An interview with composer Philip Herbert

Award-winning British composer and broadcaster Philip Herbert is one of four composers who have been commissioned by Leeds International Concert Season to write a ‘season’ for Four Seasons of the Caribbean.

Taking Antonio Vivaldi’s iconic The Four Seasons as a starting point, Philip, along with composers Cassie Kinoshi, Renell Shaw and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, have each put their own take on the classical masterpiece. Four Seasons of the Caribbean is a brand-new work for solo violin, steel pan and orchestra that blends the sounds and feelings of the Caribbean population in Britain.

We caught up with Philip ahead of the Four Seasons of the Caribbean world premiere later this month to find out more about his season, Autumn, and about life as a composer. 

Please tell us a little bit about how you came into being a composer.
I studied music at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in both the UK and the USA. Musicology was a key subject of focus that fascinated me, I took every chance I could to discover how and why composers wrote their music, and looked at the style, instrumentation, structure, cultural perspective, purpose and timeline in which it was written. Across my portfolio career I have spent time teaching and exploring the process of composition at GCSE and A Level as well as writing and arranging music for talented groups of young people. The interest in composition grew from here and opportunities for this have increased over time…

Who and what are your musical inspirations and how have they influenced Autumn?
My inspiration for Autumn comes from the hurricane season in the Caribbean, where nature is a powerful force that can move from being a calm, blissful tropical setting to something that changes quickly, gathering momentum, with air currents moving towards becoming a full blown hurricane and storm.

Autumn is a time of change, and I’m thinking of the Windrush Generation who came to the UK and made crucial and indispensable contributions to life in the UK. Many of them have passed on and this brings to the generation after them a time of change and adjustment.

I’ve been thinking about the science of how currents circulate and gather momentum to create a storm. Consequently, in the first and third movements there are lots of circular themes that evoke the joy and the calm of a tropical setting or which gather momentum in certain places to simulate the way in which air currents mobilise to create a storm.

The middle movement starts with a bass motif (borrowed from a theme near the end of the first movement) which is overlaid with dissonant harmonies, which is later joined by a plaintive melody, setting the mood for the dark and sad reflections on the aftermath of a storm.

How does it feel being back in Leeds with a world premiere of this significance?
It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to participate in a cultural event in Leeds after spending my formative years in the city, it’s a great cultural centre.

What are you most looking forward to about hearing Autumn performed live in concert for the first time?
Hearing violin soloist Ellinor D’Melon interacting with steel pan player Leon Foster Thomas and the Manchester Camerata orchestra to create a vibrant, expressive and musically imaginative interpretation of the score.

What would be the five pieces of music, book and luxury you’d take to a desert island with you?

The five pieces of music I’d take with me would be:
– JS Bach’s Cantata No 51, Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen, BWV 51, performed by Kathleen Battle, Wynton Marsalis and the Orchestra of St Luke’s, conducted by John Nelson.

– Gregory Porter’s Painted on Canvas, performed with the Metropole Orchestra.

– Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No 2 performed by Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

– Valerie Coleman’s Umoja performed by Imani Winds.

– Afro Cuban All Stars’ Amor Verdadero.

The book I’d take would be Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Life of Rosa Parks by Douglas Brinkley, and my luxury item would be a very fine digital radio so I could listen to music and all that’s going on in the world.

The world premiere of Four Seasons of the Caribbean by Philip Herbert, Cassie Kinoshi, Renell Shaw and Ayanna Witter-Johnson takes place on Sat 25 November, 7.30pm and Sun 26 November, 3pm at the Riley Theatre, Northern School of Contemporary Dance. 

Four Seasons of the Caribbean has been commissioned by Leeds International Concert Season in partnership with Riley Theatre and Northern School of Contemporary Dance for the Sound Out Leeds series. Four Seasons of the Caribbean is supported by the Francis Routh Trust.