A few moments with Molly Joyce

Our first concert of 2018 is already almost here! On Friday 12 January we perform Elliott Carter’s legendary Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano at LSO St Luke’s, with Riot members Goska Isphording and Adam Swayne in the challenging solo roles.
This will not be the only highlight of the evening, however: the concert is completed with  works by two younger American composers, Molly Joyce and Pierce Gradone. Over the Christmas holidays Tim Rutherford-Johnson spoke to Molly about her Push and Pull, a new commission from our 2017 Call for Scores, and her work in general.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How did you start composing? Was there a particular moment, piece or person that inspired you to begin?
Molly Joyce: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, to a non-artistic but very supportive family. Musically speaking, I initially started on the violin. However, at the age of seven I was involved in a serious car accident after which my left hand was nearly amputated. After the accident, with the incredible support of my elementary music teacher, physical therapist, and mother, I was able to figure out a way of playing the cello instead –  backwards, so fingering with the right hand and bowing with the left hand (with a splint on the bow). I was always involved with music from then, also playing trumpet (including the ever-fascinating marching band) and occasionally singing in choir. However, once I was in high school I had access to computer notation software. Looking back I think what attracted me to composing at first was that there was no immediate physical limitation, and thus I felt that I could let my imagination run free. It also helped that the notation software all seemed like a big video game to me!
TR-J: What most recently has made a big impact on you?

MJ: While I feel like my answer to this changes every day, I think what has had the greatest impact on me in the past year or so has been meeting the singer, advocate, and entrepreneur Carla Canales. I have been very fortunate to get to know her as a close friend, mentor, and collaborator, and learning from and working with her has truly helped me reimagine my practice and career as one that not only strives for artistic truth and authenticity, but also social impact and awareness. Among her many activities, she is the founder and CEO of The Canales Project, a non-profit founded to create connections through culture, which I feel provides a very conscious and organic platform for artists to address social issues.

Additionally, she has really been the first collaborator to encourage me to sing in my work, which at first was a very scary step but now has truly been life-changing for my practice and output.

TR-J: How did Push and Pull come about? And what surprised you most when you were composing it?

MJ: Lately in many of my instrumental pieces I have been trying to confront my musical ‘guilty pleasures’ head on. These pleasures range from lots of reverb and constant rhythmic pulse, to wanting to quote every Florence + The Machine song …. With my work for Riot Ensemble, I wanted to wrestle with my love of downbeats, and to try to explore what would happen if the downbeat shifts from super obvious to super subtle, and then perhaps even inaudible at the end, allowing for a ‘pushing and pulling’ of it overall.

I think what surprised me most when composing it was how nervous I was and still am about the orchestration of it. I always feel incredibly insecure about orchestration, specifically because it’s so hard for me to tell how exactly it will sound; and once I do hear the music live it can sometimes be too late to make any major changes.

 TR-J: What is your composing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space and/or particular time of day to write, for example?

MJ: My composing routine generally follows the motto ‘anywhere and everywhere … with a coffee – light Starbucks frappuccino if possible.’I almost always compose directly onto my computer, and if possible with my toy organ by my side. When I’m not travelling I generally try to compose in the morning, as I feel that’s when I’m most focused and it’s overall a great way to start my day. When I am travelling I will compose anywhere – on the plane, in the train, and so on. My favourite practice is to find a Starbucks to camp out at (preferable seat near an outlet with nice window view) and binge on light frappuccinos.

TR-J: I’m detecting a frappuccino-based theme! So what’s next on your agenda?
MJ: My next major project is my debut solo album, which will feature my own voice with what is perhaps my favourite instrument, my electric vintage toy organ. Bought on eBay about five years ago, this instrument has quickly become a primary focus in my work, not only because of the unique sound and tuning that it produces, but because it physically fits my body as a performer well due to my physically-impaired left hand.
Thus with the organ and the music I compose for it, I aim to engage and challenge my impairment, an act which I hope will allow for a true ‘breaking and entering’ of my body to a realm beyond ability in and of itself. The album is not concerned with the functional or dysfunctional, but rather all the in-betweens and multitudes of possibilities that emerge from such a source.
TR-J: 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?

MJ: Along the lines of the previous question: right now my fantasy piece would at least involve myself singing and performing on the organ, most likely in a very resonant church or similar venue as I very much love reverb. I would also envision this as perhaps a collaboration with a lighting and/or projection designer, to add to the theatrics of the work and performance space.

