According to a recent survey by a BBC music journalist, Welsh composer and musician Karl Jenkins is the most-performed living composer in the world. Originally from Swansea in South Wales, Jenkins’ first music teacher was his father – a schoolteacher, organist, and choirmaster. Jenkins made his name as a jazz musician with the band Soft Machine in the 1970s, later branching out into composition, conducting, and advertising work. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005 and was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2010 by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to music. Most recently, Jenkins was the patron of the International Schools Choral Music Society (ISCMS) festival, during which he conducted the world premiere of his new piece, Celebration, at the Forbidden City Concert Hall. Before leaving Beijing, he spoke with students at Dulwich College Beijing about his work.
Kevin Li, 10, US
Did you always want to be a composer?
No, not really. It was totally through elimination. I didn’t always want to be a composer, but I think I’ve found now where I was meant to be; it took me a long time to get there.
James McDouall, 11, UK
What makes you different from other composers?
I wouldn’t be a composer if I didn’t relate to people. Many composers write in an ivory tower and no one ever hears their music. That kind of approach never appealed to me; I need to move audiences.
Gabriel Spooner, 11, UK
What do you attribute your success to?
It was a series of accidents that led me to do advertising music as a full-time job after [the breakup of]Soft Machine. Through that, [the album]Adiemus was born. So I was lucky, but apart from that, I think I’m reasonably good.
Jun Hyung Lee, 11, South Korea
Is being a composer a good job?
It’s a good job if you’re good at it. It’s a bad job if you’re not good at it. [Laughs]
Celeste Kow Hui Shan, 11, Singapore
How do you get inspiration for your compositions?
If you wait for inspiration, you’ll wait forever. You have to work to a certain deadline; if you miss it, all things fall apart. There’s a sporting adage that’s well-known. Someone asked [the player]: “How come you’re so lucky?” And the answer was: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” It’s the same thing in music.
Benjamin Cheng, 10, US
Is writing music sometimes stressful?
Yes. [Laughs] It can be stressful, especially with a deadline looming. But that’s the same with any job.
Edward Huntley, 11, UK
Does your music have any connection to your family?
Not directly, though we’re a musical family. My wife is a composer. Our son is now a film composer and his wife is principal oboe in the English National Opera orchestra. And their daughter – well, she’s 9 months old, so she’s too young to be musical.
Sherry Liu, 11, Canada
Do you enjoy being a composer?
I do enjoy it. It’s rewarding because you interact with people and bring comfort to them sometimes. I get to travel and work with good musicians and singers.
Sue Vern Lai, 11, Malaysia
If you went back in time, would you have chosen another career?
No. [Laughs] Four hundred years ago, there were no nuclear physicists – but there have always been musicians. That’s a choice that I always would have had.
James McDouall, 11, UK
What’s your favorite pop song?
I wasn’t even born when my favorite pop songs were written; these were from the ‘30s, by people like George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers. And after this, I would say The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Steely Dan.
Grace Zhang, 10, Canada
Do you prefer old music or contemporary music?
I think it’s important to assimilate and enjoy different types of music. There are good bits from every period, from the 14th century to yesterday.
Gloria Hui, 11, Hong Kong
What style of music do you like to listen to?
I don’t listen to as much music as I used to, of any kind. One is bombarded these days when you go anywhere; in elevators, bars, restaurants, shops, there’s music coming through speakers. There’s so much that it’s good to get away from it for a little while.
John Hui, 16, China
Do you think music was better off 200 years ago, when tonality was generally more acceptable?
Up to a point, but not completely. Music has changed, but there are certain elements within music that do not accept that it is changing. [For example,] there were crazy concerts going on in London in the ‘60s. My wife went to one where she knew the pianist. He [asked her], “Do you fancy a cup of tea?” He took her through this door, and suddenly she was on stage. And she was part of this concert, drinking her tea.
Isabelle Nunan, 12, Ireland
What advice would you give to young composers and musicians?
If you’re a musician, [your path]is pretty welldefined; you get as good as you can, and then you try to join an orchestra or chamber group. If you’re a composer, you have to generate your own career, which means approaching people with compositions.
Matilda Sall, 12, Sweden/Hong Kong
How do you want you and your music to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered – and that would be enough.