No time to celebrate as Julian forges ahead with a major work

Composer joins choir while he puts finishing touches to the work due to be performed at the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, writes David Sonin When anyone hits the big Four-Oh it is usually a time to pause, reflect and, maybe, assess how far along

Composer joins choir while he puts finishing touches to the work due to be performed at the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, writes David Sonin

When anyone hits the big Four-Oh it is usually a time to pause, reflect and, maybe, assess how far along the career path one has progressed.

For Julian Anderson that particular rite of passage was negotiated earlier this month though for a busy composer, and one of Britain's most admired and successful, any self-assessment and enjoyment had to be put on the back burner.

"I am just too busy at the moment to take time out and by the end of the month I plan to finish Alleluia, the choral work I am writing for the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall on June 11.

"Maybe, I will have a big celebration later on," he adds in a tone that suggests that fun certainly does have a place in his scheme of things, but only after work in progress has been given due attention.

For the past 15 years the music of this London-born, Hampstead-based composer has been in the public's ear. The first of his compositions to attract wide attention was his Diptych, which is formed by two orchestral pieces Parades and Pavillions en l'Air, and which won the 1992 Royal Philharmonic Society's prize for young composers.

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It did not have a complete performance, however, until 1995, when it was played at the BBC's Talking Music festival at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen, who has been a champion of Julian's music ever since.

At 40, he has almost 30 years of creative endeavour behind him and the universal hopes are that he will have many years of creativity to come.

His first compositions, however, date from when he was 11 and he hints that much of this early output has been consigned to oblivion.

Julian's formal studies in composition were started later under John Lambert in London and continued with Alexander Goehr at Cambridge and Tristan Murail in Paris. Among the other influential figures in his development were Olivier Messiaen, Per Nørgård and Gyorgy Ligeti.

A valuable aspect of his musical make-up is that his mind is like a blotter, it freely absorbs the nuts and bolts of diverse musical traditions that he incorporates into his own constructions and, unlike others, freely acknowledges the debts he owes to what has gone before.

The traditions that have influenced Julian are not entirely musical in context. His father, a scientist with a great love of music, was born in Newcastle to a mother who had fled Lithuania because of anti-Semitism.

Julian describes himself as a half-Jewish lapsed Anglican who is now attracted to the spirituality of Buddhism. "My father, though nominally a Litvak, was agnostic and I became an adherent of Anglicanism in my late 20s, though when it set out its doctrinal attitudes on certain issues that I felt strongly about and with which I could not accept, I moved away from the Church.

"As to my paternal background I did develop an interest in Eastern European folk music but that was due in part to the discovery in the Royal College of Music record library of a recording of non-Jewish Lithuanian folk music on the Russian Melodya label.

"The other part was after watching Barrie Gavin's celebrated BBC TV documentary about East European folk musicians. The combined effect was quite devastating in a positive way and whereas prior to that I had a fallow period of about 18 months when I did not write a note, this had me rushing for my notebooks as a flood of ideas came flowing out, all of them influenced by the Eastern European folk modes," Julian recalls.

The influences were not superficial as Julian's methodology invariably involves painstaking study of musical ideas and influences. This has allowed him to amass an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject and is probably an influential factor when it came to his appointment as a professor of composition at Harvard.

Quite clearly East European folk modes have coloured his output ever since. The most significant manifestation came in 1994 in the exciting and mesmeric Khorovod, an evocation of the circle dance common throughout East Europe and known as the hora in Romania and Israel. The work is Julian's most performed piece.

It was also the first of his two commissions thus far from the London Sinfonietta, the second being the Alhambra Fantasy which was given its premiere in 2000 and looks set to follow Khorovod in terms of audience popularity.

While Julian is adept at discovery he is also superbly open-minded about rediscovery and no inhibitions are felt when he looks to the past for inspiration or example. Perhaps the most important aspect in connection with the musical past is his rediscovery of melody, an element ignored in the curriculum of our music colleges and castigated by so many "forward looking" composers of the latter part of the 20th century.

"I fail to understand why melody has no place on the syllabus. Surely we need to have a sense of time and place and even if a composer ignores melody, surely it is necessary to know where we are coming from."

To attempt to define Julian's approach to composition one might do well to draw on the DIY lexicon and consider him as a hands-on operative who is never idle when it comes to considering ideas and variations on them, even before the blueprint has been fully realised. For example, works for voice has characterised his output in recent times and most notable of these was last year's BBC Proms piece, Heaven is Shy of Earth, which set verse by Emily Dickinson. This meets Julian's penchant for seeking inspiration in architecture, literature and the visual arts, but the act of writing might not have been possible without going through the choral experience.

"I joined the London Philharmonic Choir for a performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, which is frankly not my most favourite music. And, yes, it was an experience for someone blessed with a gravelly bass at best.

"It taught me a few things, not least how difficult it can be when big choruses and big chords are thrust at the choristers. Quite frightening," Julian admits.

What other ideas from his choral career will have found a place in Alleluia will not be revealed until we hear it on June 11, but I think that when it comes to expectation Julian Anderson will offer us something as a musical experience that will have energy, brilliance and a compelling network of ideas that will keep us fully engaged.