“the best [of the New Music 20x12 Cultural Olympiad commissions] was Richard Causton’s Twenty-Seven Heavens, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival. This was a brilliant translation into sound of William Blake’s vision of the mythical Albion’s struggles to awaken from spiritual death.

Ivan Hewett, Review of the Year 2012, The Daily Telegraph


Richard Causton was born in 1971 in Whitechapel, east London. He first came to prominence as a composer at the age of 24 with The Persistence of Memory, which was premièred at London’s South Bank Centre by the London Sinfonietta under the direction of Oliver Knussen. The title comes from Salvador Dali’s famous ‘melting clocks’ painting and its sense of distorted time also derives from a personal experience dating back to 1989, when Causton became ill and delirious on a visit to southern India. At times the sound-world of this music seems almost electronic – a result of the combined sonorities of a prepared piano, harp, vibraphone and a microtonally tuned set of bells that Causton built especially for the piece.

In the wake of this piece came commissions from the Nash Ensemble (Notturno and Rituals of Hunting and Blooding) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Millennium Scenes). In approaching writing for large orchestra, Causton found his music coalescing into on the one hand extreme delicacy and pathos and on the other, an ebullient sense of joy that turns into something visceral and altogether more menacing. Millennium Scenes also has an avowedly political dimension, which Causton says “came from a need to observe life in the final years of the millennium with unflinching honesty” and is apparent not least in the music’s use of instruments commonly associated with street demonstrations, such as car horns and whistles. After its first performance, The Guardian’s Tim Ashley wrote: “Millennium Scenes is a bold, terminal work, which conveys the atmosphere of the fin de siècle before casting off the current century…The score presents us with a street party on the edge of catastrophe. The first movement conveys riotous clamour as twitchy string recitatives, earsplitting woodwind screeches and vainglorious brass band music are wedged together in confusion. The second section…is a nocturne that crumbles into a nightmare: liquid oboe phrases and a chorale of great beauty hint at a timeless spiritual experience, their progress disrupted, then halted by the return of the raucous opening material. The unnerving ending consists of a brass discord that sounds like countless cars honking at midnight on New Year’s Eve, as well as an apocalyptic fanfare that heralds worse to follow…Orchestrally, it’s virtuoso stuff and was given the superlative performance it deserved by the BBCSO under Sir Andrew Davis.” Millennium Scenes was premièred at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1999 and, in its revised version of 2001, has been received with tremendous enthusiasm on further performances in Switzerland and Germany.

The years 2004-2007 brought two works commissioned as memorials. Between Two Waves of the Sea was written for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and involves the live performers in a duet with especially composed music which was pre-recorded by the same orchestra and reproduced in concert via a sampler: a ‘virtual’ orchestra which is physically absent but heard (or half-heard) as if from the next room. Phoenix (for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello) was commissioned for the London Sinfonietta and its starting point was the fact that the piano is the only instrument in the group whose notes fade as soon as they are sounded. Causton says “I had been thinking about the Italian artist Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, which is a kind of attempt to depict movement in sculpture. I was intrigued by the relationship between the impossibility of making sculpture move and the impossibility of making the piano sound endure. Of course a series of dots (if close enough to one another) can be made to resemble a line and this is similar to how Boccioni’s sculpture creates the illusion of movement – like the sort of blurred ‘smear’ that you can get in photography by holding the shutter open too long on a camera. And there’s a poetic parallel between this trying to make something endure which can’t (the piano sound) and…hoping to evade death through rebirth”. Phoenix was the winner of a 2006 Royal Philharmonic Society Award and a recording is available on the London Sinfonietta label (Jerwood Series 4, SINF CD1-2008).

In 2009 Causton received an intriguing commission from the City of London Festival’s Ian Ritchie to produce a work for Chopin’s bicentenary. The new work was a collaboration with artist Luke Jerram and the result, Nocturne for 21 Pianos, was first performed on midsummer’s night the following year. Reviewing the event for The Times, Richard Morrison wrote: “As night fell on the longest day we crowded round a circle of 21 upright pianos, each with two flaming torches on it. The spectacle, outdoors in the heart of the Square Mile, was delightfully incongruous. But then the music started and the real magic began….the composer Richard Causton had taken [Chopin’s] 21 Nocturnes and arranged them – in a mishmash of fragments, overlaps and free fantasias – for 21 pianos…The sound was eerie, ethereal and enchanting. Sometimes one pianist was given a whole nocturne. But more often Chopin’s music triggered a surreal wash of arpeggios and scales that rippled round the circle. That the 21 honky-tonks were slightly out of tune and time with each other added to the bizarre charm. In places it sounded like a symphony for ice-cream vans. [It was] a highlight of the Festival’s first evening.”

