In this interview, we speak to Alexander Campkin, a highly acclaimed composer whose work has been commissioned and performed by many well-known musical organisations. Read on to find out more about his journey with music, his experiences as a composer and his current projects!
How old were you when you first became interested in music and what was it that sparked your interest?
I had a little Fischer Price toy cassette recorder when I was a toddler. I spent hours and hours finding sounds and recording little bits of singing. My parents got me a violin when I was six; I loved to make up short pieces. I’m told my first "composition" was titled ‘On a smelly, smelly farm’!
What piece of music has had the biggest impression on you?
Too many to choose from! Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring? Allegri Miserere? Brahms's String Sextet in B flat, George Benjamin's Written on Skin, Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, Arvo Pärt's Cantus in memorium Benjamin Britten. I don’t know, the list goes on and on!
How did being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 17 change your career and your relationship with music?
It was a confusing time. It stopped me playing viola, but it strengthened my passion and drive for composition. There is a lot more understanding of instrument adaptations and use of technology nowadays, with amazing groups like the National Open Youth Orchestra, BSO Resound and Drake Music. At the time it seemed impossible, but I’m sure I could have kept on playing with some very simple adaptations.
What was it like to share your composition with other people for the first time?
After I first had a piece performed by other people, I still remember my joy and surprise hearing it whistled the day after in the gent’s toilets.
Which of your compositions are you most proud of?
Usually it’s whatever I’ve written most recently!
Having received over one hundred commissions, what are the benefits and challenges of being asked to compose for a specific group?
It’s wonderful being able to imagine the very first performances: thinking of the musicians and getting the very best sounds from them, thinking about the acoustics in the venue, and what will be performed around it. However, it is fascinating hearing how a piece works in further performances, with different musicians, in different venues, different interpretations etc. People will often ask me exactly what I am looking for in terms of speed and interpretation, but I’m all up for giving them freedom to bring their own thoughts to the table.
The Durham-based vocal ensemble the Phoenix Consort is currently crowdfunding to record their first ever choral album featuring your music. How did this collaboration come about and how does it feel to have your music chosen for their debut album?
That wonderfully talented conductor, Adam Whitmore sent me a message saying he was going to do one of my pieces. We started conversations, and that ended up an entire album recording. The singers have pure tones; the sopranos soar beautifully, and the voices are rich and warm; I think their sound suits my music beautifully.
Read our interview with Adam to find out more about the Phoenix Consort and how to support their recording project!
Do you have any advice for young people interested in a career in performing or composing music?
Follow your dreams and try to find ways of making it happen!
Now for some questions to get to know you a bit better.
Who was your favourite artist/band/ensemble when you were growing up, and what’s your go-to music to listen to now?
I like to think I’m fairly eclectic. I love discovering musical treasures that are new to me
What are your hobbies outside of composing music?
Most of my time outside music is with my family: 3 year old twins and a half year old. I love taking them on adventures, and teaching them piano, violin, singing, guitar, and most importantly the joy of writing their own little songs.
One of the most important questions for us, what’s your current HiFi/music listening setup like?
I connect to Dockin D Fine Bluetooth speakers. But I am in need for a revamp soon; I’m definitely going to check out some new equipment from Expressive Audio!
And finally, have you got any exciting upcoming projects that people should look (or listen!) out for?
I’m writing this at the start of December; I always find it surreal hearing my Christmas music in lots of carol concerts; one December I went to over 30. I’m much more selective now, but I do love a tasty mince pie and mulled wine.
Commissions for next year include pieces for BBC NOW in Cardiff, Tenebrae and Fretwork in Wigmore Hall, Washington Cathedral, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, and I’m very excited for the Phoenix Consort album launch with Convivium Records.
Thank you very much to Alexander for taking the time to complete this interview, we hope you've enjoyed learning more about his personal relationship with music and what it's like being a composer, and don't forget to read our interview with Adam Whitmore to find out more about the Phoenix Consort's crowdfunded recording of Alexander's music!
Main image credit: A P Wilding