Martin Ellerby: Without Performers I'm Inarticulate…

John Robert Brown

"I don't play any longer. I used to be a trumpet player," says Martin Ellerby. He continues with a further confession: "I can also play bad pub piano - right hand, but no left hand. I've never had any interest in playing, only as a means to an end."

Clearly, this has been no handicap to Ellerby's career. A composer with well over 100 CDs to his name, an enormous list of published compositions and a burgeoning international reputation, Martin Ellerby (b1957) is a man of considerable musical achievement, and someone who is accorded international respect.

Martin Ellerby"One day in school, I was interested in a music class in melody and harmony," he remembers. "We were played classical music - in a pit village, remember, in Worksop, North Nottinghamshire. I related to this music. Nobody else did, because it was a bit strange. But that attracted me. From then on, the writing and creating of the music was key. The rest - the playing - I had to do to get into college.

"The careers teacher said: 'You can either go down the pit' - which was active in those days - 'or for those with character, join the army.' He wanted to tick boxes, to be able to say that he'd got us somewhere.

"I lied my way through school. I had to move from that comprehensive school because I was the only person who wanted to stay on for the sixth form. Changing school was the best thing that happened to me. I went to a former grammar school. I met teachers who had hearts and souls - they didn't beat us up!

"That first school did me a lot of harm, because when I got my degree I never did a teacher training year. In later life I went back to the London College of Music (LCM) as Head of Composition, for many years. It was great. I left when the system of student grants changed. When they paid their own way, we saw the rise of complaining students, who behaved like customers.

"We school students were clever in those days. When the peripatetic teacher came in to school, if you did the trumpet you could get out of science. I did it for the right reason. I passed my Grade VIII and got into college.

"Originally I went to the LCM, mainly because my performing wasn't of the standard to get into a 'Royal'. You couldn't do composition, either as a first or second study then, in the late 1970s. I finished my studies in 1981.

"I paid for 'composition' as a third study, though I never did composition - I did counterpoint and fugue. Afterwards, I went to the Royal College of Music (RCM), as a postgraduate. I could get in at that point. I only went to the RCM to study with Joseph Horovitz. Then I went to Wilfred Josephs (1927-1997), who had a house in Hampstead." Josephs never taught in an institution. Ellerby studied with him for five years.

"Joseph Horovitz (b1926) is an unfairly neglected composer," says Ellerby. "He is a complete gentleman. We keep in touch to this day. We meet up. I stay at his house. He still sends me critiques of my music. He listens to the piece several times, then writes me an appraisal. He gives his opinion to me, warts and all!"

Today, Ellerby lives in Altrincham, ten kilometres from Manchester. "As a composer, it doesn't matter where I'm located," he says. "My wife [the clarinettist Linda Merrick] is vice-principal of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), so it makes sense to live nearby. In the old days, Wilfred Josephs said: 'I've got to have an 01 number. [The London code was 01 until 1990], I can't live south of the Thames.' I thought, 'You snob'. Josephs was from Newcastle. "I remember when the London prefix numbers changed to 071 and 081. You thought, 'I've got to have an 071 then, haven't I?' Not realising of course that half the East End had 071 numbers. Eventually it all went out of the window."

"I was at the tail end of that snobbery; it was going out, a bit like tonality coming back. I wrote a lot of serial pieces. But it wasn't me. I forced myself to do it. I don't regret it, because it's taught me a lot of technique. But I don't do that any more." Nevertheless, at the moment he is writing a serial tuba sonata for James Gourlay. "But it's tonally written," he says. "It's not a Webern-type language. I want to do something that will shock all these tuba players who know me to write nice light pieces."

Ellerby feels that he is at the time of life where he can afford to do projects that he wants to do without having to worry about getting paid a lot. "So I barter a low rate - or nothing," he confides. "If you're going to record it for me it'll be played all over the world. The word 'commission' is interesting. James Gourlay is commissioning me, but he's not necessarily paying me anything. In dictionary terms, it means that you are asked to do something. Whether it's paid for is another matter.

"I won't tell you any prices, but I'll tell you how I do it. I've been in American universities, lecturing to the music department. I say: 'Any questions?' They ask: 'How much did you get paid for that piece?' Straight out! That's all they're interested in. I say: 'I'm not telling you. That's private. You might be surprised by how little it might be.' " He smiles.

