Meet The Composer

“Meet The Composer”

BBC Music Magazine16 April, 2020

First impressions: ‘A poem’s opening lines always inspire the music’ Born in Liverpool but now based in Worcester, Ian Venables is one of the UK’S leading composers of English art song. Love Lives Beyond the Tomb, a selection of Venables’s songs and song cycles, is out this month on Signum Classics, featuring the soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Allan Clayton.

Song is such an intimate art form, and I love what I can bring to a piece of poetry. We all sing songs – it’s a natural thing to do. A song can be just as emotionally powerful as a symphony, and when you add the interpretive qualities a singer can bring, you have such creative potential. Composing is a gift but a gift is no good if you don’t pass it on. You are there to bring the music and words across, but the best singers are those that are able to understand the words and bring colour at the right moment. I’ve got to have a personal engagement with the text. It can take me months to find the right poetry. I will read it over and over again, trying to get it into my bloodstream and understand the way it works. The opening lines always inspire the music: they spark something in me, which helps everything come together. 

I’m definitely an English composer. My music is tonal and melodic, and I gravitate towards the English tradition. It’s just the way I’ve always communicated, perhaps because I didn’t have an initial music college education that might have brought me into contact with other forms of music. Having initially thought music was too precious for me to study, I did an Economics degree. I later went back to learn the craft properly and explored other instrumentations, because previously I had only really written for the piano.

I’m very traditional. I just need a piece of manuscript paper, a pencil, a rubber and a piano. You can see notes as well as hear them, so o en you can find patterns visually. Sometimes you look at a chord and instinctively know it’s not right.

If you’re a freelance composer, it’s like running a business. However, when I’m in the zone of composing, days will go by and I’m completely focused. I won’t eat. The telephone’s pulled out of the socket and the ‘do not disturb’ sign is on the door. I don’t compose every day, though. As Tippett once wrote, ‘I am only a composer when I’m composing’.