Robert Ramskill - Blog

Robert Ramskill - CCA's Composer of the Month, DECEMBER 2012

Robert Ramskill - CCA's Composer of the Month, DECEMBER 2012

CCA's Composer of the Month, DECEMBER 2012




His featured Composition(s) of the Month:


N.B. A downloadable recording of this work may be found under Robert Ramskill´s list of works.

The instrumental and/or vocal resources used:



First performance details:

At the Coventry Centre for the Performing Arts in 1985


Performer on the recording:



What was the source/inspiration/commission which set this piece or these pieces in motion?

In 1982 I had written an extended piano piece (Chameleon) for Julian Hellaby. The piece was written in a challenging (post-Boulez) style (see the section on influences below). In 1985 Julian asked for a new piece but specified that it should be ‘in your jazz style’. He had heard some of the pieces I had written for Coventry youth orchestras and ensembles which made use of jazz and popular music idioms. I was happy to oblige and the experience of writing the piece set me off in a new direction compositionally as, from then on, most of my new compositions (even ‘serious’ ones) were based on the use of jazz idioms. So, even though the piece is from the lighter end of my compositional spectrum, I think its significance for my development merits its choice as ‘composition of the month’.


A programme note for this work:

Intermezzo and Quodlibet  are movements from my Jazz Sonatina of 1985. As the title implies the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas are jazz-inspired (with the influences of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis particularly to the fore). The forms, however, are entirely classical – the first movement (Preamble) is in a clear-cut sonata form. The second movement (Intermezzo) is a short, quirky Tango in ternary form. The title of the final movement (Quodlibet) gives a clue as to its character but programme notes should carefully avoid giving away any potential surprises to first time listeners so no more details are provided here.

Julian Hellaby has played this piece many times in recitals in this country and abroad and a number of other pianists have also taken the piece into their repertoire.   


Now learn more about Bob’s history of composing.


When did you first start composing and what was your first piece?

When I was about 12 or 13 (a year or so after starting piano lessons with my father) I saw an item on a television programme which featured a young composer playing a piano piece he’d written. I remember being impressed by the fact that the piece was in 7/8 time but also, more to the point, I remember deciding there and then that composing was something I wanted to do. Oddly enough (given that the rest of my early attempts at composition were all for piano) the first piece I committed to paper soon after this revelation was for string quartet.


Who was it that first encouraged you to develop your interest in composing and how did they help?

I was very fortunate that my music teacher at Leeds Central High School (Mr. Freeman) was very good at finding out about and helping develop any musical skills and interests his pupils possessed. The school had no music tradition (‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in the subject were not on offer) but he somehow managed to get a good choir and recorder group going and at break time the music room was the place to go for a lively exchange of ideas and for people to play new pieces they’d learned or, in my case, composed. Mr. Freeman had a gift for balancing supportive enthusiasm with constructive criticism and ensured that quite a few of my compositions were performed publicly.


Who do you consider your greatest inspirations in terms of the major composers and which of their works has influenced you the most and why?

I suspect that most composers hate that moment after the performance of a new piece when someone comes up and says that the style reminds them very much of such-and-such a composer. I will however admit to being strongly influenced by the composers on the following list as I consciously imitated their style and methods over long periods of time during my formative years as a composer (between about the ages of 13 and 23):


1)    CHOPIN. His Nocturnes, Concertos, Etudes (etc.) were the starting point for my first attempts at composition. I was fascinated by his expressive and daring harmonies and also the superb writing for piano. The lyrical qualities of his music (which I only later realised stemmed from Chopin’s love of ‘bel canto’ opera) were another vital component – even Chopin’s most dazzling pianistic fireworks are essentially lyrical. MyNocturne for Piano of 1987 is an example of his influence on my more mature compositions.  


2)    BACH. My second great classical influence. We can all learn from Bach’s supreme technical accomplishment whilst not ignoring the fact that his music is expressive of every emotion. His perfection of tonal harmony still provides the basis for most music written today in the Western world. His 5th Brandenburg Concerto (especially that astonishing first movement) inspired many of my youthful efforts and most of my pieces from then on include passages using contrapuntal techniques learned from the Master. There is a fugato section in my featured composition – Quodlibet.


3)    BRUBECK. I have never studied jazz with the same thoroughness as classical music but have always loved the sound it makes! Many of my own compositions combine jazz harmonies and rhythms with classical forms. Brubeck’s albums Time Out and Time Further Out were about the best jazz material available in the form of printed scores in the 1960s and gave me a sound basis for my jazz influenced compositions.

LATEST NEWS: We are sorry to note that the mighty Dave Brubeck died on December 5th 2012 - just one day before his 92nd birthday. In the Daily Telegraph´s extensive obituary on December 6th, there is a humorous reference to his short-lived tuition under Schoenberg but I am very fond of Brubeck´s quote when asked how he would like to be remembered: "As someone who opened doors". Wonderful! Would that we all could say that... DF


4)    HINDEMITH. In the late 1960s I found Hindemith’s music (perhaps because it has not got such an individual personal quality as that of other 20th century giants like Stravinsky and Bartok) a very good basis for imitation when trying develop my own style in a more ‘modernist’ direction. I was particularly impressed by his Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass and Two Harps and spent at least two years trying emulate the abrasive counterpoint of its first movement (the fast section after the slow introduction). Works like my Tuba Concertoof 1992 combine the influence of Hindemith with jazz-inspired elements.


