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? 

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Composer of the Month: Hayley Jenkins

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
Hayley Jenkins: I am a composer from the North East and a lecturer of Music and Education at the University of Sunderland. In my spare time I play flute and saxophone in Darlington Orchestra and I conduct Darlington Clarinet Ensemble. I first really accessed music through dance lessons, and it was a trip to see Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance that inspired me to play the flute. A dancer dressed in a gold costume sat on the front of the stage and played a beautiful flute solo, afterwards I said to my Mum ‘I want to do that’. From that point onwards I knew music was something that would always be part of my life.
I didn’t really get into composing or conducting until University due to not really having the opportunity to explore music in those ways until that point.  This led me to major in composition and then continue on to do a masters at York St John University with Dr David Lancaster before deciding to do a PGCE. I am currently undertaking a PhD in Composition with Dr Gareth Williams at the University of Edinburgh. This year I have been composer in residence with Streetwise Opera and have learnt anew the power music can have on people’s lives and have really explored composing as a collaborative process with participants which has been fantastic.
SC: Can you describe your new work to us?
HJ: My new work is called ‘Wrong Jacket’ and sets the words of York poet Carole Bromley. Before choosing which words to set, Carole and I met up for a coffee and discussed our creative processes and what inspired us both to write. I think getting to know the author of the work is very important to how I approach the writing. When Carole mentioned this particular poem, I could instantly hear the musical possibilities just from her descriptions of the story it was telling, and I fell in love with the fact it focused on a small life-moment which has probably happened to everyone at some point in their life. 
SC:Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
HJ: With any setting, I usually print out the poem and annotate it- where the important consonants or alliteration are, where there might be room for repetition to help tell the story or if a particular motif/musical metaphor needs to be attached to certain words or phrases.  Then I usually sit at the piano to get a feel for a basic mood/chord structure. After that, I usually compose in fits and bursts, sometimes sitting for a whole afternoon where I get lots down followed by a period where I need to rest my ears and take a break from it. Walking always helps to think through a piece and decide where to go next. If it is not a setting of words, I sometimes draw out a structure as an image or timeline before I put notes to paper.

Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
HJ: Most definitely. Sometimes it is hard to get the time to have an extended discussion, but I certainly like to contact them, ask them some technical questions and also listen to some of their work before I start writing. I am also happy to discuss the work and see what their thoughts are, if they think anything might work better done in a different way for example.
SC:How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
HJ: I love things that sound beautiful and have ‘space’. When I say beautiful that doesn’t mean everything has to be consonant, there is a lot of beauty in the resolution of dissonance or in unusual chord changes. I like things to have a meaning behind being there- so thematically and metaphorically a chord or motif might be very symbolic and recur at very specific points. Recently I have also tried really hard to create more space in my work, for there to be pauses for a sound or motif to rest and be pondered. As a flautist it is very easy to write ‘tunes’ so there tends to be a ‘singability’ and lyricism to the melodies I write.
SC: What motivates you to compose? 
HJ: Learning and curiosity first and foremost, but also a passion to tell a story or to communicate a feeling. I often read something or see something, and I think ‘that would be a lovely starting point for a piece of music’. It is usually something extra-musical like a poem, landscape, piece of art or even something someone says in conversation.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
HJ: From my days studying the flute it has be to Ian Clarke, as he writes some beautifully organic (and technical) pieces that are a joy to play. For the same reason I also really admire Guy Wolfenden’s work, but unfortunately, he passed away in 2016, so I guess I cannot count him in this list now, but I have loved playing and conducting his work over the years. In April 2018, I had the opportunity to go to a composing residential with Gavin Bryars and although already a huge admirer, a week getting a unique opportunity to reexplore his work has been particularity influential and inspiring. Finally, the work of female composer Anna Clyne has been of huge interest to me, her use of imagery and musical textures is really interesting.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
HJ: Oh gosh, this is difficult! I guess I have always loved Benjamin Britten’s work, especially his Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Midsummer Nights Dream is just such a magical spectacle on stage. I am not all that sure what I would ask him however, I don’t think one pint would be long enough to have all my questions answered! 
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
HJ: A bit of an eclectic mix here: Arvo PärtFratres, Billy Joel She’s Always a Woman, Mark Knopfler Romeo and Juliet, Pink Floyd Breathe (In the Air),Phillip Glass Low Symphony, Gavin Bryars Three Elegies, Ian Clarke Sunday Morning, and the one I could not be without has to be Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interlude 1: On the Beachfrom Peter Grimes. 
SC:…and a book?:
HJ: To choose one book is absolutely impossible! If I have to choose it has to be Vera Britten’s Testament of Youth.
SC:…a film?
HJ: I could say Testament of Youth (again) but I absolutely loved Robin Hood Prince of Thieves as a child, the music is wonderful but the cameral trick with the arrow was amazing for 1991! I remember pleading for a bow and arrow after watching it. If it was on TV I would still love to sit and watch it.
SC:… and a luxury item?
HJ: My camera, I love visiting new places and taking good quality photographs. 

