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Robert Saxton Interview

Posted on 11 February 2005. © Copyright 2004-2014David Bruce

Robert Saxton is a leading figure in British Contemporary music. He is currently University Lecturer and Tutorial Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. Future works include a work for Steven Isserlis and The Wandering Jew - a dramatic radio operatic fantasy commissioned by BBC Radio 3

Tell us something about your background.

My mother's family, who came to England in the early years of the 20th century as refugees, were Jews from Krakow (Poland) but were, in fact, citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My father's family were Jewish refugees from Lithuania and Russia; my paternal grandmother (the musical talent in the family) was a Yorkshire Protestant who converted to Judaism to marry my grandfather. My maternal grandfather, Louis Infield, was a mathematician who, after arriving in England from Poland at the age of 14, went on to take a 'double-First' in maths at Queen's College, Cambridge and subsequently worked for the civil service, receiving the OBE for being involved in organising food rationing in WW1; he also wrote a children's play and translated Kant's Ethics from German into English (published). His cousin, Leopold Infeld, was a physicist who worked as Einstein's assistant at Princeton. He was a Communist and, eventually, returned to 'cold war' Poland, where he worked as an Eastern Bloc scientist. My mother is a doctor (retired) and my father, having fought in WW2 (North Africa and Italy) as a tank captain, remained in the army as part of British Army Intelligence during the Greek Civil War. He eventually became a barrister, retiring as a law reporter on The Times. My sister, Vivienne, is principal of a college of dance and my partner, Teresa Cahill, is a singer and professor of voice at Trinity College of Music.

How did you start composing?

I was in recorder class at school, aged 6, and I preferred writing music down to practising!

What was your first success as a composer?

Success is a 'dangerous' word, particularly in our media-saturated world. Without engaging in false modesty, I can say that, in terms of artistic 'success', I feel genuinely that I have only, in the last two or three years, begun to get anywhere near writing the music (both technically and in terms of the structure/expression ratio) I envisaged as a boy. In terms of 'literal' success, then gaining a publisher as a student (as a result of an SPNM workshop) and winning 1st prize at Gaudeamus in Holland from the international jury. as the youngest composer represented (I was 21). This was followed by my post-graduate degree submission at Oxford being selected by the ISCM for performance at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn in 1977. It all helped me to 'get going'.

Where do your ideas come from?

I don't know. One has to define the/an Idea, and Schoenberg came nearer than most. Any professional artist (in whatever medium) has ideas in the head continuously. The primary effort (and pleasure!) is to 'knock these into shape', so that much of one's waking hours are spent, not in producing 'a product', but in working AT ideas in many ways. There is a difference (made clear by the great German mathematician Frege) between an Idea and a Conception, but this is not the place to go further along this route!

Do you have particular techniques - one's you come back to again and again? Tell us a bit about them.

Yes. There is clearly a difference between Technique, which I see as Method (as opposed to System), and specific Techniques, such as I teach at university when tutoring 16th century polyphony or Fugue. I was trained not only thoroughly as regards Harmony and Counterpoint, but also as a serial composer, and I have methods which I apply in general. However, what seems to me to matter, and it is something which I encourage composition students to concentrate on, is sketching/drafting. If one has methods which can be applied from work to work all to the good, but in order for this not to become mechanical, then it is vital to sketch from 'various angles' ( I use the visual imagery purposely, because painters are expert at sketching). By so doing, there is less chance of method becoming (mere) routine. One of the misconceptions which we are continually offered about our 'post-serial' environment is that this implies the end of serialism. Of course we are no longer 'obeying rules' in a naive sense, but that is all surface; what serial training offers a (young) composer is a technical grounding in profound awareness of all compositional parameters, and this refreshes one's hearing, and appreciation, of tonality and its structural consequences. This is 'real' Technique and is ignored, I believe, to the detriment of virtually every aspect of current composition. A painter who paints figuratively, but who has practised (not merely read about) cubism, abstraction and other specific Techniques, will 'come out the other side' as it were. This seems to me to be professional responsibility, a condition I prefer to cultural ( and technical) amnesia!

What's the worst thing about composing?

Feeling, as my teacher Elisabeth Lutyens used to say, that one's inner ear has 'gone dead'. This is familiar to most composers, and may last weeks or a day. It seems to be part of the so-called 'creative cycle' and is, medically-analytically, related to a 'lowered state' (involving aspects of depression). It happens to me when I am about to begin to 'fix' a piece on paper, and may be connected with 'the moment of Truth'. However one analyses it, it can be debilitating. The cure, for me, is to turn my attention to my teaching and administrative duties, until the 'mood' passes. Perhaps unusually, I am infinitely happier at my desk than attending performances of my music. I sit in the audience wishing I was listening to Haydn or Mozart--- certainly anything other than my own work. The danger in admitting this, of course, is that an audience can respond by saying that they don't want to either!

And the best?

