Robert Hugill, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I started writing music when I was at school, it was just something I did. I once read a quote about only writing music if you have to and for years I composed songs, but never wrote anything down. It was only when working as a musical director and arranger for a choir (The Pink Singers), and for a number of cabaret groups (e.g The Insinuendos), that I started to write music down, finding it profoundly satisfying to create something and to craft it to suit someone. For me, writing music is a little like archaeology, you are not so much creating as exploring and excavating something which already exists. The trick is to get it right.

Who or what were the most important influences on you composing?

  • Writing and arranging music for the cabaret group, the Insinuendos in the 1980’s
  • Learning and singing Gregorian chant, which I now do regularly as part of the Latin Mass choir at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street Chelsea
  • Learning that Kurt Weill did his own orchestrations for his Broadway musicals, and that Tchaikovsky was present at the rehearsals for his ballets so that he not only wrote and orchestrated the music, but made all the changes to suit the dancers


What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Getting my music performed

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

My most recent composition is always my favourite. I also have an abiding weakness for my cantata The Young Man and Death, based on Rabindranath Tagore poems, about a young man dying of AIDS in dialogue with death. I am also very proud of my opera When a Man Knows which we staged at the Bridewell Theatre in 2011.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Frankly, it depends on what is being performed, you can’t do a symphony concert in the Wigmore Hall, and different acoustics suit different pieces. Also, if you ask a singer you’ll get a different answer to an audience member. Venues which are lovely to sing in, are not necessarily ideal when it comes to what the audience hears.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I have a weakness for performing plainchant, and Renaissance polyphony particularly Palestrina and Victoria.

Listening, I am happy to listen to anything by Handel, and the music of Vaughan Williams still has the power to move me that I discovered when I was a student in the 1970’s.

Who are your favourite musicians?

My current favourite band must be Arcangelo, a very talented young group. I still have wonderful memories of singers like Janet Baker, Geraint Evans, Jon Vickers, Gynneth Jones and Rita Hunter. But there are so many wonderful young singers out there at the moment it is difficult to select a favourite, though perhaps Carolyn Sampson and Sarah Connolly come pretty close.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be true to yourself. Decide whether you are doing it for love, or for money. Always bear in mind your audience: a composer who writes in a vacuum is in danger of producing merely masturbatory fantasies.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am trying to get to grips with the final 20 motets in my collection Tempus per annum, which when complete with contain 72 motets covering the entire church’s year, setting the Latin Introits for Sundays and the major feasts. I’ve done the first three volumes, and am a little bit stuck at the beginning of volume four.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Listening to my music being performed on Radio 3.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Writing music, creating something new that feels just right.

Robert Hugill’s blog: http://www.planethugill.com/
Robert Hugill’s website: http://www.hugill.demon.co.uk/
Listen to Robert Hugill’s music on SoundCloud: http://www.soundcloud.com/roberthugill

Robert Hugill writes attractive, accessible contemporary classical music in a variety of genres. Recent performances have included sacred motets, orchestral music and a one-act opera. In 2008 the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble, conductor Paul Brough, issued a CD of Robert’s music on the Divine Art label.

Born in Cleethorpes, UK in 1955, Robert Hugill is a mainly self-taught composer. In the 70’s and 80’s he was the musical director of the Church of St. Andrew and St. George, Rosyth, Scotland, musical director of London’s first Lesbian and Gay choir, The Pink Singers and acted as composer and arranger for a number of cabaret acts in London and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

As a singer, he is currently a member of London Concord Singers and the Latin Mass Choir at St. Mary’s Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, London. Robert’s motets and mass settings are in use St. Mary’s Church, Chelsea (Roman Catholic), the Oxford Oratory (Roman Catholic), St. Woolos Cathedral, Newport (Anglican), All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London, St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, London and St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, London (Anglican).

