An Interview with Composer Jenni Pinnock

The interview took place on 3rd August 2018 at her home in Cambridgeshire.

An Interview with Composer Jenni Pinnock

Anita: Good Evening.

Jenni: Good Evening.

Anita: Please introduce yourself Jenni. What do you make and do and how?

Jenni: My name is Jenni Pinnock and I’m a composer of contemporary music.

Anita: How did you become interested in composing?

Jenni: I’ve always loved composing since I was at school. I remember in middle school playing with groups of people and just loving doing the composing side of things and also at the piano. I just used to get bored of the music my teacher gave me and just played around with stuff and made stuff up. I just grew from there. 

Anita: How did you develop your composition skills and gain experience in this area?

Jenni: I just wrote lots and lots of stuff - I wrote for my GCSE music.  Then for my A level music I had to write yet more stuff.Then I chose to do a degree and kept writing and just kept writing as much stuff as I could. Also listening and learning and playing as well.

Anita: That’s really interesting Jenni. You recently finished cracked voices – please can you tell me about that?

Jenni: Cracked voices was a song cycle. A song cycle typically tends to be a voice and piano - I used a soprano and a baritone and a piano and a clarinettist as well and it ended up being about 1 hour and 15 minutes long. I worked with a local writer from Royston who likes finding out stuff about local people from the local area like forgotten heroes. There was a hermit called James Lucas who Charles Dickens met and things like that- interesting people.  He wrote stories and poetry about them and I set them to music. That premiered in March in Cambridge and gets performed again in September in Royston.

Anita: How was that received?

Jenni: It went really well. It premiered at Anglia Ruskin University. It had a lovely performance space which was just right. We had a nice sized audience it wasn't huge and it wasn't tiny.  It was a nice sized space and we gave out feedback sheets. People were saying it was really fascinating and interesting because there were loads of stories that people hadn't heard of before about their local area that Graham Palmer, my writer, had found and woven into tales which is amazing. It went well - the second performance is in September, Thursday 27th of September, as part of the Royston Arts festival. My current job is to prepare the score for publication so other people can perform this and also to convert a couple of songs for choir.  Of course, there are only a limited number of people who are willing to perform song cycles whereas there are many more choirs out there who would be interested in singing about their local area.  So, I'm rearranging a couple of pieces so they could be performed by other people, should they wish to in the future.

Anita: How wonderful! How did you get involved with the “Adopt A Composers” scheme?

Jenni: Which side of the Adopt A Composers scheme? When I began, I applied to be a composer on the scheme a couple of times actually - I got accepted in 2013/2014 and got paired with an amazing choir down in Dorset and as part of the scheme you write/learn/get adopted by the ensemble and you then write a piece for them and it gets performed on Radio 3. I did that with them and it was a brilliant scheme and brilliant experience.  Then a couple of years ago I got contacted to be invited to interview for the job of being a mentor on the scheme.  So now I get the chance to see it from the other side and get to mentor new composers who are doing the same thing. It is a brilliant scheme - you get paired with an amateur ensemble or leisure time music ensemble anywhere in the country and you get to write music for them.

Anita: It sounds like fun!

Jenni: It’s a really good scheme - its gets emerging composers - when you are a composer it’s really hard to get from the writing in degrees and at school to writing professionally and it kind of bridges the gap and it gets everyone to learn some new music - it’s wonderful.

Anita: If a person is interested in being adopted as a composer as part of the AAC scheme what experience would they need and at what levels?

Jenni: At the moment I'm not sure of the exact entry qualifications but you have to be an adult, you have to be over 18, at the moment. They are contemplating whether they can introduce this to a younger audience as well but not at the moment.  It’s a scheme that is run by making music.  You have to be able to demonstrate that you have significant musical experience in some form or the other and that you have written pieces in the past.  It doesn't have to be any particular form of music, it could be dance music, it could be other things, it could be orchestral.  You may have a degree but not everyone does have a music degree.  Some people are coming in at 18 other people come later in life who move to composing from something else.  But you basically have to demonstrate a passion for music and a passion for working with leisure time ensembles and that you are able to work in a style that is appropriate to them because working for amateur musicians is completely different than writing for professionals.  With professionals you can write whatever you want - they will spend a day rehearing it in paid time and they will perform it and then they may never perform it again.  Amateurs will spend weeks and weeks and weeks learning this music and may only be able to play a certain number of notes or might not read music or they may be hand bell ringers, so you have to do a completely different style of notation.You have to show that you are adaptable and willing to be challenged in different ways.

