Interview with Bob Chilcott: “Music stops us being isolationist, which is something we need to work hard at in our world at the moment.”

Helena Fojkar Zupančič and Bob Chilcott in Minneapolis, USA in 2017

With these words Bob Chilcott, one of the most active composers and choral conductors in Britain today, pointed to the unifying role music has always had. Chilcott has been involved in choral music most of his life and has poured his energy over the last decade into choral composition, conducting, and promoting choral singing throughout the world. It has been an absolute honour that he wrote a song dedicated to St. Stanislav Girls’ Choir of The Diocesan Classical Gymnasium on their singing at the 11th World Symposium on Choral Music in July 2017 in Barcelona. It bears the title God of the Open Air and is based on a heartwarming ode to nature by Henry Van Dyke, an American poet.

This is how Bob Chilcott kindly appeased girls’ curiosity – and ours as well – in his recent interview. It is a story about Chilcott’s passion for music, commitment to cheerful enjoyment of life and exultation of spirit.

 “I love the freedom of composing.”

Chilcott writes choral and orchestral pieces, but he loves to write music with words, as poetry is another passion of is. He started off as a composer when he was eight years old and went away to choir school and sang every day in a college chapel in Cambridge. He wanted to write the kind of music he sang. Much later, at around 40, he began writing music for upper voices, mainly for young singers. He explains: “I think that the freedom of composing gave me energy which is reflected in quite a lot of the music I have written for upper voices and that has been very important for my work”. As to his inspiration for music writing Chilcott admits the piano played an important role: “I learned the first movement of the Sonatine by Maurice Ravel on the piano and also the second piano prelude by George Gershwin and I thought, I want to write music like that!” It is almost impossible for him to decide which of his composition he likes best. In a way, they reflect his life as it was when he wrote each piece, and this can be both good and bad. However, the work he is most proud of is his large setting of the St John Passion, written in 2014.

One’s private life is always mirrored in human’s creations. Chilcott explains that when you are a musician it is very hard to switch off from music. When he is writing a piece, he thinks about it all the time, so it becomes very much a part of his private and family world. “I love children, I have five of them, and I have always had a childish mind! I also like communicating, and I think all these things are reflected in my works.”

“Music is a thing of great beauty that needs to be learned and loved”

Both the performers and the listeners are always effected by music. That is why he likes live events best and believes that the link between singers and audience is very important. One of the great things about performing is to try and make this connection, as music is so important in our lives. It is a thing of great beauty that needs to be learned and loved. He believes young people have today so many choices when it comes to music – the important thing is to identify with the kind of music you love and work at it.

God of the Open Air:  “I wanted it to be positive and honest.” 

Chilcott admits he was thrilled to discover he would be writing a piece for St. Stanislav Girls’ Choir! “I love the sound and energy of a choir like yours”. In the first place, he was looking for a piece that had a good message bursting with energy.  He ended up finding this in a poem by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), an American author, educator and clergyman. God of the Open Air is a setting of a part of that poem. It took him around a week to write the song. “Normally I think about the piece for a long time and the writing of it then happens quite quickly.” The asymmetric quality of 7 and 5 in a bar pattern appeals to him as when they are quick they can have a pressing urgent feel, which he likes.

First impressions after having listened to the interpretation of his song? “I was thrilled to hear that you sang it much as I imagined it. That is always very touching, because it gives me the feeling that even though I have never met you, we have together managed to make a connection. It is a beautiful connection, because my idea becomes something that you identify with and make your own. That is one of the many magical things that music can do. Thank you!”

Girls’ questions answered in brief:

Did your parents always encourage you to work with music?  “They were not musical, but they encouraged my love of music for which I am very grateful.”

Do you sing yourself?  “I used to be a singer. I sang for 12 years till 1997 with an English group called The Kings Singers.”

Who is your favourite composer and why?  “That’s a very difficult one! I love many composers, the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, and the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. In addition, I love Rachmaninov (particularly the 3rd Symphony and the Symphonic Dances,) and I also love the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. I also love Brahms!”

If music were colour, which one would it be? Why?  “Different ones, probably blue, but also yellow, which is my favourite colour!”

What do you do in life, apart from music writing of course?I love sport. I used to play football, and I love the game. I also skip (like a boxer!) every morning for 20 minutes. I have done this for the past 9 years. I used to run. I also like to read novels, and I love to cook as well.”

Which music is particularly dear to your heart?  “I love many different types of music. I like to listen to renaissance English Choral music (there is an English group called Stile Antico, who sing this music beautifully, and I have many of their CDs.) I love German lieder (particularly Schumann). I am a big fan of the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who has a beautiful anarchic energy, which I really like, and she plays the piano brilliantly.  I also love jazz. The American pianist Herbie Hancock is a great favourite of mine. I like jazz/funk as well, particularly the American group The Yellowjackets, who I was lucky enough to work with last year. /girls from St. Stanislav Girls’ Choir and Lily Schweiger Kotar/