In 1994 Robert founded FifteenB, the choir which gave the first public performance of Robert’s cantata Vocibus Mulierum – Women’s Voices. In 1998 FifteenB was awarded a grant, by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England, to give the first performance of Robert’s cantata The Young Man and Death – A Dialogue, for choir and wind octet. In 2000 the choir premiered Robert’s Requiem for unaccompanied choir at the Chelsea Festival. They returned to the Chelsea Festival in 2002 to give the first performance of The Barbarian at the Gate with Philharmonia Brass. The choir returned to the festival in 2004 and 2006 with programmes of liturgical music including a number of Robert’s motets.

In 1999 Robert was commissioned by the early music group, The Burgundian Cadence, to write Passion a 40 minute unaccompanied setting of the passion story from St. John’s Gospel interpolated with poems by the American poet, Carl Cook. The Burgundian Cadence performed Passion on a UK tour in 1999 and subsequently recorded the work. The recording received its first broadcast performance on Vatican Radio as part of the Jubilee celebrations in 2000. Robert’s Choruses from Passion was premièred by FifteenB in 2008, and the work received its Polish premiere in 2009 when Chor Mieszany Caecilianum performed it in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Katowice.

Robert’s motet Here Be Angels was commissioned by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, musical director David Temple. The chorus gave the first performances of the motet in March 1998 and the revised version was premiered by London Concord Singers in December 2002. The Black Dragon, inspired by a science fiction story, was premiered by London Concord Singers in 2000 as part of their Millennium celebrations. In 2006 London Concord Singers premiered Robert’s Ubi Carmina as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations.

In 1999 Robert wrote the incidental music to ‘Candle Dancing’, a play by the Pittsburgh based playwright Coni Ciongoli-Koepfinger and the music was performed in Pittsburgh as a part of the first run of the play. In November 2001 Robert’s song cycle Songs of Love and Loss received its first American performance at CMU in Pittsburgh. Robert’s opera, Garrett, based on a play by Coni Ciongoli-Koepfinger, was staged in London in June 2001. An audio book of the play CandleDancing, with Robert’s music, is being issued in 2009.

A number of Robert’s orchestral works have been premièred by the Salomon Orchestra. In March 2006 the orchestra, conducted by Adrian Brown with baritone David Greiner gave the first performances of Robert’s Elegy for Baritone and Orchestra and the tone poem In the Barbarians Camp.

As a complement to his amateur group, Robert founded the professional choir, the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble in 2005. They gave their debut performance at St. Giles Cripplegate, premièring Robert’s cantata The Testament of Dr. Cranmer. They repeated the performance in March 2006 as part of the commemorations for the 450th anniversary of Cranmer’s execution at Oxford University Church. The ensemble, conducted by Paul Brough, recorded The Testament of Dr. Cranmer as part of a new disc of Robert’s choral and vocal music recently released on the Divine Art Label.

In 2003 Robert was on the jury judging the liturgical category of the first British Composers Awards organised by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters and he returned as a judge in 2004 in the choral category. Robert’s songs came 2nd and 4th in the English Poetry and Song Society’s Ivor Gurney competition in November 2007 and another song came 3rd in the Society’s A.E. Houseman competition in February 2009.

Robert is new motet for Alistair Dixon and the Chapelle du Roi will be performed in December 2009. His 2nd volume of motets for the church’s year, Tempus per Annum, was published in autumn 2008. Robert is currently working on new opera based on a play by Alan Richardson.

Robert’s Passion is published by Bardic Edition and the remainder of his catalogue is available on-line from Spherical Editions.

Robert writes CD reviews for MusicWeb and writes CD reviews, Opera reviews and feature articles for Music and Vision.


Robert Saxton 093
Robert Saxton (photo credit: Katie Vandyck)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I started the recorder at school, the violin and piano. I always preferred writing music down to practising!

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing? 

As a composer, I was influenced technically, and partially aesthetically, by Elisabeth Lutyens, my teacher for four years (aged 16 -20). In a wider sense, I have been influenced by my ‘dual’ background/heritage: east European Jewish and English C of E, particularly Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Bartok, and  the visionary tradition stretching from Piers Plowman, via late Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets of the 16th century, to Vaughan Williams, Tippett and painters such as Stanley Spencer. I have also been influenced by many discussions with my opera singer wife, Teresa Cahill, relating both to interpretation and musical ‘meaning’.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Teaching as well as possible and trying to put the right notes ijn the right place when composing!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble? 

