In part two of our ‘Meet a Composer’ series, our guest blogger John K. Miles continues to give us an insight into the life of a composer. This year we’re thrilled to be working with John on a number of projects; from a three day compose masterclass to the development of the mass-ensemble finale for our upcoming major outdoor event ‘Transmission’.
We spoke with John about his inspirations and processes, advice he wishes he’d received, and why music is ‘the closest thing to magic’…
Hi John. You’ve recently been working with us through our ‘Compose’ programme (completed in Jan 2019). How have you found working with young, aspiring composers? Were there any moments that surprised you?
People always surprise me. The way they think, conceive and express themselves. There is always something to learn from everyone you work with. Group dynamics are also always interesting, different combinations of people working together. The ‘Compose’ group has been fantastic, and open to a range of ideas from myself and fellow composer Chris Woods. It’s been a real pleasure going through various compositional processes and then watching the young musicians take some of those ideas on board in their own work.
In Compose you covered a lot of topics around how to generate and develop material. As a professional composer, can you tell us a bit more about what inspires you?
That’s a difficult one to answer because for me my primary inspiration is enigmatic; it’s the sound that speaks to me. Nothing’s changed since I was seven really! Just sitting down at a piano, with a positive energy is enough to make me want to make something up. It always seems like an opportunity, a world of possibilities. Writing for an orchestra is similar except I’ll often try and imagine the sound in my head and write it down, straight to (digital) manuscript.
Everybody draws on their musical reference points subconsciously and many composers and performers have inspired me over the years, professional and amateur. Even so, it is the sound made by performers and the sonic aesthetic created by composers from a range of genres, which has inspired me. Music is a language with rules and techniques but it is also something purely in the sonic realm that speaks directly to the soul. They say that the musical mind is buried much deeper than conscious thought (which is why we instinctively speak to babies in a ‘sing song’ voice) and I’d agree with that. It is the language of the stars.
That said I do look for connections outside the sonic world when collaborating. They may be structural, or musical ideas suggested by a theme or subject. A big part of composition is context and the music’s place in that aesthetic, so connecting to the bigger idea is vital.
We’re thrilled to have you on board for ‘Transmission’ composing the finale! Can you tell us a bit about your creative process and how you’re interpreting the theme of ‘Transmission’?
I’m very excited too. A great theme, full of possibilities!
I’ve literally just started the finale for Transmission. My starting point was the conversations I’ve had with Michael and Rachel at Soundstorm and the great promo video made by the team. From that I’ve been thinking about musical expressions of radio communication such as Morse Code, and the way spoken information changes and develops as it’s passed from person to person.
To start, I’ll sit down at my piano with a blank canvas to generate some musical starting points. From there I predict there will be moments of inspiration, collaboration, frustration, desperation, joy, enlightenment and all too soon the piece will be finished, for Pro band, A level instrumentalists, Strings, Beginner instrumentalists and Choir. I have about a month to write the piece.
Nothing exists yet and anything could happen! This (for me) is the great joy of composition, to try and create something new in the world with meaning, connection and depth.
Making music has a great power to bring people together and I hope this piece will be a reflection of that.
We know that for many of the young people we work with, the idea of becoming a ‘composer’ can seem quite daunting. Is there any advice you wish you’d been given as a young musician/composer?
Being a musician is about finding a personal niche, because we’re all different with varied strengths and weaknesses, with different things to say. The trick is to find your own way. Don’t worry about being ‘the best’, rather try and be yourself and honour that with hard work fed from inspiration, not duty. Follow your own lines of enquiry and enjoy the journey!
And finally, in one sentence, tell us what music means to you.
Music is one of the closest things to magic on this Earth; it can move you, heal you, inspire you, transport you, speak to you and bind communities together.
To find out more about Transmission and how you could get involved, visit our Transmission page here.
Outside of his work with SoundStorm, this year John will be working City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, working towards the Commonwealth Games celebrations in Birmingham 2022, along with leading a jazz project in a school in London and planning a new album of orchestral work.
In addition to this John has eight orchestral performances of ‘The Wish’ coming up ( a young person’s guide to the orchestra for 5-8 year olds) a collaboration with storyteller/presenter Claire Henry.
For more information visit John’s website: https://www.johnkmiles.co.uk