And for the encore a huge dance party would immediately follow.
TR-J: Good times! I’m fascinated too to hear what comes out of your explorations of physical impairment. Thank you for your time, Molly, and we look forward to giving the first performance of Push and Pull.

A few moments with Pierce Gradone

Our first concert of 2018 is already almost here! On Friday 12 January we perform Elliott Carter’s legendary Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano at LSO St Luke’s, with Riot members Goska Isphording and Adam Swayne in the challenging solo roles.
This will not be the only highlight of the evening, however: the concert is completed with  works by two younger American composers, Molly Joyce and Pierce Gradone. Over the Christmas holidays Tim Rutherford-Johnson spoke to Pierce about his To Paint Their Madness, which will receive its UK premiere, and his work in general.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How did you start composing? Was there a particular moment, piece or person that inspired you to begin writing music?
Pierce Gradone: I started music as a bassist, mostly playing in church and in bluegrass and rock bands in the rural Appalachia region in the US. My composing, or at least some version of it, began when I was around nine years old. I heard Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets‘ on the radio, and since I had no money to buy a record, I tried to recreate it on my family’s upright piano. Having figured the song out, I began to realize that I could manipulate the chords and rhythms to my liking, thus beginning a brief tenure writing pop tunes at the piano. As I grew older, I began to listen to more and more classical music, but it was mostly limited to that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This changed when I was about 18. I spotted an album with an intriguing cover and a name I’d only vaguely heard before: Béla Bartók. It was Edith Farnadi and Hermann Scherchen’s recording of the Second Piano Concerto, and I’ll never forget the moment I heard that opening movement, as two things occurred to me: first, I was ecstatic to discover that music like this existed at all; second, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. That’s when I began to seriously explore contemporary music and composition.
TR-J: What most recently has made a big impact on you?
PG: At a recent festival, I was introduced to the music of Hanna Eimermacher, a composer living and working in Berlin. Her works are intensely theatrical and ritualistic, but somehow manage to marry a striking sense of mise-en-scène with an equally compelling sound world. For me, her music reaffirmed the importance of performance and performing bodies, especially in a musical economy so heavily weighted toward creating the perfect aural document. I would particularly recommend Luftpost and In Vivo.
TR-J: How did To Paint Their Madness come about? And what surprised you most when you were composing it?
PG: To Paint Their Madness was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University for Ensemble Dal Niente, a group I had worked with in the past, and whose members had become colleagues and friends. In short, I wanted the piece to be about the people playing it, so I decided to thematize the experience of performance in the piece itself. The title is taken from a passage of Denis Diderot’s Le Paradoxe sur la comedien, in which he argues that the greatest actors feel no true emotion on the stage, but instead create a reproducible copy. Thus, I thematize this sense of artifice through musical pantomime, in which players looks like they should be creating sound, but are in fact making none whatsoever, creating a kind of paradox within the performance, These moments recur throughout the piece, but culminate in the final measures, where the entire ensemble has taken to pantomiming musical gestures, but creating only a shadow of sound.
I think I was most surprised by how quickly I was able to write it – about one month!
TR-J: What is your composing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space and/or particular time of day to write, for example?
PG: My routine often varies, with the one constant being coffee and interruptions to walk my dog. I usually sketch on paper or by recording myself playing the piano or bass, and vocalizing figures and sounds that don’t translate well to traditional notation. I then do a kind of rough analysis of my material, trying to find new connections between seemingly disparate ideas. After that, I usually compose and engrave at the same time. Since my composing process involves a lot of revision, I find that I waste less paper and time by simply working directly into Finale and avoiding the playback button at all costs. I often have to get started in the morning, and ideally work for about 6-8 hours when I’m not teaching. I often work in my home office, with my beagle-basset hound, Marlon, sitting beside me and providing a nice accompaniment of howling at passing police sirens. What I like about the space is the sense of organization and purpose that comes with sitting at a desk to work, especially if it’s a nice day and the windows are open. Some composers may hate this, but I love being surrounded by the sounds of an urban environment (Chicago, where I live), so much so that I’ve actually created harmonies in my pieces based on a pitch I happened to hear outside.
TR-J: What’s coming up next for you?
PG: I’m currently writing a concerto for trombone and ensemble for my dear friend Steve Parker (based in Texas) and Ensemble Dal Niente. Farther on the horizon are pieces for saxophone/electronics, orchestra, and viola, flute and harp trio.
TR-J: 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?
PG: My dream project would be an operatic adaptation of China Mieville’s Embassytown, a fantastic novel that deals with linguistics, colonialism, and the nature of truth. A unique quality of several characters in Mieville’s novel would require that some parts be sung by two singers simultaneously, creating a really fascinating musical premise. I imagine it would be for chamber orchestra, with a much larger cast of singers and some electronic components as well. It’d be premiered at any opera house willing to spend a fortune on costumes!
TR-J: Sounds fantastic! Let’s hope we have a chance to see it happen one day … Thanks Pierce, and we look forward to playing To Paint Their Madness later this week.

