Neil March

Get To Know: UK Composer Neil March

BBC Introducing composer Neil March has a new EP entitled ‘Alternatives To Despair’. The EP has already been featured on the Tom Robinson Show (BBC Radio 6 Music) and shows on Resonance FM, Amazing Radio, Exile FM and RKC.

Neil is known for converting everyday ‎environmental sounds into instruments of melody and harmony playing alongside actual instruments. ‘Alternatives To Despair’ sees him use vocals for the first time, multi-tracked to create the aura of a Welsh Valleys choir.

As well as creating music, Neil also curates and presents Trust The Doc TV and Trust The Doc Radio. The radio show broadcasts on Exile FM. He promotes the Trust The Doc Live events and the regular Vanishing Point gigs. 

Who are your biggest musical influences?

I always struggle with this because there are so many and they are often not obvious but those that keep popping up in certain areas of how I write include Olivier Messiaen; Witold Lutoslawski; Cocteau Twins; Steely Dan; Stevie Wonder; 23 Skidoo; Claude Debussy; The Ravishing Beauties/Virginia Astley; Kate Bush; Herbie Hancock; Brian Eno. But I’d say this latest EP also owes a debt of inspiration to Julianna Barwick; Emily Hall and Kate Carr.

What was your creative process for this new EP?

It was mixed. I recorded lots of sounds from my local environment in South East London that had the potential to produce pitch (i.e. construction machinery, sirens, alarms, bus engines, leaf blowers, coffee machines & other cafe devices, even howling wind!) using a hand-held digital recorder. In the case of Track 3, all the sounds you hear producing harmony throughout are environmental noise that I have fed into Audacity and played with to alter pitch and properties and add effects. There are no actual instruments on the track. The other three were mainly composed conventionally for instruments (flute, viola, cello, piano, synth, percussion etc.) and then I juxtaposed music derived from environmental sound against the notated music to produce something ethereal and slightly jarring. I also multi-tracked my own voice, doubled by synth choir sounds on the first two tracks to imitate the sound of a Welsh Male Voice Choir!

Throughout your career you have fluctuated between crafting classical and also pop music. In which domain do you feel most comfortable writing and performing?

The first half of my career was all Pop, mainly as a songwriter and instrumentalist with artists who had large live followings but only recorded for small labels like MSQ, Asphalt Roof Orchestra and Kevin East. I finally came back to the classical world, where I started as a kid, in my forties! I’ve done everything late including having more success in my fifties than at any other time! But I think, much as I enjoy playing Pop genres, I probably prefer the [broadly speaking] classical, ambient and electronic music as a composer.

Please tell us more about your collaboration with pianist and dancer Marilyn Wyers, who has used your music in her own work and who dedicated an entire chapter of her book Sound Music & the moving thinking body (Oxford University Press) to analysing your piano music.

Oh wow yes, Marilyn, what a talent she is. We literally met in the corridor of the Goldsmiths University Music Department in 2009 where we were both mature post-grad students. I was putting a notice up pleading for a pianist to perform my latest solo work in a concert and she looked at it and said she could do that. Next thing I knew she had fallen in love with the piece and we realised my research into using music to represent events and behaviours through movement and stasis correlated with her research into sound, music and the moving body. We then ended up giving joint presentations over several years at a series of conferences and other events at places like Cambridge University, Guildhall College of Music and even in Athens, Greece! Marilyn then used that same piece, Diversions, to demonstrate this relationship between music, movement and the body as the centrepiece of a whole chapter in her book which I was honoured to see.

In 2014, you launched your label Demerara Records and one very interesting work released via the label was the 3 hour long compilation This is Tomorrow Calling (showcasing works by 26 composers and a number of artists drawn from over 20 nationalities and 4 continents). Please tell us more about that and where we can hear it.

Sadly you can probably only find it on Bandcamp these days due to the distribution path I went down but it was amazing. It started as a conversation with my mate Kelvin Thomson over a coffee and grew into one of the most ambitious projects I have ever taken on. But it was such fun and I made so many new friends. We had incredible support. Late Junction (BBC Radio 3) made it album of the week twice running. Stuart Maconie played tracks on Freak Zone (BBC 6 Music) and Resonance FM made an hour-long programme about the album, interviewing me (and 5 other composers) and playing tracks.

Although you’re mainly known for your recent work combining environmental sounds with notated music as with this current EP, you’ve also written a large volume of solo and chamber instrumental works including Perspectives which has been performed in a number of venues by your friend and pianist/composer Helena Gascoyne and also Cello/Anti-Cello written for and performed by Alexandra Eichenberger – when did you start composing?

Ha ha well I actually started composing when I was 5! Badly I imagine! I remember my mum, who taught music at my primary school and was the local piano tutor, telling me Mozart had started composing at 5 so I wasn’t for being outdone! Although I was because he was brilliant even at 5!! I composed a few serious works attempting to create my own musical language in A Level Music but, after walking away from the classical world for decades, I started composing seriously again in about 2005.

You have a Masters (MMus) and PhD (Doctorate) in composition from Goldsmiths, University of London where you studied with composer Roger Redgate – did you enjoy studying music?

I absolutely loved it. But I was 45 by the time I started a 2 year masters with Roger. That was one of the most important steps I have ever taken. I got a distinction and Roger encouraged me to come back a year after I finished and study with him for PhD which I did in the quickest time allowed purely to save money as I didn’t have much! Initially I under-estimated how much more rigorously my work would be judged at PhD level but once I discovered where I wanted to go with it, I loved it and I passed first time which was a great relief.

You can find more information about Neil March at...

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