Formal dinners can be extremely boring, but sometimes you can get lucky and sit next to somebody really interesting. I got lucky last week when I sat next to Jay Richardson at a Cambridge Union dinner: I learnt something and was introduced to what I think will prove a treasure trove.
Jay told me that he was the “access officer” of the Union. I thought at first that that meant access to the building, making sure that people in wheelchairs could get in. But I was wrong: the job of the access officer is to get more people, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, to join the Union. I said that I thought that dining in dinner jackets was not a good start.
But then we got onto the interesting stuff. Jay is a composer. I asked if he played an instrument. He does–he’s an organist in one of the colleges–but he told me that you didn’t have to play an instrument to be a composer. That surprised me. I asked him how he composed. Did he sit at a piano? Did he use a computer? Did he have a synthesiser that would play the music he was composing, making the sound of the strings, the brass, the woodwind? No, he said, he did it all in his head. Many composers do use software that will create the sound of an orchestra, but he thought it too unlike the real sound, too messy; it got in the way of his composing.
I fund it astonishing that he could create the sound of an orchestra in his head. It seemed to me inhuman, that you could hold in your head the sound of a 100-piece orchestra with its 30 or so different instruments and compose a symphony. But then I thought of Beethoven, deaf and unable to hear his music even when it was being played by a real orchestra.
I asked about the difficulty of getting an orchestra to play your work. Wasn’t that expensive, especially with the need for rehearsal? He said that it wasn’t too bad if you had a “residence”– and he has one at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge. He told me as well that English orchestras can play a piece without any rehearsal. He told the story of the recording of the music for Star Wars. An American orchestra said it would need weeks to rehearse. The producer said that would be impossible, and then two English orchestras bid against each other, with one eventually recording the score after a rehearsal of just one or two days.
Could I listen to his music? He told me that he is just about to have a piece on Spotify–and he has had a piece played on Radio 3. But the place to go to hear is Soundcloud, “a sort of YouTube of new music.” I asked if it mattered to him whether people enjoyed his music. I imagined he might be composing something very modern and difficult, but he was clear that he wanted people to enjoy his music.
I’ve now been to Soundcloud and listened to two pieces by Jay. I like them both very much–they have the still, pure melancholic sound that I love. on every street is an exquisite piece for solo cello, performed by Joy Lisney in the chapel of Jesus College Chapel. https://soundcloud.com/j-richardson/on-every-street my body is an ocean is an evocative piece for piano that is almost as much silence as music. https://soundcloud.com/j-richardson/my-body-is-an-ocean I have already listened to these pieces several times and will continue to listen to them, and I will explore other pieces by him and by other composers on Soundcloud.
Rarely has a dinner brought such a return.