Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?
JB: As far as music is concerned, I was lucky to have a father who loved music, and whose own mother was a composer of Victorian parlour ballads (I never knew her). My teacher at grammar school was excellent: very much his own person, and always encouraging me to think independently about what kind of music I wanted to write. Later, I read English and Music at Cambridge, and then spent a year studying composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – a formative period. Playing the fiddle in a folk rock band was also part of the picture.
SC: Can you describe the programmed works to us?
JB: It’s a bit of a hybrid. In a way, it’s a very classical piece, enjoying some of the traditions of structure and texture in music for string quartet. For example, the first movement is a combination of ‘ordinary’ first movement and scherzo. But the slow second movement gives the piece its subtitle, ‘Earth and Angels’ and so has a programmatic aspect to it.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
JB: I do write at the piano, yes, but not always – I often start something with an idea or two that I sketch away from the piano. I usually hear these ideas in my head, and start working with them if they seem interesting. Then it’s a question of deciding how this material wants to develop.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
JB: It’s always good to know the performers, and can be wonderful and inspiring. But it isn’t an absolute necessity.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
JB: Lyrical, lucid, contrapuntal.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
JB: It’s not something I actively chose to do: I’ve done it for as long as I can remember. But I do choose to pursue it, and that is partly because music can reach, and express, a part of our humanity that nothing else can reach. Composing is one way of celebrating that fact. Music is about connecting things – all those disparate elements that come together in some form of harmony. For me, that is also a reflection of nature: the word we use to describe the profound interconnections between everything on this planet, including ourselves.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
JB: I don’t identify with any one composer, and I admire many, but in this context I would mention David Matthews (to whom String Quartet no.2 is dedicated). I admire his range, his capacity to create a narrative in the flow of his music, and his recognition that ‘traditional’ forms can be an expressive tool: they need not be a conventional straitjacket.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
JB: Beethoven – as long as I got to take away the Conversation Book, in which case it would be a beer and a take-away.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
JB: Elgar – Cello Concerto and Symphony no.2; Stravinsky – Violin Concerto and The Soldier’s Tale; Chopin – Preludes; Bach – French Suite no.5; Beethoven – String Quartet in Eb, op.127; Sibelius – Symphony no.5. Of these, Sibelius wins first prize.
SC: …and a book?:
JB: King Lear.
SC: …a film?
JB: Empire of Light (probably because I’ve just seen it)
SC: … and a luxury item?
JB: A daily supply of Kiwi fruit.