It's impossible to say which I like composing
best, classical or jazz. There are sounds and sentiments
of both genres which I love dearly. The richness of classical, the
vitality of jazz. . .
Ultimately, the dividing line doesn't exist.
There's been so much serious jazz composing, and such a tradition
of light classical composing, that they're not worlds apart. The
ways they are taught are different, but for me it's all about
making an impact with whatever you have.
Music, and our appreciation of music, should be a much
greater thing. It's an emotive force for the listener and
performer. And that has no genre. Music should always strive to be
moving and effective - whatever the musician wants to communicate.
The pleasure I get from writing or performing is from people's
letters - saying that it's moved them. It's not about perfection,
or being clever.
In the end, the stage is more exciting than the concert
hall. It's a place where it's tricky to get things right,
but when you do, the music becomes so effective. It also has to
serve and collaborate with the drama. The Church certainly seems to
commission music consistently, which is great.
It can be frustrating to hear others perform your
music; but more often than not, performers bring their own
humanity and identity to a piece, and that brings it to life.
There's such a range of church musicians, but
if there's one thing they all share, it's the fact that they tend
to be in whatever genre they're in. They find it hard to be
flexible, whether they're worship bands or unaccompanied choirs
singing Byrd masses. We end up with lots of the same thing. But the
broad scope of worship is massive, and most people like a range of
musical of styles.
I grew up in a home where lots of different music was
listened to without judgement: opera on the record player,
pop music on the radio. My dad also loved jazz, and my mum listened
to Friday Night is Music Night. We sang church music -
Victorian, in the main.
I loved listening to rock. There was that thing
of listening to a new album, maybe with a friend in their room, a
great sharing moment. I remember in my teens noticing how much
people would say: "I like this music and this is all I listen to."
On my desert island, I'd want lots of different music, because it
excites you in different ways. One thing I love about the iPod
generation is that people listen to a broader range because it's
easy: classical, rock, jazz.
In Durham, I sang in a very high-standard parish church
choir. I learned the violin and the piano, and then played
the saxophone in bands, read music at Bristol, and stayed on to do
a Master's in composition. I had an in-depth classical-style
training, but very broad experience.
I always wanted to compose and to have pieces performed
in churches and in theatres. Most of that has come true;
now I just want to get better at it. My mum and dad were amazing
supporters of my work.
Puccini inspired me when I was young. Also,
Bernstein. Elgar was a big influence; and Beethoven and Sibelius
for their tremendous sense of symphonic form.
Composition pays the bills at the moment. I did
teach at Surrey University, and still perform, but composing is my
real income. I'm pretty proud of that. I'm able to write music
quite quickly, so my output is quite high. I try to write a minute
or two of music each day, Monday to Friday: close to ten minutes a
I had written a piece for children for St Edmundsbury
Cathedral, when Canon Michael Hampel was there. When
Michael went to St Paul's, and the idea of a work for children for
the Diamond Jubilee came up, he thought of me.
I love writing for young voices. Youth choirs
have that unfinishedness, honesty, and sincerity, because they're
not fully matured as people. It's a good thing, but also
challenging - they're quite unforgiving if they don't take to the
music. Older performers will be able to get themselves round a
piece they don't like, but younger performers will struggle,
because they aren't feeling the music.
I wanted people to think: Wow! Look at those young
people singing. So the music didn't get in the way of the
children. They sang it beautifully. The Queen sent her thanks to
Michael and me, saying she'd greatly enjoyed it. I was too nervous,
up in the organ loft, willing on the children who had been sat
there for about two hours. Some of the youngest ones were ten, and
white as a sheet.
St Cuthbert was a piece that I had been
thinking about for many years as I grew up in Durham. The
cathedral there is home to the shrine of St Cuthbert, so I wanted
to celebrate him. Mass in Blue was commissioned by David
Temple of Hertfordshire Chorus - a work for jazz orchestra and
To me, God is bound up with the togetherness of the
people worshipping. That's when I notice God most, in
group situations. I'm conscious, when I write a religious text,
that there'll be a moment when the group are playing or listening
to the music when God may be glimpsed.
I'm very much a "glimpses of glory" sort of
person. I meander through faith, not expecting very much.
I don't have the sense some people have that God is a constant to
me. It's more like the clouds parting, and you get a little shaft
in your life. I'm trying to create that shaft of light through the
The Blackened Man is an opera which deals with
injustice, and is, again, a story from the North East. My
grandfather was a miner at Easington, and we had a strong Socialist
upbringing. My newest opera - Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland, for Opera Holland Park - is much less dark.
I read very widely, from thrillers to fantasy
to fact books. I'm just reading Tony Benn's diaries at the moment.
I certainly want to question the status quo, and I'm interested in
things that pertain to fairness.
My wife, Bethany, is a singer, and performs Mass in
Blue with me a lot. We live in Guildford now, which
is a beautiful part of the world. Values seem so different
Not thinking about music is good for my music.
Petra, my elder daughter, is very into musical theatre and dancing.
Aidan, my son, loves music, but he's going through a phase of "I
don't do music." I'm fine with that. People need to come to music
at their own pace.
Rowan, my younger daughter, has been very ill with a
brain tumour, and she's lost some of her sight. At first,
you're in shock, angry, upset, powerless; but you find you can't
keep that up for long, so you work through it, and recalibrate your
life. Rowan having a "good day" - comfortable, or enjoying a brief,
fun moment - that suddenly becomes really important. Makes you
think, culturally, we're not in a good place: we're so involved
with searching for "stuff". But with illness, it's the little
moments that are important: seeing a friend, having a cup of
coffee, having a conversation. I'd rather not have come to this
with Rowan's being ill, obviously, but at least I've come to
It's never in your life-plan for a child to be
ill - but it makes you quite conscious about the "now" of
your life. There's a tendency, culturally, to think about what's
going to happen next; but people are struck down with illness and
accidents all the time.
Having a spiritual base is important, because
it gives you some of the tools to wrestle with the "now" of life.
I've found those more nourishing since Rowan has been unwell. The
now is quite a nice place to be, once you accept that's where you
My most important choice was to stop drinking,
and to go back to performing on the piano, which I almost gave up
in my late 20s. It really is my musical soul-mate.
I'd like to be remembered for being kind.
I love the sound of rain on the roof at night,
when I am warmly tucked up in bed.
People's denial or apathy about climate change makes me
angry. Also, that the imbalance between the power of trade
groups versus governments makes it hard for democracy to thrive. We
make more choices at Tesco every day than in government. I'm always
trying to find ways, big or small, to engage with this - even if
it's just having a debate with a friend.
I'm happiest with good friends; and when I am
I pray for strength to do the right thing,
behave well, support others.
Assuming there was a piano in the church, I'd
like to be locked in with my colleague and friend Gareth Huw
Davies, who is a fabulous bass player. We could talk for hours, and
play the blues together. We would never get bored.
Will Todd was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.