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Interview: Will Todd composer

19 April 2013

'I'm very much a "glimpses of glory" sort of person'

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 week.

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 voices.

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 music.

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 there.

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.

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 are.

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 performing.

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.

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