Thursday, 15 August 2019

Composer of the month: Angela Slater

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
AS: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. Throughout my childhood, I was always distracted 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 describeyour new work to us?
AS:  My new piece for piano trio Shades of Rainexplores the imagery and textures of different types of rain. The piece functions as though it is two movements happening within the same piece: Cloudburst and Petrichor. Cloudburst refers to an extreme amount of precipitation in a short period of time often accompanied by hail and thunderstorms. The piece reflects this with dramatic driving rhythms and strident dramatic chords from the piano. These spells of extreme dramatic rain and musical descents are interrupted by music representing Petrichor. Petrichor is the pleasant aroma that occurs after rain has fallen for the first time after a dry period. These parts of the music are explored through expansive and reflective lyrical lines, providing relief from the dramatic movements and figures found in the Cloudburst sections.
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. First I usually 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 than 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.
For Shades of Rain I planned the harmonic structure and much of the piano material at the piano, but I found a lot of the violin and cello material actually at these instruments. Though I don’t play these instruments (or certainly not very well!) it does help me to write idiomatic material if I initially create the initial ideas on the instruments themselves.

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
ASIt’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.
This piece was originally written for Anna Arazi’s Prism piano trio and so I did a lot of research into her playing earlier in the year. For this upcoming concert I am very excited to hearing how the Ethel Smyth Trio’s interpretation of the piece will differ. I feel the soundworld of this piece comes from a desire to express the different types of rain and to really create a piece that contrasted with my other piano trio Rainbow Fires.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
AS: I feel that my soundworld shifts and evolves from piece to piece. I tend to think about my music in terms of gestures and textures. These determine the soundworld of a piece. Generally, I strive to be highly expressionistic and sometimes lyrical in my lines.

SC: What motivates you to compose? 
ASComposing is something I have always felt a need to do – it’s a compulsion, something beautiful and an addiction too.  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, Judith Weir, Charlotte Bray, Jennifer Higdon, Thea Musgrave
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
AS: Ethel Smyth – I would love to talk to her about her compositions and what it was like to be a suffragette.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
AS: Elizabeth Maconchy String Quartet No.3
Helen Grime Into a Cold Spring
Stravinsky The Firebird
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

SC:…and a book?
SC:…a film?
ASI’m going to pick a TV series instead– Stranger Things
SC:… and a luxury item?
ASMy own piano to compose on

Friday, 26 July 2019

Preparing The Plateaux of Mirror for live performance

Our second Aspects of Eno concert is centered around the first live performances of six Pieces from the 1978 album Eno did with Harold Budd entitled The Plateaux of Mirror. David Power did the transcriptions of the six pieces, Kate Ledger will be performing then and Lynette Quek is doing the live electronics. The six tracks to be performed are listed below and, for this blog, we have asked each of the three participants to outline their experiences of this project. The six tracks that will be performed are as follows: 

Not Yet Remembered
The Chill Air
Steal Away
Above Chiangmai
The Plateaux of Mirror

David Power
A brief bit of background. As seasoned attenders of Late Music will know, my starting point on the path to new music were the extended electronic instrumentals of David Bowie’s 1977 albums Low and ‘Heroes’. Years later it struck me that if this music could be a gateway to new music for me, it could for others too. I did arrangements of three of these for the Delta Saxophone Quartet and these became the start of the path to their CD Bowie Berlin and Beyond which has done very well and been played and broadcast in various parts of the world. The CD was launched in the 2018 Late Music season and resulted in Late Music’s best ever attended concert. The gateway idea seemed to be working. As Eno had played a central role in the creation of Bowie’s Berlin instrumentals, the next logical step in the gateway idea was to do concerts centered on Eno himself. Consequently, Late Music asked me to curate two Aspects of Eno concerts for the 2019 season. 
The second of these concerts is centered on live performances from six pieces from The Plateaux of Mirror, an album he recorded with Harold Budd and released in 1978. Eno, by 1978 had stopped gigging and, as far as I have been able to establish, very little of his post Roxy Music work has been performed live. Certainly, as far as I have been able to establish, none of the tracks on this album have ever been performed live except parts of the title track which Budd performed some years later
The reasons why I picked The Plateaux of Mirror were partly practical – as an album comprising piano music treated electronically, there was a good chance that a live, performable version could be created and Lynette Quek was kind enough to listen to the whole album and confirm that this was so. But my love of this album was also a reason for picking it. 
When it came to the arrangements, my first instinct was to have extracts of Not Yet Remembered as the first and last track. It is more solid and bassy than the others and that seemed to make it right for the role of framing the others. Then its title suggested another idea. What if I wrote some new music of my own for the last track and had bits of Not Yet Remembered emerge and take over the track. So that is what I did. Remembered is partly new music by me and partly extracts from Not Yet Remembered. The other four pieces were picked simply because they were amongst my favourites and seemed to add up to an attractive and varied set. 

