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.

SC:
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.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Capturing the 20th century on a piano *2

The 2018 Late Music Concert Series saw a single day – Saturday 5th May 2018 - devoted to three concerts and a talk about 20th Century Piano music. The idea of doing such a programme first occurred to me in 2011 when I was running the now defunct Grimsby St Hughs Festival. I wanted to look at 20th and 21st century British song and quickly realized I needed more than two concerts. Four concerts would be too much of an ask but three concerts with a couple of hours break between them seemed viable. So that’s what we did. Three concerts and a talk on British song. The day was well attended, feedback was excellent and the majority who attended bought a day pass for the whole day and came to the whole day.

In terms of times and lengths of concerts, the Late Music Piano Day followed the Grimsby St Hughs format pretty exactly. Where it differed is that it confined itself to the 20th century and, consequently, there were no new pieces/first performances to hear.

As for how I programmed the day, well, where to start? Inevitably, there is subjectivity in the mix. I wanted pieces by some of the composers that, at the moment, seem to me to be among the most significant of the twentieth century, although I am fully aware that the sifting of time may change that perspective. Where possible I wanted the best piano music by these composers, as many such composers as possible to be included and to programme performances only of complete works. In the light of these stipulations, one will see immediately that many compromises were made! I prefer Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Miroirs to his Valses nobles et sentimentales but the Valses are nevertheless very fine and choosing them over the other two made room for the Busoni and the Scriabin. The best music/only complete pieces stipulations came a cropper when I got to Messaien – I just had to do pieces from Vingt Régards: subjectivity again. The Satie might seem a strange choice but I love the Berceuse from that set, is the Prokofiev Toccata really him at his best? And on it goes. Even human error played its role. I wanted the Scriabin Deux Morceaux Opus 57 as its first piece – Désir – is one of my all time favourite Scriabin movements but I forgot to put the Opus Number in my email to Ian and he assumed I meant Deux Morceaux Opus 59 and started rehearsing that. So we went with it.

Nevertheless, in spite of all the provisos about subjectivity and practical compromises etc, I love each and every piece that was played in the 20th century piano day. The good attendance figures and extremely gratifying feedback we received would suggest many others also found music to love in our piano day, wonderfully performed by the indefatigable Ian Pace. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

David Power.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Capturing the 20th century on a Piano



This coming Saturday Late Music present a truly challenging series of three concerts all performed by virtuoso pianist Ian Pace, and curated by composer David Power. I will be reprising a role I used to do regularly by giving a short pre-concert talk at 6.45pm with David. I'd like to detour a little and talk about the people involved:

Ian Pace, 50 this year, is a veritable tour de force of Contemporary music, dedicated very thoroughly to the cause and a staple of Late Music since its early days as a festival of new music. His playing is characterised by a mighty technique and seemingly bottomless capacity for new virtuosic repertoire. He has been champion of many a composer, including Michael Finnissy, and lately Marc Yeats. At heart, his tastes are germanic and routed in the second Viennese school, and as a prominent musicologist, his studies focus on politics in music.

David Power was one of the founding members of Late Music, then called Soundpool, and has been involved on and off over the years in various capacities including Artistic Director. He has also run his own festivals such as Grimsby St. Hughs, as well as projects based on new British song. My experience of David over the years has been that he lies rather intentionally "outside" of the accepted oevre of "contemporary" music and instead focusses on the lyrical (slyly jibing me every now and then for using a major triad in an otherwise dissonant piece!). What seems to interest David a lot is the notion of accessibility in contemporary music - something which is frequently on my mind as well. In many ways this is the task of a concert promoter within the obscure field of this music - to sell it to the audience, and to get the audience involved.

