An Interview With The Composer Will Todd
by Rob Barnett
Could you tell us a bit about your background and early life? What was the source of your interest in music? Did you come from a musical family? Were there any moments which stand out that particularly inspired you?
I grew up in Durham City in the North East of England. My grandfather was a coal miner and my parents were both teachers but they were also very artistic; mum was a gifted embroiderer and dad wrote books in his spare time! Add to that a sister who was passionate about painting and it was a pretty creative environment - or at least, one where creativity was normal and respected. I feel very fortunate to have had those elements in my childhood. I sang in church and local choirs and taught myself the piano (there was one in the front room) and pretty soon started trying to set words to music. My first composition teacher was my choir master David Higgins who was himself an accomplished composer. I have lots of happy musical memories from Durham days including the brass bands playing on Miners' Gala Day each summer and choral and orchestral concerts in Durham Cathedral. I also listened to every record I could get my hands on - from Beethoven and opera composers like Puccini and Verdi to jazz, big band, folk music and The Who and other rock/pop artists.
What / who would you say were your influences during your teens? Did you have any mentors (spiritually and/or musically)?
I had some good teachers at school although I suspect I was a frustrating pupil! Always working on things other than I was supposed to e.g. writing songs when I should be practising for exams! I think my most powerful influences were singing choral music and listening to music. It was during my teens that I began to compose more seriously. I wrote albums of songs as well as instrumental works and a number of attempts at musicals/operas.
Who are your favourite composers and musical works? Is there a composer who you feel is neglected / under-recorded? Are there any works which aren’t available on recording, that you wish were?
Truly the hardest of questions! There is so much INCREDIBLE music that I have heard and continue to be surprised by. I love the symphonies of Sibelius and Szymanowski, operas of Puccini particularly La Bohème, Bernstein's West Side Story, Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, the Third Symphony by Witold Lutoslawski, the Byrd four-part mass, and I have a particular love for Elgar's larger choral works and symphonies (Walton too). When I was younger I also listened to music by Poulenc a lot.
What is it about music that is so vital to a society/community?
Music provides incredible nourishment to communities, especially live performance, whether it is traditional choral societies and orchestras, or children's groups, or rock choirs or faith music. Music also has the power to reflect group feeling which is why new music is so important - writers have a big responsibility in this regard.
Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the works on Lux et Veritas?
Lux Et Veritas (see review) is a collection of recent choral commissions and new, specially written tracks. Remembrance was inspired by the WW1 anniversary of 2014, No More Sorrow was inspired by my daughter Rowan who has been very unwell and undergone five years of chemotherapy. There are two movements from the Mass I wrote for the 50th anniversary of Guildford Cathedral and a setting of a poem by Catherine Lomas, Encircled. I hope the overall effect of the album is one of reflection and hope.
Do you have any firm views on the accessibility of music via digital download and streaming? What do you feel is the role of a record company in classical music in the 21st Century?
The traditional role of the record company has changed hugely during my career. There is no doubt that income streams for artist in all genres of music have fallen drastically as a result of the internet. While the web is brilliant in terms of reaching large numbers of people it can be a tough place to earn money! I worry that in another twenty years it may be virtually impossible for new/unknown and upcoming artists to make inroads unless they have huge financial backing and that is never a good thing for art.
Do you teach? If you could give any advice to young / aspiring composers, what would it be?
The advice I always give young writers is: make sure you are writing about something you believe in and care about and BE BRAVE, write what you must write.
Which of your works to date do you personally prize most highly?
A hard question since I have written some very different types of pieces ranging from the Mass in Blue through to the ethereal Requiem scored for 8-part choir and electric guitar! I'm (currently) very proud of my opera Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which was commissioned by and produced at Opera Holland Park in 2013 and 2014. We've just made a recording too so I'm very excited. It's a mixture of opera, jazz and musical theatre and has had some great reviews which is very pleasing.
Of the recordings you have had made, which do you feel has carried your musical message most eloquently?
The recording which is about to come out Lux et Veritas is the most accomplished disc of my music yet I feel (closely followed by the previous Tenebrae disc The Call of Wisdom). Having a choir and conductor who understand the choral style so incredibly well brings the music to life in an extraordinary way. After that it's probably Mass in Blue, although there is an older disc called Saint Cuthbert which I'm very fond of too!
Which of your works do you hope to record next? Are there any of your own works which haven’t yet been recorded, that you hope will be? Are there any works you wish could be re-recorded?
Well I've written such a lot of music over the years that it's certainly not all recorded. I would love to do commercial recordings of my two symphonic tone poems setting Keats and Dylan Thomas. These works were commissioned by Hertfordshire Chorus and Crouch End Festival Chorus and I've love to have a recording of these as they are, I think, some of my best work. I'd also LOVE to record my opera The Blackened Man. We did two songs from it with the Hallé in 2001 but it would be great to have the whole work.
Your Violin Concerto was recorded on cassette. Are there any plans to issue it on CD?
It's only a live premiere recording so it would probably need to be re-recorded - although the first performance with Christopher George and The Brunel Ensemble was wonderful. It would be great to work on that piece again - although I'm worried that I might start revising it and ruining it!
Amongst your contemporaries (and others) which composers do you feel are most deserving of greater attention in concert and on record?
Another hard question! There are A LOT of great composers out there for sure and the all need more attention! Chorally I love the music of Thomas Hewitt Jones so would love to hear more of his stuff. Also Cecilia MacDowall who writes beautifully. There is also a composer called Tim Barnes who I taught at Surrey Uni who writes beautiful jazz songs .... [Note: Tim Barnes' No more tomorrow is included on Lara James' Signum CD (SIGCD286) which also includes Todd's The Sparkling Heavens]
Among performing musicians who do you feel your music owes the most to and why?
Dave Brubeck and the rock band The Who both had a profound effect on me when I grew up. In their very different styles both artists are very rhythmic and ultimately blues-based in harmonic terms. I've also been influenced by jazz pianists Monty Alexander and McCoy Tyner.