Kate Ledger
Listening to the transcribed score for The Plateaux of Mirror along with the original recording revealed to me how difficult it is to notate exactly. I was drawn to the small imperfections in Budd’s touch and the bareness of the chords and phrases. I will attempt to replicate this through a blending of the melodic line within a heavily pedaled backdrop and a harsher attack to remove any softness I may be carrying over from the classical tradition. I felt it was important to recognize Budd and Eno’s pop background and the unencumbered piano touch that I hear in The Plateaux of Mirror.
David Power’s score follows the original closely but leaves much needed space for Lynette Quek and myself during performance. There is a dialogue between the piano and electronic parts with much of the timing being free and felt in the moment. Although the majority of our interpretation is based on details we’ve drawn from the recording, we decided as a duo that the music’s overall style is down to there being a sense of freedom. Following the recording closely to the nth degree would remove this sense of freedom. Therefore we felt it imperative to keep some choices to be made in the moment of performance, allowing for live reactions to the acoustic and each other.

Lynette Quek

Re-creating the electronics part for Eno’s pieces has been a fun and intricate process. Listening to the tracks with a more inquisitive approach was much needed to translate the studio-composed electronics into a live performance context. In the concert performance the electronics work in a way where they are responding to the live performance by Kate Ledger, as well as to prompt an activity by Kate. This in turn allows the electronics to be part of the performative performance, which Eno highly sought after in his productions.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Composer of the month: Michael Parkin