5)    BOULEZ. During my ‘avant-garde’ phase (about 1972-1982) I was strongly influenced by the sound (but not the methods!) of Boulez’s music. To my ears his music has more purpose, momentum, fluidity and individuality than that of the other leading avant-gardists. In his ‘Pli Selon Pli’ he conjured up very appealing sonorities combined with strong melodic content and in ‘Domaines’ he even introduced something many considered impossible in music of that type – humour! My most ambitious work to show this influence isChameleon for piano of 1982.



How would you describe your style to someone who has never heard your music before?

Given the above list of main influences I would find it difficult to describe how any coherent style might materialise so I’ll content myself with repeating that most of my recent music combines jazz influenced melodies, harmonies and rhythms with classical forms. It might though be helpful to add that my music (unless setting a text) is usually ‘abstract’ – even when a descriptive title is used (like Chameleon or O Frabjous Day [from 3 Bagatelles for Two Pianos]) I would really use that title as something to help those audience members who prefer to have some kind of image in mind when listening rather something which helps me to compose. Very often I will come up with a title after the piece has been written.

The fact that the music is ‘abstract’ doesn’t mean that it lacks expression or emotional content though. Mendelssohn summed it up perfectly when he said ‘The emotions conveyed in music are not too vague to be expressed in words but too precise!’


What do you feel is original in your music?

I genuinely believe that only a relatively small number of composers in history (and often not the best known ones) are truly original. Most composers take on board the influences they feel most drawn to of those available to them as a starting point and proceed to develop a personal style based on them. I’m a strong believer that then the composer’s individuality will then come through in their music. This belief was confirmed through years of teaching composition when I saw that almost every student (from whatever stylistic basis and level of technical accomplishment they may have been starting) had something fresh and personal to themselves to say. Overall then I think it is more fruitful to develop one’s individuality as a composer rather than striving after originality per se.   


How do you work? What methods of creativity and work ethic do you have? Do you solely use musical technology or do paper and pencil still form a part of your process?

I still like to be able to play what I write on the piano as I always did before computers came along and as part of that process I still use old-fashioned manuscript paper in the early stages of a new piece. The temptation to use the playback facility on Sibelius (or Finale in my case) is great however and certainly helps to confirm (or otherwise) that the music is flowing logically and makes sense formally. The worst aspect of computer playback though is that, in my experience, it gives a very poor sense of the balance between different instruments you will achieve when you eventually get real people to play the music.

I’ve found that my best time of day for me for actually coming up with new ideas is in the early evening. Any time is OK for tidying up and sorting out material though I would say morning is best. When no ideas appear to be forthcoming I’ve found that the only thing to do is to keep ‘plodding away’ – I sometimes surprise myself with how much I’ve actually achieved despite the impression I’d had that things were not going well.  I like the story I read recently that when Bach set off for a session in his ‘composing room’ he’d usually take a bottle of brandy with him. I haven’t reached that stage yet but maybe it’s worth a try!


What projects are you currently working on?

I usually have a long-term project on the go (with no definite performance opportunity in mind) alongside any other pieces that need to be completed for specific occasions. Recently I finished a string quartet which I had taken 4 years to write, on and off. Currently my long-term project is a set of piano preludes. For more immediate consumption is a Sonata for trumpet and piano commissioned by trumpet player James Stretton. The Sutton Coldfield Orchestra have also commissioned an Overture from me for their 40th anniversary in 2014.

I’m normally also working on a project for the publisher Brasswind Publications. For them I recently completed a suite for 4 part brass and/or woodwind ensemble with narrator based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ poem and am now doing arrangements of Soul classics for various solo brass and woodwind instruments with piano accompaniment.


To finish, who or what is your favourite:


Genre of Music?

I’ll listen to just about anything, but have to draw the line at hip-hop and Einaudi.


Too many to mention but I remember hearing two performances of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No2 within a matter of weeks some years ago. The first time made little impression on me (I can’t even remember the soloist’s name). In the second performance the piece sounded like great music. The difference was in the soloist Kyung-Wa-Chung which underlines the importance of good performers to any composer.  


Again too many to mention but I’ve been delighted to follow Emma Bell’s successes as I once accompanied her in a concert before she became famous.

Chamber Ensemble?

The Coull Quartet.


There’s still a fantastic standard of orchestral playing in this country (despite government policy since the early 1990s which has seen the decline in the teaching of orchestral instruments in state schools) and we’re very lucky to have the CBSO on the doorstep.

Concert Venue?

A few weeks ago I went to a concert in the Festival Hall on a Thursday and one in Symphony Hall the following Saturday. This confirmed how much better the acoustics are in the latter venue. Of London venues the Barbican is my favourite (though not the journey to and from it!).

Piece of Music?

Currently, it is Brahms´ Ein Deutsches Requiem but who knows what the next will be?