Ben Stefanski (AKA Raffertie)
I was about 16 when my interest in composition began; I had showed my trumpet teacher one of the compositions I was working on for my GCSE music exam and she encouraged me to do more. While I had always enjoyed writing music it was not until this point that I really thought about pursuing it in any serious way. Gradually while studying for my A levels I became more and more resolute about working within music, although I was far from certain what route to take into the industry, or indeed how I would make any sort of living from being a musician.
Speaking to others who had embarked on musical studies and careers I heard many stories both good and bad about the nature and paths leading into the music industry. I know that many people decide to study something other than music as a backup, but to me it seemed counterproductive to pursue anything other than what I truly loved doing, which is writing music. Therefore I decided to audition for a number of the conservatoires. Having not had any experience of a conservatoire before the audition process was in itself an unusual experience. I was asked to talk about my music in detail, which was something I had never done at any length before, and this set the tone for much of what was to come over my four years.
It perhaps seems somewhat reductive to say “over four years of tuition I learned to talk about my music”, but since leaving Birmingham Conservatoire this lies at the centre of virtually everything I do. When meeting people, when being put forward for commercial projects, when embarking on writing, releasing and performing my own music I am consistently asked to explain, justify and quantify what it is that I do and how I do it. The seed was planted in that very first interview and I was not even aware of it. Learning to discuss one’s work is to develop one’s own language about what it is that one does. Discussing and making music in some respects could not seem further from one another, but one informs and supports the other and allows the theoretical elements of your musical education to coalesce into a manifestation of that musical language whether it be in a recording, live performance or both.
What set Birmingham Conservatoire and its staff apart from other universities was that they seemed to understand that this process of self analysis and justification is not something that is ready-made in everyone; it can be a hard thing to do confidently and well. While I was certainly made to work for my place I felt that they were supportive and ultimately wanted to encourage the best out my answers and, by extension, me.
During my time at the Conservatoire I had a lot of fantastic experiences and I met a very wide range of people. It was during this time that I began to make music under the name Raffertie. At first this project was simply a pseudonym to make other kinds of music through, a change of pace from the sort of thing that I was writing at the Conservatoire at the time, a lot of acousmatic music, soundscapes, electro-acoustic pieces, some chamber music, small ensemble and orchestral works. I decided that I wanted others to hear what I was working on as Raffertie. Local nights promoting new music were very supportive at this early stage and they proved to be great places to get initial performances. Alongside this I made a big effort to get my music heard by as many people as possible via social networks and internet radio which led to a handful of releases and remixes on labels such as Planet Mu, Domino, Island and Atlantic. The cumulative effect of these releases and playing at various clubs and venues brought me to the attention of a booking agent and national radio, and I went on to play much more prominent clubs and festivals, from Fabric in London and Space in Ibiza, to Glastonbury Festival and Bestival on the Isle of Wight. These were all amazing experiences and platforms from which to play my music but when leaving the Conservatoire it was still not apparent to me how this would translate into a long- term career.
The time after finishing your degree is a strange one. There is a sense of relief, elation, sadness, confusion and panic amongst shades and degrees of every other emotion in between. No one warned me about this so, if you are in your final year and when you finish in the summer you feel even remotely like this, don’t worry, it is completely normal and most importantly it will pass.
After graduating I went back home to my parents’ house on the south coast. My feeling of panic was definitely compounded by the fact that I had been desperate to leave home and strike out on my own before I went to the Conservatoire and now winding up back here some four years later felt like a complete regression. I still knew that I wanted to work in the music industry, and I was beginning to consider that it might be possible to earn a living from composing music, and I had decided that I wanted to live in
London but had no idea how I was going to get there. Not having any money at the time felt horrible and meant that I could not really do very much that summer so I decided to throw myself completely into writing music. Looking back now this was the most musically productive time I have ever had. There was a point at which I was making and finishing a new piece of music every day. Structure was key to this productivity. I treated it like a job working Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm.
By the end of the summer I had collated a catalogue of music that was substantial and this coincided with being asked to do a remix for the record label Big Dada, Ninja Tune’s sister label, which focuses predominantly on hip hop influenced music. Because of this remix, Ninja Tune asked to hear more of my work and I sent them the entire catalogue. Following a number of meetings
I was offered a recording and publishing deal with Ninja Tune in April of 2011. Since then work has not stopped. Within a couple of months of signing I was working on a host of commercial and media projects, the most prominent was composing part of the soundtrack for EA Sports’ computer game franchise ‘SSX: Deadly Descents’, which was released in 2012. Alongside this I have released two records under the name of Raffertie with Ninja Tune. Both of these releases have received critical acclaim and resulted in the first being made Record of the Week by Nick Grimshaw on BBC Radio 1, and I performed the second at a live session at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios for Huw Stephens’ show on BBC Radio 1.
Now looking to the future my clear and present priority is to finish and release my debut album with Ninja Tune and establish myself as a recording artist. The whole process of compiling an album is a huge learning curve and I continue to discover new aspects of the process every day. What is important though is to take time over a body of work such as this, especially over something as important as a debut release, so it is on its way; it is just not quite finished yet.
I look back at my time at the Conservatoire with extremely fond memories and I must thank all of the very fine composers who taught me during my time there. To Ed Bennett, Richard Causton, Michael Wolters, Howard Skempton, Edwin Roxbourgh and Ian Wallman who imparted their knowledge to me and always gave very sound and steadying advice at the deepest and darkest moments of creative dilemma that still echo with me today. “Thank You” to all of you.
The Composition Department at Birmingham Conservatoire is one of the finest you will find anywhere in the world and I firmly believe this is down to the person who leads it. I do not think it is any overstatement to say that Joe Cutler is paramount to the continuing success of the Composition Department at Birmingham Conservatoire. By his own work, his drive and vision for what young composers can achieve he sets an unparalleled example for all budding composers and he is truly an inspiration. Thank you again.