An Interview with Philip Martin

'I’m more nervous of playing my own music than I am of other composers', says pianist / composerPhilip Martin. He talks to Jonathan Grimes about his third piano concerto, his working methods, and his interest in art and how it influences his works.

Jonathan Grimes: Philip, you're just about to premiere your third piano concerto with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. Can you tell me a little bit about this work and how you ended up composing it?

Philip Martin: It was written in the middle of 2005. I was driving up the motorway and I heard the tail end of a Radio 4 broadcast on the BBC about this beautiful church that existed in York. It was all about the Nine Orders of Angels and I was absolutely fascinated. I thought 'Ah, an idea for a piece!' -- nine orders, nine movements. I wrote to the person who was speaking on the radio about it and for months I didn't hear back. He finally wrote back and sent me all the details about this in a great big sheet about the Nine Orders of Angels. I thought it was a great idea for a piece and I've always wanted to write a third piano concerto. It's a very nice shape. Each movement is interjected with lots of chorales, which go in conjunction with the names of the angels. Everybody knows about cherubim and seraphim, but the ones [Angels] that are less known are the thrones, dominions, virtues, powers and principalities, and the whole thing comes down from the ones that are nearest the Almighty, down to the angels who are basically the guardian angels. And so it really comes from the celestial right down to earth and the piece tends to do that. It starts very floaty and it's only in the powers movement that things begin to really get hairy because the description of the powers is that they maintain the border between heaven and earth and they're on guard against demonic attack and ensure that the souls, which leave the mortal world, come safely down to heaven. So it's a rather nice idea, and it's more a pictorial thing than a deeply religious belief driving all of this because I've always had this love of art and place and things like that really move me.

JG: Is that quite common for you to be inspired by something that might be pictorial or literature based?

PM: Very much so. My brother is an architect and town planner and my father is an artist so I've been surrounded by art all my life. It's all sort of combinations of pictorial and experience -- going to certain places, meeting certain people -- so I'm not consciously looking for influences but it just happens like that. You can get inspiration in the weirdest place and I've written the most Irishy pieces in the weirdest countries -- you don't have to be in the heartland to be writing Irish music or whatever Irish music it is.

JG: Is this quite a common for you to think of ideas in this way?

JG: So going back to this third piano concerto, your last piano concerto was completed in 1991. That's almost a fourteen-year gap between writing the second and the third. Was this a conscious decision to wait that amount of time?PM: I wouldn't say I'm sort of consciously looking for it but I'm aware that wherever I am there might be something out there waiting to bump me on the head. I am sub-consciously on the look out for something. Sometimes it can be a very tactile thing, like touching the keys of a new piano -- a new piano can really do it for me as far as wanting to write more stuff [piano music].


'I'm not the most organised person, and I can't really say, "Monday to Friday I'm going to practise for four hours and then I'm going to do four hours composition".'

PM: No, not at all. I know this sounds very funny but I had a chord sequence going through my head, which had been there literally since my Fortieth birthday. I remember when I was doing a recital with John [O'Conor], we rehearsed in the Royal Irish Academy of Music and I played this chord sequence to John and said, 'You know, I think there's really something in that thing.' He said it sounded rather familiar. It might have very well been derivative or familiar to him but that darn thing has been going on in my head for years and years and I thought, 'If I don't get it out of my system I will go bonkers.' That actual sequence is literally what the work is all about. It keeps coming back in various forms and I do quite a lot of experimentation with that particular sequence, which is difficult to explain to you without playing it.

JG: So you kept that idea with you for 18 years?

PM: I did, and I had a funny feeling in my head that it might very well be [Piano Concerto] number three. And number four is rattling around now as well.

JG: Wow, so you're not just going to stop at number three?

PM: I don't think so -- Rachmaninoff didn't, why should I?

JG: You've also written a number of other concertos for different instruments including a harp concerto. Are you particularly drawn towards the concerto medium?

