A few moments with Caterina di Cecca

On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings, the world premiere of Benjamin Graves’s Four Facades, and new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. Caterina, who is based in Rome, spoke to us about saxophone potential, the poetry of Rilke and Pavese, and her research on personal branding for musicians.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Caterina! The piece you have written for us has an unusual title, Die Brücken hinter uns – ‘the bridges behind us’. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece? Where does the title come from, for example? And what are the inspirations behind the work?

Caterina di Cecca: ‘Die Brücken hinter uns’ is a phrase in R. M. Rilke’s book entitled Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge – ‘Notes on the Melody of Things.

I share Rilke’s view that we all live on different islands, but that the islands are not far enough apart for us to stay solitary. The only way to interact is to make dangerous leaps from one island to another, each time risking falling back to where we were before. This is not strange in fact because the only way to really connect with others is to consider the background that links us together.

Our fulfillments take place deep in the radiant backgrounds. There, in the background, is motion, and will. There play out the histories; we are only the dark headlines. There is our reconciliation and our leave-taking, our consolation and sorrow. There, we are, while here in the foreground we only come and go. (Rilke, Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge, XVIII)

All conflict, all error, comes from the fact that people look for what they have in common in themselves, not in the things behind them, in the light, in the landscape, in the beginning, and in death. They lose themselves and gain nothing in return. They mingle with each other because they cannot truly unite themselves. (Rilke, Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge, XXXVII)

I found the type of relationship described above between solo/tutti, foreground/background very suitable for transposition into music, and this piece will be the first in a series whose formal structure derives from these assumptions.

In my work strong and incisive gestures emerge from an indistinct and magmatic situation and are given to the saxophone. The various potentials of this multifaceted instrument (percussive, melodic, articulative and timbral) are exploited, and it plays a pre-eminent role. In the beginning, in fact, its interventions motivate changes in the rest of the ensemble. Later, however, the soloist adapts and conforms more and more to what appeared at first as simply its background, recognizing its value and becoming part of it in an organic way.

TR-J: Looking at the score lots of the saxophone part is written using just keyslaps and other noise effects. How important is noise in your music, and what approach do you use to compose with it? Are you led by your ear, for example, or the capabilities of the instrument, or do you have some other system?

CdC: In my opinion noise is just a continuation and expansion of sound itself. For this reason, I do not consider it as a stand-alone element, but rather as a further possibility in the palette available to me when I am composing.

Talking to performers, combined with listening to and analysis of recent scores, has allowed me to reflect on noises in the same way as on sounds and therefore to be guided by my ear and my imagination. In addition, I always take into account the mechanics of the instrument and its physical, acoustic, and technical limits.

In the specific case of Die Brücken hinter uns, I gave many noise effects to the saxophone for two reasons: The first is to obtain specific and characteristic timbre and articulations that cannot be realized in any other way. The second is to emphasize its idiomatic possibilities to ensure that its interventions differ markedly from those of the other instruments of the ensemble, which have a homogeneous quality, since they are intended to be perceived as a unity.

TR-J: In 2012 and 2013 you studied with Alessandro Solbiati, who taught another of our favourite composers, Clara Iannotta. Solbiati’s music is almost completely unknown in the UK; What drew you to him as a teacher, and what did you learn from him?

CdC: Alessandro Solbiati was suggested to me by a colleague after I had already completed my academic studies.

Our meeting was a significant moment in defining my personal identity as a composer, since it allowed me to get in touch with and learn the techniques of Francesco Donatoni, who was his professor.

I really appreciate the Socratic quality of his teaching method: he succeeds in getting the real potential out of his students without imposing his own conception of music. In fact, all his students who have had international success compose in their own language, rather than a univocal school of thought.

TR-J: I understand you have also written a thesis on ‘Personal Branding for Musicians’. What three bits of branding advice would you give to a young composer?

CdC:

  1. Seek and find your own personal identity and derive your own aesthetics/poetics from it, in such a way to become a recognizable brand (Personal Branding).

