Richard Causton on composition at Cambridge
Photo of Richard Causton. Credit: Mat Smith
Richard Causton is a composer and currently Professor of Composition at Cambridge University. He studied at the University of York, the Royal College of Music and the Scuola Civica in Milan, where his teachers included Franco Donatoni.

Richard has been described as "one of the most courageous and uncompromising artists we have". He first came to prominence with the première by the London Sinfonietta of The Persistence of Memory (1995), and has subsequently worked with ensembles such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Recherche and the Nash Ensemble, among many others.

NMC's portrait disc of Causton's work (NMC D192) was listed as 'Outstanding' in International Record Review and was No.1 in the Sunday Times' 100 Best Records of the Year 2014 (Contemporary Composers section). More recently, his orchestral piece Ik zeg: NU was included in the 2019 International Rostrum of Composers and has since been broadcast in more than twenty-seven countries worldwide.
After studying at the University in York, doing a postgraduate in London and another in Italy with Franco Donatoni, Richard moved back to London, but it was extremely difficult to make ends meet. "It is virtually impossible to make a living as a composer in the UK writing concert music," he adds. "At that time, I was doing bits of teaching and living very cheaply in order to maximise the amount of time I had to compose."

Causton reveals that their family living conditions became so dire — their home didn't have heating and sometimes drinkable water — that he had to find a job with a steady income to support his young family. Richard was appointed to a Lectureship in Composition at Cambridge in 2012 and is now in his tenth year of teaching at the University, where he is based at King's College.

King's is famous for its choral tradition which goes back centuries, and although the college preserves many of its traditional practices, it also reinvents itself at the same time. A few years ago the Chapel Choir began doing webcasts, and it now has its own record label. There have been changes in other areas, too. "In terms of the students that the College admits at undergraduate level, the vast majority are now taken from state schools rather than private, fee-paying schools," the professor says.

When it comes to applying to Cambridge, you can express a preference for a certain college. Some colleges receive more applications for music than others, which means that even if you don't get accepted into your college of choice, you still have a chance to attend the university — just at a different college.

For Richard, it's impressive to see people who come from less privileged backgrounds but have taken every opportunity they've gotten and have shown great initiative; and he finds a lot of value in watching how a candidate thinks. "To be able to have a conversation with an applicant to see if they can use information to come to sound conclusions as well as to discover what their inner hearing is like, how they think about music…these are the things that are really important in the application process," he explains.
Richard also notes that over the years, a remarkable list of composers have been students at King's: Judith Weir, Thomas Ades, George Benjamin, Errollyn Wallen, Julian Anderson, to name a few. While a lot of them were fine composers before they came to Cambridge, the institution has offered a very rigorous training and techniques, including 16th century counterpoint, score reading and aural and musicianship skills.

The university as a whole offers great opportunities for music making: there are numerous instrumentalists and singers, as well as chapel choirs and music societies. "If you're interested in making music happen, putting on events or concerts, or doing unusual repertoire, it's possible to do things and experiment," Richard says. "I think that combination of possibilities for exploring and experimenting and rigorous training are part of how that's happened."

Unlike in the US, universities in the UK have general degrees in music, no matter your specialization, which take three years to complete. At Cambridge, the first year consists of six compulsory courses; the next comprises three compulsory and three courses of your choice; and in your final year, you have free range over the six classes you want to take.

The transition from school to university education can feel quite abrupt. "The sorts of things required by qualifications at school level are often relatively formulaic: you have to know certain things to do well in the exam, so you learn them and hope to get good grades," Causton elucidates. "In university you have to be more self-motivated and to do really well, you have to show initiative."

With so many resources at your disposal, it can feel overwhelming and challenging to think of how to use them to the best of your advantage, especially given that your Bachelor's degree takes three years to complete. "It's the moment in life where you really get to make decisions, [but] it's also at a time where you perhaps aren't so focused and narrowed down in your goals, so it's an opportunity to try and to find which things are really important to you," he suggests.
"You don't know which [experiences] are going to be formative and influential until they happen. You need to seize all these opportunities with open hands."
"We've had some wonderful students at Cambridge in the time that I've been here, and there is a thriving, lively, vibrant community of composers," the professor tells me. "I think the strength of [the] university's music department is that lots of things are happening — all very different but all at a very high level, [which] is extremely pleasing to see."

Although Causton dedicates a lot of time to teaching, he is very much a composer who teaches rather than a teacher who composes. Recently, he has been working on a collaboration with the University's Engineering Department: by building a piano preparation using electromagnets, one can now play the instrument in a completely different way. The inspiration for the project came from the composer's interest in making the instrument 'speak', and finding a meaningful hybrid between human speech and the traditional piano sound. Looking into the near future, Richard intends to write more for the electromagnetic piano and to compose another orchestral piece.
Made on