Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Composer of the Month: David Lancaster

David Lancaster is Head of Department: Performance at York St John University, managing Dance and Theatre degrees along with the Music and Music Production programmes.  He is composer-in-residence with Vox Aurum 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.  Around 2007 he returned to composing after a long period of silence and has since produced a series of works which again attracted performances around the UK.

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; more recently he has produced an electronic version of this piece as part of a collaborative arts installation project ‘Vestiges of Spirituality’ which has been presented to critical acclaim.
In November his new orchestral work ‘Strata’ will be performed by the Orchestra of Opera North under the baton of Elgar Howarth and the sax quartet ‘Swan’ – first heard at Late Music in 2010 – will be included on a national tour by the Delta Saxophone Quartet.

David’s choral pieces Fallen and Hush will be performed at the next LM concert (Saturday 5th October) by the Manchester Chamber Choir.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the works to us?

David Lancaster: If I could do that I probably would have become a writer or a poet and not a composer!  There are two short pieces, ‘Hush’ which is new, and ‘Fallen’ which was premiered in Canterbury Cathedral three years ago.  It was used in a documentary for Sky TV (about football, but I don’t normally tell people that).  Both make use of texts by Rumi so they work nicely as a pair, and both deal with ‘being in a state of music’.

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

DL: I do own a piano but only use it occasionally when composing.  I think of my music in terms of linear, lyrical lines and I fear I might lose that if I concentrate too much on the vertical, as I might do playing chords at the piano.  I compose everywhere: on the train, sitting at my PC, in the shower – so a piano isn’t always practical. And I’m a terrible pianist in any case!  There isn’t a great deal of formal pre-composition these days, but I do keep sketchbooks - Beethoven-style - and ideas evolve gradually and deliberately.  In fact there is more post-compositional work in my process: I can write quite quickly and then spend time reflecting on what I’ve done, then refining the work in terms of shape, pacing, consistency and so on.

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

DL: I do like to write for specific performers but it’s often the context which is more influential at the point of composition.  How much detail will be audible, what will the atmosphere be like, how intimate will the performance be, will it be a warm tone, will the sound distort at high volume?  But when the music is finished I hand the copies over to the performers, whoever they are, and I’m happy for them to interpret it as they think fit; I like them to take ownership of my work and show me things I didn’t know about. 

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

DL: I think it reflects the down-to-earth grittiness – the bleakness at times – of the place I was brought up, but also the warmth of the people around me.  I’m a little bit schizophrenic: my music often inhabits extremes of calm/desolation or energy/violence but I see them as different aspects of the same thing: I’ve recently completed an orchestral piece where the two are starkly juxtaposed.  Some people tell me that my music inhabits a very dark sound world, others tell me that they hear a black humour – and they’re probably both right!

SC: What motivates you to compose?

DL: Performances: I love the act of musical performance – its inherent ritualistic theatricality - and I particularly enjoy hearing my work come to life in rehearsal.  When I don’t have a performers’ deadline in my diary I can sometimes find it quite difficult to finish pieces.

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

DL:  Oh that’s difficult!  John Adams and Harrison Birtwistle, Gavin Bryars and Arvo Part.  Very different musicians but all seeming more concerned with clarity than with decoration.  But I like to discover ‘new’ composers and at Late Music concerts often find myself more drawn to the work of young or local composers which speaks with unadorned immediacy: I have a low tolerance threshold for anything that smacks of pretentiousness.

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

DL: And that’s an even harder question – there are so many to choose from and their beer drinking preferences are not always well documented.   I’d love to meet Thomas Tallis, or JS Bach, Varese, Webern or Stravinsky but I can’t imagine they’d be the best drinking partners, and Gesualdo might be risky too.  I’m going to pick Bernard Herrmann who was a fabulous composer of concert music in addition to his film scores.  I’ve always had a high regard for his music and would be fascinated to talk about his many collaborations.

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

DL: Must I?  I don’t particularly like lists of pieces.  There was one in The Times last week – ‘20 classical pieces you must hear’ – and they missed out Purcell, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Messiaen and so many other important composers and in fact everyone since Britten. The elitist notion of a ‘canon’ of ‘great works’ is surely discredited by now, since by definition it relegates everything else to some sort of artistic ‘second division’, which is ridiculous.  If we all thought like that there could be no Late Music and probably nothing this side of Classic FM.  So there are very many pieces I wouldn’t want to live without, and here are eight of them:  
1.    Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms;
2.    Herrmann: Vertigo soundtrack;
3.    John Adams: Lollapalooza;
4.    Arvo Part: Fratres (for string quartet);
5.    Bruckner: Os Justi;
6.    Sibelius: Tapiola;
7.    Birtwistle: Grimethorpe Aria,
8.    Webern: Six Bagatelles.