Anita: What does a typical day look like for you or what does it consist of?

Jenni: It can be completely different - every time it depends on what I'm working on.Some days it will just be completely admin work - there is a lot of admin work - from tweaking the scores to sending emails to venues and that kind of thing.  It can be just sitting and composing the whole time.  If I'm stuck on something it can be just walking or doing things like housework just to think of ideas and things like that.  It could be anything.

Anita: Is there anything as a composer which challenges you?

Jenni: Everything.  Every piece is different and actually if it’s just writing something really easy and really simple it wouldn't be fun.  You need to have something that makes you think otherwise - something easy and simple.  If it’s not a challenge - it’s not as exciting to write and not as exciting for someone to perform.

Anita: Do you prefer live or radio performances as a performer and a composer?

Jenni: I prefer live - definitely as a performer if we need to put microphones in front of you it’s scary.  And as a composer live is such a different beast - you get to see what people are doing and how things work and to get into it.That’s not to say that recordings and radio are bad, they are great things but it’s not the same - nothing is the same as live music, is it?

Anita: Do you have a favourite artist who inspires you?

Jenni: Not really one, there are so many that’s the thing! As I was growing up and playing different music and listening to and studying loss of music there are so many different composers - people like Mozart, Bach all the way to Carl Jenkins and Berlioz.  There are loads - Debussy and Stravinsky, lots and lots of different composers.  Basically every time I sit down with an orchestra and play something new and inspiring, I love that and go and listen to their music. And then something completely different would come up and I would love that too.  So many things and so many pieces.

Anita: That’s really interesting. What else that inspires your music apart from people?

Jenni: Nature - a lot of nature, probably because I do a lot of walking. I will spot a lot of things and something will come into my head and I will end up writing about something in the world around me.  A lot of pieces/works I've done seem to centre around birds and there seems to be an ongoing theme about birds.  No idea why, because I've never thought I was that interested in birds until I suddenly realised, hang on, that there is a pattern. I sat down only a couple of months ago to discuss new projects with someone and someone said there is a really interesting bird link too - 'What’s going on?' .  That's just one of those things.  But Nature, definitely in Nature and Science too, to a degree as well.

Anita: I really enjoyed your compositions ‘Crepuscular Rays’ and ‘Celestial Utterances’.  Can you tell me what inspired you to write those particular ones?

Jenni: Both those are nature - Crepuscular rays and autumn leaves - it’s all about the rays that come down.  When it’s a cloudy day, you see those shafts of sunlight in the distance.  It’s about those and just seeing those and that moment of 'ahhh'.  They are just out there illuminating one little spot of land.It’s about that.  Celestial utterances was a piece of work for solo wood wind and it’s all about space but generally in space.  There is a piece about Perseids which is a meteor shower that happens in August - in about a weeks’ time actually and about seeing those suddenly shoot out of the sky and how you start seeing a couple and then as soon as you see a couple you see many more appear.  I can't remember all the movements from that but there is one about black holes and lots of little elements about space that. I find really interesting and I just wrote little miniature piece about.  But it’s things like that I get a little bit obsessed about - things like space and start writing ideas about those things.

Anita: Its really beautiful - space and nature.

Jenni: Exactly. There’s so much there.

Anita: What do you think the future of composition is?

Jenni: That’s a tricky one - I don't know because its changed so much. I mean there are so many more composers around than there used to be and so many more avenues to get into. So there are people writing for TV, people writing for games, people writing for films.  So, I think composition will still happen and it will still be a predominately human based rather than computers. Computers can already compose but it’s not the same as a human doing it. But I think it really becoming more that people can’t just be a composer, they have to do other things at the same time which I think is a good thing because it shows a more rounded person and it influences everyone else. I think that will happen more and people will accept that to be a composer they must be other things and not just sit and write music in the room all day.