When sketching, 'playing' with technical/structural ideas, relating detail to whole and sensing cohesion. (This is not the same as an analytical search for organic unity in Brahms(!)---- that is a different 'animal' altogether). The music is 'roaring away' in the background of one's thought processes, and has to be captured with a compositional 'butterfly net'. It is utterly absorbing and is a long way from the 'surface' machinery of the '(un)-musical world'. Absorption in one's work, and the intensity required, does not necessarily mean that a composer isn't 'communicating' (to use that ridiculous current term). In deed, the opposite is the case----- only through such concentration is the 'real' relationship between expression and structure, which I spoke of earlier, come to the fore.

What are you working on at the moment

A brief anthem 'Locus iste' for the choir of St Catharine's College, Cambridge and (on-going) a dramatic myth The Wandering Jew for BBC Radio 3, which ahs been 'in progress' for several years. I am thinking about an anthem commissioned by the Friends of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford for Stephen Darlington and the choir of the cathedral and a work for the Arditti String Quartet (provisionally for 2007). I am also planning a book about composition which publisher is currently interested in.

What inspires you to write?

Working; I have never met a creative artist (or scientist) who didn't 'admit' that the process of working is, in itself, inspiring. There are, naturally, aspects of my 'cultural heritage' and education (in the broadest sense) which contribute to ideas in general, but these are not for me to define.

What advice would you give to a young composer just starting out?

First, let me quote Schoenberg, from an interview (in English) which he gave to Halsey Stevens not long before he died: ' you must learn from the masters [Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms]... but you must not imitate. You must take the essence and create something new'. There it is in a nutshell. Your 'Masters' may be different ones granted, but Schoenberg is right here. Forgetting university courses which ponder whether or not history is dead and whether or not post-Hegelian and Marxist ideas about progress are finished, any composer, painter or writer who is truly absorbed in what they are doing (ie: not opportunistically 'using' the arts as a vehicle for 'success' or a 'career') will not only respect their predecessors--- far more, they will love them. The sheer joy that can be gained from studying music from many centuries (I purposely avoid the current over-played 'multi-cultural' politicised jargon and its inferences, which is merely a gloss) and 'feeling 'its progress/transformation is essential. Remember, one must sense the music, not merely learn about it; Bach copied out music by his predecessors, and there's no substitute for learning about correct voice-leading, from Byrd to Webern. I would encourage student composers to do this by hand--- the computer is wonderful, but the 'fabric' of music has to be physically experienced. A painter or sculptor cannot truly learn their craft by means of computer graphics only. Having said this, one must, as Schoenberg says, go on. This is not a 'Modernist manifesto'----- not at all. It is simply facing reality; if you really are a composer, then you will see strategies, imagine new solutions to problems which emerge from a combination of your studies and your imaginative world. This is more sophisticated (and 'true') than any misconceptions about 'originality' or 'creativity', unfortunately prevalent in our education system at present. As for the 'musical world'------ I can only advise from a subjective point-of-view. There's no doubt that, where as 25 years ago or so, any serious listener respected Bartok, Varese and Schoenberg (for example), and would be prepared to listen to, and consider, Boulez's latest pieces with intelligent ( and objective) consideration, we now have a 'fast' environment, where 'instant communication' (which, literally, means nothing where serious art is concerned---- it is non-sense) and a 'down-grading' of the role/position of complex/challenging work have led to a lowering of expectation(s). The voice-leading in much American minimalist music is poor by traditional standards (I won't name names here) and there are naive and untenable concepts of 'tonality' and a host of associated problems. In the light of this, a young composer has to think deeply about what he/she wishes to achieve, and whether or not it is worth the effort and, indeed, sacrifice. Many today opt for the commercial sector--- my advice here is, if doing so, don't treat it as an 'easy' option. If going down this route, do it properly and become a craftsman. All commercial composers that I know constantly complain at the lack of technical expertise displayed across the board by many of those wanting to go into this area of the profession. the answer to all this is simple: take Schoenberg's advice seriously. At all levels, know what you are doing and be an expert, just as a doctor has to.

Do you have a routine? A place that's special

I try to work in my study when not teaching. On days when I am on 'full academic duty' (4 days per week in term) this is not possible, of course. On my so-called research day, I am invariably busy with meetings and other academic institutional matters. I keep notebooks and work anywhere, at any time. I have always done so. This is why it is important for all composers to learn to work 'in their heads', and not to be tied to the keyboard.

How does your work as a teacher influence your composing?

It doesn't, with regard to ideas at any level, but it does in terms of having to objectify my thoughts and act as a 'musical therapist' much of the time! Teaching Harmony and Counterpoint (as opposed to 'free' composition, although I don't like the idea that there is a 'gap') and lecturing on various topics, I am constantly pondering (with students) many aspects of structure and 'meaning', whether it is in the context of a late Haydn quartet or Steve Reich. Certainly tutoring undergraduates in 'formal' techniques has a profound effect, because one is continuously aware of how very good Purcell, Bach et al were at what they did, in terms of realising ideas coherently! So, we all learn from this. In talking to composition students, one naturally speaks of many things and they (hopefully) prevent me from 'getting rusty' and keep me on my intellectual and musical toes--- then, when I shut my study door, I 'switch off' at a conscious level and return to my own (inner) compositional world.

Interview by David Bruce © Copyright 2004-2014

Comments by other Members

Posted by :  Dr J at 17:12 on 13 May 2006
Robert Saxton is wonderful!

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