Mills on Mills: From percussionist to major composer

3 Oct 2019

​Every composer should have a day job, advises one of Australia’s most prolific composer-conductors who began his music career as a percussionist and now has more than 100 commissions and compositions under his belt.

Richard Mills’ mighty 40-year contribution to the Australian musical landscape includes operas, orchestral works, film scores and the theme music for ABC News. Ahead of a concert in his honour, Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director reflects on his career so far and offers advice for emerging artists.

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Richard Mills composing at home, 2013

How did you begin your career in music and make the transition to composer/conductor?

I studied piano, harmony and counterpoint from the age of 15 at the Queensland Conservatorium, while I was still at school. I continued after school and got all the things: piano diplomas and theory diplomas, as you do. I studied Literature, French and German at the university as well.

Then I went to study in London on a scholarship at Guildhall, as a pianist strangely. I did a lot of accompanying at Guildhall and also took up percussion because I wanted to learn how to write for it. I discovered I had a natural feel for percussion – it was easy for me and became a way to earn a living so I could be free to write music. That’s always the thing with a composer: find a day job. It’s the first advice I would give to someone who wants to be a composer and playing in an orchestra is a good day job for a composer.

I also did some work as a repetiteur which is all consuming given the amount of music you need to learn and the hours of coaching. It’s not so great if you want to compose.

How would you describe your musical styles or instincts?

I’m a composer for whom tonality is very important. I’m still a tonal composer, although I would say that it’s a very broad use of tonal principles but still relies on the facts of tonality to make structures. Tonality is allied to memory, to the structures of our brains, to the way we hear, to the harmonic series and all the rest of it.

I’ve never been anything else but a tonal composer and that was, especially when I was starting out, most unfashionable in the England of the 1970s. It’s one reason I came back to Australia; I just didn’t fit in in Europe and could see no future for myself there as a writer, unless I got into films.

Did you ever explore composing music for film? 

I flirted with in it in the early eighties and did a couple. I did a TV movie called Chase Through the Night and few short documentaries back when documentaries were regularly screened in cinemas.

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I have a great affection for the Golden Age of Hollywood and made six CDs of the film music by Franz Waxman for Varèse Sarabande, a label out of San Francisco.

Putting that together took a lot of research and I discovered a lot about how they worked in those years. They worked fast; Waxman, for instance, would work all day and the copyist would come at 4 pm, pick up his sheets, bring it back for proofing the next morning and then off it’d go to the studio. It was instantaneous.

There was such craftmanship in those days. Just look at Conrad Salinger’s work on Singin’ in the Rain; it’s utterly consummate artistry, there’s not one note too many or too few. These movies demonstrated the highest levels of artistic judgement.

Tell us about the best moment of your career so far.

There have been so many. The opening night of my opera Batavia was pretty special. I had no idea if it was going to work; it was so under rehearsed because of delays in the theatre. I thought this is either going to be fantastic or an utter disaster.

It was announced in August 2000 and Act 3 hadn’t even been written and none of it orchestrated, and it was on in March 2001. Can you imagine? It would never happen today but was a mark of the trust that Opera Australia had in me.

It was special. The whole State Theatre was on its feet. I thought, I must have done something right.

We did some very good concert performances when I was Artistic Director of the Adelaide Chamber Orchestra, very satisfying concerts. We did some amazing stuff at the Adelaide Festival in the early nineties.

The things that stick in my mind are the concerts I’ve done with the great singers in the repertoire I love. All the Bellini operas, for example, that we’ve done here. I’m very proud of them; they were special evenings, as indeed was Parsifal earlier in this year and the Tristan und Isolde I conducted with the Australian Youth Orchestra at the Queensland Music Festival.

There have been many great moments, mostly involving singers. For me, it’s the opera performances which stick out in my memory.

Of all the new Australian works you have written or commissioned, which do you hold dearest?

There have been so many works I’ve commissioned: 27 with the Adelaide Chamber Orchestra, another 30 or so during my time at the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – we commissioned a lot at the Brisbane Biennial – about 40 when I was artistic director of Musica Nova, and 13 during my time at Victorian Opera.

A work which comes to mind is Iain Grandage’s The Riders. I didn’t commission it but was instrumental in bringing it to the stage. Another work which I didn’t commission but conducted was one of the early performances was Carl Vine’s Symphony No. 3. It’s a beautiful symphony; the coda of Carl’s Symphony No. 3 is a very special moment in music. It’s an achieved moment of poise.

Graeme Koehne’s chamber opera Love Burns is another very fine piece; we brought it to the stage in Queensland. I organised the first performance of Brett Dean’s Ariel’s Music which we recorded with Paul Dean and the QSO, and it won the International Rostrum of Composers in 1999, helping to launch his career.

From my own works, I think my best opera is Love of the Nightingale. It has the most consistent language and is dramaturgically very tight. There were several good productions of it.

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Your re-orchestration of Charles Williams’ Majestic Fanfare is possibly Australia’s most frequently heard composition – the ABC News theme. How did this project come about?

It’s apparently played 40 times a day! I was the Artist-in-Residence at the ABC in 1989–90. I worked with all the Australian orchestras and was James Galway’s conductor in Australia and New Zealand. I even wrote him a concerto.

Someone had done an arrangement of Majestic Fanfare for the ABC but charged them a fortune and it was costing them too much money. They asked me to do it and sign away the rights. It was a morning’s work. Pity I didn’t get royalties, but that’s my contribution to the ABC!

I did four harmonisations of it. Where I used to live in Brisbane the postman would come up on the front veranda, so I tried them out on the postman to see which he liked the best. The one that the postman voted for is the one they use.

What is the most important piece of advice you have for young artists?

Practise your craft, work hard, find trusted mentors, listen to them, be as good as you can be every day, and don’t worry too much about the future.

In our business, the future looks after itself. If you just do the best you can today, you’ll find tomorrow looks after itself.

It’s important to place a value on the quality of inspiration, the pursuit of truth in your vocation as a musician, and your own personal standards of integrity, because no one can take that from you.

By Scott Whinfield