PM: I guess I must be because I've played so many of the things. I've got around 65 or 70 in my repertoire and it seems a natural thing to do. It's a very interesting medium because it's usually seen as the soloist and the orchestra and I feel it's very interesting trying to blend the two successfully together. The question of balance [between soloist and orchestra] is fascinating and you don't always get it right.

I remember when I was doing the first one [Piano Concerto No. 1]with Albert Rosen back in 1986. He was absolutely amazing because it was the first concerto I'd written. He took all the parts back to the hotel that night and marked up or down various instrumentations -- not many conductors would do that for you. I learnt a tremendous amount from that and I'm learning all the time.

The harp is a fascinating one to cope with as well, as was the symphony. I find very much that the crutch of the piano or [solo]instrument taken away from me a really big challenge. I'm writing an orchestral piece at the moment... I've written it twice and torn it up once and started again so that's very difficult. For me to think purely orchestral is very, very hard. I think I'm getting there slowly...

JG: You're one of the few Irish composers who can be described as a performer/composer. How would you describe the relationship between the two areas -- performing and composing?

PM: This is a very tricky one because they're parallel and have been for quite a while. I remember as a student I had serious problems with the composition styles that were prevalent at the time and it was very serial and post serial. If you weren't writing that sort of music you were out on a limb -- I was still writing things in A major. When I played some of my music it was rather scoffed at and I didn't really feel I belonged very much to that sort of area. I think it was only through meeting people like Bob [Robert] Simpson, Betty [Elizabeth]Maconchy, and Richard Rodney Bennett.... What I needed to do was to really get out there a write what I wanted to write and not be bothered about style or whether I'm writing like Elliot Carter or not -- it doesn't matter.

I'm not the most organised person, and I can't really say, 'Monday to Friday I'm going to practise for four hours and then I'm going to do four hours composition'. I don't do that and I can go months without composing. Sometimes I wish I was doing less playing and had more time to really do more serious nitty-gritty stuff on the composition; other times I think that one is helping the other and that they are feeding on each other all the time.

JG: It's a question of balance?

PM: Absolutely. I do feel that inspiration comes at the oddest times, usually when you are at your busiest. If I had twelve concerts in the next five weeks it would be the time that I would want to write this overture for the North Wiltshire orchestra. It is a pain in the neck but you've got to do it. It's good for the adrenalin.

JG: Is it a challenge for you to balance on the one hand your role as soloist with the role of the composer who needs to take a kind of a bird's eye view of how the rehearsal of the work is going?

PM: No I think that's very divorced from it really. It's a mechanical process -- you've gone through learning it. The weird thing is that I find it very difficult to memorise my music and I also find it a bit of a nuisance to have to practice the damn thing, because you actually have to almost divorce yourself from it and regard it like it's the music of somebody else. Confidence comes into it a lot as well -- you have to be very assured. I'm more nervous of playing my own music sometimes than I am of other composer's, because I don't feel the responsibility to myself that I would feel to another composer. So that's quite an interesting phenomenon. A lot of people come and say, 'Oh, it's marvellous to see a composer playing their own music.' I've been doing it so long -- it's been nearly 50 years now.

JG: Well you obviously enjoy performing your own pieces.

'I do feel that inspiration comes at the oddest times, usually when you are at your busiest.'

PM: Well I love performing, whoever's music it is. I was born very much in a sort of goldfish bowl, because my father had a shop and there were a couple of steps up from the shop into the front room. I was like a little performing monkey really from a very early age because people would come into the shop and say, 'Give that boy a bar of chocolate,' and I was thinking this is really interesting because my father was actually benefiting from it in a way because the bigger the bar of chocolate the more money, and I was always benefiting from it because I thought, 'well by getting chocolate I will never starve.'[laughs] This is all very important, but the only disadvantage of it was that I took a long time to learn how to practice because I was actually performing. I was performing all the time. Now my main aim in teaching piano is to try to teach people how to go about doing something. I was a real little show off, and in that respect composition is a very different kettle of fish altogether because you're on your own and are responsible for your own mistakes, whereas playing chamber music you can get away with it a bit more. I think this was a very relevant part of my musical upbringing.