A few moments with Mirela Ivičević

On Saturday, we will be at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, giving the world premiere of Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy by the Croatian composer Mirela Ivičević, one of our 2017 call for scores commissions. (Also on the programme: another call for scores commission by Sylvain Marty.) This week Mirela took some time out of her busy travelling schedule to answer a few questions from us about her work.

Mirela Ivečivić

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Mirela – thank you for speaking to us! Your piece Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy has a really intriguing title that raises a lot of questions. To start us off, can you tell us what it means?

Mirela Ivičević: Thank you! The piece follows the contours of the Magnum Opus, the alchemical process of working with starting material to create the so-called philosopher’s stone, which according to Carl Jung corresponds to the transformative process of the psyche.

Originally, the Magnum Opus had four main stages: nigredo or blackening, a phase of chaos, shadow, of ‘massa confusa’; albedo or whitening, washing away of impurities; citrinitas or yellowing, ‘transmutation of silver into gold’, or symbolically, accumulation of wisdom based on previous experience; and finally rubedo or reddening, the wholeness, the phase in which the material (or a person) achieves their maximum potential. I believe these stages will be pretty identifiable in the piece.

It’s a ‘baby’ because it’s only about eight minutes long and because it is my first ensemble piece exploiting this concept consciously.

And the Lilith archetype is always around my pieces as a hidden narrative. Her seemingly frightening and uncompromising character and undisputable power comes closest to the energy of those strong women creators I am happy to see more and more in field of composition nowadays. In this piece Lilith is a baby, playing somewhat carelessly yet curiously with raw material to make sonic magic.

TR-J: Previous pieces of yours have confronted big themes. Sometimes in quite an ironic fashion, as in your musical heritage in Phantom no. 3 and the problem of CVs and musical biographies in Orgy of References. In others, you address more serious issues of diversity, co-existence and violent oppression. Can we expect anything similar in Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy?

MI: Actually, Baby Magnify is one of a few pieces of mine whose direct background is of a non-political, ‘timeless’ nature. The way the composition is structured on a macro and even more on micro level I think still shows my ongoing fascination with trying to find a way for diversities to creatively coexist in a shared space. This is always a conscious, politically inspired choice, although it is probably rooted in my subconsciousness as well, being raised a multicultural family in a multicultural patchwork country. It also simply feels right.

TR-J: You were born in Croatia but now you live in Vienna. When did you move to Austria, and what encouraged you to move?

MI: I live kind of nomadically at the moment, mostly between my hometown of Split, Zagreb and Vienna, which I guess is not unusual for a musician nowadays. I moved to Vienna originally because I wanted to broaden my knowledge in electroacoustics as well as in composing for various media, as well as simply to move and experience the world from another point of view. It’s something which I’d recommend to any artist, there’s nothing more crucial and more rewarding then setting yourself into unknown, physically or metaphorically.

Vienna is an inspiring place and still one of the most artists-friendly cities in Europe. And it’s also reasonably close to the Mediterranean, without whom I wouldn’t want to live!

TR-J: In your biography you mention that your music makes use of the ‘side-products of media-dominated reality’. Can you explain what you mean by this? Will we hear any of these elements in your Riot commission?

MI: It means that rather then escaping the everyday sounds I get exposed to through various media, I use them as my starting material. I said ‘side-products’ as a polite alternative to trash. They are not always trash: some I find valuable as they are, but often I also use sounds I don’t value or whose original context or source affects me negatively. Sometimes I work deliberately with the sounds and their respective contexts, and such pieces are more theatrical. Sometimes though, as in case of Riot commission where I used, among other things, various human breathing gestures, I exploit them more hermetically: they are just a source of basic material from which to create something contextually independent.

TR-J: Your music is full of exciting and original sounds. How do you discover them? Do you experiment with the instruments, talk to players, or collect them from other pieces you’ve heard?

