Saturday 18 June 2022

A strong affinity to melodic music: I chat to composer John Brunning about his works for guitar

John Brunning (Photo Classic FM)
John Brunning (Photo Classic FM)

John Brunning
is perhaps best known as one of Classic FM's longest-serving presenters, but his background also takes in rock including performing in bands such as Mungo Jerry. John is also a composer, and now classical guitarist Xuefei Yang [read my 2020 interview with Xuefei] has recorded a disc of his works for guitar. Recorded in Dolby Atmos and released by Platoon on 27 May, the album features Xuefei alongside the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Clark Rundell, with a  guest appearance from cellist Johannes Moser. I recently met up with John to find out more.

The disc features two major works, Concerto Magna Carta for guitar and orchestra, and Five Romances for guitar and orchestra, plus Lacrimosa for guitar and cello. John admits that the name of the concerto is largely irrelevant. Wanting to avoid yet another Concerto for Guitar, John asked the listeners of his Classic FM show to suggest titles. He wanted a title which made it clear that it was an English work, to distinguish it from the many Spanish guitar concertos. As the work is quite traditional and was completed in 2015 (the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta), the name seemed obvious. 

John Brunning & Xuefei Yang
John Brunning & Xuefei Yang

The concerto is written for chamber orchestra (strings, oboe, two flutes, bassoon and French horn), but initially, John writes everything on the guitar and then decides what forces to use. A guitarist at heart, this means that with a work like Five Romances (which has movements adapted from pieces originally created for other formats including motets and a work for string orchestra) returning the music to guitar is in a sense returning it to its roots. In fact, one of the romances, 'Elegy' was originally written for the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet 

With contemporary music for guitar and orchestra, the big issue comes to balance and nowadays even the Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez is played with the guitar amplified. Xuefei is used to playing with amplification so this was factored in from the beginning, which meant that John's orchestra writing could be very strong. As Platoon recorded the disc in Dolby Atmos, John feels that every detail comes over. Nowadays most classical guitar players use amplification partly because the technology has improved beyond all measure. 

John does not consciously include rock elements in his classical writing, but it is difficult for him to say, though the finale of the concerto arose from a piece for electric guitar so there are inevitably rock elements to it. What he does say about his music is that he feels a strong affinity to melodic music, partly because his background includes the writing of a lot of songs, both for rock performers and later for classical ones. 

Clark Rundell, Xueifei Yang & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at the recording sessions
Clark Rundell, Xueifei Yang & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at the recording sessions

He writes by putting the music together using a midi guitar and samples. When it comes to orchestration, he has no doubt that there are rules that he has trampled but he is guided by his ears and the instruments. He realises you need to understand the limitations and strengths of different instruments, and his music can go through a lot of re-editing and rewriting. He realises that for a composer this is an unusual way of working, and is alert to the fact that his music needs to extend beyond the limitations of the guitar. He has become more confident in his writing over time and one of his regrets is that when he was younger he became more interested in motorcycles than keyboards. And he also wishes he had started writing classical music earlier.

Whilst he admits that the music he plays on his Classic FM show must have some sort of effect on his composing, a big influence is the large number of songs he has written and the fact that he has always loved great melodies that stay in the mind. He also has a love of choral music, and this is one of the types of music he listens to. His first classical work was a Pie Jesu which came to him unbidden. Since then he has written choral music, instrumental music and songs, including the cycle Swansongs – Songs of Remembrance which was recorded by soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and pianist Daniel Grimwood for Signum Classics.

His influences include the music of English composers such as Finzi and Bax, perhaps Elgar is rather less of an influence but there is also some Stanford in there. He also names the Californian composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003), particularly a disc recorded by pianist Joanna MacGregor, and adds that he is also a fan of John Adams' music too. He enjoys exploring different tunings, but this is very much for himself as special tunings can be a noose for your own neck when it comes to performance, and he tends to use special tunings as a leaping-off point for conventional tuning.

Looking ahead, he is thinking about writing further sacred music, though there is the usual problem of getting things performed, generally, he writes the music first; the opportunities stem from his having already created something.

John Brunning: The complete works for guitar - Xuifei Yang, Johannes Moser, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Clark Rundell - Platoon Music
It was a new experience to have a relationship with Platoon (which has the backing of Apple), and he was glad to have a partner so they could produce a physical product rather than just a download. He likes a physical outcome from recording and admits that his loft is full of records. He had an easy relationship with guitarist Xuefei, and before the recording went down to her home to talk and play, as well as refining a few things. 

Guitarist John Williams looked over the concerto a few years ago and Williams was also a big influence on Xuefei as he heard her play when she was still in China. And there are other links, as John (Brunning) has interviewed both John Williams and Julian Bream, and he first met Xuefei when he was interviewing her.

Xufei Yang will be playing one of John Brunning's Romances with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra in Yerevan on 23 August 2022, and she will play the first movement of Concerto Magna Carta with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall on 20 September 2022

John Brunning: The complete works for guitar - Xuifei Yang, Johannes Moser, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Clark Rundell - Platoon Music [LinkTree]

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