And if I need to choose just one I will pick the Birtwistle, since that was the piece which first fired my passion for new music and composing, sending me on this exciting journey.

SC: …and a book?

DL:  My reading this week is probably going to be confined to ‘The Idiots’ Guide to Excel Spreadsheets’ to help with my new job, but I’m also working my way through ‘The Bridge’ by Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers who sadly died recently.

SC: That's a coincidence, I'm reading Crow Road.. and a film?

DL: Pandora’s Box, the film of Wedekind’s plays made by GW Pabst in 1929, famously starring Louise Brooks.  One of my long-term project ideas is to compose a new score to perform live, so extended exposure to the film on your desert island would be useful.

SC: … and a luxury item?

DL: I’m assuming that manuscript paper/pen is a necessity rather than a luxury item, therefore automatically included! In that case I’m torn between my camera, my bike and my box of ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards.  On reflection I think I’ll take the cards since they would offer some innovative suggestions to help tackle all of the problems I would encounter on the island, and there would be one for each day of the year so they would hopefully sustain my interest until I am rescued.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Gender and Music: Nicola LeFanu

Gender and Music: a topic that’s been in the air recently, with Vasily Petrenko’s silly comments on women conductors, and then Marin Alsop’s splendid last night of the Proms. Her spirited riposte to Petrenko, and her support for inclusivity, drew widespread applause. A few days later, the European Union ‘s WIMUST project was launched in London by MEP Mary Honeyball. This is a strategy to try and create greater gender equality in the performing arts and particularly music.

This was all in my mind when I received the September packet of leaflets for concerts in York and its region in the coming season. There is a wealth of music making, both professional and amateur, something York can be proud of. The gender statistics are not so good, though. There are only two female conductors: Margaret Griffiths directs York Opera’s Nabucco, and Jane Sturmheit directs the Chanticleer Singers.

Women composers fare badly. The extensive (and usually admirable) University series has only two represented, both programmed by young artists: the Ligeti quartet plays Gubaidulina, and Chimera ensemble plays Saariaho. Yet there are several concerts (for example of 20th century British music) which could, and should, have been more representative. Other York concert series, whether orchestral, choral or chamber, have no music by female composers; I found only one example, Cecilia McDowell’s Canterbury Mass (Micklegate Singers.)

Late Music should therefore be congratulated on its enlightened programming. Composers who happen to be women were featured in all the 2012-2013 concerts, and commissions have been shared equally between male and female recipients.

There is no reason why female composers should be marginalised. There are plenty of us, in all generations, and writing in a range of musical idioms. It is time more of York’s excellent music groups took the trouble to discover a rich repertoire which they are currently ignoring. Equal opportunity and inclusivity in the 21st century? I should hope so!
Nicola LeFanu
September 2013

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Composer of the month: William Brooks

William Brooks studied music and mathematics at Wesleyan University (BA 1965), then received degrees in musicology (MM 1971) and composition-theory (DMA 1976) from the University of Illinois. He has been associated with John Cage as both performer and scholar; he played in the world premiere of HPSCHD and has several times directed productions of Cage’s Song Books. Brooks taught at the University of Illinois (1969-73) and at the University of California (1973-7), then worked as a freelance composer, scholar and performer before returning to the University of Illinois (1987). In 2000 he took up his present post at the University of York.

William Brooks’ new work, Tracce, will be performed at the next Late Music concert (Saturday 7th September) by Madrigali Redux.

Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?

William Brooks: Gosh. Why would I do that? If anyone is reading this, I’d suggest she or he come to the concert. But okay ...
A long time ago, Petrarch wrote many sonnets, among them a group expressing his love for Laura and grief at her death. One of the most famous of these begins “Zefiro torna e’l bel tempo rimena” (“Zephyrus returns and brings back the fine weather”), which contrasts the verdant beauty of spring with the desert of the poet’s despair. This was set very beautifully by Monteverdi and by Marenzio before him. Then, in 1909, J. M. Synge published free translations of the “Laura” sonnets. These were, as you’d expect, written with a colloquial (not to say “peasant”) Irish-Anglo flavor. I’m very interested, at the moment, in turn-of-the-century Irish literature; I wrote a big piece on Yeats a while back. So the Synge texts caught my attention. (Too late, of course: the indefatigable Gavin Bryars set all of Synge’s Petrarch translations a few years ago.) The Irish love ghosts and mystery; I suppose Tracce attempts to surround Synge’s text with wisps, haunts, traces (“tracce”) of the past.

