11 questions with Elizabeth Winters
Elizabeth Winters, whose composition ‘Playing With Destiny’ was written for and first performed by us back in 2010.
Q: Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
A: I never tire of listening to Mendelssohn, Schumann or Stravinsky. I love Bach but I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I find Beethoven’s music a bit of a struggle to enjoy – even though I obviously admire his work a great deal. Among more contemporary composers, long time favourites are Julian Anderson, Thomas Ades, Judith Weir and Oliver Knussen and from the younger generation I like what Ed Nesbit, Helen Grime and Charlotte Bray are doing very much. I love listening to recordings of ‘old school’ string players such as Fritz Kreisler, Albert Sammons, William Primrose etc. The fact that the performances aren’t ‘perfect’ or anywhere near today’s sound quality somehow adds to the appeal for me.
Q: How do you think your music reflects your femininity?
On the whole, I’m not sure that it does! Although…I recently wrote a song about breastfeeding (for a concert during World Breastfeeding Week) and I perhaps responded to the text in a more personal way than a man would have done, given the nature of the topic.
Q: Has the music industry changed to the extent that to be successful as a composer these days, you also need to be a businesswoman?
A: I think this has always been the case actually. It also helps to be very diverse – a conductor/composer/performer is always going to have an edge. Or, many people go down the academic route.
Q: If you were to describe your music in three words, what would they be?
A: I asked my husband and he replied ‘engaging, lyrical and beautiful’. He’d just come in from playing squash though and was pretty tired, so maybe this affected his response!?
Q: What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
A: I was incredibly lucky with my early compositional career. Up until I was about 30 or so, things really went along pretty nicely and easily. I was doing all the usual young composer stuff and getting some good commissions. Things then went downhill a bit as I was struggling a lot with the conflict between writing how I wanted to write and how I felt I ‘should’ write. There were some challenging things going in in my life as well at that point, and I didn’t write anything for about 3 years. I then had a baby and started writing again! This is probably not a recognised way to rejuvenate your composition, but it worked for me! The frustrations now are that I have very little time to devote to the business side of composition and living out of London makes it extremely hard (both time wise and financially) to travel in for concerts and networking. I also need to be a lot more practical in terms of making money as I have my son to support, so I spend most of my working time teaching.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self about preparing to be a composer?
A: Don’t expect to do everything at once and make the most of every opportunity while you can.
Q: What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
A: Since the birth of Edward (now 3 years old), I have only written a few pieces and they have all been commissions. Even before then, I pretty much always wrote with a specific performance or performer in mind and I would find it very hard to write any other way. The challenge for me now, with a young son, is the deadline, but without it I would probably never write anything at all!
Q: Of which works are you most proud?
A: I am proud of all my pieces in the sense that they all exist in their own time, for a specific purpose. Even the few which I would happily never hear again have played a part in my compositional journey. I know which works I think are ‘better’ in terms of technique or which ones have been more successful, but this doesn’t mean I am any prouder of them.
Q: How do you work?
A: In a shed (sorry – music studio!) at the bottom of my garden. This was built with funding from The Composers’ Fund which is a PRS for Music Foundation initiative in association with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. I think a lot before starting the piece and usually have it sketched in my head before I start. Once I can hear bits of it reliably then I get to work with manuscript paper planning out the structure and what ideas will come where. If there’s a time limit (which there usually is) then this bit is very important, and I won’t move on from it until I am happy. It saves so much time in the long run. Then I just write the piece from beginning to end! I will sketch each section on manuscript paper until I am happy with it and only when I have a large chunk of ‘finished’ music will I go anywhere near Sibelius. Some of my composition pupils write directly onto Sibelius and I would find that extremely hard.
Q: What is your most memorable concert experience?
A: Hearing Maxim Vengerov play Shostakovich’s 1st violin concerto with the LSO when I was about 13 or 14 years old. I was totally blown away.
Q: How important is someone else’s opinion of your work to you?
A: Ten years ago, I would have said ‘extremely important’ but now I would say the total opposite! When I was younger, I was constantly thinking ‘is this good enough…how do I know…does so and so like it?’ etc. etc. but now I don’t really care that much. Of course, it’s lovely to have people say positive things about my pieces but I can’t be driven by that anymore. It doesn’t change my opinion of my music and I know that in general I am writing better pieces now than I ever have done.
You can find out more about Elizabeth’s work on her website elizabethwinters.com