"You can't get into writing music if you are after money. Unless, that is, you are into films or media, the only place where there's big money apart from pop music. Film composers and pop musicians pretend that they think about composition in musical terms, but they know they've got to be financially successful. Whereas I haven't. I have tried to be practical over my career. I think it has brought me certain rewards.

"You become type-cast. People associate you with a particular thing. I wrote two pieces close together, in 1993 and 1994: Natalis, for brass band, which is a little symphony, and Paris Sketches, for wind band. Even today, Paris Sketches is still my most popular and lucrative piece. Since I wrote it, the royalties have paid for every summer holiday I've had. Paris Sketches has also been my best calling card all over the world, has got me through the door of American universities and into being commissioned. Whether it's my best piece or not is a moot point.

"The wind band and brass band worlds are stylistically backward. They will take a latter-day romantic idiom and think it modern. We composers can be pioneers, writing music for these groups. The availability of multiple performances existed there, so I went down those routes. Okay, I'll be snobbish: I called the brass band a 'symphonic brass ensemble'; the wind band I called a 'symphonic wind orchestra'. The commissions have rolled in healthily since that time. I've now tried to manoeuvre them towards the kind of pieces that I'd rather write. I would never let a commissioner down, but I would use the funding I get from that, maybe to take a month off to write something I want to.

"I have a series called Epitaphs. I've done seven so far, about Second World War subjects. So they are far enough away in time not to be reportage. For example, a memorial to Lady Diana is something I could never handle, being too close, and populist. The Second World War shaped my generation. We weren't born during the conflict, but the effects of it created the world I was brought up in. When I go to sites of historical importance, they have an ambience.

"The first Epitaph, for example, is about Oradour-sur-Glane, a martyr village in France, which has been left as it was. [The original village was destroyed in June 1944, when more than 600 of its inhabitants were murdered by a German Waffen-SS company.] Oradour-sur-Glane is quite a big place to walk round, and touching. I wrote the piece for my wife, who is a clarinettist. I called it Souviens Toi, which is written on the wall as you go in: 'Remember'. I was going to write all these pieces for an instrument and piano, intending to do one for every instrument, over my career.

"A later piece in the series had the instrumentation of solo tuba, two grand pianos, and two antiphonal percussionists. I wrote that for Jim Gourlay," says Ellerby. Gourlay had told the composer that he had a CD coming up. " 'Do you want to do something? It's going to be recorded at the Royal Northern', he had said. I could have two Steinway grand pianos, with good players. I did that about Leningrad - Winter Music. I went to the site after I'd written it; I'm glad I went.

"The last one I've written - I've recently finished it - is Epitaph Seven, Memento, Terezin, which is 22 minutes long, for solo clarinet in A and string quartet. Recently it's been recorded. Naxos will release it next year. Here I'm breaking into a different world," he says.

"I know that a colleague of mine, Edward Gregson, has also been type-cast. Consciously, he writes brass band music only occasionally now. It's a clever move, because everyone is then anticipating the piece. They want it. I write little brass band music now, only when I'm invited to write test pieces, because they don't get played unless it's a contest. Almost immediately I make the windband transcription, which has more potential to sell. I've never transcribed a wind band piece into brass band. I'd find that difficult. It's okay to do it from brass band to wind band, because the colour range is greater.

"Joe Horovitz once said to me: 'One day we'll all be finished, no ideas left. Then we'll start rescoring all our works for symphony orchestra.' Which is funny, isn't it? I can see some of these pieces working that way.

"Commissions come my way. I'm an adviser to Studio Music, I get a small salary from them. Stan Kitchen, of Studio Music, is a fantastic friend and supporter of my music. Not many people get a deal like this, so I'm happy. He has to get all my publishing, which is fine.

"I teach for the Royal Air Force Music Services, but that's only for ten days in an intense course over half a year. With some marking, that adds up to about fourteen days - but it's highly lucrative, and keeps me in education. I guest lecture occasionally, odd days and bits and pieces.

