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Simon Holt Interview

Posted on 14 May 2010. © Copyright 2004-2020 Composition:Today

C:T talks to renowned composer Simon Holt, who, amongst many other things is the current Composer in Association with BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Simon Holt
Tell us something about your background.

Born in Bolton in '58. Scrap metal merchant for a father, who was (he died in '75) interested in jazz. He visited the Hot Club in Paris with his mother in the 50s and had played trumpet in his late teens in a group called the Jive Five, but I gather, according to my aunt, that they only ever rehearsed (in a church!) and never actually played a gig! He stopped playing soon after. I certainly never saw, let alone heard, him play the trumpet. He had records of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Stephan Grapelli, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, which he would very occasionally play. There were a couple of ancient 78s, one of which was an arrangement for organ of a Beethoven minuet. How that came to be in the house, I will never know. I bought singles like 'Jeepster' by T.Rex and some things by The Small Faces. Long gone. The first classical records I bought were the Decca Karajan recording of Holst's 'The Planets' and 2 Mozart piano concertos; 11 and 15 with Peter Frankl playing. I think I still have them, but no record player. But, the music that excited me as a kid was pop music as I didn't really know then that there was any other kind. A good friend of mine at school had classical records including Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto, which I can remember finding very compelling, but it was things like Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and 'Purple Haze' by Jimi Hendrix, that had the most impact on me at that stage. Even now I have about 19 Bowie albums on iTunes.

I went to various concerts at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in my very early teens and saw Faust, Daevid Allen and Gong and Humble Pie amongst others. I can remember Tangerine Dream landing Concorde in the centre of the hall using a massive bank of Moog synthesisers. I've just taken delivery of another Faust cd here in Spain. Their concert all those years ago was one of the most exciting I've ever been to. If I was ever in a band, Faust would be it.

I can also remember much later in the 70s, a performance of 'Turangalila-Symphonie', with Gilbert Amy conducting Jeanne and Yvonne Loriod, a very young Tristan Murail on Ondes Martenot and Messiaen himself in the audience. I also spotted Tony Gilbert, my future tutor at the RNCM, wandering about in a fur coat, looking ecstatic! I had learnt various Messiaen organ pieces at school: 'Verset pour la fete de la dedicace' and pieces from 'La Nativité du Seigneur' alongside Bach, of course and Couperin. My teacher was Norman Harper, an ex-Gillian Weir student from Cambridge and very inspiring.

The reason I failed my French and English 'A' levels I put down to my obsession with learning the organ. All private study lessons were spent practicing all those wild birdsong sections. The school thought it had been overrun by demented mice. Also if I'd actually read Hardy's 'Return of the Native', I might have had more of a chance of answering the questions on it. Bad boy. I'm afraid Art and Music took over and I was desperate to leave.

How did you start composing?

Very gradually and privately. I had always wanted to create my own private world and was always on the look out for something that I could completely immerse myself in. Music seemed like the perfect vehicle, but I was clueless as to how to go about it. I also wanted to create the same effect that the music I'd been excited by had had on me. I didn't do Music 'O' or 'A' levels, but only Art.

I went to Art College afterwards for a year to do a Foundation Course, which proved to be a perfect way of removing all that parrot fashion learning and opened my head. I knew that Art wasn't the way forward for me, but it helped enormously to be in such an intense creative environment.

I had the best composition lesson there during fine art day. I had filled a piece of cartridge paper with as much as I could get onto it and was convinced that the tutor (sadly/shamefully I have forgotten his name) would be incredibly impressed. He took one look and said "Chaos!" and tipped it all onto the floor and replaced the mess with 2 strips of material, placing them across the paper and said, "Now, look how much more powerful that is". He didn't even need to say it; it was totally obvious. Clarity is always going to be more powerful and mysterious than the overly complex/complicated. It's not possible to set out to write mystery. The end result of that little escapade will only ever be the direst pretension.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

Sheer enjoyment of the process and the desire to make something as ridiculously complex as a particular emotion or intuitive response to an event or discovery of a text or image as clear as possible in purely musical terms, so that it transforms into something almost tangible and utterly of itself.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. In particular there seems to be an intriguing relationship in your music between structures or mechanisms on the one hand; and freedom or intuition on the other. How do you see the relationship between these two aspects of your music?

I don't really see them as being separate or mutually exclusive from each other but part of the same impulse. Freedom to make and therefore freedom to break one's own rules is what I learnt at Art College. If it isn't working, but the 'concept' says it should, jettison the 'concept'. The mechanism is part of my intuition and I just trust it implicitly and as a consequence I write faster these days. Composers think too much and the dread PhD mentality, where they're having to justify every note, is the kiss of creative death. A healthy balance between the intellect and the imagination, allowing the music to decide a lot of what happens within limitations is how I like to work. Then, if necessary throw a spanner in the works. Rocking one's own boat is the fun bit! It's important to ensure that the listener finds themselves in a position where it's essential that they hear the next bar otherwise they'll go mad.

Your work has been influenced by artists such as Goya, Giacometti and Brancusi. Can you tell us a bit about how that influence manifests itself in your music?

I admire their rigour and single-mindedness. Clarity is the watchword for all of them and the aiming for it is true in all their cases. All their work has a strongly defined character; instantly recognisable and has the ability to continually entrance the gaze to the point where you have to return and look again.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

DON'T! Unless you ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO! Then please DO, as we need you!

What are your views on the current state of composition? Are we living in a healthy artistic environment at present?

We're living in a period of repose or maybe even recovery from the wild experimentation of the 60s and 70s. I worry about the all too beige 20/30 somethings, but I suppose what they're doing is to be expected. You know, surviving. They mostly need a bomb under them though, as writing ingratiating music isn't a long term career move. Too many of them have swallowed the polite Dutilleux pill all too readily. I suppose they know which side their bread's buttered. There are some very exciting characters though. I enjoy Morgan Hayes' music and ian vine's. Laurence Crane is a great yardstick for all of us in the integrity stakes. Matthew Sergeant is a very bright critter too and as for that Larry Goves . . .

What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?

I suppose 'Odradek', which is a single 7/16 bar for piccolo, bass flute, trumpet and keyed glockenspiel. It's never been played, sadly.

Which work are you most proud of and why?

'Sueños', because something happened during the rehearsal for it that I'd wanted to hear in a piece of mine from the outset of my life writing music. I can't describe what it was, but I thought, 'At last!'. I've heard tell that Richard Morrison gave it a 1 star review. He wasn't instantly gratified, clearly. I would never call it a 'work' either. I call them all pieces. An eminent composer (who, as he's still alive, must remain nameless) appeared at Tanglewood (where I went in '83) and gave a seminar for the composers and started talking about 'forging a work' and I collapsed in gales of laughter.

What does the future hold for you?

Dinner, a dvd (probably Hitchcock) and then bed.

Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced

I should imagine if you go to the Chester Music site, there are probably links, but I'm not sure.

Please list any useful resouces/links

The Chester site is the only one I'd bother with.

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2020

Comments by other Members

Posted by :  JW1 at 13:46 on 19 May 2010
You can find out about Simon Holt's music at or follow this direct link to his composer page:
From here you can access information about each of the pieces, hear sound samples, find out about up-coming performances and order the music.
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