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Interview 8 - Roland Chadwick

Andrew Williams Bergmann Edition chadwick Composer Guitar Interview Roland Chadwick

Introduction

Roland ChadwickMy latest interview is with prolific composer and concert performer Roland Chadwick.  Roland is an Australian-born, British-based composer and guitarist, writing for guitar, various guitar ensembles, orchestra, and other solo instruments.  You can find out plenty about Roland on his website https://rolandchadwick.com .  There’s also an excellent extended interview, “The £75 note”, on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1t4W7AoDMs.  I’d highly recommend it to readers who are interested in knowing more about Roland personally.  But in these interviews for Bergmann Edition, we are focusing less on biography and more on composition.

I did this as a Zoom interview with Roland and though we’d scheduled a couple of hours to talk, we ended up running out of time and picking up again the following day.  When we spoke, Roland was having a break from a period of concentrated work on revising his second guitar concerto.  So we kicked off with a bit of discussion about that process.

Roland

It’s been a highly challenging process technically.  I composed Concerto Brasileiras in 1995 – 96.  At that stage of my development I didn’t have the technical knowledge or expertise to do a polished job, but I did have sound musical intuition.  The melody, harmony and structure of the concerto are right on the money.  It’s survived largely intact, but I’ve brought my more developed technical skills to bear on refining the harmonic progressions and voice leading.

Also, I realised the guitar part wasn’t virtuosic enough.  As a composer, I’m much more interested in the song, the melody, than in virtuosity.  But in a concerto, the audience has certain expectations of the soloist, and guitarists need some fireworks to be able to show their skills.

This concerto isn’t written for me to perform as the soloist – Daniela Rossi in England and Detlev Bork in Germany are learning it as we speak.

In my break from the guitar concerto, I’ve been doing revisions to my Mandolin Concerto and with the permission of Chris Duarte I have arranged John Duarte’s English Suite for String Quartet which will be recorded sometime this year..

Interviewer

First, is there any particular piece you would direct people to as the best access point to your music?

Roland

I think what you’re asking here is what is the entry point for the music of Roland Chadwick?  It’s a really problematic question for me.  There are some pieces I think of as my important pieces.  Maybe the entry point I’d recommend for listeners is The Wendy House or Letter from LA [interviewer’s note: both are multi-movement works recorded by the Modern Guitar Trio - Roland, Vincent Lindsey-Clark and Roland Gallery].  Another one which was important for me, in terms of my guitar writing, was The Memory of Water, also for the Modern Guitar Trio.  Solo pieces, maybe I’d start with Tiny Wooden Gods or my second Partita.  I think listeners will get a clear picture of my musical language by listening to these pieces.  And maybe my Concierto Brasileiras - it’s completely melodic.

Interviewer

So what makes certain pieces, for you, more ‘important’ than others?

Roland

For me it’s because they are serious and thoughtful.  Melody is hugely important, central to my composing.  But there are other pieces I’ve written with very strong melodies that get maybe more attention, for instance my Aigburth Variations. 

You know, it’s a real dilemma for composers, the legacy of modernism in serious music – 12-tone, serialism etc.  When I was starting out as a young composer, you had to be writing in a modernist idiom to be taken seriously – writing pure melody was somehow suspect or lightweight.  But for me, melody is at the heart of my music.

Interviewer

Within about three years of starting the guitar, and without any training in composition, you start writing.  Without going into the why, tell us about the how – the very first composition: How did it come about? Was it spontaneous? Imitative? Inspired, or ‘crafted’?

Roland

My father played classical music all the time, and I was exposed to it from birth.  By the age of five I knew all the Beethoven symphonies, by six all of Brahms, and a good chunk of Vivaldi and Handel.  By ten, all of Berlioz.  Berlioz is a composer who really teaches us to focus and listen for an extended period.  The language of classical music was imprinted in my head.  It was all in there and had to come out some way.  As I’ve said in my blog “What is Music?” (https://rolandchadwick.com/what-is-music ), music is the most fundamental form of human communication.  I’m not just talking about classical music – I’ve played all styles.  Although I first learned the guitar with the intention of playing it as a performer, composing was something that just had to happen.  I didn’t do it for any purpose as such, it just had to come out.