Learning from players and, as I get older, finding how much young(er) performers play/sing and interpret my music profoundly and with an ease which i find both amazing and refreshing.

Which recordings are you most proud of?  

The Circles of Light and Concerto for Orchestra with Oliver Knussen and the BBCSO/London Sinfonietta on EMI, Leon Fleisher (Sony Classical)  and John McCabe’s(NMC) recordings of Chacony for piano left-hand, Caritas (NMC), Eloge with Christopher Austin, the Brunel Ensemble and Teresa Cahill (NMC), Five Motets with Edward Wickham and The Clerks (Signum) and The Wandering Jew with the BBCSO, BBC Singers and soloists (NMC).

Do you have a favourite concert venue? 

No, but I prefer anywhere to purpose-built concert halls. Possibly churches/cathedrals.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

It depends on the weather!

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students? 

Continual work on technique in relation to intention/concept and idea.

What are you working on at the moment? 

String Quartet No 4

Your new work for trumpet, Shakespeare Scenes, is premiered this month. Please say a little more about it

The work is for solo trumpet and strings, and was commissioned by Simon Desbruslais, to whom it is dedicated, with funding from the Britten/ears Foundation and the RVW Trust. The Orchestra of the Swan and their founder/music director, David Curtis, being the ensemble giving the premiere and making a commercial recording of the work, it seemed appropriate to pay tribute to Stratford-upon-Avon’s greatest son. There are five pieces/movements whose tonal centres outline the musical letters of Shakespeare’s name, so that the latter forms the structural basis of the whole.

The first piece, ‘The Magic Wood’, refers to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the strings representing the magic wood/the fairy kingdom, the trumpet Puck. In the second piece, ‘Falstaff’, the trumpet plays the role of Falstaff, the three linked episodes depicting the fat knight waking, the Gad’s Hill episode (with clashing swords) and, closes with the death of Falstaff. The third piece, ‘The Storm on the Heath’, casts the trumpet as the mad, raving King Lear, with a solo violin as his Fool/Jester. ‘Masque’, the fourth piece, rather than referring to a specific play, pays tribute to the Masque as a genre (there are masques in various Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream being well-known examples); the upper strings and ‘basses represent the dancers/the courtly crowd, the trumpet playing a Pavane followed by a Galliard, with the cellos accompanying. Although there  are no quotations from Tudor/Jacobean music, the trumpet’s music makes reference to music of the period. In the closing piece, ‘The Magic Island’ (The Tempest), we hear the chastened Prospero (trumpet) and the now-tamed Caliban (solo viola) reconciled against a background of sustained ‘ringing’ string music.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Alive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Being with my wife and at peace.

Robert Saxton’s Shakespeare Scenes receives its world premiere by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan on Friday 24th May. Further information and tickets here

Robert Saxton (b.1953) studied with Elizabeth Lutyens, Robin Holloway, Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Luciano Berio following guidance from Benjamin Britten. He won the Gaudeamus International Composers prize in 1975 and a Fulbright Arts Fellowship to the USA in 1986.  

Robert Saxton has written major works for orchestras, choirs and chamber groups including the BBC (TV, Proms and Radio), LSO and London Sinfonietta; festivals including Huddersfield, Three Choirs and Cheltenham; and soloists including Teresa Cahill, Steven Isserlis and Mstislav Rostropovich. Recordings have appeared on Sony Classical, Hyperion, Metier, EMI, NMC and Divine Art. 

He is currently Professor of Composition and Tutorial Fellow in Music at Worcester College at the University of Oxford. He has been a regular member of the BBC TV 4 (digital) Proms broadcasting commentary team and was a member of the Southbank Centre board for nine years.  