This is easier said than done in today’s world, since we are all buried beneath the suggestions and ideas of others. We must try not to be influenced by trends and fashions or affiliated with academies and schools, but to choose paths off the beaten tracks and develop a critical and creative way of thinking that comes approaches our deeper being and our conception of music.

Once we have identified and created our brand, it is important to remain faithful to who we really are, always ready to grow through the stimuli around us. This is the only strategy that works: it makes no sense to play a non-existent character who does not represent us.

  1. Identify your target audience, choose on the internet the social networks and platforms on which you want to be active and make your online profiles meaningful and unique, offering something that is always valid and ascribable to what you want to say/give (Net Branding).

If you follow these guidelines, the public will feel involved and become active and responsive, helping you spontaneously to share your content.

  1. Promote your works and ongoing projects through your own channels in such a way as to keep your followers constantly interested in the route you are following.

Once online attention has been gained, it must be maintained with timely updates that allow the public to feel involved in our artistic and human journey.

TR-J: You have a strong international profile, with lots of commissions and awards from around the world. What is next on your agenda?

CdC: I have a series of commissions, some of which I care very much about. The next one coming up is thanks to an artistic residency I will be undertaking for the 2018/2019 season at the Tenuta dello Scompiglio, a wonderful country estate located in Lucca.

My project, a response to the international open call Della morte e del morire – ‘Of death and dying’, will be made in collaboration with Blow Up Percussion, a percussion quartet based in Rome. It will be performed outdoors, taking advantage of the characteristics and peculiarities of the landscape and the setting.

It is a stage/musical work called Mono no Aware – L’intensità agrodolce delle cose (‘The ahhness of things – The bitter-sweet intensity of things’) and will feature an active and close interaction between theatre, performance, and music. It will be divided into four parts, each lasting about 10/12 minutes. Between one movement and the next one the public will be asked to move from one to another setting within the estate (secret garden, stairway, chapel and back to the secret garden), thus following the dramaturgical path physically as well as metaphorically. In each location the four performers will have a different set of percussion instruments that have been placed there already. Each performer will be not only a musician, but also the protagonist of a journey that always implicitly contains its end, that is, death.

TR-J: One final question: if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

CdC: I have been lucky enough to write music for very varied occasions: movies, documentaries, artistic installations, performative acts, musical theatre. Even the locations have been very disparate, sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors. So in this sense I have already realized a good part of my desires for compositional expression.

My dream would be to have available a large instrumentation that would allow me to write a piece for female voice, mixed chorus and orchestra on the text of a poem from the collection La terra e la morte – ‘Earth and Death’ by the Italian poet and writer Cesare Pavese, which is very close to me. If I could also choose the place and date of the performance I would opt for the Langhe – Pavese’s birthplace – in 2020, the 70th anniversary of his passing away.

A few moments with Judit Varga

On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings, the world premiere of Benjamin Graves’ Four Facades, and new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. Judit, a Hungarian-born resident of Vienna, spoke to us between house moves about beauty, sound colour, and her recent opera for the Hungarian State Opera.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Judit! The piece you have written for us is called Broken Beauty. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece – what were its inspirations?

Judit Varga: For quite some time now I have been interested in certain movements – audible energies that are triggered by movements of all kinds – in my music. Kinetic sculptures inspire me a lot, a kind of dark and bright variation within a certain sound. They are actually a quite visual source of inspiration, yet nevertheless very well reproducible within an audible language. Broken Beauty includes a second question, which has also been bothering me for a long time: what is beautiful and what is not beautiful? Is the common musical language of contemporary modernism able to describe beauty? This is a very trivial questions but in my opinion an enormously important one.

TR-J: We play a lot of music that concentrates on timbre, and perhaps considers pitch as a background musical element. But in your music pitch, even harmony, seems to be very important. Would you say this is correct? And what role do pitch, melody, and harmony play in Broken Beauty?

JV: Timbre as the most important parameter of music is a common phenomenon nowadays because it is a newly discovered parameter of music, which has been researched very little in the previous centuries. It is almost like a blank page, which of course is better suited to saying something new. I am also interested in timbre, and I like to compose for large ensembles and orchestras where I can enjoy the rich possibilities on the level of sound colour.