It was my father actually who got the composition going, because he was a composer himself, not a bad one -- no training but had one correspondence letter with Eric Coates. When I was improvising at a very early age he was the one who said, 'Come on and write this down.' Because he was writing it down so it took a long, long time for me to [learn how to] write it down properly.

JG: You obviously started learning and playing the piano at a very early age. At what point did the kind of idea or the notion of being a composer strike you?

PM: Very early. In fact, I was talking to a friend of mine recently, and he said 'What are you talking about this business of your composition getting in the way of your piano playing? You always wanted to be a composer.' I think it really gripped me quite early on. It was very interesting because my piano teacher, Mabel Swainson, divorced the two things [performing and composing], because she didn't pretend to understand anything about what I was doing in composition and went along on a straight line with the piano playing. But it was Jane Carty in RTÉ who was really very, very supportive, and influential in the most incredible way, and also Nancy Calthorpe and Noreen O'Neill -- all in the Municipal School of Music [DIT Conservatory of Music]. I don't know what I would have done without those people really because they were very influential.

JG: Did you study with anybody in Dublin or did you take composition lessons when you went to the Royal Academy of Music in London?

PM: No, I never had a composition teacher here. I went to the[Royal] Academy and did composition and piano as a double subject. I was with John Gardner [for composition] for two years and I was with a pianist/composer, Franz Reizenstein, who was a pupil of Hindemith and Vaughan Williams. He was tremendously influential. I know it sounds very old hat now but from about the age of 13 or 14, I used to make my way from Ranelagh [suburb in Dublin] to this fantastic library and I used to come back with all sorts of scores -- Stravinsky, Barber and Hindemith. I fell in love with Hindemith's music and I was playing a lot of his music -- it is very unpopular to be a fan of Hindemith now, as you know.

JG: Well I'm a trombone player originally so that's about the only reasonable work for trombone from that period!

PM: I think he's a wonderful composer -- tremendous craftsman. Franz Reizenstein was known as the English Hindemith but his music was very, very different. I went along to a strange place where Reizenstein was teaching composition -- he wouldn't teach composition in the academy. They begged him to and he said no, he said, 'I will only teach composition in a class the way Hindemith used to do.' He ended up teaching on a Tuesday night in the Hendon College of Technology and I went along to these classes for about eight months and it just transformed my whole life. He was a wonderful musician. A lot of my piano teachers have been closet composers as well. [laughs]. Louis Kentner used to have this little string quartet in his desk that he used to take out now and then and ask me about.

JG: And you also studied with Lennox Berkeley?

PM: I did. I had several consultation lessons with him. Lennox was very kind -- he was probably much too kind. He thought everything in the garden was wonderful, and it wasn't until I went to Betty Maconchy that she said 'Oh, get your finger out and keep doing that,' like the relationship between Bernstein and Copeland. Copeland used to give out stink to Bernstein for writing Copeland all the time and said, 'Look, there's two bars of Lenny there. You just keep doing that,' Betty Maconchy was just like that with me. She'd heard some of the songs I'd written and said, 'You can throw that out -- it's a load of rubbish -- but that's good. There's three bars there that you might think of keeping.' I needed a kick up the pants like that really -- I didn't need to be told that I was wonderful. After that I met Richard Rodney Bennett and he was so pernickety about tempo, phrase and dynamic markings. I'm quite impressed this morning because I got to the rehearsal and there were about five things that were wrong in the parts and that's good. It's such a nuisance when people have to say, 'This is off the instrument -- sorry Philip.' Musicians don't want that.

When I knew more people in the Irish Orchestra [RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra]... People like Brian O'Rourke [former principle clarinettist with the RTÉ NSO] -- a very dear old friend of mine -- I'd write something for the clarinet and I'd hear Brian playing that. That's very important -- to have some sort of facial or pictorial idea about how things are going to look or sound. I guess that's a very personal part of writing something for specific people.

JG: You wrote and had premiered your first symphony. When was that performed?

'I'm more nervous of playing my own music sometimes than I am of other composer's, because I don't feel the responsibility to myself that I would feel to another composer.'

