The Riot Ensemble is thrilled to announce six new solo commissions as part of our ongoing Zeitgeist project. The six composers below were initially selected to participate in PRS for Music’s Composer Workshops which were due to take place during 2020 with musicians from The Riot Ensemble and Mira Calix. Since lockdown, we have transformed these plans to focus on solo works with PRS for Music delivering online workshops alongside individual coaching and mentoring sessions.
Joseph Bates said: ‘I’m a composer and performer of hazy, detuned music for a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments. I am particularly interested in creating new scales, using atypical tunings and ideas taken from classical composers like Bartók and Messiaen. Contemporary touchstones for me include Fiona Apple, Cassandra Miller and Mica Levi.
‘For this work, I began with my limitations. I created a double bass tuning that interested me and considered what harmonics this would allow. From there, I worked with Marianne to see which could be marshalled into chords, either plucked or bowed. That initial repertoire of harmony grounds the piece and has proved fertile melodic ground for the work’s opening.
‘I suppose I also began with an image. I have been sitting on the roof of our flat’s bathroom, catching the sun and the bellow of passing trains. From there, you can see into the canyon of garden between high-backed Victorian houses. It’s a cobbled-together world of balconies, roof-tops and garden sheds. Its discontinuities are threaded together by a community of birds – goldfinches, thrushes, sparrows, blue jays and blackbirds – whose territorial songs compete with the Jubilee line. Writing about such little birds on such a large instrument seems funny to me.
‘Remote work has been straightforward so far, though the specifics of timbre don’t convey well over zoom audio. When plucked harmonics fail to sound properly, they produce bell-like impurities that can be interesting, or can fall flat – telling the difference over video chat is not straightforward.’
Lola de la Mata said: ‘I am a London-based French/Spanish composer, curator, artist and musician with a background in weaving and printmaking.
‘I have a collaborative approach to my practice which has led me to work with musicians, filmmakers, dance companies, queer performance artists and next Autumn, with a drag artist.
‘Meeting Ausias for the first time, we discovered we shared memories of a town just north of Valencia called Castellón where he lived for a number of years and where I use to visit my family. This ‘naive’ closeness has allowed us to collaborate in an open way.
‘Not coming from a musical background, my initial process was to get to know Ausias and his instrument. As he shared sounds and techniques I was transported to Lanzarote’s dark textured volcanic landscape.
‘Since our first meeting I have been making paintings, photographs, short films and writing a text which will sit alongside the score.’
Aidan Teplitzky said: ‘As a composer, I write work that explores the idea of community, how we establish our identities, and how the individual relates to society.
‘My initial idea of writing for percussion was to take the piss out of composers who need to throw everything and the kitchen sink in because we can and how that has changed because of COVID-19. This ended up changing in the process of working with Sam (the percussionist from Riot) to the piece being about need and luxury, and to explore how these concepts can overlap and how they have overlapped because of the current situation.
‘The hardest part about creating the piece is not being in the room to try stuff out. Music is all about community and connection and even though technology is helping, it mostly reminds me how important the personal is in my work and the value of art to bring people together.’
Zoë Martlew said: ‘My pre-lockdown biography describes me as an internationally touring cellist, composer, performer, cabaret artist, mentor, educator and media commentator. As nearly all my performing and composing work got zapped or indefinitely postponed overnight, I’m now working worldwide as an online spiritual healer and teacher, my hitherto secret ‘other life’ for over 20 years.
‘I’m also presenting and commenting for London Sinfonietta’s digital channel, BBC Radio 3 and make the odd extremely silly cabaret sketch for Living Room Live.
‘COVID-19 has dramatically changed my life. At last, I’m free from relentless travelling, from preparing mountains of difficult notes, seminars, lectures. I can sleep and eat when I want to, reconnect with Mother Nature, breathe, rest and recover from decades of adrenaline-fuelled overwork.
‘Weirdly, from the second lockdown kicked in, I’ve not wanted to play, write or even listen to any music. It feels as though my ears are being reset, the very essence of my relationship to music purified. This commission from Riot Ensemble and PRS for Music will be the first piece of music I’ll have engaged with in many weeks, the first sound to emerge from my personal silence, a precious gift in nudging me back to the composing desk.
‘The bassoon is an instrument with such latent emotional power, an almost human quality in the gorgeously melodic upper ranges combined earthy lower timbres, and I see no limitations whatsoever in working remotely. It’s what composers do most of the time anyway. Call me old fashioned, but my approach to this piece is a simple one: music straight from the heart, working with the natural powerful resonances of this wonderful instrument, rather than a load of fancy extended techniques. I’m excited to see what emerges from the silence, birthplace of all music.’