MI: I enjoy getting my hands ‘dirty’, so I have a bunch of different instruments I bought cheap on the flea-market. It is also a huge advantage that I’m a part of Black Page Orchestra, with absolutely amazing, adventurous musician friends with whom to discuss any idea I might have.

Ideally, I love writing not for mere instruments, but for musicians’ personalities. Working closely with a fellow musician, getting to know their character, preferences and even hidden talents opens so many additional possibilities, makes me more adventurous in terms of trying out new things and usually produces my best works.

But then again, sometimes it happens that you compose for people you haven’t yet met, and they sweep you off your feet with the magic they do with your score. Like a soulmate you first meet on Facebook.

TR-J: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what is next on your agenda?

MI: I’m currently working on an electronic solo set for a November festival of experimental music Sine Linea in Greta Gallery in Zagreb, a new piece for piano, electronics and video for pianist Alfredo Ovalles, and a theatre piece for children commissioned by the Jeunesse Austria to be premiered at the Mozarthaus in Vienna in April. The last one I am especially looking forward to because it approaches the youngest audience while dealing with a very sensitive, very personal and – unfortunately for a lot of kids – very current theme of exile and trying to find a place for oneself in a new, foreign land.

Another project coming up that I’m very excited about is new piece for percussion and solar panels. Friends of mine, the Croatian artists’ duo Lightune.G discovered a way to translate light into sound using solar panels – what they call luminoacoustics. I’ve already tried it out in a piece I made for them and percussionist Kaja Farszky last year, and it was an amazing experience that I can’t wait to continue. After that a new piece for Black Page Orchestra and music for Peter Tscherkassky’s experimental movie Dreamwork with Ensemble Nikel.

TR-J: 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?

MI: I love diversity, I love depths, I love noise, and I love bringing together extremes, so I guess it would be an ensemble of lots of different bass and soprano instruments, electronics, solar panels, probably also a skilful soprano/actress for some word play. And the dream venue for the premiere: definitely the abandoned submarine port from the Yugoslav era in Rogačić bay on the island Vis, one of the places I like to call home. At night, with the audience listening from boats on the sea. But of course, this is just a dreamy frame: what’s always more important is what a composer would fill this frame with.

TR-J: Sounds like a beautiful concept! Maybe one day … Until then, we look forward to playing Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy in Brighton. Thank you, Mirela.

A few moments with Sylvain Marty

On Saturday, we will be at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, giving the world premiere of Block Mouvementa by the French composer Sylvain Marty, one of our 2017 call for scores commissions. (Also on the programme: another call for scores commission by Mirela Ivičević.) Sylvain is currently very busy with pressing compositional deadlines, but he managed to find time to answer a few questions from us.

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Sylvain! Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. The piece you have written for us is called Block Mouvement. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind it?

Sylvain Marty: The title reveals a precise place (and moment) in the compositional architecture. This is a moment when the ‘musical flow’ is circumscribed in blocks or fragments, and when I am able to consider complex textures differently.

TR-J: Many of your pieces, including Block Mouvement, I think, use loops as a way of extending and developing your material. But your music is not in any way ‘minimalist’. Can you say a little about what you like about loops, and about how you use them?

SM: Even if it is present in several pieces, loops are not fundamental to my work (in fact they disappear quite quickly). I use them to create a sensation of the persistence of the cell, generating materials and vectors of movement. However, I love working with the ideas of groove and echo, which allow me to use repeating cells.

TR-J: Your work often uses quite ‘dry’ sounds. You have described these as having a ‘tragic’ quality. Can you explain what you mean by this description?

SM: It was a director friend who spoke of tragic sounds in some passages of my pieces. That may be true. In any case, even when I study a sound analytically – when I study its spectrum, its typology – I don’t exhaust its expressive content. Sounds, when they appear in an effective composition, are presented as irreducible entities. What we experience is their unveiling.

TR-J: Do other types of sound have emotional qualities like this for you? Can you give some examples?

SM: I don’t think there is an a priori emotional quality to a sound. It is the composer who contextualizes the sound in an organizing network and gives it expressive power.

TR-J: Both new commissions in this concert were commissioned to be performed alongside Ayre by Chaya Czernowin. Was this work in your mind at all when you were composing?

SM: Chaya Czernowin is a very great composer, and when I learnt this I was first afraid that my piece would appear weak next to Ayre. But soon I forgot this fact, I just composed as I often do: Continue my musical path. I try to do a good job while taking risks.

