Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
As far as I can remember, and from the stories my mother tells, I was always composing music in one form or another.
I began playing the recorder whilst I was in Infant School and then started to learn to play brass instruments (initially the cornet in the local brass band) at the age of 7. As soon as I could play a few notes I was rearranging them and experimenting with them.
My mother often tells of times when I was only 7 or 8 years old, armed with a couple of decant recorders, a cornet, a script I had scribbled on a scrappy piece of paper and my sister I would make up and record “radio programmes” onto a cassette player that I would then inflict on the rest of the family. In these shows, I was not only the scriptwriter and presenter, but I also composed all the music that was featured!
Sadly, when I was at school, composition wasn’t really a thing in the way it is these days and, although I continued writing short little pieces for myself to play at home, I didn’t really have any “performances” of pieces until I was in my early teens.
It was whilst at sixth-form college in Andover, on the Pre-Professional Music Course at Cricklade College) that I realised that I seemed to have a bit of a flare for composing, and being on that course meant I had the opportunity to write for lots of players who were quite able. College sorted me out a composition tutor (Tom Eastwood) and gradually I had more and more pieces being performed.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I think that my time at Cricklade College was fundamental to me becoming a composer.
Tom Eastwood, my composition tutor, was fantastic teacher – inspiring and very realistic about what I needed. He pushed me in the right direction.
Cliff Bevan, who had been my tuba teacher (yes, as I grew so did the brass instrument I played get larger) and then became the head of the course at Cricklade, was also a massive influence, as he found me opportunities to get pieces played and, because he also ran a small publishing company, he published my first two compositions: Delta IV – a fugue for four trumpets; and Sonata in One Movement for solo tuba – which I wrote as a audition piece for myself to play for County Youth Orchestra and university interviews.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I’m fortunate in that I find composing relatively easy, and I work quite quickly. I think, as a composer, the challenges come from trying to persuade people that they’d like to have a new work written, or that they could include a new piece in a concert. Sometimes, it’s such an uphill struggle – and, in fact, it can be soul destroying to think that 200 years ago audiences and performers wanted new music more than they wanted to listen to older things – what went so wrong?
Personally, I guess the biggest struggle for me, as a composer, was about three years ago when I suffered very badly from depression due to a combination of work and home problems. I had it very bad and got to a point where I was being closely watched because I was considered to be a suicide risk. I was put on a complex cocktail of medication that, I felt, turned me into a bit of a zombie and removed my spark and creativity. In July 2012, a couple of weeks before I went to London to be a Games Maker for the Olympics, I stopped taking all the medication and decided to fight back against the depression. My GP was fantastic and supported me throughout this, even though she didn’t necessarily think it was the right thing to do, and, as a result, my composing resumed.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The hardest part of working on a commissioned piece is getting the commission in the first place (oh, and getting the second, third, fourth performances).
I love sitting down with a commissioner to discuss a new work – but, of course, by that point they’ve dipped their toe in the water and made the decision that they want a new work written!
I normally talk to a commissioner for ages to find out their needs, about the event, things they’d like, things they wouldn’t like…. I do love the collaboration of working with someone else – it’s like solving a puzzle making sure all the pieces are placed in the right way so that the performer has the piece they want!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Every musician is different and that’s what makes things so exciting and, to be honest, inspirational.
Yes, as a composer there are things I want to write but I realise I can’t just compose what I want (I’m certainly not a big enough name for that – yet!) so I have to adjust my ideas to fit with what someone else wants. A lot of the time I think this helps me hone my thoughts and, I hope, the final piece is better as a result.
Which works are you most proud of?
I’m always most proud of the piece I’m currently working on but, of finished pieces, I am particularly proud of pieces that have had a life beyond the premiere and beyond the first performers: my MAGNIFICAT has had a wide range of performances in its different versions; BE NOT AFEARD,THE ISLE IS FULL OF NOISES is a piano sonata that I wish my meagre piano-playing skills would enable me to perform; IN FLANDERS FIELDS was performed a lot last year – it’s a setting of John McRae’s First World War poem in versions for various different choirs!
There is also MASS IN BLACK, which was commissioned by Basingstoke Choral Society in 1987. It’s had a premiere scheduled twice, by two different choirs, but, on both occasions, it’s been cancelled because the choir has decided the piece is too controversial (it combines a requiem mass text text with the prophecies of Nostradamus and poems on environmental issues and the end of the world). I think it’s one of the best and most original pieces I’ve ever written – but, so far, it remains unperformed!
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I have a very eclectic taste in composers (and have only recently fallen back in love with classical music after a trial separation of a few years!
Of modern composers, I adore the music of John Adams who is, to my mind, the greatest of all living composers. I also very much enjoy the music of Michael Nyman and Michael Torke.
Of twentieth-century composers, I always had a thing for the music of Michael Tippett (I wrote a dissertation about him for my O-level music exam) but then it’s the usual suspects: Stravinsky; Bartok; Reich. I am not a fan of serialism though I’m glad it happened (actually, aged about 8, having never heard of Schoenberg or the Second Viennese School, I “invented” a system not dissimilar to the 12-note row…).
Of earlier composer, I particularly like Berlioz and Bach. I’ve recently re-discovered Beethoven (and especially like his later works) and then there’s renaissance choral music, which I adore.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My most memorable concert experience has to be when I conducted a school orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall at the Schools Prom in 2005. We played a suite from Jurassic Park and then Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 – I’m not one for the whole flag-waving jingoistic nonsense but, with a bunch of youngsters that I had coached, it was a truly memorable experience.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think that Roy Castle hit the nail on the head in the lyrics to the song he performed at the end of episodes of Record Breakers: “Dedication’s what you need”.
You need to be dedicated to your art, honing your skills, keeping an open mind and listening carefully to everything around you. You need to be continually learning and you must never accept second best! Being a bit OCD is a positive!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In 10 years I’d like to be doing more composing and less of the other bits I do to try to please my bank manager!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Composing – composing without interruption and then hearing a perfect performance without interruption (though I do hate being in a hall when a piece of mine is being performed because I have no control over it – it’s one of the few times I get nervous).
What is your most treasured possession?
My most treasured musical possession are some of my own hand-written manuscripts from the days before computer notation (I began using notation software in 1990).
My most treasured non-musical possession is a set of encyclopedias I inherited from my paternal grandfather (who I never actually met). They’re from 1921 and have such a different world view.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Composing – and if I’m not composing, I love to cook or watch movies.
I’m a vegetarian, and have been since my Freshers’ Year at uni, but I cook meat for those who need it – yes, in an ideal world everyone would be vegetarian, but, sadly, they’re not! In fact, I’d prefer to be vegan, but I think it would still be too difficult. Maybe in a few years time…
What is your present state of mind?
That’s a tricky one! I have days when I am manic with ideas to the point I feel my head will explode, and other days when I am more relaxed. I’m in a good place now, much better than I was a few years back.
Robert Steadman is a prolific composer of music ranging from symphonies and operas to musicals and pieces for brass band. He has written a great deal for amateurs and children.
Robert has been commssioned to compose works for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, saxophonist Sarah Field, London Brass Virtuosi and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
His opera Sredni Vashtar was written to a libretto by Richard Adams.
He has also written radio jingles and a song used on Chris Evans‘ Radio One Show.
As well as composing, Robert has written many articles on music education and a number of books alongside teaching and leading creative music workshops for schools, museums and charities.