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An interview with Giles Swayne

How did you get into composing?
I cannot remember: it was nearly 60 years ago, when I was twelve. Since then I have written 147 pieces. Messiaen (with whom I briefly studied) was asked this question by a journalist, and replied that one does not ask an apple-tree why it bears apples. The answer begs the question, of course; but it’s an existential and almost meaningless question because life is for the most part fairly random. In my childhood I heard music a lot: the Liverpool Phil was our local orchestra and was good. There was some music in my family: the composer Elizabeth Maconchy was my mother’s cousin, my father’s mother and grandmother were good amateur musicians, trained in Germany, and Elgar used to visit my grandparents’ house near Hereford, as he lived not far away. I fell in love with the music of Bartok and Stravinsky at a very early age, and it went on from there.

Have you come across any challenges in writing for vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists?
I’m assuming the word “challenges” is being used in its proper sense. Writing for voices is in some ways different from writing for instruments, in other ways exactly the same: imagination, intelligence, technical skill and common sense are needed for both. The voices have ranges and comfort zones, as do instruments; the additional factors are the words – both in the combination of syllables and phonemes which make them up and which affect the sound, and in their wider narrative meaning. I wrote my first songs in 1966, and my first choral piece Three Shakespeare Songs (still performed quite often and in the repertoire of the BBC Singers) in 1969. My best-known piece for voices is probably CRY (1979) for 28 solo amplified voices and electronic treatment, which has been performed twice at the Proms (1983 and 1984) and often abroad. About 66 of my pieces (about 155 in all) are choral.

Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?
Good music comes from (and reaches) both the head and the heart. The head on its own produces the dry and cerebral; the heart on its own produces the conventional and sentimental. Well stirred together and simmered, they communicate meaning and humanity. Composing is very like cooking: the raw ingredients are common to us all; the recipe (thought & technique) is what gives it particular flavour. All composers should be taught to cook.

Are there any artists you particularly admire?
Which arts? If all, this is an impossible question, because the list would be endless. A random list in no order: Mozart, Beethoven, Vermeer, Goya, Bosch, David Bowie, Homer (the poet), Homer & The Simpsons and Matt Groening, Sophocles and Euripides, Aristophanes, Plautus and Terence (if only for Homo sum. Humani a me nil alienum puto, which was Anthony Trollope’s personal motto), Bob Marley (whose widow Rita now owns the house I built in Ghana in 1992), The Proclaimers, Fats Waller, Mae West (astounding wit & wisdom), Charlie Chaplin (clown, visual poet & social conscience), James Joyce (O the poetry, madness and wisdom of Ulysses), Edward Lear (one of our greatest poets, much misunderstood by literary snobs), early but not late TS Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Bartok, Stravinsky, Satie, some but not all Britten, ditto Tippett, Messiaen (who taught me for a while and when not too obsessed by God was wonderful), Stockhausen (a giant) but not Boulez, some but not all Picasso, Henry Fielding (wit, humanity and social satire) Jane Austen (ditto), Maria Edgeworth (wonderful 18th century Anglo-Irish novelist), Emile Zola, Trollope (but not Dickens), Georges Simenon (a wonderful novelist), Robert Sabatier (ditto), Amélie Nothomb (another brilliant Belgian novelist), Shakespeare but not Marlowe, Dante (but not Milton), Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Hergé (all the Tintin and the five books which feature Jo and Zette). But this is a silly question: the human race has produced so much beauty (and so much ugliness), one cannot list even a fraction of it.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Walking with dogs, reading, being out of doors. The four walls of houses are a prison. Cities are hell – not in the sense Sartre meant when he wrote “Hell is other people”, but because there is no quiet place.