Joseph Phibbs: Rivers to the Sea

Having your music performed at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn is quite an honour, especially for a young composer. So is being commissioned to compose for the Philharmonia Orchestra. Joseph Phibbs, the young British composer of Rivers to the Sea, has experienced both and manages to still keep his feet firmly on the ground. We ran into him – quite literally as we were both wandering around the Beethoven complex in Bonn, which for all its wonderful design is very difficult to figure out how to get inside when the main doors are closed, as they were that day – and he talked to us about his influences, his music and what it’s like to hear your own composition being performed live.

Joseph Phibbs
Joseph Phibbs
With your music being performed at Beethoven Fest, we have to ask you how Beethoven has influenced you.
That is hard to know, really. I’ve loved Beethoven from a very early age, so I have been influenced, as I suppose every composer must be. You can’t fail to be influenced by him in some respects. If I think of Beethoven technically, there were so many kinds of advances that he made in terms of structuring music, especially in his later works. Even in his early works, you can see transitions that I’m very fond of and were a new way of structuring music at that time. I can’t pinpoint his influences on Rivers to the Sea, but the influence is there, though it’s very hard to describe how.
Young people considering careers in music rarely think classical anymore. Do you think that today’s younger composers are heavily influenced by composers like Beethoven or, say, Mozart?
Many of them would’ve been influenced by the masters. What’s hard to gauge is how one’s language relates to the earlier tradition. It often does, of course, but to dissect that – that’s more difficult. Sometimes we use classical imitative counterpoints that deliberately establish these links, which is something I’ve done in my work. Not that I deliberately set out to do so – sometimes, it just seems to fit.
How do you feel about Rivers to the Sea being performed at the Beethoven Festival?

This will be its fifth performance. I’m very privileged to have heard so many performances. With new works, it’s often the case that you can hear it once and very possibly never hear it again! It’s been a great privilege to hear it in so many different contexts, not the least of which is the Beethoven Festival, which is a huge honour. And sandwiched between two Beethoven symphonies, too, you can’t really ask for much more than that!
What was it like at the very first performance of Rivers to the Sea?
Inevitably, at the first performance, you’re always aware of the compositional flaws of the piece. Very exciting on the one hand, of course, but it’s the first time you’re really hearing it in a public setting; you only have rehearsals before that. So you’re focused on what might work, and what might not work. It’s very exciting, of course, but there’s that anxiety. Now that I’m listening to it for the fifth time, the lovely thing is that I let myself relax a bit more and listen to it more objectively. It’s been very useful, too, because I think I might possibly make a few minor revisions to the work. I’m not sure, but I might. That luxury of hearing it several times is very helpful.
You seem more critical of your own work than most music critics!
(Laughs) You’re right, I’ve been very lucky with reviews. It was very gratifying, of course, to have got those reviews. But you can’t write with the expectations of good or bad reviews – you just have to do what you have to do. Composing is a bit like a journey which doesn’t really have an arrival point. What I did feel, in a positive way, after finishing this piece was that there’s a lot more I’d like to do orchestrally. I’m aware of its flaws, but there’s room for me to do more, which might be part of what’s made me react against parts of this piece and look at it so critically. I suppose that’s how composing is an ongoing evolution – it’s a journey where I never seem to arrive anywhere, it’s the journey itself that’s more important.
You compose music using sketches. The visual to the aural – how do you make that shift?
I studied with a wonderful Indian teacher in London. He still uses a system of graphic notation using colour pencils, like an ‘energy chart of the piece’. It’s the layer before you get to a short score which is the fourth stage in the composition of a piece.
When you sketch, you’re just getting the contours of the piece – density of texture, intensity of colour, even an emotional contour. It helps you see what you need to do in a certain section, makes you see what the colour of that section is. Of course, when you get down to the actual notes, the sketches are put aside and the music becomes the focus. But still, I think the energy is at the same place.
Your inspiration for this piece was the sea and Sara Teasdale’s poetry. But critics have remarked that you keep your feet very firmly on dry ground.

My main objective was to compose a work that was loosely linked to the symphonic structure, having four movements. The first and second are linked, and the third and fourth are linked. In the middle, there’s an interlude with clarinets and strings and gong. So you create a kind of three-part structure. In each movement, I wanted to capture a completely different world. So in the first one, there’s a flow – I had the image of the gradual unfolding of the night, or something flowering in the night. The second one I call “Night Fugues”. It’s much faster, more frenetic, even neurotic in a way. This is the kind of sketch equivalent to the movement. Then there’s a very fast finale. This is where the title Rivers to the Sea comes from. Sara Teasdale lived and worked in Manhattan. I lived in NY for a few years, and grew to love that city. I wanted to capture the energy of that city in my music. This is essentially what is captured in the poems of Sara Teasdale, too. An anthology of her poems is called ‘Rivers to the Sea’, so I actually stole it! (laughs) But that’s one aspect, but that’s the last movement.

But the other aspects of that idea of ‘rivers to the sea’ are more metaphorical, in a musical context. It’s like a musical line, and the strands of the line that evolve in an orchestral context. You have the possibilities of many strands – how they’ll converge, how they’ll gain in density. It seemed a fitting analogy with water – strands of water starting very thinly and growing into something vast. It’s very hard to choose a title, but you have to! And it seems right, it seems to define the work.
You had an Indian teacher; how did he influence your work?
He is a wonderful teacher and a wonderful person. He had a very technical approach to music. Though he didn’t emphasise it, he did look a little bit at Indian music with me. I remember one lesson where we listened to an Indian song and he drew a circle, and described how the thalia was evolving. It had quite an influence, which actually comes into this piece, though not a conscious one! In the interlude, with the clarinet, strings and the gong – it’s about the gong, which is a very slow strike through the movement, lasting five or six seconds. Gradually, you get the feeling that it’s converging with another strand. So that idea of the polyrhythm with collision points – it’s loosely connected to Indian music, where you have great long thalias which then come together.
He was a technical teacher, but he always said that the starting point has to be emotional – the idea has to come from a very deep-rooted emotion. I suppose that has also stayed with me. He introduced me to some texts like the Upanishads and the Bhagavat Gita, too, which is also interesting to me.
What is your emotional connect with this piece?
The last movement is a nostalgic desire to get back to Manhattan, musically, if not physically. The third movement is fairly introspective, which is what I set out to do. Through this piece and its different movements, I wanted to explore dramatically different types of music, sometimes juxtaposed against one another very quickly – that’s what I tried to do with the movements.