Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I more or less always played piano, and at some point in my teens years I became really interested in the creative arts, particularly in theatre and literature, and then in music. I was very lucky to have an amazing music department who not only held to an incredibly high standard of playing for a non-specialist school, but were also very supportive of pupils’ creativity and facilitated some of the first performances of my music.
I went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland initially as a first-study pianist, but fairly quickly I became much more interested in exploring creativity and collaboration (and less interested in sitting alone in a practice room for hours a day). I focussed my studies on contemporary repertoire and worked with a lot of student composers, and eventually graduated with a joint degree in piano performance and composition.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I suppose I’m most indebted to my parents, without whose emotional (and financial) support I could never have become a musician in the first place. I was lucky to have incredibly supportive music and drama departments at school, which is probably where I discovered a love for experimentation and creativity which was then fostered by my composition tutors at university – Stuart MacRae at the RCS and Rolf Hind at the Guildhall School.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
I suppose most young composers have many of the same frustrations – persistent existential crises and inferiority complexes, and difficulty in making ends meet while pursuing artistic goals. I’d say though that on the whole I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunities that I have at this stage of my career, so mustn’t grovel!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
This commission from BCMG for their Marx.Music is actually my first proper commission – I have worked with professional ensembles before, but only in the context of young composer schemes & summer schools – so I suppose I can only really talk about this one. I do remember getting quite giddy about going to see BCMG playing a programme including Stravinsky’s Renard just a couple of weeks after getting the commission through, and it’s been nice to slowly get to know the players & management who have been phenomenally kind and supportive, and have said yes to more or less every demand I’ve placed upon them!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Working with people is one of the things I enjoy most about being a composer, and the process of working with performers is fundamentally a collaboration and nothing else. In this way, you open the process up to a two-way dialogue, the player’s input becoming as much a part of the piece as that of the composer. I’m interested in getting to know the human side of a performer just as much as their technical ability – following them on Twitter is just as important as going to their concerts!
Of which works are you most proud?
I think the toughest processes were working on my two orchestral pieces – ‘Three Love Songs’ and ‘their hands outstretched in yearning for the other shore’, written for the BBC Scottish Symphony and Royal Scottish National Orchestras respectively. Writing for orchestra combines having an impossibly large canvas, choosing among an endless number of possibilities, the baggage of there being so many masterpieces written in the genre and frankly the hell of a lot of notes you need to write in comparison to smaller chamber pieces! In writing each, I genuinely wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to finish them and was on the verge of giving up the ghost. In the end, though, I was really quite satisfied by both pieces, and they remain among my proudest achievements – goes to show, doesn’t it…
How would you characterise your compositional language?
That’s probably for a listener to say instead of me! I have so many differing influences and am at such an early stage of my career that if I did have a compositional language it will probably change by the next piece I write.
How do you work?
On the go on trains, in cafes or libraries, or at home at my desk or in the garden, but almost always with a notebook and a laptop. I suppose I’m of a generation for whom Sibelius is more intuitive than manuscript a lot of the time…
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
My listening history is always incredibly left-field and eclectic – I’m a huge fan of the British folk revivalists, for example, and I listened to a lot of death metal as a teenager, which probably influences the angstier side of my music. About 50% of my Spotify plays recently have been Bananarama, though, who are obviously the greatest band ever to grace the earth.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Making music with meaning and conviction, and enjoying doing it.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Maggie Kinloch, the inimitable Scottish theatre director and ex-Vice Principal of the RCS, always used to tell us, “be open to the possibility of being surprised every day of your life in what you do,” which I think is excellent advice.
Robert Reid Allan’s new work for BCMG’s Marx.Music will be performed on 30 August at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham, UK
Robert Reid Allan is a Scottish composer and pianist based and working in East London. He creates visceral, innovative and hard-hitting work touching on themes of violence, sexuality and politics.
A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he has worked with a number of distinguished performers and ensembles including Ensemble Modern, the Royal Scottish National and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestras, Psappha and Red Note Ensembles, EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, percussionist Joby Burgess and cellist Oliver Coates, and has had work performed across the UK and in Europe.