Throughout 2017, Casa da Música, Porto, presents a year-long season of UK classical music, in partnership with the British Council and the GREAT Campaign. The Year of British Music includes around 30 concerts and over 1,000 educational activities, with a particular focus on new classical music.
Over the year, we’ve been featuring talented, innovative young British composers and talking to them about their work. In the penultimate profile of this series, we speak to Gavin Higgins, the latest of our composers in focus who has an extensive and ever growing collection of ensemble and orchestral works – many have been featured at major festivals. His saxophone quartet “Endgame” was commissioned as part of the 2011 Cheltenham Festival and Der Aufstand – which The Times described as a “boldly imaginative response" to the London riots of 2011 – was commissioned as part of the 2012 BBC Proms. The premiere of Velocity – “fast, exciting and brilliantly scored” (The Telegraph) – was commissioned by the BBC to open the Last Night of the Proms in 2014. His latest successes include Tänze and The Ruins of Detroit. The latter was commissioned by the Britten Pears Foundation and performed by the Fidelio Trio at the Cheltenham Festival – a “striking” work, said the Guardian.
Tell us about growing up in the Forest of Dean and what musical life and opportunities were like there?
The Forest of Dean is quite an unusual place to grow up. As a child I found playing in woods to be a kind of magical experience but as I grew older I found the small villages rather stifling. That being said, amateur music making is very much alive in the Forest, especially the long tradition of brass bands and that’s where I got my initial musical training.
What drew you to want to pick up a brass instrument and what continues to appeal about brass instruments and brass ensembles?
Coming from a long lineage of miners, it’s not surprising that my whole family played in the local brass band, so I didn’t really have much choice! I don’t even remember learning to play, it’s just something I’ve always done. Despite no longer playing, I still feel passionately about brass bands. Some of our orchestras’ finest brass players have come up through bands and I think the tradition is something that we should cherish, though I regret to say it’s not supported as well as it ought to be. There is a perception that, in this country at least, brass bands are rather insular and archaic, though this is not the case in parts of Europe and Scandinavia. This, I think, is one of the reasons they don’t have the kind of platform they deserve. Let’s call it a PR problem! But they do have an important role to play in the rich, cultural heritage of British music making, in terms of both their historic significance and their pedagogical role. And for purely selfish reasons there’s just nothing like hearing a brass band play your music, there’s really not a sound quite like it.
You’ve spoken previously of a love of collaboration. What have been some of the most satisfying for you so far?
Last year I worked on a ballet with Rambert called Dark Arteries. The piece was inspired by the miners’ strike and commemorated the 30th anniversary of the event. It seemed obvious that we should use a brass band for the piece so it was a chance for me to combine two of my passions: dance and my brass band heritage. It’s probably my most personal piece to date and we worked with a number of bands across the country on the piece though it was the Tredegar Town Band, with whom I’ve have a long relationship with, who premiered the piece at Sadler’s Wells. It was such a wonderful thing to be part of and probably one of the most creatively rewarding pieces I’ve worked on.
Above: Rambert’s dancers in Dark Arteries with music composed by Gavin Higgins
As a composer, what did you learn most from being Rambert’s (first) music fellow?
The year I spent with Rambert was fascinating. I got to see how one of the UK’s foremost dance organisations worked from the inside and I became familiar with some of their repertoire. Going on tour with Rambert was also really great fun and gave me the opportunity to get to know the dancers and choreographers, some of whom I’ve gone on to create dance pieces with.
You’ve spoken before of a love of London. In your experience, how does the life of a big city help or hinder your creative juices?
I love this city. There’s so much going on it can get a bit overwhelming at times but there’s just nowhere like it. On any night of the week you can see classical music, theatre, musicals, pop gigs, you name it – it’s incredibly invigorating being a creative person in London. I’ve always tried to surround myself with talented people who are at the top of their game. It drives me to have that kind of passion and talent around, and London is full of these people so it’s a great place to be. Unfortunately it is not a cheap place to live and that can make seeing concerts, theatre or other shows quite difficult. We also have a problem with gentrification happening at such a speed that whole areas are changing dramatically and I’m concerned that if this trend continues artists and creatives will simply move out of London.
What do you think are the hallmarks of your compositions; what do you want the audience to take away from hearing one of your pieces?
That’s a hard question to answer. Every piece I write is different and with each new work I’m trying to refine my creative process. That being said I do strive for clarity and an economy of musical ideas in my music. I want to write clear, direct music that an audience – many of whom are not musicians – can understand on an emotional level first and foremost. But I I’ve always been fascinated by the rich and diverse world of fairy tales, folk lore, mythology, photography, literature; things that hold a mirror up to our reality or show us an alternative – the weird, the wonderful, the disturbing. And it’s in this darker side of the human experience where I find much of my inspiration. Each piece I write has a different purpose – Velocity was written to open the Last Night of the Proms; Tänze was written for a mix of professional players and beginner violin students; Prophecies was written for the European Brass Band Championships – and so each new work comes from a different place and is aimed at quite a specific audience; I suppose I’m versatile in that way. Everyone is going to have a different listening experience; some people will love it and some people will hate it and they’re really not embarrassed to tell me what they think, good or bad! It’s not my job to please everyone though, I can only write the music I feel I need to write at the time of writing and then hope that the audience wants to engage with what I have to say.
Above: Gavin Higgins' Velocity at the BBC Proms 2014
What projects have you got coming up?
I’m currently right in the middle of writing my first opera with Francesca Simon, the author of the Horrid Henry series. I can’t say much more at this point but watch this space!