Composer in Russia: Bryn Harrison

As part of the UK-Russia Year of Music, we invited British composer Bryn Harrison to lead a workshop in Tchaikovsky-city as part of the ninth international Academy for Young Composers. Back in the UK, Bryn spoke to use about his own music, his time in Russia and what he believes the future holds for composers in the twenty first century.


How do you think the study of Music differs between the UK and Russia?

From what I gather, the study of music is generally still rather conservative in Russia, especially within schools and colleges. Some of the students at the academy in Russia had chosen to study elsewhere, especially at postgraduate level. That said, the Russian student composers that I encountered were exceptionally broad-minded and very keen to learn more. Much of their education seems to come from attending summer schools and through social media platforms (YouTube in particular).

What did the young Russian composers most want to learn from you?

I was surprised that many of them already knew my music as well as that of the other professors at the academy. They were keen to know more about our working processes but also keen to see how we might be able to assist them with their own work. We had lots of time together so there was plenty of time to discuss many areas of music, aesthetics and so on.

Were there any particular trends in the music being composed by youngsters in Russia? There were many different approaches being explored; I wouldn’t really be able to pin down one particular trend. There was quite a clear interest in music theatre, but students working within all sorts of areas – noise music, process music, electronics, installation, all alongside more traditional approaches.

What will you remember most from your trip? 

I very much enjoyed meeting Martin Schuettler who was also a guest professor at the academy as well as Dmitri Kourliandski who is the artistic director. It was fascinating to be able to absorb the culture and also to spend some time in Moscow. It was also great to hang out with all the professors and students – we had some enjoyable evenings together. The 15 hour train ride from Moscow was also an experience I will never forget!

How do you see our current sociopolitical times impacting on work being made today?

There has been a clear move over the past two decades away from composers’ activities being overseen by the established publishing houses (none of my composition students ever talk about trying to get a publishing deal!). I see much more of a ‘DIY’ approach amongst younger composers which often involves composers’ performing in their own works or finding individual ways of promoting and supporting themselves economically. It is perhaps no surprise that sociopolitical attitudes feed into a lot of this work.

Amongst my generation, it’s great to see a composer/performer like Jennifer Walshe working with philosopher and ecologist Timothy Morton. In general, there seems to be a lots more interest in talking and making work across disciplines – music, anthropology, philosophy, etc. A lot of the seminar classes we run for postgraduate students at the University of Huddersfield reflect this multi-disciplinary approach. ‘New Music and Social Change’ is part of the curriculum this year. As part of my own research, I was invited to attend Liza Lim’Ecologies of Time conference in Sydney in the summer where we engaged in some fascinating discussions across the areas of musical time and place. Liza and others are doing some fantastic work that deals quite directly with ecological issues.

Time and place also plays a key role in your own work, for example your time capsule project ...

The time capsule project was something that I set up in 2006. I invited several composers who I was close to at the time to write new pieces that would remain in sealed envelopes for the next 25 years. I received seven or eight pieces in the end which are still sitting in a sealed box on the top of my wardrobe. If I am perfectly honest, I can’t remember exactly who ended up writing pieces in the end – I think James Saunders and Linda Catlin Smith might be in there – but I am very much looking forward to arranging their first performance in 2031, assuming I’m still around to curate the event!

You were at Leeds College of Music – now very much known in the UK or its jazz programme. Was it as eclectic a place to study then and how did it help shape you as a composer? 

Yes, I went to Leeds College of Music, aged 19, primarily with the intention of getting my jazz guitar playing together but soon found myself performing contemporary works on the classical guitar (TakemitsuLeo Bouwer, etc.) as well as taking an interest in many other twentieth century classical composers. I basically wasn’t a very good jazz guitar player so looked to other things like composition! It was through 20th century music classes that I became interested in Messiaen and also in Minimalism (particularly Steve Reich). In a strange kind of way, I can still hear discernable influences from both of those composers in my work.

How did Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival influence your music?

Much of my music knowledge has come from attending HCMF every year for the past 26 years. It formed a very important part of my musical education and it feels like a privilege to be teaching at the same institution that has hosted the festival all these years. It was through HCMF that I made many friends, such as Philip Thomas who is a colleague and close friend that I first met through the festival in 2001 and who has performed much of my piano music subsequently. I have been lucky enough to receive several premieres at HCMF over the years. My new piece, Dead Time, written for Wet Ink will be premiered there on the 20 November.

And what do you see as the new developments in composition and the future for the art form? 

It is wonderful to see more and more new music festivals pledge a 50/50 gender balance in their programmes. We’re not there yet, but I hope we may get to the stage where equal representation is seen as the norm. I see the blurring of boundaries between artistic disciplines and practices as being an exciting way forward for new music. The ‘gatekeepers’ are no longer with us but this has opened up new spaces for more diverse artistic practice. The numbers of students studying music at universities seems to be dwindling which is rather worrying but I try to stay optimistic in these rather divided political times.


Find out more about the UK-Russia Year of Music and upcoming events at the official UK-Russia Year of Music website

The Academy for Young Composers accepts applications internationally. More information about the Academy for Young Composers in Tchaikovsky city here