TR-J: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what is next on your agenda?

SM: It’s not yet official – I don’t know if I can say …

TR-J: 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?

SM: I would like to write for a ensemble in which all the families of instruments are present – 14 instruments seems good to me! Where? In a place where the sound of the hall is good, the audience is curious and where the academic spirit is not too heavy. There are lots of possibilities!

TR-J: Thank you very much for your time, Sylvain – we look forward to performing your piece!

Sarah Dacey’s Calliope: Song, Sexual Politics and Steam Organs

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Song recital discs are not uncommon. The nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century lieder repertoire is rich and rewarding, and there’s no lack of charismatic singers looking to make a mark. Those devoted entirely to new music are somewhat more unusual, however. And those that add humour, fantasy, and mordant characterizations to the mix are rare indeed.

Calliope, the debut solo album by Riot soprano and artistic board member Sarah Dacey is one. Bringing together 15 songs by Kerry Andrew, Bushra El-Turk, Rob Fokkens, Geoffrey Hannan, Cecilia McDowall, Duncan MacLeod, and Roger Marsh it offers not only a great primer on art song in Britain today, but also an introduction to Sarah’s playful, cabaret-inspired approach to contemporary music.

The songs themselves range in theme from Fokkens’ ‘short meditation on concern’, ‘Worry/Don’t Worry’, a light-hearted tussle between two competing pieces of advice; to El-Turk’s ‘You’d Better Learn Your Alphabet, Dear’, a stern but surreal warning from mother to child of the animal transformation she risks if she doesn’t learn her letters. Throughout the set, the music calls for a wide range of vocal colours and characterisations, as well as speech, vocal percussion, the occasional donkey bray and one domestic argument. All the songs are accompanied by pianist Belinda Jones, whose playing enhances their every strange turn. The two performers met while studying at the RAM and have worked together ever since. ‘She’s very laid back and fun to work with but also incredibly committed and meticulous’, praises Sarah.

Many of the songs were written for Sarah. ‘The first songs on the CD that I ever performed were Kerry’s Fruit Songs, which she wrote for me for my Masters performance at York’, Sarah tells me by email (she has been in France for much of the summer, singing in The Rake’s Progress at Aix-en-Provence Opera Festival). These are settings of four poems on the theme of fruit, including William Carlos Williams’ imagist text ‘This Is Just To Say’ –the one about the plums in the icebox. ‘We’d not yet started Juice with Anna [Snow] but clearly our love of fruit was already in existence!’

The rest of the disc offers a series of serendipitous encounters. Marsh was Dacey’s lecturer at York. Fokkens she met through an SPNM project. He later wrote his song for her to perform at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival and it was he who introduced her to Hannan and El-Turk. MacLeod she met whilst working at Junior Trinity. McDowall she had been an admirer of for many years.

‘Her chipmunk song I think is my favourite on the whole album’, she enthuses. ‘It’s just so funny. This furious ball of fluff ranting and spitting his anger at having lost all his beloved nuts.’ Discovering McDowall’s songs was an exciting moment. ‘I love the fact that she’s so well known for setting sacred texts and that these songs are such an incredible contrast to her more “traditional” compositional output.’

Calliope-muse

A playful overturning of expectations runs throughout the album. Even the title is double-edged. Calliope – the ‘beautiful-voiced’ – was one of the Greek muses, whose song defeated the daughters of Pierus, King of Thessaly. But a ‘calliope’ is also a nineteenth-century steam organ, found at circuses and other outdoor entertainments. ‘I love that a perfect and beautiful muse of song shares a name with such a ramshackle, discordant (and probably filthy and dirt-filled) instrument’, says Sarah. The juxtaposition sums up the album: lyricism and fun sit alongside grime and grit. Hannan’s setting of a schizophrenic’s explanation of why people believe in God could be harrowing, if not for the patient’s comic image of hanging from a balloon, ‘little legs sticking out through the clouds’. On the other side of the coin, McDowall’s chipmunk comes from words by the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, imprisoned in 1983 aged 29 for expressing ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’; the bear who has stolen his nuts and so enraged him is a metaphor for the Soviet regime.

