Hugh Shrapnel was born in Birmingham in 1947. He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1966-69 with Norman Demuth and Cornelius Cardew winning the Lady Holland Prize for composition. Shrapnel's fellow composition students at the R.A.M included Edward McGuire, Christopher Hobbs and Brian Ferneyhough with whom he formed a new music ensemble giving adventurous performances of established avant-garde composers such as Cage and Stockhausen, as well as their own music.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s under the influence of Cardew, Shrapnel became increasingly interested in the experimental music tradition of Cage, La Monte Young, Woolf, Riley and Cardew himself and moved away from the 12 note serial tradition that marked his earlier compositions. He took part in many first performances in England of such experimental classics as Terry Riley's 'In C' and La Monte Young's 'Poem'. He was an active member of Cardew's Scratch Orchestra as well as other experimental groups of the time such as the Promenade Theatre Orchestra which he formed with composers John White, Chris Hobbs and Alec Hill. At this time Shrapnel wrote many experimental pieces for these groups which varied from simple 'white note' pieces to multi-media soundscapes, many of these pieces being written for amateurs as well as trained musicians.
From the mid 1970s on Shrapnel became increasingly drawn to various popular musical traditions both from the British Isles and abroad; these included rural folk music, music hall and jazz which have made an indelible mark on his music ever since. Over the years Shrapnel has sought to combine these influences with aspects of the experimental tradition in many different ways in his music.
Throughout the 1970s Shrapnel taught music in secondary schools in Birmingham and London. In the 1980s he taught composition and song writing in evening classes at Goldsmiths College, London and Sutton College, Surrey. He also conducted workshops in experimental music in community centres in Kings Cross and other parts of London.
In 1994 Shrapnel was appointed Composer in Residence at Musicworks in Brixton, South London, a multi-ethnic music centre enabling young people from poor backgrounds in the area to learn instruments. Shrapnel gave talks at Musicworks, led workshops and wrote educational pieces for the students.
In 1992 Shrapnel formed the Redlands Consort, a flexible ensemble specialising in experimental English music as well as early music and folk music from around the world. From the early 1990s onwards Shrapnel has worked in close partnership with composer and pianist Robert Coleridge; together they have put on many concerts of their own music and those of other contemporary composers at the British Music Information Centre and elsewhere. A very successful concert of Shrapnel's music was given at the Blackheath Concert Halls in May 1996 by the Redlands Consort.
In 2000 Shrapnel made several trips to Scotland, forging links with the leading Scottish composers Ronald Stevenson and Eddie McGuire, Suzuki and folk music specialist Mary McCarthy and many other Scotish musicians. He participated in workshops organised by Mary McCarthy who organised two concerts of his works at the Edinburgh Society of Musicians which also included music by Stevenson and McGuire.
From 2000 onwards Shrapnel has collaborated with composer and baritone Richard Churches. In 2003 they formed the Vermilion Ensemble with Robert Coleridge and flautist Claire Mckenna which gave its successful inaugural concert at St Cyprians Church central London. In June 2004 Shrapnel was the featured composer at the Planet Tree Festival at the Conway Hall London in which performances of his works were given by Vermilion as well as the soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Mark Babbington.
Over the years Shrapnel's music has been widely performed both in this country, including the Wigmore Hall and Purcell Room, and in America, Germany and elsewhere. From 2005 onwards his music has featured prominently in the London New Wind Festival.
Shrapnel is a member of the British Academy of Songwriters and Composers, the Performing Rights Society and the Ronald Stevenson Society.