interview: New Music Series / nathan james dearden with Shirley Radcliffe

This is the featured article and interview extracts with Shirley Ratcliffe (Choir & Organ magazine). This was published in Choir & Organ's May/June 2017 edition prior to a premiere of the bright morning star.

The realisation that music has the power to make a positive change had a profound effect on the young Nathan James Dearden. ‘As soon as you become subsumed into the “music bubble” – the one you often find yourself in at school – you soon realise that music will play a large role in your life,’ he says. Being in a choir encouraged him to write his first short work which then led onto practical examinations. ‘The ball starts rolling often without you noticing, a pattern starts to unfold and you’re developing into a career musician.’

Dearden didn’t start to compose seriously until his undergraduate days. ‘Like many it has not been an easy transition to make (from the schoolboy to the professional musician), navigating your way through the countless call-for-scores, summer schools and workshop days, yet trying to reassure yourself that you can compose and that you have something meaningful to say whilst being rejected for much you apply for. These opportunities are undoubtedly imperative for any success as a composer, but we have bred a bizarre culture of the career composer having to say or even write the “correct” thing to get by.’

Dearden found becoming a student at Cardiff University a very freeing experience. ‘I was able to curate my own events, conduct the music I wanted to, write music for ensembles, make the successes and perhaps most importantly the mistakes that I needed to and listen to music-making of the highest quality. I remember attending David Poutney’s 2013 production of Berg’s Lulu with Welsh National Opera and thinking “this could not get any better”. For me, The School of Music at Cardiff University is unsurpassed and the people I met there really did change things for me.’

Dearden tells me that throughout his life his influences have come from his teachers. ‘[They] pushed me in directions that allowed me to develop as a singer and instrumentalist sitting me down to listen to Glenn Gould playing the mono recording of the Goldberg Variations, taking me to concerts and schlepping across the country for me to take part in workshops.

After joining his first school choir Dearden has always been associated with choirs. ‘It has always been an important part of my musical education,’ he says, ‘such as touring with the National Youth Choir of Wales, touring with the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir in Lorient or singing at the Proms with the BBC National Chorus of Wales. Singing has always been core to my understanding of musical performance and my development as a musician, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

When did he start to change direction as a composer? ‘It’s difficult to say. I see composing music as building blocks, trying to get the clay bricks into the right order, removing or adding one at a time without the whole thing collapsing around you. My vocal work both as a singer and a composer has undoubtedly influenced my purely instrumental work (and vice versa) and I do not separate my work as a curator or conductor from my composing, it’s all one package.’

An important learning curve was his very first residency. As Young Composer-in-Residence for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales he was asked to write an 8 to 10 minute work for 13 instruments in five days. ‘What a fantastically immersive jump into the deep-end it was,’ he says. ‘Sleep was at a minimum and anxiety in abundance. Learning to manage my time efficiently and being ruthless with my material was so essential to producing a piece that I was happy with within this time frame.’ It was here that he got to know the dynamic young composer Mark Bowden. ‘At the time I was just dipping my toe into compositional processes that Mark really embraced (Krenek-Stravinskian rotational matrixes and harmonic organisational systems like this).’

Mark Bowden is Reader in Composition at Royal Holloway and the two discussed Dearden apply for doctorate studies at the college. Achieving this he explains his research there: ‘I am obsessed with the everyday. What motivates us to do the things we do? The reasoning or non-reasoning behind the small decisions we continually make. Where does music fit into this? Music or, more broadly speaking, art has always been used to reflect our everyday right back at us allowing us to see objects and issues from different angles. Music has the transcendental power to do this and has done for centuries. How do we use music as a form of social-commentary? There is plenty of music to be written if we react to the world around us today.’ Alongside this research Dearden currently curates and manages the concert series at the college, inviting international artists to the university, providing a platform for young musicians and programming events. ‘I love the multifaceted nature of music, and how my work as a composer, curator, conductor, teacher and performer all come together under one roof.’

We talk about his choice of texts for his C&O commission. ‘I wanted to set Milton’s The Bright Morning-Star as I have known it for some years and felt it apt for the May/June issue of C&O. The stripping of winter and entering into the early sunlight of spring, looks towards something far more positive than what has come before. I also like pairing texts together therefore I wanted another text that dealt with light and was utterly transformative. Recalling the Lux eternal luceat eis, Domine (May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord), I thought this would be a perfect sister for the Milton. I usually only use text architecturally. Here I have overlapped the two different texts, interweaving them so they become one and obscuring any such definitive stanzas.’

Michael Finnissy has become what Dearden describes as ‘a true friend and mentor in this crazy world we find ourselves in. We met a few years ago at the Benslow Music Trust in

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and have since worked together quite a bit. He is one of the most generous of human beings. I have written him my largest solo piano work and in 2018 there will be a collaboration with him and a few singers setting the text of several little-known gay poet/soldiers from the First World War to commemorate the centenary of the end of WWI.’

Dearden describes becoming a LPO Leverhulme Arts Scholar as a ‘real pinch me moment that made me want to scream from the rooftop! Essentially it is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Composer-in-Residence programme, in which five composers are selected to work on a new work with the orchestra and its young professional musicians programme. We are also provided with sessions in career development, opportunities with the orchestra’s education projects and we are even able to curate our own event at London’s Southbank Centre. The new work composed for the orchestra and Magnus Lindberg will be premiered in July 2017 at St John’s Smith Square. What a year I have had with them!’

Thinking about his future he says, ‘All that I know is I will keep writing music provided I still have something I need to say, people to perform it and/or people still want to listen to it.’