These questions were originally devised by Frances Wilson, who blogs on classical music as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and are taken, with her kind permission, from her Meet the Artist interview series. For more interviews with a diverse range of musicians and composers, please visit the Meet the Artist website https://meettheartist.online.
Matthew’s Requiem in a Day tour, which came to Portsmouth in February, continues throughout 2020 and 2021, giving singers an opportunity to perform this deeply moving and powerful music in some of the country’s most inspiring churches. See https://www.matthewcoleridge.com for further information.
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I’d been very musical from a young age; when I was six or seven I was really into heavy rock music (I have two brothers who are 8 and 10 years older than me) so my first career choice was to be a rock drummer.
I sang in the church choir from the age of seven, so was exposed to a lot of really great music from that age – I remember particularly liking anthems by Byrd, Pitoni, William Crotch and Martin Shaw. I composed a Christmas carol when I was eight (I still have a copy; it’s awful, but the tune’s quite catchy).
But if you’d asked me when I was ten or twelve, I’d have said I wanted to be a naturalist, or perhaps a train driver.
By my mid-to-late teens I was heavily into Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa. I was fascinated not so much by the structure of the music itself, but the way in which the recordings were structured – the different textures and atmospheres. So by that point I wanted to be a record producer. I spent most of the next 10 years recording music in my bedroom and waiting to be discovered. (I wasn’t discovered).
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I took up choral singing again, which led to conducting and composing.
Without wishing to sound mundane, I opted for a career in music simply because I didn’t want to work in an office for the rest of my life, and didn’t know what else to do. I do sometimes wish I’d opted for marine biology, though!
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My maternal grandfather, Eric Coleridge, had been a music teacher, organist, choirmaster, violinist and composer. His father was a professor of music. So a music career was a well-trodden path in my family. I didn’t know them, sadly; my grandfather died when I was two, but I’m proud to be able to continue using the family name in a musical context.
I was taught to play instruments, but I’m mostly self-taught as a composer and conductor. My composing ‘tuition’ has mostly been a case of listening to something and thinking ‘I wonder how that’s constructed’, then digging out a score and finding out.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Actually, the greatest challenge for me (and often the greatest frustration too) is the composing! I find it a massive struggle to get from a blank sheet of paper to something that I think is worth being thrust out into the world. Most of what I write ends up in the cupboard.
The most frustrating thing is trying to get my music more widely heard. Take my Requiem, for instance; often, when people hear it, or sing it, they tell me they were moved to tears by its beauty. But trying to engage with people who haven’t heard it is always an uphill struggle.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I don’t often accept commissions. Those that I have taken on, I’ve been moderately pleased with the results (and they’ve gone down well with the choirs who commissioned them), but for me they were a case of ‘this is the best I can do in the time allowed’, rather than ‘this is the absolute best I can do, full stop’, so there’s always a worry that people won’t like the music. I tend to opt for the safe options when composing to order. I’m much more adventurous when I write music for no particular purpose, which leads to better music.
The best part is hearing the music performed, realising that what was in your head is now there in the real world, and that a group of musicians have taken on an ownership of that, that this is ‘their music’.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Generally speaking, it’s been an enormous privilege for me to work with most of the musicians I’ve crossed paths with!
One of the most interesting things in the last year or two has been hearing my Requiem performed by 5 or 6 different cello soloists. Many of them have asked me ‘am I doing this bit how you want it’ and I always reply that it doesn’t matter how I want it anymore: it’s theirs now to shape how they want! But hearing the different interpretations, and the beauty with which they’ve played the cello solos, had been a real honour for me.
I think when you perform music together, it can create some very special bonds – especially between a composer and a performer. They feed off each other: one wants notes to play, the other wants his or her notes to be played. So I’d say the greatest pleasure is the strong friendships I’ve formed through performances of my music.
As a conductor, the best moment is when you suddenly make a breakthrough with a group of singers – you’ll be rehearsing something and their faces and body language will change in an instant and you think ‘yes! they’ve got it now’.
Of which works are you most proud?
