Friday, 2 February 2018

Bowie Berlin and Beyond


 I first heard of David Bowie almost as soon as I first got into rock music in the early 70’s. In those days I only knew his singles such as Drive-in Saturday, The Laughing Gnome, Sorrow, Diamond Dogs and Knock on Wood. On the basis of these, he seemed all over the place!

A few years later, I got to know a small group of Bowie nuts who were centered around a charismatic character who called himself Ziggy Heroe. Ziggy was quite something. He walked, talked, dressed and acted like Bowie. It was remarkable. He did good gigs too in which he performed Bowie’s songs and, in due course, started to introduce his own material which was impressive enough.

Anyhow, it was through Ziggy and his friends that I first heard Bowie’s albums and these totally changed my view of him. In particular the extended electronic instrumental tone poems he wrote – partly with Eno – during his Berlin period made a very strong impression on me. As a 15 year old I had never heard anything like these before. I wanted more.

I started by following up on Eno himself– as well as his own ambient albums, he had also persuaded his record company to let him set up his own label – Obscure Records – and this he devoted largely to the English experimental school. It released recordings of works by Bryars, Nyman, John White, John Cage and John Adams amongst others. Bowie and Eno had also drawn on the German Krautrock scene and I followed that up too. A name that kept on coming up was Stockhausen .  .  .

I won’t go on. Suffice to say, for me this was the gateway into contemporary classical music. Cut to many years later and I am running a small contemporary music festival in Lincolnshire – the Grimsby St Hughs Festival. It occurred to me that if Bowie and Eno’s Berlin work could act as a gateway for me, maybe it could do so for others too. I got in touch with the Deltas and asked them to do a concert of some arrangements I had done of some of Bowie’s instrumentals from his album Low alongside music by Glass, Nyman and Bryars. It was a great concert – the large audience loved the Bowie inspired mix of music which the Deltas embraced brilliantly. We seemed to be onto something. The Deltas themselves then picked up the baton, doing further work and commissioning further arrangements from others. The end result is the March 2018 Late Music Concert by the Deltas. This concert will also be the launch of their CD – Bowie, Berlin and Beyond on Trevor Taylor’s eclectic FMR label – a label which very much mirrors the ethos of Eno’s Obscure Records. We seem to have come full circle.

As for Ziggy, he was never to have a hit of his own but he did get his own deserved slice of immortality in the late 1990’s when Harland Miller made him the central character of his novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty. It is an evocative book that accurately captures Ziggy in particular and the York late 1970’s rock scene in general. Well worth checking out.


David Power.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Composer of the month: Errollyn Wallen

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

Errollyn Wallen: I was born in Belize a came to England when I was two. I grew up in London and was educated in Tottenham, London, before going to a boarding school in Sussex.  I studied dance seriously and spent some time at the Dance Theater of Harlem before going to Goldsmiths’ to read music. I did a Masters in Composition at King’s College, London and an M. Phil at King’s College, Cambridge. Before becoming a full-time composer I worked as a keyboard player with various bands, ran my own recording studio and was tap dancing musical hostess/composer on a tv game show including Anthony H Wilson and Caroline Aherne.

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

EW: The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a setting of Langston Hughes’ poem of that name. I remember that starting The Negro Speaks of Rivers came easily, as the vivid imagery of the poem is so inspiring. I have drawn on a variety of techniques and textures, all imbued with the language of the blues. I was guided by the knowledge that Langston Hughes’ own work was imbued with folk and jazz rhythms.

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

EW: I work in a variety of ways. Some works start at the piano and some start away from it. I am always thinking about music so pre-planning and problem solving are going on all the time in my subconscious. I always use the piano to check every note; for me, every note in a work has to earn its place.

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

EW: It is very important to know who I am composing for so that I have their sound in my mind. Atmosphere in music can be created in many ways and the sound of voices are uniquely expressive. It was most important for me to hear The Ebor Singers before I composed The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

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

EW: I am not very good at describing my music but the attitude behind it is that I want the listener to feel what I feel and to hear what I hear and to come along on a marvellous adventure with me.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

EW: Composing is and has always been part of my physiology. As a little girl I composed before I knew what composing was. Composing is my default mode.

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

EW: This is a very rich time in composing with composers working in a multitude of ways. There is a greater sense of freedom than when I was studying — which is healthy and to be encouraged.
I am great friends and admirers of Joe Cutler, Andrew Poppy, Jonathan Cole and  Charles Amirkhanian. Through Charles I met Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros who have utterly original ways of looking at the world. I miss Pauline — she died last year.

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

EW: I would love to have a whiskey with Stravinsky! Evidently he said, “My God, so much I like to drink Scotch that sometimes I think my name is Igor Stra-whiskey.” I would like to talk with Stravinsky about life. He was such a hustler.

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

EW: Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, 48 Preludes and Fugues (which I play at the piano most days), Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ella Fitzgerald singing anything, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Ravel’s String Quartet, Puccini’s Tosca, Earth Wind and Fire’s rendition of Gotta Get You Into my Life. I will never ever get bored of the 48, so that has to be my ultimate selection.

SC: …and a book?

EW: That is almost too tough. However, I would like to take the time to re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Latin and English.

SC: …a film?

EW: Am I allowed the boxed set of The Sopranos..? A TV series that is truly Shakespearian in its scope.

SC: … and a luxury item?