Date: Thu 5th November, 2020 Venue: Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria
The Riot Ensemble journey out to Austria to open the Crossroads New Music Festival.
International contemporary music festival Crossroads aims to promote the collaboration between composition students and young contemporary music performers from different countries. The festival gives an opportunity to the young artists to collaborate together by sharing their cultural and personal experiences. This annual event is organised by Lithuanian student Silvija Čiuladytė and the Institute for New Music, Mozarteum University Salzburg.
Date: Mon 10th Feb, 2020 Venue: University College Hospital, London NW1 2BU
As part of our continuing commitment to exploring the health benefits of live music and performance within hospital spaces, members of Riot have recently began giving lunchtime recitals at University College Hospital, London. In October we played music for voice, saxophone, viola, and cello in the Macmillan Cancer Centre while people waited for their appointments and prescriptions, or just ate their lunch, and on 10 February we will be performing again, playing music by Bach, Telemann, Holst alongside more contemporary repertoire. Concerts start at 1pm, last about an hour and you are free to come and go as you wish.
We are really proud to be launching our ReNew concert series at Kings Place on 14th February with the UK premiere of Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus. The following text is a short programme essay by Tim Rutherford-Johnson on some of the themes of that piece, and the two others in the same concert: A memory of birds (ii) by our director Aaron Holloway-Nahum, and Ctrl by Laurence Osborn, a work that we commissioned and premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017.
It is a wonder and a horror of our age that the songs of extinction will be preserved. Go online and we can find – in digital form and always, forever – the sounds of species that no longer exist. Songs heard and conserved in alien landscapes, looped and replayed until … when? Google the Hawai’ian Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō bird and you can hear its curving, circling song. But this bird was the last of its species: it died three decades ago.
The song in Aaron Holloway-Nahum’s Like a memory of birds (ii) is stylized and does not imitate any particular species (the piece is a sequel to a 2017 work for marimba and cor anglais). But its setting recalls the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō’s online avatar. The song takes the form of a duo between clarinet and bass clarinet. It is shared between them, but dips in and out of alignment, like echoes in a forest. Its surroundings are malleable and uncertain: soft string harmonics and the eerie whistle of corrugated plastic pipes increasingly give way to the hard-edged timbres of piano and drums. As background becomes foreground the clarinets’ song is overwhelmed and almost entirely forgotten, until a habitat becomes no more than a space.
In Laurence Osborn’s Ctrl, the song is a football chant (one familiar to Arsenal fans in particular). Soprano Sarah Dacey appears, amplified, autotuned and in male character, to sing a threnody to failed masculinity. ‘Body is amazing’, she sings, ‘Body is equipped for work and sex and sport. Me and my body, we do what we want.’ The music cycles and swells: the sweat and surety of Beethoven and the moshpit. But the chant is a lament, the bravado a lie, the story toxic. The third movement is a dark lullaby in which strength dies in a Beckettian repetition of hangovers and despair: ‘Saturday morning … Black blinds … At the bottom of everything.’ Hopeless? No: the work ends with a plea, with tenderness, and a last-ditch desire to reach out.
Late in the day, humanity is realising the harm its relentless drive to acquire, occupy and consume is doing to a habitable planet. In its first movement, ‘Anthropogenic debris’, Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus sets the tone of ecological crisis. (The recording below is of the West German Radio broadcast of the premiere, performed by Klangforum Wien. The music starts at around 5’45”.) The debris in question is the vast collections of plastic that have ended up in the world’s oceans and have been gathered by circulatory currents (known as gyres) into giant, swirling patches of rubbish and pollutants. As they turn, plastic is drawn into them and then ground into smaller and more dangerous particles – which themselves pose an existential threat to life on Earth. As well as a large sheet of cellophane that is absorbed into its percussion section, Lim’s piece is full of representations of looping and turning, as well as degradation and loss: she transcribes the song of the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō; recycles a violin solo of her own, based on tracings of a ninth-century Chinese star map; and inserts allusions to historical music, in the form of bars from Leoš Janáček’s late-Romantic piano piece On an Overgrown Path. All of them represent forms of extinction. The star map predates Western astronomy by five hundred years, but its achievement has been erased by history. The Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō’s mating call will never be answered. The Janáček, warped almost beyond recognition in Lim’s piece, was described by its composer as comprising reminiscences ‘so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish’.
