Mark Bowler on composition

OPUS2017 winner, Mark Bowler is currently working on his new work for our At Lunch series under the guidance of composer/mentor Nik Bärtsch. He took some time out to talk to us about his influences, composing and his advice for other composers ahead of the premiere of his new work in our At Lunch series.

Where are you from?  Where do you live now?  Do you think this is relevant to understanding your music?
I grew up in Marske-by-the-sea, Cleveland, and I now live in Bedford. I’ve also lived in Coventry and spent 13 years in London, so I’ve moved around a fair bit. My understanding of music widened when I moved to London, if only because of the available variety of music on offer every day of the week.

What’s your earliest musical memory?
Learning to put The Beatles’ Red Album on my parents’ record player.

When did you first start to write music?
I have early memories (and written evidence) of my first piano composition, aged 5. I became a musician by accident: a family friend moved to Germany in the early 1980’s and didn’t have the means to transport her upright piano and so left it at our house for safe keeping (it’s still there). Though I had piano lessons I was more interested in working on my own ideas than practicing scales. I also have a very early memory, pre-5 years, of making up melodies in my head to accompany pages in picture books. I think all children have musical potential; how that develops depends on the opportunities they are presented with. I had a lucky start and music has shaped almost every aspect of my life.

Which organisations and ensembles have you worked with previously?
Recently, my music has been performed by Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir; The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge and Ligeti String Quartet.

Describe your growth as a composer to this point.  What were the pivotal points, or career highlights so far?  
I graduated with a first in Composition from Coventry University in 2001 and then spent the noughties making experimental music with Adrian Palka, who introduced me to the musical sculpture-objects of Bob Rutman, and writing electronic music. I took an interest in folk music and became a part of Stamp Collective, a Guildhall School of Music & Drama folk ensemble run by Joe Broughton and Paloma Trigas, and founded Tribe of Tinkers folk collective with some of the amazing young musicians I met there. A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to further my formal understanding of composition and took up private study under the tutelage of John Lely who prepared me for a return to university. Guildhall accepted my application and I have just taken a place on their Artist Masters programme. So, coupled with the Britten Sinfonia opportunity, this certainly feels like a pivotal point in my career.

How do you start a new work/ what is your composing method?
It all starts in my head, drawing together ideas from both musical and extra-musical interests. I like to walk and think, even if that simply means pacing around the kitchen (I can do my daily 10,000 steps without leaving the house!). If I’m lucky I’ll get a flash of inspiration, but more often than not I take myself to a sheet of paper or the piano and put in the work. I’m not afraid to put aside ideas that don’t fully take root and very often it is during the exploration of those throwaway ideas that I find embryonic material worth developing. I’ll sometimes find a process through which I can generate material and then aesthetically moderate the result. Eventually I find myself at the computer to engrave the music using Dorico.

How have you approached writing your OPUS2017 piece for Britten Sinfonia? Now you’ve been to the workshop, what do you think you will do with your work?
The original minute long sketch came relatively easily; I knew I wanted to write something that grooved in mixed metre and the instrumentation (contrabass, clarinet and flute) lent itself well to the found-folk aesthetic I wanted to employ. When I found out that I had been shortlisted I sketched out several more mixed metre grooves and set about developing them for the workshop. Now I’m in the process of further development with the benefit of Nik’s mentoring. We’ll be getting deeper into the rhythms, finding different ways to interlock and overlap the parts and will explore the potential dramaturgy of the piece.

How do you feel about the opportunities that are available to composers?
It seems that there are far less opportunities than there are willing and talented composers, but I guess things have never been too easy for composers. Cuts to central arts funding puts further pressure on arts organisations and other patrons and so commissions are inevitably harder to come by. All this means that composers and other musicians must be inventive to create their own opportunities. And that can be a lot of fun.

New/contemporary music can be daunting to newcomers: what do you suggest they start with?  
There’s so much out there to choose from and the key is to have an open mind: ‘contemporary music’ can mean so many things and it’s not appropriate to apply labels (classical / experimental / electronic / jazz etc.) anymore. If possible, get to a concert or gig. Hearing real instruments resonate and sharing & discussing the experience with other people is a great way to get into contemporary music.
A (very) few recommendations to get started with, all in my humble opinion:
Thomas Ades; Ben Johnston for non-tempered tunings (particularly String Quartets IV-X); Andrew Norman (Companion Guide to Rome & Play – both incredible piece of music); Gerald Barry, if you might enjoy a sense of organised chaos and absurdity (my favourite piece of his is Piano Quartet No.1); Louis Andriessen (Hoketus); Per Nørgård and the infinity series; Hans Abrahamsen; Tom Johnson.

What would be your advice to other emerging composers today?
Keep being curious. Keep writing. Set goals and deadlines and work hard towards them.

What does the future hold for you? What are your next steps going to be as a composer?
To immerse myself in life at GSMD and to wring as much out of the short time I’m here as I possibly can. I’m also working on a commission for the Kaleidoscope Saxophone Quartet, which will be premiered in April 2018.

What inspires you as a composer?
Naturally occurring patterns and the mathematics behind them; a good stomping groove, regardless of musical genre; paradox, nonsense and the absurd. So many things – this could turn into a very long answer, so I’ll leave it there!

Which living person do you most admire, and why?
My mum. For being a tough cookie and for supporting me through the many twists and turns my life has taken.

The last concert you saw?
Simon Rattle’s premiere with LSO at Barbican. I had a cheap seat in the outdoor cinema. Rattle on a deckchair. Great concert, particularly the new Fanfare by Helen Grime. I’m a fan of Ades’ music so it was great to hear Asyla delivered with typical Rattle gusto. Rattle’s appointment as the LSO’s musical director is very exciting and this opening concert of music by living composers is probably a good indicator of what is to come. I hope!

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming album. I was given a copy of this when I was very young (no idea why) and it has been with me in all its pounding, cheesy, pop glory ever since. “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of….”

What instrument do you play?
If you see me performing I’ll be singing with an Avalon acoustic guitar in my hands. I also fumble my way around the piano and the digeridoo. But I’m not as comfortable performing as I am composing.

If you turned your iPod on now, what would be playing?
I know there’s a Tom Haines CD in the player and, if I quickly open a music streaming service, I find I was listening to…Maryaadakadaya by U. Srinivas (Carnatic Indian classical music).

What or who has inspired you most recently?
BBC Prom 2017 dedicated to Indian Classical music: 140mins of incredible music which lead to a sudden burst of drone-based inspiration that I’m developing into a piece for two pianos.

You can hear Mark Bowler’s new work during our At Lunch One performances in London, Cambridge and Norwich this November. Find out more and book tickets here.

Find out more about the OPUS competition here.