Sir Karl Jenkins, a Welsh multi-instrumentalist and composer, chats with Kevin Cooper about how his work The Armed Man : A Mass For Peace spent twenty years in the UK Classical Album charts, the highlights of his career, receiving his Knighthood and his 2024 80th Anniversary Tour.

Sir Karl Jenkins is a Welsh multi-instrumentalist and composer. His best known works include the song Adiemus, the Adiemus album series Palladio, The Armed Man, his Requiem and his Stabat Mater in 2008.

In 1972 he joined the jazz rock band Soft Machine playing saxophone, oboe and flute along with keyboard instruments. By 1974 he had become the group’s lead songwriter, and their album Six which was released in 1973 on which Jenkins first played won the Melody Maker British Jazz Album of the Year Award. Soft Machine was also voted Best Small Group in the Melody Maker Jazz Poll of 1974. Jenkins continued to work with the band up until 1984.

Jenkins has also created advertising music, twice winning the industry prize in that field which included music for Levi jeans, De Beers diamonds and the Renault Clio motor car.

As a composer his breakthrough came with his crossover project Adiemus. In 2014 Jenkins released a tribute song for the 2014 Winter Olympics, performed by his new age music group also called Adiemus.

Many of the songs that he has written have specifically written phonetic lyrics, but they are not in any language. Instead they are syllables intended to have a musical effect. In 2008 Jenkins’ The Armed Man was listed as number one in Classic FM’s Top Ten by Living Composers.

He was awarded a doctorate in music in 2006 by the University of Wales and The University of Leicester. In the 2015 Birthday Honours List he was made a Knight Bachelor for Services to Composing and Crossing Musical Genres.

Whilst busy preparing for his forthcoming UK tour, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Sir Karl, good morning, how are you today?

Hi Kevin, I’m very well thank you; a little bit cold but that is how the rest of the country is feeling at this moment in time (laughter). So, just how are you today?

All is good thank you, and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure, thank you for taking the time to speak to me; it is very much appreciated.

So, other than being a little cold just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life is good at the moment. I’m fine and well whilst being busy of course around this time but yes, everything is good.

We must talk about your forthcoming 80th Anniversary tour.

Okay, but only if you insist (laughter).

Are you looking forward to it?

Yes, I am, and we are currently trying to finalise the programme, but yes, I really am looking forward to it. It should be good; we start on 10th March at The Royal Albert Hall. My birthday isn’t until February 17th but in this business my birthday becomes a birthday year (laughter) so we have stretched it out a bit. We have got six dates around the UK including Nottingham of course. We are going to be performing in Manchester, Cardiff, Nottingham, Glasgow, Birmingham, and The Royal Albert Hall.

Are you currently in rehearsals?

Rehearsals usually take place on the day of the performance (laughter). Various choirs who are engaging in these performances are already rehearsing on their own, as choirs do with a piano. The Manchester Concert Orchestra, who will be joining us for the Nottingham performance, will have already played a lot of the programme in the past, whilst they will pick-up the other pieces quite quickly. They will already be reading the music,

Will you be nervous at all?

No, not really. I would have been a few years back, but I can shake the nerves off now. Having said that, just before we start the performance I will be a little apprehensive. Like sports people, they will have done it many times but when you come to the match, there is always a bit of stress and anxiety there; there is a bit of that but once the music starts, I will be fine.

You will be conducting your 1999 Mass The Armed Man : A Mass For Peace. Why that particular piece?

The reason why I will be conducting that particular piece is that the audiences seem to like it and it is one of my most prestigious pieces. It has now been sung over three thousand times since the millennium, plus there is a financial aspect to all of this. We play in some of the largest halls, but we don’t get government subsidies like some people, like the BBC for example, so we have to make sure that people come out to see the performance. In order to ensure that happens we will also play some popular works, plus I have a new work, One World which was The UNESCO Concert for Peace which had its World Premiere on the 19th of November 2023 in Brucknerhaus, Linz, Austria with more than a thousand choral singers and orchestral players from more than fifty countries but you won’t have heard that here in the UK just yet. So, the tour features a balanced programme; it’s all appealing, and we know that people want to hear The Armed Man so, that is what we give them.

When the Royal Armouries Museum commissioned the piece for the Millennium celebrations, how did you feel?

(Laughter) well I have to say that was a long time ago now, but I was pleased that they asked me to be involved. I was commissioned way back in 1998, just before the Millennium and the Royal Armouries Museum used the piece in order to celebrate the Millennium, with a wish that the world would become more peaceful in a new century. But that didn’t last long. Here we are in 2024, almost a quarter of the way through the century and we have the Ukraine and the Middle East involved in wars so it would appear that some things never change although the text and the music I write usually relates to conflict. So, yes, sadly we find ourselves in a mess once again.

