Interview with David Knotts

What's the most exciting thing about being a composer writing now, at the beginning of the 21st century?
Composers have everything at their finger tips – and are free to draw on the widest range of influences. I think this is really liberating.

Until comparatively recently, audiences listened almost solely to the contemporary classical music of their time. Now that we perform such a broad range of music, do you think the contemporary audience has become more specialised, and does that affect your writing in any way?
I find audiences who only go to listen to one very specific type of music a bit tricky: I’m not keen on the ‘exclusive club’ mentality. I think your job is to have something to say and to communicate it as directly as you can.

Do you feel a composer has a responsibility to the audience when writing a work, and if so, how?

I think that composers have 2 responsibilities: to the musicians they’re writing for and to the audience. I always want to write something which communicates to both groups.

If you could go for coffee with any composer born before 1900, who would it be, and what would you ask them?
I'd like to meet Ravel: I would be keen to have a peek at his bibelot-filled house. He was very particular and I think he’d serve great coffee with some exquisite patisserie on the side.

To aid their writing, Beethoven liked his long walks in the Vienna woods, Brahms liked his Austrian lakes, and Satie was fond of the odd absinthe.
What does it for you?!?

Most of my music’s conceived when I’m away away from my desk: I think repetitive activities can really help to free the musical ideas and bring them to the surface. Swimming, cycling, walking are all good; and the repetitive ritual of cooking dinner – chopping, stirring, mixing – can all help. However, getting the ideas onto paper can be elusive and frustrating…

Do you have any personality traits that you consider to be peculiar to composers?

I don’t know a composer who doesn’t put off the moment of getting started for as long as possible. However many pieces you have under your belt, beginning a new piece always feels a bit daunting.

Where did you grow up and did the local landscapes have a bearing on your music?

I grew up on the south coast outside Chichester – a few minutes walk from the beach. When you grow up on the coast, it’s always in your psyche and the image of waves and water is a recurring theme in my work.

What was your most inspiring/memorable musical experience as a young musician growing up?

I went to the Junior Department at the Royal Academy when I was 14 or so and I had a really inspiring piano teacher. I played lots of chamber music and it was brilliant to get to know pieces from the piano stool.

New research released this week by the Universities of Oxford and Reading has shown British composers to be more influenced than any others by the weather (! We know that the opening of the first movement of ‘The Long Way Home’ was inspired by the rain, but do you generally fit the national stereotype?
British weather is so varied, so changeable, it’s hardly surprising British composers have found it a to be a source of inspiration. I love the changes of a garden or a landscape over the year; and the extremes, from storm to sunshine in a few minutes can suggest musical shapes and ideas.

There is a section in ‘The Long Way Home’ which you describe as recalling "the fiddle tunes of Eastern Europe". Do you feel especially close to eastern European music, or to the traditional music of another particular foreign culture and, if so, what is it about this music which appeals to you?
I’ve always been interested in melodies – and melodic material of many folk cultures is incredibly rich, varied and flexible. They can often carry so much power and emotion through relatively simple means and I find that very moving. I love the modal sounds of Eastern Europe – but I have a pretty esoteric collection of recordings and musics from all over the world.

The ‘Long Way Home’ is inspired by the poet Sylvia Townsend Warner. Have you written any poetry yourself?

I’ve written lyrics for some of my pieces; but never poems per se – but I love poetry and it’s an endless source of inspiration. I used to read and learn poems with my Nan when I was little and I’ve never lost that love for poetry.

Do you feel that your music is a reflection of your conscious self - the 'self' which those close to you would describe as 'David Knotts'? Or does your music allow you to access a self which is 'other' in some way?

Writing music is a very private and personal journey – and I think when I write music, I access a very private and personal part of myself. That would explain why premieres are so scary: I always feel that I’m put a very private part of myself on show. I think those people who know me well would rocognise me in my music.

What message or advice would you give to the next generation of composers?
Don’t be distracted by technology….
Don’t follow the crowd…
Consider whether you have something to say…
Learn your craft…

What would be your top 5 'desert island discs'?

Debussy’s La Mer – It’s the piece which made me want to be a composer,
Faure’s late Song Cycle, L’horizon Chimerique,
Stravinsky’s Ballet, Orpehus
Some Tippett – there’s such energy, vitality and honesty in his music. I think the Midsummer Marriage is on of the Twentieth Century’s great masterpieces.
Via con me – Paolo Conte