The Curse of Composing: Interview with Nimrod Borenstein

Vantage Music | April 2021 | London & Hong Kong

British-French-Israeli composer Nimrod Borenstein shares with us how he came to become one of Britain’s most sought-after composers, talks about his 24 Études Project, and muses about what it takes to be a great composer.

A Love Affair with Music

Nimrod Borenstein’s fascination with music predated his earliest memory. “I couldn’t remember anything about it, but apparently when I was three I had already discovered music.” During a holiday in France, the Borenstein family had been walking through a forest when they came across an outdoors concert. “My parents told me that I had just stopped and refused to move until the concert was finished two hours later. It was then that I decided to be a violinist.”

Nimrod was born in Tel Aviv in 1969, but his family moved to Paris shortly afterwards, allowing Nimrod to experience France’s music education. “I had music lessons as after-school activities three times a week, and every day would be different. It could be an instrumental lesson on one day, a music theory class on the next. When I was eight, I even wrote a piece for the school’s chamber orchestra.” Nimrod stressed that his love for composition was organic. “My desire to become a composer didn’t arise out of the blue. I had played violin for three years back then, and I liked what I heard. I started to compose because I wanted to create something as beautiful and moving as Beethoven and Bach, who were my gods then… and are still now!”

Artistic Discourses

Nimrod’s father, Alec Borenstein, himself a renowned artist, encouraged Nimrod in his unique way. “Since age ten, I would have long talks with my dad three times a week, discussing everything related to art and music.” Superficially, father and son had different interests, but Nimrod discovered that, once he brushed apart the technical externalities, visual arts and music are fundamentally the same. “Art, on the whole, is about contrasts and structure.”

To develop Nimrod’s artistic awareness, Alec would engage in lively discussions with his son on abstract topics like the meaning of art, or what constitutes goodness and badness in music. “One lesson I learnt from the discussions is that you can’t put everything on the same level. There is no room for moderation in great art. If you are aiming for the stars, you have to distinguish between goodness and greatness.”

Nimrod listed some composers as an example. “I would rank composers like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Schubert as the greatest, and Tchaikovsky or Chopin as the next level. After that, we have people like Saint-Saens.” Nimrod would explain to his dad the rationale of his ranking, why he thought that Saint-Saens was not as good as Mozart, or why Tchaikovsky was not quite the same as Beethoven. “All these talks helped me formulate and articulate my thoughts clearly and concisely, and it trained me to defend my views.”

The Cziffra Foundation

In 1984, a family friend introduced Nimrod to a competition organized by the Cziffra Foundation. “I had heard about György Cziffra, an amazing pianist and founder of the organization, and the competition sounded interesting, so I asked my violin teacher if I could join the competition, even though I had no idea what I would get from it.” To Nimrod’s dismay, his teacher dissuaded him from joining. “No way,” his teacher told him. “It was far too advanced for you. This type of competition was for young professionals like me.” Being of a rebellious age, Nimrod naturally wasn’t deterred. “I came back home after the lesson and discussed with my mom. Together, we decided to enter the competition by ourselves, without telling my teacher.”

It was a good decision. “I remembered playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 on stage. When I finished playing the piece, Cziffra stood up and asked me about the cadenza, commenting that he couldn’t recognize its composer. Of course he wouldn’t have recognized it – I wrote the cadenza myself!” Cziffra was impressed by Nimrod’s playing, and Nimrod became a laureate of the Cziffra Foundation that year, touring France and performing in various concerts as a violin soloist.

A Parisian in London

Becoming a laureate was only a small part of Nimrod’s plans; he wanted to continue his studies overseas. “I used to go to Israel every summer holiday to visit my grandma, and when I was 17, I asked my violin maker in Tel Aviv to recommend me an amazing violin teacher. I told him that I didn’t care where the teacher was; I just wanted the best one.” By chance, Russian-Israeli violinist Itzhak Rashkovsky was conducting a masterclass in Jerusalem, and the violin maker connected Nimrod to Rashkovsky. The violinist took a liking to Nimrod, and invited Nimrod to study with him at the Royal College of Music in London.