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

WB: Sometimes. Usually. And no, I really can’t describe the process. There isn’t one process, after all; there are many. I do like to know how time will be structured; perhaps that’s a given. But, of course, when writing open-form works, even that must be set aside.

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

WB: I generally don’t write music unless there is a performance forthcoming. Hence I often know the performers, and I like that. And most definitely I write with sound—and action—in mind. I abhor midi (though I use it when necessary), and I try whenever possible to sing, shout, dance, thump, conduct, or otherwise make tangible what I’m writing.

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

WB: I hope I don’t have one, but I probably do. I seem to write a lot of shapes, gestures—not enough repetition, I think. I want people to remember things, the good and the bad, so traces (that word again) of the past are often evident. I’m a historian at heart (though I have many hearts: mind your back, Doctor).

SC: What motivates you to compose?

WB: People. Community. Love. The opportunity to give.

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

WB: All the good ones are dead. Didn’t you go to school?

SC: Behave, there must be someone…!

WB: Well, in truth I ducked the question because an answer usually results in being assigned to one camp or another. Uptown, downtown; minimal, maximal; Tonal oder Atonal ... that kind of thing. I’m pretty lavish with admiration, actually; if you give me a score chances are that I’ll find something that interests me. (How else could I get excited about obscure pop songs from 1915?) As for identity, I’m as confused as ever.

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

WB: We’d have to have a party—maybe, since I’m American, a barbeque. George (not Charlie) Ives, Ockeghem, Clara Schumann, the least known of J. S. Bach’s kids, ... But to tell the truth I’d rather host some performers: Maria Callas, Bert Williams, Ole Bull, Patsy Cline, Bix Beiderbecke ... now THAT’s a party!

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

WB: Today, the one is Charles Ives’s Second Orchestral Set. Tomorrow, it might be any or none of the following: Josquin’s Ave Maria, Roscoe Holcomb singing anything, Chopin’s mazurkas (especially the senza fine), Porgy and Bess, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Dr. Subramaniam playing an alap, Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” (with the words: “Be kind to your web-footed friends ...”). Of course, I’m choosing all these for effect; in reality, I almost never listen to recordings, I’m astonishingly ignorant about almost all repertoire, and I truly think I’d prefer my desert island to sound like a desert island.

SC: …and a book?

WB: The Bible? Finnegans Wake? A 5,000-page anthology of poetry? Richard Taruskin’s history of music? (Just kidding ...)

SC: Film?

WB: A dead heat between Top Hat and Some Like It Hot. But I’m in despair about giving up the Marx brothers ...

SC: … and a luxury item?

WB: My Mac—or if that doesn’t qualify as a luxury, my iPad. But what’s the wifi like on a desert island?

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Composer of the month: Sadie Harrison

Since 2007, Sadie has worked as both an archaeologist and a composer. Her recent music reflects an active interest in the ancient and contemporary cultures of other countries, leading to several cycles inspired by the traditional musics of Afghanistan, the Northern Caucasus, Skye and Lithuania. Sadie’s music has been played in venues such as the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, RFH, Barbican and Lithuanian National Philharmonic, released to critical acclaim on Sargasso, BML, Metier, NMC and Clarinet Classics and broadcast on BBC R3, in Eastern Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, America, Lithuania, and The Netherlands. 2013 has seen premieres in Ripon Cathedral, Norway, Denmark, Vilnius, Cyprus, Brecon, RAM and the Vale of Glamorgan Festival with others to come at festivals in London, Vienna, Tennessee and York later this year. Sadie’s music is published by UYMP (www.uymp.co.uk) and Recital Music. Website: www.sadieharrisoncomposer.co.uk

Sadie’s new work, Return of the Nightingales, will be performed at the next Late Music concert (Saturday 3rd August) by Ian Pace
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?

