Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Roderick Williams

Today’s Proms première is by renowned baritone Roderick Williams, whom many may not have realised – as i didn’t, until relatively recently – also has a sideline in composition. In preparation for the first performance of his new work Là ci darem la mano at Cadogan Hall this afternoon – in a concert otherwise devoted to the music of Monteverdi – here are his answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Roderick Williams for his responses and to Francesco Bastanzetti at Groves Artists for acting as go-between.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

I have written to date mostly vocal and choral music, reflecting my primary career as a singer, with a background in choral singing. I have also made many arrangements for various choral forces, including for a cappella, single voice close harmony ensembles as well as for larger choirs. I think my musical style is rather hard to define as I find I range between styles in order to suit the mood of the piece (especially the text) and the practicalities of the commission. If I have been enlisted to write something for amateur forces or younger performers, I tend to refrain from writing in too chromatic or atonal a language. I like to challenge performers but I also like to think I have a reasonable idea of what is practical. Therefore it might be a little difficult to identify a ‘Roderick Williams sound’ as such. My main concern is that the performers should enjoy the music I write from them, even if it challenges them.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I do not actually consider myself to be a composer. I am a professional musician, a singer who also composes. I do not, for example, have to rely on my composition as a source of income and this shapes my relationship with my writing. Nor do I feel a burning need to express myself in composition; my singing career takes up too much of my time to give me the luxury of writing music without performance in mind. I write mostly to commission, music that I know will suit an occasion. I have done this all my life, especially when I needed vocal repertoire to fit specific moments in a concert programme.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied composition briefly with Grayston Ives while an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford. However, I think the more important influences on me have been the composers whose works I have performed and come to know through study in rehearsal. I love orchestral rehearsals for this reason; I spend a lot of my time observing and absorbing orchestral ideas from the very greatest composers. Britten has been a huge influence on me in many areas, especially English language word setting. But any piece of music, good, bad or indifferent, teaches me something.

I used to be a little sensitive when someone would say “that sounds a bit like such-and-such”. Now I accept it as a compliment. While it is just possible I may have an individual voice, I acknowledge that my music is essentially a collage of every single piece I have ever heard, the sum of all my musical experience. I have written a lot of pastiche over the years and I feel especially comfortable trying out the styles and techniques of other composers before me. This Proms commission is actually an obvious example of that. But I could not imagine being asked to write a new piece that was to fit into a recital of early baroque Italian madrigals and writing something that deliberately ignored that association. That seems wilfully obtuse as far as I can see.

This sometimes means my music has only an occasional appeal; I have many pieces that were written for specific programmes and rather strange combinations of performers, tailor-made to fit a single concert. That doesn’t worry me; I do not seek immortality as a composer. If a piece has a life beyond its premiere, I am thrilled. But it is not always expected.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

Most often, my text is my starting point, and for so many reasons. It will give me mood, structure (crucially), will often suggest a musical style to reference and also puts me immediately beyond the fear of that ‘blank slate’. When arranging or writing music that is in any sense generic, I can often begin the whole process using Sibelius software. If I’m writing something that relies more on pure inspiration, then I will scribble ideas on manuscript paper and edit them into software as I go.

I am a fan of abstract compositional forms and techniques – canon, fugue, ground bass, serialism – but often I will set texts by reading and absorbing them, then simply setting the words freely as I sing them, harmonising them later. Often this free association produces results which I refine afterwards.

I think it’s fair to say that I usually go through several stages with a piece; I have a musical idea, I live with it for a while, I reject it as being total rubbish and try to start again, but the idea persists and I eventually am forced to return to it. I have realised that it is important to keep writing until the piece is finished, even though I am sometimes depressed by the notion that it doesn’t meet the standard of my original ‘hazy vision’. However, at least when I have achieved the final double bar line, I have a work that I can choose to alter for the better or reject, but at least I have something. I have rejected many pieces as being inadequate and begun again; I am not afraid to do so.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

This piece was composed to commission and so there is no profound answer as to why it was composed at this time. I was contacted at the beginning of the year and asked if I thought I could meet the deadline in time. I felt that I could and so I did. It is one of many madrigals that I have written, some for I Fagiolini, and is reminiscent of the comic scena ‘Una parola nell’ orrechio’ which I wrote for the group a decade or more ago. However, that piece set out to parody Monteverdi’s style while this is more an act of homage.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

My choral piece O Adonai has been recorded several times so that seems an obvious place to start. Ave Verum Re-imagined has also been recorded recently, and with such a good performance that it led to my winning a BASCA award. By the end of the year a CD of my sacred choral compositions should have been released so that would also be a good place to look. My New England Choral Symphony has also recently been recorded in the USA but I don’t know when that will be released.

7. What’s next?

I have several commissions brewing for next year, some of them fairly large scale. I oughtn’t to give details here as the contracts are yet to be finalised. But I also need a brief break from writing; I have been so busy with composing and orchestrating this spring that I haven’t had a spare moment to myself. A week after the I Fagiolini Chamber Prom, I have another premiere at the Three Choirs Festival. And my two Catalan Songs for Chamber Choir is seeking a premiere too. I think I need a rest.

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