For Saturday's Concert, David has chosen a veritable smorgasbord of 20th century piano music. How did he choose the pieces? "Subjectivity" he states, and there is certainly a large helping of David Power in the mix; most notably a healthy dose of French repertoire, with Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, Messian, Murail, Boulez, and Satie all represented. Skempton's "Well, well Cornelius" also very in keeping with Power's output. Aside from this though there is a huge variety of fantastic repertoire waiting for us. Hearing Stockhausen's Klavierstüke IX followed by John Adams's China Gates may surprise some of you, and in the mix are such giants as Boulez's Third Piano Sonata, Three of Ligeti's Etudes, Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch, and Schoenberg's diminutive but intense Sechs Kleine Kalvierstücke.

Does this capture the best of output of the 20th Century? We would need a good few weeks of 3 concerts a day to even make the smallest dent, however what there will be in these performances is something for every discerning ear.


Dr. Edward Caine

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Composer of the Month: Angela Slater

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

Angela Slater: I grew up in a large village called Cotgrave in Nottinghamshire. Thinking back to my childhood I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t know about music. Even before I was at an age where I could have piano lessons I was always drawn to play on the piano and mess around, and probably disturb my brother’s practise. Later I would write little pastiche type pieces, which then transformed into pop-songs in my teenage years and then melded back to classical music, though now of a very different kind of course. I was always distracted through my childhood with the sounds of music and would more often than not end up not practising because I was found a strange chord by accident.

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

AS: In my works I like to take inspiration from extra-musical materials and most often from the natural world. My piece Sun Catcher draws on both the imagery of a metal Sun Catcher and folklore around the sun. A Sun Catcher is a metal object that spins in the wind capturing the sunlight and creating colourful patterns. There are also many myths and folklore tales about how the sun was once captured, and either fixed in its proper sphere or else made to stand still in the sky. Other tales explore the idea of capturing the sun and bringing it down so darkness could prevail. So in my piece Sun Catcher I explore both themes, therefore essentially having two competing musical ideas occurring simultaneously in parts of the piece. The first is serene and expressive exploring shimmering light and colour. The second is a fast, undulating and increasingly agitated music as though the music itself is trying to capture the sun and drag it from the sky. This agitated music gradually infiltrates each instrument's line and captures the serene music from before, holding it hostage on a manic rampage and race to the end of the piece.

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

AS: It is really a combination of the two and very dependent on the piece. When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. I often first sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often then not there are shapes and sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates.
            So with my piece Sun Catcher the musical material was created through a combination of me playing my flute, dabbling on clarinet and the rest at the piano.

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

AS: It’s certainly extremely useful to know the performers when writing. I certainly believe it can change the way you approach a piece when you know their style of playing and their personality as this of course alters the music you write as you compose with this in your mind’s ear. I hadn’t previously met the Atéa quintet before writing Sun Catcher for them, but before I began writing I did the next best thing and listened to the recordings of them playing on their website. This gave me some idea of their playing styles and personalities and will certainly have fed itself subconsciously into my composition process.

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

AS: My soundworld I feel can really shift from piece to piece, but I generally strive to be highly expressionistic and sometimes lyrical in my music.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

AS: Composing is something I have always felt a need to do. It is my internal desire to communicate and express something of myself and my impression of the world.

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

AS: Helen Grime, her music really speaks to me. I find her fluid gestural language and skill of orchestration to create changing timbral colours in her music fascinating.

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

AS: Messiaen, because I find the way he uses colour in his works and talks about colour and his music fascinating, so I would want to find out more!

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

AS: This is such a tricky one as I feel this could easily change from week to week! At the moment I would pick  
Helen Grime Into a Cold Spring
Stravinsky The Firebird
Kaija Saariaho – Orion for large orchestra
Thomas Adés – Concentric Paths – violin concerto
Judith Weir – Piano Trio Two
Elliot Carter – Triple duo
Amy Beach – Romance for violin and piano
Messiaen – Quartet for the end of time for string quartet
…and out of those I think I would have to pick the Firebird for its pure drama!

SC: …and a book?:

AS: Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy

SC: …a film?

AS: I’m going to pick a TV series instead – Black Mirror

SC: … and a luxury item?


AS: My own piano to compose on

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.