A few moments with Patricia Alessandrini

Next Tuesday, 8 May, we will give the first of two concerts at Goldsmiths College, London, this spring (the second is on 14 June). These have been arranged with Goldsmiths’ Lecturer in Sonic Arts, Patricia Alessandrini, whose music will feature in each concert. In June we will play her string quartet De profundis clamavi [hommage à Alban Berg]; next week sees us play her Hommage à Purcell for bass clarinet, piano, violin and cello.

Patricia took time out from her schedule of teaching and composing to talk to Tim Rutherford-Johnson about marionettes, abandoned oil tankers, and the complicated backstory to Hommage à Purcell.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: I wonder if you could say something about the role of Purcell’s music in your piece, and what Purcell means to you personally.

Patricia Alessandrini: I consider all of my works to be ‘readings’ of existing works: taking the idea that all music is informed by what came before it as a starting point, I focus directly on the past and ‘re-interpreting’ it. In this case, I chose the processional march from Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary to ‘interpret’ compositionally, through instruments with live electronics.

One aspect of the music of Purcell that interests me particularly is its phrasing. When one thinks about the means that are available to composers – like myself – who do not use melody or harmony in conventional, historical, or functional ways, phrasing is a musical parameter with great expressive potential; it is arguably not, however, the subject of a great deal of attention in contemporary music, or frequently used to describe it. My interest in phrasing relates to the question of the expressive qualities of music as compared to the semantic and expressive qualities of language.

TRJ: When it comes to those pre-existing scores, how do you choose one that you would like to engage with?

PA: Often there is a particular history of a piece which interests me, and this is the case for Hommage à Purcell. In performing research for another project, I came across a play entitled The Libertine by Thomas Shadwell, and found out that Purcell had composed music for it, including the processional later used in Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary that was more recently popularized through the arrangement by Wendy Carlos that accompanies the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.

Shadwell’s play is a macabre, violent, absurdly over-the-top version of the Don Juan story, intended to ridicule the figure of the libertine. My interest in this music was peaked by the fact that Purcell had employed the same composition in two vastly different situations. But beyond that, there is the fact that Kubrick – most likely, unknowingly – re-situated the music in a function similar to its original context, from an extremely violent piece of theatre with macabre humour, to a similarly violent and macabre film. If Kubrick didn’t necessarily associate the music with the play (It is unlikely that he did, given its relative obscurity), then there is something in the music that led intuitively to that choice. What I am seeking in my ‘interpretation’ is where these expressive qualities lie.

TRJ: Once you’ve chosen a score, what do you do with it?

PA: I have a particular ‘analysis–transcription–re-synthesis’ process that I use in many of my works: I take multiple recordings of a given work, combine these in various ways to make a mix or ‘maquette’, and then use this material to create both the score and the electronics for the composition. Sometimes, as in Hommage à Purcell, instrumental parts derived from a transcription of the maquette are also analysed in real-time during the performance, and this spectral analysis is used to create resonant filters through which electroacoustic material derived from the maquette is filtered. Throughout the process, multiple interpretations of the same materials are situated in parallel to one another, to bring out the expressive properties that may lie in the differences and points of convergence between them.

TRJ: Your ongoing Orpheus Machines project does something similar with early musical instruments – using technology to dissect and then augment them. Can you give an example of how this works? I see that you have worked with our harpsichordist Goska Isphording, for example.

PA: The Orpheus Machines project started in 2014, when I was invited to the Waverly Studios of NYU, along with my Goldsmiths colleague Freida Abtan, to create ‘machines’ to transform their collection of period keyboard instruments, including a harpsichord, into electronic instruments. Then in 2015, Riot Ensemble sent us both to Holland to collaborate with Goska in adapting the work for harpsichord. Since then, I have been working on other forms of automata for instruments, including a ‘piano machine’ commissioned by Explore Ensemble for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. (You can read more about that here.)

TRJ: Despite all this, you have described your relationship to the concert-music repertoire as ‘tenuous’ … What does the past mean for you, and why do you seek to address it in your music?

PA: I think this may be fairly obvious, but as a woman, I don’t really ‘see’ myself in the concert music repertoire very often, and it took a long time for me to consider myself a composer, even once I was already composing. Of course, the commitments made over the past year to work towards achieving gender balance in programming are a positive step, but the field remains vastly male-dominated: almost all of the decision-making about my work – in terms of commissioning, programming, research funding, production aspects, even about teaching and lecturing – is made by men. This is an issue that came up in the panel discussion on Gender in New Music at HCMF 2017 (which should be available online soon, by the way), coupled with the lack of transparency of these processes. So while I am grateful for the opportunities I have and the recognition my work receives, I can’t say in all honesty that I feel assured of my place in this field.

I have a project coming up next year with Ensemble Argento, based on the music of Mahler, and we decided that the first instalment of it will be a song cycle ‘interpreting’ the music of Alma Mahler. But there is nothing uplifting about this: it will be as much an interpretation of what she didn’t write, as what she did, because that was the reality of her situation.

TRJ: Finally, 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?

PA: I have composed some multimedia music-theatre works in the past few years, and I am working on a mono-drama now, so I suppose the next step would be a full opera, which is something I have wanted to compose for some time. Another interesting project could be a piece for orchestra and automata. And I am absolutely crazy about marionettes: I suppose among these possibilities, that would be my dream project: a marionette opera. As for where, it is hard to say, there are so many places I like to work, I would hesitate to choose one over another, and I especially enjoy discovering new audiences. I make installation work as well, and I have always wanted to do something in a resonant space that is on the water – so I would love to make something in an old abandoned oil tanker, if anyone would let me…

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