LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Karl Jenkins is described as Britain’s best-selling living composer but that doesn’t make him immune to critics who call his music bland or trite.
“I’ve got to be writing difficult music that no one wants to listen to,” the 66-year-old Jenkins said, adding that instead of doing what the critics prescribe for him, “I write accessible nonsense.”
“It’s always a vote of style over content, really,” he added in an interview ahead of the U.S. premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall of his “Euphonium Concerto” (March 6, presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York).
“If you write tonal, accessible music it can’t possibly be any good because it’s not pushing boundaries and it’s not ‘of today’.”
No matter what the critics say, people listen to Jenkins, who trained at the Royal Academy of Music and whose mane of ragged white hair is unmistakable.
His music, including the “Adiemus” album which started life as an advertising jingle for Delta Airlines, has sold more than 3 million albums in 50 countries.
The anti-war oratorio “The Armed Man,” which he wrote for the millennium and which comes with a harrowing video, has been performed almost 1,000 times. By his reckoning, that works out to two performances a week, somewhere in the world.
That sort of success lets Jenkins call the tune or, in any case, compose for a semi-obscure instrument like the euphonium which, for those not up on colliery bands, is a dwarf tuba.
The concerto was commissioned by euphonium virtuoso David Childs, who will play it in New York and whose ambition, Jenkins told Reuters in an interview in a function room above a London pub, is to “take the euphonium outside the brass band world and make it acceptable and known as a classical music instrument.”
Tall order, but the euphonium is heard to maximum effect in Jenkins’s concerto which, like a lot of his pieces, blends different styles, in this case a tango with a carnival theme.
It’s a modus operandi he picked up writing advertising tunes for DeBeers diamonds, Delta and Levi Strauss jeans — delving into ethnic or third world music for something different.
“What I do now has no relevance to ads at all,” Jenkins said, when asked if his advertising background had crept into his classical works.
“It’s just purely by a process of working on ads for different people it kind of developed. And that’s how it came, by accident.”
Here’s what else he had to say about the success of “The Armed Man,” why fusion jazz was a dead end and what it means to be Welsh — and a Welsh composer:
Q: Why has “The Armed Man” been such a phenomenon? Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” (1962) is not heard nearly as often.
A: “It’s hard for me to quantify. Maybe it strikes a chord because it’s accessible and it hits a spot where maybe the ‘War Requiem’ doesn’t in a sense that it’s not common enough....The kind of people who go and watch Andrew Lloyd Webber, who go and watch a musical, would perhaps latch onto ‘The Armed Man’ where perhaps they wouldn’t the ‘War Requiem’. And ‘War Requiem’ to me is a fantastic work and hugely accessible but to many people I’d suggest it isn’t.”
Q: Accessible — that seems to be the take on you.
A: “I don’t know...it’s hard for me to quantify. People tell me I write good tunes so maybe that’s something to do with it. When ‘The Armed Man’ is performed you get people crying in the aisles....The ‘Benedictus’ is one of the most requested pieces at funerals and one of the most requested pieces on Classic FM.”
Q: You had a jazz period, during the 1970s, with the group Soft Machine. Where did that lead you?
A: “When I joined...Miles Davis was just turning to that new (fusion) style...and Soft Machine became the European side of that, playing in odd time signatures. With all this going on the audiences rapidly dwindled... and it lost its commercial appeal. We plowed our own furrow...(but) there’s no virtue in being a pioneer.”
Q: You were born in Wales where your father was a schoolteacher and church organist. What has that meant for you?
A: “Congregational hymn singing came out of the Methodist revival...and out of that came a huge tradition of Welsh hymn tune writers. That kind of sound became core to one’s life in the sense that every Sunday one was exposed to it. It was very emotional and it was, to an extent, tribal singing because it wasn’t controlled or trained in any way — it was just a huge congregation singing these hymns, very often in four-part harmony which congregations tended not to do in England.”
Q: Anything else about being Welsh?
A: “It’s like being next to a big neighbor — being the English. I had a great affinity to a lot of Finnish people ...they’ve been invaded by Russia twice...It’s not exactly the same thing because we’re part of the United Kingdom but it’s like having a big neighbor next door and that’s why in sport the Welsh hate the English, if they play rugby.”
(Karl Jenkins’s “Euphonium Concerto” is performed in Carnegie Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 6)
Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato