In conversation with Catherine Nasskau
CN: John, firstly, thank you very much for sparing the time to share your thoughts with us about your music. Do you recall the first piece of music you composed?
JR: I improvised at the piano from when I was very young indeed, but the first piece I remember writing down was called Daybreak and I think I was about ten years old.
CN: What or who were your musical influences during your childhood and student days?
JR: Anything and everything; I was (and still am) a complete magpie.
CN: How does music come to you? Do you have a special place to work?
JR: The process is mysterious to all composers, but it helps if there’s a deadline looming. I do have a composing cottage where I go to write. It’s undisturbed and rather Spartan - no internet, and telephone for emergencies only.
CN: You have composed a tremendously wide range of works - do you have a favourite genre?
JR: I’m mostly known for my choral music, but I enjoy writing for anything non-electronic that makes a sound.
CN: What differences do you find in the many different countries you have worked in, in terms of how different nationalities rehearse and perform?
JR: There are superficial differences over things like punctuality, the importance (or not) of a good dinner break, etc – but once the music begins, these melt away and we’re all in the kingdom of music.
CN: Has your composing been influenced by different choral traditions or by your travels?
JR: People must judge for themselves what traditions and styles have influenced my compositions. My conducting has definitely been enriched by working with choirs and orchestras in different countries, though.
CN: How has your composing developed over the years?
JR: Hard to tell; I don’t often look back, I generally think about what I’m writing now or what I’m writing next.
CN: How important is your liturgical work to you?
It has been an important strand in my choral music. I love the traditions, liturgy, buildings, and inspiring texts provided by the church, and am nourished by them all.
CN: What music do you like to listen to?
JR: All sorts; my record collection is a complete stylistic salad.
CN: Are you working on anything at present? If so, what has it been inspired by?
JR: Just enjoyed the première of my new work Visions, inspired by the architecture and history of the Temple Church in London – that was part of the recent Menuhin competition and festival, it was a showpiece for solo violin and chamber orchestra, with a role for the choristers of the Temple Church choir. Right now I’m catching up on jobs neglected while I was writing it, and it will be a few months before I’m able to decide what to write next.
CN: We very much enjoyed the Singing Day you led with us last year. Why is singing in schools and the wider community so important?
JR: Because of the unique way it brings people together in harmony and enables them to give voice to what lies deep in their hearts and souls. And it’s enormous fun, when you do it right.
CN: What led you to compose Mass of the Children?
JR: An opportunity in a concert series I was part of in New York’s Carnegie Hall. The concert in question coincided with a national choral convention in New York, and there were both adult and children’s choirs in town, together with my usual orchestra and soloists, and I wanted to involve everyone, especially the children in a central role.
CN: It has had many performances; what qualities do the most successful ones have?
JR: Freshness and joy. Accuracy is desirable too, of course.