Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
It feels as though, from the earliest I can remember, music has not just been a part of my life, it IS my life and I am fortunate to have never had to sit and decide what career I would take; I was always going to be a musician. It’s as though it’s part of your DNA; as important to you as breathing. Family and home environment is the first thing that shapes us; I was fortunate that it was already rich with music. Throughout my childhood, my mother, Joan Rowe (pianist, piano teacher, former ABRSM examiner and writer on piano pedagogy in early music education) had pupils regularly visiting our house for piano lessons. She was insistent that I still get the chance to practise whilst she was teaching, so we had an upright piano upstairs especially for me. I remember from a very young age, it seemed to be a friend; the source of hours and hours of exploration and adventure. You could traverse the contours of the keys, black and white, find the different patterns and shapes of the scales, as if there were thrilling new worlds and pathways to unravel….learning what the different intervals sounded like, picking out by ear melodies and chords I’d heard elsewhere, sometimes ‘discovering’ new ones. In this sense I suppose I was beginning to compose, though I didn’t really know what that was. It was as though the music was a new secret world, a best friend, a marvellous role model that said “Come on in, come and explore!”. I learned cello and piano from a young age. This, combined with music we had going on in the house and in Rotherham, through Mum’s Renaissance Recorder group, her own local pupils’ concerts, the numerous pupils from other local peripatetic teachers who’d been sent to Mum to rehearse with her for their forthcoming exams, and being taken to concerts. Many a Saturday, Mum would drag me away from Doctor Who (at the time, a terrible and most unpopular idea, me being obsessed with Tom Baker’s Doctor) to get on the bus to travel seven miles to Sheffield, to the City Hall, and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by James Loughran. Mum had worked closely with Sir John Barbirolli in the 1960s, and the City Hall was to become just as important a place in my musical development as it was for her. I adored it…. So I would say my mother was the most positive influence, although my father was also very cultured and interested in poetry, literature, music, theatre. I was supported and encouraged at every stage and never had to make a conscious decision to become a musician. I was fascinated with how one can tell a story, portray character, mood, feelings without using words or images. From a young age I wanted to get inside the structure of many genres of music, and study how composers and songwriters created their music. There were no boundaries or distinctions. Despite almost losing my hearing completely by the age of four, this was thankfully quickly rectified and I was lucky in going on to develop a very keen ear for music; seemingly identifying inner parts and hearing the colours and textures in symphonies from a young age. I need to apologise to fellow passengers on the no. 69 to Sheffield on Saturday nights in the ‘70s. It did involve a seven-year-old loudly singing various inner parts of Tchaikovsky works in particular. Odd, me?! Never! We all do that, surely? It felt natural to want to compose; to explore what music could do….
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I have been so fortunate in meeting many inspiring musicians, whose influence remains to this day.
At the same time as enjoying a wonderful and diverse musical upbringing at home, I was lucky enough to be able to access what was in the 1980s, a highly-regarded instrumental music service through our LEA in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. David Ragsdale was pioneering in overseeing an extremely good local Youth Orchestra and Young Sinfonia. The dedicated peripatetic staff who ran it inspired me to want to conduct and to learn and play as much orchestral repertoire as possible. Alastair Wood expertly conducted our Young Sinfonia and gently nurtured young string players with terrific repertoire and technique. We had wonderful orchestral concerts involving visiting professional musicians: Peter Donohoe, Jonathan Del Mar, David Lloyd-Jones…
Running in tandem it seemed, locally, was the most brilliant and inspiring ‘O’ and ‘A’ level Music teacher, Sybil Pentith. She was a gifted teacher and communicator, with exacting standards. Harmony and counterpoint were taught diligently and passionately (it is heart-breaking to see its demise in schools, with a feeling that cuts in Music Education mean that in some areas, this traditional and important cornerstone is being pushed out and criticised and wrongly-labelled as elitist and anachronistic….grrr!). Sybil was a meticulous and knowledgeable expert, an eccentric and vivacious character; extremely wise – a true polymath who encouraged us to ‘Only Connect’. Music, Art, Architecture, History, Society, Philosophy, Literature, Science, all interconnected of course. In a small sixth-form college, she would arrange pieces as wide-ranging as Ravel, Purcell, Gershwin, Tippett, Gluck, for whatever forces we had in our ‘Elastic Band’. This was an inspiring approach to learning and absorbing that she fostered in me and many others, that I aspire to continue to this day. Sybil Pentith had studied at the Royal Academy of Music in the 1940s. It was only after her death in 2004, that some of her student compositions were found and performed at her memorial. She never told anyone she had once composed, perhaps modestly preferring to live vicariously and generously through the educating of her own pupils. These were gorgeous pieces, idiosyncratic of her quirky nature and technically rigorous musical knowledge.