Circulation also entails slippage: as debris loops back, it recalls both the past and its present. Slippages occur on every level, whether the timbres of brass instruments playing unstable half-valve sounds (as in the opening duo between horn and trumpet), or the larger-scale slippage of identity in the fourth movement, in which a solo violin attempts to ‘teach’ or transmit her music to a percussionist playing a rudimentary string drum. The last movement is based on another real – and extraordinary – singing phenomenon: the ‘dawn chorus’ of coral reef fish that takes place in the changing light of morning. Lim recreates this mass of clicking, rasping percussive sounds through the sound of Waldteufels (small string drums) and windwands being swirled in the air – an effect that is as visual and tactile as it is sonic. Plastic returns, in the form of a one-metre tube that extends the range of a contrabassoon theoretically below the edge of human hearing. And so the final song is one that we can no longer know nor understand, pointing to a future perhaps no longer meant for us.
At the CLF Art Cafe this Friday and Saturday, as well as new pieces by Peggy Polias and Igor Santos (and Anna Korsun’s Sottilissime for singing string trio) we will be bringing scenes from a new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler. Laura often works in music theatre, as both a composer and performer, and as the founder-director of Size Zero Opera. Many of her pieces put a contemporary spin on age-old themes: sex, violence, the natural world and, in the emoji-emblazoned FFF (heard first at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017), political engagement. GOLD is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, written in collaboration with the librettist Alasdair Middleton, that teases twenty-first-century themes of language, identity, privilege and sexual politics out of its fairytale origins. In our concerts we will be giving the premiere of the opera’s first seven scenes, sung by Lucy Goddard, Rosie Middleton and Riot’s own Sarah Dacey. You can find more information and tickets here.
Laura found time amidst a busy week of rehearsals and other challenges to speak to us about her piece.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How have you set about updating
the story of Rumpelstiltskin, or adding a contemporary spin to it? What does an
ancient fairytale like this have to say to the twenty-first century?
Laura Bowler: I have always had a fascination
with fairytales. The tale of Rumpelstiltskin
appealed to me because of its focus on naming the unknown, the misunderstood,
the other. Whenever I heard conversations about Rumpelstiltskin, the title
character always seemed to be presented and understood as the ‘evil’ one and
the manipulator. There was very rarely any mention of the Father and the King,
without whose power the tale surrounding the daughter’s deal with Rumpel would
never have occurred. It is the socially legitimate and patriarchal powers in
the narrative who place the daughter into her most vulnerable position. Rumpel
is a desperate character who takes advantage of any given situation to gain
what power he/she can. For me the story places a magnifying glass on society’s
blind acceptance of seemingly legitimate power and our fear of those we do not
know or understand.
TR-J: I’m interested in the idea of naming – or
name-calling – which is used as a framing device to the opera. At the start,
Adam names all the animals but some, like Rumpelstiltskin, slip away, without
names, from the dominion of man. And then in the final scene all sorts of slurs
are used against him. What is your thinking here?
LB: I don’t want to put words into Alasdair’s mouth so I’ll answer this from my perspective. The Rumpelstiltskin phenomenon is the tendency for the naming of something to create the impression of imparting understanding of it. This is something which is perpetuated throughout society in today’s media. The idea of the ‘monster’ character in a story takes away any responsibility for what society may have created or been able to prevent. An individual is reported to be a Terrorist; they somehow become inherently bad. Naming something may give one a sense of owning that person or thing, and with that, an assumption that we somehow understand them/it.
TR-J: A lot of your work deals with contemporary themes
like this. What are the challenges of making work on such specific themes? And
how do you avoid simply preaching ‘issues’ to an already informed, liberal
LB: I have the dreaded artist’s guilt, which is what drives me to create work that is somehow politically or socially engaged. Composing is a form of communication, and for me I want to communicate and ask questions about what I personally feel is vital to humanity in contemporary society. I think it’s very easy to assume that it is an informed liberal audience, but I can’t imagine that everyone is in a constant state of self reflection ensuring that they are checking on any developed or developing bias that they may hold. I never try to preach with my work, but I value the role that the arts can play in the debates of a free democratic society. After all, politics in theatre is as old as democracy itself.
TR-J: What are the advantages, to you, of working in music
theatre? How is your identity as a performer – as well as a composer – tied
LB: Performing enables me to create work
that I may not feel is kind for me to create for other artists. I purposely
push myself to extreme states as a performer inevitably causing certain
psychological and physical repercussions. I thrive off collaborating with other
artists, but I also work within a field that celebrates perfection and I am a
performer that strives for rawness and vulnerability – something that is not
always encouraged in western classical music teaching. Performing also enables
me to be more empathetic to the individual performers that I collaborate with;
to not just write works for the musician but to create works that also embrace
who they are as a person and their experiences. Working in music theatre
enables me to communicate more directly. Despite my love of more abstracted
forms of communication, the inclusion of theatre, text, and the human body
enables for a less intangible form of communication, and this is important for
me as a creative at the moment.
