Five minutes with composer Philip Venables

Wednesday, April 4, 2018 - 10:31

Tackling questions of power, sexuality and violence from surprising angles, Philip Venables’ music always makes an impact.

The Revenge of Miguel Cotto reimagines a true story of betrayal and vengeance in the boxing ring with the help of nine players and two punchbags. Opera 4.48 Psychosis constructs a disturbing sound-world out of the nihilistic vision of playwright Sarah Kane.

In 2017, Southbank Centre presented the world premiere of Illusions at our New Music Biennial, as one of a series of works offering messages to David Cameron’s new government.

‘Democracy is an illusion; gender is an illusion’ pronounced this alternative party political broadcast, featuring anarchic performance artist David Hoyle. The Telegraph commented, ‘It was the one moment that put us all on the spot.’

As part of a season of works to mark the reopening of Queen Elizabeth Hall, the premiere performance of Venables’ The Gender Agenda turns the venue into a game show and the audience into contestants.

We asked the relentlessly innovative composer about his writing process, his past collaborations with Southbank Centre, and his hopes for the future of classical music.

You’ve had works premiered at Southbank Centre before – Piano Studies in 2007, numbers 76-80: tristan und isolde in 2011 and Illusions in 2017. What are your memories of the performances?

Illusions was particularly exciting to work on because it was my Royal Festival Hall debut. It’s such an explicitly sexual and political piece that I was quite nervous about how people would respond, but it was met with cheers and screams of laughter throughout!

How do you approach a new commission? What are you thinking about in the run-up to the first performance of a piece?

I need a long time to think about pieces before I actually start writing them. The writing can be quite quick if I have spent a lot of time thinking, brainstorming, and researching beforehand. Most pieces involve text these days, including The Gender Agenda, which is the first time I’ve written my own for a piece. A lot of time was spent working that out, and the dramaturgy, before writing a note.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing The Gender Agenda?

It began with a broad concept which got refined the more I thought, researched, and asked for advice. I also spent a long time writing the text and working out the dramaturgy with Sarah Thom from Gob Squad. There was a lot to be worked out with the multimedia logistics and audience participation, as well as filming, animation, rights issues to sort out. Lots of balls in the air at once.

What do you hope the future of music will look like?

I hope it will be diverse, politically engaged, and fun! Ultimately I hope music in the future won’t be perpetually scared of what its future might be: that narrative has been around forever in classical music and it is tired and self-fulfilling.


The London Sinfonietta's performance of the world premiere of The Gender Agenda has now passed.

However, there are hundreds of opportunities to enjoy classical music at Southbank Centre in Royal Festival Hall and the recently reopened Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room.

see our 2017/18 Classical Season

see our 2018/19 Classical Season