Philip Hammond's Fires Still Burn at 60

The composer is busier than ever, and happy with the 'total liberation' that retirement brings

'Belfast to the core?' I suggest to Philip Hammond, as he finishes summarising for me his 60 years of uninterrupted residency in the city. 'East Belfast to the core!' he corrects me, playfully but firmly.

Hammond is a proud citizen of the Northern Irish capital, and has served the region indefatigably over the past four decades as teacher (at Cabin Hill school), Arts Council administrator, writer, broadcaster, and cultural commentator.

And, of course, as a composer. Hammond laughingly insists that he has never been what he calls 'a real composer', by which he means a full-time writer of music, dependent on filling staves to pay the mortgage, and keep body and soul together.

Being a 'career composer' of this sort in Northern Ireland remains, according to Hammond, a virtually impossible option.

'It's an isolated place to compose', he explains, 'because there are very few opportunities to get your music performed here, unless you organise it yourself. There are also precious few opportunities to be commissioned in Northern Ireland, because there's no money to do it.'

Hammond's advice to fledgling composers from the region is therefore blunt. 'For young composers, what they need to do is hear new music all the time, new ideas coming at them,' he says. 'That's why I always tell them, "Don't stay here. Come back again, but get out when you're young".'

Hammond, of course, stayed, patiently accumulating a body of original compositions in the limited spare time available outside work and other commitments. For most of his professional life, Northern Ireland's ruinous sectarian conflict was an intrusively destabilising influence on everyday living.

According to Hammond, this had negligible impact on the local composing community. 'In classical musical terms, virtually no one wrote music that was Troubles-oriented,' he says.

'People ask, "Did you react to that bombing? Did you write a piece about all those people that were murdered by whomsoever?" And I didn't. None of us did. To me it was just too obvious a thing to do. The reality is more important.'

And the bluntness of that reality, Hammond explains, though it didn't palpably affect his music, unquestionably changed him as a person. 'I was brought up here in East Belfast, and what it did for me was that I became more interested in being Irish than being 'Proddy' or Unionist, all those awful labels that you get.

'And I think the reason that I turned against my heritage,' he continues, 'was because I realised there was something wrong with it. I became interested in Irish music. I would study Irish history, Irish folk song, Irish folk tales, and they all began to weave their way tangentially into my music.'

It's a strand of influence that continues directly into the present, in the shape of Miniatures and Modulations, a sequence of 14 pieces based on the Bunting collection of Irish Melodies from the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792.

In arranging the original harp tunes for piano, how, I wonder, did Hammond strike a balance between adding too much of himself to them, or by contrast doing too little?

'The original harp tune,' Hammond explains, 'is like the lead role in a play. What I do is just put a set behind it. There is an assumed sophistication sometimes, because of the harmonies that I use.

'Bunting's harmonies are very, very basic, not because he was dopey, but because he was dealing with an audience that he wanted to sell this music to. The type of amateur player that was going to play them hadn't the technique, so it had to be simple. I'm using a Steinway Model D that can do anything!'

Miniatures and Modulations is a unique sequence, and will be premiered in three separate recitals at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens by the young Northern Irish pianists, Cathal Breslin, Michael McHale and David Quigley.

The same three players ('the boys', as Hammond fondly calls them) also feature in a new CD of his piano music just out on the Lorelt label, from which he plays me excerpts with evident pleasure and enthusiasm.

'Those boys can play with their feet!' he laughs, listening intently, and revelling in the superbly sharp and rhythmic performances of Breslin, McHale and Quigley, all of whom have regularly espoused Hammond's piano music.

Hammond is 60 this year, has finally quit the day-job, and refers to himself mischievously as 'an old retired person'. He is, however, far from resting on his laurels, with what is arguably the biggest project of his composing life looming large on the horizon.

It's a requiem, or Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic, to give the work its official title. Commissioned by the Belfast Titanic Company, the piece commemorates those who perished when the great ship struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage to America.

Requiem will be premiered in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, on April 14, 2012, 100 years exactly since the sinking, and repeated the following day in the city's St Peter's Cathedral.

It's a large-scale choral piece, and when I meet him, Hammond is preoccupied with writing the 20% of the music that remains to be completed, and contemplating the complex logistics involved in actually staging it.

'I will have a brass band, Downshire Brass Band,' he explains. 'I'm splitting that in two, this whole thing will be spatial. So I'll have the Belfast Philharmonic Society at the back of the cathedral, and at the front I'll have two other choirs. One will be the Schola Cantorum from St Peter's, and Donal McCrisken's Cappella Caeciliana.

'Behind them,' Hammond continues, 'the trebles, a small brass group there at the back, the Philharmonic with the big brass group. The soloist will be sometimes singing with them, sometimes with the other group. Glenn Patterson (the narrator) will be in the middle, the piano trio will be in the middle. And sometimes the trumpeters will move.'

Finished yet? Not quite. 'Oh yes!' Hammond re-commences. 'There's another choir called Anúna, from Dublin. They will actually wander through the audience for one of the pieces. So it's very theatrical. And it's big, it's very, very big. I probably need three conductors!'

Requiem is undoubtedly a mammoth undertaking, and palpably gives the lie to Hammond's own tongue-in-cheek contention that, at 60, he's somehow suddenly become an elderly citizen, happy to while away his dotage in pipe and slippers.

It's obvious, on the contrary, that the East Belfast composer's creative fires are burning brightly, and that he is as fiercely proud as ever of his native city. Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic is merely his latest way of showing it, and probably the most emotionally charged composition he has yet attempted.

Requiem is, moreover, unlikely to be Hammond's swansong. 'I'm writing more than I ever wrote,' he tells me, as we end our conversation. 'I'm able to focus more. I don't have to look after a thousand arts organisations, be nice to politicians, say nice things and not say nasty things. I can say exactly what I want. Total liberation. It's fantastic!'

Lizst, Hammond and Grainger Birthday Celebrations recitals take place as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. For more Belfast Festival events, check Culture Northern Ireland's What's On listings.