Industry Insights #2 - Composer: Joseph Phibbs

Listen to Night Songs here.

1.    Do you have any creative rituals or routines? Either as preparation or to get out of a mental block?

I generally work early in the morning, as it's quiet and my mind is (hopefully) uncluttered. Of course, it depends what's going on - and if a deadline's approaching, I'll sometimes work all hours. In terms of blocks: these are usually triggered by old demons relating to originality, quality, style etc, rather than not knowing how to approach or continue a piece. I find the best way forward is to keep working until the music takes on a life of its own, and in a way starts to validate itself, regardless of personal doubts and anxieties. Going for a walk - or doing something completely different - also helps. 


2.    What is a project you’re particularly proud of and why?

I worked on some specific technical challenges in an orchestral piece 'Partita' (written in memory of a former teacher, Steven Stucky), which I feel paid off, and expanded my scope from an expressive angle. A recent work, 'Night Songs', explored a different approach to choral writing, and was also written after a long break - so there was a sense of relief I could still compose at all! 

3.    Who or what is currently inspiring you? 

Having a break from writing has been very helpful, and so energy levels feel higher now. The rest itself has made me more receptive to new ideas and possibilities.

4.    Which part of the creative process you most enjoy?

Coming across exactly the right notes when you least expect them can be very rewarding, and at times thrilling, as it's often hard to know where they've come from, or why they fit so well. Often, they don't conform to what you'd intended. Those unplanned aspects of a piece - as Steven Stucky often said - are sometimes the most important and revelatory.

5.    What is on your bucket list? What do you hope to achieve/do in future?

Among other things I'd love to write a ballet one day, as well as a violin concerto. 

6.    Last film you watched? 

Relativo Salvajes (Wild Tales). A very funny black comedy. 

7.    Last song you listened to?

Air 'Cherry blossom girl'

8.    Favourite film score/soundtrack?

I love the title music from Taxi Driver - a sublime and woozy counterpoint to the violence of the film. The opening guitar music (Ry Cooder) of 'Paris Texas' is also a favourite. Going much further back, Prokofiev's film scores have some extraordinary music - the opening of 'Ivan the Terrible', for example. 

9.    Advice for your younger self?

Write the music you really believe in and want to hear. 

10. What do you do when you’re not working? Any guilty pleasures?

I'm getting into cycling again, something I last did in my teens, and also enjoy reading. For escapism: a glass of Tullibardine is always a fiery pleasure - and to get fully out of the zone, favourite old '80s songs work well for me.

11. From its conception to the finished result, how does the initial idea change during the process of writing/scoring/recording/performing?

I usually need an overall blueprint for a piece, but one which stays fluid. Something I say to my students is that the music - what the music insists on doing - is always right, not your intentions, however meticulously worked out these might be pieces I find least engaging are those which feel shackled by their own rules, or works which are inspired by, for example, a fascinating scientific concept, or beautiful poem or picture etc, but which - simply as music - are essentially dull. At the end of the day, a symphony by Mozart, or string quartet by Britten, is a succession of sounds which trigger a response in the listener. That, for me, is the wonder of music. 

12. What was the inspiration behind your latest choral EP Night Songs?

I wanted to explore a simple, direct form of expression using various techniques: layers of ostinsti in the first song, which form a kind of harmonic texture over which the main melody unfolds; close and very rapid imitation in the second (creating a sort of echo effect); and a chorale texture in the final song, underpinned by a descending bass line. All three have a childlike and dream/fantasy quality.

13. How do you approach writing for voice? Does the music come from the lyrics or vice versa?

At first, I only look at a poem's language (style, patterns, rhythm etc) to see - or hear - if it will chime with the music I'm wanting to write. There are many works by great poets (Shakespeare, TS Eliot, Yeats etc) which I’d struggle to set, as the language doesn't suggest anything I could add to musically. To that extent the music (or a notion of what the music will be) comes first. 

14. What is the biggest compliment you could receive as a composer?

To know that a work has communicated with a listener. 

15. What have you learned from this project to take into the next one?

To keep trying new approaches. 


Night Songs by Joseph Phibbs - Available worldwide.

Night Songs by Joseph Phibbs - Available worldwide.