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Faculty of Music


I started at Cambridge as a 'failed' violinist-turned-composer with chips upon chips on my shoulder. My teen dreams of being a virtuoso had gradually been dampened by the cold, wet realisation that I wasn't as good as everyone else. My arrival was reluctant, as I'd gotten into my head that RNCM's joint course with Manchester, which I had been rejected from – possibly for answering a Bach Chorale exercise with monstrous polytonality – would have been a cooler, hipper place to study. What I lacked in self-belief, I made up for with my enthusiasm for new music. "I don't subscribe to your standards of excellence!" or "if it's tonal I don't want to hear it!" or "choral scholars shouldn't be allowed to move their arms within ten feet of an orchestra!" might have been typical paraphrases of my daily inner monologue. Cambridge necessarily set wheels of mental maturation in process.

My supervisions with Professor Robin Holloway were the major turning point. He reintroduced me to the notion of "taste" and helped me realise that I didn't have to blindly love every monolith drenched grey in clusters and white noise, there was life in the old forms yet! Suddenly the quite traditional tripos (harmony, counterpoint, analysis, history and musicology), which had paled the face of this budding avant-gardist, seemed more appealing. What I learned from these traditional forms of study helps me write "music" today that shreds the nerves of even the most zen and seasoned New Music Aficionados. I use these skills pretty much every time I teach! I threw myself back into playing, albeit to avoid essays, and met fantastic players who weren't even music students (who knew you could be good at multiple things!); sang in King's Voices; studied composition further with Richard Causton, Jeremy Thurlow and Christian Mason; was a loud and mouthy member of the University New Music Ensemble Committee; and organised a concert centred around Unsuk Chin's Akrostichen Wortspiel which celebrated Kings College Chapel's 500th Anniversary with fellow composers Chris Norman, Rhiannon Randle and Max Liefkes. My friend and choral scholar Phil Barrett heroically conducted my recomposition of the Kings College Founders Hymn (what a lot changed in 4 years)! I started trying again.

The results of trying aren't so bad! In 2016 I began a long and arduous DMus degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Professors Julian Anderson CBE and Malcolm Singer. The composition doctorate was entitled "Recomposing Reality: The Composer As Illusionist" and I'll be graduating in November as the only non-medical doctor in my family. During the journey, I've been lucky enough to work with Colin Matthews, Christian Mason, François Xavier-Roth and the London Symphony Orchestra as part of the 2018 - 2019 Panufnik Scheme. I've been premiered in the Southbank Centre by Jack Sheen and the London Philharmonic Orchestra as part of their 2021 - 2022 Young Composers Scheme, and Ben Smith's recording of Jab for solo piano was featured in NMC's Big New Music Lockdown Survey. Work is still coming in! I'm one of National Youth Choir's 2023 cohort of composers (with fellow Cambridge alumnus Emily Hazrati whoowhoo!) so I'm currently writing some Cummings settings and a piece about the intergenerational war between Zoomers and Millennials - to be released by NMC recordings! For 2025, Wigmore Hall's commissioned a 15 - 20 min piece to be performed by international New Music supergroups Exaudi and GBSR duo (knowing my history with deadlines it's good that I'm writing NOW). Talks of a collab with trombone superstar and composer Alex Paxton (Mr Paxton please I will make it so!!) and Jack Jones's group The Listening Project are on the horizon. I can't say any of this makes me much money, but I can say that I'll probably end up being the most musician that I can be because of Cambridge. And that makes me happy!

Alex Tay read for a BA in Music at Kings College from 2012 - 2015 and an MPhil in Music Composition at Churchill College from 2015 - 2016. He composes to commission and teaches for Pro Corda and Da Capo.