Composer Outlook: Paul Burnell

Paul Burnell talks about his work prior to the performance of his ‘Little Era Ending Songs’ at Borough New Music on Tuesday 6 March 2018.

As a preview to Series 6 of Borough New Music, the composer Paul Burnell talks about his work, which features in the opening recital by Chris Brannick & Sara Stowe on Tuesday 6 March 2018. Interview by Clare Simmonds.


CS: What’s your dream line-up (set of instruments) to write for, and your ideal performance space?

PB: Do you know, I’d like to say someone’s living room! With a small group, some food going on, drink, and playing through some pieces – the social music scene is perfect for me. As far as instruments go, I’d like to keep it flexible – a lot of the time, my music can be played on violin or flute or recorder, or whatever. The ethos of Contemporary Music for All (CoMA) has really had an impact on me – the idea that it doesn’t matter what you come along with, because there will be something you can play.

But then on the other hand, I can think of some bizarre examples: I was teaching on a recorder orchestra course a few years ago. As one of the performances, they got everyone together – 120 recorder players in a school hall – all sorts of instruments, from the soprano to the sub-contrabass recorder (which, if you haven’t seen one, you need to!). The sound they made was almost frightening, but thrilling at the same time. Another example that made a big impact on me was the performance of the music I wrote for the Bath Festival in 2004. In the middle of Bath there was a brass band, a string orchestra, a wind band, a choir and a percussion group – all in a relatively small space. The sound was phenomenal. At two points they were playing together, elsewhere they were playing individually. It was almost terrifying to hear that volume of sound.

But my dream is to have music in intimate surroundings, because music is a social activity. It’s easy to get hung up on the concert hall ideal of musical performance. We tend to forget that some of the most pleasurable things that we do in music are in small groups.

CS: How does it feel to listen to your music being performed?

PB: I try to close my eyes! It’s quite nerve-wracking in a sense – there are so many feelings going on at the same time. Most of the time, it’s fantastic, it’s a great performance, and you get a huge sense of relief at the end of it. I long for those performances where I have a smile on my face throughout! But if I can, I hide at the back of the audience during performances – my wife gets upset with me for that! I’m a bit of a reticent audience member when it comes to my own pieces. But I do like to be there, all the same.

CS: What about the listeners: how do you think the audience hears your music?

PB: I don’t know really! It depends what kind of piece it is. I’m more concerned about the performers than the audience, in a sense. When I write the piece I don’t think about the audience… I’m thinking, if I enjoy the piece, then hopefully the audience will as well. Obviously if it’s a song, there’s text, and you want the text to come across. If it’s a more abstract piece, then it becomes much more difficult to work out what the audience will take away from the performance. You’re reliant on the performers to interpret the music on your behalf. There’s a triumvirate of composer, audience and performers making of the piece what they can. I remember hearing a piece a long time ago where there was not much information in the music – quite a sparse piece conceptually – and the composer said well, you have to take what you get! You get what you deserve. If it’s a very conceptual piece then you throw caution to the wind.

CS: How do you get your music heard?

PB: I write music because I have to – I have an urge to! The number of composers who make their living exclusively from composing are countable on the fingers of one hand – ie not many. So if you want to make money out of it, you have to dedicate a lot of your time to promotion. The best thing to do is to be a great self-promoter, which I’m not! But even if you’re reticent as I am, you can try to make your music available. So I produce my albums and release them digitally on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon Music. I try to make the scores available through self-publishing and Internet publishers like Sheet Music Plus and MusicaNeo. I keep track of composer opportunities, and try to make the most of those – sending scores off to BBC Introducing, and so on. I use Soundcloud, have a Web site, etc trying to get myself in the public eye. The other important thing to do is to be incredibly social, go to concerts, make sure you speak to the performers and introduce yourself. It’s such a pleasure to have fantastic performances of your music – you get a real buzz, an uplift! That’s one of the best feelings in the world…

CS: Tell us about your piece at Borough New Music on 6 March 2018.

PB: ‘Little Era Ending Songs’ is a piece is for soprano, voice and vibraphone. It was commissioned by Chris Brannick and Sara Stowe for a concert in Brighton in 2015. It’s a series of seven songs which can be performed independently or together, in any order, on the theme of “our destiny as the human race”. A huge theme! And they’re seven tiny little songs! I wrote the texts for them myself. Some of them are quite jokey (so ‘the end of the world’ is a show tune!) others are softer (a lullaby for the last person left on earth). One is called Petri Dish, and it makes an analogy between the human race living on Planet Earth with limited resources, and the bugs and bacteria who live in a Petri dish, who also have limited horizons – another comment on our precarious position on Earth. I like to write pieces that form a group but you don’t have to do them all – you can take your pick.

CS: How did you find the performers? How do you know Chris Brannick?

PB: I’m eternally grateful to Chris Brannick. He has been a great supporter, I have written things for him in the past, and sometimes he has put me in touch with other people. I first met Chris at the CoMA Summer School 10-15 years ago – he heard one of my pieces there, and asked me to write a piece for him. Also, I was in a percussion quartet called the Brake Drum Assembly. Chris Brannick was our mentor for that group. The group doesn’t perform any more (we stopped as one of our key members moved to Hungary) but for 5-6 years I was a putative percussionist under the direction of Chris Brannick.

CS: What’s coming up next for you?

PB: In July, the Leatherhead Choral Society are performing a piece of mine. It was a competition – my piece won out of 120 entries! Also, over the next six months I’ll be working on an album under a pseudonym. It will be much more pop-music inspired. I did some music for a production company 20 years ago, and found out on the Internet that they’re still talking about it now. But I won’t tell anyone that it’s me – a secret album….

Paul Burnell‘s ‘Little Era Ending Songs’ form part of the programme in the opening concert of Series 6 of Borough New Music at St George the Martyr Church, Borough SE1 1JA at 1pm on Tuesday 6 March 2018, performed by Chris Brannick (percussion) and Sara Stowe (soprano). The full programme is:
Jorge Vidales (b. 1969) – Three Basho Haiku (2008)
Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) – Canto del Capricorno no.8 (1962-72)
Adrian SutcliffeNakers Capers*
Chris Hobbs (b. 1950) – Song for Anna*
Julie Sharpe – Organum Caudices*
Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) – Recitativarie for singing harpsichordist (1971-72)
Paul Burnell (b. 1960) –  Little Era Ending Songs
John Cage/Erik Satie – Sonnekus 2 (1985) vs Je Te Veux

(* = Premiere)

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