Monday, 21 May 2012

May concert: Guest review by Kathleen Hawkins

We have a vibrant community of music aficionados followers on Twitter. Last month we offered a select few an opportunity to attend the concert and write a review for us. And we’re happy to present a review by Kathleen Hawkins. If you would like to review the concert on June 2 featuring works by Arvo Part and many more, leave us a comment on this page or get in touch via Twitter (@LateMusicUK).

To kick off the evening David Lancaster discussed his world premiering composition Velocity. It was fascinating to hear the inspiration behind both this piece and its ‘companion’ piece Vertigo, which was also played; namely that the two pieces were inspired by part of Herrmann’s score to Hitchcock’s film, and to hear the composer describe the writing process and how he goes about composing for a string quartet; writing via computer Lancaster told how he must always keep in mind the physical limitations of the instruments and players, that there are some things are just not possible – this filled me with anticipation to hear it!

First piece of the night was Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 4, Buczak. The hypnotic arpeggio phrases of the first movement, rising and falling in volume, the repetitive structures and subtle transformations of all three movements, the pizzicato of the viola and cello accompanied by the long, drawn bows of the violins all created a haunting impact through the quartet’s albeit apparent simplicity.

World premiere Velocity by David Lancaster provided an instantly more sombre feel to its ‘companion’ piece Vertigo. Velocity had a much looser structure, and allowed freer exploration compared to Vertigo which had a strict structure with an 80 bar theme transforming with each repetition. The instruments worked like characters in a silent movie – each became almost protaganists, abstract characters, which at times created a disjointed and aggressive timbre. However, an aggressive motif used in both pieces created almost an idee fixe, or in cinematic terms de ja vu, which was able to stabilise the haste and frantic nature of the piece.

Steve Crowther’s single-movement First String Quartet, A Song For Salford, was packed exhilarating cross-rhythms. A composition about a trip to Salford it managed to create the feeling especially of a train ride to Salford with its fast-paced, hectic phrases.

Nicola LeFanu’s rhapsodic Second Quartet began with a frantic energy, included beautiful solos from both viola and cello and moved eloquently to a peaceful close. It was wonderful to see a third composer attending the evening to hear their composition.

John Adam’s Fellow Traveler was fast-paced and momentous and made for a dazzling finish to the repertoire. Each piece played was selected beautifully. All required concentration, but the captivating numbers and the delivery of the Ligeti Quartet meant that concentration naturally followed suit. The Ligeti Quartet was truly brilliant. They delivered a polished and emotive performance throughout the entire evening and demonstrated great professionalism well beyond their mere two years as a quartet.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

‘Small is beautiful…’ in conversation with Michael Parkin

Richard Casey playing Michael Parkin’s Prelude and Fugue No 4
Rika Zayasu’s piano recital on Saturday 2nd June was programmed by composer Michael Parkin who came up with a theme: ‘Small is beautiful’ – reflecting the miniature in contemporary music.

I had a fascinating chat with him about this earlier in the week

Steve Crowther: Michael, can you just give us an idea or outline in your programme thinking?
Michael Parkin: To begin with I just started to assemble pieces I really like and admire – pieces I thought audiences would enjoy. Then I simply waited for the threads and themes to emerge. It soon became apparent that there was common ground and subtle relationships between virtually all my ‘shortlisted’ works; forms from the past, such as variations, passacaglia or fugue…

SC: Surely these are forms from the past, what is their relevance now?
MP: I don’t see them this way. They’re simply techniques and processes – fugue and passacaglia are simply ways of organising counterpoint. They are not rigid structures, they’re plastic and malleable, and as such, relevant to any age.

SC: Are there any other ‘threads?
MP: Yes, there is an insistence on drama, narrative and description; and finally, most of the composers I’ve chosen have taken their inspiration, or at least ‘tapped into’, music from other cultures, traditions and genres – I’m thinking here particularly of Sculthorpe’s Japanese inspired Night Pieces and Weir’s wonderful variations on a Spanish/Arabic folk tune, but this would equally be true of Rzewski’s Give Peace a Chance, or even Part’s reflections on Chant in Fur Alina.

SC: Could you tell us a little more about Rzewski’s Dead Moth Tango? I didn’t realize it existed…
MP: It doesn’t!

SC: Ah.
MP: The idea of pairing composers’ work in each half misfired! My intention was to frame the entire concert with Rzewski – but it turns out that Dead Moth Tango was actually written by William Bolcom.

SC: So where did the confusion spring from?
MP: The piece was featured on to a tribute album to Rzewski by the American pianist Ursula Opens. How or why it was included I have no idea.

SC: So…?
MP: …so a note to all programmers – research thoroughly!

SC: Quite, but why did you still leave it in?
MP: Because Dead Moth Tango is wonderful, and I’ve now discovered the music of Bolcom. One of the joys of programming concerts is that you get to listen to a lot of new music – it’s a delightful antidote to laziness!

SC: What about the Sculthorpe?
MP: The ideology for the Sculthorpe pairing was simple, I just wanted to include as much of this sadly neglected Australian composer as possible.

SC: His music is fantastic…
MP: …and the ‘short frame’, provided by the interval, gave me the perfect opportunity to divide my own Preludes and Fugues into two groupings. I think it’s difficult to listen to (not to mention play!) four demanding works such as these on the trot.