Anita: What educational pathway did you choose to support your career?

Jenni: I did a GCSE in music and A level music.  At that point I thought I wanted to go into composition but I wasn't entirely sure.  In my degree I then focused on composition and Javanese gamelan randomly which is a percussional orchestra because that really interested me too.   Then I choose to do a master’s degree at Trinity Laban which was all composition again and that’s it.

Anita: Where do you see your career going on from here?

Jenni: I don’t really know. It’s a hard thing to say exactly what will happen and what opportunities arise in any one year.  At the moment I'm applying for funding for a couple of projects which will happen in the next year or two.  At the same time other people might come and invite me to write pieces which happened with the musical I've just finished working on.  And then random other things happen, so I hope I'll just continue writing more music.  Some for professionals but a lot for leisure time musicians because I think that’s really the future of music - more people playing music for fun because they enjoy it in the evenings or when they are studying than are actually professional musicians.  So, I think more writing that way is what I want to do but just write basically.

Anita: I know that you play a variety of instruments - but which is your favourite to perform with?

Jenni: That’s a tricky question it depends on the context - so I like accompanying on the piano. I love accompanying on the piano - there is nothing greater.  I don't like being in the limelight, that’s the thing - I don’t like being the one who is doing everything.  So, accompanying on the piano.  In an ensemble, I prefer playing the oboe because I just like the way it weaves in and out of other things.  If I was playing solo, it probably would be piano.  But I enjoy singing in a choir as well because of the sound.

Anita: On the topic of performance do you have a favourite piece to play?

Jenni: That's a tricky question. I tend to play quite a bit of Debussy - I also play a bit of Mozart and Einaudi and things that are quite systematic which is definitely relaxation and definitely thinking music.  I find I don't have to concentrate on it as much as some trickier music.  Music I know really well I find I go to where I need to relax and to think about stuff.  Probably something like that.

Anita: Is there anything you really do not like in music?

Jenni: I don't like music where there is a lot of music where people are trying out a lot of things. That’s fine to experiment and fine to try different ways but I don't like music where it is dissonant and hard to listen to and to get into. For example the whole thing is mad clashing chords, there is absolutely no purpose and no reason and they are just trying something out and it just sounds ridiculous and nobody can understand it.  That really annoys me - dissonance is an excellent tool and it’s an excellent thing to use with purpose and with a reason - but not just for - let’s just do it.  That kind of thing really annoys me.

Anita: Have you ever written for a musical before?

Jenni: I and a couple of other composers have been working on ‘Ada Lovelace’ the musical.  Ada Lovelace is a famous mathematician who wrote the first computer programme.She was the daughter of Lord Byron. A writer has written the libretto for this musical and he is passionate about Ada Lovelace and contacted a few of us and interviewed a few of us to write the musical.  So I've been involved over the past year in writing 9 of the songs - just under half of the songs in the musical.  They are now winging their way off to producers and directors.  We will wait to see what happens as the next step.

Anita: Is any of your other music inspired by historical figures?

Jenni:  Cracked voices had bits because of course it has historical people in it and it was lots of different stories.  But it’s not an avenue I tend to go down on my own.  That said, I'm really fascinated by the history of Ermine Street.  I'd really like to explore that historically and old maps as well and do something of that in a future project.  But that will be at some stage in my life when I get a chance to work on something I want to work on.

Anita: As a composer how do you get your music out there?

Jenni: It’s a really hard thing to do and there are lots of different ways of doing it.  I put a lot of my music online on things like Sound Cloud, just publicising online, social media and my website helps.  Also doing things like applying for calls to schools.  Different ensembles and choirs around the country will say we want to hear works for harpsichord have you got any works for harpsichord?  Send them in and they might pick five and perform them.  But even if they have only picked 5 they still have had to look at your work and listen to your work so somebody else has heard your name and heard your music - so every opportunity like that is always worth it if it’s something that you can do and it doesn't cost you much.  Some things they cost money - but all those kind of things are worth bearing in mind as an avenue to get more people to hear things.