It was during these late teenage years with her that I started to formally compose.
Besides the orchestral tradition and 80s pop, I was initially obsessed with electronic music and synthesizers. Aged 15, my biggest ambition was to work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I wrote to Brian Hodgson and Elizabeth Parker (of whose work I was a great admirer). I was sadly dissuaded; there would be no jobs going there, it was too narrow a field, would I be better not narrowing options at this stage? ‘I should have gone to UEA after all…’, I sometimes felt. Alas, the Workshop evolved/dissolved (?) into other entities (see the wonderful work of Mark Ayres amongst other legends who still work there). I never did go down the electronic route, though I sometimes regret that, and haven’t ruled out developing in that area in the future.
I decided upon a course which would combine various passions: a rich orchestral and choral programme of performance, and harmony and counterpoint; very traditional. Just what everyone should have…There, at Hull University, I was inspired by the academic and analytical knowledge of Brian Newbould, introduced to the joys of early music and the viol through Graham Sadler and the visiting teaching of Alison Crum. The pioneering and celebrated Drama department and Gulbenkian Theatre proved a second favourite hang-out, and I quickly got involved in composing and playing a little music for small theatrical productions. But it was composer, conductor and late romantic/20th-century music expert Alan Laing who was the most influential figure. Though he was not my composition lecturer, I learned an incredible amount from him and adored his music and personality. He was my first conducting teacher and gave invaluable guidance in some of my early work.
MMus Composition studies brought me to Edinburgh University with Nigel Osborne, who was sympathetic to everyone’s style, generous in his time and patience, a lover of life, a nurturer of people and a huge influence on those interested in how music can heal. Though not directly involved in his ground-breaking ‘Music in the Community’ programme, I found his pioneering work in Bosnia and other areas in conflict and crisis with music therapy to be startling and inspiring…. It was humbling to work with him. I finally found a teacher who understood what I needed technically and what I was aiming to do compositionally.
Kirsteen McCue, the former director of Scottish Music Information Centre (now SMC) was extremely supportive and helpful early on in my career.
The early nineties felt a very good time to be a postgrad at Edinburgh. Fellow students were very up for experimenting with new music; there was a vibrancy and camaraderie in our musical endeavours that was very important to many of us.
Viol studies continue now with the brilliant Philip Thorby, amongst others; he in particular is a genius at interpretation, mannerism, communication of musical gesture in performance. In this last year I have been advancing my conducting technique with Jessica Cottis, who is another very happily-found source of brilliant inspiration and incisive, articulate ideas.
I’ve been fortunate to meet, work with and learn from so many different people, all passionate about their craft and who truly vindicate the way I have approached music all my life. There are definite parallels in the way various dear musical friends work: never stop learning, open your ears, open your mind, only connect…
It’s pleasing to see the development and success that various contemporary composer and performer friends have enjoyed, particularly in Scotland; a real sense of collegiality as we support and encourage one another, despite in some cases our respective styles seeming to be at odds with one another.
It does infuriate me that so many young people are not so fortunate to be able to access all of this, and I fear for the future of robust, deep and broad musical education, unless there are real political and economic changes soon. The ideology and spending decisions are all wrong, given the wealth of consolidated research into the benefits of early music education. Until we have a governments that listens to experts, I fear we are at a crisis point….
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
The times when the ideas don’t come as quickly as you’d like. Maintaining time and energy to devote to writing. Not having enough hours in the day! Deadlines are helpful in terms of organising time and sharpening the focus! Some of us perhaps thrive under pressure, and that feeling of needing to hone the ideas more efficiently can be galvanising.
