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Make Your Own Luck: Stephen McNeff in conversation

John Robert Brown

Composer Stephen McNeff is visiting Leeds to hear Andrew Foster-Williams sing Schubert's Winterreise at the Howard Assembly Room, the rehearsal home of the Orchestra of Opera North. Foster-Williams has commissioned McNeff to write a new song cycle.
"I was a surprise to everybody when I started composing," says McNeff, when we settle down to chat in the coffee shop of his Leeds hotel. "I didn't seriously think about it until I was about fourteen. I was lucky enough to have a good music teacher at school in Swansea, in South Wales. Oddly enough, I'm now back in contact with that same music teacher. His name is Clive John. Coincidentally, his father, Ivor John, was one of the founders of the Welsh National Opera. They are a distinguished musical family in South Wales.

Stephen McNeff
McNeff has recently written a piece for the Swansea Philharmonic Choir, for their fiftieth anniversary. "The choir was a great influence on me," he says. "It was the first time I'd come across composers like Monteverdi, or Edmund Rubbra. When I was growing up in South Wales, Mendelssohn's Elijah, and Handel's Messiah, were staple fare. I was grateful for that choral tradition. In fact, when I went to the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), I did singing as a second subject. Composition was first."
McNeff says that he was given a lot of opportunities because his grammar school had a good choir, providing opportunities to have his work heard. "In those days I was keen on conducting," he says. "There were many amateur operatic societies around, prepared to tolerate having a teenager come in as assistant chorus master, or whatever."
McNeff claims that he is a rotten pianist. "I couldn't play the piano to save my life," he claims. "I learned to fake later on. My first fiver was earned for conducting the off-stage choruses in Carmen, and being tolerated by people who probably knew the choruses far better than I did, but were keen to encourage a teenager who was interested.
"I came through school, and went to the RAM. My parents were surprised that I was musical. But it was tolerated. You could be a musician in Wales, it was a respected thing to do. I was lucky; I also played rugby. If you played rugby and were a musician, you were okay. The two things went well together.
The Academy came as a shock. "I came across different types - kids who'd been to the Menuhin school, for instance, people who were high flyers before they ever got to London. And there was the whole thing of going to London, which was also a rite of passage. It was sink or swim. Judith Bingham [the composer] and I were contemporaries at the RAM. Neither of us liked it much. We weren't particular friends there, but we get together a lot now to compare stories from those days. Both of us left the RAM not interested in pursuing a career in music. We came back to it later.
"I came back through working in theatres. I started to write music for stage shows, managing to fake my way on the piano. Later I discovered that a lot of composers had established their careers by working in theatres. Pierre Boulez had been a theatre musician at some point.
"Then I became interested in both the music of Kurt Weill, in the music of American composers who were Weill's contemporaries, and also American musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim's music was becoming well known. I was, and still am, a great admirer of the artistry of Sondheim, the cleverness of it, and the fact that, like some of my contemporaries in the world of composition, Sondheim seemed to be able to write intelligent music that communicated itself to a large audience. There was no talking down. His music was something that could be listened to and enjoyed by a wide audience. I've always admired composers who can do that; Bernstein, for instance. One of the theatre jobs I did early on was what I suppose would be the illegal re-orchestration of West Side Story, for nine wind instruments in a theatre pit band. That was a wonderful lesson in getting to know West Side Story, which is an extraordinary score, also working with musicians - reed players, for instance - who, if it could be blown, they could play it." McNeff started doing this work at the Northcott Theatre, in Exeter.
"In those days, all regional theatres were able to do big shows at Christmas time. They would have pit bands of six, eight, nine whatever - something which doesn't happen any more, sadly, because of money. There was also an opportunity to work with an experienced group of musicians who were mainly reed and brass players, the kinds of players I hadn't come across before, who could play in any style. The experience stood me in good stead later on, when it came to writing wind music. My main interest crossed over from music theatre into opera.
"I ended up in the Banff Centre, in Canada, as their composer in residence. They were starting a new music theatre programme, in the early eighties. I stayed for seven years, first of all living in western Canada, in Banff, later on in Toronto. I worked with Canadian Opera company, and other contemporary music groups."
McNeff came back to the UK at the end of the eighties. "I was lucky enough to have recognition through writing pieces for the Covent Garden Festival. I mention that because I wrote a piece for the Covent Garden Festival, based on The Waste Land. A year or two later I coincidentally worked with Clark Rundell, who is now head of conducting and director of contemporary music at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM).
"He said to me: 'Have you ever thought of writing for a wind orchestra?' I asked: 'What's one of those?'" Rundell said to McNeff that he should know about them, that he'd be good at writing for wind band. "He invited me up to the RNCM. To this day I remember sitting down in the college refectory with Clark, who said: 'Write this down. This is what’s in a wind orchestra in this country; this is what’s in a wind orchestra in the USA; this is a military band. And you mustn’t mix them up…'