My first pieces were written at about 13 or 14 years old – “Dances for Winter Oakwood”.  I didn’t really know what I was doing, it was purely a matter of intuition, and they were written quite quickly.  But they still sound good now, which shows me that even at that age my basic musical instincts were sound.  Later pieces from around that period, such as my Serenade, took a bit longer to write, and were more difficult for me.  But I think part of the art of composition is trying to harness what that original untutored instinct is telling you.

I also try, in my composing, to afford myself the luxury of enjoyment.  To try to recover that thing that composers used to have – joy, entertainment, and humour.   The great composers, such as Beethoven, were multi-dimensional, and their music includes jokes and humour (take for example the Scherzo from the Kreutzer Sonata)

Interviewer

Do you have (now) a thorough academic grounding in musical theory? And if so, has it changed your writing?

Roland

Listen, there is a generation of guitarists who I think of as ‘technical’ guitarists.  Their musical training is all about technique and they can play with incredible speed and accuracy.  But I think of them as ‘typists’ – just getting all the right notes in the right places at the right tempo is not musicality.  Some of them never emerge from that ghetto of technique-driven playing.  It’s the same with compositional technique.  You can go down that alley, but you have to come back.  Composers who are all about academic technique might understand and be able to use all sorts of musical devices – but if all it is applying musical theory and technique, you can’t write anything original because you have lost your own voice.  

A friend of mine, Dr Dale Harris, is a real academic authority on musical theory.  When I was writing a recent piece “Study of Pi”, as a sort of joke I started identifying the modes the various sections were written in.  I didn’t actually know all of them so I sent them to Dale, and he identified them all.  The point is, I didn’t know I was writing in, say, Lydian Dominant mode, but my musical intuition was sound enough to write authentically in that mode.  Technical stuff is really useful – knowing about cadence, voice leading etc – to give your work polish.  But it can’t teach you to write a melody.  In fact I don’t think it’s possible to teach anyone how to write a tune.  The best advice I can give to aspiring writers is to sing it out loud.

Of course melody isn’t a static thing, and there are ‘stylistic’ elements involved in writing melodic work.  I decided at a certain point that I wanted to become a master of melody and I set myself the task of writing my “24 Melodic Preludes”.  There is one prelude in every key.  The rule I set myself was that the melody in each case had to carry the whole of the harmony and the rhythm.   The first one took me six months to write and the whole thing took seven years to complete.  But the last piece in the series only took 6 hours to write – by that time melody had become like plasticine for me, and I’d discovered I could manipulate it as I wanted. 

Interviewer

What are your listening tastes in music, currently?  What are you mainly listening to now?

Roland

Some Bach.  A lot of piano trios – Dvorak, Shostakovich, Ravel, Beethoven.  Once my current project (the revision of all my compositions) is finished, I want to create a repertoire for chamber trio plus guitar.  I have a string quartet I’m working and recording with.  I’ve written previously for string ensemble and steel-stringed guitar.

I’ve been very lucky in this respect – finding other good musicians to play with.  It started in Australia with a group called the Bennelong Players, then there was the Paganini Project which got me playing with Sydney’s best string players.  Writing for an ensemble, you can ask an awful lot from the guitar – for example you don’t have to pay so much attention to the bass parts, and that frees you up. 

Some of my best results come from collaboration with others – an interesting tension with my natural hermit tendencies.

Actually in the last five years or so I haven’t written all that much new stuff, and when the pandemic came along I took it as a sort of sabbatical, using it to revise my earlier work and learn new repertoire on the guitar, particularly Bach.