The realisation that whilst it’s good there are competitions and opportunities, more and more these are aimed at specific groups and although to have a deadline and a specific set of parameters to work towards is good, it can be disheartening when you know you’ve written something interesting and worthwhile that didn’t fit a certain remit etc. etc. There’s also a nagging doubt that some of these competitions might in fact be a cheaper way of acquiring a commission or several, all in one go. In truth, as in many hugely important areas, funding is in woefully short supply, resources are getting squeezed. Artist and creators are having to be more inventive. One can only think times will get even harder for performers and composers after Brexit. You have to be resilient. Rejection is part of it all, but you keep at it! It wouldn’t do if everyone always liked the same music and if there only was one style. There must be variety and diversity.
Ultimately those who create any artform have to find their own truth in it; the consolidation of their own voice.
It’s fantastic that there is so much new music out there, but that inevitably means opportunities for a first and certainly a second performance seem rarer now. Keep going, be proactive, get your friends together and make it happen!
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
For a specific commission, of course the challenge is to come up with something meaningful and stimulating for the players within the brief. Hoping the quality is there, it’s the very best it can be; your vision will resonate with them and moreover, there will be room for them to bring their personality and to bring the music truly to life. It’s a circular thing – inspiration, themes, moods, structure, extra-musical stimuli, something from within and ‘without’, getting to the heart of it, teasing out what it can do and then handing it on to those who’ll bring the next dimension of its possibilities. Hoping they ‘get it’ and can play it! Pieces evolve through all these stages, the final piece of the jigsaw being the audience’s ability to engage with it. Again, it’s about making a connection, musically, emotionally, intellectually. It’s very satisfying when the partnership ‘clicks’, the players totally understand what you are aiming for and they want to lift the music even further!
I would say the whole of this process is both a challenge and a pleasure. That why we are continually driven to create.
It’s been really stimulating to work on soundtracks/incidental music in conjunction with film-makers, poets and visual artists. Again, that sense of trying to crystallise a shared vision by bringing together two or more artforms to create a coherent entity, is always exciting. Alastair Cook’s filmpoem series is terrific.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
If one knows the instrumentalists and singers, ensembles and choirs then, if you know them well, they are friends and you know what inspires them, what they can do technically and musically, it can be a joy to strive to challenge them, push the limits of what they can do, give them something surprising that inspires them. Very satisfying to feel you inhabit the process together, if your vision for the piece is shared. I expect the reverse might also be true. If it’s someone you don’t know personally but have admired their work, it’s an enormous privilege to write for them and build that professional and creative link.
Writing for The Hilliard Ensemble was a thrill. I had long revered their Arvo Pärt and Perotin discs, for example, and also knew much of their early repertoire. Their musicianship and purity of vocal timbre totally elevated what I had hoped was already a moving setting of a Rilke poem I chose.
Of which works are you most proud?
A hard question; it feels a little like a parent being asked which child they favour the most! You hope they’ll go out there and make an impact and you feel responsible if things don’t work out….Obviously for composers, all pieces bring important memories and resonances of the time in which we wrote them, who they were for, at which point in our development they were written. For that reason I hardly ever go back and revise anything, unless there are real issues. The opposite of dear old Bruckner in that respect…
However, I would have to single out a few individual works over time as occupying a particular relevance because of being written at pivotal stages of my career, and because their performance and reception led directly to other very interesting and happy projects.
Deltarhythms (1991) Written in the autumn before my moving to Edinburgh. A septet for strings and piano, drawing on minimalist influences at the time. This achieved several notable and joyous performances upon my arrival at Edinburgh and led to my being asked to write for others and take on the Conductor/Director role within Edinburgh University Contemporary Music Ensemble; quite iconic at that time.