However, I have increasingly noticed that my own music loses its richness when I do not pay enough attention to the other essential parameters of music, such as pitch, harmony and rhythm (such as a groove). It is not easy to dive into these traditionally explored parameters: there is a great danger that you cannot say anything new. You probably have to put in more work, plus know the whole history of music in order to develop this a little bit further. There is no easy way around it.

TR-J: You have written a lot of music for film and theatre. How does this relate to your concert music? Do your works have a particularly dramatic or theatrical character, for example?

JV: I am certainly often told that my music is talkative, ‘like a movie’, or that it describes very strong characters, dramaturgy, or moods. In my opinion it’s the other way around: this is less the influence of film and theatre on my work, but rather that I am happy and successful in the applied music genre because my music has always been that way. I want to tell stories and share my thoughts, and I have deliberately selected music because of all of of the arts it is the most subtle. I do not want to work with definite words or pictures, I like this unspokenness in music. But behind my music there is usually a very specific story. Which you might feel.

TR-J: One of the most substantial works in your catalogue is an opera, Szerelem (Love). Could you tell us something about that, please? I understand it was commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, is that right?

JV: Yes, that is right. The Hungarian State Opera commissioned the opera and the performance took place in a very festive environment. The story was predefined; the novel which the opera is based on fits very well with the theme – the revolution in 1956. I found the basic idea and the text great, and have written libretto and opera within 5 months. The opera is for a large orchestra, choir, nine soloists … These were the hardest months of my life so far, it was like a continuous fever dream. The opera was a great success, splendidly staged by Vilppu Kiljunen and broadcast on TV. I’m working on an English version right now.

TR-J: And what else have you been doing? I saw that you were recently featured in a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra …

JV: Oh yes, that was excellent, the recording will be aired on the BBC at the end of October. The orchestra played really well and the silence of the audience during and after the piece was tangible.

I have been very lucky to receive commissions that perfectly fit my musical interests. I have recently composed a lot for choir and string orchestra, and scored two films, which will travel to festivals in 2019. After that they will run in the cinema. Another very important project for me is STUDIO5, an association of five composers, including me. We are trying to attract a new and broader audience for contemporary music. We love to develop daring concepts and play our works in unusual situations. We seek new ways to arouse interest. Our third season has just started. It is growing.

TR-J: One final question: if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

JV: If a smaller line-up, then I prefer homogenous orchestration, like a choir or string orchestra. But most of all, I would like to compose for a large symphonic orchestra, possibly with video projection. The Last Night of the Proms would be a really nice event for the world premiere. 🙂

A few moments with Benjamin Graves

On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings alongside new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. The concert takes its title from another world premiere, Four Facades by Benjamin Graves, written for Riot and our fantastic violist Stephen Upshaw. Ben spoke to us from Cambridge, where is currently studying for a PhD, about his new piece and what else he is up to.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Ben! We’re really looking forward to playing Four Facades later this month. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece?

Benjamin Graves: I was originally intrigued by the need for renovation of the Palace of Westminster (at a cost of billions to the tax-payer). Such a grand facade hiding rotting foundations supplied an apt metaphor for the front delivered to the public by politicians hiding a rotting core at the heart of their pledges. After research this developed into a wider scrutiny of Britishness. Barry and Pugin’s Gothic revival architecture speaks of a desire, even now, of the British to hide the new behind the old (indeed at an estimated £3bn would a progressive culture perhaps rebuild, rather than renovate), a desire for the good old days ever-present in British culture. So, I presented a hybrid of these two ideas: on the one hand Stephen represents an old-fashioned facade (disembodied Romantic gestures akin to Elgar, for example, hide a core of fragile sounds, such as harmonics in odd places and multiphonics) and on the other old styles are renovated by newer sounds. The nod to Walton in the title only enhances this narrative, especially given his descent into conservatism the older he got.

