Interview with William Morris

We recently published Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres, text by John Milton, and music by our very own William Morris. It was given its first performance by Carl Jackson & the choir of Hampton Court Chapel in 2011, and by all accounts it went down well, with one of the singers remarking that the piece was eminently singable on the short rehearsal time available, and Carl himself commenting on the approachability of the piece’s contemporary idiom. Copies of Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres can be ordered here.

William, who is a very eclectic musician, and who has several other works in our catalogue, kindly agreed to let me interview him, and our discussion follows below:

Q. What’s your first musical memory?

I don’t know which memory came first but I can think of two influencing moments from my early life. I remember when I was very young my father spending time with me one weekend and playing me a record of Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture. He was a man who hid his emotions a lot but I clearly remember him getting very animated and excited as the music moved him. I think it was this that made me realise the power of music and made me connect it with making my father happy.

It was around that time when I saw the Bugs Bunny cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? It is entirely based on the music of Wagner and it was hilarious, yet the music was incredibly powerful all at the same time. It showed me that even the most inflated music could also be a source of humour. That same sense of humour tends to pervade everything I do now (for better or worse).

William Morris

William Morris

Q. You were a chorister at Temple Church in London, where Walford Davies, George Thalben-Ball and the late John Birch were all organists. Can you describe your time there? How do you feel it equipped you for professional music?

It was an odd time really. I was there during John Birch’s tenure and we had some amazing experiences. In my first year aged 11 we sang on BBC radio, on an early Channel 4 film (with most of the cast of Four Weddings!), sang for the Queen and I’d sung solo with the Royal Choral Society on a tour of Poland. On the flip side I am now aware that John Birch wasn’t completely happy during this time and I think this atmosphere filtered down to the choristers.

The services were intellectual but spiritually dry, being conducted by a very learned and elderly Master and Reader. We had a congregation of about ten people on a weekly basis which included Thalben-Ball and Ernest Lough. In fact the former died while I was head chorister and I sang solos at his Temple Church funeral and St Paul’s Cathedral memorial service.

The quality of the music was first class and my experience gave me an early grounding in what constitutes a professional standard. Despite this though it was very isolated from an audience and was like performing in a vacuum. It was only when discovering musical theatre in my final year at university (not great timing for my finals!) that I realised how engaged an audience could be and how much fun it was.

Q. Your Gouache and the Night Sky and The Two Hermiones, among other things, are the results of collaborations with Susan Pleat & Simon Warne. How do you find the experience of working collaboratively, as opposed to working on your own?

Collaboration is an enjoyable and important part of my work as a musician. When you struggle with a musical problem like a piece of counterpoint you want to get just right, when it finally comes good you have a rush of satisfaction but ultimately you’re the only person who really knows what you went through to get to that point. When you collaborate with others to reach a common aim and struggle through different issues you get to share the satisfaction of completion whether the other people on the team are musicians or not. That’s a lovely feeling of connection!

Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres

Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres

Q. Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres, which is now published by the Chichester Music Press, was commissioned by the Kingston Festival Of The Voice and first performed under Carl Jackson. I remember Carl when he was a mere assistant organist at Croydon Parish Church in my own chorister days. What was it like working with him and the Chapel Royal?

As you might imagine it was a very businesslike exchange with each of us comfortable in the assumption that the other knew what they were doing. I had relatively little to do with the choir itself as I was working to a brief set by the Festival.

At the premiere itself the organ playing was brilliant, the direction spot on and the choir did amazingly well with what is a very challenging piece. The service had a very full, balanced programme and as is often the case with professional choirs they had to put it all together in only an hour’s rehearsal. If any choir likes a challenge and is planning to perform it in the future do get in touch; I hope you particularly enjoy the ‘nine-fold harmony’ in the middle!

Q. You have a long background in Christian music, but also you founded the choir of the British Humanist Association, which sang works of yours for Robin Ince’s 9 Lessons & Carols for Godless People. Does it get uncomfortable being so active in these two opposing traditions?

The key was I never saw them as opposing traditions. The highest aspect of any religion is the philosophy of morality and that is the same in the highest aspects of humanism. Whilst working for the BHA I always tried to celebrate the things which unite us as humans as opposed to the things that divide us. In ’96 I spent a year in India with a lot of different faiths and something I believe passionately is that everyone has the right to believe what they chose to if it doesn’t restrict another person’s right to their beliefs.

As a result I was a lot less interested in the political campaigning side of the BHA. If you’re not careful it gets dangerously close to telling other people what they should be thinking which ironically is a common criticism that was levelled at religion. It’s also hard to write a song celebrating what people are against or negative about. I much preferred writing about the wonders of nature and the more noble human instincts, something which is common to all faiths and humanism alike.

Q. What kind of music do you listen to for pleasure?

Hmm! Not sure I do anymore. I don’t know if all professional musicians have this problem but I find it very difficult to switch off when listening to music. It’s got to the point now where I can see the music written down as it’s being played and I find I can’t stop it. I would love to be able to go back to when I was younger when I could just experience the music in the way it was intended and enjoy the wonder of it again. A pleasure I do get is seeing my three and a half year old son and now my 8 month old daughter enjoying the music I’ve written for them. I can experience the wonder of music all over again through their perspective.

The music I most admire now is film music. It is written in the most part by highly skilled composers who have studied their craft for years and they will employ the complete palette of musical styles available often in extremely challenging timeframes. Even in mainstream films you can hear styles as diverse as twelve tone techniques to advanced computer generated music. Unfortunately the vast majority of film music is cliched quasi 19th century symphonic music and the popular perception is that that is the extent of the repertoire. I’m fairly confident that the best quality film music will be listened to for generations to come while the mediocre will fade away in the same way all classical music has been judged and sorted for centuries.

Q. Like me, you’re a father of two small children. When do you find time to do any work?

Very difficult! As soon as you sit at the piano there are little ‘helpers’ who want to get in on the fun. I am very lucky in having an extremely supportive wife who is also a keen music fan. She has on many occasions taken the children and dog out to the park to let me work with a semblance of a studious atmosphere! I owe her a lot and fortunately she loves what I write so I win both ways! If I’m working on an important piece though I find I can’t sleep at night if there are ideas flying around. It’s usually nice and quiet at 3 in the morning!

Q. You are a very eclectic musician and have fingers in lots of pies. Can you pick your favourite musical activity?

As a composer it is lovely to see a piece you have spent time with finally come to the page in the form you hoped it would when you started it. There is a fear as you write that you won’t be able to get your ideas down on the page in time to capture it at its best. Hearing it performed is then the cherry on the top but as it has spent so much time in your head sometimes it is difficult to match the reality and practicalities of a performance with the way you hear it in your mind’s ear.

However nothing can match the sheer joy of performance when you truly feel connected to a room, whether it is a polished professional performance or a rousing sing song round the piano surrounded by family and friends, fuelled by some quality wine.


About Neil Sands

Director of the Chichester Music Press. Astronomer.
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