28 May 2019

NYCGB Artistic Director Ben Parry is also a successful composer. We caught up with him to find out how he creates music, and about the very personal background to his new work 'One Equal Music'.

Who or what most inspires you to compose?

I’m a Suffolk boy and have been closely connected to Snape Maltings and the Aldeburgh Festival for many years. My parents were both active local musicians and my mum sang in the Aldeburgh Festival Chorus under the composer and conductor Benjamin Britten, whose musical style and approach has always been a profound inspiration to me. I wrote my first pieces (a set of limerick songs!) when I was about 9 years old and have always been fascinated in the process of composing music. Nearly everything I write is choral, or written for singers, and I have a love of church music - my dad was a church organist as well as a fine composer himself. I’m currently Assistant Director of Music at King’s College in Cambridge and Artistic Director of National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and this continues to inform my choral writing. There’s a wonderfully rich heritage of choral composition in the UK which has informed my own writing - along with Britten, there’s Walton, Vaughan Williams and Finzi, and more recently British composers like MacMillan, Weir, Musgrave and Dove have also inspired me. 

What motivated you to write this piece in particular?

My dad’s brother Denis, who is a retired vicar, is also an avid lover of music and still sings tenor and plays the recorder. He wrote some beautiful poems for my dad’s funeral a few years ago. When we were putting together the programme for last year’s ‘Created out of Mind’ project - which explores choral music directly influenced or stimulated by mental health, and most importantly the link between singing and its benefits to people living with dementia - my immediate thought was to ask Denis to write a poem about his wife, my Aunt Maureen, who died in 2017 following a slow decline with dementia over her final few years. In response he sent me his poem “One Equal Music” which immediately struck me as a piece of intense beauty. It is also deeply personal, commenting on how music enhances all facets of life from Maureen’s own point of view as her mind succumbed to dementia, coupled with her steadfast faith and ultimate journey to Paradise when death finally arrived. It was so lovely that Denis and my two cousins travelled from Herefordshire to Snape Maltings to hear the premiere performance last August.

Ben Parry's Uncle Denis and Aunt Maureen. Image courtesy of Ben Parry.

What's your process for composing a piece of music?

A good question! The first thing to think about is the text that I set. Most of what I write is ‘to order’, meaning someone asks me to write something for a specific occasion, like a commission for a particular choir. Often the words I set are chosen for me, but I’ve done a lot of collaborative work with my friend and colleague Garth Bardsley, who is a brilliant wordsmith. We’ve written over 30 pieces together - including half a musical! - which have been performed all over the world. I actually write quickly, and ideas seem to come to me quite easily, and I work well to deadlines! In fact, ‘One Equal Music’ was written at the last minute during a short National Youth Choir tour to Amiens in France. I’d run out of time to write it and literally had to retire to my hotel room each evening to get it finished. Sometimes pieces take a long time to work out, and now and again everything comes together very easily. 

How did you get into composing - do you come from a musical family?

Well, Mendelssohn is actually my first cousin seven times removed! I grew up in a musical family - I’m the youngest of four children, all of whom sang in my dad’s church choir and played musical instruments. When I was too young to sing in the choir (age 4) I’d sit on the organ stool next to dad and remember being fascinated in the way the organ worked and the lovely music the choir sang. I remember meeting Benjamin Britten at Snape Maltings in the early 1970’s and being mesmerised hearing his opera 'The little sweep' in the concert hall. As a teenager I sang at school as well as with other ad hoc choirs during the holidays. We sang in Gloucester Cathedral and the conductor encouraged me to write something for the choir. That first piece was a little anthem called ‘My Song is Love Unknown’ which was published when I was 17. I’ve written most of my music in the past 15 years, but I’d still like more time to write.

Looking ahead - are there any projects coming up that you'd like to tell us about?

My Spring Sonnets (written with Garth) are being performed at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival and I’m also working on some interesting projects for a library music company I write for, Audio Network. Lots of things I’ve written for them appear on all sorts of programmes on TV, radio and online! My next project is writing a sung Mass for a church in North London. I’m also very excited that two university choirs, Selwyn College Cambridge and Royal Holloway University Choir, are releasing new recordings of my music in the next year - a Christmas album on Regent Records this year, and a recording of my choral music themed around times and seasons on Signum Classics next Spring.

Watch the premiere performance of 'One Equal Music' at Snape Maltings

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