Robert Spearing

Interview with the Composer

Rob's most recent work continues to evolve a truly contemporary style, with a refreshing directness of expression. It draws on the often diffuse innovations of the last century, aiming at a musical language, both unified and capable of a wide range of expression. An intriguing work like the Oboe Concerto, which takes as its starting point the closing bars of Haydn's 'Farewell' Symphony, illustrates a stage in what is obviously a continuing quest. A quest to reconcile the traditional and the modern in a way which is new, which avoids retrospective leanings, and which it is hoped will appeal to its audience.

Who amongst recent composers have most influenced your style?

RS I have been drawn to many, often very different composers - for instance to the highly individual world of George Crumb or the techniques of Steve Reich. But the single living composer who has excited me more than any other, I would say, is Boulez.

What is it that attracts you to Boulez' music?

RS His wonderful ear for timbre - for instrumentation generally. You can hear a whole line of descent from Debussy, through Messiaen - especially in his later works. Also his rhythmic freedom and vitality.

What then of other members of the post-Webern generation? Have these interested you at all?

RS My discoveries here, as elsewhere, have unfolded gradually - in my search for my own language. Much of the boldest experiment of the post war generations has come to enthrall me - Cage, Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti. I wouldn't say though that my music sounds like any of those I have mentioned - at least to any marked degree. You hope - after your earliest efforts at least - to be able to absorb and assimilate influences - to make them part of yourself.

What then of those 'early efforts' - looking back to your student days. You completed and had performed a symphony during your first year at the RCM did you not?

RS Well, yes. I should say it was very much a student work. I wanted to do something quite bold and experimental - at least for me at that time - to explore a language of greater dissonance than I had done hitherto, and especially to aim at thematic integration.

Did you have any particular models in mind when writing it?

RS Yes, I would say - so far as thematic integration was concerned - Sibelius. The 4th Symphony especially fascinated me. My passion for Bartók was also well established by then, but I can hear his influence only slightly. There's a hint of Berg perhaps, as I had recently encountered Wozzeck, and the Lulu Suite, amongst other things.

I believe this symphony was submitted for a masterclass by the legendary Nadia Boulanger?

RS Yes - she used to come over from Paris once a year to the RCM . She was a formidable figure. I got off quite lightly, I remember - she was even quite complimentary about bits of it! It was an incredible experience - to have just caught her, right at the very end of her life.

You wrote further orchestral pieces, as well as vocal works, while at the RCM.

RS Yes, I came under the influence of modality for a while and was attracted to the music of Holst especially - there was a fine performance of Savitri I remember, while I was at College. I was interested by the asymmetry of his rhythms and his use of ostinato patterns for example - also by his mystical leanings. You can hear his influence in Visions of William Blake, I think, which I wrote soon after leaving the RCM.

When did you feel that you had found your own voice as a composer?

RS I suppose Youth, Sun & Moon, a piece I wrote for the Purcell School, marked a clear step forward. I can certainly hear Bartók's influence here - with some Holst in the background - but I think it has a distinct flavour which is mine. I also became acquainted with Messiaen's modes at about this time.

You mention Messiaen. Has he been an important influence?

RS Oh yes - in fact I encountered the very different worlds of Messiaen and Tippett during the same period, and both affected my thinking very much. Aiming at a certain simplicity and directness of expression, I was very attracted by non-conventional scales of all kinds - including Messiaen's modes - as sources of melody and especially harmony - attracted by new ways of presenting often familiar sounds in unfamiliar, yet beguiling ways. Messiaen's ideas on rhythm also interested me greatly.

And what about Tippett?

RS Again it was his approach to rhythm especially - his wonderful sprung rhythms and consequent vitality.

Earlier you mentioned the importance to you of Boulez. Have you then been interested in serialism at all?

RS Yes - increasingly so - as I have discovered more and more of its creative possibilities - as a technical ally if you like in trying to form a distinctive language of my own. It was once seen too much as a 'system', rather than a new imaginative resource. The first piece in which I used series extensively was The Seagull. For me though, style is very much linked with technique, which I have continually sought to develop - so it is an ongoing process. All the various influences need time to be absorbed and assimilated.