Lament (1993) written for The Hilliard Ensemble
They kept this piece in their repertoire for many years and John Potter always kindly wrote to me with details of where (all over the world!) they had performed it. Broadcast on the BBC World Service, it was included as a hidden ‘secret track’ on the first issue of their limited edition fan disc HILLIARD LIVE 4
The success of this piece led directly to:
Shine Out Fair Sun (1994) – a commission from Cappella Nova
Again, this led to several further happy collaborations and commissions from this choir and their offshoot group Canty. It has continued to receive performances, a very positive review on BBC Radio Scotland and a commercial CD release. which led eventually to:
Elegy for Colum Cille (2000)
My first choral piece where the text was specifically commissioned. Words and music created in symbiosis. The wonderful Fife poet, Brian Johnstone created his typically powerful yet intimate words for this. I adore his poetry and it was exhilarating to be able to use his words. The piece marked the choir’s London debut on St. Columba’s Day 2000.
The People’s Mass (2002) a commission for The Dunedin Consort under Ben Parry and Susan Hamilton. A very happy project in which six composers contributed a mass movement and a solo movement. We all thoroughly enjoyed working on this unusual project. The movements I contributed were well-received on BBC R3 Record Review.
Lightlines (1993) – a large-scale work, my double cello concerto, written for two dear friends. The première was a momentous occasion. I look forward to a second outing. The middle movement I am particularly fond of, from a harmonic and structural point of view.
In the Deep (2011) – a ten-minute work for piano and orchestra. A flight of fancy for me, written as an exercise, but I’m very captivated by it and hope it will be performed soon.
Three Pieces for Soprano and Clarinet (2015)
This was another joyous project commissioned by the talented duo of Frances Cooper and Jo Nicholson. Again, new poetry was commissioned, from Jane McKie and Stewart Sanderson, specifically to be set to music. The poets had never heard their words sung before and it was very uplifting, to see their enthusiastic reaction.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Essentially it is mostly tonal and sometimes bitonal, but I do love exploring and stretching the possibilities within these fields, with modal elements, chromaticism, angular as well as smooth lyrical lines and a certain fondness for quartal harmonies and chord clusters, employed to enhance colours and textures. Narratives and dialogues are important, as is characterisation.
There are sometimes rhythmic devices which give a nod to minimalist practices of varying phrase lengths or letting a line organically develop itself which will determine its linear and rhythmic structure.
That oft-asked question, to describe one’s own music, is a difficult one. There’s a feeling that to give people a guidepost by which to compare, or have some reference point that places your work in an age, a style, one might have to refer to other works. I would say, whilst experimenting with and trying to refine my style, very early on in my teenage years, I would have been influenced by a certain romanticism from Elgar, Finzi, Walton but with a distinct wish to be technically and structurally tight, like Britten, Stravinsky, Bartok. I now feel my compositional ‘voice’ has become much more streamlined and clear.
Discovering the minimalists in the mid-eighties onwards was a total revelation for me; it was a striking voice which said to me “Yes, you may use a tonally-based vocabulary that feels contemporary and accessible, giving the ability to connect with and draw in audiences more familiar with that harmonic palette” The trick is putting it into a new context and, as ever, finding your own path. In this age of musical pluralism, it seems as though it’s liberating and freeing to be able to write whatever one wishes, and yet that may also feel inhibiting and constraining, as you realise the effort to which composers go, to bring something new, meaningful and relevant. It’s an exciting time, with so much out there to discover! Ultimately you have to be true to yourself and not ‘second-guess’ what others may want to hear…
How do you work?
My career has several strands to it which intertwine and inform one another, through composing, teaching, performing in The Squair Mile Consort of Viols and developing my conducting work.
Obviously holidays and weekends within the session are hugely important as a main block of time I devote to composing, but when I’m organised, I do fit in a lot of composing during term time.
If it’s a day without any other commitments, then it’s up early with a clear focus and a cup of coffee. Whether it be a new commission, something to write for the hell of it, editing or producing parts, making arrangements or studying scores for conducting work, I’m never happier than when the clock is invisible and all sense of time is suspended – lost in the realm of creative focus.
Sometimes, an idea will go straight onto manuscript, or sketches and ideas will be developed on paper, for structural planning and pacing. Things may get ‘tried out’ on the piano and, depending on the piece, there may be some improvisation and exploratory sessions in terms of trying out new harmonies. Pieces are written out on manuscript before being transferred to Sibelius. Whilst notation packages have transformed the way we produce our published music in physical form, I’m not the only one who laments the decline of the good ‘manuscript hand’; those of us who worked as copyists or just relished getting our own scores beautifully laid out with a passion for neatness and the correct tools (any excuse to visit a good stationers). That skill has gone, I fear. No-one wants to receive handwritten scores anymore, however precise and accurate. A shame. (Yes, I am a half-Luddite!).