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers premiered Saxton’s radio opera, The Wandering Jew, in 2010; the recording was released on NMC. The Arditti Quartet premiered Saxton’s Quartet No. 3 in May 2011, commissioned by the Southbank Centre. Premieres in 2013 include a song cycle for baritone Roderick Williams at the Oxford Lieder Festival and a piano cycle for pianist Clare Hammond at the City of London Festival.  

 

Nathan Williamson
Nathan Williamson

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and start composing, and make it your career? 

My sisters and I had piano lessons when we were young, but I was never very impressive, or serious about it. One day, aged 12, I thought I would try composing, something that had always fascinated me. I became utterly absorbed, and after a few hours there were 6 bars of wonderful music on the page. I had no idea how I had written them, and certainly no consciousness of having thought of them in the first place. But there was no one else in the room, so I concluded it must have been me. Something just switched on, and suddenly everything was about music. But I had no interest in being a pianist at this stage – that came much later, because of what I learned about music through composing.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing and composing? 

My teachers, above all. Malcolm Singer taught me that being a musician is about being creative and that you have to have something new to say. He also showed me to study music objectively, rather than clouded by personal perspective. Joan Havill taught me basically everything I know about how to play the piano, as well as Beethoven, Liszt and Brahms. Joan Panetti taught me to hear music like a language – something with meaning, a living object. Ezra Laderman taught me just to relax and enjoy composing…. And while it’s a bit of a cliché, the most potent influence was my first music teacher, Geoff Cummings-Knight. I was a completely blank canvas and he threw music at me in bucket loads – Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Holst, Britten, Verdi, Elgar, Liszt… He also made singing the most important musical activity and had a knack for writing music for children at exactly the stage they were, giving everyone a specific role to play suited for them, which is a truly remarkable gift. That’s where everything started for me.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Realising that the success of what I do is not defined by comparison to certain models. There’s a big difference between being equipped for the profession with a robust CV, and evaluating yourself as an artist through how well you fare in a set of stereotypical tasks. I never minded jumping through hoops (and we all have to), but lining up and doing the same thing as everyone else for the sake of getting noticed seemed so pointless it almost led me to give up music altogether. Fortunately, I had some teachers (particularly in America) whose philosophy was simply to make music and, if it was any good, people would support you.

In terms of the creative process, I think the hardest thing, in a post-modern world where literally anything goes, is where on earth do you start? But you have to just flip it round and see it as the most fun instead.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I’m a perfectionist, so whilst I am proud of things I do I always feel I should have done them better. I am very pleased with my new CD of Schubert and Brahms. As a composer my pieces Crystal, Loss, Endings, and Solitude, as well as my opera, A Fountain Sealed, are things that really say something new and individual, and I am proud of that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

Anywhere I am welcomed to play. I just want to perform wherever people will listen.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

I have felt most at home performing Schubert’s music, particularly his A major Sonata D.959, which is on my new CD. Looking at that piece feels a bit like looking in a mirror. Listening to, particular favourites are Ameriques by Varese, Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, Brahms’ 4th Symphony, Durufle’s Requiem, Schubert’s String Quintet, Liquid Song by Mark Dancigers, and Westhoff’s Violin Sonatas.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Radu Lupu, Claude Franck, Anthony Marwood, Olli Mustonen, Otto Klemperer, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Edwin Fischer.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The Notting Hill Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms’ 1st Symphony in 1999. They were an amateur orchestra, their ability such that they could barely play the notes at all. Earlier in the concert they had played the Grieg Piano Concerto with a rather aged pianist who at one point skipped about 20 bars, obliging the conductor to down baton and shout ‘Figure E’ (or whatever) to the orchestra, gesticulating wildly and bringing them back in with the most terrible scrunching noise. Somehow they carried on and held it together. But the enthusiasm and utter wonder with which they performed was quite simply the most moving thing I have ever heard in my life. I wept over it for days afterwards. Then there was Claude Frank performing Beethoven’s op.110 and the Schubert B flat Sonata. The lament in the slow movement of the Beethoven was searing with grief, and the sound he made was such you felt you could reach out and grab it in your hands. It made any other pianists I had ever heard play that repertoire (and most of them I have heard since) sound drab and meaningless.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