EW: A Steinway grand piano, Model D.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Composer of the month: Nicola LeFanu

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

Nicola LeFanu:  I was born in Essex, but I am not a typical ‘Essex girl’ because my parents were both Irish. My father was a librarian (there are a lot of literary LeFanus) and my mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy.

SC: Can you describe String Quartet no4. to us? 

NL:  String Quartet no4 is pretty short – about nine minutes – but its economy makes it quite intense. I wrote it in June in the high Pyrenees and I really enjoyed composing it! It was inspired by a poem by the Russian Andrei Voznesensky – ‘with the open eyes of their dead fathers/towards other worlds they gaze ahead/children who..’

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

NL: I write at the piano and/or my desk; then I go to the computer and there is a revising and editing stage as I put the piece into Finale. Yes, I do pre-plan, though with luck the music takes over and shapes the plan anew.

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

NL: I always prefer to know who will be performing and write for them – character and sound; and also where – the audience and the acoustic for the premiere concert make a difference; though it is always the hope (and usually the case!) that the new work will be performed many times and in many places.
I have known the Bingham string quartet since the nineteen eighties, when they recorded four of the Maconchy quartets for CD.

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

NL: I usually say ‘lyrical and dramatic’, but I don’t know if that is helpful…

SC: What motivates you to compose?

NL: I always want to… it is what I like doing best, even though it can be maddening, elusive..and always hard work. But always worth it.

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

NL: I probably have most in common with the New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead; not least, we share an addiction to composing opera. But as to British living composers, I still admire Birtwistle very much and there are a number of younger composers whose music I like, and try and keep up with.

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

NL: Holst, because my father said talking to Holst made you feel more alive.

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

NL: Living composers is too difficult to choose, though that’s what I listen to most..
For composers from the past, the list might change a bit day to day, but right now, it is:
Bach – Goldberg Variations; Mozart – The Marriage of Figaro; Beethoven - Csharp minor string quartet op131; Schubert – Quintet in C for strings; Schumann  - Dichterliebe (or Liederkreis!); Janacek – Katya Kabanova; Stravinsky – Petrushka; Maconchy – The Land , suite for orchestra.
Stravinsky – Petrushka is the one.

SC: …and a book?

NL: Thackeray, Vanity Fair

SC: …a film?

NL: a Buster Keaton  - could be ‘The General’ but I do love ‘Neighbours’.

SC: … and a luxury item?


NL: Black chocolates

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Composer of the Month: Christopher Fox



Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?
Christopher Fox: I was born in York, just off Holgate Hill, but the time I wrote these songs I was living in Berlin.

SC: Can you describe A-N-N-A Blossom Time to us?
CF: It’s a set of nine songs to poems by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. I translated the poems into English, sometimes quite freely.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
CF: With these songs I remember choosing the poems I liked the most, favouring the ones which seemed to tell stories or were love songs. I had worked out some years earlier, from a long study of Schubert’s songs, that the best way to write songs was to start with the accompaniment – that’s what gives each song its character.

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
CF: Always, and especially with singers. I wrote A-N-N-A Blossom Time for Amanda Crawley whose voice I had first heard in 1974. By the time I wrote these songs we had been married for nearly ten years, so I knew her voice very well. The piano part was written around my own rather less developed technique.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
CF: I don’t think I can because I’ve never tried to cultivate one.

SC: What motivates you to compose?
CF: I want to change the world, just a bit.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
CF: Many – but of younger composers I really admire Cassandra Miller, Egidija Medeksaite, Linda Buckley, Georgia Rodgers, Juliana Hodkinson.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
CF: Stravinsky. My musical hero.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
CF: Cage, String Quartet in Four Parts; The Slits, ‘In the beginning was rhythm’; Joni Mitchell, ‘A case of you’; Handel, Semele; Tallis, Lamentations; Stravinsky, Apollo; Mozart, Serenade in B flat for thirteen instruments; Scelsi, Kya. I’d pick the Handel because it’s the one I can remember least well.

SC: …and a book?
CF: Emma.

SC: …a film?
CF: Himmel ├╝ber Berlin

SC: … and a luxury item?
CF: A cricket ball.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Composer of the month: Philip Cashian

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

Philip Cashian: Born Manchester, 17/01/1963 but have lived in London since 1984.

SC: Can you describe Mechanik to us?

PC: It’s very brief and is inspired by Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture Mechanik’s Bench, rhythmic, repetitive, mechanical.

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

PC: I always start at the piano. Eventually I’ll also use the computer. I used to plan pieces but not anymore; I start at the beginning and through compose now.

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

PC: It really helps and most of the time I’m commissioned by people I’ve worked with before or who I’ve heard perform which is always a starting point when writing. Not vital though.

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

PC: That’s the listener’s job. We all hear things differently depending on what music we already know and context. It’s dangerous for a composer to describe their own music as it might suggest to the listener how to listen to it or what to listen out for which isn’t a good.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

PC: Excitement.

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

PC: Harrison Birtwistle, Hans Abrahamsen, Andrew Norman, Radiohead, Oliver Knussen, Tom Waits, Pascal Dusapin.

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

PC: Stravinsky, obviously

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

PC: Goldberg Variations, Sibelius Symphony 5, Beethoven Symphony 7, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Silbury Air, Gruppen, Broadway the Hardway (album), Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet.
And one would be the Goldberg Variations.

SC: …and a book?

PC:  East of Eden

SC: …a film?
PC:  Seven Psycopaths

SC: … and a luxury item?

PC: iPhone 7