An Interview with Matthew Kaner: Embedded with BBC Radio 3

Matthew Kaner looking into the distance
Produced by: 
Sound and Music in partnership with BBC Radio 3

An Interview with Matthew Kaner: Embedded with BBC Radio 3

Sharing the details of his residency with BBC Radio 3 and Sound and Music as Composer in 3, Matthew Kaner reflects on the triumphs, trials and tribulations of meeting a piece-a-week schedule on this exciting Embedded project. 

Nine weeks in, and Matthew Kaner is thriving in his conquest to write 10 new pieces in 10 weeks for the 70th anniversary of BBC Radio 3’s predecessor the Third Programme’. It’s been a journey of self-discovery: not just for Matt, who has learned about his own “musical personality” and abilities, but also for the BBC Radio 3 listeners who, as a result of this residency, have been exposed to new sounds in an endeavour to demystify contemporary musics. With a new theme every week, the broadcasts have yielded spectacular results for Kaner who has had “countless” positive responses to his work. He’s responded to music by Steve Martland, Hans Abrahamsen, Telemann, Helen Grime, Henri Dutilleux and many others, finding that amongst the diversity he’s found himself feeling like a bit of a student again! Yet, the biggest underlying theme could be whittled down to ‘challenging’ and ‘believing in’ yourself, with the rewards of doing so presenting themselves in the delight of hearing your work coming to life within just a week – “the most thrilling experience of my career so far,” he says. Matthew Kaner is pushing boundaries with music, challenging expectations, and growing as a composer and artist…

Your residency with BBC Radio 3’s Composer in 3 challenges you to contribute 10 new pieces of music to their 70 at 70 anniversary celebrations – over 10 weeks! Finishing a piece a week is a real achievement. But how do you maintain your creative energy? 

Yes it’s certainly been a challenge, but an exciting one. There can't be many composers in recent history who have had quite this volume of work to deliver in such a short space, and in a way, it's the pressure of the regular deadlines that has simply forced me to be creative. Giving myself a different composer as a source of inspiration and working with a different ensemble each week has definitely helped, as it's provided a fresh starting point for each one.

So you get to choose which themes and composers to respond to in your music writing during the project, allowing you to draw up a schedule. What was the process behind choosing your material to work with?

It was actually my idea to do this, mainly, as I said, to give me something different to respond to each week. I wanted to discover new things for myself, which I certainly have (I had to compose for several combinations that I'd never written for before!), including textures and ideas that I previously thought weren't really ‘me,’ which I find really exciting. I think composing should always be about challenging yourself to develop your imagination; repeating myself is not something that interests me. I also wanted to use this approach as a means to introduce the Radio 3 audiences to composers they may not have come across before, as a means to demystify contemporary music a bit. The piece I asked them to play on Breakfast this week (Extended Circular Music by Jürg Frey) had never even been played on the station before!

What kind of things have you been working on during the residency so far, then? What has been your favourite ‘theme’ to work with?

So far I've responded to music by Steve Martland, Hans Abrahamsen, Telemann(!), Helen Grime, Henri Dutilleux and many others. I'm not sure I have a favourite, but perhaps the most challenging piece to write was the one for Four Baroque Violins. They're very different from modern instruments (in more ways than I expected) and getting it wrong at first made me feel a little like being a student again!

The musicians you’re working with on this project, including some BBC New Generation Artists, essentially bring your ideas to life. But how have you found working with them?

I have to say I’ve really enjoyed it. All of the performers have been absolutely fantastic to work with and incredibly enthusiastic about the project. It’s a real privilege to have had my pieces recorded by such superb musicians. Several of them I hadn't ever met before and I've made some great new friends in the process.

What’s your favourite part about working on the residency? What are you enjoying most?

Hearing new pieces come to life so quickly after finishing them. The lead time on new pieces is normally at least a month, so to have a piece I only completed a week or so ago recorded by such fantastic musicians has been perhaps the most thrilling experience of my career so far!

Have you come across any unexpected happenings in writing your pieces? 

Absolutely: I've written several things that I didn't really know I could. Echoes in the Stillness for the Van Kuijk Quartet, for example, features far sparer textures than I'd ever attempted to write before. Two of the pieces also use scordatura tunings for string instruments too; again, not something I'd attempted before (it gets quite complicated when more than one string is retuned), but I'm really pleased with the way it allowed me to manipulate the natural resonance of the instruments. Likewise I've also discovered some interesting things about my musical personality – certain types of gesture, combinations of notes, etc. seem to have cropped up unexpectedly throughout several of the pieces.

You’ve said before that there’s a great opportunity here to allow new music to become a bit more ‘normal,’ and to demystify the notion of ‘the composer’. Do you think your residency so far has allowed you to see these results?

Yes, I hope that Radio 3 (especially Breakfast) listeners have discovered something new about contemporary music, and have realised that it's not all just ‘difficult’ in the way that is often (wrongly) characterised in much of the press. It's been really enjoyable being able to come into the studios every Monday morning too, and I've had some very positive responses to both the interviews and the music. I think the format is a really good one, and I hope that the station continues to invite composers in as often as possible to talk about their music. It just makes it much more real for listeners – hearing an artist of any kind talk about their work gives a special insight that you can't get any other way.

Have you had any other interesting responses to your work from BBC Radio 3 listeners? 

Yes, I've really enjoyed seeing how different people seem to be drawn to different pieces - sometimes unexpectedly so. The piece I thought would challenge people the most seemed to go down particularly well. People have emailed, tweeted and sent me Facebook messages (some were complete strangers!) with words of support and enjoyment. There have been a couple of negative responses, but I'm pleasantly surprised that there haven’t been more, and there have countless positive ones.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learnt since beginning the residency?

That I can write music a lot more quickly than I thought, and that taking more time doesn't necessarily produce better results. 

Lastly, what advice would you give to budding composers in order to be successful within the new music sector? 

Believe in yourself, write the music you want to hear, and keep going! Be approachable and communicative too. A missed deadline is usually a lot less problematic if you’re considerate and let those affected know what's going on.

Matthew will be premiering a new piece on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme every Monday – find out more here.


To find out more about what else Matthew has been getting up to at Broadcasting House, visit the BBC  Radio 3 website. 


For more information about the residency, please click here.

Follow Matthew on Twitter or visit his website 


Interview by Emma Sugarman

Find out more

Matthew will be premiering a new piece on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme every Monday – find out more here.

To find out more about what else Matthew has been getting up to at Broadcasting House, visit the BBC  Radio 3 website. 

For more information about the residency, please click here.

Follow Matthew on Twitter or visit his website 


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