‘Always do something different. If everybody says yes, say no.’ An interview with Martijn Padding
No Frontiers Festival is honoured to welcome Martijn Padding as guest composer for No Frontiers. The acclaimed composer and head of the Composition Department at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague talks to us ahead of Thallein’s performance of his works and adjudicating the Birmingham Chamber Music Society Prize Final.
We’re very excited to welcome you to Birmingham for No Frontiers. You are judging the BCMS Prize final, what do you look for in a prize-winning piece of music?
Comparing pieces of music with each other always feels strange to me. How can we compare Satie to Strawinsky and give one of them the prize and on what ground? For me giving prizes is giving prizes to music in general. Nevertheless I like to look at music from the perspective of freshness of musical thought and maybe something like ‘consistency of thought’. Schubert and Moussorgsky never got any prizes. Mozart got a lot of rewards but mostly sniff boxes and watches. He was very unhappy with those prizes as he wanted hard cash.
Our composition students (and likely our tutors too) will surely be looking to you for pearls of wisdom. What advice from your peers has stuck with you over the years?
Always do something different. If everybody says yes, say no.
One of your pieces; ‘First Harmonium Concerto’ is being performed by Thallein Ensemble as part of the festival. There can’t be many Harmonium Concertos – what made you focus on the often-maligned instrument?
My grandfather was a magician and also a amateur musician and improvised wild on his harmonium and would sing along. He let me pull out the registers as very young boy. The piece is a sort of in memoriam to those moments. But in general I have a weak spot for all underdogs. In music the harmonium is a super underdog. I like to write concerti for underdogs.
This year’s Frontiers festival’s theme is ‘breaking down barriers with music’ – How do you think music helps to break down barriers?
I think the opposite is more interesting. Music can build barriers as well and we need them as European society is poisoned by populism. Art is not safe anymore. The difference between what used to be called entertainment an art seems gone for a lot of people. It is almost impossible to explain why Bach is better then Robbie Williams. This is our challenge. To protect what is good and build walls around it and at the same time being open to what is happening outside and not just condemn that. We can only do that by writing good stuff ourselves.
Please name someone you admire artistically and in what ways do you think their work has broken barriers?
One of my great heroes is Ferdinand Cheval, a postman living around 1860 in France who built in his time off an amazing Palace in his back garden from the stones he collected during his postal rounds as a tribute to his late wife. Without any technical knowledge or help he worked thirty years on his Palais idéal in Hauterives in the French Drome. The building is just unbelievable in imagination and form. This man broke down the barriers of the importance of academic knowledge. He created something completely unique and wasn’t interested at all in the opinion of others and especially not interested in the opinion of ‘experts’.
As a composer in 2017, do you feel a responsibility or particular impetus to represent or reflect current social or political issues?
Of course, I have been rather active in the past years as chairman of one of the Dutch composers guilds. In that function I had many encounters with ministers and other ‘important figures from political parties’. That experience did not make me very optimistic about the commitment of most politicians to art. Off course I understand that artist, composers, like to refer to politics and make ‘political works’. Art is always political. It chooses to be performed by certain people for certain people. But I think that if you really want to change things its more effective to start and found a new political party, maybe a one issue party For the Arts. I see many artists protesting without any result. What we need is a political movement with a professional organization. I do not have the quality nor the energy for that as i want to compose.
Has your work in any way been compromised by an unaccountable bureaucrat in Brussels?
My work has been compromised by a lot of bureaucrats but not specifically in Brussels. In fact I think that my music is just performed twice in Belgium. But if you refer to Europe, I am very much in favor of Europe but then with less bureaucrats.