Monday, 10 September 2018

Ten New Debussys on the BBC

© Ian Dingle

Saturday 1st September saw the culmination of the 'Ten New Debussys' project. Pianist James Willshire performed ten premieres, each of which took us on a journey from a piano piece by Debussy into the composer's unique sound-world. In the same week, the project featured in two BBC broadcasts.

On Wednesday 29th August, James appeared on BBC Radio 3's 'In Tune' programme. As well as discussing the project, James performed two pieces live: Debussy's fourth prelude, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir, and Nicola LeFanu's Souvenir du petit berger, inspired by 'The Little Shepherd' from Children's Corner.

The programme is available to listen to at the link below until 28th September. 
The 'Ten New Debussys' feature starts at 34'50'' with the Debussy performance first, continuing with discussion at 38’44”, and finishing with the LeFanu performance at 44'15".

Errollyn Wallen appeared on BBC 2's Proms Extra programme on Saturday 1st September. At 2'26", Errollyn talks about the 'Ten New Debussys' project, and later on discusses Bernstein, Bach, Ravel, and more. The episode is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 30th September.

Many thanks to Errollyn, James and the BBC for these, and special thanks to all the project composers for their great pieces: Jia Chai, Robin Holloway, David Lancaster, Nicola LeFanu, Ailís Ní Ríain, Michael Parkin, Lynne Plowman, David Power, Thomas Simaku, and Errollyn Wallen.

Left to right: Parkin, Plowman, LeFanu, Willshire, Lancaster, Chai, Power, Ríain, Simaku.
© Jingzhi Chen

Friday, 24 August 2018

Composer of the month: Robin Holloway

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
Robin Holloway: Both of my parents trained as artists and loved music, though untrained. I sang in the local church choir (Balham), had piano lessons and was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral.
SC: Can you describe your new work to us?
RH: The new piece is a response the (Late Music) commission to write a short piano-number taken from any piano-original by Claude Debussy, for the centenary of his death. My choice is a little-known morceau D’un cahier d’esquisses launched out from into several new places before homing in on where it began.
SC:Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
RH: I do write at the piano – though also sketching when out and about, or confined to queues, boring meetings, interesting lectures, or insomnia. But I can’t describe the “compositional process”!

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
RH: When I know the performer(s) I of course have the character, gift, nature, sound etc in mind. But I’m also looking general dissemination after the particular: I have written lots of music with no-one specific in mind.
SC:How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
RH: Very multifarious, eclectic, protean!
SC:What motivates you to compose? 
RH: There’s something I want to say, to express, communicate, share, give.
SC:Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
RH: Birtwistle, Goehr; Norgard; Del Tredici; Weir; Benjamin; Andriessen; Abrahamsen …
SC:If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
RH: I’d love most of all to try to discover what makes Schubert tick – but fear he’d not be able to understand or reply!
SC:Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
RH: (out of many thousands!) – Bach St Matthew Passion, Haydn Seasons, MozartFigaro, Beethoven C#-minor String Quartet, Schubert Winterreise, Schumann Liederkreiss Op 39, Wagner Tristan und Isolde, Brahms Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, SchönbergFive Orchestral Pieces, Debussy Jeux, Berg Violin Concerto, Stravinsky The Fairy’s Kiss. The one I couldn,t be without is Bruckner’s 9thSymphony.
SC:…and a book?
RH: Nostromo by Conrad, Ulysses by Joyce
SC:…a film?
RH:La règle du jeu by Jean Renoir
SC:… and a luxury item?
RH: A gorgeous book reproducing the entire output of Piero della Francesca.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Composer of the month: James Cave