PM: It was done about two years ago and I was really thrilled about it. I felt that it had some really strong music in it that had been taking a long time to come. Initially that work was supposed to be based on a Piero della Francesca scene, a dreadful battle scene, which had the most fascinating thing in it -- of a guy in a very funny white hat blowing a trumpet. So I thought, 'Right -- trumpet -- that's something I'll use,' I must have written about 200 pages of music and then just flung it away because it didn't turn out to be that piece at all.

On a Monday night I buy the London Times -- I support Rupert Murdoch for one day of the week! I was reading it and suddenly saw this picture of Botticelli's Mystic Nativity. I'd never seen this painting before in my life and I thought, 'That's it -- back to the drawing board again.' Then I had to go and see the real thing in the National Gallery and it was very small painting and a fascinating painting. The work was supposed to be written for the millennium and in the end it wasn't actually performed at that time. This work of Botticelli was painted in 1499 at a time when the whole of Europe was in total turmoil. They thought the world was going to come to an end and that they were never going to make it to 1500. I didn't have the same feeling about 2000 [laughs]. This fascinated me and triggered something off in me.

Then the three sections of the painting were crying out to be three distinct movements -- the old angels at the top swirling around, the nativity scene, and at the bottom the angels are trampling on the little devils. It all got me going, I thought, 'I'm off -- full symphony coming here.' I don't know where I find time to do this and you'll probably find that I was doing about 70 concerts that year.

JG: You're obviously very busy with your performing and your teaching. Where do you actually find the time for a large-scale work like that?

PM: I think you have to be very disciplined when it's a commission. I regard myself when I'm composing like a painter who's got a canvas just waiting to be filled with colour. There's something about virgin manuscript paper and the pen -- it's almost pictorial again. It's an evil necessity if you like. I do enjoy the pain of it I think -- I'm a masochist.

JG: Do you write by hand?

PM: Absolutely, I don't touch Sibelius [music notation computer program] mainly because I wouldn't know where to switch a computer on. I'm absolutely dreadful on the computer. I have somebody now who's really getting the stick out and beats me over the head. I have Sibelius -- I think it's a very nice box, a lovely book.[laughs]. I find I do it just as quick by hand but basically it takes up too much time. I do admire people greatly who do use it. The only nuisance [from writing by hand] is when you've got to write 250 or 260 pages of parts. But I've got a good hand and I pride myself on my hand but the time is a nuisance really. If I could just set aside maybe three or four months... but you know I'm doing a degree as well, I'm doing an art history degree with the Open University and I'm half way through.

JG: I can really sense this pictorial arts thing coming straight through everything!

PM: I'm a nutter really! I am able to spend all day long in churches and art galleries. Anywhere I am, I'll end up like that [in an art gallery]. I blame St. Mary's College too because a lot of the teaching, say the book of the life of Christ, would have these beautiful paintings -- wonderful religious paintings and that would really get my juices going. There was very little else actually that did in a sense -- that and art classes. I was completely un-academic in school -- couldn't understand maths or anything like that; still don't.

JG: Are there any other sources of inspiration that have been a constant over the years or have your sources of inspiration changed?

'I regard myself when I'm composing like a painter who's got a canvas just waiting to be filled with colour. There's something about virgin manuscript paper and the pen.'

PM: That's interesting. The only other angle I can think of -- again it's slightly pictorial -- is place. In 1991 I was in Galway for three months and was composer-in-residence at the university. That was fascinating because I didn't know that part of the world, and I found myself in places like the Burren and a wonderful place called Aughanagh, which had these incredible three 8th century Celtic churches -- that set things off again for me. And it doesn't necessarily happen just there and then. It can happen to me and I don't know about it. Meeting people or somebody who's just fascinating to talk to brings up something. A very nice friend of mine -- Maurice Flynn -- and myself met for lunch some years ago and he said, 'Philip, I have the poem for you: Seamus Heaney's Postscript.' So I read this and it was all about the Burren and that got me going again. You don't know where it's going to happen -- it might be happening right now.[laughs]

JG: And you've been composing for over 40 years now -- possibly longer in fact if you take in your childhood.