Once you accepted the commission, how long did it take you to put the piece together?

It took me about two years to complete the work. The first thing that I did was to discuss the libretto, as they call it. I did that with Guy Wilson, who was the Master of The Royal Armoires. He was the energy behind the commission, together with Classic FM and The Music Charitable Trust. When they asked me to write the piece that really was a life changing event for me. Before that I had been busy writing music for commercials and other such projects, so much so that I began to see myself as a musical tourist (laughter). Having said all of that I really did find my home with my 1995 Adiemus : Songs of Sanctuary project so that is what I continued doing; working within the parameters of that style. The whole project was great.

I didn’t know at the time if it would be successful or not, and to be honest with you the whole thing lay dormant for about a year; people didn’t know much about it. It then started getting played on Classic FM and it kind of grew, nearly culminating in three thousand performances of the piece since the Millennium which works out at two performances a week, somewhere in the world which really is quite a lot.

I have to say that I personally find the piece to be both powerful and moving, and really do think that it is a wonderful piece of work.

Thank you, it’s always nice to hear when someone appreciates what it is that I am trying to do, so thank you so much for saying that.

You are here in Nottingham once again on Saturday 6th April at the Royal Concert Hall; do you enjoy your time spent here with us?

Yes, I do, I really do. The last time that I was up there in Nottingham was two years ago now, and I really did enjoy it. Having said that, I have to be honest with you and say that Nottingham is a city that I don’t know that well. But no, we really did have a good time up there.

Just be wary of the trams if you go for a walk around the city.

(Hysterical laughter) I know exactly what you are saying as I have come a cropper with trams before in Manchester (laughter). You really do have to look both ways.

The problem that I have with the trams is that they are far too quiet (laughter).

(Laughter) don’t they have bells and hooters which they sound as they approach people?

Let’s just say that they do but they are very rarely heard (laughter).

I see (laughter). In that case I will be extra careful should I go for a walk.

The performance here in Nottingham commences at 3.00pm. Why the early start?

Whenever I do a tour like this, most of the weekend dates are the best dates to have a matinee because people will travel from further afield, and they can then make it home on the day after the performance. Saturday really is a good day to choose for a matinee really.

How did it feel when The Armed Man : A Mass for Peace was voted Britain’s favourite piece of contemporary Classical music?

The piece has been in the classical charts for a long time now, up and down, in different years. For example last year it was in the top group of the highest piece by a living composer which really is very commendable. You have to realise that it is a popularity vote in a way because there are some great composers from the past, who are not even in the list. It is an honour that I really do appreciate. I especially like the fact that people out there do like the music.

You have briefly mentioned that the piece has spent a thousand weeks in the UK Classical album charts; that really is phenomenal.

(Laughter) I don’t know why they don’t mention that in years because twenty years seems like a lot longer period of time to me (laughter).

And Fleetwood Mac thought that they were doing well with their album Rumours (laughter).

That’s right, so they did (laughter).

Looking forward to February and coming right up to date. You are being featured on Radio 3 as Composer Of The Week.

That’s right, yes, Radio 3 have suddenly taken notice of me after I have been doing this now for over 30 years (laughter). Anyway, what can I say, I am glad to be the Composer Of The Week. I’ve done the interview already, so it went okay (laughter).

Are you always working or do you ever mange to get some downtime for yourself?

Yes, I do, I write a lot especially in the early morning, then late in the afternoon for a couple of hours and then I will take the evenings off. The whole family is involved in music so we all really do appreciate just what it’s like really. My wife is also a composer, my daughter is a member of the London Symphony Orchestra, and the two grandchildren have also started playing but despite all of that I do manage to get myself some downtime (laughter). I follow sport, rugby in particular. I also follow football at the top level and a bit of cricket so I do have hobbies and interests.

Composing or conducting, which one gives you the most pleasure?

That would have to be composing because that is the creative process for me. I only conduct my own music; I’m not a conductor who can conduct Beethoven or anything like that, so my conducting is fairly limited. I get a thrill out of hearing my music being performed back to me, in a nice hall with good people on stage. I always find that to be rewarding.

Taking you back if I may, to 2015 and the Knighthood. Just how did that feel?

That really was a good feeling because it meant something really, because it meant that someone somewhere liked what it was that I was doing (laughter). In many ways I feel that people who are composing are in general ignored by the musical establishment although I have to say that is slowly changing. I would never swap that award for being on the BBC once every six months or so. I am so glad to have had this career because I never had a plan. Yes, I was born into a musical family, and I feel that it was inevitable that I would do music and keep doing it. By process of elimination, I did find myself doing music, but I never had a master plan as to where I was going which really was, to me, a good thing.