Sadie Harrison: With Rzewski’s music in mind, this piece is something of a concoction of musical and contextual ideas – a pre-recorded nightingale (the bird of hazar dastan, ‘a thousand stories’), a classical Afghan song, improvised patterns from Afghan musicians played in response to hearing Messiaen’s Le Loriod, and a vicious moto perpetuo which attempts to obliterate everything before it. The score is prefaced by a beautiful Persian Sufi text 'Ajab tarana e sar karda am darin golshan, Khoda konad ke na sazad falak khamush mara' (I have started to sing a wonderful song in this flower-garden like a nightingale, I hope the movement of the stars (destiny) does not make me silent again.) I use it as a direct reference to the silencing of Afghan music during the period of the Taliban, and its re-emergence following the Taliban’s expulsion in 2001. It’s a deliberately uneasy piece – an outsider’s view of another country’s conflict, with a distinctly Western ‘resolution’. It’s problematic.

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

SH: It totally depends on the piece. But generally, pen and paper away from the piano - the freedom to annotate and revisit, move paper around, not be conditioned by any particular sound. It’s too difficult to talk about planning – too fluid a process – too Escheresque where the ideas flow downstream and upstream at the same time!

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

SH: Whenever I can. It’s certainly the ideal. The piece for Ian really started with a memory of hearing him play Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata in 2004 – it was quite something! Although the context for the material changed radically, Ian’s presence at the keyboard was integral to the soundworld of the piece.

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

SH: Again, it depends on the piece, who has commissioned it, what the performer might want. I’ve just finished a set of pieces that sound like neoclassical Stravinsky…the previous piece had a touch of Hollywood romance about it…the one before that was as hard as granite, implacably modernist. I don’t have a problem with diversity now, though once I would have condemned such postmodernism!

SC: What motivates you to compose?

SH: I stopped writing for two extended periods in my life because I didn’t have anything to say. I’m sure that most of what I write is completely peripheral but I strive to illuminate musically those things that are important to me. Much of my recent work has been concerned with creating a dialogue between my own music and that of traditional cultures…but it’s fraught with difficulties…I’m motivated by challenges!

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

SH: Harrison Birtwistle, not just because we bump into each other at the local garden centre and share a love of plants! His music grounds me – it’s hard to explain.

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

SH: Steve Martland. I never knew him and I wish I had.

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

SH: In no particular order, and with irritation at the restriction:
Debussy ‘Pelleas et Melisande’,
Messiaen ‘Vingt Regards de l’Enfant Jesus’,
Shostakovitch Violin Concerto No. 1
Karine Polwart ‘The Light on the Shore’
Jeff Buckley ‘Grace’ (the whole album!)
Ligeti ‘Piano Etudes’
Perry Como ‘Angelina’
Harrison Birtwistle ‘Fields of Sorrow’

Can’t chose between the Buckley, the Ligeti and the Debussy…a third of each?

SC: …and a book?

SH: David Lewis-William’s brilliant ‘The Mind in the Cave’, a connection with my work as an archaeologist.

SC: Film?

SH: Can I take the series remake of Battlestar Galactica?

SC: … and a luxury item?

SH:  A piano without a moment’s hesitation. I’ll try and learn some of the Ligeti by ear – I really do like challenges!