Causton revisited the combination of pre-recorded music with live music in his Chamber Symphony (2009, rev. 2010). Commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under its Sound Investment scheme, this piece was subsequently performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall and received its US première last November at the Lincoln Center in New York. The Chamber Symphony reflects Causton’s ongoing preoccupation with the poetry and imagery of William Blake, whose work attracts him for its combination of exalted, psychedelic fantasy with a social awareness and compassion way ahead of its time.

These ideas also feed directly into Causton’s work for large orchestra, Twenty-Seven Heavens, which was commissioned by the European Union Youth Orchestra as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and premièred at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda. Reviewing the work at its UK première, The Daily Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett wrote: “The real discovery was Richard Causton’s Twenty-Seven Heavens, [which was] as sharply outlined and brilliantly coloured as a stained-glass window […] Causton’s piece began with a beautifully vivid metaphor of heavenly order and radiance, with two solo violins locked in an eternal embrace. Then sullen gravity intervened, pulling the music down to earth in beautifully-imagined episodes for low brass and percussion. One could feel the music trying to “slip the surly bonds of earth” – which it eventually did, in a way that was thrilling and subtly poetic”.

Profile by Jeremy Dale Roberts (2013)

For many of us, one of the most indelible images of the turn of the last century was the notorious shot of Her Majesty the Queen gingerly joining hands with a fatuously grinning Blair to celebrate Auld Lang Syne at the infamous Dome fiasco. Some of that embarrassment was felt at another occasion elsewhere in the metropolis around the same time: the premiere of Richard Causton’s Millennium Scenes at the Royal Festival Hall, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis. Another compulsory jamboree, ‘Sounding the Century’; all the great and the good were there. But the piece signally failed to ‘deliver’ in a Blairite way quite what was expected or required. Instead of being comfortably regaled by ‘English’, affirmative pomp and circumstance – a token overture maybe? – the audience was stunned by the harshest cacophony: a metaphor for social dysfunction and moral disarray, concluding with a disquieting, daunting question mark. What should have been for the composer a scoop, an occasion for back-slapping and glib applause left everybody nonplussed, wrong-footed, not knowing where to put their face.

We should expect no less from Richard Causton. He is a political animal; his works proclaim it. He is also one of the most courageous and uncompromising artists we have: never afraid to push his language and his musical means – and his performers – to whatever limits may seem appropriate to his intentions. The story of the entire BBCSO wind section, (including three piccolos and E flat clarinet at fff), sending for ear-plugs to enable them to endure the stridency of Millennium Scenes may be apocryphal; but his frequent resort to unusual instruments – sometimes exotic, sometimes home-made, like the gigantic chime of steel tubes called for in The Persistence of Memory – as well as the employment of unconventional tunings and minutely judged articulations and nuances, show the hand of an exceptionally adventurous and single-minded composer, gifted with a precise and individual aural imagination which can sometimes take the breath away.

Those cataclysms, those radiant chorales; those elisions and transformations in the structures; the way he sometimes smears the paintwork of his textures: the effect is as ravishing close up, engrossing in the detail of brushwork, as it is impressive in its broad narrative context. He is also a lyrical composer – he writes wonderfully for the voice, most notably in the large-scale song-cycle for baritone and piano La Terra Impareggiabile; and throughout his work those lingering melismatic passages, often for wind instruments and horn, floating freely in an entranced heterophonic web and often blurred behind a scrim of string murmurings, are among his most haunting pages. Indeed there is a kind of glamour in his music; but a glamour that is never complacent. It remains subject to change, debility or violent intrusion. The fastidious and the brutal maintain an uneasy relationship.

He is a poet; he bears witness to the world we live in. Like William Blake, whom he cites so frequently, he dreams his dreams yet keeps his eyes unflinchingly open upon the news of the day.

© Jeremy Dale Roberts 2013

This Profile was written for and first appeared in the liner notes of NMC D192