Monday, 16 May 2016

Interview with James Else

James is a York-based lecturer, composer and filmaker. He currently works as head of creative and contextual studies at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, as well as being a freelance TV producer creating programmes for the BBC. Prior to this he completed a PhD in composition at the University of York with Nicola LeFanu. James Else’s new work, falling, unseen, will be premiered by Cuatro Puntos at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 4th June at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
James Else: I almost perfectly fit the stereotype of western classical composer – male, white, middle class, practically middle-aged J. This left a difficult question of how to relate to the Rosegarden of Light project, which focuses on composers from the Middle East. I’ve never seen my music as means of making a political statement, yet against this backdrop and the current state of world politics it seemed impossible to avoid looking at these issues. Yet trying to impose my ideological beliefs through my music seemed naïve. The piece that emerged comes from these ideas churning through my mind, and is hopefully a reflection, rather than an imposition, of my ideals.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
JE: I’m increasingly finding no single method of composing completely satisfactory. In this piece I changed between piano, violin (variously detuned to try and imitate the other strings) and a piano roll editor. Putting notes on a score increasingly seems to happen last.
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. Quite often large sections (or even the whole piece) get deleted and I start again from the point I’m still happy with. The best of my pieces are probably the ones where the rules are intuitive rather than prescriptive by the end of the process.

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. In either case, how the performers manipulate, interpret or develop the work is one of the most exciting parts of being a composer.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
JE: Possibly the best way to describe it is that with each piece I’m trying to find a harmonic and structural language that responds to, and works with, the history and hierarchies of western music, whilst avoiding pastiche or blandness.

SC: What motivates you to compose?
JE: Art is important (and what Art can encompass is practically limitless). Being a very small part of that … is something that feels good.

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. He was also the first composer I heard that made me feel that it’s OK to write contemporary classical music that sounds ‘nice’.

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

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
JE: JS Bach – The Art of Fugue
JS Bach – The Well Tempered Klavier (book 1)
JS Bach – Goldberg Variations
Arvo Pärt – Fur Alina
Corelli – Christmas Concerto
Josquin des Pres – Missa L’Homme arme super voces musicales
Smetana – Ma vlast
Telemann – Suite for Recorder in A minor

For sentimental reasons I’ll choose Ma vlast

SC: …and a book?:
JE: The Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb

SC: …a film?
JE: I just don’t find films have the same power as music to grab me again and again.

SC: … and a luxury item?
JE: Could I have my family come and visit me?

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Composer of the month: Kareem Roustom

Kareem Roustom is a Syrian-American composer, born and raised in Damascus, whose work has been described as ‘bi-lingual.’ Active in a number of genres Roustom’s concert music seeks to create a voice that reflects his heritage by combining a fluency in both traditional/classical Arabic music and Western concert music. His commissioned works include Daniel Barenboim, the Kronos Quartet, the Landmarks Orchestra (Boston), the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Educational Department, the Michigan Philharmonic, the Crossing Choir, Coro Allegro (Boston), the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Gammage Center at Arizona State University, the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, the Aplle Hill String Quartet, and others. His music has been performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, under Daniel Barenboim at the Lucerne Festival, the Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms. Other performances include the Malmo Opera Orchestra (Sweden), the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra Chamber Music Series, Choir of the 21st Century (London), The Peninsula Women’s Chours, the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, the Verbier Festival, the Braunschweig Music Festival, the Rheingau Musik Festival, and the forthcoming American premiere of Roustom’s Ramal for orchestra at the Grand Teton Music Festival under Donald Runnicles (August 19th & 20th 2016). James R. Oestreich in the New York Times described Roustom’s Ramal as “propulsive, colorful
 and [an] immediately appealing creation.” Stephen Pritchard in The Guardian described Ramal as “arrestingly quirky and postmodern…music with lots of personality.” Of his triple string quartet A 
Voice Exclaiming, commissioned 
for the Kronos Quartet and
 Rhode Island-
based Community MusicWorks,
 David Harrington wrote: “I think that with A Voice Exclaiming, Kareem Roustom has made a vivid, thought-provoking new piece that reflects hope in the time we live in, and the immense possibility for positive change as well as its awesome uncertainties and dangers.” 
Kareem Roustom’s new work, Letters Home for violin and cello, will be performed by Cuatro Puntos at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 4th June at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
Kareem Roustom: Words are probably not the best way to describe music but I suppose my work is a reflection of my upbringing in Syria and my life in the USA. How this manifests itself depends on the musical situation at hand but I think it is not quite accurate to say that there is any one definition of my ‘work’ since some of it is professional work (i.e. jobs) and some of it arises out of a deep interest in life and a profound need to express something about it. The latter is the kind of spirit that I try to bring to my concert music.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
KR: I don’t play the piano, my main instrument is the oud. However, I do have a piano at home that I play excellent ‘composer piano’ on (imagine two index fingers fumbling on the keys). My favorite place to compose is at my desk, away from the computer, with pencil and paper. Although I use computer based notation a great deal I try to keep things on paper for as long as possible as I truly believe technology gets in the way of creativity and certainly dulls the inner ear.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
KR: I think it is. At the very least, I try to imagine the performer, practicing the piece and asking “is this really worth my time to practice?” Then I avoid answering that question and continue writing. 
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
KR: I hope to some day have an individual sound world but as I look back on what I've done so far I find that my musical language can vary widely. However, I am trying to find a voice in my concert works and, I suppose, one might say that I try to combine elements Arab art and folk music with contemporary western concert musical languages. But this isn’t always obvious to the listener, which is not something I try to be blunt about. I am fascinated by instrumental colour and I try to be expressive with my orchestration.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
KR: A deep interest in life and the need to say something about it. A need to connect, to somehow console, even if it is only my own consolation that I seek, and a need to try and reach for something better than the last work that I composed.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
KR: I cannot think of any that I identify with but I am very taken with the music of Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adés. However, any piece of music, whatever the style, can also be something that I’m drawn to if it has the right combination of elements.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
KR: This is always dangerous because I worry that I might really dislike the person whose music I love. I recently read a biography about Sibelius, whose symphonies I am absolutely moved by, but I don’t know that I would’ve wanted to spend much time with him had I lived in during his lifetime. His poor wife, how she suffered for his genius. Great artists don’t always make for the most pleasant personalities. That said, I’d very much like to meet with Ravel to discuss orchestration, his life, and anything else. However, I’d assume he’d prefer a nice glass of merlot rather than a beer.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
KR: The great Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum’s Al-Atlaal (The ruins), composed by Riyad Al-Sunbati, Sibelius Symphonies no 3 & 7 (can those count as one), Huwa Sahih (Is it true that love conquers all?) by Zakaria Ahmad, Britten’s War Requiem (it is a shame to choose just one of his), Mozart Clarinet Quintet, Penderecki’s Passion, Knussen’s Horn Concerto, Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe. If I had to choose one, I guess it would be Al-Atlaal. Nostalgia would be a very powerful factor on a desert island and the sung poetry deals with facing the ruins of one’s life/civilisation but are also defiant and inspiring.
SC: …and a book?:
KR: If I were stuck on a desert island, I would want a book on navigating by the stars.
SC: …a film?
KR: The Double Life of Veronique by Kryzstof Keislowski
SC: …and a luxury item?

