As influenced by the worlds of science, sociology and celluloid as he is the Diaghilev Ballet composers of the early 20th century, his music can be complex and immense.
His broad signature gestures work across orchestras, opera and vocal groups, making him an in-demand composer both in the UK and around the world.
Over the last two decades he’s received numerous national and international commissions and has worked with leading ensembles and orchestras in the US, Far East and Europe.
His work has been recorded by the renowned BIS, NMC, London Sinfonietta, Psappha and Prima Facie labels, and he’s just become one of the first wave of composers to receive support from the PRS for Music Foundation’s new Composers’ Fund.
We spent some time with Kenneth to find out more about his musical inspirations, his tricks for overcoming writer’s block and how his diverse interests outside music feed his work…
What are your first musical memories?
Memories of singing and percussion are certainly some of the first mental and aural images I can call to mind. Singing began at primary school and quickly became a focus in my life. As for percussion, I remember a James Blades programme on BBC TV that I was enthralled by at about age six. The sounds and the sheer physicality of playing has stuck in my head ever since.
How and when did you first discover your love of composing?
As with many composers, composition initially arose from improvisation during my early piano lessons, which led to early attempts at writing choral music too. About the age of 12 I was put in touch with the Liverpool composer Stephen Pratt. I had composition lessons after school at the Liverpool Institute of Higher Education and he challenged my rather safe musical horizons with works by Berg, Messiaen, Hugh Wood (his teacher).
Which composers have most inspired you along the way?
At the beginning it would have been composers of the early 20th century - Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Berg, Messiaen, Walton and Prokofiev - many of them Diaghilev Ballet composers whose ballets I adored. But then I also adored medieval and renaissance music (I still do) and I enjoyed studying the mechanics behind this music.
How important was the early support of Oliver Knussen, Tanglewood and Henri Dutilleux when you were starting out?
Oliver Knussen seems to have known my work ever since I was a teenager. A symphony I wrote for the Merseyside Youth Orchestra when I was 17 somehow wound up in his possession. But it was not until my Tanglewood summer in 1995 that I met him and Henri Dutilleux.
Both were immediately kind, encouraging and interested in what I was doing, and continued to support and promote my work at a crucial time during the composition of what I consider my first mature works.
Before Tanglewood I was very unsure of my direction, but my stay there was a seminal moment in my life. I can honestly say that if Dutilleux had not chosen me as one of the student composers I would not have so quickly regained confidence in my abilities, met dear friends or met the woman I married, the composer Arlene Sierra.
Your music is renowned for its energy and vitality – where does that come from?
Inner compulsion I suppose! Also, like much in life, from childhood. My mother and grandmother had enormous reserves of energy and were always busy. My schedule as a young chorister was also very full (singing, rehearsals, services, piano practice) and I enjoyed the constant activity. I suppose that's why the music that first really excited me also had an irrepressible energy and colour, and it's left its mark.
At the beginning (post Tanglewood) there was a particular type of sound and energy, specifically in my Trinitas cycle for large ensemble and At God Speeded Summer's End for orchestra.
For some reason, I moved away from that. This coincided with my ill-fated opera after Gogol, the Overcoat. The last four to five years I have been moving back to a freedom these early works exhibited but the language is harder-edged, which makes it feel authentic again.
Do you suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I used to have no systematised way to correct it and so would be generally very unhappy and frustrated until something suggested itself, somehow. In the last 15 years or so I have realised that it is the material and its context that, through some problem or lack of forethought in the pre-composition, is ill-fitting in some way, and so tracing things back to that structural defect allows a possible correction.
I also believe that the first ideas to emerge during the pre-compositional process often need a great deal of 'unpacking' and if that’s not handled well, or to be honest imaginatively, problems and blocks will emerge. I spend more time on ‘research’ and pre-composition than ever, in order not to repeat pathways, and that usually means that the writing of the work itself goes smoothly.
You’re known for having many interests outside music - architecture, poetry, mediaeval iconography and more. Does this feed into your work at all?
Absolutely, or rather, they did with earlier works. The predominant philosophies that feed into my work today deal with what I call Unreliable Machines (after Descartes' Bête Machine and de la Mettrie’s L'homme Machine), which explores the idea of humans as nothing more than complex machines within a materialist philosophy.
