This October, Bachtrack is speaking to composers and choreographers around the world about their music, their artistic approach and everything contemporary. Oliver Rudland is rapidly making a name for himself on the Bristish contemporary scene. His latest opera Pincher Martin received excellent reviews from all concerned when it was premièred at the Royal College of Music earlier this year, and it seems that this will be a sign of things to come. I met up with Oliver to talk to him about his music, his creative process and his views on composition today.

Oliver Rudland © Jermone Woodwark
Oliver Rudland
© Jermone Woodwark

A lot of your music, when you look at the contemporary music scene, seems to be based in quite a strongly tonal idiom.

I don’t generally like getting dragged into the old tonal/atonal debate because I feel that it’s becoming increasingly meaningless. In general, however, I think that, since the Second World War, the high modernism of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono et al., was, in a sense, the musical debris of Cologne and other cities laid to waste in Europe. Their music represented that enormous destruction that people must have experienced coming out of the two world wars. Now it seems that, stylistically, we have gradually headed back towards tonality. As we distance ourselves from the two world wars, it’s been a process of recovery, and perhaps regaining faith in human nature. I see myself personally as just another step along that journey – finding that balance in music between pushing boundaries, yet also drawing people in and reaching out in an accessible manner – that’s the ideal.

When I read the book Pincher Martin [to which Rudland has set his most recent opera], it’s a very brutal story, and I wondered: how is he going to set an opera to this?! But though there is melody, the music is actually quite brutal. How did you come to choose this particular story?

I’m a dramatic composer. I realised it was the placing of my music in a dramatic context that made it more inspired and more interesting. I write the librettos and it’s an overall dramatic conception. And I saw in the book, and in using a cinematic backdrop, the potential to do something quite striking.

Do you envisage the whole work as you create it then?

<i>Pincher Martin</i> Miles Horner as Pincher Martin © Jerome Woodwark
Pincher Martin Miles Horner as Pincher Martin
© Jerome Woodwark
O: No, you don’t see all the details. But when you start to write the music, all sorts of things come out that you didn’t expect. For instance, something that you thought might be a great moment doesn’t actually turn out to be as inspired as you’d hoped! And other moments just flower, although you never expected it to be quite like that. I think Benjamin Britten said that writing an opera is a little like approaching a house that is a long way off in the distance; you gradually see the detail as you get closer. It is like that, and it is a mysterious thing. For instance, the epilogue, which I was particularly pleased with musically, just grew and grew. When I wrote the libretto, I pared it down to its absolute minimum, but then as I went through it I found that I needed more words, so I re-wrote the libretto as I composed it.

It sounds like a very organic creative process…

Yes, although blocking out a basic structure is very important – even if it doesn’t tell you what all the details are going to be.

So as such a dramatic composer, you’ve written three operas now, would you write a more abstract work, a symphony for example?

I did write abstract music when I was younger, but I’m less interested in it now. To be honest with you, the idea of writing a string quartet terrifies me… I tried it once, it’s really hard…

It is, and I know a lot of composers are afraid of the string quartet because it’s so based in history - after Beethoven, what do you do?! Do you have a sense of this?

Everything comes with baggage, but you just have to find a way. Also, opera is an art form that really can stand up to other modern forms of media. It offers something you can’t get anywhere else, which is that sense of intimate dramatic experience.

Your children’s opera [The Owl who was afraid of the Dark] is quite a good way into that then – you can introduce children to opera and it might be more accessible than say, a string quartet.

Children can always sing, and anybody can sing in a choir, so the idea of this was to combine your typical primary school choir with a little opera, very much as Britten did with Noye’s Fludde, except that the children don’t actually do very much in Noye’s Fludde – they just march on and off singing “Kyrie Eleison” – whereas my opera has five chorus songs. The children can rehearse it normally in a choral context; it’s then put into a dramatic context with the professional singers, which helps them see the connection between what they’re doing and what opera singers are doing – they’re essentially doing the same thing.

So it’s not outreach you’re concerned with, it’s about connecting with an audience?

Absolutely. In The Owl who was afraid of the Dark, (about an owl who is ironically afraid of the dark and eventually learns to overcome this fear through various encounters, to the relief of his parents) you’ve got a chorus of children and the audience will be the parents of the children. In that dynamic, you automatically set up a situation with parents and children performing and watching a domestic process on stage – they’re looking at their own life experience – and it’s about establishing the right audience, inasmuch as they’re seeing something relevant to themselves.

You’ve mentioned Britten and Wagner, are these two influences that you regularly turn to?

These composers I particularly admire, and that’s because both of them write very dramatic music where, in a deeper sense than, say, Mozart or Handel or Donizetti or Verdi, they compose musical tone poems that are very connected to the drama, and you can almost hear the drama when you listen to it. The music is a dramatic picture, and that’s the music that I really enjoy.

Are there any other composers that you particularly admire?

Steve Reich. I saw him as a man who was writing tonal music in a way that was completely original. And when you listen to Pincher Martin and some of the repetitive patterns, you can hear that influence.

[Rudland then says that he’s going to a masterclass with Eric Whitacre later]

Most of what he does I would be critical of – he’s become a kind of a media machine. But he’s written a few choral pieces like Lux Arumque which are really very beautiful and again, I can see a reconstruction process here that he is a part of; those pieces have already ensconced themselves in the repertoire and they live, and I think that’s the ultimate test of a composer, to get works into the repertoire…

… and join that musical canon…

…and he’s done that – you’ve got to take your hat off to the man!

You’ve been taught by Huw Watkins, Joseph Horowitz and Robin Holloway – how much did they play a part in your compositional development?

What they provided were differing perspectives and critiques. So with Joseph Horowitz, I did two years of chorales and harmony and counterpoint, which I thought was necessary to establish that core base. Robin Holloway… he basically insults you. You take along your music, and he is very perceptive and you can’t hide from him, he says: that’s wrong with that, that’s wrong with that, don’t kid yourself about that, that’s kitsch, that’s rubbish. Which is a good thing – it makes you go away and think about it, even if you end up saying, well, he may not like that, but he’s wrong. Nevertheless, that kind of criticism does make you think.

Learning tonal harmony and counterpoint – I know that’s something some composers struggle with because they think we’re not in a society now where writing tonal music is relevant anymore. But you would say that as a composer that training was fundamental to you?

Yes. And whether you decide to build on top of that, or deliberately subvert it, it always benefits to learn about it. It’s a discipline as well. All composers work within constraints – if you choose an idiom you have to work inside its boundaries, so teaching harmony and counterpoint teaches you to work within constraints, and it’s a good realm to work within, because you can say: that progression’s wrong, that progression’s right. It’s very objective. In my view, learning to work within constraints is always going to be relevant to composers.

And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to today’s emerging composers, what would it be?

Very simple. Be yourself, whilst learning from others. You have to hold that balance between exploring your own life experiences and discovering your own voice, but realising that that only happens when you have found reference points, when you have learnt technique and discovered what’s on offer. You go shopping for techniques, you absorb those techniques and they make you all the richer because you have more material out of which to shape your own ideas.

That’s a fantastic answer. Thank you very much indeed for speaking to us.