Thursday, 23 August 2012

Nikita Khrushchev, Acker Bilk, James Brown, B.B. King. 
Who’s the odd one out?

Clue: it’s all about things we’ve seen on television.

The characters:
Nikita Khrushchev was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the man who played nuclear bluff with U.S.A. President Kennedy. 

Acker Bilk is best known for his elegaic, mournful tune “Stranger on the Shore” which used as the theme tune for a BBC children’s TV show.  
James Brown was “The Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness”.

B.B. King is a Blues legend who plays a guitar called “Lucille”.

The incidents:

Nikita Khrushchev is also well known for banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations to disrupt proceedings – an image seen throughout the world. Oh, he banged.

Acker Bilk’s band were featured on BBC TV in a London highlights segment of a Miss World show playing up a swinging storm. I kid you not – they were stonking.

James Brown started out as a street dancer and his flying feet led the way for many future artists in the same way that his funk rhythms defined subsequent black music. He demonstrated several popular 60s dance steps in about a minute during an interview with Jools Holland on Channel 4 (“The Tube”?). He flowed.

B.B. King appeared several times at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. During one concert – shown on BBC (2?) – his band played a gospel song which showed the links between secular and religious black music, but which was clearly the great bluesman celebrating gospel music.

The answer:

The odd one out is Nikita Khrushchev. There are lots of clips on the Web and all show that he never did bang that shoe, except the clip that’s been doctored. 

The other incidents are all locked in my mind but, as the bureaucrat said: “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen”.

So my plea is Please, Please, Please, do try to find anywhere on the Web (or anywhere else so that it can be posted) evidence of Acker swinging, James throwing out his feet and B.B. going home.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Thoughts on the Wind Quintet

Now here’s a question: what, in my opinion, is the dullest piece of music ever written?

Here’s a clue: it’s scored for a wind quintet.

Here’s a second clue: The Souza Winds are performing an exciting, innovative programme at the next Late Music concert (Saturday 1st September), but would have been unable to play this work as the composer is no longer with us.

What I found striking when trying to programme this concert was how little contemporary repertoire there is for this ensemble. There are quintets  by Arvo Part, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan (included in the concert), there is Harrison Birtwistle’s striking Refrains & Choruses (not included) and I’ll bet there will be one by Richard Rodney Bennett…So we decided to create one, and here’s what we came up with -

James Williamson: The Fith Element scored for the oboe (solo)

James Else: Forgotten Notes scored for flute & horn (duet)

Steve Crowther: Peter's Star scored for oboe, clarinet & bassoon (Trio)

Clive Wilkinson: Boats and Sheds scored for flute, oboe, clarinet & bassoon (quartet)

David Lancaster: Mosquito scored for the complete ensemble.

We also invited Michael Parkin to think outside of the box and he came up with  arrangements of Pink Floyd's Money  and Us and Them and The Great Gig in the Sky from The Dark Side of the Moon.

Anyway, back to that dullest of pieces. The first correct comment response will get a free ticket to the Souza Winds concert paid for by…me.


Composer of the week: James Else

James Else is a composer and filmmaker.  He currently works as a lecturer in contemporary music and film at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, as well as being a TV producer creating programmes for the BBC.

James studied music at the University of Glasgow and King's College London, before completing a PhD in composition at the University of York with Nicola LeFanu.  In recent years he has collaborated extensively with choreographers from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance as well as composing for Late Music and having his works performed throughout the UK and Ireland.  

James’ Forgotten Notes (for Flute & Horn) will be premiered at the next LM recital (Saturday 1st September) by the wind quintet, Souza Winds.

Steve Crowther: Can you describe the new work to us?

James Else: Having tried to write a programme note, I can honestly say that I can’t describe the new work – I always try to write something that enhances the work, but seldom do I feel I achieve this.  I also find that my connection to a work is very vague until after a performance.  I could offer a few words – wistful, intertwining, and distant in places.

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

JE: I am increasingly writing at the piano these days, possibly because I am getting less time to play it generally – so it’s really nice to sit down and just feel my way round the keys again.
I normally start by trying to create a fragment of music that excites or entices me, and then think about how that can work structurally.  The best of my pieces, however, are probably the ones where the rules are intuitive rather than prescriptive by the end of the process

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

JE: I feel that it can work equally well both ways.  I tend to write for the instruments more than the players, but I am curious to find out what a long-term relationship with a specific musician could bring.

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

JE: I don’t think I can.  In this piece I took a few month’s break and found I no longer liked the sound world I had started writing it in, and changed it accordingly.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

JE: 1000 reasons, but possibly because it is (hopefully) my best method of communication.

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

JE: A cliché I’m afraid, but I do greatly admire Arvo Pärt, and in particular the relationship he creates between the mathematical and the spiritual.

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

JE: I don’t feel I could miss the chance to talk to J. S. Bach.  Might need to brush up on my German.  As in learn German.

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

JE: I actually find choosing one the easiest – it’d be the Goldberg Variations played by Glen Gould.  Choosing eight – I don’t think I can do that!

SC: …and a book?

JE: The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb – or if I’m trying to look educated, maybe Catch 22.

SC: Film?

JE: I’m sometimes worried that as a film-maker I don’t have a favourite film.  Again if I’m trying to look educated 12 Angry Men.

SC: … and a luxury item?