"I negotiate to attend an American university, not necessarily for pay. They will keep me for a week. I'll be composer-in-residence, an ego trip, I should be paying for it. I get to work with various large ensembles. The last one was the University of Cincinnati, with Rodney Winther, the director of wind studies. I spent a week there, with five or more performances during that time. I talk to the conducting class. They ask me how I feel about interpretation. I speak to the instrumentalists. They ask: 'Why did you write this? It's impossible!' I say: 'Well, here's a recording. It works.' "

Ellerby says that he always treats performers seriously, with great respect. "I don't play," he says. "I don't conduct. I need these people. Without performers I'm inarticulate. I can write reams of music, but there's no point if it doesn't get heard. I respect them. I'm glad to get the feedback."

Ellerby admits that, with hindsight, he regrets that he didn't study conducting. "I've conducted once, and only once," he says. "I survived. I've framed that concert programme. But I'm no good at it. You can't simply decide to be a conductor. It's innate.

"You might ask my opinion on teaching, but I don't believe any longer that composition can be taught. You can teach the history of music. You can teach techniques. But how do you teach someone to be individual as a creative artist? You can indoctrinate them, which has been going on a lot."

Nevertheless, he is composer-in-residence for the Coldstream Guards. "They appoint me a year at a time. I'm now in the third year. They keep re-hiring me. We've decided to finish after this year. I'm spent! The final piece, I've composed for singer and big band. It's like an album, eight or nine tracks. That's fine. But how did I learn big-band writing? I listened to a load of recordings. I'm a good copier. If I hear something, I can write it out. I've aped the idiom. I'll be okay, because the musicians are all friends of mine - especially after they'd taken me skiing in Andorra, on an Army training exercise, team building, and nearly killed me! Because I mucked in, they all helped me. How do you notate drum parts of that nature? They're free. You don't want it to be four square. You write a guideline, go through it with them, and eventually they feel it in. All the brass parts and sax parts are notated, and there's that hidden element of feel that they inject into it."

Because Ellerby claims to have no keyboard skills, one assumes that he has a very acute ear. Is this so? Does he have perfect pitch? "I was brought up on a piano which was in one key at the bottom end and at the top it had shifted enough to confuse me," he says. "I don't have absolute pitch. My wife has perfect pitch, and she's never written a note of music in her life. People confuse the possession of perfect pitch with being a composer. I have a good ear. I'm good at notating things by listening. I can listen to a record, and provided that the harmonic idiom is not over-complicated, if it's broadly tonal, I can jot it down. I make a series of sketches, then go upstairs to a room with no instrument in it, and put it straight on Sibelius music-writing software, in full score. That's important to me. I think of the instrumentation, and of the way it's laid out, from square one.

"I don't write short scores and orchestrate them after the event. I go straight to transposed score on screen. It's important to see the part the way the player will see it. Wilfred Josephs used to write his scores in C. Now, that's okay with clarinets, or trumpets, because they are only a tone away from concert pitch. But for horns in F, they are a fifth higher. That looks okay at first. Then you start to get ledger lines when you transpose the part. We all know the advice to keep horns in the stave, unless they are really good players. Even then they split notes. So you're being wise. I've looked at all of Malcolm Arnold's scores. Only rarely does Arnold take the horns out of the stave. If he does, they are walking up to these higher notes, not leaping.

"That's a practical aspect of music making that I've always considered to be a key thing. Most of my scores are transparent. There are a lot of tuttis, but the principal of orchestration to me is orchestral. I would certainly react against the American style, where it's always fully scored, but it's either loud or quiet. That isn't composer-driven, it's publisher-driven, to sell more material. Or it's over-cued. Only rarely do I put in a cue. For instance, where I've used a strange instrument, I'll probably cue it for safety. Otherwise I would leave it for the players to sort out. If you put the cues in, they'll play them, that's the problem. Most American band directors re-score all my music to fit their band. I don't mind that. I'd rather have the performance than not. Often, in Altrincham, where I live, I can't hear the piece played.

"On the windband front I'm currently doing a piece for an American university orchestra and choir. Readers of the last issue of Winds will have seen a review of my Mass of St Thomas Aquinas. A lot of American universities have a choral union within them. But the singers never seem to get together with the wind band. So I instigated this with the University of St Thomas at St Paul, Minnesota, a couple of years ago. That resulted in the CD that was reviewed.

"They came back to me with a request for a piece for their Christmas concert, which is about English carols. I'm not going to do it like a karaoke medley. I shall dance around it creatively. The length will be about ten to twelve minutes.

