How I Got Into Composing

I was late to composing. I was more a gun for hire, so to speak. I often had free reign in providing my own guitar parts to someone's composition. Mike Gibbs is a good case in point. One time, in the studio, he was handing out parts to a new tune, and he handed me a part and it had no music on it, just the title. He said, 'you'll know what to do'. His faith in me was humbling, but it was still a little nerve-wracking.

I was about 26. I had written a few tunes for the first band I was in (River People), but I wasn't a consistent writer. It was years before I started to consider myself a composer and write more steadily. I offered my compositions to varying bands I was in, and from that I was asked to do a commission piece for Manchester Festival.

I wrote for 22 strings and a Jazz quintet. I wrote the music in about 6 weeks. The piece was called 'Ropes' and was performed to a packed theatre in Manchester and was very well received.

Me pretending to conduct the Orchestra for 'Ropes'

In that same year - 2008, I also released an album, 'Madhouse and The Whole Thing There', featuring my compositions. So, I felt a little more at ease with adding 'composer' to my usual 'guitarist, educator' description.

What Inspires My Compositions?

I'm inspired by many things, family, nature, the crazy beautiful mess of life. On a more direct musical level, I have been inspired over the years by film music too. I have always loved old films and was moved often as a child by certain film scores. 'Spartacus' was one in particular that got me. Another was 'Whistle Down The Wind' a 60s film with Alan Bates as a criminal hiding in a barn and mistaken for Jesus, by children. I was probably 9 years old when I cried at that film and the music was the catalyst.

My Process

I usually get initial ideas on guitar. I record them into my phone (used to be a cassette tape recorder) and leave fragments to flesh out later. I either write things down on paper or put things into Sibelius and go from there.

Composing at a friend’s place on the Gower Coast, Wales

What I Enjoy About Composing

I like the architecture of a piece. I like to write structures into a piece that are not necessarily on the surface but are, nonetheless, felt on some visceral level, by the listener. Writing melodies is an incredibly delicate process for me. The way melodies suggest pathways in music is extremely interesting and I sometimes find myself giving initial ideas up, in order to surrender to a melody and its insistence that I turn left instead of right. The piquancy and mix of flavours, the balance of melody, harmony and rhythm, is a constantly evolving process and I'm still trying to perfect it, whilst at the same time, letting it run free.

I have been writing for classical ensembles of late and I find that an interesting process. Classical has been getting more and more interested in improvisation of late (not just variations on a theme) and that has been an opening for Jazz composers to work more with classical musicians. I love to write for anyone and anything be it large ensembles or small.

Checking out the Piano Score with Les Chisnall

I usually compose alone, but I recently started writing with Gwil (Simcock) for the 'Impossible Gentlemen'. This is an interesting process that requires you to let go of things you may have held a little too close. 'Kill your darlings' is the phrase that comes to mind. We've written some lovely pieces together that would not have come about had we been alone in the writing process.

Gwil and Iain at a recording session for 'Let's Get Deluxe',
The Impossible Gentlemen

On Seeing A Piece Of My Work Being Performed Or Recorded

I feel excited, and a little trepidation at the same time. It's kind of like watching your kid in the school play and you know the moment before each of their lines. I recently had my piece 'Ropes' performed to a packed theatre and I'd re-written some of the music. I play on some pieces but others I'm just sat there listening. It's humbling and scary and uplifting. Seeing people, who you know have put time in, at home, to get your piece up to scratch, is a beautiful thing. 'Ropes III' is an extremely tough piece for the clarinet (it's clarinet and strings) and I remember listening to it and being moved by Iain Dixon's performance. Not just the performance, but the sheer effort of getting it together. I smiled at him half way through and he winked at me. That stays with me.

Iain Dixon conducting the Psappha Orchestra for my album 'Ropes'

© Mike Walker 2022