Unchained Melody Alex North
The Welsh composer Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man remains firmly in the Classic FM Hall of Fame Top 10.
What’s the secret of your success?
I suppose I write accessible music, which I do by nature – it’s not something I set out to do intentionally. I was classically trained but then went into the jazz world, because at the time the fashion for new classical music was for the difficult, atonal and avant-garde, and I didn’t want to do that. Jazz appealed because I could use a complex framework but still write tonal music. Now I draw on all those influences, like the use of drums to propel music with a classical basis. It gives my work an immediacy, which people respond to. Obviously one has to be inventive within these parameters – it’s got to be memorable music and have a certain integrity.
What makes The Armed Man so hugely popular?
People like to sing it and play it – it’s had more than 100 performances in the past year! There’s a universal message about war, which is always relevant, although sometimes quite horrific, but there’s an immediacy that people can connect with emotionally. I think it’s a composer’s role to be aware of that sense of directness. So much music is never heard again after its first performance – I couldn’t be that kind of composer, who writes music that no one wants to hear.
Tell us about your new Requiem...
The idea of writing a Requiem appealed for a long time. I’ve used Latin movements from the Missa Pro Defunctis. Against this, in common with my creative mindset of borrowing from different cultures, I’ve also interspersed five Japanese haikus that deal with death. There’s a lot of imagery there – life is synonymous with water and melting snow. I use the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute, which is very evocative of Japan, as well as a female chorus. The Latin movements are sung by a mixed choir so there’s that juxtaposition of eastern and western styles.
And what’s next?
I’ve just had a commission, an orchestral work, performed by the LSO. That was quite challenging because writing for voices is my natural medium, and the thing that’s most unique to my style. But it’s not a constraint – musical diversity is always good. I’m currently writing music for a film called River Queen about colonials and Maoris in New Zealand at the end of the 19th century. There will be more from the Adiemus project. The challenge there is, the more you do of a project, the more difficult it gets to maintain public interest in it, but again that’s a very rewarding thing to do.