Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I can’t remember a particular individual, but I felt the creative drive quite early in life, and was fortunate that my parents (who were actors) encouraged this, and did all they could – with very limited means – to help me.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Benjamin Britten’s work was an important inspiration during my childhood, and has remained so since, probably more than any other figure. Recent influences include the music of the late Steven Stucky (a former teacher), various folk traditions, and the US/Canadian singer Lhasa de Sela.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Self-confidence is often a problem, at times making it impossible to compose. Instilling and reinforcing a sense of failure, on a daily basis, isn’t much fun – and makes regular work difficult, especially if a deadline is looming.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Respecting the requirements of a commission, and yet also being true to your creative desires. And (yes!) the deadline…. Limitations certainly help focus the mind, and at times are crucial.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
It’s always a joy and privilege to work with musicians who care passionately about the music they’re performing. When a musician brings his or her years’ of training and unique experience to a work, it can be an incredibly enriching and moving experience.
Of which works are you most proud?
The most recent tend to resonate most – although sometimes older pieces (or aspects of them) surprise you.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I see my music as largely built on the classical tradition, but – hopefully – exploring new possibilities within it.
How do you work?
Ideally, in a regular and ordered way. In reality: sporadically, and in a clumsy trial-and error way, creating a large number of sketches which pile up. I try to compose at least a little every day, even if it’s just sifting through ideas for a couple of minutes. As the deadline approaches, I sometimes work up to 20 hours a day, depending on the size of the commission.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Renaissance Spanish vocal music, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Prokofiev, Bartok, Lutoslawski – and countless more recent composers. I love certain European folk traditions, though am no expert. Of those figures mentioned earlier, I’ve always admired Benjamin Britten as a kind of ‘quiet radical’, in contrast to the conservative figure he’s often made out to be, and I’d say the same in some respects about Steven Stucky. Both managed to draw something new out of an existing tradition, rather than dismiss it or distort it beyond recognition.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Knowing what success means to you personally, and then striving to achieve this.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To work out why you wish to be a musician – and then forge a path ahead, using that knowledge
Joseph Phibbs was born in London, and studied at The Purcell School, King’s College London, and Cornell University. His teachers have included Param Vir, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and Steven Stucky.
Described by BBC Music Magazine as “one of the most successful composers of his generation”, Phibbs’s works have been championed by some of the world’s leading conductors, including Edward Gardner, Gianandrea Noseda, Sakari Oramo, Vassily Petrenko, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Alexander Shelley, and Leonard Slatkin. Rivers to the Sea, the first of several large-scale orchestral works composed in recent years, was premiered to acclaim in 2012 by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, and has since received numerous performances in the UK and abroad, winning a British Composer Award in 2013.