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
James Cave: I grew up in Lancaster: both my parents are musical, so I started singing in Lancaster Priory aged six, which was my first real musical training. My earliest musical memories are probably the keystones of the Anglican choral repertoire - Stanford, Parry et al - as well as my parents’ vinyl collection - particularly Beatles and Motown - as well as the sound of my dad practising trumpet late at night! I then became a cathedral chorister for three years; in my teens, I also developed an interest in jazz and indie, playing bass in a number of bands, as well as cello in youth orchestras. I also developed an interest in contemporary music as a child, largely because my Gran used to take me to a wide range of concerts at the RNCM in Manchester: I remember seeing Turnage’s Greek, for instance, at a relatively young age!
After university, I worked in London for a number of years, in a variety of different jobs tackling homelessness, crime and drug misuse in some of the most deprived parts of London. I had some fascinating, illuminating experiences whilst there, and learned a great deal about life. Ultimately, however, I decided to focus more on music, and so moved to York to study and to develop my composing and singing. 
SC: Can you describe your new work to us?
JC: It’s a song, ‘In Your Old Age’, for tenor and piano. I’ve set a wonderful poem by the York-based poet Shash Trevett, in which she details the disintegration of an elderly relative’s memories due, we presume, to dementia. Shash is originally from Sri Lanka, and the poem is full of evocative references to Sri Lankan landscape, food and culture. It’s a very powerful poem, too: the poet turns the idea of memory loss into a metaphor for the impact of civil war upon Sri Lanka’s people and way of life.  I’m very pleased that Shash gave me permission to set her words, and I hope that she likes what I’ve done with them!
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
JC: It depends on the project: I’ve worked in a wide variety of different ways. In this instance, I made extensive use of the piano, to try out different techniques and textures before committing them to paper; much of the piece was composed at the piano in my studio - a converted conservatory - whilst wearing my baby son in a sling! I often work with texts , and I tend to find that they quickly suggest musical and structural possibilities. For other pieces - particularly when I’ve been working as an improviser - I’ve made use of graphic notation, and pre-compositional sketches. Contemporary composers are often quite coy about the use of MIDI as a composition tool, which I find strange, as it’s standard practice in many areas of music: for orchestration, I find making a MIDI sketch of the piece invaluable. 
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
JC: Ideally I like to write for particular performers: in this case, the piece is written with the timbre of Christopher O’Gorman’s beautiful voice very much in mind. Chris is a colleague of mine in York Minster Choir, and so I’m used to hearing his voice every day, and that definitely informed my writing.   I’m fortunate to be working with two fantastic opera singers, Teit Kanstrup and CN Lester, on a new opera, Returns, based on a play by an Iraq veteran-turned-writer, Joshua Casteel. When I started writing, I didn’t have specific performers in mind, but, as we were able to try out some of the initial material in workshop, it meant that for the later stages of the composition process I was able to compose with the sound of their voices still in my memory.
I do, however, very often find myself writing without having previously heard the group I’m writing for: I’ve had a number of choral commissions recently, one for a Norwegian choir, the other for Worcester Cathedral choir, where this was the case.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
JC: I think it’s fair to say that I’m more a creator of different sound-worlds than one particular sound-world. I try to give each piece its own distinctive character and universe, and, following Charles Ives’ lead, I’m interested in staging confrontations between different styles of music.
The world of my opera, Returns, for instance, is markedly more angular and atonal than some of my other work, but at the same time draws on elements of Persian and Indian classical music in its more lyrical moments. In another recent piece, God’s Keyboard, I used elements of gospel and Sacred Harp singing alongside choral polyphony and rich ensemble writing informed by Sibelius, to explore the history of the civil rights movement in America. And another piece, Latrabjarg, juxtaposed birdsong-infused soundscape and electric cello (both realised by Chris Mullender) with rich symphonic and choral textures, to evoke the ecology and culture of Iceland. 
