Why did you decide to study at the Academy and what were the highlights of your time studying here?

For me, it was about who was teaching at the Academy – I was very much drawn to working alongside the composer Steve Martland. I’ve been taught by three composers, who I think are my main influences – Steve Martland, Robert Saxton and Simon Bainbridge – and in spite of their radically different aesthetics, both musical and political, I learnt a great deal from each of them.

Steve taught his students about using music creation as a way of engaging with society and the world around them, and was in many ways very much ahead of his time as a composer. He frequently drew our attention to urgent social issues and our responsibility to see music not as something that’s hermetically sealed from the social world, but really encouraged us to see our role in society as composers. He had this sharp-edged wit that frequently laid bare the political dimensions of situations that seemed non-political, and he managed to achieve this not only through his words but also through his music. One of the reasons I was really drawn to him was that he was very sensitive to issues of class and especially how financial privilege, or lack thereof, can shape a person’s view of the world. As a result, I think much of my subsequent interest, many years later, in issues of race and class and access, could probably be attributed to him. He was incredibly provocative, thoughtful and enigmatic – he was a very bright light in contemporary classical music.

Steve Martland was the inspiration behind the piece you’ve written for the 200 PIECES project – could you tell us more about that?

When thinking about the project, for me, it was more important to think about the legacy of the Academy in terms of people who have passed through the building, rather than something about the building itself. I thought Steve Martland was an interesting artist to choose because his relationship with the Academy was very contentious – and that was no secret. At the time, within the world of contemporary classical music, he was viewed as an anti-establishment poster child, and the Academy is an establishment. However, in spite of some of these internal and external conflicts, he had an incredibly profound effect on his students, including composers such as Joe Duddell and the concert and theatre composer Max Wilson, and he also worked alongside the percussionist Colin Currie, who eventually joined the Steve Martland Band. Although his relationship with the Academy was somewhat turbulent, he stayed because of his students. I decided to call the piece Iconoclast – the title is taken from a Guardian obituary that described him as an ‘iconoclastic composer who crossed musical boundaries’. I wanted to write a piece which encapsulated that – it’s for solo accordion and it’s extremely challenging for the performer. But there’s an authenticity and an energy that encapsulates my impression of Steve’s larger-than-life persona.

Tell us about your documentary Identity and the Anxiety of Influence.

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to make a film about African diasporic composers based in the UK. I was commissioned by Sound and Music for what turned out to be a 13-part documentary series for the British Music Collection called Identity and the Anxiety of Influence. Initially it was in response to a few articles that I’d read that were pushing back against certain classical music organisations’ attempts to try to address the issue of inclusivity. I was surprised to see how much pushback there was, both in print and social media, to the efforts of those institutions to try and genuinely be more inclusive. What I felt about both sides of the discussion was that there were very few black and minority ethnic voices, even though black and minority ethnic musicians were being used as part of this conversation. For me, making the documentary was like a civic duty to safeguard those perspectives. On the basis of that documentary, I started working with the LSO as part of their LSO Jerwood Composer+ scheme, and this year, I was really fortunate to get all of those composers into the same room and commission a couple of them to write string quartets. I composed a string quartet piece called The Diasporic Quartets, where each of the movements was inspired by one of the four composers featured in the documentary film.

Tell us about your piece Rush – A Windrush Anthem.

Last year I received a commission to write a Windrush song from Pegasus Opera, an opera company based in Brixton that focuses almost entirely on black and minority ethnic opera singers. It became an anthem that was distributed to many of the schools across Lambeth and was streamed on Windrush Day. It was a really interesting project because it involved their community choir, which was formed during lockdown and included amateur singers from all over the world, many of whom were descendants of Windrush, like me. The whole concept of that piece began with an hour-long conversation with some of the members of the choir talking about how they wanted the history of Windrush to be represented. This was after the killing of George Floyd, and around the time of the statue debacle, and people were questioning how certain aspects of British colonial past haven’t really been represented. The conversation focused on how we learn from that mistake by representing Windrush in a way that not only focuses on issues of racism, but also on triumph and achievement.

What else are you working on at the moment and what have you got coming up?

The Bach Choir recently recorded a piece that I wrote for them during lockdown. As part of its ‘Bach Inspired’ series, six composers were each commissioned to respond to a specific chorale from the St Matthew Passion. My very first experience post lockdown of leaving the house – and I was in the house for a year and a half – was going to St John’s Smith Square to hear the recording, which was an amazing experience. It’s part of an album that’s being released early this year.

And I’ve just been commissioned by Pegasus Opera to write a full length Windrush opera with the playwright Patricia Cumper MBE FRSA, so that’s what I’ll be working on throughout 2022.

What is your advice for young composers?

Use your time studying to experiment as much as possible, even if you think you know what you want to do. When you leave college, you realise that time is a luxury for composers. We find that we often don’t have enough time – we’re commissioned, we work, and then we’re commissioned to do the next thing, and so my advice would be to value your time as a student to be able to really explore things. The second thing is to take advantage of the sheer volume of performance opportunities at the Academy, and use those as a springboard to get experience outside the institution and to inspire you to do your own thing.

Find out more about Des Oliver’s work here: desoliver.com/

Book tickets for the premiere of Iconoclast: tickets.ram.ac.uk/sales/categories/friday-series/accordion-chamber-music

Photo by Natalia Zapala-Movshovitz