Anita: How do you think you could get into music without a university qualification?

Jenni: The benefit of a university qualification is that it gives you more experience in just getting to know the world of music. So if you weren't to do one, my advice would  be to talk to someone who has and to find things like the calls for scores and that kind of thing. One of the things that is harder to do without that is if you apply for funding, say if you  want to setup a big project and go and ask the Arts Council for money, they will look at your credentials and go - why should I give this person money? Why should we fund them as a composer? So for that kind of thing, it’s worth making sure that you have as many qualifications or experience in other ways.  I have a friend who is a doctor who is also an amazing musician and she says yes I have spent all this time in med school, but while I was in med school I conducted this choir and I was in this orchestra and did my grade 8 violin. So all of these things boost her profile as well as the fact that she is a doctor.  So you have to find opportunities and find lots of ways. Getting into composition is a very hard thing for anyone to do even with degrees. I know many people with degrees who still keep playing their music out there and its hard. It’s a question of being in the right place at the right time, right music so it’s just trying lots.

Anita:  You said that when you were at University you did a bit of Javanese gamelan - can you tell us a bit more about that?

Jenni:  I first did gamelan when I was at school. The North Herts. Gamelan music service brought gamelan.  It’s an orchestra of percussion instruments and basically because they come from Java instruments are very cheap out there.  For the price of buying a piano, you can buy a whole orchestra, so you can get a whole class worth of children learning how to play an instrument for the price of a piano.  So they are very popular. I played it then and loved it.  When I went to look around the university, I went to Kings University and they had a gamelan and so I was sold at that point.  For three years I went to the gamelan classes  and I then took modules on the performance of gamelan where  you learnt some of the more intricate things.  In gamelan, the music it’s all numbers rather than notes so 6,5,3,2,1,2,3,5,6,5,3,2,1,2,3,5 (sung) and little patterns and all the other little interlocking instruments have patterns as well and you memorise it - it’s very scientific.  So, I did that for 3 years at uni and I did my final performance exam in Gamelan. Then I went and played at the south bank for a few years as well, so I did classes in the evenings and carried on learning. It has lots of layers and is very formulaic.  I used that process a lot in my composition. I ended up writing a very similar form and actually when I did a lot of research I found a lot of other music written in a similar way, so I started analysing that too.  So, it was very instrumental in my music from very early on.

Anita: Have you ever written a piece based around Gamelan music?

Jenni:  Yes I have in fact when I was doing my masters, you had to have a topic for your final performance recital.  You needed a recital and most people do their masters at Music colleges over two years  and I did an intensive masters over 1 year and I didn't have very long to think of things so I based mine around Gamelan so some of the piece for Javanese Gendèr - which is one of the big Glockenspiel instruments, and oboe.  There was a piece for three harps which was based around systematic notes like the gamelan uses and lots of interlocking patterns. I have written a piece for string quartet and gamelan because the gamelan instruments are roughly pentatonic - there roughly (played notes) but not quite exact - but you can detune string instruments to match them exactly.  You can then interlock it all together.

Anita: That’s an interesting combination.

Jenni: Yeah and that one hasn't been performed yet but I've mocked it up and it works. I just have to find a willing string quartet and a willing gamelan orchestra and get them to play it at some point.

Anita: What would your advice be to a young person interested in becoming a career musician or composer?

Jenni: Try to take on board as many opportunities as you can.  If you are a musician play as much as you can.  Play in as many different groups as you can, meet as many people as you can.  Same with composing - keep writing basically.  Find as many ways as you can to practise what you want your trade to be and to also to practise around it because actually I didn't just compose at any point, I was also part of ensembles.  I was writing and playing and doing the theory side of things.  Do everything to read around what you want to do and make sure you find a path and enjoy it.

Anita: Thank you very much Jenni.

Jenni: You’re welcome.


Anita McAuley

Anita McAuley

Hello there! I’m Anita, and I am currently working on my Gold Arts Award. I am interested in poetry, music, composing, and photography.

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 13 August 2018, 11:56 Luke Taylor Voice Reporter commented:

    Jenni sounds like an incredible woman! What was it like talking to her, Anita?

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