Feature
Q & A with composer Eugene Birman
15 January 2019

A composer of music of “high drama” and “intense emotion” (BBC), “at once, ingenious, hypnotic, brave, and beautiful” (Festival Internazionale A.F. Lavagnino), Eugene Birman (b. 1987) has written for symphony orchestras (London Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra), choirs (BBC Singers, Latvian Radio Choir, Eric Ericsons Kammarkör), and leading ensembles and soloists (Maxim Vengerov, Maurizio Ben Omar, etc.) across four continents in venues ranging from London’s Southbank Centre to Carnegie Hall to above the Arctic Circle. His highly public career, with appearances on CNN, BBC World TV, Radio France, Deutsche Welle, and others, is characterized by a fearless focus on socially relevant large-scale compositions covering the financial crisis, Russian border treaties, and more. Commissioners and partners for Birman’s work extend beyond the concert hall to major international bodies such as the European Union, the Austrian Foreign Ministry, and the Hong Kong SAR, as well as through prominent fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (2018) and the US Department of State’s Fulbright Program (2010-11). Most recently, he was awarded the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize, leading to a season-long residency at the Southbank Centre and world premiere with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall, and appointed the sole Artist-in-Residence of the 2018 Helsinki Festival, Finland’s biggest yearly cultural event.

Philharmonia Composers' Academy Vol 2 will be released on January 18. Hear a preview here.

Can you share with us your top five contemporary composers and/or pieces?
I'd rather turn the question around a bit and name five pieces of art from all genres that inspire me. If so, Alexander Zeldovich's 2011 film "Target", the self-described "audio-visual terror futuristic opera" band IC3PEAK from Russia (recently arrested, I believe), the Korean poet Pak tu-jin, João Guimarães Rosa's novel "Grande Sertao" (even in its English translation, since I can't read the Portuguese), every single block of my neighbourhood in Hong Kong (Sham Shui Po), and, if pressed to name one piece of music that's recently a 'favourite', it'll be anything on Toivo Tulev's new 'Magnificat' album recently released on Naxos for which I wrote the booklet notes. That's six, actually - but more is always better.

Where and when was your first composition performed? What was it?
It would have been in Moscow surely in 1993 or 1994 when I was five or six years old, or perhaps even earlier. The first composition I ever had published was 'Birds Concerto' in 1994, for two violins. I'm sure we performed that at some point.

Any stories of unusual jobs you had prior to entering the music world?
Why only prior? They continue. I was a wine taster and consulted in import, I started an online food delivery company in Estonia in 2012 that has been dominant in the market for years, I've written columns for Forbes and contributed to published research in finance and activist private equity for Columbia Business School, and that's just off the top of my head. Life is long, one can never do too much!

 

You're stuck in a lift with three people of your choice (dead or alive)! Who are they and what would be the topic of discussion while you wait to get rescued?

Two firefighters and whoever designed the lift would be ideal. We'd be short on conversation but we'd all be out to where we really need to be - creation!

What are you working on at the moment?
I just finished a twenty-seven-minute violin concerto, the first movement of which was already premiered by Maxim Vengerov a couple years back; the full version finally gets done next year. It's been a seven-year project that's spanned my professional compositional career, in many ways. And the next is a commission for the Orquestra Gulbenkian in Lisbon, Portugal with two solo singers on the subject of Fernando Pessoa's brilliant poetry and prose. And somewhere in between there are two big vocal-research projects based around Russian propaganda and air pollution, respectively (luckily not all at once).

 

If you could collaborate with anyone across any genre or art form who would it be and why?
I get to collaborate with some incredible people and am particularly looking forward to a project I can't speak publicly about yet, but it covers film, travel, science, history, music, and art installation all at once with the greatest people I know. Living between Hong Kong and the UK, currently, has put me in touch with a wide constellation of genius artists and thinkers who work increasingly in multi-disciplinary ways. For me to fit into that, and even to facilitate it increasingly, is the best part about this job.

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