If I had had a master plan, then I don’t feel that I would have found myself where I am today. I think that it would have thrown it in many ways. Learning about different music styles such as jazz, and when I was writing musical commercials quite a lot, that was very varied as to what was needed by the client. It could be anything from rock and roll to jazz to symphonic, so I learnt a lot in the workplace so to speak. Having been thoroughly trained classically, at Cardiff University and the Royal Academy, I really did have a good start, a good basis really.

From your jazz beginnings to where you are now, was it a big leap or was it a natural progression?

I have to say that it came naturally to me. I had gone into jazz as a teenager. I always say this, “in the West we always use the same twelve notes” (laughter). Whatever you are playing, whatever style it is, you will always be playing those same twelve notes in different octaves obviously. I have always resisted categorisation; there is great music in all genres, and all styles, so I am very open, in fact the whole family is; we all have different tastes. Having said that, we all cross over to the same thing. For me, that is the only way to be.

Forgive me for laughing when you mentioned the twelve notes, I laughed because whenever I hear that, it always reminds me of the late Eric Morecambe and the late André Previn (laughter).

Yes, me too, I know exactly what you mean (laughter). What did he say, “I am playing the right notes but just in a different order” (laughter).

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

(Laughter) I get asked that question quite a lot and to be totally honest with you I really don’t know. I conducted The Armed Man in New York on the very day of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and that really was a moving experience for me with the audience and everything else. Then there was the Knighthood; that really did mean quite a lot. We performed The Armed Man in Berlin back in 2018 to commemorate 100 years of the end of World War One. After all of that, performing and conducting one of my own pieces at The Royal Albert Hall was an experience. I have been fortunate to be able to travel a lot; I have been to most places that I wanted to go to together with some that I wouldn’t want to go back to (laughter).

Sometimes, you don’t know that it is going to be a highlight before it happens like conducting in New York for example. I knew that it was a special event, but the atmosphere was electric. We performed a concert to open the Welsh Millennium Centre a few years back, and that really was a memorable experience. What you have to remember is that one good concert is pretty much the same as another good concert. The premier that I did in Lintz in Austria last November of my new piece One World, really was amazing because I conducted several hundreds of musicians from over forty countries, in a performance of epic proportions for 2023’s UNESCO Concert for Peace. Now that really was inspiring.

How many people will be on stage with you here in Nottingham at the Royal Concert Hall?

Well there will be seventy in the orchestra and up to one hundred in the choir. The choir will all be mic’d up. It won’t be like a pop concert, but it just helps to lift them up a little bit. Don’t worry; they will all look decent on stage on the day (laughter).

You mention performing at The Royal Albert Hall. Everyone who I speak to who has been fortunate to perform there all tell me the same thing, that when they step out onto the stage and they think of all of the artists who have performed there before them, they get a shiver down their spine. Did that happen to you?

Everyone has been there (laughter). They have even held boxing matches in there as well as anything musical (laughter). I am flying out next week to see The Armed Man being performed in Carnegie Hall, New York, and that is the kind of place where you think of all of the great American orchestras and conductors who have performed there; (Leonard) Bernstein and all of those people. And then you begin to think about people like Frank Sinatra, which really does make Carnegie Hall such an iconic place. Apart from where it is, and what it is, there really is not much to it; it really is just like a run of the mill concert hall and not a very grand one in a way.

It really does not look like anything special but the history surrounding the place makes it so very important and The Royal Albert Hall in London is pretty much the same. Everyone who is anyone has performed there really. The Royal Albert Hall sounds good now but a few years ago it didn’t, not until they put some acoustic inverted mushrooms into the ceiling which has improved the sound.

Are there any regrets?

No, not really. I did at one time wish that I had been involved more with writing movie scores but then I did one and I really didn’t enjoy it (laughter). You found yourself working for someone; you were someone’s servant, who would ask you to change something which in my eyes wasn’t necessarily the best thing to do. At least when I work, I am my own master in what I do really. My record company Decca give me a free hand because they trust in what I do. They know that I am not going to write something ridiculous and unlistenable (laughter). They know that whatever I write is going to be within a certain style, plus they know that it will appeal to people. Sometimes I wish that I had written a musical or an opera, something that I regret not ever having done either.

Unless someone commissions you to write an opera or a musical it is a huge commitment to undertake. To do it off your own bat, because of the time that it takes for you to find a book, together with a libretto, it really is all consuming without having any end game to it. You have no guarantees that the piece would ever be performed. I feel that most commissions nowadays come directly from Covent Garden who tell you that they will perform it in two years’ time, so you know that there is a venue and a performance at the end of it, which gives you something to aim for. However, if it is totally speculative, you do not have those guarantees and that is why I will continue doing much of the same for now. Having said that it’s not the same as the music is always different (laughter).

On that note Sir Karl, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been a pleasure. You take care and I will see you when you get here in Nottingham.

Not at all Kevin, it’s been my pleasure so thank you and I hope to see you in Nottingham.