Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Music has always been at the centre of my life. I don’t come from an especially musical family, and can’t really pinpoint or remember who or what first ‘hooked’ me – it’s more something that’s always been there, and for which I’ve always had an unflinching obsession and natural instinct for. I still feel that same childish excitement and love for music, and though a career as a composer is a very trying thing to pursue, I feel I can’t not do it!
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I got on well with the piano, and though I relied on myself and friends to play any music I wrote, these early efforts provided a good education. As I had no real advice on these many early pieces, and I was very much learning by trial and error and imitation – this early period nurtured a self-sufficient self-reflection, self-criticisms and self-confidence which have always been of great value.
Going to study composition at Birmingham Conservatoire meant having my music rehearsed and performed, having a composition teacher (I studied with Richard Causton and Edwin Roxburgh), and being exposed and introduced to a huge amount of repertoire – all of which was very new to me and influenced me a great deal of course. Studying for my MMus at the Royal Academy of Music was another such experience, and where the incredibly high standard of playing allowed me to experiment and develop my language a great deal. Here I studied with Simon Bainbridge, Chris Austin and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and at this time had my first public premieres in London, received various prizes and positive reviews – another very influential period which gave my career some momentum.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
I have had a fair share of difficulties so far, but also successes – enduring awful performances as well as ideal ones, struggling in an arts-starved time where funding is scant and competition high, and generally trying to earn a living is of course not easy for a composer of predominantly ‘serious, concert music’ (cycling around teaching piano in winter, picking litter or doing manual labour to scrape a living can certainly take the edge off!).
I’ve also always tended to keep busy, and will often work on two pieces at once (sometimes I feel I need to) – but this does mean I have a number of unperformed works lying around, which is frustrating.
I am also not a natural self-promoter, or particularly well connected, and this has been perhaps my biggest stumbling block.
The general overall struggle to recognition, especially when mixed with severe self-criticism and little financial security, can be extremely difficult.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
It’s always a pleasure to receive a commission, but each commission brings its own challenges with it – but challenges which are almost always essential ‘grist to the mill’. Restriction of one kind or another always breeds creativity I find, and the details of any commission with regards to instrumentation, instrumentalists, length, purpose/event etc, are really my initial ‘materials’. Though other ideas may soon mix in, it’s from these essential, fundamental aspects of a commission that so often helps me find a works sound and character – though it can sometimes take time to really soak and absorb things before the real writing begins.
I love starting a new piece, and I enjoy exploring, selecting, rejecting and shaping my first nebulous ideas. It does often take time to really get to grips with things, but I find this a very exciting process, and when the first real kernel of a piece appears suddenly in my mind (usually at some unexpected moment), it’s always a very galvanising feeling. I also often find when I’m about a third of the way into a piece it starts to take off by itself, and this is perhaps the most pleasurable part of the process for me. Finishing a piece is always a mixed bag of emotions though – a mix of elation and achievement, but also loss.
The actual writing is an altogether enjoyable slog, and as I write longhand (which I love to do) and then copy up on the computer (which I don’t love to do!) – it’s quite a long process.
Deadlines can also be both an impetus and an ultimatum, for better or worse!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Working with sympathetic performers is surely something every composer thrives on, and such collaborations have certainly yielded some of the greatest music throughout history. Conversely working with new performers on new music can also create difficulties and generate confusion and tension on first contact, however there’s nothing like a first rehearsal that goes from bad to good, and when a piece suddenly ‘clicks’ for a performer or an ensemble and then comes together quickly.
Music is of course about sharing and communication, and so working with performers who are receptive and perform my work well is always a great pleasure. When I’ve worked closely with performers or ensembles when writing a new work I often find their personalities feed into the music as much as their technical ability, tone etc, and so many of the pieces I’ve worked on with a particular performers or ensembles are often character studies in a sense. Working with amateurs (which I’ve also done a lot) also requires a certain approach, and is an art in itself!
Of which works are you most proud?
Generally speaking I’m most proud of my most recent piece, but also I find my view changes, sometimes day to day, and sometimes from extreme to extreme. The Beckett approach of “Fail, fail again, but fail better” probably fits my general outlook best, but there are a few works where I feel I have really achieved or found something I was looking for, and where I feel closest to satisfaction, if not pride. Violin Concerto (2016), Sinfonia Concertante (2010), Vortex (2012), 2012 Antiphon (2011), Epitaph (2015) and my recently completed Symphony for Horns (2018) are such pieces (though I may feel differently tomorrow!).
How would you characterise your compositional language?
My tastes have always been perhaps too eclectic (especially early on), but I’ve never really drawn boundaries between different styles/genres, and I feel all these influences have made their mark on my musical language – whilst hopefully also being digested and unified into something personal and contemporaneous.
The influence of the natural world however has probably shaped my language more than anything, and my work often has a kind of organic quality, or perhaps even speaks with a slight west-country accent at times!
There is much emotion and expressivity in my work, but I am also concerned as much with containing such subjective elements within a more objective or abstract ‘corral’.
