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Joseph Davies

This interview was originally printed in the 2016 programme for the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Wales


Be a Fox, not a Hedgehog!


Joseph Davies tells us of his life as a composer



What attracted you to the subject of the Anemoi, the Greek gods of the wind?
I have always loved Greek myths, and of course there is the obvious parallel with the nature of the instruments in this orchestra. Because each ofJoseph Davies these wind deities is also associated with a time of the year, I realised the piece could represent a cycle through the seasons as well which was exciting. I always need this kind of metaphorical stimulus for my music; I don’t believe music can be ‘abstract’. I find the pagan religion of ancient Greece enormously appealing, because these gods and stories seem to have given the Greeks an intimate connection with the world around them and allowed them to better understand themselves and their place in it. That’s something I think we’ve largely lost these days, despite what we like to think of as progress.

This is your first work for wind orchestra. Were there any particular challenges that this type of ensemble posed?
There is a stodginess of texture in a lot of music for this ensemble, related to the large number of instruments with similar ranges, which I dislike and have sought to avoid. This means that ‘tutti’ passages in the piece are brief and reserved for climactic moments. It has been an interesting challenge therefore to balance the level of interest in each part with an overall sound which is constantly being refreshed from within. With the luxury of four percussionists it is hard to resist going too far in that direction. A lot of the time I found myself overscoring and then tripping back. My aim was for fresh air and clarity despite the complexity of some of the music.

What did you particularly enjoy about composing for a wind orchestra?
The challenges posed by an ensemble are often also what make it exciting to write for. I have certainly not ‘written down’ for these players, and it has been a thrill to see something develop which I hope has a degree of ambition lacking in a lot of the repertoire. My music almost always starts from the point of the instrumentation, i.e. the musical ideas are often inspired by the means at my disposal rather than being composed and orchestrated later. I have wanted to write for a group of winds for a long time because I love the idea of everyone having to breathe to make the music; there is a kind of purity of technique built into the ensemble.

What is the best piece of advice a composition teacher has given you?
Be a fox and not a hedgehog. That means creatively to be open to all the teeming possibilities of the world, and not to see the world through one kind of artistic lens all the time. While it’s true that a lot of people and artists just ‘are’ hedgehogs, he realised that, like him, I am not and he helped me to discover that at a time of great doubt for me.

Is there a set way that you approach the process of composing and what is your normal working practice?
I find I need to subconsciously mull things over for a while before going to paper. I used to think this was laziness or procrastination on my part but now recognise it as indispensable to my music. If the piece has had long enough to ripen I find I can work intensely at the piano for as long as it takes and without much getting stuck. If I start as soon as a basic idea or request comes through I am staring at a blank page. Tortuous!

What do you when you get stuck?
The usual clichés; go for a long walk, sleep on it. I have started Transcendental Meditation recently and have found that that can help a lot on those occasions. I have also dabbled in Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards developed in the 1970s, which offer fascinating ways of seeing your creative problem in a different light.

What projects are you currently working on?
The next big thing will be a song cycle for soprano and orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in October. Dr. Rowan Williams is writing the texts, and it has been a privilege to meet him and discuss how we can approach this incredibly painful subject through music. I’ve been collaborating with a rock musician friend, Meilyr Jones, on his first solo album 2013 which is just out and is very beautiful. He is also the dedicatee of Anemoi because he introduced me to Hesiod, the ancient Greek poet who described the birth of the Anemoi in his Theogony. I’m also working on ideas for my first opera.