A few moments with Helen Grime

Tomorrow and Wednesday of this week, as part of our collaboration with the fantastic ECCE Ensemble, we will be performing Helen Grime’s Seven Pierrot Miniatures for (as you might expect) pierrot ensemble (Flute, Clarinet, Piano, Violin, Cello).  I’ve been a big fan of Helen’s music from the first time I heard it, and so it’s a great pleasure to be performing this piece in our collaboration.  I also had the great pleasure to take a few minutes of Helen’s time in an interview ranging from general questions about composers and the sounds in our world to specific choices made about Seven Pierrot Miniatures.  Thanks so much to Helen, and I do hope you’ll enjoy our interview, below!

Hi Helen, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.  We’re very excited to be performing Seven Pierrot Miniatures on our upcoming Transatlantic Collaborations concerts!

Not at all, I’m really excited that you’ve programmed the piece.

I think it would be fair to say that your music focuses on ‘musical’ parameters (pitch/rhythm/melody/form/etc…) eschewing extra-musical things such as noises (rustling paper, key-clicks, breath sounds, etc….)  But composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by sounds.  Do they influence you and are they in any way significant for your compositional work?

I think everyday sounds are important to me but I tend to translate these into my own language rather than replicating them with extra-musical effects or sounds. For example, I might be struck by the combination and range of noise in a busy street and this may affect how I think about counterpoint, register, rhythmic and temporal layering.

Could you give us a little insight into how you compose?  (Do you have a set schedule?  Do you work at a piano?  Etc…)

I try to fit in as much composing as possible, though this has to be juggled with my part-time lectureship in composition at Royal Holloway.  I find that I can’t work so intensively at the beginning of a project and spend a lot of time thinking, sketching and trying to make connections as the material is very organic.  You’re right in saying that my music focuses on parameters such as pitch, rhythm etc. One of my primary concerns is harmony and this is often where the material springs from. I spend a lot of time a the piano working on the harmonic structure of a piece and pretty much obsessing about getting exactly the notes I want.  So it’s a combination of piano and desk then computer later on.

You mention a number of connections between Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and your own work, can you tell us a little bit about those connections and how Schoenberg’s work practically affected your piece (if at all)?

The commissioners for this piece, the Hebrides Ensemble, wanted a companion piece to Pierrot that was somehow based around the character Pierrot himself.  I decided to use some of the Giraud poems that Schoenberg didn’t set, although there is no text, as the starting point for each of the seven miniatures and these give each movement its title. The differing combination of instruments in Pierrot definitely influenced how I approached the combinations in my piece, I wanted for this to be constantly shifting, sometimes focusing on solos or smaller combinations as in the 3rd movement which opens with a clarinet and viola duo or the 5th movement for Flute alone then the rest of the ensemble joining briefly at the end.

This large-scale form of Seven Pierrot Miniatures is particularly interesting.  Where Schoenberg’s work is three sets of seven movements, your work – as the title suggests – is a single set of seven short movements.  How did you handle linking the works together as a whole??

In Seven Pierrot Miniatures, there is a kind of motif in moments 1,3,5 and 7 which links and binds the form of the piece. Although it is never exactly the same, it retains a strong identity in the different context of each of those movements. There are also more subtle links between 2 and 6. Movement 4 is a kind of stand alone pillar in the piece. In a sense the form is circular, with the strongest connection being between the 1st and last movements.

The opening of Seven Pierrot Miniatures, by Helen Grime

I’m interested in asking you specifically about repetition.  It seems to me a lot of your work hints at repetition within the material without actually literally repeating things.  

I think it’s fair to say that a sense of returning and repetition is very important in my music.  It’s pretty rare, for anything – even at a minute level – to repeat exactly.  Since I began composing, I’ve always been concerned with very organic material that can constantly be manipulated and transformed but can also be recognisable and memorable to the listener.

Thanks so much for spending this time with us Helen!  We’ll be looking forward to performing your piece in the coming days!

Thank you!

Invisible Worlds with Nicholas Omiccioli

Two of the works receiving their UK premiere in our upcoming Transatlantic Collaborations concerts with the ECCE Ensemble were chosen through an open call for scores which drew in more than 100 applicants world-wide.  I recently had the pleasure to chat with Nicholas Omiccioli, one of the selected composers.

