An interview with Richard Allain
How did you get into composing?
I guess I have always created music in some way. Some of my earliest memories are of playing single notes on the piano. I remember discovering ‘thirds’ and thinking they sounded wonderful, before discovering ‘tenths’ and thinking they sounded even better. By my teens I was writing short chamber and vocal pieces, but in isolation and with no tuition of any kind. When I applied for university, I felt confident enough to submit a portfolio in the hope of studying composition seriously as part of my degree, but I didn’t enjoy this aspect of the course and, by the end of it, I was disheartened by the whole thing. I spent the next four years writing and experimenting, again in isolation, but with nothing much to show for it. I then studied to become a teacher and it was a couple of years afterwards that I began to find my voice as composer. I wrote my first serious piece Salve Regina when I was twenty seven, and it sat in a drawer for the next three years before it was premiered.
Are there any composing/musical projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I have loved the process of writing and recording with ORA. I am excited about the album release and look forward to seeing where it takes me. I am conducting a performance of a large-scale work of mine, Vespers, with the London Mozart Players alongside the Norwich School Choral Society in March, and I am really excited about that. I am also recording a new CD with Merton College Choir in June which will include several previously un-recorded pieces.
Have you come across any challenges in writing for vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists?
Although I consider myself an instrumentalist and not a singer, I am probably most at home writing for voices, but I like writing for all disciplines.
Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?!
A piece begins as a collection of sounds in my head, each with a different sonic signature to it. The job of composition is to decipher those sounds, work out if they’re worth pursuing or not, and somehow transfer them to the page. It can happen from sitting for hours at a desk or a piano, or it can happen driving through town, on a quick lunch break, or in the middle of the night – basically, at any time. I rarely find it easy, and I often re-work pieces for some time after I have ‘finished’ them.
Are there any artists you particularly admire?
The list is a very long one. Here is a selection:
Carlos Kleiber. Genius.
Glenn Gould. Idiosyncratic genius.
And I greatly admire Benjamin Britten’s piano accompaniments (Winterreise or Schubert’s Arpeggione with Rostrapovich). Very special.
Miles Davis. One of the most distinct musical personalities I can think of.
Ella Fitzgerald – inventive, fun, and with an inhuman sense of intonation.
Frank Sinatra – especially the recordings of the 50s. His feel and phrasing are extraordinary: I defy anyone to sing along accurately (and I mean accurately!) with a Sinatra record.
Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Nat ‘King’ Cole (as much as a pianist as a singer), Keith Jarrett, Diana Krall.
Pavarotti and Domingo – for different reasons.
Dave Matthews, Alex Turner, Guy Garvey, Chris Martin – great creative minds.
David Bowie – where do I start?
Which composer, alive or dead, would you most like to talk to, and why?
This is an interesting question, and I have no easy answer. I’d like to have had coffee with Vivaldi, as his music is so open-hearted and often joyous. I prefer Bach’s music, but I wonder if he would have much time for the likes of me. I’d liked to have heard Mozart play the A major piano concerto (23) or been in his apartment when Haydn came around and they played through Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets (or any of Haydn’s own for that matter), or have heard Schumann play Mondnacht. I’d love to have been in the room when Strauss was checking through the piano score of the trio from the last act of Rosenkavalier. I’d like to have sat next to Verdi at a performance of Otello, or Puccini for the second act of Tosca. I’d like to have asked Lutoslawski about Preludes and Fugues for 13 String Instruments. I’d love to have heard John Cage’s laugh, or seen Gershwin’s trousers in real life, or smelt the smokey air of Shostakovich’s study. The list goes on. The reality, however, is that even if I were to meet any of the good and the great, I’d be useless: many years ago, I bumped into Leonard Bernstein, a great musical hero of mine, but nerves took over and I couldn’t speak a word.
What styles/genres of music do you most enjoy composing for?
I enjoy writing all sorts of music. I adore writing pop songs (I’ve written a great many) but I can’t find any mainstream outlet for them. I would love to write a ballet score, something that has been on my to do list for thirty years now….
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I like being around food, and cooking. My (not so) secret passion is making cocktails.