A series of Riotous events!

“Why the ‘Riot’ Ensemble?” I’m quite often asked. I usually reply that our Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum dreamed up the name many years ago, pre- 2011, and has nothing to do with a quick smash for a new flatscreen or pair of trainers and, as far as I know, no-one’s tried to launch a brick through the window of one of our concerts (yet).

What we’re really referencing is the riotous feeling that occurs when new music meets new players and new ears for the first time; when composers, performers and audience come together and feel an equal and important part of the creative process. After all, these roles are never as separate as the national curriculum would have us believe.

Since pianists are surplus to requirements for our next concert of string quartets– at LSO St Luke’s on March 8th at 7.30pm- I shall be joining the audience at a Riot Ensemble concert for the first time. This well-deserved little ‘sabbatical’ has also afforded me the time to complete a new composition, so I am ticking all the GCSE boxes! My teachers would be proud.

I was asked by my colleague Dr Laura Ritchie at the University of Chichester to write a piece for many cellos with a few interesting and indeterminate variables, not least the actual number of players that will show up for her Cello Weekend (March 16/17) and the varying experience of these performers. I have dealt with similar situations before through my work with Contemporary Music for All (CoMA) and educational projects for the RNCM, and have learnt that this is not a challenge but rather a delicious opportunity to unleash experimental ideas upon performers and audience with a generous dollop of ‘riot’ to boot.


                                            The opening of Celli-Chela

In my piece for the RNCM – ‘Football Crazy’ for any large number of pianos – there was something of a riot at the first performance (this may have had as much to do with the face paint and whistles as it did the neon-tinged D7 chords). I built a competitive process into this piece that I turned to again in ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie! Sing Sing Sing!’. This encourages the performers to behave as musical wide-boys amassing pitch and dynamic as currency in a Thatcherite society (there’s no such thing!). Less competitive (but still interactive) I wrote ‘Many Dark Actor Playing Games’ for Cambridge University and CoMA, a political satire on the decisions leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion ending with a mini-requiem for weapons expert Dr David Kelly.

Chela Earrings, no joke!

This new multi-cello piece eschews sport and politics in favour of zoology, but maintains the game processes I used in these other works. It’s called ‘Celli-Chela’- a punning reference to the pincer-like appendages on crabs or lobsters. Our crustacean-like cellists will be attempting to scuttle across a musical rockpool while ‘nipping’ other cellists using a snap pizzicato. The sonic result will be an ever-ascending blend of various extended techniques for cello in a slowly developing harmonic framework, rather like parts of Lachenmann’s quartets but without the hassle of notating it precisely… does this make me a lazy composer?

I suppose I’ll find out the answer to this last question (eek) on March 8th at the LSO St Luke’s concert, when we’ll hear new quartets by top composers from around the world. The Chichester Cello Weekend is on March 16th (concert 7.30pm) and 17th (concert 4pm), and also at the University of Chichester is a jamboree of new music on March 12th (7.30pm) featuring Tom Reid’s new score for the silent film Ballet Mecanique and David Sawer’s score for ‘Hollywood Extra’. Both films will be shown alongside the music, and the concert ends with Michael Daugherty’s piece for two Barbie sopranos and rock ‘n’ roll ensemble ‘What’s That Spell’.

Hope to see you at some of these riotous events!


Flute Reflections with Kate Walter

We had a fantastic response to our first concert of the 2013 season, and it was great to hear an extended concert that focused on the many personalities and guises of the contemporary flute player.  Kate Walter (above, warming up for the concert) performed on bass, alto, and c-flute for the concert.

Watching her perform, I thought of a number of questions I wanted to ask about preparing such contemporary repertoire, about playing for and working with living composers, and about her advice for young composers.  Her answers reveal an eminently practical and engaged performer of contemporary music.

Hi Kate, and thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us.  I wanted to begin by asking you if there’s a big difference for you between preparing a work by a living composer as opposed to a work by a composer who has died?

Thanks so much for having me.  It was such a fun concert to prepare and present.  But no, my approach to learning and interpreting the music doesn’t change at all. I always try to research background information on the composer or the piece to get a context.  For example, learning the meaning of the title or understanding what inspired the composer to write the work. Even with existing repertoire, I try to do this first – rather than immediately looking for a recording or previous performance.

The obvious advantage of a piece by a living composer is that there is the option to ask questions about the piece or about specific directions which may not be immediately clear. In some cases, like with this concert, you can work with the composer, workshopping the composition and learning exactly how they intend the piece to be played, which is always very interesting and enjoyable (though sometimes you still disagree!)

I think I’m right in saying that the preparation for The Magic Bass Flute was the first time you played (or even heard) any music by Amy Beth Kirsten.  How do you go about interpreting a piece by a composer who doesn’t have a long performance history and whom you don’t know personally?

I hadn’t previously heard any of Amy’s music, but I’m very glad I have now! Playing a new piece to me is always an exciting challenge regardless of the composer’s experience. You begin playing all pieces the same way, really, just trying to learn the notes and putting your own thoughts and ideas across whilst exploring the music. Most composers write very clear instructions and scores so that usually there is enough information to play the piece without having to seek answers. In this case, Amy’s score was very clear with plenty of information for me to learn the piece successfully on my own.

So what was it like to work with Amy on the piece after you’d learned it?  Did you change anything after meeting her?

The most interesting thing I found from working with Amy was learning the background to the work, what inspired her and how she came to write it. She was keen to hear how I personally interpreted her score.  Her emphasis was on the drama of the music and delivery rather than telling me to change a particular note or play something in ‘exactly this way’. She commented that this is one of the best things about being a composer, hearing how her music is interpreted by different musicians and how different they often are.  I think my performance of the piece just became more like my performance after that.  She sort of gave me permission to take control of the work (for a while) and make it my own.

That’s a lovely way of putting it.  The performance was great too.  I wonder if you would like to play the piece again?

Yes, definitely.  You learn so much the first time you perform a work. I want to carry on working on it and to perform it again soon, really.

What changes for you as you perform a piece more than once?

There are things you learn about a piece which you can only discover as you share it with an audience.  This happens particularly the first time you play it in concert, but it really happens every time.  I think pieces evolve over time. Ideas change about how to perform the music after you have lived with it for longer and for me, once I have performed the piece for the first time, I relax and push myself to find something new for the next performance.

Well we can’t wait to hear it.  As we wrap up, I’d like to ask what advice would you have for young composers writing for flute?  And what advice do you have for them as they work on their own pieces with performers?

I think that my advice would be don’t restrict yourself to C flute!  There aren’t as many pieces for Piccolo, Alto or Bass flutes and they each have unique and different qualities. I would also say that, more and more, extended techniques are becoming familiar to players.  Composers can feel free to use the full range in compositions if they so wish.  Don’t be afraid to ask the flute player to try out different sounds & techniques, but you’ve also got to be really careful that these strange sounds are really integrated into the piece in an honest way, and not just there as effects or to cover up a lack of ideas.

As they work on the piece with performers, the most important thing is that composers really hear what the player is doing first.  Some composers launch into suggestions or a string of comments straight-away. If it is completely wrong, I guess you have to say so, but I’d urge composers to learn from the performers too. Ask them to demonstrate different ideas if you want to change something or hear something different. Ask as many questions as you need to and be as specific as you can be about what you want. I always like it when a composer talks about their inspiration and influences behind the piece rather then just a technical discussion, because it gives me new ideas about how to perform the music and can add a new dimension to the performance.

Thanks so much Kate.  We’ll be looking forward to hearing you play again soon!