"That was the time when Tim Reynish was establishing the cause, bringing composers in from the classic end of composition, to write for the wind orchestra. I can't ever praise Tim and Hilary too highly for this. Tim Reynish a man who believes in putting his money where his mouth is, dipping his hand into his own pocket, and paying for commissions. Which is exactly what happened. I wrote a piece called Wasteland Wind Music, which is on the CD of my stuff with the RNCM Wind Orchestra, which gave the first performance which Clark conducted, in 2001. Out of that I started to be published by Maecenas.
"Clark said to me that although it was an interesting piece, it was difficult. He told me to think about writing something that good college bands could play. As a result, I wrote Ghosts, which is the most popular wind band piece in my catalogue. Since then I've written a windband piece every years or two, including a clarinet concerto for Linda Merrick." McNeff wrote a piece for Tim and Hilary Reynish as part of their William Reynish Memorial Series. William, their son, was a young mountaineer, killed while climbing in 2001. McNeff also wrote a number of short pieces for wind orchestra. "I've tried to write pieces at different levels. A lot of my stuff is performed in the USA, as well as Britain.
"In between times I've also been composer in residence for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for three years, and have continued to write music theatre works and operas. A couple of years ago Guy Wolfenden said that Birmingham Conservatory had the next BASWBE Consortium in its gift, and would I be interested in doing it? That's how I've come to write the new piece for Guy to premiere in Birmingham."
McNeff is a full-time composer. He doesn't teach. "After thirty years, one has a wide range of contacts, built up partly by being prepared to consider anything, and by being practical, being pragmatic. People that I worked with twenty or twenty-five years ago, musicians and instrumentalists, some are now household names.
"Unless you are lucky, you shouldn't expect to be rich. You are writing principally because you want to write, you enjoy writing, you enjoy hearing your work done. You enjoy the relationship that you have with other musicians. One of the most rewarding things is working with friends, which is ultimately what I like to do. It's not always possible, if you are commissioned to write a piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The next big piece I'm writing is a double percussion concerto."
For the process of writing the notes, does McNeff use computer software? "I'm reliant on the computer," he says. "I use Sibelius software, although I sometimes do sketch in pencil. Partly now because publishers will not accept submission in anything other than typeset form, you simply have to get on with using the computer. However, I understand that Adam Gorb, who is head of composition and contemporary music at the RNCM, prefers his composers to write at least one piece a year by hand. He, like a lot of us, is afraid that people are not going to be able to write music down. I started working with Score software way back in 1992. Score was a devil to use. You had to remember long lists of numbers! Everything was entered numerically. Then I usedFinale software for a number of years. When I signed with Peters Edition we agreed that all the composers would use Sibelius, if possible. Editing is so much easier if everybody is using the same software."
Clearly, McNeff has a strong relationship with his publisher. Yet his success he sees as being a cooperative matter. "Sometimes the phone will ring, or an email will arrive. Your day will be made because it's the offer of a piece. But I have to say that commissions rarely come out of the blue. Often, by the time that the commission offer has arrived you will have spent some considerable time putting in the legwork to prepare the ground. Sometimes you have to coax, to suggest. Sometimes you have to say to people: 'I'd like to write something for you'. Sometimes your publisher can be helpful.
"When I wrote the clarinet concerto for Linda Merrick, Giles Easterbrook, who was then working for the music publisher Maecenas, said to me: 'You know, you haven't done a concerto.' I said: 'Nobody's asked me.' And Giles said: 'I'll see to that. Who do you want to write for?' I said that there are lots of clarinettists around. The wind band world is full of clarinettists. He said: 'Okay. Let's ask Linda.' So that's how that came about, by going to the soloist. Having relationships with instrumentalists is important.
"There's no point in thinking about a piano concerto, or a violin concerto, because most soloists will have their few concertos, and they want to do them. They won't see any reason for picking up a new concerto, which perhaps they'll only play once or twice. It's much easier to play Rachmaninoff, or Grieg. But if we think of a less common concerto instrument, then we can be discussing that with a soloist who wants to build the repertoire. Oddly enough, I'm writing a concerto for Philip Dukes, the viola player, who is a serial commissioner. He says that when instrumentalists reach a certain stage, they have a responsibility to commission. So my advice to young composers is to find your right sources. But at all costs you've got to keep on writing. There is no point in sitting round waiting for the phone to ring. As they say in the movie business, you've got to make your own luck."
Stephen McNeff looks at his watch and drains his coffee. Already it's time for him to depart for the Howard Assembly Room, to hear Andrew Foster-Williams - and perhaps to make a little more luck.
Published in Winds magazine, Spring 2010-. Reproduced by permission.Reproduction forbidden.
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