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Richard Causton Interview

Posted on 26 March 2006. © Copyright 2004-2023 Composition:Today

CT talks to British composer Richard Causton, whose recent work, Between Two Waves of the Sea, was premiered by the CBSO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Richard Causton
Tell us something about your background.

I grew up in Inner London and went to school there. The state comprehensive schools I went to weren't as good academically as many fee-paying schools are, but socially they were a real education. In one school in particular, 50 different languages were spoken by the kids and their backgrounds varied dramatically - from the children of diplomats and middle-class professionals to kids from the nearby housing estate and newly-arrived refugees: a real mix of people. On Saturdays I attended an excellent state-run music school, where I studied the flute and composition, sang in choirs, etc. After I left school I studied composition privately with Param Vir, and then at the University of York with Roger Marsh. I then did a postgraduate at the Royal College of Music with Jeremy Dale Roberts and spent six months in the electronic music studios of the Civica Scuola in Milan, where I also had some lessons with Franco Donatoni.

How did you start composing?

I started composing quite early on - at the age of 8 or 9. I was already having flute lessons by then and I couldn't get over the fact that having learnt how to play the notes, you could put them together in any way you wanted to - not just play tunes written by other people. Quite soon I was trying to write things for other instruments too so that I could play them with other members of my family.

Who or what has influenced your style?

Perhaps the biggest influence came while I was at university in York - there was a wonderful experimental atmosphere there and lots of good performers so it was the ideal place to try things out. The first course I took there was on the post-war avant garde, and really discovering that music at the same time as Javanese gamelan and getting loose in the electronic music studio was quite mind-blowing at the time. I still think the composers of the post war period (Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez and Ligeti) are extremely important and in terms of the strength of their vision, their boldness and single-mindedness they are a huge inspiration and influence. And going back further, Messiaen, Carter, Tippett, Stravinsky and Nielsen are all massively important to me as well.

Where do your ideas come from?

I suppose in one sense they come from whatever I feel I need to do in a particular piece - currently, for example, I'm really letting my hair down and doing some things that not long ago I would have considered in bad taste. Sometimes my music draws on my own experiences - often physical things such as the feeling of touching down in an aeroplane, or having a high temperature and being delirious. But it could also be politics, visual art, poetry, photography or even the weather. Ideally there's a spontaneous coming together of musical and poetic ideas (and possibly a compositional technique) so that it's not forced; one thing invites the other.

Do you have particular techniques - ones you come back to again and again? Tell us a bit about them.

There are sometimes specific techinques - such as accelerations/tempo relationships that I work out mathematically or little pieces using only 6 of the 12 semitones - but they tend to be solutions to localised problems rather than things I'd use again and again. I certainly have favourite types of harmony and habits of voice-leading, part-writing and instrumentation, but that's not really the same's usually more intuitive and I work hard trying to 'feel my way' into a piece - and often towards the end find myself paring material away so that what remains feels quite tightly-written.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

Be bold and write the music that you want to write. I think composers at the start of their careers are sometimes condescended to because other people involved in the musical process want a quiet life: all new music may seem uncomfortable/awkward at certain points in the musicmaking process, by virtue of its newness. Be self-critical and ask yourself whether what you have written is really the best realisation of your intentions. If it is, and you're lucky enough to really believe in the music (and this is something which comes out of your relationship with your own musical material) then you have a duty to that music to give it the best possible chance of being heard and enjoyed by others.

What are you working on at the moment?

A very short concert-opener for string orchestra for this year's Aldeburgh Festival.

Do you have a routine? A place that's special

I'm terrible with routines! I sometimes read about people who get up at 6am and work until lunch and then do something else in afternoon, or novelists who write 800 words every single day, and I wish I could work in that way. What ususally happens with me is that for ages I can't get started on a piece (which is a depressing, even painful, situation) and then once I do it starts to take my life over so that towards the end I can't think about or do anything else. But having a (physical) space to work in where I can close the door and not be disturbed is vital; it's virtually a pre-requisite for the psychological space in which the piece takes shape.

Your most recent orchestral commision, 'Between Two Waves of the Sea' premiered by CBSO, featured electronics, can you tell us about the sounds you used and how you blended them with the orchestra?

The electronic part of 'Between Two Waves of the Sea' was simply recorded orchestral music which I composed alongside the live material, and it's played back untreated (via a sampler) through speakers located behind the audience. Sometimes it's barely audible, like something half-heard in the distance which gradually reveals itself; at others it is like a separate orchestra playing in the next room; and just occasionally it challenges the live orchestra like its mirror image in passages of conflict. The 'live' and 'recorded' elements are rarely in the same tempo as one another and the interplay between them represents a sort of dialogue between different kinds of time, or between life and death. The recorded, or 'virtual' part of the piece also contains flashbacks and premonitions of things yet to come in the 'live' part, and in the centre of the work it increases the density of musical time, forcing nearly all of the material of the piece into just a few seconds. The spatial aspect of the piece is very important - and for that reason it's rather difficult to get a proper sense of the piece from listening to a recording.

What are your views on the current state of composition? Are we living in a healthy artistic environment at present?

I think that notated music is very undervalued right now, for all sorts of reasons. Take Stravinsky, for example - I'm convinced his achievement at the start of the twentieth century was every bit as great as Einstein's, Freud's or Picasso's, and yet the level of general public awareness of his work is pitiful. And ironically (for a time-based artform) good quality music reveals its treasures slowly and increasingly people seem to want a quick return - to be instantly pleased. And this sort of situation doesn't favour difficulty or multi-dimensionality in any art. The danger in all this is that composers dilute their vision in an attempt to cater to the perceived 'market' and end up writing music which is of little value because it lacks conviction. Right now it's worth remembering that there have always been times in history when artists have had to swim against the tide - and things must have seemed very much bleaker for artists in, for example, the Germany of the 1930s.

What are your plans for the future?

I would very much like to write a piece for theatre - I have never really collaborated with another artist before and I think that would be very exciting.

How can people find out more about you?

Probably the easiest way is via my webpage, which contains a biog, lists of works and recordings, etc. It's at

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2023

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