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Few composers, if any, pull music out of thin air. As Berio said, there’s no tabula rasa. Most music is a reaction to something else. It could be another piece of music, but it could equally be an extra-musical stimulus: a landscape, a poem, a film, a performer, a painting.

What kinds of things stimulate Philip Cashian’s imagination? Literature is important to him, and his tastes are wide ranging and often quirky. He has taken texts from playwrights, such as Lorca and Edward Bond, or poets, from Keats to Kevin Crossley-Holland by way of Baudelaire, Rossetti and Thomas Moore.  

Words are important, but the visual arts have been an even richer source of inspiration. A recent string quartet, Samain, takes its title from a painting by Leonora Carrington and there is a set of piano pieces based on work by the reclusive English artist Ben Hartley. And there’s more:  Blue Circus, a little clarinet concerto, takes its title from Marc Chagall, Firewheel comes from Bryan Wynter and Strix was inspired by Graham Sutherland’s painting, La Petite Afrique III. There’s a bit of darkness and a bit of the surreal in these choices. Perhaps inevitably then Philip Cashian has turned to Goya, the master of the dark and the bizarre, for the inspiration behind his chamber work, Caprichos.

A glance at Cashian’s titles give still more clues to his inner world. His favourite colours are dark: there’s a Dark Flight (for six cellos) and Dark InventionsBlack Venus, for guitar, takes its title from Angela Carter. Then there’s night. No less than three of his orchestral pieces are nocturnes: Night Journeys (written for the LSO), The House of Night and Nightmaze.

These night pieces are sometimes disturbed by the noise of ticking mechanisms. His catalogue includes Settala’s Machine (Settala was a 17th century Italian maker of automata), Pietro’s MachineBone Machine and The Star Machine. There’s a Forest of Clocks, a Musica Meccanica and a Mechanik (after a sculpture by Edoardo Paolozzi). 

This mechanical imagery gives a clue to the kind of techniques Philip Cashian uses.  His music is often built from musical mechanisms, number patterns, repetitions and ostinatos. Notes are often generated using Stravinsky’s technique for rotating pitches, paragraphs are sharply contrasted and joins are avoided. Philip Cashian’s music is not only replete with vivid images, it’s also a world of ingenious devices.

John Woolrich
October 2019


Aspen Festival, 2019

Philip Cashian was born in Manchester in 1963 and studied at Cardiff University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Oliver Knussen and Simon Bainbridge. In 1990 he was the Benjamin Britten fellow at Tanglewood where he studied with Lukas Foss. He was awarded the Britten Prize in 1991, the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1992 and the PRS Composition Prize in 1994. His fast paced style of music has been described as “an uncompromising reflection of the modern world”.

Cashian has collaborated and worked with many leading musicians, ensembles and orchestras. Performances include the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Riga Sinfonietta, Ensemble Profil (Romania), Arctic Philharmonic, the Esprit Orchestra (Toronto), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, London Sinfonietta, Ergon Ensemble (Athens), Festival de Mùsica de Alicante, Bergen Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Ojai Festival (California), Musikmonat (Basle), Moscow Autumn Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, Spitalfields Festival, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the BBC Proms as well as recent performances in Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Holland, Norway, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and China. 

In 2008 the London Sinfonietta commissioned Cashian to write The Opening of the House for their inaugural concert at Kings Place and later in the same year his first opera, The Cumnor Affair was premiered by Tête à Tête Opera Company at the Riverside Studios, London. 

Recent commissions include Firewheel for Dark Inventions, Strix for the Britten Sinfonia Academy, the world’s turning for the Esprit Orchestra (Toronto),  Nocturnes and Dances for the Wye Valley Chamber Music Festival, The Language of Birds for Tabea Debus and Scenes from the Life of Viscount Medardo for Richard Watkins and the Red Note Ensemble. In 2017 his String Quartet No.2 was premiered in the St Magnus International Festival by the Gildas Quartet and Psappha gave the premiere of ‘Leonora Pictures’ in Manchester followed by three further performances in New York, Oberlin and Aspen. His second piano concerto, The Book of Ingenious Devices, premiered by Huw Watkins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen in the 2018 Aldeburgh Festival was described in The Times as ‘mesmerising music’. In the 2019 Beijing Modern Music Festival the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere of his most recent orchestral work, Fanfaronades.

Cashian has also written extensively for young and amateur musicians: to date he has written six pieces for the ABRSM’s Spectrum series as well as large scale works for Contemporary Music for All and the Centre for Young Musicians. Between 2010 and 2013 he was invited by the British Council to curate a series of concerts of contemporary British music in Bucharest during the course of which works by over sixty living British composers were performed.

He is also a sought after teacher and has been Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music since 2007. He is published by Chester Music and Composers Edition. Recordings of his music are available on the NMC label including the two portrait discs The House of Night and Dark Inventions.

The Cumnor Affair