Interview: being a composer

Matthew Lee Knowles

When did you first feel you could call yourself a composer?
When I realised I had no choice but to be a composer. It has always seemed perfectly normal to start composing in the afternoon, forgoing food and sleep, working through the night, picking hundreds of notes out of a plastic box and writing them down to see what happens.

What other aspects are there to your practice besides composing?
I write poetry – with similar methodologies, of organisation and simplification. In the same way that I have taken symphonies and made a piece using every first note of every bar, I wrote a poem which extracted every word ending with the suffix -ing, from the complete works of Verlaine.
Making and constructing things is also enjoyable: melting down wax candles to create sculptures or using my blood to create a painting. All these things, I think, inform my musical compositions.
I teach piano and theory to children and adults and often work as an accompanist for grade exams and auditions.

Where did you train?
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, from 2004 to 2008, firstly with Richard Baker and later (when my style changed dramatically to a far more conceptual, experimental way of thinking) to Paul Newland.
This time was important for me – more because it was a safe place where I could experiment and be around others (who incidentally, more often than not, had different ideas to me, which was personally vital) and have the time to write music. It was over a year before I actually started writing the kind of music which is performed regularly now.  Before that, I was scared and overwhelmed and produced pieces which tried to be like the music of others. Again, this was vital, we all need to go through the motions. No experimental artist ever starts experimental.

Where was your music first performed?
I think my very first performance was of a piano piece I wrote when I was 15, which was performed in a school concert by myself, back home in Scunthorpe. Soon after, I wrote a score for a theatrical production of Terry Pratchett’s Wyrds Sisters, which I performed live. I recall having a piece for windband played at a music festival, right at the beginning of my career (a Sibelius version, on a CD player!)

What venues, festivals etc, have you found to be supportive of young composers?
Any place or venue should be considered – if you want to do something there, send your CD, CV etc some good will come of it – don’t worry about someone saying no, at least someone has read and seen your name – which is the start of anything happening. Buying magazines and looking at internet sites for festival listings and competitions is strongly advised. Send scores, letters, CV’s, recordings etc to any festivals. Venues and festivals I have played in have mainly come about through the ensembles and collectives I write for. Go to the music college new music festivals, they always have them and it’s a great place to get involved with other composers – also go to workshops there.

Do you use the web to promote your work, and if so how?
The web has been central to my development. I have made use of websites such as Myspace, Facebook, Reverbnation, Youtube, Bebo, Bandizmo, Dailymotion, Muso, Openfluxus, Metacafe, Photobucket, Yousendit, Vimeo, Saatchi-Gallery, Venereal Kittens, Last-fm, general message boards and several group sites. Anywhere where you can even have a small link to your main website should not be underestimated. This can all be very time consuming, but its worth it in the end!
I also submit to magazines and competitions via the internet.
Allowing my art works and scores to be used freely by others over the internet is also resulting in my name been used over many other sites. Your name needs to be known, seen and recognised by future possible collaborators.
When you put on an event, there are so many websites where you can post details for free.
In January 2008 I organised an event called “six_events” which, thanks to all the websites I have listed, was performed in nearly 30 countries, by hundreds of people, over 6 days.
I have also written a concerto for voice, where the text was all contributed from people across the internet.

Finally – can you give some words of wisdom to young composers reading this?
Being a good composer is all about finding the right balances. Between socialising and composing, networking and standing back, shameless self publicity and keeping people guessing, listening/taking on board and listening/discarding. It’s common sense and worth remembering that composing is NOT simply about writing music, if you are serious – it’s a life.

About Matthew Lee Knowles

Matthew Lee Knowles (b.1985) graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, leaving in 2008 with a first and the Frank Prindl Composition Prize.  He has written/curated five happenings in the last year, along with several theatre scores, over 100 musical compositions, about 600 questions and almost 2000 events.  As a pianist Matthew has performed Stockhausens Goldstaub, Kondo’s Metaphonesis and many pieces by Joshua Kaye.  His poetry and art has been published and exhibited in the UK, America and Japan.  Matthew has recently worked at the National Theatre, The Space, Southwark Cathedral, Bardens Boudoir, Southwark Playhouse, The Slade School, The Bridewell Theatre, Kings Place, GSMD, TCM, Cafe Oto and had his music used on a Channel 4 documentary.  Already this year, a new piece was premiered by Nora Volkova Ensemble in Berlin and ARCO Collective premiered a piece live on Resonance FM.  Recent highlights include performing for the BMIC music mart, improvising at the piano to over 1000 people in India, performing as a musician in a dance festival in Spain and collaborating with Neil Luck on a spoken word happening held in a cemetery.  Matthew is currently writing the music for a new experimental play A Place at the Table (Camden People’s Theatre), will soon start a new opera, is planning a large scale, global mail-art project as well as more happenings and experiments with the spoken word.


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