Interviewer

Describing your listening, it sounds functional – by which I mean, you are listening to things for a purpose, like listening to piano trios because you are intending to write music for trio plus guitar.  What about listening for pleasure or relaxation?

Roland

I never listen to music for relaxation.  If music is playing, I have to listen to it completely.  I don’t do it analytically; I just get completely immersed.  At the same time, listening properly to music is a huge pleasure.  I just love music. 

I’ve told you my father had a fantastic ear for music.  When I was in my early 20s I had a reasonable repertoire on guitar and my father wanted me to make a cassette tape to send around.  Now, my teacher at that time was a complete perfectionist and would pick up on the tiniest mistake.  When I started trying to record these pieces, I just couldn’t get any of it perfect.  I got more and more wound up, spent all day trying, didn’t record a single piece.  I remember being on the verge of giving up and just completely hacked off with the whole thing, really down.  Then I remember distinctly hearing a little conversation in my head, literally hearing it as if the voices were really there.  It was my voice asking “why am I learning the guitar” and another voice replying “because you love music”.  I started playing the pieces again with passion and feeling, not thinking about technical perfection, and within two hours I had the whole recording done. 

The great enemies of human endeavour are discouragement, external and internal and confidence.  Confidence is a myth.  Nobody is confident until they have succeeded at something – then they can tell themselves “I was always confident I was going to be able to do that”.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that there are only two things worth pursuing in life and in music - authenticity and love.

Interviewer

In the podcast you talk about sampling technology. How do you use it yourself?

Roland

I have got sampling kit but it’s not something I want to pursue.  For writing the concerto, I use Sibelius.  But on the whole, I prefer to work with real musicians.  When I’ve done things using sampled sounds, it’s always sounded interesting, but there is no blood in it.  It isn’t real.  That’s what I love about the guitar – it’s a wooden instrument, it vibrates, it’s real.

Interviewer

You also talk quite movingly about the experience of having a major retrospective of your work performed by Detlev Bork.  How do you feel listening to your work performed by others?  How is it different from listening to your own recordings?

Roland

How is it different listening to him? Or to any other guitarist who plays my music? I guess it’s like listening to another person reading poetry you’ve written.  Is it ever quite how you imagine it?  Probably not – but it’s a different experience.  Sometimes the guitarist will reveal things to me about my piece that I haven’t seen, maybe because they’re using different techniques, maybe just points of interpretation. 

The essential thing for me is that they have to bring musicality to it, not just accuracy and technical perfection.  I’ve been listening to a guitarist called Pavel Stedl, you should give him a listen – he’s the most incredibly musical player. 

You know, a friend of mine got a commission to write something for an internationally known guitarist, a real star of the classical guitar world.  He wrote a big work that got released as an album, and he really hated that recording.

Talking about whether hearing someone else playing your music changes your perception of it – the other thing is playing your music when there is someone else in the room.  That really changes your perception, because suddenly you’re hearing it through someone else’s ears.  That’s why I like to get my wife to listen to everything I write.

Interviewer

Are you interested in the instruments themselves?

Roland

Not particularly.  I have two good classical guitars (by Pete Beer and Simon Marty) but I don’t know a lot about the technicalities of guitar construction, I’m certainly not an expert.

Interviewer

You are a performer as well as a composer.  Imagine you are to play a concert next week. Give me the concert programme.

Roland

My current concert programme would be all my own music.  It would be

Song and Dance no. 3

A Slender Beam of Light Revealed This Truth

The Study of Pi

Aigburth Variations

Song and Dance no. 1

Other pieces I’d like to introduce are my ‘Variations on a Theme by Benjamin Britten’ and ‘Tiny Wooden Gods’.  If I was going to add in some music from other composers I might include, say, the Bach lute suites, or some Torroba.

Interviewer

And your encore?

Roland

Maybe my Danza Cervantino.  Or something slow.

I do play other repertoire but the balance is definitely towards my own music.  I’m playing Bach simply because it’s great music, I love it.