The temptation to dish out, and try and live off, little nuggets of wisdom is big – but out of context I don’t think they are that helpful. You need good teachers and masses of time to focus purely on your art, and if you haven’t got/had those and are serious about being a musician, you need to get them now.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Mozart’s D minor Concerto, Brahms and Bridge ‘cello and piano works for concerts with Alexander Somov, and lots of new solo repertoire. I’m composing pieces for the De Villiers Ensemble, NOW ensemble, a ‘cello sonata for Charles Watt, and I’ve just been commissioned a big set of variations for solo piano.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Exactly where I am now, but with greater support to fulfil ideas and projects.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Achieving something you are trying to do and then doing whatever you want afterwards.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My wedding ring, my own tankard in the Lord Nelson in Southwold, and a cricket bat signed by Andrew Flintoff.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Lots of things, with music at the centre of every day.

What is your present state of mind?

Thriving under pressure.

Nathan Williamson’s debut solo CD, funded by a private sponsor, of late works by Schubert and Brahms is launched on 7 March 2013. For further details please visit Nathan’s website

Nathan Williamson has regular commissions for new work from artists and ensembles from around the world and performs as solo piano recitalist and chamber musician with a wide range of vocalists and instrumentalists at home and abroad.

Current commissions include a major Sonata for cellist Charles Watt, a work for the De Villiers Ensemble (Piano Quintet) for their UK tour in autumn 2013, and a work for the acclaimed NOW ensemble of New York for performance in 2013-14 season.

Nathan studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Joan Havill and Malcolm Singer, and at Yale University with Ezra Laderman and Martin Bresnick. He also worked closely with John Adams, David Lang, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joan Tower, and Joan Panetti, under whose direction he served as a teaching fellow at Yale upon graduating. He now teaches harmony, ear-training and music history at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

Read Nathan’s full biography here

www.nathanwilliamson.co.uk

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?

I heard a ‘cello being played on the radio (I can’t remember who was playing) when I was about 6, and just knew that was the instrument I had to play. I fully intended to just become an internationally famous concert ‘cellist (as you do!) but gradually composing took over.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

As a composer I think my greatest influences came from the music I played at the Yehudi Menuhin School (I studied ‘cello, piano and composition there for 10 years). But some of my favourite composers are Britten, Ligeti, Beethoven and Prokofiev, as well as many composers who are writing today.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Trying to get a balance between composing and life: I’ve still not quite worked it out, although, after hardly going out the house for six months whilst writing an opera, I’m determined to be a bit better at it!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Working with any group is exciting for me. I think as long as you treat musicians with the respect they deserve, and prepare parts properly (enough time for page turns!) then they will hopefully be receptive to your music.

 

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

Not really, as a composer you are just very grateful that your music is being played! Perhaps I’ll get pickier about this later in life! I had a mini opera performed in park in Hammersmith – a group of children gathered round and started answering the questions the singers were posing – it was fantastic!

Who are your favourite musicians?

I’ve mentioned the composers above…I’ve been so lucky and had such a fantastic time with all the performers who have performed my work: there are too many to list!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I had my Concertino for Cello, Piano, Percussion and orchestra performed by the BBC Philharmonic as part of the BBC Young Composers Competition (when it still existed, back in 1996). I think that experience more than any other convinced me that I wanted to make composing my career. It was just mind-blowing to hear something that I’d only heard in my head played by a massive orchestra.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

I don’t regularly play in public any more, but I play keyboards in a salsa band and am also learning jazz piano. I played in a rock band until recently and am soon to join a hip hop band – all very different from my composing life, and my past life as a cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School!

Recently I’ve hardly been listening to music not directly related to my work (for my opera I listened to a lot of 1930’s dance music for instance as this was one of the main influences) because I’ve been writing so much – something I’m determined to rectify soon.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

I think you just have to be determined to the point of utter bloody minded-ness. Part of the reason why I’ve managed to make a kind-of living out of composing is that I have always just refused to acknowledge that it might not be possible. I recently got a new composing job after applying for it twice – although I’ve applied for other opportunities up to ten times before I’ve finally been awarded them. A thick skin for rejection is very useful I think, and somewhere (however deep down) you need total self confidence in what you are writing, even if this partly achieved by self-deception…

What is your present state of mind?

My present state of mind is probably calmer and happier than I’ve ever been. Everything seems to be fitting into place recently and I’ve come to realise that life outside of composing is also very important (something which I perhaps didn’t when I was younger). The older I get, the happier I get, which is rather fortunate for me!


Cheryl Frances-Hoad was born in Essex in 1980 and received her musical education at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Gonville and Caius College (University of Cambridge) and Kings College London. She currently divides her time between Cambridge and Leeds, where she is the first DARE Cultural Fellow in the Opera Related Arts in association with Opera North and the University of Leeds. Cheryl won the BBC Young Composer Competition in 1996 at the age of 15 and since then her works have garnered numerous prizes and awards, including the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize (UK, 2007), the Sun River Composition Prize (China, 2007), The International String Orchestra Composition Competition (Malta, 2006), The Bliss Prize (UK, 2002), the first Robert Helps International Composition Prize (University of Florida, 2005), the Mendelssohn Scholarship (UK, 2002) and the Cambridge Composer’s Competition (UK, 2001). In 2010 Cheryl became the youngest composer to win two awards in the same year at the BASCA British Composer Awards (her setting of Psalm 1 won the Choral category, and Stolen Rhythm for solo piano won the Solo or Duo category). Many of her works have been generously supported by the RVW Trust, the Britten Pears Foundation, the PRS for Music Foundation, the Nicholas Boas CharitableTrust and the Bliss Trust.

In 2008 Cheryl was awarded a Leverhulme Trust Artists in Residence Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, enabling her to investigate aspects of the mind at the Psychiatry Department, which resulted in a new work for piano premiered at the 2009 Cambridge Clinical Neuroscience and Mental Health Symposium. Also In 2008, Cheryl was awarded the Wicklow County Council Per Cent for Arts Commission (Ireland), which enabled her to compose her first piano concerto, premiered by Bobby Chen and the Greystones Orchestra in May 2009.

Cheryl’s work has been premiered in some of the world’s most important chamber music venues, including the Wigmore Hall (Melancholia (piano trio), Excelsus (solo ‘cello) and My fleeting Angel (piano trio)) and the Purcell Room (The Glory Tree (for soprano and six instruments), and The Ogre Lover (for string trio)). Her debut CD of chamber works, The Glory Tree, was released in 2011 by Champs Hill records and received excellent reviews in The Times, Telegraph and Guardian, and was chosen as “Chamber Music Choice” by BBC Music Magazine in October 2011.

www.cherylfranceshoad.co.uk

Interview date: January 2013

Richard Bates, composer & conductor (photo credit: Scott Inglis-Kidger)

Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career? 

I would say that composing chose me, rather than the other way round. Almost as soon as I started learning to play piano, I started coming up with music of my own when I was bored of the pieces set me by my teacher. I always listened to classical music a lot as a youngster. And as a teenager, I suppose my writing mirrored what I was listening to – Beethoven in my early teens then later, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Morton Feldman…

Who or what were the most important influences on your composing? 

As I say, I always listened to music growing up, and I was lucky enough that my piano teacher in those years was interested in furthering the scope of my musical knowledge, and gave me music and recordings to explore that I otherwise would not have chosen. These expanded my horizons considerably. A great favourite of mine is Francis Poulenc, whose unique and instantly recognizable style really caught my interest. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to Michael Finnissy and Giles Swayne, who taught me my compositional craft, the guts to write what I want to write, the intricate skill of orchestration, and how to express what you hear with the instruments you have.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

When I graduated from Cambridge, I thought: “nobody makes a living from writing music, and the world doesn’t really need another composer anyhow”, so I followed another passion of mine and went into music direction for theatre – leading pit bands and singers. Over the years since, I have taken every professional composing opportunity that arose for me, but it was only really embarking on Platinum Consort’s recording of my Tenebrae and commission In The Dark, and their subsequent commercial success, which exceeded my hopes, never mind my expectations, and that really convinced me writing music could be a viable life for me.