For a new choral or vocal commission, I really enjoy researching and finding a suitable text to set. I have a large collection of poetry and literature, and will very often have already certain words I know I’ll want to set some day. I sit with the words for a good amount of time, pondering over the structure, the metre and rhythm, the impetus behind the words. It’s very satisfying, immersing yourself in the text, getting a feel for the intention of the writer. There’s an enormous sense of responsibility if setting someone else’s words or writing music to accompany visuals or film. You can enhance or disrupt the original meanings. How much to say? What to imply rather than state implicitly? Going for a walk and being outdoors will always help consolidate ideas. Travel, particularly long train journeys with incredible views of the horizon: seemingly static whilst the foreground rushes by, will often trigger musical thought. I carry manuscript or plain notebook on days when I know I’ll have time, or a wait, or a journey.
Sometimes I spend a lot of time planning out structure and pacing, shapes and textures before any notes enter in. Pieces can be very gestural, with a loose framework of harmonic range. At other times it is a rhythmic, melodic or harmonic idea that immediately comes to mind and thereon in it’s an organic process, letting it evolve almost by itself, teasing it out. I always liked the literal translation of the French phrase ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est ? – ‘What is it that it is?’ What is the nature of this kernel of an idea? What does it want or need to do? What is its imperative, and does one follow through with that or take it somewhere else? You’re harnessing something that begins to exist in its own right. How might it transform and what is the quality of the sound that is desired? Once the idea is out there, it exists; it needs nurturing. You are almost a conduit, but it is your vision as to where it will go.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Another almost impossible question. Always said I would hate to be on Desert Island Discs. I would demand to take 8 ipods, never mind discs….Different eras, styles, composers for different times, techniques and moods. But here goes, in no particular order:
Composers: The order and invention of Bach, the passion of Tchaikovsky, the architecture of Bartok, quirks of Andriessen, elegance of Poulenc, colours of Takemitsu, Messiaen and Saariaho, Tristan Murail, Pierre Schaeffer. The precision and dynamism of Stravinsky, intellectualism, economy and personality of Britten, harmony of Steve Reich, John Adams, Kalevi Aho, John Corigliano, Alan Hovanhess, Richard Strauss and earlier Schoenberg, richness of Brahms, numeracy of Graham Fitkin, piety of Pärt. Walton, Finzi. Dudley Simpson’s incidental music (for THAT programme). I love Stephen Montague’s music (he was another big help to me during a very brief meeting in Edinburgh), Delia Derbyshire, Anne Dudley, the audacity of Schnittke, sonorities of Sculthorpe, viol consort repertoire of John Jenkins and William Lawes, the grandeur, pathos and modernism of Purcell. Charles Ives, Erik Norby, Jonathan Dove.
Musicians and conductors: Katia and Marielle Labèque, Loose Tubes, Jacqueline du Pré, Michael George, John Mark Ainsley, James Bowman, Kate Bush, Depeche Mode, Philippe Herreweghe, Jessica Cottis, Fretwork (esp the ‘classic 90s line-up), Christian Lindberg, Susannah Pell and Jacob Heringman, Kraftwerk, Renée Fleming, Gidon Kremer, Mark Hollis and Talk Talk, Angela Hewitt, Stephen Jackson, Rostropovich, Marin Alsop, Mitsuko Uchida …
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Obviously, practice your craft as much as time, circumstance and money will allow, and if all these are in short supply, MAKE time and effort to further your study however you can; keep listening, keep reading and thinking. Be open to new ideas and concepts in performance, keep exploring, don’t get stuck in a rut. As a performer, everyone at some point gets their technique ripped apart, but there is immense value in being self-analytical and to have a rigorous attitude to learning. Be disciplined and focussed on goals, be they long-term or short: ‘I must write ten good bars this morning’. Keep your ears open to new music, new possibilities or anything that is unfamiliar. A composer friend once said ‘does it make your ears smile?’ I would say that even if it doesn’t leave your ears ‘smiling’, look for the potential in it, the craft that’s gone into it. Don’t ever dismiss things straight off because they’re hard to understand. It what we should be teaching our young musicians.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To be engaged with making music (either in performance, composition or conducting) that resonates with audiences and performers; it moves them in some way, it’s thought-provoking, leaves them enriched or stimulates other ideas that stay with them beyond the performance. To write music that is enjoyed and admired for making ears ‘smile’ as well as making minds think. A tricky balance. To sustain a career through further performances of work, and further rewarding and unusual collaborations with exciting and interesting musicians, writers, directors.
