Composer Karl Jenkins on Writing Accessible Music

January 22, 2017 Updated: January 22, 2017

NEW YORK—Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’s music is considered by some to be too popular to be classical, and he’s just fine with that.

Jenkins wants to write music that, first of all, pleases him, and is something that others can enjoy. Beyond that, he tends to resist categorization.

“I write pretty accessible, tuneful music,” Jenkins said. “Music has a worth and it’s not subject to fashion. … [I want] to make an emotional connection. Song can move people.”

He works with memorable melodies to create an emotive effect. The music is also accessible for all ages,  he said, evidenced by the fact that children often sing his works.

In fact, he’s one of the most performed living composers in the world. Last summer, his work “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” had its 2,000th performance since it premiered in the year 2000, which averages out to about two performances a week for the past 16 years. His success has been met with polarized responses, and Jenkins takes it all in stride.

People sing "Aberfan: Cantata Memoria" by Sir Karl Jenkins with DCINY artistic director Jonathan Griffiths conducting, at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Jan. 15, 2017. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
People sing “Aberfan: Cantata Memoria” by Sir Karl Jenkins with DCINY artistic director Jonathan Griffiths conducting, at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Jan. 15, 2017. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

A Practical Education

Jenkins has been surrounded by music all his life. His father—a choirmaster and an organist—was his first music teacher, giving Jenkins access to piano lessons, a huge record collection of varied music, and inspiration to pursue further musical education.

Jenkins went on to pick up the recorder, oboe, and saxophone and studied music throughout all of his years in school. He learned and uses the tenets of classical music, he said, like counterpoint, fugue, and harmony, by writing Bach chorales in school. But beyond that, he distanced himself from the contemporary classical music scene.

“I rebelled to a certain extent against contemporary classical music in my teenage years; I didn’t really like where it was going,” Jenkins said.

The genre of classical music of the last century was quite experimental, with many composers intentionally flipping the principles of the music that came before them completely on its head. Some of it was atonal, post-tonal, dissonant, minimal, experimentally electronic, and overall not very easy to listen to, “jokingly referred to as ‘squeaky gate’ music,” Jenkins said. 

“So I gravitated towards jazz,” Jenkins said. In jazz, he found coherent tone and harmony and melody, so he wrote and played in the genre for a number of years. Then, wanting to make music his career, he got into media composition. Jenkins spent some years writing music for advertisements for a generation of directors—including names like Hugh Hudson and Ridley Scott—who would then move on to directing Hollywood features. 

It was like scoring mini-films and quite an education, Jenkins said. Oftentimes, someone would ask him to create music with the feeling of this or that culture, and so Jenkins would go exploring—searching for musicians who could perform on these ethnic instruments and show him how to write for them. It’s an ongoing search. He listens—to recordings, films, performances, anything with music in it—and then he asks how it’s done. Over the years, he’s accumulated a large palette of cultural colors.

“For example, every culture has a wooden flute of some sort,” Jenkins said. Some are played vertically and some horizontally, and all with a different sound and created for different types of music. If he needs to find a South American quena flute, an Armenian duduk double-reed flute, a Japanese shakuhachi, or an Indian bansuri player, he knows where to find one.

His first foray into composing world music was for a Delta Airlines commercial—”They wanted something ethnic,'” Jenkins said. For “Adiemus” in 1995, he’d already written the music and had no words, so he set it to wordless syllables with tribal elements and ethnic percussion; the song caught on and became popular internationally, and is still very often performed by all sorts of choirs.

The second major turning point in his career, Jenkins said, was “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” which was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum to celebrate their move from London to Leeds. The work is based on the Catholic Mass, but also includes many other prayers and poems and writings of different languages that inspire peace.

“It was a commission that came out of the blue,” Jenkins said. “They asked me to do it and my life kind of changed; I realized there was a place for me writing that kind of music—writing classical music that had integrity but was still accessible.”

Jenkins points out that though he wants to write music with integrity, music that will last through the times, he does not believe in inspiration.

“If you wait for inspiration, you could wait forever,” he said. “Some people think it’s idyllic, being a composer, like you’re walking on clouds all the time. But it isn’t at all.

“There can be good moments, bad moments, but it’s just what I am,” he said. “It’s what I need to do. It’s a force, really, that drive me to do what I’m doing.”

Music to Commemorate

Jenkins’s most recent work, “Cantata Memoria,” was written to commemorate 50 years since the Aberfan tragedy in Wales. On Sunday, Jan. 15, the Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) performed the North American premiere of the work at Carnegie Hall.

Concertgoer Cathy Manning attended Sunday’s performance because her son was one of the singers. By the end of the concert, she had been moved to tears, clapping and shouting “bravo!” from the top tier.

Audience members give a standing ovation after "Cantata Memoria" by Sir Karl Jenkins at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Jonathan Griffiths, in New York City on Jan. 15, 2017. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Audience members give a standing ovation after “Cantata Memoria” by Sir Karl Jenkins at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Jonathan Griffiths, in New York City on Jan. 15, 2017. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

“I still have butterflies,” Manning said after the concert. Coming to Carnegie Hall had been on her bucket list, and the concert was a dream come true. She said she knew nothing about the Aberfan event the music had been written for, but could feel the tragedy and the hope in the music all the same. “The music was just so touching, so moving, I can’t put it into words.” 

Aberfan is a coal mining town in South Wales where, in October 1966, a pile of waste rock slid down and collapsed on an elementary school and some surrounding houses, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Jenkins remembers having just started at the Royal Academy of London when the tragedy happened. 

When the commission came, “I was petrified to be doing it, elated to be doing it; thrilled and apprehensive at the same time,” Jenkins said. It premiered in Wales last October, and many family members of the victims conveyed that it was a cathartic piece for them, to Jenkins’s relief.

He had incorporated motifs of light and hope throughout, along with text by Welsh poet Mererid Hopwood and songs and poems meaningful to the Welsh town. Jenkins wanted to create an experience that took the harrowing Welsh tragedy and connected it to universal themes, paying respect to other children lost in tragedies around the world, and give everyone a positive and uplifting experience in the end.

Micky Perez, who also attended the concert, said she was incredibly moved. When the children had their turn near the end, “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room,” said Perez, whose two daughters were in the children’s chorus.

About 15 countries were represented in Sunday’s concerts, said DCINY’s artistic director and co-founder Jonathan Griffith. DCINY mostly presents large choral works and in doing so brings together singers from all over the world. Griffith believes that choirs from the tiniest towns and smallest churches can be of great quality, and their concerts give singers the opportunity to audition for an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall.

“It’s very beautiful music,” said Griffith, who saw the world premiere in October in the U.K. and conducted the Carnegie Hall performance. “I was deeply moved. … This is one of those works that really conveys the message to the audience.”

Griffith began presenting Jenkins’s music in the United States over a decade ago. He fell in love with the music after presenting “The Armed Man” in 2005, so when he and partner Iris Derke co-founded DCINY in 2007, they decided to kick off their inaugural 2008 season with Jenkins’s music.

Jenkins is a composer who is able to successfully convey meaningful text of wide-ranging origins to the audience, Griffith said, because his music is so accessible, traditionally harmonious, and tonal. For 2018, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, DCINY has commissioned Jenkins to write a choral work.