JE: Probably a trampoline.  Bounce!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Composer of the week: David Lancaster

Composer of the week: David Lancaster

David Lancaster is Head of Music at York St John University and composer-in-residence with Laudamus Chamber Choir and with the EYMS Band.
David first encountered contemporary music when as a young cornet player he took part in a performance of Harrison Birtwistle's 'Grimethorpe Aria' at a brass band summer school. Music studies at York and Cambridge Universities and at Dartington Summer School (with Peter Maxwell Davies) followed, along with a period as Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse. He gained a number of important awards including Lloyds Bank Young Composer Award, Michael Tippett Award, LCM Centenary Prize and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Composer Award; the Parke Ensemble presented a London concert series of his work and in May 2011 there was a retrospective concert devoted to his work at York St John University.
David’s recent work includes music for choir, string quartet and several song cycles, such as Memory of Place (which sets poetry by the York-based poet Daniela Nunnari and which has recently been issued on CD on the Meridian label).  David’s choral work Fallen, originally composed for Canterbury Cathedral, was used in a documentary made for Sky Television and his band piece On Ilkley Moor based on the grisly tale of Yorkshire’s famous folksong – was first performed in November 2011 in Ilkley and has since been recorded.
In August 2012 City of Kings will receive its first performance as part of the York 800 celebrations, and in September Mosquito for wind quintet will receive its premiere performance as part of the prestigious Late Music concert series by Souza Winds.

Steve Crowther: Can you describe the new work to us?

David Lancaster: It is called Mosquito, not after the buzzing insect (which I’ve learnt to avoid when I work in Malaysia) but after the device which emits ultrasonic noise to disperse young people – you find them outside shops, giving out a signal that only people under the age of around 23 can hear. I collaborated with conceptual artist Rory Macbeth a few years ago for an exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery which was all about how art has been used to portray class distinction in British culture; Rory asked me to transcribe the sound of the Mosquito – very much slowed down and lowered in pitch – for live performance.  Since then I have often thought about turning this simple transcription into a fully-developed composition but when I discovered that the manufacturer of the Mosquito also produces a device which emits ‘royalty-free classical music’ as a weapon against young people that the idea came to full fruition.  The piece begins with the sound of the Mosquito transcription juxtaposed with the opening of Tallis’ ‘Lamentations’ and the music simply unfolds out of that stark alternation.

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

DL: No I don’t tend to use the piano.  I suppose because I started as a brass player I tend to think more in horizontal terms: lines and phrases.  I used to do much more pre-compositional planning than I do now but I suppose that with experience and confidence I have come to trust my instincts much more.  The process usually involves one big idea, lots of scribbled notes (both musical and text) on scrap paper and any number of long walks or cycle rides.  Actually ‘post- composition’ has become more important to me; I like to finish pieces long before the given deadline so that I can mull over the score, do lots of fine editing and move things around if necessary before it goes off to the performers.

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

DL: Not necessarily.  I don’t believe that there is only one ‘correct’ interpretation of a piece of music but rather that there are very many possibilities, so I enjoy writing for people I don’t know and discovering what they make of my scores.  And also I like hearing second performances of my pieces which differ from the first since each different performer brings a fresh perspective.

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

DL: I think it is quite a dark world but there is scope for black humour too!  My over-riding preoccupation is to achieve clarity of idea so my ‘sound-worlds tend not to be dominated by textural effect or excessive decoration.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

DL: I’ve always done it, since I first started playing an instrument – it seemed the natural thing to do.  There’s an element of problem solving: setting challenges for myself then finding ways to overcome them.  But it is also very reciprocal and iterative: I teach student composers at York St John University and find myself immersed in their ideas as well as in my own preoccupations and obsessions, so one piece just leads to another…

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

DL: Birtwistle, above all others.  It was his music that first jolted me into an awareness of contemporary music and taught me to follow my own path.  There’s so much in his approach to music, landscape, theatre and visual art which mirrors my own thought and practice; he seems to think the way I do.  He knows how to write for performers and audiences but without ever compromising to either, and his music still has the capacity to move me emotionally.

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

DL: I discovered a couple of weeks ago that my music teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was Mozart!  So it would have to be Wolfgang Amadeus since we have so many people in common!  I suspect he would have been a good drinking companion although it would probably always be my round.  I’ve been round to his houses in Salzburg and Vienna but he wasn’t there…

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

Mask of Orpheus – Birtwistle (I worked on the original production at ENO, playing the voice of Apollo on sampler keyboard).

Symphonies of Winds – Stravinsky

Six Bagatelles for string quartet Op 9 – Webern (who died on 15th September 1945, exactly 15 years to the minute before I was born).

Lollapalooza -John Adams

Fix You – Coldplay

Year of the Dragon – Philip Sparke

Soundtrack to ‘Draughtsman’s Contract’ – Michael Nyman

Memory of Place – David Lancaster (if only for ‘If Wishes are Willows’ and Daniela Nunnari’s wonderful poetry).

If I really must choose one, then let it be the Stravinsky please.

SC: …and a book?

DL: Topology of a Phantom City – Alain Robbe-Grillet (the nearest I’ve come to reading one of my compositions expressed in words!)

SC: Film?

DL: Vertigo – Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann at their very best.

SC: … and a luxury item?

DL: I’m torn between my Nikon DSLR and my trusty racing bike, neither of which would be especially useful on the island.  But since I don’t want to get sand in my camera I’ll go with the bike, which might at least help me to keep fit.