Baby’s mobile inspires Piper to call the tune

Charlie Piper,  Associate Composer with Music in the Round, in Sheffield
Charlie Piper, Associate Composer with Music in the Round, in Sheffield
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CHARLIE Piper emits a quiet laugh when asked about approachability in his music – a loaded question to a composer and they invariably skirt round any answer!

A slight pause, and he responds in the context of his 15-minute work Ensemble 360 will be premiering a week on Wednesday when Music in the Round opens its autumn season at the Crucible Studio.

“Jacaranda is very approachable – melodic. It’s got quite a lot of melody and a lot of…” he breaks off, before continuing: “It’s possibly the most traditionally founded piece I’ve written. There’s a lot in it the audience could identify with, I hope. I think it’s very approachable,” he reiterates.

Appointed associate composer with Music in the Round earlier this year, Piper says his new piece, a sextet for clarinet, bassoon and string quartet, was inspired by mobiles – of the hanging variety found on baby’s cots, not the hand-held objects our American cousins call cell phones.

“Jacaranda is the name of a sculpture by Alexander Calder who was famous for creating great big mobiles. He invented the hanging mobile, basically.

“That was the inspiration behind the piece and I wrote it for my niece who was born last year. I wanted to write a piece about the mobile that was above her head and the idea of the independently moving sections,” explains the fast-rising London-based composer.

He confesses to the need for a stimulus or end objective for writing music: “I need some sort of event to work towards because I find it impossible to write music if there is not an end purpose. I can’t just sit down and write something off the top of my head.”

Ideas and inspiration for a piece of music, he says, vary widely: a work of art, a poem, a specific event, even a hanging mobile – not an original source of inspiration, actually, as it has attracted a number of other composers.

Works in his output with such titles as Kick up the Fire, The Twittering Machine (both orchestral) and The Two-Headed Nightingale (small ensemble) leave you wondering what stimulated Piper’s musical imagination. Less obscure is Insomniac; a London Sinfonietta commission premiered last November.

To the observation that he appears to give titles to all his works, he says: “I prefer to, instead of calling it a string quartet or whatever. I’d rather have a nice title, yeah.”

With Jacaranda included, he has 25 ‘titles’ to his name all penned since 2006 when he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Award, a notable landmark in a composing career that had hardly begun.

He recalls: “As a teenager, I knew I wanted to go into music but I wasn’t a particularly great performer; I got very nervous when I was playing and it all went wrong. So it seemed a natural thing to do as I had been writing music to go into composition.”

He turns 30 this year and when we spoke last week was in the midst of writing a PhD thesis for this weekend as he reaches the end of doctoral research at the Royal Academy of Music.

His music, however, has already been widely performed: Wigmore Hall, South Bank Centre, Radio 3, in France, including the Aix-en-Provence Festival and, recently, New York and Milan, by such groups as the London Sinfonietta, Britten Sinfonia and English National Ballet.

Have many of his works have had more than one performance, the usual fate of pieces new of music?

“Quite a few, particularly my more recent pieces. I had a piece played in Holland last week, its third performance of it. Yes, different groups perform it, it’s not always the same one.”

Jacaranda will get more than one outing with Ensemble 360 taking it on Music in the Round’s touring programme, Around the Country, next year.

So what else can we expect?

“The position with Music in the Round lasts three years so I will be doing a series of pieces for Ensemble 360, one large piece ever year, and will have the opportunity to write smaller pieces.

“Once I get to know their playing better, I can write personally for them, solo pieces. Writing solo works appeals to me because most of my output has been for ensembles.”

He dodges influences on his music as too numerous, but again in the context of Jacaranda, says there is a Schumann reference as a starting point and some Britten – “I was specifically asked to have a reference to Benjamin Britten in it,” he reveals.

As to non-Ensemble 360 activity elsewhere, he says: “There’s a bunch of possibilities which I’m not going to mention because they might not happen. Right now, I’m just focusing on finishing my PhD. I can’t look too far ahead.”