Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I started playing the flute at quite a young age and, once I figured out how to read music I realised that I could put notes together how I wanted to and saw that this could be as much or more fun than just reading other people’s. This was possible only thanks to the free tuition and instrument loan that state schools offered back then: I was extremely lucky to attend the Centre for Young Musicians in Pimlico (then run by the Inner London Education Authority). Now, after many years, I am very happy to be an Honorary Patron of the CYM.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I think that, as a teenager, seeing Michael Tippett quite a lot at concerts – hearing new works by him and hearing him talk about them before the performance – had a huge impact on me. It was vital in making me realise that composers are living people and that their imaginations are shaped by the world we all live together in.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
For many years, the only way I could survive and have a reasonable amount of time to compose was to live on an extremely low income. We lived in semi-squats, places without drinkable water, and for about 10 years without either central heating or double glazed windows – it was very cold indeed.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
It’s a great honour to be commissioned to write a piece, however that happens: I never ever take it for granted. Right now I’m working on a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but I have often been commissioned by individuals for specific, personal reasons (a bereavement, a celebration, an anniversary…) and in those cases, it’s a privilege to be entrusted with something so personal, and to engage with something that matters so deeply to the commissioner.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I very much like meeting with performers before starting a new piece, and learning about what they can do with their instrument/voice, as well as the dialogue during the process of composition. But essentially, composition is for me a solitary activity and in all honesty, the ideas are seldom influenced in a very profound way by the person or people for whom I am composing.
Of which works are you most proud?
An orchestral piece entitled ‘Millennium Scenes’. It required tremendous courage to write it and pushed me way, way outside my comfort zone – it was a tough experience which fundamentally changed me. I discovered that my music could do things that I had not thought it was capable of.
But there are other pieces too – a small and very early piece, ‘Threnody’, has just been issued on cd and sort of epitomises how I feel about the human condition (it is a setting for voice, piano and two clarinets of a beautiful poem by Marina Tsvetayeva, which ends with the words And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we/who never let each other sleep above it). Other pieces I am very attached to are the quintet ‘Phoenix’, the ‘Chamber Symphony’ and ‘Twenty-Seven Heavens’ for large orchestra.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
That’s a tricky question and of course I would prefer to refer you to the music, so that you can hear for yourself. But if pushed, perhaps I could say that I’m attracted to strong, clearly-drawn ideas which are incisive and crisp; and that I often discover, during the process of composition, an intense seam of pathos – sorrow, even – that seems to re-emerge again and again in lots of my pieces.
How do you work?
Usually at the piano, with a pencil and quite a lot of singing/trying things out/going over ideas again and again trying to nail them – all very low-tech. It’s hard work and I always start from first principles in each new piece I write. I often sketch passages many, many times before I’m happy. But I want to be able to feel that I got to the heart of the idea I was exploring in every piece I compose.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Stravinsky, Messiaen, Sibelius, Nielsen, Tippett, Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen and Nono.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Without wanting to sound egocentric, the truthful answer is that hearing one’s own music in concert is an incomparably powerful experience, simply because it’s the fulfilment of usually years (and in the case of one of my pieces, some twenty years) of drafting, writing, developing, crafting, honing and revising ideas.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
On the one hand, you have to be very kind to yourself. There is a great deal militating against musicians nowadays and specifically against those who want and need to innovate, so being overly punitive in terms of one’s self-criticism can be destructive.
But on the other hand, at a much later stage in the creative (or performing) process (e.g. when a piece is finished or almost finished, or when listening back to a recording of your own performances), you do have to be absolutely rigorously self-critical in order to understand how you can grow as an artist. That rigour is absolutely vital before you start putting your work up on the internet and social media, which can be (and often is) the ultimate vanity-publisher’s dream. Between all these different and opposing factors, being an artist is a difficult and complex balancing act. There’s no how-to-do-it manual and everyone has to find their own path.
Richard Causton studied at the University of York, the Royal College of Music and the Scuola Civica in Milan. He has worked with ensembles such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken, London Sinfonietta, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Britten Sinfonia and the Nash Ensemble. His music has been recorded on the NMC, Metier, Delphian and London Sinfonietta labels.
In 1997 he was awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which enabled him to study in Milan with Franco Donatoni. Other distinctions include First Prize in the Third International ‘Nuove Sincronie’ Composition Competition, a British Composer Award and a Royal Philharmonic Society Award. In 2003-5, Causton was Fellow in the Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge.
In addition to composition, Causton writes and lectures on Italian contemporary music and regularly broadcasts for Italian radio (RAI Radio 3).
Recent works include ‘Twenty-Seven Heavens’ for orchestra, commissioned as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and premièred at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda, as well as solo pieces for pianist Piotr Anderszewski and cellist Anssi Karttunen. He is currently working on a large-scale orchestral work for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Richard Causton is currently Reader in Composition at the University of Cambridge.