Julian Anderson © Maurice Foxall
Julian Anderson
© Maurice Foxall
Julian Anderson is one of the UK's most successful and widely acclaimed composers today. His recent opera Thebans was succesfully premièred at ENO in May with Edward Gardner and Pierre Audi at the helm, has been commissioned by groups such as the Nash Ensemble, the New York Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and been the composer in residence to the CBSO, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Wigmore Hall. We got in touch with Julian and he kindly contributed to our Contemporary Focus this October.

Your opera Thebans was premiered this year by ENO. How do you view this piece in relation to your other works?

Composing Thebans took three years. It was the most absorbing, exciting creative experience of my life to date. I was lucky to have a great librettist in Frank McGuinness whose strong, dramatic words were a real pleasure to set. Rehearsing it at ENO with a fantastic cast, ENO's amazing chorus and orchestra and collaborating with Edward Gardner (who first asked me to write it), Pierre Audi, Tom Pye and Jean-Pierre Calman – respectively experts as conductor, director, designer and lighting designer – was three months of total joy and happiness. I am deeply grateful to all of them. The production was terrifically vivid and the performances all that I could hope for. Thebans is different from my previous pieces in many ways; but many things I learnt from writing them went into composing it. Basically though, for me it was a step in a new direction and I look forward to following up things I learnt and discovered through composing it and having it staged.

Chorus in Act I of <i>Thebans</i> © Tristram Kenton
Chorus in Act I of Thebans
© Tristram Kenton

What would you say is the driving force behind your artistic voice - do you have an overriding artistic aesthetic that you wish to impart, or is it different for every piece?

I don't know. I've imagined music in my head for as long as I can remember. Eventually I realised that I was composing. Then I started learning how to do it (that never stops). I had two great teachers – John Lambert and Alexander Goehr; and several wonderful mentors such as Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Tristan Murail, Per Norgard. I don't decide anything in advance of composing except the scoring of the work. Then I compose; I work many hours a day; I throw out a lot of bad music; and somehow eventually the piece is finished.  It's not until years later that you have any objective view on what you've composed, and by then you're writing something quite different! So each piece is a fresh adventure.

Are there any composers today that you look to for inspiration? Or past composers that you look to for guidance?

Yes, very many composers of all periods stimulate me: I love music and listen to it all the time. So I can only name a lot of composers that inspire, namely:

Perotin; Hildegard of Bingen; Machaut; de Perusio; Landini; Dufay; Josquin; Taverner; Tye; Lassus; Dowland; Gibbons; Monteverdi; Bach; Scarlatti; Handel; Haydn; Mozart; Beethoven; Reicha; Schubert; Berlioz; Schumann; Wagner; Brahms; Dvorak; Janacek; Debussy; Nielsen; Ives; Schoenberg; Berg; Webern; Stravinsky; Varese; Bartok; Mompou; Ruggles; Ravel; Ruth Crawford; Jelly Roll Morton; Charlie Parker; Count Basie; Gerhard; Tippett; Messiaen; Lutoslawski; Boulez; Ligeti; Stockhausen; Niculescu; Huber; Lachenmann; Grisey; Vivier; Knussen; Benjamin; Finnissy; Murail; Saariaho; Anthony Braxton; Reinbert de Leeuw (the latter's recent Die nächtliche Wanderer is marvellous).

What would you say is the most important advice you can give to today’s emerging composers?

Listen to as much music as you can, learn what makes it work (through more listening, looking at scores carefully, playing the music over at the piano or whatever instrument you play (however badly!), improvising, going to rehearsals of great ensembles and orchestras, etc.), and don't forget to retain your love of music. Remember what first excited you about music and retain that freshness as you develop and change. Work with instruments, players, voices, try your music out practically, sing it and play it yourself, see how it sounds. Use your ears above all, but don't neglect your brain either. Everything you enjoy – music, but also literature, visual art, film, philosophy, cooking, science, etc. – can pour into your own music and fertilise it. Do as much as you can of all the above at once. 

Can you give us an insight as to what you might like to compose next? 

I am writing a Violin Concerto for a wonderful soloist, Carolin Widmann, and the LPO with Vladimir Jurowski; after that I shall write a piece for guitar; a work for the Nash Ensemble; then more orchestral music. I'd also like to write another string quartet, since I enjoyed writing my 2nd Quartet this year, just after the opera, very much indeed. And in the distance, a second opera is starting to form in my mind. This one will be very different, but will also have a very dramatic plot. I'm uncertain what it will be, though, and equally uncertain how the plot will unfold in the opera. It's all a big unknown as yet; which is rather fun.