Timothy Raymond is the former Head of Composition and Contemporary Music at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where he taught for 15 years. His work has been performed both in the UK and overseas and broadcast by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Based in Ilkley, he is currently pursuing his own independent projects together with work stemming from his recent appointment as Director of Music at the Priory Church of Bolton Abbey.
From dark to dark will be premiered at the next LM recital (Saturday 4th August) by Paul Carey Jones (baritone) and Ian Ryan (piano).
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the songs to us?
Timothy Raymond: Each of these three ‘pieces for baritone and piano’ pursues a different approach to the setting of texts that relate to Bede (673-735), his work and the notion of ‘from…to…’, of (spiritual) journeying. The central narrative, The flight of the sparrow, is literally that, from out of the darkness, across the banquet hall and out again the other side. The first ‘piece’ sets Bradford-born poet Chris McCully’s translation from the Old English of Bede’s Death Song in a quite intense and expressionistic way. The last song sets one of McCully’s original poems – a short, beautifully crafted two verse meditation put into the mouth of Bede’s Copyist on the transitory nature of their work (‘..we work between space and space – And both are dark’). It’s the nearest I’ve ever got to writing a ‘straight’ song. It’s even got a constant pulse – well…almost! The other thing I should mention is that the piano part is quite elaborate (almost orchestral) and on an equal level with the voice.
SC: Can you describe the process of setting them?
TR: The ‘process’ overlaps with my answer to your first question and with the discovery of the texts. It’s seamless and osmotic. If I had to sectionalise, It could be described as an initial period of research - including a visit to Bede’s ruined monastery in Newcastle; next: some thought about the central sparrow episode and a decision to use Wordsworth’s poetic paraphrase of Bede’s book; then research into Old English poetry and, through that, my discovery of the work of Chris McCully (which deeply impressed me as a whole) and plainchant sung while Bede was dying (later subsumed into the fabric of the piece); after that, the amassing of musical ideas and material (effectively, the mapping of a particular musical world); and finally the conception and structuring of three essentially different bits of that world, the third being something very like a song!
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you sing during the compositional process?
TR: I don’t use the piano at all during the initial notating of musical ideas and I only use it as a check to the ear at an advanced level of the composing process. I’m a relatively fluent pianist and can improvise – both skills that I’m keen to dissociate completely from my composing, where musical thought, its structuring and symbolic representation is, for me, the key to a degree of control and precision which would otherwise be unavailable. I sing – especially where voices are involved. The traditional nomenclature and identification in harmony and counterpoint of ‘voices’ with ‘lines’ remains supremely relevant and continues to be a creative spur to cultivated music. Thus, singing takes on a permanent symbolic rôle in a lot of music. As Frost says, ‘The aim was song…’
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a voice in mind?
TR: Very important for me. Composition tends to be an appropriately isolated activity of the mind. It benefits immensely from the empirical and practical input of performers at any and all stages. In this case, Paul’s advice regarding aspects of his ‘instrument’ and some knowledge gleaned from people who knew his and Ian’s performing work, together with clips of Paul’s singing on the web, were very helpful in helping to determine the nature of the writing.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
TR: I approach the composition of a new piece as an imaginative/musical adventure as far as possible peculiar to that piece alone. I don’t regard stylistic consistency from piece to piece as an ideal but, that said, it’s obvious (to me, at least) that certain characteristics have remained constant in my work: a concern with harmonic consistency together with full integration and inter-reliance of all the compositional parameters both in controlled flow and direct contrast of ideas. This is informed by the conviction that systems don’t guarantee any interest whatsoever but also that on no account should they be allowed to inhibit fantasy and imagination. I have an abiding interest in the necessity of anarchy in all walks of life (if you can forgive that paradox). I don’t believe that music has to be anything at all. The moment someone pontificates that music has to contain this, that or the other in order to be significant, it’s in my nature to try very hard to exclude that ‘this’, ‘that’ or ‘other’ from my next piece! For that reason, I prefer people to keep their opinions to themselves! However, I have to say that for certain types of musical expression and certain types of musical discourse to become viable, hierarchies of values need to be established amongst the elements of the composer’s musical meta-language.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
TR: It’s the only thing I think I can do which I believe defines me as a worker. I’m absolutely fascinated and enthralled by composing and I like solitude. Composing’s an act, like playing an instrument, a performance which you need to develop skills – technique – to bring off. It isn’t a branch of academe or a set of tricks or dodges but a superb form of thought in action – one which doesn’t mean anything in a strictly linguistic sense but one which I think we’d be poorer without. It’s capable of many types of power and expression ‘[w]hereof one cannot speak…’.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
TR: I find it hard to identify with anybody now – least of all my self - but I’ve loved and admired the music of Boulez, Carter, Dutilleux and Jonathan Harvey for 40 years or less – together with the music of my teacher, John Lambert (now sadly deceased). Somewhat younger composers such as Bainbridge, Anderson and Manoury also come to mind. They all write the most extraordinarily beautiful music. Reich is the only one of the minimalist and post-minimalist generation whose music held any interest for me (but, for me, nothing much later than the mid-1980s when his baseball cap became inseparable from his head).
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
TR: Charles Ives, simply because you probably could have had a beer and a chat with him. And you could probably avoid talking about music with him too, if you wanted. He is, in fact, one of my very favourite composers.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
TR: This is hard (because I can’t get many composers mentioned above or Sibelius 5, Bartok’s 4th Quartet, Varèse (anything) or another Carter piece or really anything much in there) but I love being pretentious as you can tell, so here goes: 1) something from the Netherlands polyphonists: let’s say Obrecht, Missa Maria Zart, primarily because it’s beautiful and, then because its structural complexities are so fascinating and absorbing; 2) J.S. Bach – almost anything, but the B Minor Mass will certainly do; 3) Wagner, Götterdämmerung; 4) Brahms, 4th Symphony; 5) Fauré, 2nd Piano Quintet in C minor; 6) Dutilleux, Métaboles; 7) Ohana, 2nd String Quartet; 8) Carter, Duo (for violin and piano).
First choice (er…): Fauré, 2nd Piano Quintet in C minor because of its profound beauty; the first movement’s journey into blinding light; its modernity, subtlety and poignant expressivity.
SC: …and a book?
TR: Robert Frost,The Poetry of Robert Frost.
TR: A Sunday in the Country (Un dimanche à la campagne, Bertrand Tavernier, 1984).
SC: … and a luxury item?
TR: A massive, well-stocked wine cellar containing good French reds for the most part (though I wouldn’t say no to a few hundred assorted Belgian beers too) and a bottle-opener. That should keep me going.
SC: Timothy Raymond, thank you.