PM: Go ahead insult me!

JG: Looking back over your varied catalogue of works are there any pieces that for you stand out as being important or particularly significant?

JG: Do you ever have time to go back with certain works and revisit them?PM: I think the stuff I've written in the last 10 years. I feel there's been a development -- the Harp Concerto and the first Piano Trio and maybe theSecond Piano Concerto. The Harp Concerto and Mystic Nativity -- I really felt things were going in a very interesting way and the AXA piece, A Thousand Valleys Far and Wide -- I think that's a good piece. I'd be proud if I died tomorrow and people were playing that, I feel that they might live in some way. It can sound very stupid really talking about posterity in that sense but if you leave something -- maybe even two or three works -- I think you are doing pretty well.

PM: You know I should. I know there should be another eight or ten bars at the end of the symphony -- I think it's crying out for that -- and I will do that some day. In fact it happened very recently. Andrea Malir was playing the Harp Concerto at the World Harp Congress and between herself and David Brophy [conductor], they thought that it needed a bit of a truncate and a bit of a cut. Andrea approached me rather gingerly on this. They played it and for my money it transformed the piece. They really were right and I'd be the first to admit that. So yes, things do get changed and usually for the better. I take people's advice because they have to get out there and play it -- it's very important that they're comfortable as well. There are a lot of composers who wouldn't like this. I remember a story of Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto, which I played the first performance of here in '68. Apparently an American pianist changed it quite considerably to accommodate his technique or lack of technique, and Barber in typical fashion said, 'Well we now know that you're a composer but are you a pianist?' I don't think that he was too pleased about that.

JG: That put him straight. Now I've deliberately kept this question for the end.

PM: Oh God, that's like people who say, 'I've got a brilliant idea.'[laughs]

JG: This is probably a difficult question to answer but if you were to step outside yourself for a moment, how would you describe yourself as a composer?

JG: And dealing with now and the foreseeable future are there any works that you would like to write or plan to write that you haven't yet had the opportunity to do so?PM: I don't think the answer to that really matters in a way because everybody's going to hear you and see you in a different guise anyway. I've had one person coming over and touching my hand and saying they love something and somebody else going, 'Who does he think he is? Bloody awful stuff -- I can't play that interval.' This sounds terrible but in a way only posterity will actually answer that question for you. And then it's got to do a lot with fortune and luck -- people taking up your music and playing it. The big problem in being a pianist/composer is that people tend to leave you to get on and play it yourself; you're just gasping for people to come and take it and do something with it because the interesting thing is actually to hear what somebody else would make of it.

PM: Yes, I think there are. I wrote a movement of a string quartet for the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet last year and was quite pleased with the piece. It's something I waited for a very long time to do and, ironically enough, two commissions for a string quartet came up in the space of almost a year. That's a real challenge for me because I'm not a string player -- I've had two terms of viola lessons which was interesting, and string writing is still a little bit of a mystery to me. But I think I'm getting better. An opera maybe? I don't know, maybe some day -- one act or something like that would be nice.

JG: And I notice your symphony is subtitled Symphony No. 1.

PM: Yes.

JG: Are we to presume that there's possibly a Symphony No. 2.

PM: I think there will be. It's just like waiting for the right painting.[laughs]


JG: You keep buying the Times every Monday! And finally in the shorter term, what works or projects do you have coming up during 2006?

'It can sound very stupid really talking about posterity… but if you leave something -- maybe even two or three works -- I think you are doing pretty well.'

PM: I'm writing quite a tricky work at the moment for a semi professional orchestra called the North Wilts Orchestra. Their 40th anniversary celebrations are coming up and they've asked me to write a piece and do a concerto in the same programme, so that's going to be quite a night. So I'm doing that and I'm on my third try with that because I've discarded two lots already. There's very little else at the moment -- it's quite lazy composition wise, commission wise and everything.

JG: OK well that's all I wanted to ask you. Thanks very much Philip.

PM: That's a pleasure.

Philip Martin was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 6 February 2006.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.