Calliope-organ

Calliope the muse had her dark side too. Having beaten Pierus’s daughters in their sing-off she goes a bit Simon Cowell: to punish them for their arrogance she turns them all into magpies. A dark femininity runs through the album, exemplified in the two songs that frame the disc: Marsh’s haunting ‘Black Hair’, in which an long-absent husband returns to his apparently loving and patient wife (but she has been made to wait too long …); and MacLeod’s ‘Definition’, a raunchy yet hysterical story of a fiery relationship as it runs out of heat. They may have very different sources – in nineteenth-century Japanese ghost stories and contemporary British poetry – but both frankly engage with the consequences of intense love. And the untold part of any love story is that those consequences will land on the woman.

‘Politically and socially I’ve always been very outspoken in my beliefs’, says Sarah when I ask her about this side of her selections. ‘I don’t consider myself a socialist but I’m very left leaning. I’m also a feminist. I especially enjoy singing songs that subvert the normal expectations of what classical singers should be singing about. So many songs gloss over issues of sexism and female subserviance, or kowtow to them because of when they were written.’

riot_sdBecause it is so direct, flexible, and unembellished, song – like stand-up comedy – is an ideal medium for challenging received wisdoms. Popular music has known this for decades, from Woodie Guthrie to Beyoncé. Contemporary art song composers recognize it too; beyond Sarah’s recording, my mind turns to the American singer-composer Corey Dargel, or the songs of David Del Tredici. But contemporary song itself isn’t an easy fit within the new music eco-system. It’s not that the form is overlooked by composers, Sarah says. It’s that the opportunities for performers have greatly diminished. Venues in London, for example, are just too expensive. And with only two performers – a singer and a pianist – the chances of drawing a large enough audience to cover costs are small. ‘In the past, composers used to have other places in which to premiere their songs – music clubs, music parties, soirées’, Sarah tells me. She dreams of running a regular song night on the model of Pauline Viardot’s Parisian salons. ‘But I’ve yet to find a venue. I think my flat is probably too small’, she jokes.

The initial impetus for the album came after a lecturer friend complained that their students were never guided towards contemporary vocal repertoire. Although required to perform something written since 1945 in their final recital, when those students asked one teacher what repertoire there was, the reply was simply, ‘There isn’t anything.’ Fired up, Sarah immediately wrote a list of counter-examples to hand out to students, and then kept going. ‘Adding to the list became rather an obsession’, she admits. Mindful that university libraries would rarely invest in contemporary vocal scores in spite of her efforts, she realized that the only way to spread the word about these works would be to record them.

Still, Calliope is much more than a repertoire sampler. It’s also a bold statement on behalf of British contemporary art song; and a wonderfully fun, sexy, provocative record to boot. ‘I want to defy people’s expectations of contemporary music’, Sarah concludes. ‘I’m not in this business to bore people – where’s the fun in that!?’

Exploring Norway’s fringe music scene at Only Connect

Hello, Tim here, Riot’s resident writer. Last month I travelled to Oslo for the annual Only Connect Festival of Sound and I’d like to tell you about it!

Only Connect is organised by Norway’s principal organisation for new music, nyMusikk and curated by the indefatigable Anne Hilde Neset. In fact, nyMusikk supports two such festivals – the other is Ultima, held in September. I’ve been fortunate to have been a guest of both in the last year, and so had plenty of opportunity to sample Norway’s generous hospitality, and marvel at the level of funding and support even the fringiest of new music activities can receive there.

One doesn’t want to get too misty-eyed – after all, a large percentage of Norway’s prosperity and social democratic largesse is based on the exploitation of offshore gas and oil fields. Yet it’s telling that at least two banks in Oslo have been converted into arts venues. (Try to imagine the same happening in London. No, me neither.) The National Museum of Contemporary Art is in one, although that’s moving to new premises soon and the exhibitions currently on show are among the last in its present location. Sentralen, which is a couple of blocks away from the Contemporary Art Museum and which opened last year, is another. It is now a multi-purpose performance arts space, meeting place, restaurant and bar, and chief venue for both Only Connect and Ultima.

In fact an enjambment of two buildings, joined by a narrow, four-storey atrium and a network of Hogwarts-esque staircases, Sentralen’s best feature is its grand marble hall (Marmorsalen), in which larger concerts are presented. Hearing in this most refined and establishment of spaces Julius Eastman’s ferociously counter-cultural Evil Nigger – in a barnstorming three-piano rendition by Heloisa Amaral, Elisa Medinilla and Frederik Croene – was a heart-stopping experience I won’t forget in a long time.

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Harry Potter stairs. Photo by the author.

