Alec Roth – Composer

Monday 29 August 2022

“This is highly original music that, in truth, sounds like no other. There is no doubt that Alec Roth’s music, both in this work and in others, whilst refusing to duck the thornier issues that confront us, seems calculated to make us glad to be alive.” Musicweb

The seeming paradox is characteristic of Alec Roth’s music – somehow timeless, yet refreshingly new. Appealing to a wide audience, its surface simplicity is welcoming, while its underlying richness and depth reward repeated listening. Some of this can be explained by his unconventional background as a composer.

Born near Manchester in 1948 of German/Irish descent, his family were not musical, but at the age of five the serendipitous gift of an old upright piano set him on his way. Throughout school, university and a series of jobs (research scientist; teacher of maths; film animator) his creative energies were increasingly channelled into amateur music-making. These years laid the foundation of his approach to composition – practical, flexible, pragmatic. But at the age of 28 he decided that his intense sense of vocation demanded a more formal study.

Durham University provided a sound traditional training, and he specialised in conducting. “I’m still basically self-taught as a composer, but by learning scores to conduct them, I was having composition lessons with the likes of Haydn, Holst, Ravel etc.” A conducting career beckoned. But an invitation to study at the Academy of Indonesian Performing Arts (ASKI) in Surakarta proved irresistible.

“My biggest turning point – personally, as well as musically – was going to live and study in Java. The aim was to learn gamelan, but the experience profoundly challenged my thinking about my own musical culture”. On his return he founded the Gamelan Programme at London’s Southbank Centre. But he also determined to return to composition, applying his new ideas to the sounds and traditions he had grown up with. This soon became possible in an unexpected way.

In the 1980s British orchestras and opera companies were developing new approaches to education and community outreach, and Roth found himself in demand as a workshop leader. Education work led to commissions: Arion and the Dolphin (1994) for English National Opera’s Baylis Programme; All Summer in a Day as Opera North’s Associate Composer (1994-6); and Earth and Sky (2000) for children’s choir, commissioned by the BBC for the Proms. 

Wider recognition came with each new work, and by the early years of the new millennium he was able to support himself full-time as a freelance composer.

Notable performers of his music have included the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Scottish National Orchestra, Academy of St Martin in the Fields (four commissions including Departure of the Queen of Sheba), London Sinfonietta, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Allegri String Quartet, Voices8, The Sixteen, and the Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral. His music has been programmed at major UK venues and festivals; broadcast on BBC Radio and Television; recorded on the Hyperion, Signum, Nimbus and other labels; and since his signing by Edition Peters in 2015, is increasingly heard around the world.

Three long-term working relationships lie at the heart of Alec Roth’s creative development:

His reputation as a choral composer results from a long, fruitful and happy association with Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra, in such works as Earthrise and A Time to Dance.

The subtleties of his vocal music in works such as My Lute and I and A Road Less Travelled have been inspired by the tenor Mark Padmore and guitarist Morgan Szymanski, for whom he has also composed a concerto and solo pieces.

His many collaborations with the writer Vikram Seth include a four-year sequence of works co-commissioned by the Salisbury, Chelsea and Lichfield Festivals (2006-9) featuring the solo violin of Philippe Honoré, including the oratorio The Traveller. Seth’s book The Rivered Earth (2011) describes their creative partnership, including an account of “the pleasures and pains of working with a composer”.

In 2015 a Finzi Trust Scholarship enabled a sabbatical in Leipzig to study the cantatas of J S Bach as an inspiration for his own work.