Profile: Philip Venables

2017 is the Year of British Music in Porto, Portugal, and the Casa da Música will play host to wonderful British composers past and present through a programme of shows and events brimming with the best of British classical music.

The Year of British Music opened with a flurry of activity over its first weekend in January and, supported by the British Council, four young composers travelled to Portugal to showcase some of their work. Among them was Philip Venables, whose opera, 4.48 Psychosis, has garnered critical acclaim, a host of nominations and a prestigious RPS Music Award for Large Scale Composition.

We asked Philip how he got started as a composer, what drives his compositional process today and what the future holds for him and other composers, particularly in Europe.


Philip Venables

How would you describe your work as a composer?

These days my work includes more multi-media and music theatre aspects, but always with some kind of live musical performance. And there’s pretty much always a text somewhere in it. I really enjoy making work that has a political edge to it, or is somehow socially relevant, especially in the texts that I choose, which might be verbatim interviews or WhatsApp conversations or such like, as well as literary texts. I guess I go for hard-hitting, “dramatic” music … akin to bright colours and crisp lines. I try to keep a rough edge to my work, using amplification in some pieces, but to remain easily accessible to inexperienced listeners – often drawing on references to more colloquial music or sound. I often like to say that my perfect music would be somehow an analogy to a huge canvas with a big, solid, fire-red rectangle painted on it, and the canvas torn roughly in two and then hung on the gallery wall. 


How did you get started?

I’m not from a musical family, so I started through my local LEA music service when they allocated me violin lessons. In my teens my interest developed thanks to a really amazing head of music at my local comprehensive [school], and supportive peripatetic piano and violin teachers. Plus, I’m fortunate to have very supportive and encouraging parents. 


How was the Casa da Música showcase? Was it beneficial to you as a composer?

Yes, it really was. Sometimes networking and showcase events can feel like going through the motions, but in Porto the delegates were really interested and engaged with our work, and I had some really great conversations. The whole showcase was really well thought out and planned, and it was great for that to be in the context of the wider Year of British Music celebrations.


What are your thoughts on the impact of the UK’s changing relationship with the EU will have to music and you as a composer?

Well, like many people working in the arts I think Brexit is a terrible, profound loss for all the arts in the UK and the EU. On a practical level, who knows how it will impact funding, touring and audiences/arts tourism. On an artistic level, I feel that artists should use their voices and their work to fight the rising tide of nationalism and isolationism across Europe. And I feel that the organisations that support artists and audiences should encourage that.


What have you been up to recently and can you tell us about any exciting projects you have coming up?

Sure! I was in New York for the American premiere of The Revenge of Miguel Cotto at the MATA Festival, and then on to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire for a month’s residency to work on a storyboard for a new opera. In July, I have my Royal Festival Hall debut with a new version of Illusions for the New Music Biennial – which will be even more politically aggressive than the 2015 version – and I’m doing a sound installation on Canal Street for the Manchester International Festival, which is another collaboration with David Hoyle about love, war and the dangers of queer assimilation.


Philip Venables: The Revenge of Miguel Cotto


Read more about Philip Venables and The Year of British Music


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