Mark Bowden, composer

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

I loved composing as a kid, but I kept it to myself. It wasn’t part of my school music syllabus in the 1990s, so I wrote pieces secretly. I was born in a mining community in South Wales, a place with strong musical traditions, but music was not around at home when I was little. My grandmother gave her old piano to us when we moved to England. She had always wanted my mum to learn to play. It arrived at our house and I was transfixed. My primary school teacher gave me my first lessons and my love of music developed from there. I carried on the piano and picked up the saxophone and viola along the way through lessons at my local northern comp and playing in local youth orchestras and wind bands. But the inspiration to pursue music as a career came from elsewhere. As well as music, I danced. I was fortunate the youth dance organisation I was involved with from the age of 12 to 18 was run by Veronica Lewis, who went on to become Principal of London Contemporary Dance School. Veronica was also a musician and she saw I loved both music and dance and encouraged me to pursue a career. I went to university in Huddersfield and within the first few months I experienced, live, the music of Rolf Hind, Pascal Dusapin, Scelsi, Karin Rehnqvist, Lou Harrison, Grisey, Kaia Saariaho, Evelyn Glennie and Xenakis. The world of composing and contemporary music opened up to me for the first time and it was here I decided I had to be a composer.

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

Certainly, Veronica Lewis for encouraging me as a kid. Then my teachers at Huddersfield, particularly Richard Steinitz, the founder of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Richard helped me to have faith in myself as a musician. He invited me to perform Sequenza IXb for saxophone at Berio’s 75th birthday celebrations at the festival alongside a whole host of fantastic professional soloists – it was terrifying! Coming to London to study with Julian Anderson set me off on the path to making composing my career. When I was at the Royal College of Music I also met Anna Meredith and Emily Hall. We set up the Camberwell Composers’ Collective together, putting on performances of our own music, and have remained close friends ever since.

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

I’ve loved the challenge of the residencies I’ve held. Firstly, at Handel House, then later with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Rambert Dance Company. During a residency you are given free rein to create new work and devise projects that you might not be able to do for a normal commission. I became a parent in 2017 and having a baby girl, now a toddler, presents specific challenges to a freelancer, particularly around time management and actual physical living space. but in other ways it has helped me become laser-focussed in my writing. I procrastinate a lot less these days!

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

Each piece comes with its own challenges, but these are not frustrations. It is exhilarating to start a new piece and think about how to build its sonic world. I’ve been lucky enough to have huge variety in my work. Sometimes I do the traditional thing of receiving a commission, working on it alone, delivering it to the ensemble, and turning up to rehearsals before the performance. That’s fine, but I also work with dancers and choreographers, poets and writers, film makers and directors, and I love the collaborative element these projects bring. Balancing periods of working in solitude and collaboratively is important to me.

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

I love musicians. If I was asked who I write for then I would say the musicians who perform my music are uppermost in my mind when I’m composing. That said, time constraints around modern rehearsal practices can bring challenges. Musicians in the UK are so good at sight-reading, a new piece can sound very close to perfect within a few runs. But having time to get inside a new piece and understand what is happening is more difficult. Working with chamber groups or soloists is rewarding in this sense since they often spend much more time getting to know a new work.

Of which works are you most proud?

I have a love–hate relationship with much of my work. Sometimes I hear a piece and think, ‘oh yeah, I get what I was doing there’, and other times I think ‘turn it off!’ If I had to choose, then I’m very fond of Five Memos, a piece for violin and piano from 2016. I worked closely with Huw Watkins and Hyeyoon Park on the performances and recording, they got to the heart of what Five Memos is all about. My most recent piece, a saxophone concerto called Sapiens, is also special; writing a substantial piece for my own instrument and working with Simon Haram and the London Sinfonietta were wonderful experiences.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I find this such a hard question but it’s a good one and I think composers should talk about it more. Above all, I love harmony and exploring how it can function across stretches of time. I spend huge amounts of time creating harmonic material for each new work. I try to start with something small, one chord or even just a single interval, and keep building and building material. I am drawn to detail and intricacy as well as broad, expressive lines. My work is often constructed in many layers and I’m always thinking about the drama and energy in the music, the excitement and direction.

How do you work?

I used to have a lovely room full of light, all to myself. It had my piano, my music and everything I needed to compose. Now, my daughter (quite rightly!) has the light-filled room. So, I’ve recreated my workspace as best I can in the corner of our single, open-plan living space. I basically work in the kitchen! I was worried about making the move, but I’ve come to realise it doesn’t matter where I work, what matters is how I’m feeling about my work. And at the moment, I feel pretty good. In terms of process I spend a long time thinking about a new work, sketching out ideas, constructing a harmonic basis. I work at the piano initially, creating material through structured improvisation. Then I move quite quickly to writing it down, and the notes just come. I keep writing until the piece is done. I take heed of Hemingway’s advice and try to stop work each day when I know what I need to do next, then it’s much easier to start again the next day.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Oh, so many! I don’t really have a fixed list. There is so much to find in all sorts of music. But if I had to choose then Bach, Björk, Carter, Janáček, Ligeti, Messiaen, Per Nørgård, Rebecca Saunders, Kaija Saariaho, Schumann, Sibelius and Stravinsky are all composers whose music I come back to again and again.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

We’re all so obsessed with the idea of success, I think it can be quite destructive. As long as you’re making the music you want to make and being a decent, kind colleague – collegiate and supportive – then I think that is all you can do.

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

I work a lot with young musicians and composers. My entire introduction to music and dance came through educational projects as a kid. There are amazing young composers around today – certainly more than when I was a teenager – and I am always struck by how inquisitive, creative and talented they are. Maybe it’s us more experienced composers who should take the advice! But if I have to say something then my advice is to: practice every day (your instrument, your craft, whatever); be true to yourself and what you want to do, and; develop your tribe – making good, honest relationships with the people around you who you know you want to work with is a great way to build a career.

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

As much as I love my little writing corner, I’d love to not be working in my kitchen in ten years’ time!

What is your most treasured possession?

I’m quite into Marie Kondo at the moment so I’m all about discarding items that no longer spark joy. I do have a tiny bit of the Large Hadron Collider, which I love. I picked it up on an artist residency at CERN a few years ago. I was researching ideas for my piece A Violence of Gifts which is about the early universe, and I met some inspirational people working there. I’ve stuck my bit of collider to the pencil holder on top of my piano. Every day it reminds me to try and discover something new.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Spending time with my partner and our daughter. She is utterly joyful and amazes us every day.

Mark Bowden’s The Mare’s Tale is premiered by Berkeley Ensemble on Thursday 28th February, 7:30pm at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff and on Friday 1st March, 7:30pm St. Saviour’s Church, Warwick Avenue, London 


Mark Bowden is a British composer of chamber, orchestral and vocal music. His work has been described as ‘an exceptional and absorbing pleasure’ [The Guardian], ‘conjuring up magic and mystery’ [Opera], ‘invigorating’ [The Times] and ‘powerfully dramatic’ [BBC Radio 3].

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