Interview with Richard Miller

For the fourth interview in our Rising Stars series, we spoke to Richard Miller from the Royal College of Music in London about his conducting and composition careers so far, the interplay between them, and where he sees himself going next…

How did you get into composing and conducting, and which one came first?

Composition certainly came first. I was a chorister in a church choir in Liverpool – my first exposure to any kind of classical music. I began composing when I was around eleven, writing various religious settings. Interestingly, I’ve strayed away from choral music since moving to London (though I was fortunate enough to have my choral piece workshopped by the BBC Singers last year).

Conducting came about in a similar sort of context – shortly before I left Liverpool, I conducted Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony with a choir made up of singers from the Liverpool Cathedral and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choirs (both of which I sang with in my teens), and directed an orchestra for the first time a year or so afterwards.

A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams

What inspires or influences you when you compose?

My music tends to be quite abstract – there’s no story behind it, as such. To get things started, I’ll often look at a poem and study it intensely. From the emotions I feel when reading it, I translate literary gestures that jump out at me into my own perceived musical ones. These gestures tend to get more and more distorted as I develop them, and so the eventual composition ends up being quite far away from what I started with!

Are you quite critical of yourself as a composer?

As a conductor, as with most other performers, I have to be quite critical of myself – composition is no different, really. It can be quite tough not to be able to sit back and just enjoy what I’ve done, but it also means that I improve at a greater rate.

Can you tell me about what it’s like having your compositions played in workshops?

Workshops are incredibly useful; even if you’ve got a really good inner ear, it’s sometimes difficult to know what to expect from all the dots you’ve laid on the page. Workshops allow you to hear a piece properly, giving you an opportunity to revise a piece before an actual performance. It’s also a good chance for performers to let you know how well (or not!) you’ve written for their instruments.

I’m very much looking forward to taking part in an orchestral workshop with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the end of February, which will be lead by a composer called Colin Matthews who I studied with at the Dartington Summer School in August. I’m quite excited, as I’ve not had a piece performed by a professional orchestra before.

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Do you find that being a conductor helps you to think more practically about how best to write for an ensemble?

Absolutely. I find that writing and conducting don’t tend to happen at the same time; I’ll do some composition during one particular period, and then I’ll concentrate on conducting within another. I found that when I conducted an orchestral concert in November, I came back to composition thinking things such as: “actually that would be easier if I were to notate it this way“.

So your whole outlook on how you communicate your musical intentions to the players is completely different to how it was previously. And likewise, I think conducting gives you a good insight into how other composers might like their music to be interpreted.

Obviously every composer is different, and each conductor’s interpretation of a composer’s music will inevitably be different too. For these reasons, I think the two are a good match.

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Photography by Andreea Tufescu

How important do you think it is to have a personal relationship with an orchestra or group you’re working with? Do you get to know them?

It’s not always possible, but knowing and getting along with every one of the players is, for me, almost as important as their musical abilities, and I look for both when asking musicians to play for the chamber ensemble that I conduct. I feel this to be particularly important when you’re working with a smaller, more intimate ensemble.

Façade by William Walton

For example, in March we’ll be performing Façade by Walton which is for just six instrumentalists, so there’s more opportunity for direct communication. For the film orchestra it’s slightly different because there’s a huge mass of people that you’re working with. I often feel bad that I don’t get to speak to everyone during each rehearsal, but I do my best to keep the social atmosphere alive, which is important because they’re all volunteering. Like any of the other projects at college, they are giving up their time, in this case because they enjoy working on film music, something that they wouldn’t normally get to play.

Do you have a special interest in film music, and have you composed any?

Compositionally, not at all, although I did have an interest in writing film music when I was in my mid-teens, but left it in favour of more art-based music. I think it’s a shame that a lot of composers can be quite snobby about film music if it’s not something that they themselves do. Ivan Hewett summarises my feelings quite nicely: that as it’s not the same as concert music, it shouldn’t be judged in that bracket.

Music for film exists to set a mood for an audience and to accompany a film, whereas art music isn’t necessarily accompanying anything, and it stands alone. Some art music will draw up a narrative, and some will be far more abstract. As a conductor I have an interest in a wide variety of 20th century music, from Mahler all the way up to Birtwistle, and film music is simply another part of that.

Do you think it’s possible to make a judgement about whether or not something is a ‘good’ piece of music?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I myself find much of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s music to be very beautiful. Much of it has a very ethereal quality, much of it is very driven, very hard edged, and that’s what I like about his music. For other people it’s a little bit too hard edged and they might say that they wouldn’t enjoy listening to it.

Cortege for 14 Musicians by Sir Harrison Birtwistle

I guess it depends on what you want to get out of listening. I want something that’s new and that speaks to me. There’s a lot of new music that I listen to and I think ‘yes, very experimental and very original’, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to me. But others might feel differently.

You founded a group called the St Cecelia Ensemble last year, can you tell me a little about that?

We play pieces of music that are written for unusual ensembles, such as Façade. To go alongside that, we’ve commissioned a new piece by a fantastic composer called Amy Bryce, also a student at RCM. I love Façade, but about 90% of the reason for choosing to programme it was that I couldn’t think of another piece written for that particular ensemble. It’s a shame, because the writing for that instrumentation works really well, and I hope that more music will be written for the ensemble in the future.

If you had to choose between only ever conducting or composing what would you choose and why?

Neither – I feel that they both go together very well. There’s a long history of composer-conductors, from Lully up to Adès. I don’t think I could choose. When I’m focused on one, I can’t bear to think about the other, but I love them both equally.

In Seven Days by Thomas Adès

What are your aspirations for the next few years?

I just want to keep composing and get my music played by as many different ensembles as possible: get it out there, develop it to a standard that I’m happy with, and create something lasting (maybe even something that I can make a living from!)

With both composition and conducting, I’d rather not think about what’s coming in the future and just see what happens, taking every opportunity I can to try and get my music played, and to play everyone else’s music as best as I can.

You can catch Richard conducting the RCM Film Orchestra on Thursday 5th February 2015 in the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall at the RCM. To find out more about the programme and performers, check out the Encore listing.

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