Indeed, the relationship between money and music was an unintended thread through my experience of Only Connect. One can argue, for example, whether a well-funded contemporary arts community promotes risk or complacency. And cases can be made on either side of that argument, even by Norwegians themselves. Yet I detect within Norwegian new music, and particularly among its younger proponents, a real sense of mischief. Not born of the profound political dissatisfaction that Eastman was forced to bear, but nevertheless coming from a discomfort with the way things are. Ultima’s artistic director, the composer Lars Petter Hagen, is a chief agitator – among his most notorious works is To Zeitblom, a folkloristic concerto for Norway’s national instrument, the Hardanger fiddle, that undermines itself through the insertion of a comically mistranslated recitation of passages from Theodor Adorno’s 1954 article ‘The Aging of the New Music’. Trond Reinholdtsen also enjoys a good prank, and is probably Norway’s chief exponent of musical conceptualism. At Ultima last year I saw his sort-of piano concerto more-like reality TV gone wrong Theory of the Subject, which featured the soloist still rehearsing backstage while the orchestra ploughed on, being usurped by a Nancarrow-esque player piano and finally retreating to a sanctuary beneath the piano itself, with subplots of messianic cults and demonic renditions of the 20th century’s piano repertory along the way.

The cheekiest offering at Only Connect was undoubtedly Øyvind Torvund’s The Exotica Album, performed by Bergen’s BIT20 Ensemble, saxophonist Kjetil Møster and analogue synth player Jørgen Trœen. (BIT20, by the way, are now directed by an expat Brit, the composer and artist Alwynne Pritchard, who was herself director of Bergen’s Borealis Festival for several years.) Two stages were set out – one for BIT20’s fifteen or so players, the other for Møster and Trœen. For the most part, the latter duo improvised (in a more or less organised fashion) noisy bleeps and skronks. BIT20, meanwhile, recreated the cheesy listening lounge atmosphere of a Les Baxter or Martin Denny record – bongos, maracas, vibes, sleazy flute lines and all. Billed as ‘two concerts at the same time’ it didn’t quite fulfill that promise – the phrases between the two groups were too interwoven for that – but the collision of two dramatically distinct soundworlds, neither of them familiar territory for a contemporary classical setting, revealed Torvund’s exciting disregard for genre conventions and wry skill at bringing alien elements into a traditional context.

BIT20, Kjetil Møster and Jørgen Trœen. Photo by Anne Valeur.

The other Norwegian works on show – the festival’s middle day celebrated the 100th Norwegian Society of Composers – were more conventional, perhaps with the exception of Mistérios de Corpo by composer and asamisimasa clarinettist Kristine Tjøgersen, a live soundtrack for string quartet synchronised with and overwriting the video of the same name by 70-something Brazilian jazz musician Hermeto Pascoal in which he plays his naked torso as a percussion set. Nevertheless, Håkon Thelin managed to incorporate a traditional willow flute player and a cabaret atmosphere into his double bass concerto The Ark, and even Jon Øivind Ness’s Meditasjonar over Georges de la Tour nr. XVII, a relatively modest piece for mezzo-soprano and piano, folded an enigmatically dogged piano part (the two hands played in rhythmic unison almost throughout) beneath an exuberant vocal line, sung on this occasion by Elisabeth Holmertz.

This was Neset’s sixth and final Only Connect festival as nyMusikk’s Artistic Director. Her personal warmth and artistic curiosity have undoubtedly done much to bring out Norway’s weirder side. Who can say what may come next – the Nordic Music Days in London this September, which will feature the Riot Ensemble, may offer some more clues – but Norwegian audiences certainly seem to have acquired a taste for the strange. I would bet on something unexpected.

Speak, Be Silent – Programme Note

‘Find the thing and it disappears’, warns the composer Rebecca Saunders. ‘Name the thing and it loses shape.’ In Saunders’ piece a visible trace we hear a piano keyboard squashed hard, before its sound backs away, as though embarrassed; a double bass glissandos downwards, as if being swallowed up; violin and flute essay a note, an idea, but seem to think better of it. Sub-groups of instruments step forward and draw back. We hear sounds brought tentatively into being, attempting to stand on stick-like legs, bearing weight for the first time. A lyrical line, already stretched thin, is coaxed a little further, slowly building in strength.

At the start of her score, , Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir writes to her players:

When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling.

Her words recall a line at the start of Saunders’ score by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium:

The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.