"At the moment, on my trips to Kerkrade in Holland I'm taking with me the texts of the carols I've selected, a nice commission which gives me an opportunity to go down a different road. They'll play it at their Christmas concert.

"Ultimately I'd like to write a big piece for choir and band. When this interview is published, some composers will think: 'I'll get there first.' Fine, if I inspire people into doing this. Gilbert Vinter wrote a piece for brass band and choir, The Trumpets. It should be played more often, because it's novel. A lot of people won't do it. They think: 'We'll stay with our band. We don't want foreigners in it. We can't have a choir!' In the old days, when the brass bands were full of men, the choir might have some women in it. 'We can't be having that,' they'd say. Yet the first thing the brass band members do when they get to the pub is they want to meet all the women in the choir!"

The day after we spoke, Ellerby was to return to a music festival in Kerkrade, in the Netherlands, on the German border. "It's an old mining town," he explains. "The mine is now defunct. In fact, I'm staying at an old ski resort there, built on the top of a slag heap, indoors, with proper snow. Every fourth year they have a worldwide competition, done over three long weekends. They have wind orchestras (Harmoniemusik), fanfare orchestras, which are brass bands with saxophones, and marching band contests, held in a stadium.

"I adjudicated last time. I've been invited back. We have to do a lot of bands. We tier them and grade them as we go. By the final weekend there will be a winner. We do it by careful methodology and technique, with five adjudicators on my panel."

When asked what advice he would give to student, he jokes: "Don't do it. Get a life!" He believes that budding composers who want to write will do it anyway. "Composing is a job for people who can't help themselves," he says. "Otherwise, it's over-romanticised." Ellerby believes that tenacity will achieve results. "Stick it out," he urges. "Composing chooses you, not vice versa. To get certain types of jobs is fatal. To get a job in music is good, where you're going to be a part-time teacher or examiner. But say you work in a restaurant for a couple of days. They ask, do you want to work lunchtimes as well? You think of the money. You'll get lost."

Ellerby is disarmingly frank about what he calls his 'wilderness years'. "For quite a long time in my mid-twenties I had little coming in. I lived with my parents," he explains. "Parents should realise that music students, unlike engineers or scientists, don't go straight into positions in industry. What reputation can you possibly have as a composer when you leave a music college? Hundreds and hundreds have graduated simultaneously with you in this country, thousands across the globe. Today, music publishing is in a dread situation. No-one wants to record you. No-one wants to play you. To make a living takes time. I'm a great believer in the God of Good Luck, Happy Fortune, Serendipity. I used to have a record label called Serendipity."

"I did start to notice, when I was head of composition at the London College of Music, that the standard of the students' technique was declining all the time. For example, when I was at school, we harmonized Bach chorales from the Riemenschneider chorale book. We did species counterpoint. We also had to do aural. Nobody does these things today, because they can't. The easiest way to get round these student problems is to hacksaw these elements, get rid of them.

"So they now come to universities with no contrapuntal ability whatsoever, other than tapping something into their computer until it sounds okay to them. So you see ludicrous compositions where the entire brass section is going fff, and a solo flute - in its lowest register - is playing pp. "It sounds okay on my computer," they say. You sort it out, and change it all. Then they come back with the piece in their exam portfolio, reverted to the way it was. You might as well not have bothered.

"Why did you do that?" I ask. "I thought it was better my way than yours," they reply. Well, okay, good luck to you. Try and get a job outside.

"Malcolm Arnold was a good friend of mine. For years he was stabbed in the back, in the front, in the sides, by the critics. Name me all these critics; you can't. They are forgotten, yet Arnold's music still lives. Whatever you criticise about him, he produces crystal clear orchestration. He could write tunes to die for. He was envied by people - but he didn't help himself."

Ellerby believes that when writing music, the melodic idea is the easiest part of the process. "The structure is the hardest thing to deal with," he says, "because you have to find what to do with the material within the structure. Once you've got a good technique - which grows with the years - you could compose fifty minutes out of eight bars. That's the hardest thing to teach anybody. You can teach certain aspects of melody, harmony, counterpoint, but the structure is the most individual aspect. And that's the one that's the key, the real secret."

First published in Winds Magazine, October 2009. Used by kind permission, reproduction forbidden.

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