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An interview with Matthew Martin

How did you get into composing?
I started writing music as a young schoolboy although (thankfully) hardly any of those efforts survive and I wasn’t very confident. They were mostly various bits of pastiche composition or experiments and were of little interest to anyone at the time. I only really began finding a more distinctive voice whilst at university where I wrote a fair amount for my college choir. But my interest in writing along the lines of older composers’ styles was an important aspect of musicianship to have tried to develop at an early stage – and I still insist that my students study it in a focussed way.

Are there any composing/musical projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I seem to spend more time conducting and playing than composing at the moment. I am directing the Bach B Minor Mass in February as part of my Early Music Festival at Keble College in Oxford and looking forward to that, although quite daunted by the prospect of presiding over such a masterpiece. Also, I will play the Art of Fugue on the organ in the same festival with similar reservations. I feel it is very important for composers to keep performing as much as possible. I have some exciting commissions in the pipeline (apart from this one, of course!) – a large-scale interpolated Magnificat for Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort as well as a new choral piece to mark the opening of the new organ in Manchester Cathedral. I recently completed a set of Lamentations of Jeremiah for The Tallis Scholars which were performed last year in the Cadogan Hall.

Have you come across any challenges in writing for vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists?
The main challenge for me when writing choral music is to produce something that is interesting and challenging but also useful and attainable on minimal rehearsal. I try to avoid the business of writing a piece for a crack professional choir that ends up being so fantastically virtuosic and difficult that it only gets one performance – although I’ve fallen into this trap before and have had a few ‘derniers’ as well as premieres! Conversely, I try to avoid creating music that appears facile and superficial. For SATB choirs, I find clear 4-part writing is a good place to start and work outwards from there – rather than the other way round. I like to have some restrictions imposed on me – of forces, number of parts, text, length, level of difficulty etc – it focuses the mind. Attractive choral effects and sequences of ‘moody’ chords (so fashionable lately) have their place but I tend to think in a more linear way rather than always vertically, and mostly away from the piano – certainly never into a computer programme. The harmony often emerges from some sort of polyphonic argument but not always.

Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?!
I think I have just answered some of that already! Both. I am sporadically systematic. Quite often things are done in a hurry, but when I am working I work in a very focussed and organised way so as to fit in my composition deadlines around my day job Director of Music and a lecturer at Keble, Oxford. I am very late to the party as far as music software is concerned and so I write all my scores out by hand and send them off to be typeset by a long-suffering friend, Ralph Woodward. I may make one or two minor alterations after the set version is produced but not so often.

Are there any artists you particularly admire?
Too many to name here but I have recently got to know Mahan Esfahani – a wonderfully passionate artist and thinker, and a great friend and supporter of the music at my college, Keble. I also have to mention my old (and sadly late) organ teacher Marie Claire Alain who was a huge influence in many and varied ways.

Which composer, alive or dead, would you most like to talk to, and why?
An obvious answer but, if I’m only allowed one, it would have to be J S Bach – although I’m not sure he’d be particularly interested in talking to me! The Art of Fugue is in my mind at the moment as I finish learning it and so I’d really like to know more about that and unwrap some of the mysteries surrounding it: Why? For what? Just an intellectual exercise? Was it completed somewhere else and just not copied out in full? And, more specifically, the Augmentation Canon in the Canonic Variations (769) which I’ve been playing a lot recently: how? Britten and Stravinsky are also very important to me (in their different ways) as are Byrd and Palestrina.

What styles/genres of music do you most enjoy composing for?
I’ve become known mostly for choral pieces in recent years and this is perhaps largely due to my background as a cathedral and choir musician, and the associated connections. I think some of my output sounds rather 1960s/70s and perhaps a little aggressively austere and angular – but it’s a style I hope I have worked into something palatable. Last year I wrote some settings of Petrarch for the baritone Marcus Farnsworth and pianist James Baillieu plus a Trumpet Sonata for performance in the Cheltenham Festival – both these projects really forced me to focus on various aspects of my writing and I think changed me as a composer and made me more adventurous. I hope to have other opportunities to engage in different genres in the future.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I don’t get a lot but when I do I enjoy travel, listening to music, film, wine, playing the piano and good company – not always in that order.