These sound-worlds are all quite different from one another, although friends of mine who know a lot of my music say that there are elements they recognise in all my pieces: I’m hard-pressed to say what those are, though.
SC: What motivates you to compose? 
JC: I always want to make a connection with the audience in some way: I don’t particularly mind how people react to my music - whether they laugh, cry, yawn or want to scream and shout - but I want to feel that I’ve at least moved them to some kind of response. I suppose I feel - perhaps naively - that music has the power to change society for the better, and to move people to action: I’ve always loved the old story about the audience of one of Verdi’s operas being moved to paint his name all over town following one particularly exciting performance. One theme that I’ve found myself increasingly exploring is the idea of music as a way of celebrating the diversity of the world, and as a bridge between it’s different cultures. I often make use of elements of non-Western classical musical traditions in my work: I used to worry about this being ‘appropriation’ until I was lucky enough to study briefly with the composer and Persian classical musician, Kiya Tabassian, who told me that this wasn’t an issue as long as the musicians involved had respect for each other, and the traditions within which they worked.  
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
JC: I most admire a number of inspiring composers with whom I’ve been able to work on an ongoing basis. I’ve been fortunate to have premiered a number of works by Gavin Bryars and to tour with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble as a countertenor. I love Gavin’s music, and his tireless energy,    and generosity of spirit have been a great inspiration to me. Gavin has an amazing ability to create new projects by forging durable friendships and working relationships with musicians from all kinds of different countries and traditions.
Recently, I’ve been working with a wonderful South Indian classical composer and singer, Supriya Nagarajan, and her organisation Manasamitra, to develop and tour a number of projects. Supriya has a wonderfully refreshing creative approach, fusing her Indian classical training with an interest in contemporary music, digital media and sound installation, and this has resulted in some amazing recent commissions and projects, including one forthcoming for Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I’m very lucky to have been able to collaborate with her and to draw inspiration from her approach.
I also learned a great deal from the North Indian composer and sarangi player, Dhruba Ghosh, whose classes I attended briefly. Dhruba was a very generous musician, with an extraordinary philosophical approach to creativity: he died quite recently, and is very sadly missed.
Then there are a number of other composers who I don’t know personally - Saariaho, both John Adamses, James Macmillan, Magnus Lindberg amongst others - whose work constantly dazzles and amazes me. And Bjork: she’s always been an inspiration. 
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
JC: It would have to be Morton Feldman, although if one went drinking with Feldman if would be for substantially more than one beer! Feldman’s collected essays, ‘Give My Regards To Eighth Street’ is one of the wisest and funniest books about music I’ve read. Although my music sounds nothing like his, these writings - and some of his works, particularly Rothko Chapel and Coptic Light - left a real impression on me. And he has the best jokes of any composer, of which Boulez and Stockhausen are often the butt: there’s a great one involving Stockhausen and a Chinese restaurant which is too long to recount here.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
JC: This changes the whole time, but at the moment I’d say: 
-     Bach: Ich Habe Genug, sung by Thomas Quasthoff
-     John Luther Adams: In The White Silence
-     Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel
-     Gavin Bryars: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
-     Mahalia Jackson, performing ‘Come Sunday’ from Duke Ellington’s Black Beige and Brown Suite.
-     Esbjorn Svensson Trio: Goldwrap (live in Hamburg)
-     Sibelius Violin Concerto (Viktoria Mullova version)
-     Father John Misty: Pure Comedy
If I had to choose one, I think I’d take the Feldman: it’s an amazing piece.
SC:…and a book?:
JC: If I was on a desert island, I’d have time to finish Karl Ove Knaussgard’s vast autobiography, ‘My Struggle’.
SC:…a film?
JC: I loved Maren Ade’s 2016 film, Toni Erdmann, about a father-daughter relationship. It’s both extremely funny and extremely sad. And it has one of the most poignant musical numbers I’ve seen in the cinema.
SC:… and a luxury item?

