Tom Armstrong (b. 1968) studied composition with George Nicholson before reading music at York University, remaining to pursue a DPhil with Roger Marsh. He studied with Vinko Globokar at Dartington International Summer School and with Magnus Lindberg, Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen at the Britten-Pears School. He attended the prestigious International Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers at Bretton Hall in 1999 working with, amongst others, choreographers Kenneth Tharp and Wayne MacGregor and composer Nigel Osborne. In 2011 Tom was selected for VOX3, part of the opera development programme at the Royal Opera House, where he worked with Dominic Muldowney and John Lloyd Davies.
Tom’s instrumental and vocal music has been performed by leading ensembles and soloists including the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Sinfonia Viva, Endymion, Notes Inégales, Rarescale, the New Music Players, Psappha, the Composers Ensemble, [rout], Gemini, the Fidelio Trio, the Delta Saxophone Quartet, Stephen Gutman, Jane Chapman, Lionel Handy, and Martin Feinstein. The BBC Philharmonic and the pianist Andrew Ball have broadcast Tom’s music on BBC Radio 3, and the Durufle Trio on Resonance FM. Tom’s dance scores have been heard in the Lowry centre (FIBBA, commissioned by the National Youth Ballet in 2000) and Sadlers Wells (Black Maria 2007, Distant Beauties 2017). Tall Ship Tales (2001) was performed by the North and West Hertfordshire Youth Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall (South Bank Centre, London). Recent performances have taken place in Italy (the Festival di Londra, Ripatansone, and the Lagonegro Guitar Festival), France (the Carmago Foundation) and China (Tianjin Conservatory of Music).
Tom has worked on a number of large-scale projects and is no stranger to collaboration. Black Maria, by acclaimed children’s author Diana Wynne Jones, was created with choreographer Susie Crow and screenwriter Zara Waldeback as an evening length, multi-media work. Tom composed the one-woman show Catching the Sun with the playwright Stephanie McKnight (2007) and collaborated with the writer Sarah Diamond to create The Cathedral on the Marshes commissioned by the Crossness Engines Trust and funded by the PRSF, the RVW Trust, the Britten-Pears Foundation and Arts Council England. This work, for choir and concert band, celebrated the restoration of Joseph Bazalgette’s magnificent and ground-breaking sewage pumping station on the south bank of the Thames where it received its premiere by entirely local performers in 2012. That year also saw the release of Opened Spaces on CD (Songs Now, Meridian Records) and a staging of the operatic scene Do the Right Thing (lyrics by Bridget Minamore) as part of the ROH’s Exposure series.
Tom’s most recent work covers three areas of interest: establishing a more collaborative relationship between composer and performer, the creative possibilities of revision, and musical borrowing. Albumleaves (2013) for the Ligeti Quartet and trumpeter Simon Desbruslais and JPR (2015) for Trio Aporia (Stephen Preston – flute, Richard Boothby – viola da gamba and Jane Chapman – harpsichord) utilise indeterminacy and open form, handing the musicians more responsibility for the sound of the music in performance. JPR, Distant Beauties (commissioned by Images Ballet Company for their 2017 UK tour) and Tänze (for multiple keyboards) each borrow from pre-existing music (by Rameau, Tchaikovsky and Schubert respectively), subjecting it to processes of erasure to bring forth new material. Tom’s latest CD, Dance Maze (Resonus Classics 2018), is an investigation of the revision process in composition, with works recorded in different versions involving radically different approaches to the same materials. Shadow Variations (2019) for ukulele ensemble combines Tom’s interests in composer/performer collaboration and borrowing – it is a set of pieces that comment on and extend renowned ukulele exponent Samantha Muir’s The Dowie Dens of Yarrow – and reignites his commitment to music for amateurs and semi-professionals, an important strain of Tom’s work in pieces such as the Children’s opera The Buried Moon (1995-6) and Bounce (2004 – commissioned whilst resident on Making Music’s Breakout scheme). Two recent works, Berceuse 1917 (written for Kate Ledger and Anna Snow in 2020) and The Gramophone Played (written for the New York based cellist Madeleine Shapiro in 2020-21), draw on Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways and its semi-fictional account of the last months of the poet Edward Thomas’ life; The Gramophone Played returns to the digital medium that Tom last explored in Black Maria.
Composer/performer collaboration, the revision process and borrowing are areas Tom has written about as part of his academic research. Composer/performer collaboration, the revision process and borrowing are areas Tom has written about as part of his academic research. Recent writings include ‘Collaboration and the Practitioner-Researcher: A Composer’s Perspective’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2020) and ‘One Into Three: Context Method and Motivation in Revising and Reworking Dance Maze for Solo Piano’ to be published in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association in 2022. He has also run a research network (funded by the AHRC) on Music Composition as Interdisciplinary Practice that held events throughout 2016 and commissioned new work from a variety of artists. Tom is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Surrey where he teachers a wide range of composition-related topics at undergraduate, masters and doctoral levels.
Photo credits: Francis Western Smith.