I cannot actually be said to have pursued a career in music since, although I did take an undergraduate degree in music history and composition, I did not then follow it by working professionally in those areas, except in the most tangential and part-time ways. However, my musical interests developed early on in strangely broad directions, and I always had the impulse to create music of my own, hoping to be able to produce the same beauty, emotion, intelligence, and amusement that I found in the compositions that I love. The forty years subsequent to my first attempts at composition have been an intense period of education, which continues even now, but in some strange way I think that the freedom of not doing music for a living has been of some benefit, because I never—or only briefly—felt compelled to conform to what the larger musical world often seems to dictate—frequently in opposite directions at the same time.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Not unlike many budding composers, I first began experimenting on my own, based on what I was learning in my piano lessons, but that sort of thing is not usually very productive, particularly when one’s understanding of how harmony and form work is as imperfect as mine was. My first clue that there was something more “out there” than ersatz Clementi and Mozart came from my lessons with the piano instructor at my junior college, who regularly introduced her students to brand new and experimental music as well as that of the greats of the 20th century. Once I moved on to university, the exploration continued, with a great deal of experimentation with early music as well as intense study of contemporary music. Unfortunately, my lessons with my composition tutor seemed to comprise mainly notational corrections and general comments, the most frequent being, “Your music is so dissonant,” so, sadly, I cannot really say that anything other than self-directed study influenced my compositional style to any great degree, and I am certain that only the scope of my interests is reflected in the changing styles of my work over forty years.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I quickly discovered that I am more or less allergic to self-promotion and advertisement as well as competition, so I have never really pursued obtaining performances or publication to any degree, and although I am sure it sounds snobbish, I decided some time ago to avoid entering competitions of any sort. Since most competitions these days seem to be oriented toward the young and the “emerging” composer, this may sound peculiarly convenient, but the truth is that I do not believe that the creation of art should be competitive. In spite of all of this, I have been fortunate in many small ways in having many friends who have shown an interest in what I do, and so I can truly say that my music “has been played around the world,” if not, perhaps to the degree that this standard PR claim is meant to express. Another minor difficulty I have is the writing of programme notes, since in the words of the famous and widely attributed quote, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and I have a sneaking suspicion that my music is not so complex that it requires any ham-fisted analysis or illustration I may give. However, I understand that today’s audiences enjoy “getting to know” composers, so I soldier on and try to provide some information when it is requested. It is worth noting, however, that it is best to be careful about how much one writes. I once provided quite a lengthy discussion in an email to a music director, thinking that it was understood that he or she should glean any little thing thought worthy of conveying to the audience. To my horror, my email was used in its entirety in the programme, making me feel just as long-winded as I had always feared.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I cannot say that I have received actual commissions, but I have been requested to write pieces or arrangements. The most difficult aspect of that sort of thing is when I have been asked to write for instruments with which I am not familiar, but the pleasure in such a scenario often comes from the opportunity to work with the “experts” who made the request. When I was asked to do some pieces for saxophone quartet I was terrified at first, but working with the requester to create something playable was a tremendous pleasure.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
One of the greatest pleasures in working toward an actual performance is hearing what one has only imagined being given life by an artist. Unlike some composers, I have never been the sort of creator who insists on only one mode of interpretation, and it is often a wonderful thing to hear what other musicians find in one’s work. I do try to make my intentions as clear as possible in scores, but there is always room for adjustment or reinterpretation, so I am not particularly bothered by such changes. I sometimes find that not everyone devotes as much time to learning contemporary music as might be given to pieces in the standard repertoire, and that can be a bit of a worry. There are also variations in how much some artists or ensembles actually want to work with the composer, and that’s all right, too; sometimes it’s enough to just hand over the score and let the interpreter get to work, but it can be wonderful if collaboration is truly valued.
Which works are you most proud of?
Honestly, I would not say that I am truly proud of any of my compositions. Pride doesn’t seem to enter into it somehow. I am definitely fond of certain works—but then it is a commonplace that artists are always most fond of their current works. There is a handful of pieces that I most value, and that I still listen to with great enjoyment, but again, as many composers say, it often happens that in re-listening to old works one has the sense of them being written by someone else.
Among my current favourites are the four pieces for varying orchestral groups composing the series Leyendas Místicas (‘Mystic Legends’), which overtly and subtly make reference to Hispanic and Latin American music, locations, and culture. The first of the series, Égloga: el Sauce que se enamoró de la Caricia del Viento (Eclogue: the Willow that fell in love with the Wind’s Caress) was the first piece for orchestral forces that I considered truly successful, in spite of its conservative style, and it has been performed both in its original instrumentation and in a version for saxophone choir. The second piece, Danza: El que bailó con el Diablo (Dance: He who danced with the Devil) was another minor success, and still works quite well. It was originally written for saxophone quartet but has also been arranged for string orchestra and string quartet.
For the past few years I have been concentrating on writing piano music, and have been very pleased with the results. One of my favourites is Offrande, written for the London-based pianist/composer Phil Best, and aimed at exploiting his superbly lyrical and emotional style of playing. An ongoing series of Aquarelles presents multiple exercises in musical imagery, drawing on several different styles as well as the musical monuments of the past.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
If this question concerns concerts including my own work, I would say that my most memorable experience was working with the Lavenham Sinfonia on the first performance of Der Singende Wald (The Singing Forest), which was written in memory of the gay victims of the Holocaust and inspired by the testimonies in the documentary film “Paragraph 175” (2000). I originally wrote the piece as a a purely personal expression, since I honestly did not think the subject matter and the somewhat expressionistic style would be of much interest to many small orchestras, but I was surprised and thrilled when I was contacted by Jeremy Hughes, the music director of the Lavenham Sinfonia, with a request for the score. Der Singende Wald received its first performance on July 4, 2010 in Lavenham, Suffolk, and the whole experience was a joy. Working with the music director and the musicians was nothing short of a revelation. It is one thing to find ways to scribble down the guide to the sounds in one’s head; it is quite another to learn from and be guided by the people who have the job of interpreting those scribblings.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
First, don’t fence yourself in. There is a very wide world of music out there to be explored, and it’s not wise to tie yourself down to a credo early on—or ever, really! Second, don’t fret too much about all the naysayers. There will always be more negative comments than positive ones; humans seem to get more joy out of tearing down than building up, and the criticism will always be louder than the compliments.
What is your present state of mind?
I find it miraculous to be retired from full-time work after thirty-one years, and actually to have the time to be a bit more relaxed about schedules and things. This doesn’t mean that writing is any easier than it was before, though; it’s still more like pulling teeth than anything else.
(interview date: June 2015)
Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Rod Moulds studied composition with William Presser at the University of Southern Mississippi. His early music exhibited an idiosyncratic, non-dogmatic post-tonal style, which was soon abandoned in favour of a more eclectic manner. Around 1992, his music made increasing use of tonal materials, not as pastiche or post-modern irony, but rather as acknowledgement of the continuing power of such music to have a complex, expressive effect on performers and audiences. These later works draw on a wide variety of other works—both from the history of music and Moulds’s own—but are integrated within his own graceful, sophisticated sensibility.