Friday 21 April sees the release of two albums on NMC featuring the award-winning baritone Roderick Williams: Brian Elias' Electra Mourns and Howard Skempton's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Also becoming increasingly well-known as a composer in addition to his work as a singer, Roderick generously took the time to answer a few questions for us, covering everything from composing, singing, poetry and more.
Explore more recordings in the NMC catalogue featuring Roderick Williams, including albums by Hugh Woods, Robert Saxton and Richard Rodney Bennett.
As a singer, performing and interpreting a wide range of texts, how do you balance your own personal interpretation of the text with what the composer has written?
On occasions the way I read a poem and the way a composer has chosen to set a text don’t match; it’s sometimes a difference of emphasis, sometimes to do with layers of subtext. Then I have a simple choice; to stay true to the composer’s vision, as far as I understand it, or impose my own reading on top. Bearing in mind that a composer is already adding a layer on top of the poet’s original, I don’t always feel too bad in adding some of my own thoughts and responses into the mix. Often this can be as simple as simple as giving extra stress to a word, say on an upbeat, which the composer has chosen to down-play. But in the end, I do wish to stay as true as I can to the spirit of the composition otherwise I might just as well leave the song alone and write my own. So the balance is a fine one and that is, I suppose, what we mean by interpretation. I trust my instincts both as performer and composer to see the choices from both sides and opt for something that works.
Versatility as a performer is one of your key strengths. How important do you think it is for performers to engage with contemporary music and do recordings of new music play a role in highlighting the repertoire?
I see that it is entirely possible for performers to make a tremendous career in music, certainly in singing, and avoid any contemporary repertoire completely. I don’t think this affects their legitimacy as artists at all. My own career happens to have encompassed a lot of new music partly because I write some myself and partly because I must have earned a reputation early on as a singer who was not intimidated or overwhelmed by its demands. Once you say yes to one project and make a decent job of it, more are offered to you. I would have been sorry to have ended up singing this repertoire to the exclusion of all else and I’m glad that circumstances never forced me to make such a choice. I count myself lucky to have been offered work in a variety of classical genres from early music right through to contemporary.
If the question is less about practicalities and more about ideology, then clearly someone has to champion new music performance and recording or it will disappear from the concert hall and the studio. And I believe this to be important, not just because I compose and therefore have a vested interest in the promotion of new music, but because it is self-evident that music cannot stand still. If we venerate music of the past to the exclusion of all else, we create lifeless museums.
The recording industry has a huge part to play in this, especially with the global reach of the internet, as new music can reach target audiences wherever they are. New music, whether it be classical or pop, has never been more openly accessible and I think that is very exciting, even if it is a minefield for performing rights law.
Your choral piece Ave Verum Corpus Re-Imagined won a 2016 British Composer Award. How do you find time to compose around your busy performance schedule and what are you writing at the moment? Do you have any top picks from the NMC back catalogue that particularly inspire you?
A freelance career brings with it a lot of waiting, whether it be in hotel rooms, on trains, in airport lounges or wherever. When I am at home, time with my family is precious so I don’t often schedule time to write unless I have a deadline looming. But away from home I can put in the hours required to produce something solid. At the moment I have several pieces on the go, some new compositions and some orchestration too. I am working on settings of Ursula Vaughan Williams poems for the female trio Voices which premieres as the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester this summer.
My favourite NMC recording from the catalogue has to be the Songbook project which was so wonderful as a snapshot of contemporary vocal writing. I love the diversity of compositions, the sheer range of responses to quite a specific brief; three minutes of music for voice and whatever instrument. There are some real gems in that collection.
Many of the works you’ve recorded with NMC have been settings of poems, from authors spanning centuries and styles. Do you have a favourite poet or poem that you would love to set to music yourself, and if so for what voices/forces?
By now I have set a lot of my favourite poetry and poets; I keep coming back to E E Cummings, for example as he really tickled me when I first came across his work as a teenager. Likewise George Herbert. I’m finding Urusula Vaughan Williams’ poetry beautiful to set as she seems to write with a musician’s sensibilities in mind. I hugely enjoy Thomas Hardy’s poetry but I don’t imagine I have the skill to set him as deftly as Finzi did.
More often that not I take a commission and then try to find the text to fit the brief; that’s how I came to choose a selection of New England poets for my Choral Symphony, written for Schola Cantorum of Yale. The requirements of the commission dictated the source of the text.
Your route into becoming a classical singer is perhaps atypical, beginning professional training in your late twenties. Do you have any funny stories of unusual jobs you had prior to entering the singing world?
I used to be part of an a cappella boy band in the days before The X Factor, The Voice and so on. My brother-in-law and two other friends from choral scholar days at university joined forces to sing covers of pop songs, which we arranged for four voices. Our party piece was Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and we sang that on television in the Grand Finale of Bob Says Opportunity Knocks. The programme reached about 13 million viewers, in the days when families used to sit around the TV together and watch one of the handful of terrestrial channels. We could have been famous. But our careers went their separate ways and it was not to be.
If you had unlimited free time, is there a skill you’d like to learn or hobby you’d take up – musical or otherwise!
I would have loved to have been a dancer. I don’t understand classical ballet at all but I have enormous respect for those who practice it. The regime they subject themselves to is quite astonishing, totally alien to a singer and I marvel at their sense of discipline. But I would love to have been a confident dancer of any sort.
You’re stuck in a lift with three people of your choice (dead or alive)! Who are they and what do you sing to keep everyone entertained while you wait to be rescued?
The first is easy; J S Bach. I would just like to watch him work as we sit and wait for rescue. I would try to sing anything he put in front of me too.
Then, Martin Luther King; not for any political reason but because I feel my heart welling up with pride and my eyes with tears whenever I hear him recordings of him speaking. What extraordinary, electrifying charisma. If anyone could keep our spirits up in a lift, it would be him.
Finally, Monica Bellucci; does there have to be a reason? We wouldn’t even need to be rescued that quickly….