TR-J: These performances will just be of scenes from GOLD.
When can we see and hear the whole thing?
LB: Probably next season if all goes
TR-J: Finally, what else are you working on at the moment?
Are you still making work with Size Zero Opera?
LB: I’m working on several smaller scale
works at the moment for a range of artists including Alwynne Pritchard, Scott Lygate and Platypus Ensemble (Vienna).
Then I’ll be tying myself to the desk to write a new 50-minute multimedia music
theatre work for HCMF for me to perform with Decoder Ensemble (Hamburg). The work is
called Advert and explores the rise
of tribalism within contemporary society. I’m super excited to be starting a
new duo with the flautist Ruth
Morley (Red Note Ensemble) and our tour of new commissions beginning next
season. We’ve commissioned Dierdre McKay, Diana Soh and Carmel Smickersgill.
Future collaborations include projects with Extinction Rebellion, Katie
Mitchell and a monodrama that the incredible composer Diana Soh is writing for
me. Unfortunately, due to sheer lack of time, Size Zero Opera has stopped
commissioning work. However, if the right project came along I’m always happy
to put my producer hat on.
TR-J: Thank you for talking to us Laura! I cannot wait to hear GOLD this weekend.
Riot’s 2020 starts with a rush with two concerts featuring world premieres from last year’s Call for Scores commissionees. Come and hear them, and us, at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham on 31 January and 1 February. Alongside scenes from GOLD, the new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler, we will be playing brand new pieces by the Brazilian-American composer Igor Santos and the Australian Peggy Polias. Details of both concerts can be found here and here.
Peggy and Igor were kind enough to share some thoughts with us about their music. Peggy’s interview can be found here. Here is what Igor had to say.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Igor, we’re really excited at Riot to be playing your music for the first time. Let’s start with your background as a composer. How did you start, who have been your teachers, and who are your inspirations?
Igor Santos: I started music as a
self-taught classical guitarist, in my native town of Curitiba in Brazil, and
was composing almost from the outset. I couldn’t read music in the first few
years, so I wrote and played my own guitar pieces, and also composed a large
amount of orchestral music on the computer (all in MIDI – either through
digital piano rolls or guitar tablature notation). I recall heavily imitating video-game
music (mainly the Japanese orchestral stuff), and a lot of Tchaikovsky.
For a few years I was also quite
serious about becoming a guitar virtuoso (furiously practising Villa-Lobos and
Tárrega), but completely gave up on the idea after seeing Yamandu Costa perform
a solo concert. His musicianship, groove, and energy in performance (which
overcame his incredibly fast but – at the time – very messy shredding) were all
too overwhelming. I knew I didn’t have it in me: neither the training nor the temperament
to become that kind of performer. It was a transformative moment, and from then
on I started practising piano (as a clean slate!), and mainly thought about
During my undergraduate studies I learnt
tremendously from Paul
Reller, a generally funny personality who was tyrannical about discipline
in composition – discipline in one’s personal work schedule and discipline in
thinking lucidly about the compositional process. Paul was zealous about the act of composition – in an almost
spiritual way – which was always inspiring. At the Eastman School I had a lot
of emotional and artistic encouragement from my teachers (Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez and Ricardo
Zohn-Muldoon), and at the University of Chicago it was all about solidifying
different skills: a focus on craft with Augusta Read Thomas, gaining a practical,
up-to-date, and lively approach to electronic music from Sam Pluta, and learning to think
carefully about a composer’s influences and musico-historical context, with Anthony Cheung.
As far as inspirations are concerned, there are probably too
many artists to list, but in contemporary music I admire the music of Salvatore
Sciarrino, Simon Steen-Andersen, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Enno Poppe. Sciarrino
for the sensuality, imaginative instrumental writing, pacing, and use of
variegated repetitions (which had a great effect on me early on); Steen-Andersen
for the conceptual rigour, humour, and his use of ‘real-world’ sounds and
images, and Poppe for his approach to microtonal keyboards, and for his combination
of sharp musicality with wild abandon. Westerkamp’s music is inspiring to me for
its meta-awareness, sensuousness, and general non-elitist approach to sound – works
like Kits Beach Soundwalk,the
Breathing Room series,and Für Dich are quite remarkable (and
TR-J: I really enjoyed discovering your piece suggested affinities through our Call for Scores this year. One of the things that struck me from that piece is your use of little loops and repetitions. What is the role of repetition in your music? You’re obviously not starting from a minimalist standpoint; I’m reminded more of the repetitions Lachenmann writes in towards the end of Kontrakadenz, for example. Would that be right?