SC: What have you discovered during this process?
MP: If this programming exercise has taught me anything it’s this – the piano miniature is not only alive and well, it’s thriving!

SC: Can you tell us a little bit about the Prelude and Fugues we are going to hear at this recital? Are the influences simply formal ie Bach?
MP: Not at all. As a whole the Prelude and Fugues have allowed me to tap into, and pay debts and homage to all the various ‘musics’ that I’ve listed to over the last 50 years.

SC: Which?
MP: Well, there’s the elegiac keyboard writing of Arvo Part in Prelude to No. 3; Howlin’ Wolf, Blues and Jazz in the Prelude to No. 4; Robert Fripp and King Crimson in Fugue No. 4. I could go on! I’m not sure listeners will spot them (it will be very evident in Prelude No. 4!!), but they’re there nevertheless.

SC: We have a sound file of Richard Casey performing the Prelude and Fugue No 4. Can you describe the Prelude? Was the influence Shostakovich?
MP: The prelude is curious; the material I use is virtually a nursery rhyme tune that is infuriatingly just short of a balanced 4 bar phrase, and ends in an abrupt change of key. By ‘tweaking’ just one note near the end to make the tune more acceptable, you would have to repeat the whole thing 11 times (44 bars!) through every key on the piano to arrive back where you started. Things are never what they seem…

SC: …and the Fugue
MP: The Fugue to No 4 starts with a single melody which constitutes the ‘subject’. What I’ve tried to do is reduce this melody to its essential melodic and harmonic components, so that with each re-entry the melody becomes shorter and more compact, with the result that the ‘counter melodies’ begin to gain in importance.

SC: So you have created an inbuilt drama driving the music forward?
MP: In a way, yes. Shortening the melody (subject) each time produces a ‘stretto’ effect (because the entries arrive quicker), without actually using stretto! The last entry of the melody (subject) in the left hand is only about 4 or 5 notes long, so all we are left with is a sort of ‘halo’ of ambiguous harmonies hovering above it.

I suppose this is a sort of anti-Fugue! Destroy the ‘subject’ and allow ‘counter-subjects’ to emerge.

SC: So this is not the blue-rinsed reliving of old forms but musical revolution?
MP: Behave!

Friday, 4 May 2012

David Lancaster on ‘Vertigo’

The Late Music Concert on May 5 will feature works by David Lancaster
My string quartet is in two parts, ‘Vertigo’ (which was composed for the Tippett Quartet which first performed it in March 2011) and ‘Velocity’ (composed for the Ligeti Quartet to premiere at late Music in May).

Vertigo took as its starting point a fragment of music which Bernard Herrmann composed for the Hitchcock film of the same name because the original commission had come from the ‘Partners in Suspense’ conference which explored the collaboration between Hitchcock and Herrmann.
The link to Herrmann’s music was a given but it was always my intention to create an original piece of music which was authentically my own and which could enjoy a life beyond the conference. It isn’t in any sense an arrangement of Herrmann’s score but it does represent a creative response to Herrmann’s (and Hitchcock’s) work on a number of different intertextual levels.

Subsequent to composing my piece I was very pleased to find the interview with Martin Scorsese in Sound and Vision regarding Vertigo: ‘Hitchcock’s film is all about obsession… it’s about circling back to the same moment again and again… and the music is also built around spirals and circles – fulfilment and despair… Herrmann really understood that Hitchcock wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession’.

So just as Hitchcock uses repetition of themes and events to represent Scottie’s growing obsession with Madeleine and his spiralling decline, my music is based on a strict cyclic structure in which the series of musical events stated at the outset (beginning with an aggressive gesture from viola) is repeated five times and on each cycle is subject to a different process of development or transformation – but still remains recognisable and therefore becomes increasingly obsessive.

The fifth cycle in particular draws upon Herrmann’s ‘obsession’ motif – a plaintive falling figure, based on the musical technique of suspension; highly appropriate since falling – physically and emotionally – is at the heart of the film – and it is also a theme which has recurred my work on several occasions – my choral piece from last year was called ‘Fallen’ for example; another was ‘Suspense’ for soprano saxophone.

The sixth cycle begins but the spell is immediately broken and the work ends as it began.

Velocity is a companion piece to Vertigo rather than a second movement; the two pieces can be programmed together but each is capable of standing alone. This quartet is more concerned with Hitchcock than Herrmann and it attempts to utilise several of the former’s cinematic techniques, broadly translated into musical terms. Extremes of slow and fast music are starkly juxtaposed; the title is not intended to indicate raw speed but rather to suggest that the quicker music is always present but beneath the surface, capable of interrupting at any time.

The aggressive motif from viola remains from the earlier Vertigo but here the structure is rather less formal; the musical gestures move in and out of our consciousness rather fleetingly, like half-forgotten memories, often on the threshold of silence.

For the regular Late Music listener: you may have heard the final bars of Velocity re-used in my song ‘Make Do and Mend’ which Jeremy Huw Williams sang in last month’s recital; given the subject matter of the song it seemed appropriate to construct it around on some pre-used material. Here in the quartet it represents a sort of apotheosis – almost a resolution – of all the slow music in the piece.