Richard Whalley lectures in composition at the University of Manchester, where he is the founder and director of new music ensemble, Vaganza. As a composer, he was a finalist in the 1992 BBC Young Musician of the Year Composers’ Award, and has had works selected for Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam (2001), Ensemble Aleph’s Forum for Composers in France (2003), and the International Society for Contemporary Music’s World Music Days in Flanders (2012). He is also active as a pianist, and has premiered works by Camden Reeves and Kevin Malone. He teaches composition and performs chamber music at the ARAM-Poitou Summer School in France each summer. He studied at University of York with Roger Marsh and Nicola Lefanu, and at Harvard University with Mario Davidovsky and Joshua Fineberg.
His Six Songs of Old Japanese Wisdom will be performed in the next LM recital (Saturday 4th August) by Paul Carey Jones (baritone) and Ian Ryan (piano).
Steve Crowther: Richard, I am assuming that Six Songs of Old Japanese Wisdom draws its inspiration from the East and Zen in particular?
Richard Whalley: It was mainly to do with the fact I was exploring poetry at the time, and found myself discovering Haiku. I came across these wonderful texts by Issa, a Japanese poet who lived in the late 18th / early 19th century. He had a very difficult life, but found solace in nature, and I find the way he captures details very poignant. I also liked the idea of setting miniatures to music, because they allow so much space for reflection.
SC: Can you describe the songs to us?
RW: There’s six short songs, the last one of which comes back (more or less) at the end. There’s a sort of arch-like form overall, whereby certain songs in the second half allude to those in the first half.
SC: Can you describe the process of setting them?
RW: Tricky to remember that far back, though I remember I got a lot of enjoyment out of writing these because the previous piece I had written was a huge piece in which I got terribly stuck! It was fun choosing the texts, and organising how they might fit together in a cycle. I was exploring a lot of ninth-based harmony at the time, and also ways of getting bits of material to cycle round and round, sometimes in layers that go at different rates. Like much of my music, melody is often prominent, and I rely a lot on my ear and intuitions.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you sing during the compositional process?
RW: Indeed – my fingers can be more spontaneous than my head. I’m a hopeless singer, but when setting words then of course I sing the vocal line to myself to know how it feels.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a voice in mind?
RW: It’s a huge help, but in this case I didn’t really have a specific voice in mind, so focused on writing what I thought would work. As for the piano I can’t help writing for the way I play – I think that’s inevitable. I wanted – and failed – to write music that isn’t too difficult to play, but I think Ian and Paul are doing a wonderful job. It’s such a joy when performers know the music well enough to make it their own.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
RW: That’s a difficult question! I wish I had a snappy answer to it, as it’s what people always want to know. What makes it even harder to answer is the necessity of change from one piece to another, as none of the composers I admire most stood still.
What’s fundamental is that composition is so darn difficult that it’s important to find ways of making it fun. For me that means finding fresh challenges, different situations and constantly changing. That’s not to say there aren’t consistencies - perhaps certain melodic turns of phrase, certain types of gesture a certain harmonic richness, but I think the colours and moods of different compositions are very different. One thing I can say is that I’m very interested in writing music that is intimate, and music that is slightly wacky, and I enjoy the creative tension between these two qualities.
Actually, a much better answer to this question than hearing me ramble on, is to listen to the actual music: there’s a number of extracts on my website, and some of my music (including these songs) is available on CD.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
RW: Essentially, I have to, otherwise I get frustrated. My love of great music is an important part of this, along with the desire to express something unique. The world doesn’t need any more mediocre music, so there’s only any point in composing if the music is distinctive or innovative in some way… But just think how grey the world would be if it weren’t for Beethoven, or Ligeti (etc. etc….)
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
RW: Above all, I admire Lachenmann. He’s just such an original thinker, and his music is completely unlike anyone else’s on the planet. For the sake of answering this question, it’s a shame that Ligeti, Xenakis, Nancarrow, Nono and Stockhausen are no longer alive, as I get so much inspiration from their ideas. I expect (and hope) that there’s younger composers alive now whose creativity is in the same league as above, but I don’t know who they are. I hope that composers continue to innovate as they did in the twentieth century, even though their concerns now are so different. There’s a lot of focus nowadays on expanding the definition of music to be more all-encompassing, which is potentially exciting, as long as the music itself is innovative. The twenty-first century has a lot to live up to in comparison with the previous one
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
RW: To tell the truth, composers I’d like a beer with aren’t necessarily the same as composers whose music blows me away. That said, I’m very lucky because I did once have a beer with Lachenmann! He made me feel like I know very little, but in the best possible way. From the past, of course it would have been amazing to have met Beethoven, but it might have been more entertaining to have a beer with Berlioz!
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
RW: Ok, first the disclaimers. Ask me a different day, you’ll get a different set of answers. I’m also conscious most of what’s below are big works, when in reality I also love miniatures. I also love hearing music I didn’t know before, so a desert island would be torture from that point of view. This is hard, but let’s say:
1. Bach Goldberg Variations
2. Beethoven Op. 130 quartet (with Grosse Fuge).
3. Schubert G major quartet
4. Schumann Dichterliebe
5. Nielsen Symphony no. 5
6. Sibelius Symphony no. 7
7. Ligeti Chamber Concerto
8. Nancarrow Player Piano Study no. 7
If only one, I guess the Beethoven.
SC: …and a book?
RW: As above, would hate to be restricted to one book. I can’t decide between David Mitchell ‘Cloud Atlas’, Margaret Atwood ‘The Blind Assassin’ or Iris Murdoch ‘The Sea, the Sea’
RW: Am so out of touch with cinema since my children were born. Maybe Pulp Fiction?
SC: … and a luxury item?
RW: Somewhere warm and sunny to live, with a good stock of Belgian beer. Is that allowed?