Graham Fitkin interview

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 

Graham Fitkin: I suppose I come from a lower middle-class background with a strong work ethic spine.  I was encouraged to play the piano and anything else we had lying around at home, and had an older brother who fed me interesting music as a child.  So I heard the Kind of Blue when I was 9, The Rite of Spring when I was 10, Philip Glass when I was 11 and Keith Jarrett when I was 12 and so on.   I had very supportive parents who encouraged me to follow a musical path if that was what I wanted to do.

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

GF: Shard was a commission from Ensemble Bash when they were understandably looking for pieces that used instruments they could carry round in a shopping bag.  I know from experience that carting the stuff around is a huge part of being a percussionist.  It’s big, costly, heavy,  causes back pain and stops you going to the pub after the gig as it takes an age to pack up.  It all starts from the timbre of the dampened triangle.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

GF: My compositional process changes with each piece.  I like using a desk with a piece of paper and a pencil.  I often use a piano, and often use a computer with associated software.  At the moment I’m learning some new software which I think is going to be useful for the next project.  I do pre-plan.  And I always have a piece of paper with the fundamental starting aims of the piece placed on the desk so that I don’t forget what I’m meant to be doing and get caught up on the moment.

SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

GF: I love writing for performers I know.  It’s not imperative at all, and when I write large scale music for orchestras for instance (where I can’t know all the performers) or a new commission from a group I don’t personally know then it’s different and potentially equally interesting. But when you write for people you know there is the chance to mould a sound round them, you know the way they might approach it, phrase it and that’s lovely.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

GF: I find that impossible to answer. I wish I didn’t.

SC: What motivates you to compose? 

GF: I like creating things and generally enjoy the process, sometimes tortuous, hard and painful, but generally fascinating.  I also don’t know what else I’d do…

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

GF: I admire Harrison Birtwistle, Arvo Part, Laurence Crane, Mark Turnage, Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen, Thomas Larcher, Anna Meredith, James Saunders and that’s just for starters.  Whether I identify with them I don’t know and I’m not sure who I’d choose.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

GF: Sibelius.  I’d like to know what went on his head in those symphonies, and what happened in the last 30 years.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

GF: Well this is all a bit fanciful as I’d change my mind tomorrow anyway I’ll play along – De Tijd by Andriessen, Lux Aeterna by Ligeti, Petrushka by Stravinsky, Music for 18 Musicians by Reich, Symphony by Webern, Messe de Notre Dame by Machaut, Clarinet and String Quartet by Feldman, Hunky Dory by Bowie .  Probably De Tijd is the one, but maybe not…

SC:…and a book?:

GF: Barnaby Rudge by Dickens

SC:…a film?GF: North By Northwest by Hitchcock

SC:… and a luxury item?

GF: Ruth Wall