Mining a native talent

September 15, 1995

John Davies talks to Bernard Rands, the Harvard composer originally inspired by colliery bands. You would not have taken the dapper grey-haired man in a suit who waited in the lobby of his London hotel one morning last month for a composer. Only one thing provided a clue: he was carrying a copy of the latest Musical Times, whose cover promised an in-depth examination of the music of Bernard Rands. In other words, of his own work.

Rands, the grandly-titled Walter Bigelow Rosen professor of music at Harvard University, was in London for a Promenade Concert performance of his Canzoni per Orchestra by the Philadelphia Orchestra, for which it was written. But this was no flying visit by Rands: in a sense, it was a return to the roots of his musical career.

"The Proms were a crucial part of my musical education," explains Rands, who grew up in Sheffield and recalls "as a young boy, listening in the summer months on a small radio to the concerts from the Royal Albert Hall". Since the age of ten Bernard Rands had known he wanted to be a composer. Although his family contained no professional musicians, he was, he says, "surrounded by music. I had nine uncles, all of them coal miners: they either sang in the local choirs or they played in colliery brass bands."

Despite his early commitment to composing, when Rands left for university in the early 1950s it was not to read music but to get a first degree in Celtic studies from the University of Wales at Bangor. (He has some Welsh ancestry on his mother's side, and taught himself Welsh before going to university.) "Literature has always been important to me," he says. "I spent my boyhood and youth intrigued by poetry." Much of his music these days has literary origins: his new Proms work had as its starting point 15 of James Joyce's poems.

In the 1960s the young Rands became associated with the musical avant-garde. "But I was never a card-carrying member of the serial school," he says. "I haven't written in that manner for more than 30 years." Indeed, his recent work has been praised in America for its "plangent lyricism" and its "accessible musical language".

Despite over 20 years in America - he became a US citizen in 1983 and is now married to an American composer - Rands, now 61, still has the traces of a Yorkshire accent. His last prolonged period in this country was the seven years from 1968, when he returned from teaching at the University of Illinois to take up a post in York's music department under Wilfrid Mellers. In 1975, though, Rands went back across the Atlantic for "the openness and freedom I didn't quite find in Europe". He took up an appointment at the University of California at San Diego, going on from there via Boston University to Harvard in 1989.

Bernard Rands is clearly happy at Harvard: "I love the environment of universities, where at five o'clock of an evening I can sit down and talk with a colleague - not necessarily a musician, he could be a scientist. And to have books and books and books around, to wander through the stacks."

But with a four-hours-a-week teaching timetable his academic work takes second place to the creative. "I'm a composer - that's what I do. Everything else has to fall into place around that."

Even so, on his travels he sometimes regrets that composer, rather than professor, is how he is described on his passport: "You say you're a composer and they search your baggage, even with hair my length."

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