Obituary: Tim Souster
Monday 07 March 1994
TIM SOUSTER was born 13 days after his fellow composers Gavin Bryars and Brian Ferneyhough (both born on 16 January 1943) - a bewildering circumstance that overturns any idea of a generation with common concerns. Yet, however far apart these three composers seem in their music, none of them is without links with his colleagues or divorced from current trends. Souster in particular was always eager to contribute to technical and technological developments as well as respond in his work to world events. For several years, too, he had a close professional partnership with another English composer born in 1943, Roger Smalley, until Smalley moved to Australia in the mid-1970s. In 1969 Souster succeeded Smalley as composer-in-residence at King's College, Cambridge; with Smalley he founded Intermodulation, which was one of the pioneering live-electronics groups in England; and he shared Smalley's interest in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, serving as Stockhausen's teaching assistant in Cologne from 1971 to 1973.
Souster read music at New College, Oxford, then studied composition privately with Richard Rodney Bennett before joining BBC Radio 3, at the age of 22, as a producer specialising in contemporary music - those were the heady days of the Glock regime.
I met Tim through his wife, Penny Hales, now Commissioning Editor for Music Books at Cambridge University Press, who had been at the Royal College of Music with me. I played for their wedding at St Mark's, Hamilton Terrace, and subsequently enjoyed a good deal of their unstinted, incredibly relaxed hospitality. In those days Penny did the cooking, but in more recent years Tim took over the kitchen, where he found another outlet for his creativity and made it to the semi-finals of Loyd Grossman's Masterchef on television.
Television was also the medium of many of Souster's musical triumphs. He wrote the music for the two-part drama Calling the Shots, shown by the BBC last month. Working from his own electronic studio in Cambridge, he provided the scores for series such as Africa, The Heart of the Dragon, The Midas Touch and Traffik. His music for the BBC adaptation of Kingsley Amis's The Green Man, with Albert Finney, won the Bafta award for Best Television Music in 1990.
The BBC also commissioned some outstanding and ambitious concert pieces - Triple Music II for three orchestras, given at the Proms in 1970, Song of an Average City, which Pierre Boulez conducted at the Roundhouse in 1974, and most recently, in 1988, a Trumpet Concerto for John Wallace and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales - the last the work by which Souster might like best to be remembered.
Although Souster himself was a very able pianist and viola player, and performed his own Spectral for viola and electronics, he seems in later years to have developed a particular rapport with brass instruments. Equalisation (1980), for brass quintet and live electronics, has recently been reissued on CD, and in addition to writing further pieces for solo brass either with tape or electronics, he seems to have been the first composer to have taken the plunge and add electronics to a whole brass band, making, in effect, a sound like four brass bands.
Style would have been a word Souster scorned - he once referred to me as an 'urban aesthete' - and the range of reference in his music was protean, expressed with a real flair for sonic spectacle, though when it came to asking the players to read out bits of Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara and Margaret Thatcher in La Marche, broadcast on Radio 3 recently, the urban aesthete in me wished the references had remained exclusively musical.
Yet whatever I may have felt were occasional lapses of judgement, I had to be impressed by Tim's finely discriminating ear. His knowledge and love both of popular music and rock was deep - he used to write articles on both. More recently, he contributed reviews of classical concerts to the Independent.
At the time of his death after a sudden, brief illness, he was planning a Baudelaire song-cycle for the Nash Ensemble to perform next year. He was a brilliantly talented musician, a sharp mind and an extremely kind friend.
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