Colin Matthews has been, and continues to be, a highly active figure in the UK's musical landscape. He has achieved great success as a composer, commissioned by groups such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, to name but a few.

Colin Matthews © Fiona Garden
Colin Matthews
© Fiona Garden
His impact outside of composition, however, has been equally profound. With Imogen Holst, Matthews founded the Holst Foundation in 1984 to support living composers and disseminate their work, eventually leading to the creation of NMC Records that continues to further this aim. He has also had long-held links with the Britten-Pears Foundation, the Aldeburgh Foundation and the Aldeburgh Festival.

The Holst Foundation was set up in 1984 by you and the composer Imogen Holst to support the performance of new music by living composers. What was the impetus behind your decision to set up the Foundation and the related NMC? As a composer yourself, can you explain why the work carried out by the Foundation and NMC is so particularly important? Has the importance of these bodies changed over their history, both to composers and to the wider musical landscape?

Many composers’ and authors’ estates support only the work (or sometimes just the families) of their begetter, but Imogen Holst (following the example of her father’s great friend, Vaughan Williams) wanted Holst’s royalties to be directed towards the work of living composers. We had discussed together the possibility of a recording company, but it was not until some years after her death that this became a practical possibility. In the 1980s, composers were very poorly represented by recordings, and we were determined to plug the gap. This has been a major part of the Foundation’s work, but over the years it has passed on at least £3 million for the support of new music in general as well as to NMC. I think it has set an example of what can be achieved through a single-­minded approach to the often impoverished state of contemporary music composers and performers can only thrive when they are adequately supported. I hope that NMC’s track record of making the music of nearly 300 composers permanently available speaks for itself! 

The Foundation has largely operated through supporting performing groups; for a period it offered commission grants but reluctantly withdrew from that when the demand became too great for the funds available. The grants policy has not changed substantially, always targeting relatively small organisations in preference to national institutions, but has had to reduce gradually over the past five years or so. It is hoped that from 2015 it will continue to be able to make a small number of grants, but these will be at the Foundation’s discretion and not subject to application. 

In what way do you think the situation for young composers has changed throughout your career?

In several ways the situation has notably improved, as the opportunities for young composers ­ both in the conservatoires and in the outside world ­ are significantly more than when I started composing, arising from a greater awareness of how vital performances are for a composer’s development. But at the same time, things have got worse as provision for music education has declined and the money available for commissioning and for repeat performances of new work (an often overlooked essential) has diminished. I’m continually surprised and delighted by the way gifted composers keep coming through in spite of all the obstacles to their chosen career.

How do you think British contemporary music has developed over the course of your career? Do you think that cultural attitudes have changed in accordance with these developments, and if so, in what way?

I would say that it’s become more cosmopolitan: more aware of outside influences (although the best composers have always been outward looking) and stylistically more diverse. Although there are still composers dedicated to opposite ends of the spectrum from complexity to minimalism there’s a greater concentration in the middle ground, which I don’t think is in any way a dumbing down, rather an awareness of the need to communicate better. This shouldn’t be seen as a compromise, and I certainly don’t think music needs to be an easy listen. Why shouldn’t we make a few demands on people’s ears? To some extent there’s a greater awareness of – and an open­mindedness to – new music, although I despair when people start complaining about the difficulty of Birtwistle, for instance, in a way that they never seem to do about other art forms. I feel that the major problem for new music is the huge availability of all kinds of music, which should be a positive but often seems leads to a reluctance to experiment. We shouldn’t forget that the audience for classical music has always been a relatively small one, especially compared to pop music where sales of “only” a million CDs can be regarded as a failure. A cliché, but it’s the quality of listening that counts, not the quantity.

Where do you, as a composer, continue to find inspiration for your music? How would you say your music has changed over your career?

I’m always wary of using the word “inspiration”: that’s a small part of composing, and when I stare at a blank page of paper when beginning a new piece it usually feels very far away. Composing is a compulsion, and I feel uncomfortable when I’m not doing it. I’m not sure I’m the best person to say how my music has changed, but I’m aware that I am much more able now to rely on instinct where earlier I might have made elaborate plans. And although I can’t know if this is something that might change again it’s simpler than it was, in language if not in concept.

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

Above all, to be self-­critical: you should know better than anyone if what you have written succeeds. And, if composing is what you are absolutely sure you want to do, persist with it: it’s hard work, and no one is going to sympathise with your self-­imposed predicament!