What is your most treasured possession?
Family, friends, health, the ability to think and connect with people, places, art.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
See the above, perhaps in the context of a day staring at big sea and sky, or a walk amongst giant redwoods, a night staring up at constellations in Cornwall on a coastal path with not a glint of artificial orange light. Staring out to the sea on Aldeburgh beach. A cosy, peaceful time with loved ones. An evening sharing good company, food and wine. A thought-provoking film, performance or gallery exhibition.
What is your present state of mind?
Energised and inspired. Ready for a glass of something….!
Hear Rebecca’s ‘Three Pieces for Soprano and Clarinet’ this month at the innovative contemporary music series ‘The Night With…’
Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, Market St. – Monday 8th October 8pm
Glasgow’s Hug and Pint, Great Western Road – Tuesday 9th October 8pm
Aberdeen’s Brewdog Castlegate, Union St. – Wednesday 31st October 8pm
Composer Rebecca Rowe is passionate about bringing contemporary music to new audiences in a way that is exciting, challenging, yet meaningful and accessible. She is interested in presenting music in new ways, and in new spaces, particularly interdisciplinary projects involving musicians, artists, film-makers and writers.
Rebecca has composed soundtracks for animated films and theatre productions, and has worked collaboratively with directors and poets in setting their images and words to music.
Commissions and performances have come from artists as diverse as: The Dunedin Consort, Cappella Nova, The Hilliard Ensemble, CHROMA ensemble, recorder virtuoso John Turner, contemporary ensemble ONE VOICE, Northern College Aberdeen, singer Steven Griffin, The Allegri String Quartet and viola da gamba player Ibi Aziz.
Rebecca is a cellist and pianist, has a BMus (Hons) from Hull University and holds an MMus in Composition from Edinburgh University, having studied with Nigel Osborne. A founder member of The Squair Mile Consort of Viols, Rebecca is also a former Artistic Director and conductor of Edinburgh University Contemporary Music Ensemble.
A dedicated interpreter of contemporary music, Rebecca has conducted chamber orchestras, contemporary music ensembles and large choirs, ranging from children’s school choirs through to University ensembles. Rebecca has been passionately involved in Music Education, working both in Adult Education as a music tutor for ten years, and as a teacher specialising in Primary Music Education since 1996. She has a wealth of experience as a conductor of young choirs, and is currently undertaking research on musical creativity and critical-thinking in young children.
Her music has been broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio 3 and The World Service. Films Rebecca scored have been broadcast on STV and BBC1. Commercial releases include pieces for The Dunedin Consort, Cappella Nova and Canty.
She was awarded The English Poetry and Song Society Prize, for the 1994 work No Sad Songs.
In 2005 Rebecca was invited to be a panel-member at StAnza, (St. Andrews’ Poetry Festival) where she took part in an illuminating debate on Words and Music.
Between 2010 and 2012, she worked on a fascinating series of multidisciplinary projects with film-director Alastair Cook, in his series Filmpoem.
Rebecca’s collaborative project ‘Three Pieces for Soprano and Clarinet’, for Frances Cooper and Joanna Nicholson, included texts commissioned from prominent Scottish poets. It premiered at Aberdeen’s SOUND Festival in 2015 and has been touring around Scotland since then.
The 2018 work ‘Journeying: Part Two’ will feature on a forthcoming debut CD release by celebrated viol-player Ibi Aziz.
A future collaboration in some form is planned with Glasgow School of Art Choir.
Her latest commission, ‘About The Cauldron Sing’, a setting of the witches’ scenes from Macbeth, was composed for Fliskmahoy! and will première in 2019.