I think the Introit of my Requiem is perhaps my proudest moment, simply because it was such a struggle to piece it all together. I had an enormous case of writer’s block; at one point (before I’d written the beginning or the ending of the movement) I just had this short chunk of music that I knew was very good, but couldn’t for the life of me work out where to take it next. Then I wrote the beginning section, which flowed nicely into the ‘chunk’, but still couldn’t work out what came next. It took me about 18 months to ‘discover’ the next few steps, and when I did the whole thing came to life. And now when I hear it, it sounds like a seamless movement which was neatly planned and written in a couple of days.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I try not to! My golden rule is to keep things as sparse and clear as I can. It’s nearly always better to take out a note rather than add one. And the vocal lines always need to flow naturally.
I use a lot of very bare intervals – fifths and fourths – and fluctuate between those and nice scrunchy chords with lots of added seconds and sixths. That approach lets my music sound modern, but with many echoes from early music.
How do you work?
It varies enormously. For me, composing is similar to planting a seed and waiting for a tree to grow. That seed can come from anywhere: sometimes a motif or melody just pops into my head, usually when I’m busy doing something else. Most often, I’ll sit at the piano and bash away – usually singing along in gibberish – scribbling anything half decent down in a note pad. Occasionally I’ll find a bit of footage and write some music inspired by it.
Once I have that seed, I usually leave it for a period of time – sometimes a few days, sometimes a few months – so I can approach it with a fresh perspective and see what it might become. I’m often stumbling across forgotten, barely legible scribbles from months or years ago which, with a fresh ear, suddenly set new ideas racing in my head.
Generally I’ll develop a framework for a piece either at the piano or in my head, before inputting a ‘skeleton’ into Sibelius (computer notation software). I’ll then flesh out the vocal parts, singing along and improvising whilst listening to the playback. That’s part of the reason my vocal parts are so singable!
Sometimes I’ll do everything at the piano with pencil and manuscript paper (for instance my Corpus Christi Carol, or the more recent Songs of Farewell).
Another interesting one is Rex Tremendae from Requiem. The melodic motif, which repeats throughout the whole movement, suggested itself as soon as I chose the text. I wrote that one bar of music into Sibelius, and built it up, layer by layer, part by part. I don’t think I ever sat down at the piano to write a note of that one, and certainly don’t have any drafts on manuscript paper.
What are you working on now?
I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to be yet, but I’ve started work on a large-scale choral piece. It’s a sort of semi-secular Hymn of Praise, celebrating life and creation, partly using Christian texts on the subject but also secular writing by philosophers, scientists and great thinkers: Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein etc. It’ll be joyous and rhythmic and exuberant.
I’m hoping to get in finished by this time next year, then invite singers from around the country to come and perform it next Autumn.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I adore Bach – I believe his music is head and shoulders above that of any other composer. His music is just so full of air and light and life. What a brain!
The Renaissance masters never fail to move me, and the fluidity of their music is something I always hope to emulate. I have a soft spot for Italian Baroque.
At the more modern end of things, Messiaen is a particular favourite. Britten delights and frustrates me in equal measure.
Miles Davis during his experimental period in the late 60s – early 70s: wow!
I grew up on a fairly heavy diet of Queen, who are still at the top of my popular music tree. Jeff Buckley was a genius.
I try to listen to music from every corner of the globe and absorb it all. There’s an album by The Musicians of the Nile, called Charcoal Gypsies, which I keep coming back to.
And I still like my heavy rock, particularly Van Halen and AC/DC.
If you forced me to choose one composer, one work, one performer, it would be Bach’s first cello suite played by Yo-Yo Ma.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
As a composer, I don’t think of success – just works that I’ve failed to compose.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Especially in this day and age when everyone is trying to be Ariana Grande or Jay-Z the best possible advice for any artist is BE YOURSELF.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Where I am now. doing what I do now, but doing it much better!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A stroll around an island with my young kids, surrounded by nature. With a pub lunch in the sunshine.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you enjoy doing most?
A stroll around an island with my young kids, surrounded by nature. With a pub lunch in the sunshine.