Michael Parkin

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

Michael Parkin: I studied at Huddersfield School of Music and then at UCNW Bangor with William Mathias and Jeffrey Lewis. Over the years I’ve also been involved with music education projects for young composers and musicians – something I feel passionately about! After moving to Wales almost thirty years ago I’ve worked with organizations such as the Wales Millennium Centre, Royal Welsh College and Ty Cerdd to promote and foster the work of young composers.

I’ve written for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and most of the ensembles, artists and musicians in Wales. Welsh festivals, from the all contemporary Vale of Glamorgan Festival to the more traditional Aberystwyth International Festival are, in the main, supportive of new music, and over the years they have commissioned and fostered my music. 

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

MP: It’s calledFive Haiku from the Narrow Road to the Deep North. I’ve selected 5 representative haikufrom Matsuo Bashō’s travelogue about his two-year journey to the wild regions of northern Japan which began in 1689. I love this book and have lived with it for thirty years – I know many of its haikuby heart – but have never set any of them before.

 I decided to set them in Japanese. The Romanized Japanese is very simple and clear for singers, and most importantly, accurate. Whereas, every time I come upon an English translation of a Bashō haikuit’s different! It’s almost impossible to translate a haiku. The meaning and power of the poetry lies in the spaces between the words and each line of the poem. I know this sounds mysterious, but it’s the only way to describe what’s going on in this form of communication. Traditionally, they are recited veryslowly, with each vowel drawn out for effect and long pauses between each line of verse.

The problem I had when writing the piece was to find a musical way to reflect the extreme brevity of the poems. I restricted myself to just two pages of music for each setting, and found it extremely difficult to write something that is complete and satisfying in no more than 30 bars. Hey ho – the audience will judge whether I got this right! 

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

MP: About 8 years ago I decided to abandon all forms of pre-composition. I was doing so much pre-composition that when it came to the composition/notation act itself, I was finding it mechanical, sterile and utterly unrewarding. I took what was for me a radical step. Now I start with a blank page (or in my case, a blank screen on Sibelius). I now find the compositional process exhilarating and creative, if a little scary!

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

MP: Absolutely! Especially if you’re writing for singers. Each voice is unique and distinct. Without that sound in your head, that first blank page would be really scary, if not impossible.

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

MP: I’m not sure I could claim to have an individual ‘sound world.’ I write lines. That’s what comes first, so I suppose you would say that my music is essentially melodic. But melodies in my music always spark counter melodies. Often these countermelodies are ‘opposed’ to the first melody, rather than ‘complementary’ or ‘supportive.’ I like opposites, so a slow moving melody may be set against a fast moving countermelody, or a flowing consonant melody may be pitted against an angular dissonant countermelody. What I’m after is tension, drama and narrative.Strangely enough, I love to listen to static, calm, non-narrative music. But I just can’t write the stuff!

SC:What motivates you to compose? 

MP: Neurosis, psychosis, angst, anger, depression, and a bad habit I just don’t seem to be able to give up. I’m trying to rise above it! 

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

MP: The scene I know best is contemporary music in Wales. In May of this year I was invited to be the chair of Composers of Wales and I’ve always found the scene in Wales very collaborative and supportive, even if there is no great appetite for new music. I count many of the composers working in Wales as close friends. There is much to admire, especially amongst the younger generation, many of whom studied at the Welsh College and decided to make Wales their home. I’m thinking particularly about composers such as Lynne Plowman, Maja Palser and Sarah Lianne Lewis.The composer I most admire is the New York-based Fay (Kueen) Wang. She’s young enough to be my granddaughter, but I just love her music. It’s so eclectic! Somehow she’s managed to integrate rock/electronic/Chinese folk music/theatre with avant garde western music. It’s completely mad, yet at the same time rivetingly memorable and exhilarating. 

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

MP: Webern. But it must be on the evening of September 15th., 1945. If I could get him pissed enough, he might not want to go outside and smoke that last fatal cigar. There are two upsides to this. Webern was getting better and better, and poor old Ray Bell might not have died from guilt and alcoholism. 

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

MP:Two selections from the many recordings of the El Camino/Cantigas de SantiagoJosquin (3 pieces) La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem; all the frottola; Missa GaudeamusMozart – The Magic FluteBrahms – 6 pieces Op. 118Michael Tippett – piano concerto (because I have to have some English music!)The piece I couldn’t live without is Josquin’s La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem

SC:…and a book?:

MP: I’m cheating here because my selection is technically a trilogy. But really it’s just one long book about the fictitious Colorado town of Holt.Kent Haruf – Plainsong/Eventide/BenedictionIf you could throw in Haruf’s Our Souls at Night(it’s only short – say 30,000 words) I would be even happier.

SC:…a film?

MP:Company of Wolvesdirected by Neil Jordan. It’s based on Angela Carter’s ‘fairy stories’ (NOT!) and she wrote the screenplay.

SC:… and a luxury item?

MP: I’m torn between a pair of binoculars (I’m a keen birder) and a humongous box of Jaffa Cakes. Oh God! What a choice… it will have to be the Jaffa Cakes.