Interview 1: Richard Alexander Vaughan, 12 April 2021
English composer Richard Alexander Vaughan has been composing since his early years, studied at the Royal College of Music and Exeter University and has won numerous prizes in composition. Richard’s pieces are at https://bergmann-edition.com/collections/vaughan-richard
I contacted Richard just has he was recovering from a week-long reaction to his Covid vaccination.
What proportion of your waking week do you think you spend with guitar in hand?
Not as much as I used to. I try not to use the fretboard when writing as I am never sure if the sounds I am seeking are coming from my imagination or through the learned muscle patterns from previous music I have played. As a young man I always had guitar in hand, now not so much.
What do you listen to?
Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky played by Horowitz, Argerich, Gould, Kissin. Also Vaughan Williams, Walton, Granados.
What music did you last buy or download?
Mateusz Kowalski. Polish romantic guitar. I consider him to be the finest guitarist I have ever heard.
[Interviewer’s note: Kowalski’s YouTube channel is here, and I see what Richard means! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkPA7YAwnDDCPY-QOJ0MQ-g ]
Do you think of yourself as composing in a particular style? if so, can you define it?
Yes. Eventually I have come to think of my music as narrative as the form tends to follow a kind of Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey. I try to move from the known to the unknown and have a point of atonement somewhere before the end. It is a very human structure.
Who do you compose for?
Me and my mental health.
What is your ultimate vision for your music?
I don't have one. People like it or they don't. There are so many good composers out there now and everyone is seeking 15 minutes of fame in the bearpit of social media. At last I have come to the conclusion that it is very easy to be lost in the avalanche of talent out there.
To leave something of value to someone else behind, perhaps.
Do you play concerts?
No. The thought of performance has always made me anxious and I am glad to leave it to others.
Is your music performed by others?
I am happy to say some incredible musicians have chosen some of my work to play and I feel most grateful to them all. Fernando Espi, Xuanxuan Sun, Angela Sindeli, Duo Belcanto, Dusty Woodruff, Fabian Freesen, Adriana Veroes, Oskar Marijan.
Do you still study guitar?
No, but music and guitar as part of that always.
You had extensive musical studies, didn't you? Was it your intention to be a full-time musician?
Very much so. I was so lucky in all of my teachers, except for my piano teacher who was ineffectual.
Did you specialise in the music of a particular era, style, composer?
Not really. I was very much a follower and not a leader when I was younger. I don't think I had the confidence to be very different.
Do you play any ensemble music?
Only with myself and a computer nowadays. I recorded a concerto which is on my website*. My latest project is a set of pieces for guitar and mp3 with the guitar part being much easier than I would normally write.
What do you do for a living?
I am a pensioner.
You move from one country to another - how are your language skills?
I can get by in German and now after lockdown for 12 months, Spanish.
Does your way of life give you enough time for your composing?
Plenty. Writing works for me and not the other way round.
You have family - what is their attitude towards your music?
I have a wonderful wife and two grown children. My wife is a musician and my son is a photographer. My children prefer to follow their own path in music. They have a healthy disregard for anything I write. They all have strong and very distinct personalities which is wonderful.
Are your children musical?
As consumers of music yes but not as producers. My daughter did walk down the aisle to one of my piano pieces. Dance no.3, I think.
Do you ever play other repertoire, other than your own music?
Sometimes I try to play Brahms on the piano but my hands are too small.
You enter your pieces in competitions and do very well. What are your views on these competitions? Have they brought benefit for you?
Yes I used to enter competitions but now I don't really care to. They are a good vehicle to get a career moving and to bring artists to a wider audience. I believe they should be open to all, irrespective of race, creed, sex, disablilty or age. I also think that once you have won a competition you should leave the field open for others after your success.
The audience prize is the most valuable.
The main benefit for my success in competition is that some wonderful musicians play my music. That is more than a reward for me. It gives me a great sense of fulfilment. I suppose if you win them you are more likely to be in favour of them but we must always remember that music is not a competitive sport. Technique can be qualitatively compared but musical sense will always be qualitative and depend on the taste of the jury and subject to their prejudices.
For the younger aspiring performers with skin in the game, it must be quite a difficult experience not to succeed. I believe visual artists have a better approach to sharing their creativity. I see so much good work from ostensibly amateur photographers, painters and sculptors, their work being a thing apart rather than their whole existence.
I’m very interested to know whether your move to the frozen North has made a difference to your music? [Interviewer’s note – Richard and family moved to Scandinavia for a time]
My Sonata no.2 was written there. It is quite cold and dark.
How do you compose? Do you have a particular approach or method? Do you write notation as you go?
This is not always a conscious process. As a piece develops the deliberate choices become greater but at the start it is entirely unconscious. I will be doing something and realise there is a theme constantly repeating in my head.
My mother taught me to hear and write down music at a very early age as well as teaching me to read books. Thanks to her, I can hear what I write. They are not just instructions to do something, but sounds in my head, just like reading words. My wonderful teacher the late David Wright, once visibly flinched reading a score of Walton's 1st symphony because the part sounded wrong. He could hear an entire score: for me, hearing counterpoint is enough.
I write what I have heard down on manuscript in a notebook. I will then wait and see what harmony emerges. Then it appears to be a combination of listening away from an instrument and trying to hear as clearly as I can what is there.
I will then notate this on a computer. After that, I will throw as much as I can hear at the computer. Then I tend to chisel away that which is unnecessary using a guitar, a piano or my voice. It is a bit like sculpture. When I get the overall journey of the piece sketched out I start to edit.
I will not throw anything away, but move it to the end. When I can hear the overall story of the piece I will then delete all that which I put at the end. Then I start to change small things until it starts to get worse. At that point I stop.
I always think your sound/video files are really good quality, but this might be quality of playing rather than recording kit. How do you make your recordings? Has anyone else's recording of your music really got it right, or do you prefer your own interpretations?
Thank you. I am very lazy when it comes to recording. I have a little Olympus recorder and use Audacity. It is like it puts make-up on the sound.
I much prefer to hear others playing my music. I am too aware of the flaws in my own technique to listen to myself with any real pleasure. Then you hear the way another human interacts with what you have made and it renews the whole process. That experience of communication is far superior. There are some things that are always better done with someone else.
Thank you, Richard, for your sincere and honest answers.
*Richard’s website - https://www.richardvaughan.eu