Interview composer Alex Ford

Can you introduce yourself?
I’m a young British composer, based in London. My name is Alex Ford

Where did your interest in composing originate?
From being an undisciplined performer. Piano is my first instrument and I found that I’d always get distracted on hearing a two or three note phrase and then spend half an hour improvising on it and playing around with it. It’s from there that a love for composing really started.

When did you write your first composition?
Not until quite late, probably around 17 and technically I didn’t ‘write’ it because it was all in my head. I demonstrated it at my interview for the London College of Music and managed to get an offer. Obviously I was quite behind my peers, in a lot of ways, when I first started but I really got my teeth into it and got up to speed during my first year.

Which composer has inspired you most?
That’s a really tough question. Early in my journey I’d have said Liszt and Mendelssohn, and while there’s definitely shades of them in my work still I’d say there’s more of a neo-classical feel to my more recent compositions. I’d probably see eye to eye with Stravinsky when it comes to aesthetics. Copeland and John Williams film scores have had a real impact when it comes to melodic treatment. I also really enjoy Tarrega, Albeniz; the tonal treatment in Iberian guitar music often crops up in my work. Ravel’s treatment of wind is something I’m inspired by often. Finally, Vaughn-Williams and Bartók’s folk inspired work has a real draw for me and I’ve spent a lot of time studying both.

What inspires you?
I don’t really know, I wouldn’t describe that draw to composition to be inspiration in the way it might be for others. It’s more like every now and then I feel a need to write something, just to get a thought out of my head. I can be a little obsessive when I find new ideas, or stories, or a cause; I find I just can’t stop thinking about it. Writing a piece feels like a genuine contribution towards that thing and, in a selfish way, stops me thinking about it so much.

Can you tell us what your process looks like when making a new piece? (Do you get inspiration first, or do you really have to sit down for it? Do you try things?)
I pretty much always start by thinking about instrumentation, sometimes I have an idea for combinations of instruments immediately and sometimes it sort of evolves. Then once the piece is going it’s mostly just a mix of compositional tools, analysis and a bit of instinct.

Do you also play an instrument yourself?
I studied classical piano to grade 8 but I don’t really learn lots of pieces these days, I tend to use it more as a tool to compose. I’ll leave the performing to performers!

Can you enjoy listening to music or is that difficult and do you always analyze immediately?
I find it very difficult to ‘enjoy’ music in the way I did when I was younger. There’s a really interesting take on this in one of Plato’s books; Phaedrus. He posits that there is a romantic beauty and a classical beauty – the romantic beauty, is beauty in the mystery of something, something beyond comprehension; classical beauty is the appreciation of something highly complex and ordered. I think the more I’ve learned about music the more I’ve sort of drifted into seeing the classical beauty in it, rather than romantic. I’m often still in awe of it, but more of an appreciation than anemotional reaction.

Where do you live at the moment and how do you experience this special times at your location and how does it affect your life, work and music?
I live on the outskirts of London, where we’ve been impacted a lot by COVID. The arts generally haven’t had a great deal of support during the crisis so it’s hit others much worse than it has me. I’m very grateful to have a bits of teaching to keep things ticking over, getting my PhD going is the goal for 2021. I’m so excited for performances to start up again and I’d definitely encourage any performers or organisations looking to collaborate to get in touch.

About the piece:

Together is based on a poem. Why did you choose this poem?
I’m a big fan of Rupi Kaur’s work, she speaks so well on what it means to be human. Loneliness is something which, with various lockdowns, I’m sure we’ve all experienced more than we normally would. As musicians we all have to spend a good amount of time practicing our craft and it can be very solitary and lonely. I personally found a great deal of comfort knowing that it’s a totally human thing to feel isolate and just taking a moment to realise that there must be millions of other people feeling that too made me feel connected to them – in a way.

If you want to tell about it, is this a theme that is close to you or is it more a reflection of society?
I think it’s a particularly valuable message in a social media age where we see everyone’s best side. It can often get people down when they compare what they see of others to their own, complex, challenging lives without necessarily taking a moment to think everyone’s life is complex and challenging regardless of what you might see from the outside. The poem speaks to a truth of human existence which is think is really valuable at the moment.

Can you tell us more about the piece in general?
So the piece is, of course, for solo flute. The flute has such a range of colour and expression while still being a single voice, I felt it was the best instrument to represent this idea. The piece is split into two movements, the first is meant to represent those feelings around loneliness that are happening internally, the second is how you might project it to the outside world. The first movement is filled with a sombre, anxious energy. There are moments of beauty, deep reflection and sadness. The second movement is much more frenetic and dynamic, punctuated by moments of emptiness. I’d really like performers to add in elements that they feel too, pauses perhaps or even more extended techniques like overblowing.

This is your first piece for flute in which you have incorporated extended techniques for flute. What motivated you to start working with extended techniques?
Yes, this is the first piece where I’ve really used extended techniques. I felt they were really necessary to really communicate the message piece is trying to convey. I used flute colors quite a lot, trying to get to grips with how they work, what’s possible etc. I actually reached out to Rogier and he helped massively with getting the piece looking like it does today. He has such a wealth of knowledge and experience with extended techniques and the practicalities in playing them. I’d definitely recommend composers who want to learn more about extended techniques to check out the videos on YouTube at the very least.

What do you think of extended techniques for flute? Do they add something to the music or not?
I don’t think they’re necessary for every piece, but I think they’re really important for composers to have in their minds when writing pieces because it really opens up what you can do with the instrument. Similarly for performers, obviously if you only want to play Mozart then it’s probably not
a priority, but there’s so much amazing music that uses extended techniques and more being written. If I were a performer who hadn’t spent any time looking into extended techniques, I’d probably feel that I was missing out.

What would you like to tell flutists who (want to) play your piece?
Don’t be afraid to play around with the music and make it your own. I know some composers really want performers to follow the music to the letter, but I prefer performers to play with more freedom. If you want to tweak rhythms, extend phrases or even change pitches here and there I’d love it. As long as it’s for a musical reason of course and not because you’d got fed up with it!


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