Studying in London was not easy. “When I first arrived at the college, I couldn’t speak or understand a word of English. During my first week, I sat in a music theory course, and I couldn’t understand a word of what the teacher said.” The course in question was a mandatory introductory music theory course for undergraduate performance majors, featuring materials that Nimrod had already learnt whilst in France. “It is frustrating because I can do all the examples and exercises, but I couldn’t understand a word.” Not wanting to waste his time, Nimrod decided to ask for help. “I asked the school if I could do the course exam straight away so that I can be moved to other classes with less need for English.” The school consented and assigned Nimrod to the postgraduate programme, allowing him to skip all the English-dependent lessons.

A Lesson from Chopin

Before going to London, Nimrod had envisioned himself being a performing composer. “I always knew I was going to be a composer, but I had thought I would be able to become a violinist as well. It wasn’t until I had started to live as a professional musician that I understood being a violinist and composer at the same time is not going to work – there were simply not enough hours in a day. If you were very disciplined like Heifetz or Rubinstein, it would be possible to concentrate intensely for four hours a day and get your practice done. But, for composers, you need a lot of time. Five or six hours is, to a composer, the equivalent of only an hour of practice. Even if I were to work 15 hours every day, it still didn’t seem to be enough.”

Nimrod was frustrated with the whole situation until he heard a radio documentary on Chopin one day. “I learnt that, even though Chopin was a renowned pianist and composer, he had only given 30 or so concerts in his whole life.” Nimrod was flabbergasted. “No professional soloist these days could give only 30 concerts in a lifetime!”

Eventually, Nimrod came to understand that the career of a composer-performer was a product of their times. “There used to be great composers who were also good performers, but it is not the type of career we are asking for as a musician now. In the past, a performer might be able to stay in one place and only give concerts in his hometown; nowadays, performers need to travel around a lot, and it took away a lot of their time. I realized that I won’t have time to both compose and perform, so from then on I focused on being a composer.”

Next Steps

After Nimrod graduated from the Royal College of Music, he faced a common question of many graduates – where should he go next?

As a child prodigy, Nimrod had been offered all kinds of opportunities in Israel when he’d been young, so it was natural that he would like to go back to his birthplace. “I went back to Israel at the age of 21, trying to see if I could develop my music career in Israel. However, after living there for one year, I decided that it was not for me. Israel is a very dynamic country with a beautiful climate, but I felt that it was too far from everywhere.”

So where else should he go? Nimrod thought that Paris was out of the question. “French is much more international now, but 30 years ago it was very much a closed circle. There were seldom any internationally renowned French violinists. In fact, during my time in the Royal College of Music, there were only two Frenchmen in the entire college, and both of us had not applied through the French music system.”

Nimrod had considered going to America. “When I was still in Israel, I met a professor from Yale University, who had come to Israel to attend the premiere of his piece by the Israel Philharmonic. He was impressed by my works, but he advised me not to go to America.” America was hit by a recession in the early 90s, and scholarships were scarce. “American universities are very expensive without scholarships,” the professor told him. “I would have gladly accepted you if you came, but, if I were you, I would not go to America.” Instead, as a gesture of goodwill, the professor gave Nimrod his private phone number, asking Nimrod to call him anytime he needed help.

In the end, Nimrod decided to go back to London. “I liked the fact that London was buzzing with energy. I once did a concert of just my music at St. John’s Smith Square when I was 20. I put together the whole concert with my friends as violinists, cellists and even the conductor. We did it for free because we were young, and we wanted to make good music. This was unthinkable in Paris, where they would ask you how the rate is, or how much does it pay. People in London are more motivated, and I feel inspired by them.”

Back to London

Nimrod’s decision to go back to school was not purely an academic choice. “I had started composing when I was six, so by the time I was 20 I had already learnt most, if not all, that there is about composing. However, studying again allows me to connect with my fellow musicians, easing my entry to the London music scene.” After much consideration, Nimrod decided to go to the Royal Academy of Music to study composition under Paul Patterson.

“I sent the Academy various scores of my music and was supposed to have an interview, but after a few months waiting in Paris I realized I had not received any news from the Academy. There were no emails in the 90s, so I called the Academy and told them I had not heard from them.” To Nimrod’s horror, the staff informed Nimrod that there would be an audition in London in two days’ time. “At that time, there was a train strike in France, so I couldn’t possibly arrive on time.” Fortunately, Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, then the head of academic studies, reached out and rearranged the interview to suit Nimrod’s schedule.