Saunders’ sounds, like Calvino’s bridge, are fragile, thrown almost in desperation to reach something before it fades. Yet Thorvaldsdóttir’s thin rope, sustained by bass flute, bass clarinet and strings, spun out into tight melodic tendrils, and pierced by thunderous interruptions from the piano, conveys an inner assurance. Her title draws on the Icelandic word for serenity, as well as its Chinese equivalent, , which may also be rendered as Ann: the composer herself. Traces – in this case of self – can create a sense of tranquility, a safe harbour.

But what of the abyss itself? What empty space do these bridges cross?

We might see an answer in buildings by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. Almost invisible boxes of glass, they are held up by forests of thin white supports that give these otherwise empty spaces mass and drama. ‘Transparency is some kind of feeling of freedom, it’s not a physical thing’, Ishigami says of his buildings.

Ishigami

Inspired by them, Edmund Finnis in his Frame/Refrain surrounds a bustling, percussive piano, prepared with strips of blu-tack across its strings, with softly chugging string chords, a trumpet and clarinet duo of short, sliding glissandi, and a slowly warping background of brass and metallic percussion. As the individual parts repeat they circle around each other and the space between them, creating illusions of density and form out of components that seem hardly to be there.

Amidst these worlds of sonic fragility and uncertainty, the blast of brass and gongs at the start of Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent seem to sound with a potency from an entirely different place. Yet this is another illusion. Her work also describes a sort of bridge, between one thing and another, one person and the next: what Walt Whitman called ‘a vast similitude [that] interlocks all’. This is a concerto, but Lim’s solo violin frequently melts into or is smelted out of the ensemble surrounding it; the scale of Lim’s commitment to her vision is reflected in how un-violin-like the rest of that ensemble is, dominated by brass, piano and abrasive percussion.

All four pieces in tonight’s concert consider the delicate trick of connecting ourselves to things without them disappearing. Lim prefaces hers with one more trace, one more piece of advice; lines by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

Just remember when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.
The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.

Programme

Reflections on the Text Scores of Pauline Oliveros

Music entails listening. This may be a truism, but it is one that Pauline Oliveros’s music considers from every angle. What is listening? How is it different from hearing? Can we activate it, and then shape it at will? Can we compose music with it?

listen

Listening needs stillness. As does reading. ‘First imagine silence’ begins the score of One Sound Once. Oliveros’s scores are written as texts, rather than musical notation. Some are just a few lines long, some several pages. Klickitat Ride is a list of 108 instructions that are to be read out loud. David Tudor is a two-line epigram. Although often poetic, they are not poems. Oliveros has called them ‘attentional strategies’ – ways of listening and ways of responding. They don’t attempt to express anything as such, but invite the reader/listener to find out for herself what might happen if they pay attention in a particular way. They rarely require specialist musical knowledge: they can be read, and performed, by anyone. But to perform them properly requires discipline, attention and concentration.

Stillness entails breathing. Even at our stillest and most attentive, we are breathing. There is a meditative aspect to Oliveros’s work that applies to both performers and listeners. She calls this aspect ‘Deep Listening’, a form of listening practice cultivated through the sort of concentration and discipline her scores require, and intended to expand consciousness into ‘the whole space/time continuum of sound/silences’.

Breathing means movement. As we inhale and exhale our chest rises and falls. If we are practising Deep Listening, our mind similarly expands and contracts. Inner becomes outer; outer becomes inner. The sounds we are listening to exist in spatial relation to us and to each other. Quintessential and Pebble Music present catalogues of sounds, arranged by the performers like objects in a museum. In Rock Piece movement is even more explicit, with performers moving into, out of and around the space.

Movement means making. As the performers in Rock Piece move, they click pairs of stones together in their hands, ‘sounding out the environment in all directions’, attending to its different resonances and the relationship between their clicks and those of their colleagues. In Word Sound the movements are more abstract – ‘Say a word as a sound. / Say a sound as a word.’ read two lines of the score. Moving from words to sounds, turning one into the other makes a particular type of sound production, and a particular type of listening. When does a sound become a word?

Making entails music. As words and sounds transform into one another, or as clicking rocks echo around the performing space, we start to make music. Like John Cage, Oliveros blurs the boundaries between life and music: Deep Listening is inclusive listening, in which everything one might possibly hear is attended to. The pieces themselves are ways to reach that state. Deep Listening can only be intellectualized so far; in the end you have to do it. You have to listen.