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Robin Holloway Interview

Posted on 02 February 2006. © Copyright 2004-2014David Bruce


C:T talks to Robin Holloway, a leading figure in British contemporary music, both as composer (his Fourth Concerto for Orchestra for the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas is to be premiered in Feb 2007) and as a teacher (pupils include an extraordinary range: Judith Weir, Robert Saxton, Jonathan Dove, Michael Zev Gordon, Erollyn Wallen, George Benjamin, Thomas Adès, as well as our own interviewer, Andrew Thomas)

Robin Holloway
On a sunny day in early April 2006 I find myself looking out over an immaculately maintained garden in Cambridge, UK sipping a fine glass of red wine whilst Robin Holloway gently persuades a Queen Bee to leave his room and rejoin its colleagues in the outside world via the window through which it came. On behalf of C:T I have travelled to Holloway’s impressive work studio in the grounds of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge to learn more about this distinguished composer and his work.

Holloway was born in Leamington Spa in 1943 to artistic parents. During the fifties he attended St Paul’s School and sang as a chorister at Sir Christopher Wren’s mighty Cathedral in the heart of the City of London. Holloway’s higher education, at King’s College Cambridge, was two tiered. He began with two years study for an English degree alongside private lessons with Alexander Goehr before converting in his final year to music. A doctorate (on Debussy and Wagner) ensued at New College, Oxford before returning to Cambridge as, initially, a research fellow before moving through the ranks to Professor of Composition in 2001. Holloway describes his career in typically frank language: ‘Musical composition is the raison d'etre. Copious splurging from the St Paul's days, drying out mid-teens to early twenties, picking up thereafter and gradually developing an individual voice.’

Holloway’s compositional output is vast and has been performed and commissioned by an impressive list of the worlds finest. He began, as many do, with a strong modernist tinge to his writing but his studies in English have greatly affected his work. His landmark orchestral score Scenes From Schumann (1969-70) heralded a strong affiliation with music of the past, tonality, quotation and romanticism. Having marvelled at Holloway’s antique furniture (bizarrely juxtaposed against wind up toy snails) and the diversity of his large personal library of scores, records, CDs and books I asked him about his association with the past.

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From hearing Holloway’s response I was intrigued to know if he thought of himself in any form of tradition. Holloway often receives criticism for lack of stylistic consistency between works but how does the composer himself view his stylistic heritage? I particularly wanted to know if he is consciously an ‘English’ composer. This thought was mainly brought about by one of the many quotations in his Second Concerto for Orchestra (1979); that archetypal English hymn Jerusalem. Many English composers of the twentieth century – Britten, Tippett, Maxwell-Davies, Birtwistle – have sought inspiration in Purcell, Tallis, Tavener or the folk music of England. What better a piece to choose than Jerusalem, composed by Parry and orchestrated by the epitome of the Empire himself; Elgar. So why Jerusalem?

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The intention of approachability transfers well from composer to listener. There is much to enjoy in a piece like the Second Concerto for Orchestra and I decided to pursue this work in more depth. I started by asking about notation. A common trait of Holloway’s large-scale music is what he describes as libramente notation. In the Second Concerto there are extended passages where players are instructed to work independently from the conductor. However, this is not the same as Lutoslawski’s limited aleatoricism. Each instrument must follow a fully composed line with a precisely given tempo until they reach a Curlew sign (a symbol formulated by Britten in his Church parable The Curlew River). On reaching a Curlew sign the player waits for a co-ordination point at which time they rejoin the ensemble. The remarkable point about Holloway’s use of this notation is that despite having relinquished some degree of control over the material the music never looses a sense of direction or meaning. So how does he retain control and why does he choose libaramente over precise notation?

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During my afternoon with Holloway I was lucky enough to be given an advanced viewing of the recently completed Fourth Concerto for Orchestra which has been five years in the making. I am sworn to secrecy until the work receives its premiere, to be given by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas in February 2007, but it lead me to ask why the concerto for orchestra is a genre he keeps revisiting?

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The conversation continued by revisiting a subject that, as a student, I have discussed with Holloway a number of times. As a composer the difficulty of starting a piece is challenging to say the least but, when one is writing for a set ensemble with extensive historical repertoire, how do we overcome the anxiety of influence or cope with the minuteness of our work within such a vast ocean of cherished music. The particular example, which haunts many, even a composer as experienced as Robin Holloway, is the haloed string quartet. Holloway has only recently written his String Quartet No. 1 (2002) which was closely followed by String Quartet No. 2 (2004). I asked whether he feels it is natural for composers, particularly young composers, to feel this anxiety and how he managed to overcome his own artistic wall.

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There is much to learn from Robin Holloway. He is a man of great intellect with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music who shows great enthusiasm to the subject and particularly to younger generations of composers. His teaching at the University of Cambridge has produced a long list of internationally recognised composers (Judith Weir, Robert Saxton, Jonathan Dove, Michael Zev Gordon, Erollyn Wallen, George Benjamin, Thomas Ades etc.) so I was interested in his approach to teaching. How does he help young composers to find their own feet and how can they help themselves?

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To find out more about Robin Holloway visit his homepage at the University of Cambridge (http://www.mus.cam.ac.uk/external/people/academicstaff/rgh1000.html) or his publisher’s page at: http://www.boosey.com/pages/cr/composer/composer_main.asp?composerid=2703







Comments by other Members


Posted by :  Hal at 05:03 on 29 June 2006
I liked very much this interview.It is always inspiring for us composers, at least for me, to hear the voices of older composers. And for me specially, to see the work room of composers gives me a very good feeling. I have the sensation of expanding my own room into theirs and viceversa. I always wander: how others put their tables, papers, etc...? Please, make a section for work rooms only. Remember the impression Strawinsky´s room and stuff gave to others. Thank you.
Posted by :  Hal at 05:04 on 29 June 2006
I liked very much this interview.It is always inspiring for us composers, at least for me, to hear the voices of older composers. And for me specially, to see the work room of composers gives me a very good feeling. I have the sensation of expanding my own room into theirs and viceversa. I always wander: how others put their tables, papers, etc...? Please, make a section for work rooms only. Remember the impression Strawinsky´s room and stuff gave to others. Thank you.
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