JC: Decent coffee beans, a grinder, and a pour-over jug. Is that three items?

Friday, 22 June 2018

Composer of the month: Mark Slater

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
Mark Slater: I am a pianist by trade and got into composition during my days at the University of Sheffield. From there, I continued my studies in composition with a focus very much on how improvisation can be built into the process composition and subsequent performances. At that time, I was writing some complex, dense and challenging music (much of it quite bad). Throughout that time, I was interested in technology and how sound could be captured and manipulated. Fast forward a decade or so, my compositional activity is now generally divided into two types. One is about writing music for the concert platform, often involving single instruments or single types of sounds. The other is studio-based in which I take on the role of composer-producer (most recently as part of the Nightports project).
SC: Can you describeyour new work to us?
MS: Flourishes as the Fruitis for vocal ensemble (SSA) and live electronics. It is based upon Bach’s Chorale no. 170, which appears in Cantata BWV62 and explores ideas to do with time, history and technology. The singers are asked to perform a version of the Chorale that is 13 times slower than the original (or, at least, an arrangement of the original, which we recorded a while back in York). While they’re performing that, the electronics part is sampling and time-stretching their voices in real-time, so we end up with several layers of beautiful, immersive sound. Time-stretching fascinates me because it lays bare some of the microscopic detail in sound that we normally miss.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
MS:The compositional process, for me, usually starts when I’m no way near an instrument. The first seed of the idea is usually a fleeting moment – perhaps a question about how I might make a certain sound, use a piece of material or technology, or maybe a memory about a sound I’ve heard someone make – while I’m walking to work or maybe on a run (most likely somewhere outside, anyway). Invariably the initial idea for a piece is small; either a single sound or a single way of manipulating sound. The pieces I’m writing at the moment tend to have a very simple underpinning, which then guides the rest of the practical work to get the piece written. In this case, transcription played a large part of writing the material (because of origins of the piece), which also determined the structural design of the work. After this stage, a large part of the work of writing is programming the computer system to do what I need it to do (and then testing that to make sure it’s reliable in performance).

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
MS: Knowing the performers and their sound is absolutely essential. The initial idea for a piece comes from the musicians – how they sound, what they’re interested in, what would work for them in the broader scheme of their current work. Composition is sometimes talked about as a very solitary affair with ideas appearing as though by magic, granted by some kind of benevolent external force. That’s completely at odds with how I see composition (the word is too narrow, anyway). Bringing a new piece to life is fundamentally a collaboration, which is at its best when the composer and performers work together to craft what the music should be. Or, at the very least, the composer should be writing not just a piece of music, but this piece of music for theseperformers. 
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
MS: I work in a wide range of musical contexts, so the specific sound of the music I make is determined, fundamentally, by the people I’m working with. But while the ‘surface’ of my music changes from piece to piece or project to project, there are some common strands that run through it all. My music shifts from stable to unstable, beautiful to erratic (sometimes in the blink of an eye); I also explore the dialogue between the predictable and the unpredictable, the familiar and the unfamiliar. So, these are states that interest me (as opposed to particular sounds or a soundworld).  
SC: What motivates you to compose? 
MS: Working with musicians. Working with musicians is risky and rewarding in equal measure. When I set out to collaborate with musicians, it’s never clear what will emerge (or, indeed, if anything will at all or how good it might be). And that is entirely appealing. If that moment of collaboration is not risky, then nothing new is being made. The point of working with musicians (and, for me, composing) is to drive one another to make something that we haven’t individually done before. That challenge motivates me to embark on the next piece. And, if done right, it should lead to something interesting to listen at the end of it all (which must also be the point in doing this).
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
MS: I recently completed a project with pianist-composer Matthew Bourne. I admire his energy, fierce technical proficiency, ability to adapt to whatever or whoever he’s working with. I also admire Jürg Frey because of the focused and highly refined qualities of his approach to composition, which demands a similar focus from the listener. And Mica Levi, possibly for similar reasons: focused, refined, powerful sounds, draws upon a wide range of musical types.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
MS: Though I really do love beer, I’m a bit too pragmatic for this question! Can I go to the pub with someone still working instead? Whoever it is, I’d want to find out about the very domestic aspects of how they work: how they work day to day, how they find the motivation to keep going, how they capture and remember their ideas, how they play with their material. 
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
1.  Bach, Preludes and Fugues(I know it’s more than eight and I’m cheating, but I’m currently obsessed with playing these)
2.    Bill Evans, The Tokyo Concert
3.    Debussy, String Quartet in G minor(op. 10)
4.    Beethoven, Symphony No. 7
5.    Cage, The Perilous Night
6.    Mozart, Requiem
7.    Cardew, Treatise(this would keep me occupied for a long time)
8.    Reich, Electric Counterpoint

Out of this list, it’d have to be Bach (particularly as I’m getting a piano to take with me).
SC:…and a book?:
MS: Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller… (or Invisible Cities)
SC:…a film?
MS: Can I take The League of Gentleman series 1-3 boxset instead?
SC:… and a luxury item?