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Composer of the Month: Graham Fitkin

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
Graham Fitkin: I suppose I come from a lower middle-class background with a strong work ethic spine.  I was encouraged to play the piano and anything else we had lying around at home, and had an older brother who fed me interesting music as a child.  So I heard the Kind of Blue when I was 9, The Rite of Spring when I was 10, Philip Glass when I was 11 and Keith Jarrett when I was 12 and so on.   I had very supportive parents who encouraged me to follow a musical path if that was what I wanted to do.
SC: Can you describe your new work to us?
GF: Shard was a commission from Ensemble Bash when they were understandably looking for pieces that used instruments they could carry round in a shopping bag.  I know from experience that carting the stuff around is a huge part of being a percussionist.  It’s big, costly, heavy,  causes back pain and stops you going to the pub after the gig as it takes an age to pack up.  It all starts from the timbre of the dampened triangle.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
GF: My compositional process changes with each piece.  I like using a desk with a piece of paper and a pencil.  I often use a piano, and often use a computer with associated software.  At the moment I’m learning some new software which I think is going to be useful for the next project.  I do pre-plan.  And I always have a piece of paper with the fundamental starting aims of the piece placed on the desk so that I don’t forget what I’m meant to be doing and get caught up on the moment.

SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
GF: I love writing for performers I know.  It’s not imperative at all, and when I write large scale music for orchestras for instance (where I can’t know all the performers) or a new commission from a group I don’t personally know then it’s different and potentially equally interesting. But when you write for people you know there is the chance to mould a sound round them, you know the way they might approach it, phrase it and that’s lovely.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
GF: I find that impossible to answer. I wish I didn’t.
SC: What motivates you to compose? 
GF: I like creating things and generally enjoy the process, sometimes tortuous, hard and painful, but generally fascinating.  I also don’t know what else I’d do…
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
GF: I admire Harrison Birtwistle, Arvo Part, Laurence Crane, Mark Turnage, Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen, Thomas Larcher, Anna Meredith, James Saunders and that’s just for starters.  Whether I identify with them I don’t know and I’m not sure who I’d choose.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
GF: Sibelius.  I’d like to know what went on his head in those symphonies, and what happened in the last 30 years.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
GF: Well this is all a bit fanciful as I’d change my mind tomorrow anyway I’ll play along - De Tijd by Andriessen, Lux Aeterna by Ligeti, Petrushka by Stravinsky, Music for 18 Musicians by Reich, Symphony by Webern, Messe de Notre Dame by Machaut, Clarinet and String Quartet by Feldman, Hunky Dory by Bowie .  Probably De Tijd is the one, but maybe not…
SC:…and a book?:
GF: Barnaby Rudge by Dickens
SC:…a film?
GF: North By Northwest by Hitchcock
SC:… and a luxury item?
GF: Ruth Wall