KR: Here, my luxury item is quiet time, on the island it would probably be something very basic, like a blanket.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies by composer Peter Reynolds

There had been so many reports of Peter Maxwell Davies’s illnesses in recent years that the news of his death yesterday should not have come as a surprise. Yet somehow he always seemed immutable; a figure one thought would always be there.

Photograph: Ros Drinkwater 

From the age of fifteen or so his music provided many landmarks in my life. Hearing a broadcast of St Thomas Wake in 1973 was my first real experience (that I could relate to) of contemporary music. Eight Songs for a Mad King from the 1975 Proms provided a frisson of teenage rebellion against more established musical norms and the first broadcast of his opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus from the 1977 St Magnus Festival was a revelation. The money I received for my twenty-first birthday was spent on the newly published score of his First Symphony, which then felt at the very cutting edge of contemporary music. Early performances of The Lighthouse and the Second and Third Symphonies were red letter days and I devoted a large part of my MA studies to the music of his early years. I travelled to the National Sound Archive to hear a tape of the notorious 1969 premiere of Worldes Blis at a time when it was the only way to hear it and was thrilled when the Royal Opera revived Taverner in 1983.

Broadcasts and recordings were important ways of keeping up with Max's work, but some of the deepest musical experiences came with hearing his own performing group, The Fires of London, live. Concerts they gave at Cardiff University in March 1978 and at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival later that year were opportunities to experience the almost physical impact of new pieces inspired by the land and seascapes of the Orkneys where he set up home in the mid-1970s, The Hymn to St Magnus and Ave Maris Stella made a particular impression as did the presence of Max's conducting. Orkney became a place of pilgrimage resulting in a visit in 1981.

Photograph: Murdo Macleod

In 1983 and '84 I sat in on his classes at Dartington and encountered an analytical and compositional rigour that was revelatory. Students turned up at 9am for four hours of analysis and were then sent away for the afternoon to write a small piece based on structural ideas that emerged during the morning classes – score and parts to be ready for performance by 4pm! A lot of the music I wrote at that time was based on the techniques I picked up by studying his music and the structural principles he taught in his own classes. The floor of my work room was covered in magic squares and many of my scores tried hard to imitate the atmosphere of Worldes Blis, the Second Taverner Fantasia or great slow third movement of the First Symphony.

There were later performances that recaptured something of that early excitement: WNO’s premiere of the Doctor of Mydfai in 1996 was one such occasion, especially when Simon Rees asked me to interview Max for the programme book at Judy Arnold’s home in London. Inevitably, I suffered a reaction against the music and still feel that there was a dropping off in intensity and quality of the later music after the Violin Concerto of 1986. But it is also possible, once that initial love affair was broken, that I was incapable of finding my way into that world again. I hope I might change my mind in the future. But there is much to be grateful for: the music certainly, but also the man himself who was endlessly fascinating and a real beacon to young composers in terms of support, applying rigour to one’s craft and celebrating the sheer adventure of composing. Many thanks Max.

Peter Reynolds, 15th March 2016