Friday, 28 June 2013

Composer of the month: Anna Meredith

Anna Meredith is a composer and performer of both acoustic and electronic music. Anna's music has been performed everywhere from the Last Night of the Proms to flashmob performances in the M6 Services, Soundwave Festival to London Fashion Week, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival to the Ether Festival, and broadcast on Radio 1, 3, 4 & 6.
She has been Composer in Residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, RPS/PRS Composer in the House with Sinfonia ViVA, the classical music representative for the 2009 South Bank Show Breakthrough Award and winner of the 2010 Paul Hamlyn Award for Composers.
Anna’s string quartet, Songs for the M8, will be performed at the next LM concert (Saturday 7th July) by the Ligeti String quartet.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
Anna Meredith: Songs for the M8 was a commission for the Presences Festival in Paris and premiered by the Quatuor Renoir – it’s 5x 2min miniatures – each one very much in its own mini world . The idea behind the piece was a sort of homage the frequent teenage car journeys me and my friends would make between Edinburgh and Glasgow – along the M8.  As motorways go its pretty exciting with lots of bit of large scale public art including sheep on a grass pyramid and a giant face made out of pipes.  But to be honest its more about awaking into a different moment or world from the one before.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
AM: I plan everything out on blank paper first – drawing a big graphic sketch to map out the contour or pacing of each piece plus any adjectives or moods I’m aiming for along the way. Then it’s a matter of zooming in to fill in detail – this working out phase can sometimes be at the piano but more often just striding about my room singing tunelessly…
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
AM: I definitely write with a sound in mind and certain pieces have been very influenced by a particular performer’s skills and way of playing (obvious example being Shlomo and the Concerto for Beatboxer) but I also think it can be a good counter to this to let the material be the most important thing and if you need to write relentless nightmarish scales or patterns then it can be easier to just be ambitious with what you want ,accept that players might end up cursing your name but believe in the effect you’re trying to create.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
AM: Guess it depends from piece to piece. Its amazing how differently people hear the same material so the same piece might be described as ‘gorgeous’ ‘horrendous’ ‘repetitive’ or ‘complex’.  There are definitely certain scales, chords and rhythms that I find myself coming back to a lot and the word ‘bombastic’ tends to be used a lot – but not in this piece!
SC: What motivates you to compose?
AM: On a mundane level, the most important day to day motivation will be a deadline. Hate them but can’t live without them! On a more creative level it’s a real mix from mundane every day objects like car indicators or bits of found text to something more amorphous like trying to create a certain atmosphere or energy.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
AM: Most important composers to me are my composer friends. Namely, the other members of the Camberwell Composers Collective – Mark Bowden, Chris Mayo, Emily Hall and Charlie Piper. Along with a handful of other composer mates they’re the people I send my pieces or ideas to and are always helpful to bounce ideas around or just put it all in perspective a bit.  On top of that I’m a massive Gerald Barry fan. I quite often ask young composer ‘what would Gerald Barry do?’ if stuck on a bit of a piece – he always surprises me.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
AM: Um, tricky, maybe Janacek? Looks like he’d have some good stories and be a genuinely interesting and fun person to share a crispy beer with.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
AM: Lawks. Such a nightmare as you know you’ll change your mind tomorrow – so for today….:
Sibelius 7th Symphony
Gerald Barry – Importance of Being Earnest
Matt Rogers – Specialized
Emily Hall – Befalling
Beethoven – 7th Symphony
Michael Gordon – Decasia
Messiaen – Quartet for the End of Time
James Blake – James Blake
Just one is frankly unfair – maybe the Beethoven?
SC: …and a book?
AM: Loved Cloud Atlas.
SC: Film?
AM: Love a good sci-fi action bonanza so I reckon it’d have to be District 9.
SC: … and a luxury item?
AM:  I love roller coasters – especially suspended or flying ones so I’d like some kind of portable ingenious self-assembling coaster – if you could get onto that that’d be great. Thank you….

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Composer of the month: Jeremy Dale Roberts

Jeremy Dale Roberts (1934) Studied at RAM with William Alwyn and Priaulx Rainier. After graduating he dropped out and spent a year in Cameroon, West Africa. Following his return to UK he taught at Morley College, Goldsmiths College and the RCM where he eventually became Head of Composition. Subsequently he was appointed Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of Iowa.
His compositions include the ‘Tombeau’ for piano,  written for Stephen Bishop Kovacevich; Cello Concerto – ‘Deathwatch’, written for Rohan de Saram; ‘Croquis’ for string trio, a large-scale sequence of miniatures commissioned by the BBC and written for members of the Arditti Quartet; ‘In the same space – nine poems of Constantin Cavafy’ written for Steven Varcoe; ‘Lines of Life – Voices/Kinderscenen’, commissioned by the BBC for Lontano.
His song Spoken to a Bronze Head  will be performed at the next LM concert (Saturday 6th April) by  Robert Rice (baritone) and William Vann (piano).

Steve Crowther: Can you describe the song to us?

Jeremy Dale Roberts: It is a setting of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, in whose house I lived for many years. The words are addressed to a magnificent bronze of the composer that used to stand in her sitting-room, silently keeping her company through all the long years of her widowhood. It is a very fine poem, strong in diction, well tempered: I would say almost ‘Augustan’ in its idiom. My setting is appropriately austere, the voice syllabic throughout, the piano part entirely arising out of a single harmonic progression, grave in character, which eventually reveals itself to be a quotation from the final movement of VW’s 6th Symphony. The poem – one of Ursula’s most personal – suggests to me strongly, in its musing, and almost tactile way, the voice of the poet. It will be very interesting to hear the song sung by a man.