Nimrod recounted his meeting with the head. “When I arrived, I was greeted by Professor Attwood, who invited me into the office and just chitchatted with me, asking me things like how I learnt music, or about places that I had visited before.” They were still chatting half an hour later, so Nimrod asked the professor, “Mr Attwood, when will I be doing the exam?”

Attwood told him not to worry. “Don’t be so nervous; we were all very excited that you would come. In fact, you had already been admitted!” Nimrod later found out that the Academy had received a strongly worded recommendation letter from the professor at Yale University. “The Academy even said that they had never received such glowing recommendation from the professor before. I was really lucky.”

A Champion and Friend

Over the years, Nimrod developed a good friendship with legendary conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and he still remembered how they first met. “I once saw Ashkenazy on television in 2008.” Ashkenazy was talking about how composing was like a curse – it was something one couldn’t do without – and his words struck deeply with Nimrod. “I was convinced that we would get along, if only I could show him my music.” Nimrod wrote to Ashkenazy’s agent, and received a reply two days later, saying that Mr Ashkenazy was interested in Nimrod’s works, but he was very busy and could only schedule a three-minute meeting for him.

“I picked some of my most important pieces and went to the meeting with a CD player. I played him my first piece, which lasted for two minutes.” As Nimrod had hoped, the maestro liked his work, so Nimrod said his thanks and prepared to leave. “Thank you, maestro, for your time. That’s it.”

Ashkenazy was surprised. “What, that’s it?” “Well, your agent said that you only had three minutes…” “Pff, show me your other pieces!” What started as a three-minute meeting turned into almost three hours, and thereafter Ashkenazy became a champion of Nimrod’s pieces, performing and conducting various pieces by the composer. In 2017, Ashkenazy even produced a CD that consisted solely of works by Nimrod. “We used to meet for coffee twice a year in London, and he talked about recording my music once or twice. I thought he was being polite, but when he proposed the idea again, after a year, I knew he really meant it, so we got serious and discussed the practical arrangements, deciding which pieces to record.” The resultant CD, featuring a violin concerto and two orchestral pieces, The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe (2009) and If You Will It, It Is No Dream (2012), was highly successful and was named BBC Music Magazine’s “Choice” of that year.

Concerto Season

Nimrod told us how the violin concerto was conceived. “It came out of an idea I had 12 years ago. I had really liked the concerto form, but I had difficulty finding one written in the last 50 years that could stand up to the likes of Mozart or Beethoven. I wanted to fill in the gap, so I decided to write a concerto for all the common soloist instruments (violin, piano and cello).”

Commissions flew in once Nimrod started writing. “I ended up writing more concertos than I imagined I would, because people kept contacting me to write a concerto for their instruments.” To date, Nimrod has written seven concertos, some featuring exotic combinations like the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (2015) and the Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and String Orchestra (2016), and the piano concerto (2020–2021) will be the latest addition to the series. “Interestingly, the piano concerto, which I thought would be the first one to be finished, turned out to be one of the last concertos to be completed. On the flip side, this gave me ample opportunity to become more familiar with the instrument, allowing me to incorporate the things I learnt from the études into the composition.” The piano concerto will be recorded for a new CD album next May, with Nimrod as the conductor, alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the pianist Clélia Iruzun.

The 24 Études Project

Another multi-year project that Nimrod had been tackling lately was his set of 24 Études, inspired by Chopin’s work of the same name. “Chopin was the only person to have written 24 études that are all incredible. I loved them all, and I gave myself the challenge to create my own set of études that would be different from Chopin, but still comparable in greatness.”

It was an ambitious undertaking, to say the least. “I started the project six years ago, and I have only written 12 now. I’m halfway there, but it gets more difficult the more études I write, because it gets harder and harder to create another étude that was different from the rest but was still as great.”