Harmony and counterpoint is still an essential element for me, and I find harmony, colour, density, line, momentum, form etc all become more and more amalgamated and self-generating as I go on – a unity which I think one can hear in the music.
Finding unity and connecting or exploring inner contradictions is also so often a central goal for me, and this has always drawn me to a particularly symphonic development of ideas in my work.
How do you work?
Where exactly a ‘good idea’ comes from is almost impossible to say (perhaps it’s something like a subconscious reduction and unification of more consciously absorbed stimuli?), but once something pops up I instinctively know whether it’s ‘something’ or ‘nothing’. Not that ‘something’ can’t be made from ‘nothing’ (which can often happen once a piece is progressing well, and where ideas which I thought were perhaps ‘weaker’ initially can become some of the ‘strongest’ in the end), but often for me in the initial stages a piece will grow from two or maybe three ‘good ideas’, which are often unrelated and which, when brought together, generate the essential context from which the piece takes shape – an opposition or friction which creates creative momentum.
There are many technical approaches I take to give length and structure to my material, but I’m always guided by my ear (inner or outer), and essentially it is the instinctive decisions that really give a piece it’s ‘life’, and as I go on I find my technical approach becomes more subsumed by my instinct – the Miles Davis attitude of “I’ll play it first, and tell you what it is later” often rings true. Changing perspectives from subjective to objective; from a wider to a more narrow or detailed view; moving from foreground to background etc – this is really the most important aspect of my approach I think.
Each piece also invites a slightly different approach, and though technique very much serves the idea, I don’t have a fail-safe system that I keep churning out pieces with in a commercial way. It’s never a straight forward process, but I generally tend to soak myself in and live with things, constantly changing my perspective and mentally developing or improvising on materials until I feel things coming together. To give a slightly half-baked analogy, it’s a bit like finding a few vivid but contrasting pieces of a jigsaw, and then trying to fill in the rest to make a coherent and ‘beautiful’ whole.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
There are so many, perhaps too many!? There are definitely a few composers I constantly come back to (Bach and Mahler for example), but I have always generally kept a rolling cycle of healthy obsessions with pretty much every composer that’s ever lived going! – these days It’s Janacek, Gershwin and Varese.
I have my go-to performers also, especially when it comes to certain composers i.e. Andras Schiff – Bach; Riccardo Chailly – Mahler; Charles Mackerras – Janacek. I also listen to people like Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald quite a lot.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To captivate and communicate.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To work hard, pursue your ideals, always commit yourself to the music at hand, and always let instinct and technique work together.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Cycling or walking in the country; being completely engrossed in a new composition; tending to my bees; wild camping and wild swimming; and generally discovering and learning (especially anything to do with music or nature), or watching our son Rowan discovering the world.
Beginning composition lessons at Birmingham Conservatoire in 2006, Robert studied with Richard Causton and Edwin Roxburgh, graduating in 2010 with first class honours. He was offered an entrance scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music plus grants from the RVW Trust and the AHRC to begin his MMus under Simon Bainbridge, on which he was awarded the 2011 Eric Coates Prize and The G V Turner-Cooke Composition Award. Graduating in 2012 with distinction, Robert was given an additional DipRAM along with The Charles Lucas Memorial Prize for best composition and the Edwin Samuel Dove Prize for special merit during studentship. Other awards from this time include the 2012 Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize, the 2012 Alan Horne prize, and more recently the 2016 Priaulx Rainier Prize. Over his time at the RAM Robert has also received much valuable tuition from Christopher Austin, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Oliver Knussen and others. He is currently a PhD student at the RAM supervised by Simon Bainbridge, where he continues his research into ‘monochromatic instrumentation’ amongst other things. His music takes on a wide range of influences, stemming from a diverse musical upbringing, where prevalent features often include a directness of character, textural depth, and a sense of thematic unity and direction.
Robert has enjoyed performances of his work at venues including the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wigmore Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Snape Maltings, Duke’s Hall, Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Cheltenham Town Hall, Imperial War Museum (London), Adrian Boult Hall and Thalia Hall, and has worked with various professional, student and amateur ensembles including the LPO, BCMG, The Academy Manson Ensemble, Chroma , Fretwork, Orchestra of the Swan, The Britten-Pears Composers Ensemble, The Solaris and Castalian String Quartets, as well as with renowned performers such as Christopher Redgate, Rolf Hind, Elgar Howarth, Clare Hammond, Vesselin Gellev, Tim Horton, Gemma Rosefield and Frank Ollu. Robert is also a ‘Britten-Pears young artist’, and his work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
Recent work includes a Violin Concerto for Vesselin Gellev and the LPO (2015-16 LPO Young Composers Scheme) plus commissions from the Aurora Trio, the Presteigne Festival, and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta at the 2015 Windsor Festival. Besides composition/research, Robert also teaches piano and composition on a freelance basis, has been involved with composition workshops in local primary schools, and lives in Herefordshire.
Scores/Parts are available from composersedition.com