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

JDR: I speculate and dream for quite a long time; and that may in the end involve ‘plans’, verbal scenarios, laying out possible structures, directions and processes. The ‘sound world’ may come gradually into focus, and eventually notes and articulated musical ideas likewise. It’s all pretty intuitive. And yes, I do use the piano, as a reference, and as a kind of ‘well’ into which I dip and play around from time to time. I do NOT compose at the piano: seriously inhibiting.

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

JDR: I have been very fortunate in having close relationships with some exceptionally gifted musicians. It is a privilege and a joy to have their sound in one’s head, and to draw upon their temperament and behavior in the narrative of the music: to absorb their presence. A rare form of cannibalism, maybe…

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

JDR: I think I try to create a distinct sound-world to match the conception of each new work – or rather to expand my sound world accordingly. It’s one of the first things I start with, in the slow process of fleshing out a poetic idea.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

JDR: (It’s always quite nice to be asked!) Even when things are difficult, dry patches or when the wretched thing seems to be dying on its feet, NOT composing is not an option: as Elizabeth Maconchy confessed, it is a life-sentence. On a deep level, I think the ‘message in a bottle’ incentive probably figures more and more.

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

JDR: I intensely admire Pierre Boulez and Harrison Birtwistle, what they have achieved and what they stand for.

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

JDR: I guess few composers would ‘open up’ with just a drink in front of them - we’re a fairly private bunch, most of us, and quite shy of discussing the things most important to us with strangers. But, just to pass the time of day,  or a night out, Schubert would have been fun, also Berlioz. I would love to have known Chopin.

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

JDR: Rather obviously from the canon, I’m afraid! Debussy: L’Apres-midi d’un faune; Mozart: slow movement of Piano Concerto No. 21, K 467; Opening Chorus, Bach’s St John Passion; ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’, from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; Beethoven Arietta and variations from Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111; Wagner: Prelude to Tristan and Isolde; Vaughan Williams: 1st movement of 5th Symphony;  Gerald Finzi: Dies Natalis,  Intrada and Rhapsody.
All impeccable masterpieces, in which the musical form provides the perfect envelope for the expression.
Beethoven’s Arietta: still challenging and consoling.

SC: …and a book?

JDR: Where do I start! Let’s say Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, because it contains the truth about so many things, as well as an astonishing spectrum of human society. (Though I would trade it in for the Complete Works of any number of poets).

SC: Film?

JDR: Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Story of Music in 50 Pieces, Radio 3

The Story of Music in 50 Pieces, Radio 3

I know everybody’s at it. Following on from Barry Norman’s 50 Greatest British Films we now get Radio 3’s Story of Music in 50 Pieces with the omnipresent Howard Goodall in conversation with Suzy Klein. And very good it is too. It is presented as a series of historical musical snapshots from the 12th century visionary Hildegard of Bingham to the present day – a conversation with the contemporary minimalist giant, Steve Reich.

Now we all have our own unique hit list that would, in all probability, be different each time we make one (is Dr No a truly great British film? Come off it Barry). But as a classical Top-of-the-Pops goes, this is a pretty fair-minded selection which includes the music of Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill as well as the usual suspects of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven etc. Or is it?

Well there is no Brahms, that I can see anyway. No Mahler or Sibelius. OK, not all our favourite composers can make the cut, but no Brahms? What is striking, however, is the complete removal of the academic Holy Grail of modernist line springing from the musical loins of Richard Wagner: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Messaien, Boulez, Stockhausen and all that flowed from this musical aesthetic e.g. our featured Late Music composer Jonathan Harvey.

Now one may not be drawn to this musical aesthetic, in fact the majority of us aren’t, but to ignore this musical development, this radicalisation of contemporary music is extraordinary. Again, not all composers can make the cut, but three entries for Ludwig Van Beethoven - Symphony No 3, String Quartet No 14 and Symphony
No 7 (all great…) and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is left on the cutting room floor?

This is made all the more confusing when one reads the actual aims of this excellent series, which is to  choose 50 pieces of music that changed the course of music history’.
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony out and the 7th in? What about the explosive 5th Symphony with its radical and influential use of  transforming and uniting themes?
What about Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire? What about Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet? OK, it is as dull as dishwater but it was also the first proper outing for 12-note serialism, a  controversial compositional process which definitely changed the course of music history.

Steve Reich along with others – Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Monte Young certainly did change the course of history with the creation of a radical minimalist music, a term first coined by Michael Nyman. But John Adams’ Nixon in China? I don’t think so.

I will be very interested to read your comments.