Nimrod looked for inspirations all around the world when composing his études, and the sixth one in the set, Méphisto, is a case in point. “It was a commission from the Hong Kong International Piano Competition back in 2019. They were looking for a living composer to write a piece for their semi-finals, and one of the jury members, Pascal Rogé, recommended me to them.” Initially, Nimrod had a hard time coming up with ideas, so he asked his wife for help. “My wife noticed that it was the sixth set of opus 66, the number of the devil, so voila, Méphisto it is.” Interestingly, Nimrod’s conception of Méphisto was different from that of the German tradition. “When I thought of Méphisto, it was not the Méphisto of Goethe but the Méphisto from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It conferred to me the idea to write something diabolical.”

British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen will be recording Nimrod’s first 12 études on CD this year, and she had this to say about the études: “I’ve played and mastered most piano repertoire, so just by the look of the score I originally thought I can handle it. But the difficulty of Nimrod’s étude lies not in the number of notes. It’s about the musical layers, about what he does to the rhythm. It’s like another layer of polyphony by rhythms. I have to retrain my brain to get into thinking rhythmically; it’s already polyphonic, you have separate voices, but Nimrod added another dimension of rhythmic complexity to it.”

Future Plans

Some composers have their favourite instruments and genres, but Nimrod embraces variety in composing. “If I think about Richard Strauss, it’s a pity he hadn’t written a piano concerto. He could have written something very good. Or he could have written a symphony, but he didn’t. It was a waste. It was the same for Wagner and Mahler, for, when you hear how good their works were, you’d think it’s a total waste they hadn’t written in other mediums. It’s a real pity they basically didn’t write anything else.”

And so Nimrod didn’t limit himself in terms of instrumental choices. “The Italian pianist Roberto Prosseda once introduced me to the pedalflügel (pedal piano), an instrument that looks like two grand pianos stacked on top of each other; you use your hands to play one keyboard, and use your feet to control the other one, much like the organ. Roberto told me that Schumann had written three opuses for the pedalflügel, and convinced me to write a piece for the pedal piano also. It was a nice piece, but it’s a shame it wasn’t played a lot, because it’s not every day you see a pedalflügel. But this is the sad truth. If you write for extinct instruments, like what Schubert did for the arpeggione, you won’t get performed often.”

As his next step, Nimrod plans to explore more genres. “I am in my fifties now, and I have been getting interested in things I had not done.” Looking at his own catalogue, Nimrod realized he had written many concertos, string quartets, solo works and chamber music, but there were still certain genres he hadn’t touched. “What I have in mind is an opera, and a certain number of symphonies. I’ve got projects for more string quartets, something with voice, and some commission for different things, but operas and symphonies are something I had been clearly thinking about lately.”

On Composing

For Nimrod, originality is paramount in composing. “The most important thing for a creator is to create a thing that had not been done before. From age six, I had wanted to write something that was new. When I was seven or eight, I started to play around with 12 tones, and I thought I invented a ground-breaking technique.” Nimrod’s joy was short-lived, however, as the conservatoire’s director introduced him to Arnold Schoenberg, who had discovered the same technique nearly a hundred years beforehand. “I was understandably upset, but this incident impressed upon me the fact that, if you model your piece upon other’s works, you cannot copy their aesthetic, because if you do something that resembles somebody else, people will know.”

The 15-Second Rule

When Nimrod starts writing a new composition, he puts great attention to the beginning of the piece. “What distinguishes a masterpiece from a mediocre piece is its first 15 seconds. If you are a great composer, and the first 15 seconds of music that you write is amazing, the rest will be amazing too.” But therein lies the difficulty. “The problem is that the first 15 seconds come out from nowhere. You need to have enough creativity and imagination. There are no tricks, even for me, who has composed for more than 45 years.”

“Some say that creativity happens by chance, but I do not think that is true at all. The human brain works by making connections. You could say it is by chance that we made these connections, but I would argue that it is the genius of someone to be able to make this connection. It’s like chess or mathematics; whilst it entirely took place in your mind, you won’t say it is up to chance, because you had gone through conscious thinking. Composing is a bit like mathematics, only that we are reasoning with feeling.”

Discovering Good Music

“I had always wanted to write good music. When I was young, I wanted every piece I wrote to be equal to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata.” Nimrod quickly realized it wasn’t a feasible idea. “I discovered that you cannot only write great pieces, because even great composers don’t consistently write masterpieces. If you look at Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, you can easily see that some of the preludes and fugues are more inspired than others. Now, when I compose, I try to accept (or avoid thinking about the possibility) that my next piece might not be as good as my previous one. It’s just the normal ups and downs of a composer.”

