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 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.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

When I started learning piano I quickly found that improvising around the pieces I was learning was far more fun than practising scales! Quite soon after that, I realised I could begin to write these inventions down (inspired at first by an ardent desire to acquire a Blue Peter badge…!).

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

Recently I’ve been especially inspired by composers who have an outward-facing, collaborative approach to their craft. Composers like Nico Muhly epitomise this for me: not only is the music totally brilliant, but it’s made for people, not just the instruments they play.

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

This past year I’ve been writing for the London Symphony Orchestra as one of their Panufnik Composers – this has certainly been a huge challenge, exciting and daunting in equal measure! Having the whole orchestra (under the baton of François-Xavier Roth) at my fingertips was an incredible feeling, but attempting to write not just a good overall piece but also great parts for all 80 phenomenal musicians certainly took a lot of careful balancing!

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

It’s the biggest thrill of the process, BUT sharing music that you’ve been living with potentially for months for the first time is a daunting thing! A player’s relationship with the thing you’ve made is so different to your own, which is why I obsess over how parts look! Most performers won’t be religiously studying your score for weeks on end; they’ll be getting under the skin of the notes you’ve written for them, so it’s critically important that what they see is presented perfectly!

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

My music is built out of a core I would describe as essentially emotional. I will never shy away from that word (which is often lazily conflated with ‘sentimental’) – I can’t imagine wanting to spend my life writing music if I didn’t want to move, surprise, excite, provoke people, and I’m obsessed with finding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ways of aspiring to do just that. The Requiem that I’ve just written for Laura van der Heijden, Nicky Spence and a fantastic choir that I’ve put together is, in part, a kind of manifesto for everything I love about music. It’s my biggest work to date, and I’ve designed it in such a way as to (hopefully) crystallise the main things which make up my musical voice.

How do you work?

I work in very intense periods where a lot seems to happen very quickly! But of course this is only part of the process… I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ‘pre-composition’ – once an idea is floating around in my head, I find it very

difficult to ignore, and it’s constantly evolving, shifting, forming… When these ideas get onto paper, the process has already begun (and a long night at my desk usually follows…)

Of which works are you most proud?

The works of which I’m most proud are the ones where I haven’t felt any pressure to make them something they’re not, or self-consciously ‘new’. One of my favourite Stephen Sondheim quotes is ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you, / Then it will be new’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

My favourite venues and spaces make you feel like the music is happening to you, however big or small they are – but this has a lot to do with the performance too…

Who are your favourite musicians?

The musicians I’m most inspired by are those for whom the notes they play are only the tip of the iceberg – musicians who are obsessively curious, who understand why the music they’re playing exists, and who can make you hear familiar music as if it were completely new.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2017 The Bach Choir performed my carol ‘Nowell’ at Cadogan Hall; there was some very specific choreography at the event which meant that I watched the premiere from onstage, facing sideways, so I was able to take in not only the choir but the full audience as well. This turned an already exciting moment into an electrifying one: it felt like a kind of arena, with 100 voices at the centre… what could be better?!

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

My Spotify history at any given moment is a completely bizarre and eclectic mix of music – musical theatre has an extremely special place in my life, and I still can’t beat it for listening to on the go. At the moment I’m trying to discover as much new choral music as possible. I love finding music I’ve never even remotely heard of; those are the most exciting listening moments for me. In terms of playing, I love anything that gets me performing with other musicians – I love accompanying, and recently I’ve been able to delve deep into the french horn repertoire for an upcoming recital at Buxton Festival with Alexei Watkins.

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

If I’ve made something that nobody else could have made in exactly the same way, and which the performers really want to own, I’ve succeeded. The rest is largely beyond my control!

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

Be polite; be punctual; be proactive. The rest will follow!

The World Premiere of Alex Woolf’s Fairfield Fanfare will take place on Wednesday 18th September 7.30pm as part of the Fairfield Halls gala reopening concert with the London Mozart Players: