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British Composer Award for Inspiration – Simon Bainbridge

Andy Hamilton speaks to composer Simon Bainbridge after being awarded the British Composer Award for Inspiration.

Simon Bainbridge has had a major influence as both composer and teacher. I begin by asking him about his influence on other composers through his teaching. “I very rarely discuss my music in detail with my students,” he comments. “However, I may attempt to illuminate some particular structural issue by making a correlation with my own work”. He’s not concerned about style: “My responsibility is to make sure the student articulates their ideas in the most coherent way possible – subtly making suggestions, getting them to exercise their inner ear”.

Does he think he exerts a political influence through his music – I am thinking here particularly of such large themes as the Primo Levi settings? “I am not a political composer”, he replies. “My inspiration comes from art, architecture, landscape and the written word. It was the power of Levi’s deeply affecting vision of hell on earth, combined with the devastating memories of visiting Auschwitz, which ignited within me a musical soundworld and grammar which I used to articulate my settings of his poetry”.

One of his teachers was Gunther Schuller, founder of Third Stream, the synthesis of jazz and classical music. “He was a Renaissance man – composer, conductor, administrator, pedagogue and writer”, Bainbridge comments. “Having him as my teacher for two summers at Tanglewood was inspirational. When one piece wasn’t going well, he looked at me with his one and only good eye, and said ‘You’re not going to fuck up’ – which gave me the confidence I needed to carry on.” Bainbridge comments on his “natural modesty”: “I called him on the phone to congratulate him on a new orchestra piece of his at the Proms. His response was ‘I know, wasn’t it fantastic!’ ”

Notable in Bainbridge’s own Third Stream work is the concerto for Bill Evans’s one-time bassist, Eddie Gomez. “My collaboration brought together a brilliant jazz musician and the equally brilliant Britten Sinfonia. I can only think of one other composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, who for years has worked successfully with many jazz musicians”. However, he adds, “I have never come across any students who have this interest”. That I think is a pity – but then the naturally modest Simon Bainbridge has exerted an influence without looking for disciples. He sums up what he feels is his influence as a composer: “I hope I have given inspiration to my students to free their precious imaginations, together with a technique to see them successfully through any creative journey they may undertake”.

ANDY HAMILTON

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