Judith Bingham

On turning 60 and writing for the OAE

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The composer celebrates her 60th birthday this month with a new work for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. We spoke to her about milestones and why she enjoys writing music for period intruments.

Judith BinghamYou’ve written a piece called The Hythe for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – can you tell us a bit about how that came about?
Ed Armitage at the John Armitage Memorial (JAM) had decided to do my organ concerto Jacob's Ladder, in Hythe, Kent and in London and asked me to write a piece for the same forces minus the organ – so, 11 strings. I went down to Hythe to see what the church was like and was intrigued by the name – ‘hythe’ turns up in so many place names. I thought The Hythe was a good title and decided to use that as a starting point. It’s a very old word meaning harbour or haven and I liked the dual idea of the return from the sea and the soul's return to God. It’s great that the piece will be done in Hythe, but I hope it will have a powerful meaning in other places too.

The work also marks your 60th birthday – did you think about that when you were writing it and did that affect your approach?
I don't think this milestone has influenced the piece consciously, but of course any big birthday makes you look back. I liked what Martin Amis said recently ‘my past is now longer than my future,’ although the past has always exerted a tremendous influence on me, I'm not really a forward-looking person.

What’s it like to hear a work of yours being performed for the first time?
It's very extraordinary and quite difficult. A piece of music inhabits quite a different world when it's just you – once lots of people start imprinting themselves on it, it becomes a very different experience, sometimes thrilling, sometimes painful.

Did you have to take into account the OAE’s period instruments and techniques when writing the piece?
I love the sound of gut strings and much prefer a sound with little vibrato or vibrato used as an effect, as it once was. I never understand how people can prefer that continuous sobbing vibrato. Having said that, I am not expecting that The Hythe will always be done on period instruments. I just look forward to the more passionate passages having a more raw edge, and to the cleanness of the homophonic moments. I love the fact that period instruments are now playing contemporary music – I think I was one of the first composers to write for period instruments back in the ’70s, for Philip Pickett. It was quite bizarre then.

What else do you have planned to celebrate your 60th birthday?
I generally enjoying going round the country meeting up with old friends. I'm just about to go to Orkney for the first time, which is wonderful.

The first performances of The Hythe with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) will be on 4 July in London and 6 July in Hythe. There will be further performances in Scotland this Autumn.