Interviewer

You seem attracted to writing longer works – is that correct?

Roland

I’ve always wanted to write in long form. 

There are a few ways of getting into it.  The first solution is the suite. The second is variations. 

Writing an extended three-movement work is a different problem altogether, because there is so much thought and development, on a much larger scale.  And then a concerto is different again, because you’ve got this intense focus on the solo part.  In my guitar concerto, I’m not trying to impress guitar players: it will survive only if it impresses the general concert-goer.  There are very few guitar concertos that really achieve that.  If you think of the twentieth century, I would say only Rodrigo, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Manuel Maria Ponce – not a lot else.  My concerto is full of tunes and rhythm.  It’s had performances, so I know audiences like it.  Incidentally, we were talking earlier about hearing other guitarists play your compositions…well, having an orchestra play your piece is agony to watch.

So yes, longer form works really appeal to me.  But I do also write little throwaway things – like Scenes from a Romance, Palm Court Romantics…they’re like little indulgences.  I have a gift for these soupy sentimental melodies, and if you do them right they can be beautiful things.

Interviewer

Now I’d like to ask about the nuts and bolts of composing.  What is your process? I’ll break it down a bit: first, do you compose direct to the page, or using the guitar, or another instrument?

Roland

When a musical idea comes to me, I have good enough relative pitch to write direct to the page, and I do this to avoid the limitations of the guitar.  In fact, I am less interested these days in writing for solo guitar, and more in writing for ensembles.  Using the guitar in the writing imposes too big a filter.  I use it afterwards to solve any technical problems – no point in writing something that’s unplayable or more technically difficult than it needs to be.

Interviewer

When you start, do you know exactly what you are going to produce – can you hear the whole thing in your head?

Roland

No, I don’t start out having the whole thing in my head – it reveals itself over time. I often wonder about the science of music, if such a thing exists.  It feels to me that with any part of a musical phrase or cadence, what is already there leads almost inevitably to the next thing.   I’m always looking for the ‘rightness’ of that next thing, and taking care to remain authentic.  You’ve also got to keep listening and monitoring to know when the thing completes itself.  And you have to learn not to be frightened of the ideas that come to you.  So no, it doesn’t start from the full picture, it starts from just a hint or an idea, and in the end what you get is what you get.

Interviewer

When do you start writing notation?

Roland

Right from the start.  The prime job from the beginning is generating ideas.  The piece won’t happen if you don’t have more than one idea.  So when I have my starting point, I write down lots and lots of ideas around that thing.  Notation is just a mechanical thing, a language.  As I said, I write to the page because using the guitar brings me up against the limitations of the instrument or my own technique.  I listen back on Sibelius.  Sometimes if an idea comes to me somewhere else but my studio, I’ll sing it into my phone and send it to myself as a message.

Interviewer

How much do you revise a piece once you’ve got all the elements in place?

Roland

A lot.  I am always revising and re-working.  I’ve spent the last four of five years revising everything I have ever written.  And by doing that, I have learned a huge amount technically, and about my own processes as a composer. And that is going to benefit my next period of composing.

Interviewer

How self-critical are you during the writing?

Roland

Incredibly.  I have to keep focusing on the internal integrity of the work.  The structural integrity inside my brain must be satisfied, and I just won’t let go of a thing until it’s resolved.  You know, 99% of this is just hard work.

Interviewer

You said you get your wife to listen to everything.  Is she a critical listener?

Roland

She’s very intuitive, she knows what works and what doesn’t.  And like I said, it changes my own perception when she’s in the room, so I can really hear my stuff more objectively as a listener.

Interviewer

Do you write something every day? Is there a sense in which you see composing as a job?

Roland

Yes, I write every day.  But no, it’s not a job.  I think it’s maybe the only place I am happy, working here in my studio.  It is a constant journey of discovery.  But I feel I haven’t any choice but to do what I do.