That’s not to say Nimrod is lowering his bar. “One of the pieces I have been finishing lately is the piano concerto. I had written a grand opening, much like Schumann’s piano concerto or Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, but since it is of such a large scale, I spent another 600 hours to develop the piece, making sure that each note could not be something else.”

Nimrod illustrated with an analogy. “Let’s say you are a novel writer, and you wrote a character called Bob. Bob was a nice guy, he’s a sound engineer, got a wife and three children, and he ate sushi from time to time. Suddenly, on page 77, he took out a gun and killed three people! If someone wrote that, it’s badly written, it just doesn’t work. It is the same with music. If you put an F-sharp in a place where it doesn’t belong, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It just sounds wrong. For a good piece, there should be a feeling that each note couldn’t be otherwise. That’s why every time I finished a good composition, it always feels like I had not written the piece, but merely discovered it. It’s like completing a jigsaw puzzle, wherein I just cleared all the dust away to reveal the final piece.”

“Discovering” a perfect piece is no easy task. “Practically, what I did every day was to look at a phrase at a time. If I’m happy with that part, then I continue; otherwise, I’ll try to improve it, changing the aspects of everything until I gradually ‘discover’ the piece.”

Contemporary reviews have often noted a strong sense of structure in Nimrod’s works, and Nimrod attributes it to his chronological approach to composing. “There is only one way that you could find truth and perfection in a piece, and that is via the way it is supposed to be listened to. Some literary writers say that, when they are writing a novel, characters in the book started to do things by themselves. That’s what I felt as well.”

As a result of his style, structure comes naturally to Nimrod. “Sometimes people tried to analyse my pieces, but they often got it wrong. Structure comes from within. It’s all motivic, ideas by ideas. Each piece has its own sense of logic, and you can’t apply the same structure to all of them.” Nimrod illustrated a potential pitfall of the “structure-first” approach. “When I taught composition classes, I used to take the first sonata of Beethoven and the first sonata of Hummel, and asked my students why the Hummel sonata was not as good as the Beethoven one. The reason is that Hummel’s sonata is too symmetrical. If you start with the structure and then think about what you can put inside each section, it will be easy for the piece to sound academic.”

A Matter of Life and Death

Composers of the contemporary era have often struggled between pandering to the audience and writing for themselves, but Nimrod thinks that it is a false dichotomy. “Funnily enough, the only way an audience would like something is if you also enjoy it yourself. You need to be true to yourself, to really believe in your piece, for it to succeed. To me, music is not about pleasing myself or pleasing the audience. It is not about pleasing at all. It’s about creating something beautiful, something transcending oneself.”

Much like how Ashkenazy described composing as a curse, Nimrod also felt obligated to compose. “Just like we have a moral drive to do right things, I also felt the need to create beautiful music. If you really like music, and if you have the ability to create beautiful music, you will want to create more of it.”

This is why Nimrod felt conflicted about composing. “The process of composing gave me a lot of beautiful things, but it also brought me a lot of agonizing and suffering. But that’s exactly the point. For me, there is no point in composing if it did not feel like a matter of life and death. It has to mean everything to you, just like being in love. You cannot have love without suffering. You have to sacrifice something. You cannot obtain something precious if you hadn’t paid a certain price for it.”

Mastering Greatness

Nimrod had one final musing on today’s “fast food culture”. “These days in university, or even in secondary schools, there is a tendency to skip the source reading and go straight to the digest. Let’s say you were assigned to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Instead of reading the book itself, you read what someone had written about the book; you read an analysis of the book. That’s not a good way to learn. When I study music, I only read Beethoven’s scores; not what others say of Beethoven. If you think that the person who did an analysis of Beethoven was as clever as Beethoven himself, you were very wrong.”

Nimrod cautioned against a mere imitation of the composer’s mannerisms. “When studying Beethoven, you analyse the music and try to see what makes it great, not what makes it Beethoven, because what makes it great is different from what makes it Beethoven. They are two different things. What makes Beethoven sound like Beethoven, and what makes Bach sound like Bach, that’s highly specific, but greatness is not that specific; what makes things great is always the same.”

Interviewed by Vantage Music, written by Chester Leung.