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
Michael Parkin: I studied at Huddersfield School of Music and then at UCNW Bangor with William Mathias and Jeffrey Lewis. Over the years I’ve also been involved with music education projects for young composers and musicians - something I feel passionately about! After moving to Wales almost thirty years ago I’ve worked with organizations such as the Wales Millennium Centre, Royal Welsh College and Ty Cerdd to promote and foster the work of young composers. 
I’ve written for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and most of the ensembles, artists and musicians in Wales. Welsh festivals, from the all contemporary Vale of Glamorgan Festival to the more traditional Aberystwyth International Festival are, in the main, supportive of new music, and over the years they have commissioned and fostered my music. 
SC: Can you describe your new work to us?
MP: It’s calledFive Haiku from the Narrow Road to the Deep North. I’ve selected 5 representative haikufrom Matsuo Bashō’s travelogue about his two-year journey to the wild regions of northern Japan which began in 1689. I love this book and have lived with it for thirty years – I know many of its haikuby heart – but have never set any of them before. 
 I decided to set them in Japanese. The Romanized Japanese is very simple and clear for singers, and most importantly, accurate. Whereas, every time I come upon an English translation of a Bashō haikuit’s different! It’s almost impossible to translate a haiku. The meaning and power of the poetry lies in the spaces between the words and each line of the poem. I know this sounds mysterious, but it’s the only way to describe what’s going on in this form of communication. Traditionally, they are recited veryslowly, with each vowel drawn out for effect and long pauses between each line of verse.
The problem I had when writing the piece was to find a musical way to reflect the extreme brevity of the poems. I restricted myself to just two pages of music for each setting, and found it extremely difficult to write something that is complete and satisfying in no more than 30 bars. Hey ho – the audience will judge whether I got this right! 
SC:Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
MP: About 8 years ago I decided to abandon all forms of pre-composition. I was doing so much pre-composition that when it came to the composition/notation act itself, I was finding it mechanical, sterile and utterly unrewarding. I took what was for me a radical step. Now I start with a blank page (or in my case, a blank screen on Sibelius). I now find the compositional process exhilarating and creative, if a little scary!
SC:Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
MP: Absolutely! Especially if you’re writing for singers. Each voice is unique and distinct. Without that sound in your head, that first blank page would be really scary, if not impossible.
SC:How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
MP: I’m not sure I could claim to have an individual ‘sound world.’ I write lines. That’s what comes first, so I suppose you would say that my music is essentially melodic. But melodies in my music always spark counter melodies. Often these countermelodies are ‘opposed’ to the first melody, rather than ‘complementary’ or ‘supportive.’ I like opposites, so a slow moving melody may be set against a fast moving countermelody, or a flowing consonant melody may be pitted against an angular dissonant countermelody. What I’m after is tension, drama and narrative.
Strangely enough, I love to listen to static, calm, non-narrative music. But I just can’t write the stuff!
SC:What motivates you to compose? 
MP: Neurosis, psychosis, angst, anger, depression, and a bad habit I just don’t seem to be able to give up. I’m trying to rise above it! 
SC:Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
MP: The scene I know best is contemporary music in Wales. In May of this year I was invited to be the chair of Composers of Wales and I’ve always found the scene in Wales very collaborative and supportive, even if there is no great appetite for new music. I count many of the composers working in Wales as close friends. There is much to admire, especially amongst the younger generation, many of whom studied at the Welsh College and decided to make Wales their home. I’m thinking particularly about composers such as Lynne Plowman, Maja Palser and Sarah Lianne Lewis.
The composer I most admire is the New York-based Fay (Kueen) Wang. She’s young enough to be my granddaughter, but I just love her music. It’s so eclectic! Somehow she’s managed to integrate rock/electronic/Chinese folk music/theatre with avant garde western music. It’s completely mad, yet at the same time rivetingly memorable and exhilarating. 
SC:If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
MP: Webern. But it must be on the evening of September 15th., 1945. If I could get him pissed enough, he might not want to go outside and smoke that last fatal cigar. There are two upsides to this. Webern was getting better and better, and poor old Ray Bell might not have died from guilt and alcoholism. 
SC:Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
Two selections from the many recordings of the El Camino/Cantigas de Santiago
Josquin (3 pieces) La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem; all the frottola; Missa Gaudeamus
Mozart – The Magic Flute
Brahms – 6 pieces Op. 118
Michael Tippett – piano concerto (because I have to have some English music!)
The piece I couldn’t live without is Josquin’s La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem
SC:…and a book?:
MP: I’m cheating here because my selection is technically a trilogy. But really it’s just one long book about the fictitious Colorado town of Holt.
Kent Haruf – Plainsong/Eventide/Benediction
If you could throw in Haruf’s Our Souls at Night(it’s only short – say 30,000 words) I would be even happier.
SC:…a film?
MP:Company of Wolvesdirected by Neil Jordan. It’s based on Angela Carter’s ‘fairy stories’ (NOT!) and she wrote the screenplay.
SC:… and a luxury item?
MP: I’m torn between a pair of binoculars (I’m a keen birder) and a humongous box of Jaffa Cakes. Oh God! What a choice… it will have to be the Jaffa Cakes.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Aspects of Eno part 1 - Obscure Records

Aspects of Eno

As regular attenders of the Late Music concerts will recall, 2018 saw Late Music invite the Delta Saxophone Quartet to deliver a concert to launch their CD ‘Bowie Berlin and Beyond’. To cut a long story short, this CD came about as follows. As a teenager in the 1970’s, I was a big fan of David Bowie. When he released his ‘Berlin’ albums in 1977, I was struck by the extended electronic instrumentals on these albums as these were quite unlike anything I had heard before. Bowie had worked with Eno to create these instrumentals so I became interested in Eno’s own work. This, in turn, led to minimalism, the English Experimental School and the German Krautrock scene. A name that kept coming up was Stockhausen. In due course, I encountered his music and that of his colleagues. I left my job and went to study composition in my mid 20’s

Many years later – 2011 to be precise – I realised that if Bowie, Eno etc could be a gateway to new music for me, they could for be for others too. I did arrangements of three of the Bowie Berlin instrumentals for the Deltas who premiered them at my Grimsby St Hughs Festival that year. This led, in due course to the above mentioned Delta Bowie CD. It is their most successful CD to date and their launch concert at Late Music is Late Music’s most successful concert to date. The gateway idea is working.

All that being so, the next logical step was to look at Eno himself and that is what Late Music invited me to do for 2019. The multifaceted nature of Eno’s achievements meant that I felt we needed to devote two concerts to his work.  Late Music agreed.