MS: A Steinway (with some gaffer tape, screws, nails, Blu-Tac…)

Friday, 18 May 2018

Composer of the Month: Desmond Clarke

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?

Desmond Clarke: I’ve been a musician all my life – and have always composed music as well as performed it. I grew up in Manchester, playing in youth orchestras, before coming to study in York, where I was a student from 2007 until 2016 (undergraduate through to doctorate). I’ve always been interested in science and mathematics, and over the years my work has become increasingly focused around mathematical and algorithmic processes (though that is not to say that it isn’t also conventionally poetic or expressive as well). I’m also an improviser, electronic musician and digital artist – all of which feed into my music.

SC: Can you describe your recent work to us?

DC: RECORDARI is a work which has a huge number of different influences, and brings together a lot of different strands and musical traditions. Working closely with Carmen Troncoso, the recorder soloist, has been a fantastic experience, and the piece which has come out of it is a substantial (22-minute) and complex web of associations and implications. The main preoccupations of the work are the history of the recorder (and by extension, the history of music?), and the way we respond to history, story, and memory in our own present. This is the second complete performance of the work – the fourth or fifth if you include the performance of individual movements – prior to which Carmen and I had been meeting regularly for about six months . It is a pleasure to see a work develop and grow, to have the time and space to try things out and let things influence each other. The result is unlike any of my other recent works.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

DC: In general I prototype the structures and processes which I use to compose using software (most often pure-data). For this piece I developed several simple algorithms and processes, which are used both in the composition of the written work and in the electronic transformations of the recorder sound. In addition to this, the three medieval songs featured in the work provided sources of material and dramatic context.

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

DC: It depends on the work. For this particular piece, I have worked very closely with Carmen, and the piece simply would not exist in any form without her. In most cases I know the performers I am working with, but I wouldn't say it's necessary for every work to be a collaboration. Having a “sound in mind” is an interesting question – I find myself less and less prescriptive when it comes to certain aspects of technique and interpretation. I provide performers with a set of structures and materials, the precise realisation of which I am increasingly leaving open. That's not to say, though, that there are no wrong answers!

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

DC: Process-based. The music is often superficially complex but is it almost always grounded in relatively straightforward structures and processes. The first movement of RECORDARI is a good example of this.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

DC: A love of sound, and of structure. A fascination with how we apprehend and transform the structures and processes of the world around us.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

DC: I think Lachenmann is probably the “greatest” living composer – I haven't heard anyone since Feldman who has such control of the living tissue of sound. I love Mark Andre and Kurtág for the humanity of their music, and (perhaps controversially) I think Philip Glass was a visionary, at least in the 1960s. These are all old men – I mention their names with the caveat that the music I actually listen to most is the huge upswell of incredible instrumental and electronic music written by the younger generations of composers, for example the amazing music coming out of New York via the Wet Ink Ensemble.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

DC: I think a beer (or ten) with Feldman would be a pretty fun evening, judging by his reputation.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

DC: This is difficult, because I'm always looking for new music to listen to, but some pieces which I return to again and again for a variety of reasons are:

Rimsky Korsakov : Easter Festival Overture (the first piece of music I ever really loved, age 10 or so. I still do!)
Kurtág : Stele
Beethoven : E-major Piano Sonata Op. 109
Lachenmann : Accanto
Schubert : C-major String Quintet D. 956
Feldman : String Quartet no. 2
Messiaen : Éclairs sur l'au-delà...
Grisey : Les Espaces acoustiques

For just one, maybe the Feldman – a piece which contains universes.

SC: …and a book?:

DC: Wikipedia

SC: …a film?

DC: Synechdoche New York

SC: … and a luxury item?

DC: I have become dependent on my bean-to-cup coffee machine.