Johnny Parry

We quiz rock loving composer Johnny Parry on distilling the sound of Bedford on his latest album, An Anthology of All Things…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 8 May 2014
  • min read
If ambition won awards, then composer and conductor Johnny Parry would have a mantelpiece almost bent double from the weight of them.

His latest album, An Anthology of All Things, is a community piece based on his hometown of Bedford, featuring a 24 piece orchestra and choir of 50 plus singers of all abilities. It represents a great leap forward for the composer who used the people of Bedford and their ideas and phrases to inform the music.

Johnny manages to marry eight classical movements to their thoughts and words over the course of an album which somehow sits comfortably between the often opposed worlds of pop and classical sounds. Think the Polyphonic Spree veering with more mournful and the majestic orchestration and you’ll be homing in on the heart beat of his sound.

We quizzed Johnny on his first musical experiences and how the project came about…

What first got you into music?

This isn’t the most masculine story but I remember going to see the Teddy Bear’s Picnic, the orchestral show, when I was really young. You went along with your teddy and they played lush, orchestral music. It’s been the inspiration behind everything I’ve done. Don’t tell anyone but I always compose with my teddy next to me.

Were you classically trained?

Not at all. I started playing guitar when I was about 15 just as all teenage boys do and should. I was into rock, pop and later grunge. Somewhere along the way that changed and I became interested in the piano and composition. When everyone else was learning Jimi Hendrix riffs, I started teaching myself how to arrange music.

So it was a natural way into working with classical music?

Very much so – it was odd as I didn’t go into academic music. It seemed to keep evolving, working with just a cellist, then a violinist and it kept spiralling until the band became the Johnny Parry Orchestra.

What are the main challenges with writing for such orchestras?

The hardest bit is how you translate the music in your head into a score. You do spend a long time with that original idea and it’ll probably start to turn on you before you get to the end. If I wrote a song just for piano, then it could be done quite quickly. The ability to trust what you first conceived and your ability to realise it are key. Sticking to your guns is the hardest part.

Do you work with the same players every time?

I have to see a chamber orchestra as a very large band. I like to think about it in the same way as when you see two guitars, bass and drum kit, you assume they are mates and it’s born that way. It really is like that. It’s got bigger over the years as every now and again you click with someone, so before I know it they’re part of the ensemble and I’m writing with them.

Everything I write is created with the player in mind. With music of such large orchestration you need a detailed score, but knowing specifically that this violinist is going to play that part is pretty integral to the composition itself.

Could you explain how An Anthology of All Things happened?

Bedford Creative Arts, a subsidiary of the Arts Council in Bedfordshire, asked whether I wanted to work on a project with the Bedford community. It was tied in with writing some compositions where I didn’t write the lyrics. I’d worked on a couple of pieces for a previous album where I'd only use uplifting phrases. My contribution would be the order I put them in. I wanted to push this further so pitched them the idea of collecting little thoughts and memories and ideas from as many people as we could in Bedford over eight topics. Each one would become a movement in the piece.

We collected hundreds of submissions via our website, Facebook and workshops and schools so had this insane amount of personal information. We set up a community choir to sing the piece and ended up with a 50 piece choir and orchestra. It took a little under a year and a half to complete the recording.

What have you learnt from the experience in terms of writing music?

Using other people’s words made me write in an unpredictable way - it wasn’t attached to my thoughts and feelings so it was quite hard to honour their tone.

Working with people who hadn’t sung before and the amount of joy and well being amongst them was also extraordinary. If anyone ever wonders whether music is still fun, then they should set up a choir. It reminded me of why I got into it in the first place.

Are you going to tour the album?

That is the plan - maybe within the month after the release, we’ll hope to recreate the piece in its entirety live. Then re-arrange for a smaller group to go out and tour. The choir also continued after we finished the project. A friend of mine has taken it over and is now searching for other projects for them to perform and work on. It's pretty exciting that they loved it so much they wanted to do that.

Is classical music in good health?

New classical composers are quite obscure and are not having the same exposure as pop acts. But there is a lot of cool stuff out there. My interest in music is shared between classical and alt pop/rock.

It’s still seen as being academic and being for the more discerning listener so classical music is hugely suffering in some ways. However, there is still a big audience out there.

An Anthology of All Things is out now. Visit Johnny's website for more information.