Interviewer

Do you have any technical or formal objectives in writing a piece? Eg start out from a theoretical position? Or to write something in a particular style?

Roland

No, the only objective is to be expressive.  To compose like you’ve just described, that would be coming from the wrong place. 

Interviewer

Do you work on multiple projects or focus only on one thing?  And if it’s just the one thing, do you always finish it? Or do you sometimes put it aside unfinished and come back to it later?

Roland

I can work on writing more than one thing at a time – but on the whole I do try and get one job done.  Although in a sense all my music is still work in progress.

Interviewer

Have you ever finished anything and then scrapped it as not good enough? Or abandoned it for good when you’re half-way through?

Roland

I can’t think of anything – maybe some early things, from my teens, have been thrown away.  But no, generally I keep working on a project till I finish it.  Although thinking about it, I found an old recording from way back of my Partita no. 2, and the recording included two movements I’d completely forgotten – no memory of writing or playing them.  So I do sometimes discard things.  But maybe they’ll get revived at some point.  Like, for example, the second movement of Rococo Café – a piece called Gossip Circle.  I came up with the idea for that when I was 18 or 19, but it was only when I wrote Rococo Café that I found an opportunity to use it.  That’s something I would advise new composers – never throw anything away.

Interviewer

Is there any sense in which composing feels to you like solving a puzzle or a riddle?

Roland

No, not really.  Of course there are technical problems to be solved in any composition.  Another composer once told me that composers have their own stock of solutions that they apply in a given set of circumstance – well, not me.  I never fall back on standard forms.   I feel a lot of music by modern composers is contrived and driven by theories and ideas, but for me music is not about preconceived ideas, but about spontaneous expression.  Listen, you can’t get too much into your head with music, when you over-think it, it’s just not going to happen.  When I have an inspiration, I am not there – I’m not using conscious faculties, it’s not about reason or intellectual process.

Interviewer

You also write for learners.  What is your compositional approach here?  Clearly you are writing music that students will enjoy playing, but do the pieces each set out to teach a particular technique or skill?

Roland

Yes.   I wanted to write pieces for first grade because I was really angry with the syllabus.  But I also wanted to give them something beautiful to play.  You have to know the rules – eg for first grade you have to use open string basses.  But listen, composers always use the materials and restrictions they’ve got, and come up with amazing things.   The pieces are on the first grade syllabus and I use them in teaching.

Interviewer

Do you have fallow periods?  I ask as someone who after every piece thinks he may never manage to write another.

Roland

Yes, I’ve had periods of burn-out.  Like in 1997 I was living in Los Angeles and all day every day all I did was write.  After ten months of that, I couldn’t write another thing.  I think the greatest period of productivity I have had is since I have been with my wife.  Those periods of non-productiveness, I don’t worry about it.  I have confidence, because time has shown me, that with a change of scene or something to refresh my mind, an idea will come along.  It’s not down to conscious effort – you can’t will it to happen.

Interviewer

Do you get writing commissions?  Can you or could you write ‘to order’ – for example a film score?

Roland

Occasionally, but I don’t like writing that way – I don’t want to produce music to order.  I have friends who do, and I think they usually end up writing less good music – it tends to be more contrived, musically weaker.  I have written a film score but, again, I didn’t enjoy it.  It feels like industrial music-making.

Interviewer

Last question.  You were already an established figure in the guitar world, with a body of work behind you, when you became almost one of the ‘founding’ composers of Bergmann Edition.  Can you tell us a bit about how that came about?

Roland

Listen, my experience with other publishers hasn’t always been great – things can turn sour.  Allan [Bergmann] is a gentleman, and I love the set-up.  He is an afficionado, he loves music and he trusts his composers.  And it’s massively beneficial for a composer to have the contractual relationship with a publisher that we have with Bergmann Edition, because you have complete freedom.

Interviewer

Thanks Roland for a great conversation, and for all the information and insight.

 

 

                                                                                                                          



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