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An interview with Roderick Williams

How did you get into composing?
I used to write pieces for my family to play and sing around the house – little piano pieces or trios and quartets for recorders. They were all pretty derivative and I would not recommend the sound of four descant recorders in one room. However, it was normal for my family to play anything I wrote and my father, an occasional amateur singer, would sing the songs that I wrote so I became used to the idea that composition was a natural thing to do. It never seemed strange to me. So it continued through school and university, with my friends playing my pieces and arrangements without demurring. In fact, they often made some fairly drab material sound wonderful through their musicianship and that was a lesson I had to earn later in life; just because a piece initially sounds good in performance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is well written.

Are there any composing/musical projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’m writing a set of piece for vocal trio Voices with solo cello accompaniment. I’m looking forward to hearing how that combination comes about. I also have a handful of choral commissions on the go, including for a new CD solely of my sacred choral music. That is a very exciting prospect.

Have you come across any challenges in writing for vocalists as opposed to instrumentalists?
On the contrary, I think beginning with a text allows me a way into a piece far more swiftly than an abstract instrumental piece. A text will give me structure, mood and impulse before I have written a single note. As I have found as an arranger, it is far easier to create a work on the back of someone else’s material. Also, as a singer myself with a long choral background, I find myself very comfortable in the choral/vocal idiom.

Do you have a particular process that you follow in composing? Are you systematic or sporadic?!
I tend not to follow a specific process; sometimes I create a challenge for myself, such as writing in canon or over a ground, more for fun than as an academic exercise. So I am certainly more sporadic than systematic. If I feel inspiration strike, then I know I have to get the music down on the page as quickly as possible because no amount of compositional technique can mask a lack of inspiration. Most often though, I find myself going through the same old phases as I write; I start off with an idea, work at it for a bit and then realise that it’s complete rubbish. But then I work at it more and begin to think it might not be so bad. Soon I realise that I was right first time – it is rubbish after all, but at least I might have finished it to deadline. Then some time afterwards, I come to think that it maybe wasn’t totally worthless and feel glad to have finished it at least. And so I continue to bounce backwards and forwards for ever afterwards!

Are there any artists you particularly admire?
I tend to admire composers and their music over and above performers. I do admire the performers of course but I think I hear more the music they are making rather than the way they are doing it. See next question.

Which composer, alive or dead, would you most like to talk to, and why?
That’s easy. J S Bach of course, and I’m fairly sure that answer would be for a great many musicians. Why him? Because other ‘greats’ have managed to accompany their music with letters or other documents that give more of an insight into their temperament as people as well as musicians. Bach on one hand has left us so much music but I feel that I don’t really know what kind of man he was. I imagine a humble, unassuming man, the sort who would talk to you kindly enough but whose mind would be elsewhere as he worked out a double, invertible fugue in his head. I would just have loved to know him as a person.

What styles/genres of music do you most enjoy composing for?
I enjoy writing choral music of course, but perhaps choral music over solo voice music, I’m not sure. I think there is a power about a collective voice singing a text; it’s hugely stirring when you get it right. It also taps into my upbringing as a choral singer for so many years of course; that’s part of my musical DNA.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I spend so much time with music – learning it, rehearsing it, performing it, that there’s precious little time for much else. But I enjoy walking, especially if it gives me a chance to visit some classic English pubs. My job takes me all over the world and if I get a chance to go walking too, then that’s a dream ticket.