One fascinating aspect of Eno’s work is that, in the 1970’s, he persuaded his record company to let him set up a largely classical music record company of his own called Obscure Records. Ten albums were released featuring composers such as Gavin Bryars, John Adams, Christopher Hobbs, John Cage, Michael Nyman and others.  These composers are largely – though not entirely – connected to the English Experimental School. I felt that Late Music needed to draw attention to this achievement and both concerts heavily feature composers from the ten albums and other comparable ones, notably Satie who is a kind of godfather to the English Experimental School. 

The other aspect is performance of Eno’s own music. Eno gigged and toured in his Roxy Music days in the early 1970’s but came to dislike performing live. By the late 1970’s he had finished with live work – even David Bowie couldn’t persuade him to play on any part of his 1978 world tour which was centred on the Berlin albums they’d done together. This has the perhaps surprising result that much of his best known and most respected work has never been performed live. 

One example is the album he did with Harold Budd in 1978 entitled The Plateaux of Mirror, no part of which, as far as I can ascertain, has ever been performed liveFor 2019, I am doing piano transcriptions of six pieces from this album, Lynette Quek will do the real time electronics sound transformations and Kate Ledger will play the piano parts. Rather than just producing a score, the three of us will ‘workshop’ this using my transcriptions as a starting point. Using digital technology to replicate in concert sounds that were created for an LP in an analogue studio over 40 years ago is certainly an interesting challenge, and we look forward to bringing you the results. 

David Power

Monday, 15 April 2019

Composer of the month: Stef Conner

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
Stef Conner:
Steve: Can you describe your new work to us?
Stef: It’s an instrumental composition based on the Old English poem known as ‘The Ruin’—one of the elegies in the Exeter Book. The first time I encountered this poem I was singing a beautiful Modern English setting by Paul Keenan, whose work I admire very much. Through descriptions of a Roman ruin, haunted by echoes of its grand past, the poet contemplates the transience of all earthly things. It’s a simple theme and one that has been part of literature since the earliest known to us, but the way it’s expressed in this particular text grips me. The sound of the language itself, as much as the meaning of the words, underpins the composition. There’s something in the form of the text—the way it ebbs and flows—as well as in the stress patterns that is beautifully musical. The close connection between (relatively) early poetry like this and the oral tradition it’s supposedly descended from gives the language a rich, direct, song-like quality… so it feels to me like composing a piece based on it is not composing at all but transcribing. Of course I’m transcribing from an imagined Anglo-Saxon past, not a real one, but that doesn’t matter. We composers all need a reason to start writing a piece, and mine is almost always an imaginary ancient soundscape. Why not?
Steve: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
Stef: I do pre-plan... sort of. I draw new compositions on the biggest sheets of paper I can find, in a soft pencil with lots of shading and texture, then I scribble bits of text all over it and occasionally paste in shreds of manuscript. I try to follow my own ‘instructions’ when putting things into Sibelius but usually wander off on tangents and lose track of the plan. Then I throw most of what I’ve written in the bin and go back to the plan. Or realize the plan was rubbish and make a new one. It’s entirely intuitive and never systematic. I used to write at the piano a lot when I was younger. I was obsessed with ‘discovering’ new harmonic ideas… not ‘new’ in the absolute sense—there’s not much new to express in equal temperament now—but things that felt ‘new’ to me because I hadn’t been taught them or internalized them by analyzing famous composers’ works. In order to feel inspired, some of us, at some points in our lives, need to experience a subjective sense in discovery. That used to matter to me a lot. But somewhere along the line I realized that I had settled on a harmonic language that felt like my own and I haven’t felt the need to depart from it since, so I use the piano less and less. I stopped trying to do newthings and focused on trying to do old things better. Occasionally (maybe one piece in twenty) I feel satisfied that I’m getting better at doing those old things. I still head to the piano if I’m not sure what I’m hearing in my head and I want to test it, but I prefer to sing things to myself as much as possible instead. Also, because I work with ancient instruments a lot these days the piano has started to sound a bit weird and twangy. And dense chords and harmonic progressions sound a bit smug to my ears! I think it’s just a phase I’m going through… When you’re into a musical language or technique and trying to connect with it on a level that allows you to create with it spontaneously, it has to feel like the most important thing in the entire world. Right now, for me, that’s ancient Greek tunings… so the piano’s not much use and I’m disdaining it. I’m blinkered. It could also have something to do with the fact that I flagellated myself into a practice room for five hours a day when I was an undergraduate, so I’m a bit traumatized. Having said all that (and revealed myself to be totally irritating and obsessive), I must admit that I composed the original version of this piece (a string trio) many years ago… on the piano. 

