THE INTERVIEW: Classical Music Composer Karl Jenkins

Notable composer Karl Jenkins holds a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Wales and has been made a Fellow and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. In 2004 he entered Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame” at no 8, the highest position for a living composer. He was recently awarded an honorary doctorate (music) from the University of Leicester, the Chancellors Medal from the University of Glamorgan and two Honorary visiting Professorships at Thames Valley University/London College of Music and the other at the ATriUM, Cardiff. He was awarded an OBE, by Her Majesty The Queen, in the 2005 New Years Honours List “for services to music.” I had the chance to talk to this legendary classical composer, who is playing Carnegie Hall tomorrow night.

You’ve been deemed one of the most popular composers in the UK for your contributions to music. How do you feel about this fame?

Well it’s gratifying of course but it’s not the fame, if one can call it that, but the fact my music seems to reach and move people emotionally. My The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace has been performed well over 800 times, including several times in the USA, which is about twice a week somewhere in the world since it’s premier.

What has been your most fulfilling contribution to music thus far?

It’s not for me to say but Adiemus was the most popular and the Armed Man the most rewarding.

What inspires your work?

If there is one trait in what I do, it is that of my being a “classical” composer who usually adopts influences and techniques from ethnic cultures. These can be texts or instrumentation, usually percussion. The Armed Man has a hugely diverse text, my Requiem & Stabat Mater uses, apart from the established Latin, Japanese and Arabic texts and instrumentation respectively while Adiemus was a true classical/ethnic blend. In a practical sense I think ‘inspiration’ is an irrelevant term since it’s a question of getting down to it and writing and the more one does the more the ideas flow.

Given that most young people can identify your composition, “Palladio,” with DeBeers commercials, what are your thoughts on being known through advertising?

I don’t think any composer is known through advertising since it’s a totally anonymous role, known only to industry people, with no visual “credit.” In fact, I have not written ad music for a number of years and Palladio was an exception in that it was a piece that existed and then adopted, much like one can hear anything on an advertisement, from Mozart to Miles.

Do you view and approach advertising projects differently from personal projects?

As I say, I no longer do it but it is different, yes, in that someone is dictating what needs, in his or her view, to be done. Ads are also very, very short which, of course, has implications.

Where do you think music (particularly classical) is headed in the future?

Don’t know. If we knew we’d be doing it now. I think the hardcore 20th century classical kind of imploded and now there’s a return to tonality. From my perspective it’s looking at other musical cultures and exploring them. These cultures have been ignored by the snobbish element in ‘classical’ music.

What are your thoughts about avant-garde/atonal music? Electronically derived music?

….Same as anything else really. When it’s good it’s good and when it isn’t it isn’t. Lots of scope for the “Emperor’s New Clothes” here though.

I read that you began your career in jazz/jazz-rock. What was the deciding factor for crossing over into classical music?

When one arrives at one’s career, people assume that’s where one started. However, I had a thorough academic classical upbringing, reading music at the University of Wales and the Royal Academy of Music, London before I embarked on life as a jazz musician. My life has had three main phases really, jazz and jazz fusion, media composer and what I’m doing now.

How did an early establishment in jazz help the rest of your music career?

As a kind of musical tourist it’s all gone into the melting pot and resulted in what I do now.

Do you still engage in jam sessions or other improvisational engagement?

Only as a solo pianist in my own space.

What are your thoughts regarding the pedagogical imperative of musical improvisation?

As a breed, jazz musicians are the best musicians I’ve met. This entails aural perception, instrumental ability, creativity. I also believe that improvisation cannot be taught much like composition cannot be taught, in the core sense of creativity. None of the jazz ‘greats’ were [other than instrumentally of course], and far too much of it is taught today. Nowadays everyone sounds the same, like all tenor players sound post-Coltrane.

What are your thoughts about music as a form of cultural diplomacy?

Music is an international language and can bring people together, if they have an appreciation of it that is. With all the conflict in the world that is unending, one must conclude that many do not appreciate culture of any kind.

Nicole Velasco

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