By the way, I don’t mean to sound critical of this vein of Romanticism (conservatism?) inherent in British culture; in fact I think it is what makes British music unique. I see it as an opportunity to hark back to the music I love most, namely late Romanticism, but as with everything this trend should be scrutinized, at least artistically.

TR-J: When did you first encounter Stephen’s playing, and what drew you to wanting to write a piece for him?

BG: Stephen and I met while studying at Guildhall. Stephen invited me to write a piece for him and percussion to be played alongside Berio’s Naturale and we’ve been friends and colleagues ever since.

I’ve always been drawn, not only to Stephen’s virtuosity, but also to his honesty. The best way to learn as a composer is not through workshops thrown together at the last minute with players you’ve never met, but through continuous exposure to highly talented performers with whom you aren’t afraid to get things wrong and from whom you can learn. Stephen and my working relationship is founded on mutual respect and as a result of experimenting with him my music has evolved beyond recognition.

Invaluable also is a player who not only plays notes and dynamics in the right place, but who brings a certain something to your music that you didn’t necessarily realize was there. Stephen invited me to write a short solo piece for him, NocturNE, as a response to artist Navid Nuur’s work (the piece was played by Stephen as part of a Riot concert at the Tate Modern) and what he made of it went far beyond anything I could have committed to paper. For this I am consistently grateful, and it makes me optimistic that all the while players like Stephen work with composers new music has a future.

TR-J: Several sections of your piece are played ‘senza misura’, with the players following their own independent tempos. Is it fair to describe this as an influence from Lutosławski? And is it a common feature of your music? What is the compositional appeal of writing in this way?

BG: Partly. I have been a big fan of Lutosławski for a long time, especially how he effortlessly superimposes a modernist style onto a neo-romantic, nationalist aesthetic (I love his concerto for orchestra and Paganini Variations). But the aleatory aspects of Four Facades, particularly in movement 2, came about partly as a result of a request from Stephen, who was playing in a choreographed performance of Lutosławski’s Chain 2 and who enjoyed the freedom these passages allowed the soloist. So, I studied this work and other such examples of Lutosławski to further learn how he so naturally incorporates such a static technique into a larger dramatic journey.

A page from Lutosławski’s Second Symphony showing some of his ‘controlled aleatory’ techniques. (Wikipedia/Fair use)

I have, however employed this technique elsewhere as accompaniment for recitative, as I don’t see it as a far cry from recitative accompaniment in older operas such as by Handel and Mozart, or more recently in Britten’s Peter Grimes, a favourite of mine. I therefore give Stephen kind-of instrumental recitatives-cum-cadenzas at times in the work and the independent instrumental lines allow him the freedom to dictate play.

TR-J: What are you working on at the moment?

BG: I’ve just finished a trio for clarinet, violin and cello for Ensemble Recherche, which aims to extend my colour palette, and I am about to embark on a piece for the Hermes Experiment: soprano, clarinet, harp, and contrabass. My plan is to add to the discourse surrounding Elizabeth Barton, a sixteenth-century Benedictine nun and prophetess who predicted the downfall of Henry VIII as a result of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. These prophecies didn’t end well for Barton, but what interests me is the notion that historically women were only allowed to influence political discourse – and Barton was influential – if they were channelling the message of God (consider Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Catherine of Siena, or Joan of Arc). This trend, of only allowing a women a public voice when she channels a masculine influence (and how else is God depicted if not wholly male) unfortunately continues to this day, as explained by Mary Beard in a wonderful lecture evoking her own internet trolls, and so the subject is as contemporary as ever.

TR-J: One final question: if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

BG: My first love is opera, so a dramatic commission as a result of close collaboration with librettist, stage and costume designers, and dramaturg; for large ensemble, chorus, and group of vocal soloists; with an extended run in theatres would be a dream come true. But the ensemble would have to be a new music specialist: Recherche, Klangforum Wien or Riot(!) combined with close-harmony chorus, such as Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart or EXAUDI. Performers who are malleable enough to perform any function, be it dramatic, ensemble, or otherwise, and willing to go that extra mile to realize the project.