Nicholas!  Thank you very much for being with us and for your fantastic entry into our Call For Scores, Invisible Worlds.  We’re really looking forward to performing the piece at our upcoming concert.

Thanks for selecting my work! It means a lot to me, I can only imagine how hard of a decision it must have been. Having been on the other side of a call for scores, it is an eye opening experience to see how many great composers there are out there doing interesting things. It really is an honor that you chose Invisible Worlds. The opportunity to work with Riot and ECCE is really exciting, I am looking forward to hearing the results!

The opening page of ‘Invisible Worlds’

I believe this performance will be your UK premiere, so much of our audience will know very little about your work and your context – you literally live ‘in Kansas’ (City), could you tell us a bit about the contemporary music scene there?

Where I live causes quite a bit of confusion. Kansas City is actually on the Missouri side – where I currently live and just finished up with school. The contemporary music scene is much to be desired for what I do, which involves acoustic composition for various chamber ensemble configurations. While we have very talented performers in the area, especially some of my classmates, we only have one professional new music ensemble (newEar). I frequently travel outside the city for performances of my music. While Kansas City may not be a new music hub, it is a great place to live with a rich history. In fact, there are quite a number of established and emerging composers in the area such as Chen Yi, Zhou Long, James Mobberley, and Narong Prangcharoen, among others.

Have you had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s Second Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period (the first result of which was his Jeux Vénitiens)?

I am always on the lookout for new things and certainly my travels have opened some pretty big doors. It’s funny you mention Jeux, because that was a very powerful piece for me when I first heard it. Lutoslawski’s music really changed the way I think about harmony, texture, and counterpoint. In fact, I have adopted a similar system to Lutoslawski regarding vertical construction combined with my interest in non-octave repeating scales.

Invisible Worlds is performed in the dark, with a few stand lights for the players.  This seems obviously connected to the title/creative impulse for the work? 

The piece is inspired by the eternal darkness of the deep ocean. The only light that is visible is produced by the life that inhabits those depths through a process called bioluminescence. Therefore, the use of standlights in a dark hall not only has practical reasons, but also represents the the scarcity of light in a neverending sea of nothingness. We actually know more about the surface of he moon than ocean floor.

An example of bioluminescence

Are extra-musical/theatrical ideas important to your work as a composer

This is the first piece I have written where I have consciously thought about extra-musical/theatrical ideas. Since I primarily write chamber music, I always like to keep in mind the on-stage interaction between the performers. For me, the intimate quality of this genre what I find so appealing and it is also the reason I wrote this piece without meter or barlines. Not only did I want to reinforce the endless bounds and vastness of the ocean through notation, but I also wanted to force the performers to engage in a dialogue through visually cueing and playing off one another. This is a reaction to many concerts I have been to where the performers are so buried in their music that an element of communication is lost. With the concert hall dark, the stand lights focus the audiences attention to every physical nuance of the performers.

Nicholas Omiccioli

One of the things I love about your music – is the fluid nature of what is driving the work.  At one moment it is clearly rhythm, then at another it’s clearly pitch or dynamics or so on.  Can you tell us a little bit about how you think of this dynamic in terms of form and structure?

While it is cliché and out of fashion to say that narrative is the primary driving force behind my works, I fully own up to this term and embrace it. I get really bored with mono-texture, so when I begin a new piece, I make a list of the various levels of interaction I think are appropriate to the work. Basically, it all starts with macro-structure. I spend a considerable amount of time planning the progression of the work, but I allow that process to be organic as I start filling in the micro-structure. This, I believe, leads to the fluidity that you mention. Very rarely for me does the action stop in a piece, everything is connected and flows from one texture to another. This is probably the reason I stray from multi-movement works.

What’s coming up for you in the coming months?

Currently, I am at the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado until mid-August. I am one of ten composers to recieve a fellowship and commission for a new work to be performed by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. I will also have a reading of an orchestral work while I am here. When I return to Kansas City, I plan to record a collection of chamber works for a CD that I will release on my website. All the players involved were at one point or another classmates of mine at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. I am really looking forward to working with them all again.

 Thanks so much for your time Nicholas, and we’ll be looking forward to much more of your music!