What makes a composer?

November 15, 2019

At the November meeting of the Shipston Music Society, musician Howard Skempton gave a talk entitled “What makes a composer?” Howard has worked as a composer, accordionist and music publisher. He studied in London with Cornelius Cardew and has won several awards for some of his compositions. He is now a lecturer in composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Throughout the evening Howard was assisted by Charles Matthews at the keyboard, playing with his usual expertise, all the examples required to illustrate the points being made.

Howard began by explaining that as a 17 year old, his piano teacher had allowed him to learn whatever he chose, but then things changed when his next teacher presented him with a planned scheme to widen his knowledge and improve his technique! He began to listen to lots of music in a wide variety of styles and became interested in the compositions of John Cage. Immediately he was inspired to start writing his own music in this more modern genre. He experimented with ideas to try to find the necessary harmonic structure and choice of instruments to achieve the desired results.

In 1973 he composed a piece for accordion, later arranging it for the piano. We heard the piano arrangement first before Howard played the original on his accordion – a very interesting listening experience.

The evening ended with extracts from a song cycle based on the poem “Man and Bat” by D.H.Laurence. Composed in 2017 it is scored for baritone soloist with string quartet, double bass and piano and describes the antics which ensued during the man’s efforts to persuade the bat to fly out of the room. It was a fitting finale to a fascinating journey from inspired teenager to widely acclaimed composer

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