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
Stef: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I think it’s lovely and inspiring to collaborate with performers you know, and when I have the opportunity to do that, I always compose music with elements of those performers’ personalities in it. Something I wrote for my friends the Ligeti Quartet recently felt like as much their piece as it was mine. That sort of collaboration is satisfying on such a deep level. It’s nice to make composition-babies with musicians that you admire! But other times there’s just a piece to write, and when you have a basic understanding of what competent professional musicians can do, and you’re not trying to push any boundaries in playing technique or drastically change your style, you can just write it, knowing that it will sound pretty much as you expect it to. But for trying new things, it’s great to have the chance to work with performers… because we don’t always imagine everything perfectly. Sometimes I have an idea for an instrumental texture that I think will be amazing and then it just sounds drippy and awful. There are a lot of instruments in the world, and a lot of amazing players doing crazy new things with them. You have to keep learning about them… it never stops!

Steve: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
Stef: Spectral ancient imaginary with lots of voices and a bit of naughty jazz.
Steve: What motivates you to compose? 
Stef: A sense of connection to other human beings who think deeply about the world, and their connection to the beings they share it with. Sometimes those humans have been dead for thousands of years and left their words pressed into clay tablets or written in ink on vellum. Sometimes they are fellow composers or performers who are so brilliant that I want to try to be more like them. Sometimes it might be someone with a voice that I have fallen in love with and want to combine with equally lovely words. Sometimes it’s a present for a friend. Sometimes a poem. Sometimes a story… It’s a sense of empathy, but often one-sided, when projected onto voices from the past. Do we still call that empathy, even when it’s pure projection? 

Steve: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
Stef: I think I identify with all composers who are obsessively dedicated to what they do, sacrificing basic wellbeing on the altar of this strange, masochistic, non-religious religion that is contemporary music. Even those composers who are working with such systematic generative processes that they almost entirely sublimate their own intuition… because there’s something so dedicated about that. Being pretty much incapable of organized, systematic behavior myself, I find that way of writing quite alien, but I also relate to it on some level. Certain people have a deep need to sublimate intuition. I have a deep need to wallow in it! I really admire allcontemporary composers… except the wealthy ones who don’t put any discernible effort into their work and write bland, predictable crap with no soul. I resent them.   
Steve: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
Stef: Probably not one of my favourite ones… I have a feeling a few of them were a bit sociopathic! But I’d love to meet Vaughan Williams… and his Shakespeare Songs are among my favourite works. He was a proper socialist, despite being from a wealthy background. He really cared about English folksongs and his deep respect for the people who sang them is clear from the notes on his song-collecting travels. He also did so much for amateur music-making in Leith Hill, where I grew up. People used to travel from villages, from all social classes, on the back of carts, to sing in the festival he helped to set up. Even my granny remembers singing for him. Classical music has a massive class problem in this country... perhaps now more than ever. Anyone who tries to make a difference on that front is a hero to me. I’d definitely cook him a lovely meal and give him a pint if he wanted one. I’d ask him what we can do to keep classical music socially mobile in this country when it is dying in schools and only the rich can afford to buy music lessons for their children. Maybe he’d have some good ideas. Or maybe I’d invite Hildegard von Bingen round and put on A Love Supreme over dinner. I reckon she would really like John Coltrane.
Steve: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
Stef: Aforementioned A Love Supreme (Part II); Turangalîla Symphonie; Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco; Sacred and Profane and Peter Grimes; À la Fumée; Partiels; Knife Party by the Deftones; that lovely Middle English lyric Worlde’s blis ne last; the traditional song Salisbury Plain… I think I’ve run out… I have no idea why these specific pieces come to mind today. They’d all different tomorrow. Apart from A Love Supreme, so let’s stick with that.
Steve:…and a book?:
Stef: Maybe a grammar of some dead language, to keep me out of trouble, as I have a terrible attention span… or perhaps short stories by Borges, because you notice something new about each one, each time you read it. And they remind me of my partner Rory, without whom I would be totally cut off from great fiction!
Steve:…a film?
Stef: Monty Python… Grail or Brian. Nothing else is even in contention. 
Steve:… and a luxury item?
Stef: My cat, Magnus! Is he an item?