Howard Skempton is a composer, pianist, and accordionist. He is particularly associated with the English school of experimental music.
Skempton studied at Birkenhead School and Ealing Technical College before moving to London where he was privately tutored by the composer Cornelius Cardew. In 1968 he joined Cardew’s experimental music class at Morley College, where in spring 1969 Cardew, Skempton and Michael Parsons organised the Scratch Orchestra. This was dedicated to performing experimental contemporary music by composers such as La Monte Young, John Cage and Terry Riley, as well as by members of the orchestra itself. One of Skempton’s early works, ‘Drum No. 1’ (1969), became one of the “most useful and satisfying” pieces in the repertory of the Scratch Orchestra.
He left the orchestra after it became politicised in the 1970s, and since 1971 has worked as a music editor, teacher and performer of his own compositions, on piano and accordion.
The 1980s saw an increase of interest in Skempton’s music, which led to further commissions for larger groups of musicians. His first major success came in the 1990’s with ‘Lento’, an orchestral work composed in late 1991 that became one of Skempton’s most widely recognised pieces and was recorded on NMC by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Skempton was the winner in the Chamber Scale Composition category at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards in 2005 for his string quartet Tendrils (2004) and is a two-time winner of the British Composer Awards.
Skempton’s work is characterised by stripped-down, essentials-only choice of materials, absence of formal development and a strong emphasis on melody. Many of his pieces are quite short, lasting no longer than one or two minutes. Early influences on his music include the works of Erik Satie, John Cage and Morton Feldman. The score of May Pole (1971), consists of a chance-determined sequence of chords. Each performer chooses a note from a chord, and chooses the moment when to play that note.
His style slowly shifted throughout the 1970s towards clearly defined rhythmic and harmonic structures, although his methods and forms remained unorthodox.
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