Which compositions are you most proud of?  

Of the works of mine that have been premiered so far, probably the Tenebrae are my favourite. I took a good deal of trouble to get each response just right, and the weaving of Renaissance-style counterpoint to create 21st-century harmonies was the biggest skill I had to master. I’m very proud of the result, and feel this is one of my most significant works to date.

Favourite pieces to listen to? 

I’m sure it’s a very infuriating answer, but I’m not the sort of person who has a clear favourite. It will depend on my mood and what I’m doing at the time. I also admire music for different reasons: some pieces are guilty pleasures – pieces which are not fantastically put together, but mean a great deal to me either because of their ambience, or a personal significance; other pieces are good for my musical health – pieces I admire because they are so perfectly ingenious in their construction or employ compositional tricks I can’t help but wish I’d thought of.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Again, I’m going to be annoying and fudge that question and say it depends. I suppose my single, favourite group, is the Platinum Consort, for whom I was recently named Composer in Residence. I have worked with them over a long period, which is unusual in the music business, and have developed a very honest and open relationship with them and their director Scott Inglis-Kidger. I have great admiration for the dedication and skill they employ, and they in turn give me whatever feedback they honestly feel, without fear of my taking offence or umbrage. But I also have a great deal of admiration for the singers and musicians I work with in my conducting career, who turn up night after night and deliver consistently great performances.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Stephen Sondheim once said that composition without craft is just masturbation. I agree. Without craft, and I would add discipline, you’re just improvising. That’s fun in the sense that you sit at your piano and think: “aren’t I jolly clever to be able to sit here and come up with this”, but the interest of what you come up with soon fades unless there’s a supporting framework. Musical ideas in themselves have little power; it’s their juxtaposition that gives them strength to move listeners. This is the message I would like to convey to my 14 year old self.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Two things: a motet setting of the plainchant Veni Veni Emmanuel for double choir and semi-chorus for the Platinum Consort; and The Vigil, a work for choir, soloists and orchestra – it’s a meditation on the stations of the cross – for Thomas’s Choral Society in London.

What is your present state of mind?

Relaxed. I am on holiday, just doing some writing, and unconstrained by the iPhone ringing or having to go out later and conduct a musical.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My steel tipped conductor’s baton. It’s the perfect weight and length for me, and the polished steel tip catches the light beautifully in darkened theatres and ball-rooms, so the musicians can see my beat. It’s also been around with me quite a few years.

Richard Bates was born and raised in London. He was educated as a music scholar at Winchester College and Cambridge University. He studied composition with Michael Finnissy and Giles Swayne, as well as participating in seminars with John Woolrich, Howard Skempton and John Rutter.

Upon graduation, Richard was appointed organist at the church of St Magnus The Martyr in the City of London, a position he held until 2008 when he moved to be Director of Music at Holy Trinity, Northwood. Richard also pursues a wide range of activities in the British and USA musical theatre and cabaret scenes. He is in demand as a conductor and accompanist and recently made his band‐leading debut in New York City.

Richard was officially appointed Composer in Residence to the Platinum Consort in 2012, after having written for the ensemble on an informal basis for a number of years. His music featured on their album In The Dark was described by BBC Music Magazine as “particularly impressive”, and the Observer said “Bates…knows how to raise hairs on the back of the neck with his smoky eight‐part writing”. 

Keep an eye on www.richardbatesmusic.com and @richbatesmusic on Twitter for details, premieres and performances coming up this Autumn and into 2013.

Platinum Consort will be performing at King’s Place, London, on Saturday 1st September, in a concert which features Richard Bates’ In the Dark. Further information here.