spent a couple of weeks getting it notated. Being stuck in front of a laptop for two solid weeks with just black dots staring back at you can wear down even the most resilient composer! The arrangement was completed and the players booked – the fabulous Chamber Ensemble of London and set to record at RAK Studios in London. As soon as those strings started playing and I finally heard my own music coming back at me being played so wonderfully; it just lifted me up to a special place in my heart and mind. It made me feel complete and utterly joyous. I certainly hope more of those occasions will be a part of my future, it’s a composer dream to have their music given the breathe of life.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I have a great affinity for the classical-era composers. I find so much empathy and humanity in their music. Chopin is probably my favourite composer overall. His music truly is the Alpha and the Omega for me in terms of everything that can be said through music. I love the pianist Murray Perahia and also many older pianists such as Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti, and then Vladimir Ashkenazy whom I actually met once – he signed a now-beloved copy of Chopin Etudes! I have a great admiration for pianists who also teach and hold masterclasses. Top of the list would be Andras Schiff, Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel. They have set a new precedent for the virtuoso/concert pianist by doing what they do. On the composer side I love Max Richter, Olafur Arnualds and Phillip Glass, they’re my heroes in terms of what I aspire to do with my own music. I wish I had the space to talk about Debussy and Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Schumann and Brahms!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I attended the grand opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall back in 1991. Simon Rattle conducted the CBSO in Mahler’s epic 2nd Symphony, the ‘Resurrection’. I didn’t understand the music so much back then but I knew I was seeing something really special. Sir Simon Rattle did so much for the City of Birmingham, beyond just music. I met him many times when I was a teenager and got his autograph too, in my book of Mozart Piano Sonatas!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I would say that it’s essential to find your own voice and to be true to that. Don’t try to impress or put dots on paper merely for show. Accept all types of music and try to be open-minded to everything you hear. Don’t do things to be fashionable but instead follow your inner most passions. Once you know what you want to do, learn as much as you can, especially from those who have expertise in that area. If you want to become a film composer, become an intern at an LA studio or London Production house, if you want to be an experimental/avant-garde composer, find a living composer you admire and try to study with them. In the digital age, there are so many resources available today it’s truly the best time to be a composer. Learn your craft and learn it well, from 16th century counterpoint, 19th century orchestration, to 21st century song writing and how to make beats in Logic Pro. Never forgot the best way to learn is to fail, try and fail, until you succeed; no matter how many times it takes. Don’t listen to the critics. You can’t please all the people all the time, just concentrate on your art and never stop learning.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That’s a tough question to answer! I would say success means an ability to play the kind of music you like most of all as often as possible! If you can get paid on top of that you’re getting even closer. In my experience, it’s not always the best players or composers that achieve the most success. There’s so much more involved, so many other qualities. It’s so much more than just being able to play all of the right notes in the right order! Success is as subjective just as life itself. I’ve been on both sides of the fence in my career as a musician and it’s one of the most demanding, exhausting and sometimes frustrating industries to work in. Passion and patience are the two big qualities you need, plus a very thick skin. But truthfully I could never do anything other than compose and play the piano. Either one is amazing but both at the same time? Now that’s what I call success!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

After recording my tenth studio album and completing a sell out world tour… I will be practising on my Steinway B Model for my Royal Albert Hall show with the London Symphony Orchestra, trying to answer fan mail on my iPhone XX…

What is your most treasured possession?

My two beautiful daughters, Aria and Amelia, and my 1880 Broadwood grand piano!

 

Andrew James Johnson releases his debut album ‘Winter’s Heart’ on 17th November 2017. Further information can be found on his website www.andrewjamesjohnson.co.uk

 

 

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