More recently as an outgrowth of this, death, loss and entropy (in humanistic as well as thermodynamic terms) have come to be dominant. In a nutshell, everything fails, and inherent system degradation will always lead to an inevitable system failure. I find these incredibly interesting and challenging themes to explore.
What do you make of the current health of contemporary classical music in the UK?
I think there has never before been a time that has seen the medium so multitudinous in outlook and teeming with flair and ability. Young composers are creating their own ways of reaching audiences, which of course is due in no small part to necessity and ever-cheaper technology - and this directly impacts on creativity. Due to material being available online, be it scores, recordings, software or information, composers have a greater awareness and tend to be more technically savvy from younger ages.
It has also made composers far more aware of what is out there, in Europe for example, and in my opinion this has only been to the betterment of British music. With new opportunities from institutions such as the PRS for Music Foundation, new ensembles and publications (I’m particularly looking forward to the currently crowdfunded Sounds Like Now) I am quietly optimistic that the new music scene in the UK will continue to grow and encourage wider connections across Europe, the US and the Far East.
What more should be done to support the next generation of composers in this field?
Continue to educate young composers to the highest level (fund it), continue to have the widest range of opportunities available (fund them) across the widest possible media (fund that), open-minded organisations in place to administer them (fund them) and make sure that musical networks continue to flourish across cultures and locales (fund those too).
We need more platforms for composers to learn how to collaborate and work with opera, dance, art and film, and to have mentors impart their own experiences. A lot of this is already in place, but we have to make sure they stay in place (continue to be funded). I also think that young composers MUST look to creating their own support networks and also engage politically in their lives or work in some way, now more than ever given the challenging post-Brexit world we find ourselves in. Composers shouldn’t be simply accessible to be relevant.
Which composers, young or old, are you most excited about right now?
Every year I try to widen my knowledge by exploring a specific technical (musical or scientific) subject or composers that provoke me aesthetically. At the moment such subjects include Bach and numbers, Dutilleux in his use of quotation and extended variation, KR Popper on Rationality and the freedom of man. Friedrich Goldmann, Emanuel Nunes and William Blank are composers I’m enjoying finding out more out.
I should also say that I get a great deal of pleasure from seeing ex-students such as Gavin Higgins, Hannah Kendall, Mark David Boden, Laura Bowler and Arne Gieshoff making such an impact in the musical world. A current undergraduate student who I think very highly of at the Royal College of Music, Bertram Wee, has already been awarded the BASCA student composer award and was commissioned by Dame Evelyn Glennie for the BBC Proms.
Jan-Peter de Graaff, Nicholas Moroz and Michael Small are also beginning to make their mark. These younger composers are only a small proportion of exciting voices that stand as proof of the current musical landscape’s diversity, resilience and imagination.
You’re about to embark on a large recording project – could you tell us more about that?
The upcoming recording project will centre around ‘existential momento’ pieces. Written over the last 12 years, all will be premiere recordings. Two works will feature international soloists and will be conducted by long-time collaborator Christoph-Mathias Mueller. A dear friend since our time in Tanglewood as students, Christoph conducted my 2013 NMC release and premiered three of the five works to be included on the new disc. The release date is still to be finalised but we’re hoping for sooner, rather than later!
How integral is the Composers’ Fund grant in that?
The Composer’s Fund award is absolutely central to the funding of the disc and means that this project not only has the best chance of succeeding but will bring some of my most personal and humanistic music before a wider audience. Without the PRS Foundation’s assistance it would be incredibly hard to put something of this nature and scope together.
What does the rest of 2016 hold for you?
A number of premieres lie ahead, all of recently completed work; a world premiere for the Britten Sinfonia Academy and members of the Britten Sinfonia, Concerto Salmigondis at the end of June/ beginning of July, a piano and film piece Hände at the Cheltenham Festival performed by Clare Hammond, a US premiere of my violin and orchestra piece Inscription/Transformation and a European premiere of my wind ensemble piece In Ictu Oculi.
I’m also co-directing a new composition course (with composer Arlene Sierra) as part of the Aberystwyth MusicFest this summer. As mentioned earlier I’m aiming to complete an article on work by the French composer Henri Dutilleux and, if there’s time this year, to complete a work for chamber orchestra. Oh, and have time with our three-year-old, Elliott…
Find out more about the PRS for Music Foundation Composers' Fund.