Seven questions for Judith Bingham

Ahead of the premiere of her Clarinet Concerto at JAM, an arts festival on Kent's Romney March with new music at its core, we caught up with the British contemporary composer

Published: June 21, 2022 at 10:04 am
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Since 2000, each year JAM commissions a significant British composer to headline its season to nurture, promote and sustain the future of composition. To date, commissions include Jonathan Dove, Thea Musgrave and Tarik O’Regan. JAM has commissioned Judith Bingham’s Concerto for Clarinet in celebration of her 70th birthday this June. Michael Collins and the London Mozart Players will give the world premiere of Judith’s Concerto for Clarinet on Friday 15 July, programmed with Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Judith’s Concerto is a highlight of this year’s JAM on the Marsh festival set in the intimate mediaeval churches of Romney Marsh, Kent. Further information and tickets are available via www.jamconcert.org

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We caught up with Bingham ahead of the premiere of her Concerto for Clarinet.

What is the inspiration behind the Clarinet Concerto?

Initially, it was to write about the character of Barnaby Rudge in the Dickens novel of that name. As it might not be familiar to a lot of people, I didn't want to make too big a deal of this but rather, follow the effect of the plot on the character. So, an innocent young man, a child of nature, is drawn into conflict and nearly dies because of his involvement. He returns to his old life, but is scarred by what has happened. He has a companion: a raven called Grip - this was the name of Dickens' own pet raven! While I was writing, the present war in Ukraine began and of course I was really upset by it, as we all have been. It struck me that the treatment of young Russian conscripts was really similar to how Barnaby Rudge is treated, and my feelings about Ukraine were absorbed into the piece. In the front of the score, I put a quote from a Russian soldier: 'We’re members of the armed forces from Donbas, we’re ordinary workers. Kids, we're just kids. They took us at 18 years old. What are we doing here? Many of us have died. What are we doing here?’

How would you describe the sound world?

I've written for two clarinets, the B flat and the E flat. I asked Michael Collins if he'd mind swapping between the two instruments. The E flat to me has a more ethereal sound, the B flat can sound chunkier, though both instruments have a wide range of possibilities, everything from humour and jazziness to aggression and real beauty. I think they blend very well with the string ensemble, which for two of the movements is divided into 11 parts, and into the more usual 5 for the other two. I've written quite a few concertos now for 11 strings and a solo instrument, I really like it, and it is a practical line up as well, and one that doesn't overwhelm the soloist as a full orchestra can. The clarinet is often at odds with the ensemble, like a figure in a landscape. I think there is a lot of the English landscape in the sound as well, which seems to me really appropriate as the premiere will be on Romney Marsh, such a thrilling and archetypically English landscape.

How have you tailored it to Michael Collins's playing style? Did he ask for anything specifically?

I was really thrilled that JAM asked me to write for Michael, he is such a gifted player. I played through recordings of him playing and love the thoughtfulness and the nuances that he brings to every performance.

Can you tell us about your background?

I came from a very ordinary upbringing. I was born in the 1950s, my father worked for the Inland Revenue and my mother was a ward assistant. I was educated in Mansfield and Sheffield, and then went to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Nobody ever expected that I would try to be a professional classical composer, and I wasn't encouraged. It was unheard of for a woman to do such a thing, many people believed that there were no other women composers. I managed to get commissions from when I left the Academy, and wrote a lot of chamber and vocal music in the 70s. I always had a good voice and did singing as a way of beefing up my meagre composing earnings. In the 80s I joined the BBC Singers full time and was with them for 12 years - it was a terrific learning curve about the psychology of performance, writing for choir, and I met a lot of people in the choral business. I left the Singers in '95, and was able to support myself from writing, so gave up singing. Now, at nearly 70, I've written about 400 pieces, and have slowed down a great deal! When I first got involved with JAM, I loved the way that they encourage young composers. Without performances of new music, concert life is just a museum.

When did you start composing?

My mother said I started at three but I didn't write anything down till I was 11. Instead I would make up a piece and play it to my parents, but it was something I did quite secretly. At first, writing down pieces was hard, but I developed through my teens. I was basically self taught and spent a lot of time getting scores out of the library, and listening to the Third Programme. I was obsessed with Berlioz as a teen, and read his book on instrumentation which is still a brilliant book on the subject. I also joined the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and so was taking part in professional concerts with the Hallé Orchestra and famous conductors on the circuit: Barbirolli, Giulini, Arvid Jansons, the young Barenboim. It was thrilling and I became very stage struck.

Who and what has influenced your music?

Originally, Romantic composers like Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Chopin etc. When I got to the Royal Academy, I discovered French Baroque music, and I still really love it. It is kind of crazy in a way, and yet so extremely beautiful. It's also very theatrical and balletic. In terms of contemporary composers, I was mad about The Fires of London and Peter Maxwell Davies in the '70s, but never very keen on the brutalist and ultra-modern works that were dominating the concert hall. I wanted to expand the harmonic vocabulary and include concordant sounds, something which was frowned upon. You could use concords for their shock value, hard to believe nowadays, but true. Apart from composers, I love the visual arts and have been very much influenced by all sorts of painters and artists through the ages. I often write music about painters, a challenging thing.

What drives your work?

I think it is of the utmost importance to me to create a secret, non-verbal world; that was obviously something I needed as a child. I am always chasing the chimaera of the perfect piece and never capturing it, always being driven on to the next piece. And I don't want to sound pious, but I believe High Art is the most important thing that human beings have achieved: it is one of the only ways we have to access the complete truth. I feel that if you can create, however imperfectly, it's really worth chasing after that butterfly and stretching yourself as much as you dare.

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For further information about the world premiere of Judith’s Concerto for Clarinet on 15 July and to book tickets, please go to www.jamconcert.org

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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