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Composer returns home to celebrate Welsh musical talent

Posted on 20/11/2012

In a concert showcasing Wales’s top composers, Royal Holloway’s Director of Composition Mark Bowden will see his piece tirlun performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff, on Friday 23 November.

As Mark’s native country enjoys a renaissance of compositional talent, we caught up with him to talk about arts funding cuts, the challenges he faces when writing new music and the beautiful landscapes where he grew up.

Do you find it emotional having your music performed in Wales?

It is of course a great honour to be the Resident Composer for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and I always enjoy spending time and having my music performed there. The audiences in Cardiff and beyond are extremely receptive to new music and are very supportive of the orchestra and the work that it does.

Can you tell us a bit about the story behind this piece of music?

The BBC commissioned tirlun in 2008 as part of a project to showcase music from each of the five nations of the British Isles. I thought about the area of Wales where I grew up - the highly industrialised communities that exist among the beautiful natural landscapes of the South Wales valleys, which create stark contrasts between nature and industry. At the time, I was also reading poetry by T.H. Parry Williams, which got me thinking about landscapes and people's relationship to their surroundings. I decided to use the Welsh world for landscape, tirlun, as the title and the piece started to flow from there.

What are the biggest challenges you face when composing a piece of music?

The biggest challenge when starting a new piece is creating a world for the music to inhabit. Classical composers today have to invent new musical universes for each new piece to exist in. Sound worlds have to be constructed, harmony created, new forms must be forged. It is an enormously time-consuming process. I still can't quite believe how much time and energy is put into making a new piece of music that might only last ten or 15 minutes in performance! It's an extraordinarily odd thing to spend your time doing, but one that I wouldn't change for the world.

What does the future hold for classical music in light of arts funding cuts?

The Government's current policies for music education, and arts funding as a whole, are a disgrace. They are removing provision for young people to learn to play, sing and compose at almost every educational level. Arts funding is disappearing at an alarming rate, and the fragile ecosystem that sustains new classical music in this country is in grave danger. We must ask ourselves if this is the sort of society that we want for ourselves and for future generations, where only those who can afford to are given access to the transformative experiences provided by classical music. My hope is that the damage done to music and the arts by 2015 is not totally irreversible.

What tips do you have for aspiring composers?

Practice writing music every single working day. You need to practice writing music in the same way that you practice playing an instrument. Develop tenacity, as you will need it. Also, develop good working relationships with performers your own age. These are the people that are likely to perform your music in the future. Organise performances of your own music and other people’s as much as you can, and take great pride in your scores and performance materials. Be inquisitive about new music and the wider world, and keep a sketchbook for writing down ideas. And, of course, get a good accountant!

Mark Bowden is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Composition at Royal Holloway's Department of Music.

For more information about the concert ‘Contemporary Evenings: Welsh Panorama’, featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and to book tickets, visit the BBC National Orchestra of Wales website.


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