Meet the Composer: Phillip Cooke

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis performed in this year’s Choral Evensong BBC broadcast were written by Phillip Cooke. We asked him a bit more about his process and what inspires him to write.

When did you start composing?
As soon as I began piano lessons as a child. It really began as bad piano playing and trying to create new versions of what I was playing. I began more earnest about it during my final years at school when I became aware of more contemporary music an key works such as The Rite of Spring and Berg’s Violin Concerto.

What made you start composing?
If I was being rose-tinted, I would say it was trying to see how the pieces I was playing were constructed, to try and get to the technique behind the piece. But really, I wasn’t a good piano student and was more interested in trying new sounds.

What (or who) inspires you?
History and tradition; I like to imagine myself as being part of a continuum of tradition – working within a tradition rather than working against it. I think the idea of tradition is what drew me to church music, I like the idea of contributing to an existing but evolving musical landscape.

How would you describe your compositional style?
It is tonal, but using a tonality that I hope is fresh and new, taking pre-existing ideas and materials and reimagining them for the twenty-first-century. There are bits of Howells, Vaughan Williams, Gorecki and MacMillan in there somewhere…

What is your experience of church music?
I had little experience of it prior to going to university, but as an undergraduate at Durham University I got my first experience of evensong and the wonderful tradition that it represents, and then later at The Queen’s College in Oxford I got the opportunity to write regularly for top-quality choirs. In the years since leaving Oxford, I have almost exclusively written choral music, with much of it being sacred in nature.

What challenges and rewards are there in composing music for a choir?
The challenges are mainly technical; particularly as a contemporary composer you are trained in a disjunct, chromatic musical language that doesn’t always translate well to choirs and voices.

Tell us something about your composition for the Festival.
This is the fourth time that I have set these words (the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) and I try to do something different each time. This time I wanted it to have memorable melodies in both pieces, big tunes that stay in the memory, I hope the opening of the Magnificat in particular does that!

What’s next?
I have a new piece for The Sixteen and the Choristers of Eton College being performed next week. I’m currently writing a book entitled Raising Sparks: The Music of James MacMillan which will be published next year – the first book on MacMillan. Looking further afield, I’m writing a second oratorio for 2019.

Any interesting facts people ought to know about you? I won a competition in a national newspaper when I was five to identify dinosaurs; the other winner was sixteen. I won a set of plastic dinosaurs… the dog ate most of them.