I was introduced to Purcell, Humperdinck, Mozart, Stravinsky, Bruckner, Victoria, Mussorgsky, Handel and Bach at an early age. I spent all my spare time in my childhood listening to records I collected from a shop in Willesden, and although at first my piano studies took first place in my parent’s eyes, my first love was always to improvise and compose on the piano. My maternal grandfather provided an appreciative audience. My paternal grandfather provided the space to perform to the family in an impressive studio in Hampstead, complete with pipe organ.
From the age of 15, I was organist at St John’s Presbyterian Church in Kensington (now a Coptic Orthodox Church). This time at St Johns was an inspiration for me. I conducted Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Tippet’s A child of our Time, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The minister, Cameron Joyce, was I realise now a most remarkable man. He used to say to me: “Life is a creeping tragedy, that is why we must be cheerful. He actually lived his life in the ‘via negativa’, or the apophatic way, and this became the bedrock of my own faith and work. In Alium is dedicated to Cameron and his wife, Jane.
My Godmother, Lady Birley, wife of the society portrait painter Oswald, was an inspiration me in many ways. I wrote the Whale at her house in Charleston Manor, Sussex, and at her London house would regularly improvise musical portraits of the eccentric characters who came to parties.
I studied with Sir Lennox Berkeley at the Academy, and his influence is felt most in the Donne Sonnets. At the same time, David Lumsdaine was in inspirational influence, and a devoted teacher. I would never have been able to compose The Whale or Celtic Requiem, for instance, if David had not opened up so many doors to me. He showed me the language of modernism in music. The London Sinfonietta commissioned me to write for their inaugural concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Whale was the result.
The Roman Catholic Church was another early influence, especially in the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, introduced to me by a remarkable young postulant nun who read the poetry to me in Spanish. She was the first in a series of muses that kept me constantly in touch with the eternal feminine. Father Malachy, a Carmelite Prior, was also a huge influence, encouraging me to ‘keep alive the medieval spirit’ in art. And then there was the figure of Jean Genet, who inspired my lost opera, Notre Dame des Fleurs.
I should also say how thrilled I was that the Beatles took up my work and put it on the Apple label so early in my life.
My lost opera Notre Dames des Fleurs was written soon after The Whale and was composed using a Revox tape recorder and some primitive electronic equipment. It is based upon Jean Genet’s first book about the sexual fantasies of a prisoner. The book and the music are highly blasphemous, and I remember I wrote out long sections and distributed them to my church choir at St. John’s Presbyterian Church Kensington where I had been organist since I was fifteen. Edward Lucie-Smith wrote some of the libretto and I remember one late night recording session in the Church with David Lumsdaine on the Revox tape recorder, Edward Lucie-Smith chanting an obscene litany and the church choir singing while I played the organ in a thunderous manner. In fact the whole work exists somewhere on tape recorded in this fashion. It was my most surrealistic fantastical score, and it met with the enthusiasm of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I remember playing it to them in an American’s house in Chelsea when they bought their own macrobiotic food.