Contemporary Music: Pleasures and Pitfalls, with Brian O’Kane

One of the things I most enjoy about The Riot Ensemble is that all of our concerts and projects are planned and produced by the same artists who perform the music.  This means that the same artist who performs a contemporary work to a new audience has had a real hand in curating both that work and the context that it’s presented in.

Brian O’Kane (cello) and the rest of the quartet rehearse for The Shapes of a Square

I was pleased to have a few moments this week to speak with Riot Ensemble Brian O’Kane, a member of our artistic board, whom you might have seen perform in our recent Shapes of a Square concert at LSO St. Luke’s.  Brian is a highly sought after emerging musician with a wide range of experiences in the classical and contemporary classical profession.  His answers here shed light on what it’s like for musicians to present contemporary music, including some of the most common pleasures and pitfalls.

Brian, thank you very much for being with us. Can you tell us a little about how you came to play contemporary music?

it’s my pleasure to be here, and thanks for having me.  My first performance of contemporary music was as a teenager at the Cork School of Music. It was a piece by Nicola LeFanu and I suppose that’s what garnered my initial interest in contemporary music.  From there and then, interaction with student composers whilst studying at the RAM & GSMD in London made it quite natural to continue playing new music. Other factors were the influence of my colleagues and particularly my professor at the RAM, Philip Shepard, who had a wonderful energy and enthusiasm for contemporary music. It was he who introduced me to more obscure contemporary cello repertoire such as Augusta Read Thomas‘ Fantasy on 2 Klee Studies which if I’m not mistaken, was actually written for Philip!

You play music from the entire spectrum of music history, of course, and I’m interested in asking a bit about the similarities and differences you find in communicating such different styles of music to audiences and listeners. Could you tell us a bit about that?

In theory, the communication in playing contemporary music should not be any different to mainstream classical repertoire. A convincing performance of any work from any period, should ultimately convey a strong sense of structure, style, imagination, sound-world and contrast. In this regard they’re the same. In practice however, they’re not quite on a par due to the fact that contemporary music constantly breaks new ground in sound and its possibilities. As performers, we play catch up. We already have an intrinsic knowledge of how to approach and communicate a Beethoven sonata. Therefore, what has to exist is an initial belief in whatever the genre or work so that our approach remains the same and does not effect our communication.

You’re an experienced chamber musician and currently play in the Navarra Quartet, could you tell us about some of the particular challenges that a String Quartet faces when performing contemporary music?

Where to start! Obviously, there are some string quartets such as the Arditti and Kronos quartets who focus primarily on contemporary music. These quartets have a unique skill set, honed through decades of immersion in sound-worlds of the foremost composers of today with constantly evolving extended techniques. What challenges a quartet which doesn’t specialise, like Navarra, is to get to grips with these sound-worlds and techniques in a manner that doesn’t dictate interpretive choices or restrict musical ideas.

The merits of Beethoven, the grand-master of the string quartet idiom, are rarely questioned or divide opinion among a quartet’s members. Beethoven’s quartets have obviously passed the test of time! For contemporary music on the other hand, there are four opinions on the merits of whichever contemporary piece the quartet is working. Judgements cannot be avoided on whether a work is a success or failure, whether it will remain in the repertory for centuries or whether the composer’s language lacks a unique voice. It’s a big challenge to let go of that baggage and approach it strictly for what it is and what the most effective way is of expressing the music.

On the other hand, we also have the luxury of being able to question and understand the intentions and writing of today’s composers. This presents a challenge in itself as some contemporary music specialists prefer to be told exactly how to play or interpret a phrase or note which doesn’t leave much room for any kind of interpretation. This is the complete opposite to the approach of classical repertoire where one has to trust the score and interpret as best they can. As for performance practice, the concentration required when performing contemporary music is different. It’s neither less or more, it’s the simple difference in musical language which creates the challenge.

Thanks so much Brian.  Maybe you could finish up by telling us what’s coming up for you in the next few months?

Coming up next is predominantly chamber music concerts encompassing travels to Ireland, France, Austria, Canada and South Korea. Highlights will be a recital at Ireland’s National Concert Hall, a cycle of the Britten Quartets at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and at the Lockenhaus Festival for the Austrian premiere of “Sparge La Mort” by Australian composer Brett Dean for cello, five voices and tape.

Context is King

So the Rite of Spring is 100 years old, and so it the ‘Riot’ that accompanied it.

Commentators then and now seem divided on what caused the fracas; was it the music, the dancing, the performance itself, or some class-based tension in the audience that had little or nothing to do with the show? The most likely answer is probably all of these things at once, with the music the least likely culprit.

But I don’t think that context can be understated. The way the concert was presented in advance (Diaghilev’s marketing was fairly ambiguous), the other music on the programme (Weber and Borodin) the venue itself (don’t we still cling onto class prejudices about ‘going to the ballet’?) all played their part in stoking the shock-value of the famous premiere.


A new, visceral ‘context’ for The Rite of Spring

Now we have a ‘Riot Ensemble’ – one that fully embraces the importance of context. Our concerts start a long time before the music. You can watch a video about the concert in advance, virtually meet the performers through blog posts, and interact fully with the performances through education projects (we have a whole string of these planned for 2014). And our concerts all cost £10 or less (no class-based tension in our concerts, thank you very much!).


A video trailer for our just gone ‘Shapes of a Square’ concert

In 2010, when the Riot Ensemble was embryonic, I played the solo part in Michael Daugherty’s piano concerto ‘Le Tombeau de Liberace’, a performance that caused a very British kind of protest in the form of quite a few audible harrumphs from composers in the audience. Perhaps the insertion of gaudy light music at the end of a programme showcasing ‘serious’ contemporary works was not to their taste! Another example of context playing its part.

But if it sounds like it might be to your taste, then head to Brighton this Thursday evening (April 25th) where I’m performing a programme of ‘classical’ works written by leading lights of the local rock and jazz scene.

The Holst Foundation supports The Riot Ensemble!

We are pleased, proud and very grateful to announce that The Holst Foundation has generously made a grant toward the remainder of the 2013 Riot Ensemble Season.

The grant comes less than halfway through our first full season, and will be a significant help in successfully completing all of our 2013 concerts.

If you’d like to hear what we’re up to you can see videos from our previous concerts on our media page, or purchase a ticket for the next Riot event: Songs & Haiku. 15 June 7:30pm, The Warehouse.  Individuals can also support the Riot Ensemble – financially or ‘in kind’ and if you’re interested in getting involved please do visit our ‘support us’ page!

Our First Call for Scores!

We’re really pleased to announce that we’re running our first call for scores!

The call is in collaboration with the fantastic East Coast Contemporary Ensemble.  Two scores will be selected for performance at both The Forge (Camden, 16th July) and The Meetinghouse (Brighton, 17th July) as part of our Transatlantic Collaborations projects.

You can apply through the ECCE website.