Mark Hussey traces the unconventional trajectory that took him from Oxford science labs to solo instrumentalist and composer.
By Mark Hussey (Linacre, 2002)
I’ve just written and composed a concerto for the classical guitar. I’m constantly on the road performing as a solo instrumentalist. Five years ago, working as an Oxford biochemist, I would never have dreamed it possible. I could not even read music, let alone put the music in my head onto paper.
Although I’ll never forget the support I had from my supervisors, science never quite pushed the right buttons for me. Trained as a wet-bench scientist, following my DPhil at Linacre I ultimately found myself glued to a computer screen at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (formerly the Institute of Virology) on Mansfield Road, quantifying levels of viruses to determine infection. I found it increasingly frustrating. All the time I dreamt of a different career — in music. After four years, I took the plunge.
A competent electric guitarist playing largely by ear, I was offered a contract performing in France for three months with a local power trio. We played Seventies and Eighties rock tunes by the likes of Pink Floyd and Bad Company. In my spare hours I practised solo guitar pieces and began to learn to read music.
We were in the global financial crisis and I was worried. When my contract was over, how would I pay the mortgage and student loans? The only thing I could see to do was dedicate myself to developing my abilities as a soloist.
Over four years, I built up a strong classical, fingerstyle and jazz repertoire. Initially just scraping by, over time I made a reasonable living performing as much as two hundred times a year. I was invited onto cruise ships as a classical entertainer. Sounds cheesy? It was brilliant — I’d recommend it to anyone. I’ve seen a lot of the world, met talented individuals and made great friends. Life on the road suited me.
Ultimately I got to perform in my own name thanks to an agent who spotted my YouTube channel. I was invited to perform on a Fred Olsen ship cruising through the Norwegian fjords and on to the Faroe Islands for the lunar eclipse of 2014. I knew the general standard of classical performers on cruise lines was very high. Though nervous, I agreed.
Five seconds of silence followed my first song. It felt like hours. I feared the audience was underwhelmed. I considered walking off. All of a sudden a wave of claps and cheers burst out. It dawned on me that the audience had been silent purely to be sure I had completed the piece. My rock background meant I was not used to that. Back in my dressing room I threw my hands in the air and mouthed: ‘I did it!’
People asked about my CD, but I didn’t have one. So I wrote a twenty-five minute piece of classical music that would later become my debut album. I wanted to do things differently. A fan of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez played by the great Paco de Lucia, I decided I would write my own orchestrated concerto for guitar. With the help of orchestrator David Holland and Go West Bass player Vinzenz Benjamin, we created my album Concierto de los Sueños (‘Concert of Dreams’).
It is a dream come true. I feel we have created a wonderfully orchestrated piece of music that I hope will stand the test of time.
Despite the technical challenges of writing for and recording so many instruments, I’ve learned a great deal. On the plus side, I called all the shots, working within my own money. On the minus side, I don’t know whether I’ll recoup that £7,000 budget. Releasing music independently these days through download sites is easy, but that also means you can feel like a needle in a haystack.
I also sell CDs from my website. I still prefer the old format: for me, the file compression needed for downloads makes a significant difference to the listening experience.
People often ask what kind of future a career in music holds. It is about as unstable as any other job in this day and age. Academia, for most, often offers one- to three-year contracts, perhaps entailing disruptive life changes. I chose a different kind of instability. If you work hard, music can earn you a reasonable living, let you see the world and meet talents from different fields, and — best of all — touch people with your artistry.
Photographs of Mark Hussey with guitar by Ian Wallman / IWPhotographic.