Please tell us a little about who you are and your background
I was born in Chicago in 1983 and began my life in music as a singer. I sang in choirs and played the piano throughout school and it was only when I was 17 that I discovered composition. I entered Northwestern University, actually, as a voice major - but within the year had changed to study composition and an ad-hoc orchestral conducting degree. I moved to England in 2005 to do my Mmus in composition at the Royal Academy, stayed to do my Dmus (which I finished in 2012 at Guildhall) met my wife (we were married in July 2011) and have settled here!
What inspires or motivates you?
In terms of motivation, I find it takes very little to get me to the drafting table. I have so much music I want to write and so many other things that I need to do in a day that I'm out of bed most days by 6am and composing for as long as I can before the other requirements of the day kick in. Even starting at that time it's hard to get more than 3 or 4 hours in before I need to be heading on to the next thing, and so it's always a real joy to wake up and come back to it the next day.
There are many things that inspire me – all the normal answers like painting, film, poetry, travel, listening…these all apply – but the most inspiring things for me are actually people. I just love musicians. These people have dedicated their entire lives to being able to create the exact sound they want from an instrument – to the point where the instrument just becomes an extension of their will – and this is just not something that happens overnight. It's every day, day after day, year after year and they just keep going to the point where they are capable of creating this incredible beauty. And that's what I aim for, in composing. Music that will challenge and reward them, will draw them into new ideas, and will bring us together as collaborators in creating something new.
What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
I'm not really sure I can answer this question directly. Pieces of music that I compose are very personal, and close to me. I don't (yet) have children myself but I've heard many older composers describe the feeling as being similar to that of a parent. I spend a lot of time making a piece of music – for How to Avoid Huge Ships one could conservatively estimate I spent about 50 hours composing for each minute of music – and so every single note in the work is precious to me at the time I create it. Then I'll go back, five years later, and its like somebody else wrote the piece entirely!
So each piece becomes a sort of frozen statement about what music is at that particular time in your life. And they're each precious. I suppose the one thing I could say is that – as a young composer – I think you learn more and more to be an honest version of yourself. And in my recent work, in particular, I see more of myself and less of the other composer(s) I hoped I would be. So the music gets more honest and I think that its scary, but I do like it more and more.
How would you describe your style?
I think style is a really hard thing to describe from the inside-out. My immediate response is to want to tell you about my technique, but technique is a far thing from style. I guess one of the things that you can really hear in my music is the voice – I sing all the time when I compose, improvising lines and rhythms and then transcribing them as I get them closer and closer to what I want. So whatever the instruments in the piece, you hear a lot of this in the music I write.
What is your composing routine? When do you like to write?
I've already kind of touched on this – I have to write, have to write, first thing in the morning. If I'm not at my desk by 6:30am it's a very unusual morning. I find this is the time when I can most clearly find the music – without the hundreds of other things that constantly come up during the day – and it's a really precious time to me.
What were the challenges in writing the piece for the New Dots concert?
Well I set myself a very pressing challenge in choosing the write for the Wind Quintet itself, because it is a very traditional ensemble with a long history – and a long history of causing composers insurmountable problems! But the truth is that this piece came very easily to me as I know a number of players in the Atea Quintet (we spent time at the Academy together), so I was aware of their very high quality, and there's nothing more exciting than writing music for players who inspire you.
What does the future hold?
I'm headed to France for the Etchings Festival with the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble and Georg Friedrich Haas in July, have a premiere of a new orchestral work (The Deeper Breath to Follow) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in November, and have been commissioned by the Britten Pears Foundation & RVW Trust to write a Clarinet Quintet for Timothy Orpen. I'm also the Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble, and we have four concerts left this year along with establishing a new series of educational concerts and a full concert schedule we're planning for 2014 so it's shaping up to be a very busy year!
What makes you smile?
My wife's laughter.