IS: Repetition has played key role in my music for the last four
years, expressed through loops, loops within loops (asymmetrical
superpositions), and different kinds of refrains.
I think it started as a need to create more dynamic forms.
My music is generally concerned with transformations and arrival points, and
inserting loops is one way in which I interrupt constant linear motion (which
can get exhausting), and become more playful when creating and breaking
Kontrakadenz is one of my favorite orchestral works of the 70s, and definitely a huge influence on me, although I wasn’t actively thinking about it while writing suggested affinities. The main similarity, perhaps, is that my piece uses loops cumulatively (building and reaching the longest loop before the pianist’s solo cadenza), and Kontrakadenz (no pun intended) also builds its climax in a similar way. The main lesson I always took from that piece, and from all my favourite Lachenmann works, has to do with creating different points of accessibility. Repetition in Lachenmann provides a kind of anchor to the music’s hyper-refined and sometimes elusive timbres – it allows you to listen to the sounds closely and differently each time. The ‘real-world’ sounds in Kontrakadenz (e.g. the radios and meta-commentary) serve a similar function in that they give a different angle to the music, making everything less abstract and creating a complex and rich listening environment.
Those are two initial ways in which I think about repetition
– to make linear forms multi-faceted and to reify the identity of particular
timbres and structures. There are multiple answers to this, to be honest, and
the more I work with repetition the more possibilities and complexities it
TR-J: The piece you
have written for Riot is called clonewheel(s).
I presume the title comes from the clonewheel organ? Could you say a little about
how that type of instrument has inspired this piece, and how it has shaped the
music you have written?
IS: Clonewheel is a term for any digital organ that emulates the
tonewheel sound mechanism of antique Hammond organs. I’ve always loved the tone
and quality of this instrument, and was inspired to work with it this time after
falling into a YouTube wormhole of Cory Henry solo performances.
The keyboard in my piece is a weirded-out digital Hammond
organ (i.e. a clonewheel), whose timbral qualities, gestures, and registration
changes are reflected (or ‘cloned’) by other instruments in the ensemble.
TR-J: Quite a lot of
your pieces seem to start from the mechanical or physical properties of
instruments, and to play with this in some way. What is the source of this
approach for you? And how have you explored this idea?
IS: I am interested in defamiliarization – of finding new
meanings in things taken for granted – and as a result I have to start pieces
from specific and recognizable (i.e. familiar) objects. When choosing the
initial source, I aim at sounds, gestures, transcription, or concepts that are
concrete, such as the physical property of an instrument, as you mentioned. This
is also a personal preference – I like direct and tangible ideas, and do my
best to avoid vagueness and mystification.
Instrumental sound is not always the starting or focal point
for my pieces, however. In speak through
speaking (2017) for example, I open the music with a speech transcription
(played by a solo double-bass), which is deconstructed throughout the piece via
repetition and re-orchestration. Another example is anima (2019), where the focus is on non-linguistic utterances – vocalized
by the performers and constantly imitated and transformed by their instruments
(harp and a variety of percussion).
TR-J: And what role do
electronics play in your work – in this respect and in others? I am thinking of
suggested affinities, as an example,
but maybe this is also relevant to the synthesizer part in clonewheel(s)?
Electronics in my music are a tool for estranging acoustic
instruments. The electronic sounds are constantly doubling or playing in
proximity to the acoustic instruments, and the goal is to slow down the
perception of who is sounding, and to become something new in the process (and
to hopefully sound like a ‘realistic’ new instrument).
That was the approach for the soloist (a kind of meta-piano)
and obbligato parts (meta-harp and meta-vibraphone) in suggested affinities – the electronic sounds are both digital
versions of these instruments, and vocal articulations that they constantly
Lately, I am much less concerned with ‘realistic’ sounding
meta-instruments, and embrace the oddities of digital reproductions. In clonewheel(s), for example, there is
less of an obsession on doubling instruments with electronics, and more in emphasizing
actions that a real Hammond organ cannot perform, such as exaggerated
pitch bending or unusually fast drawbar (timbre) changes.
TR-J: Finally, you are a parent as well as
a composer, and until recently you were also completing a PhD. How do you manage your time?! Do
you have a special time of day or place for composing?
IS: Managing time is always a challenge,
and there were a few moments during my PhD where parenting, composing, teaching,
and trying to graduate all felt impossible. In the end it’s just a matter of
prioritizing as needed, and getting help when/where possible. I wish I had helpful
tips and good pop-psychology notes, but every situation/deadline is different.
Being a parent is pretty demanding, but it taught me to be more efficient with
time and to brood less – likely a byproduct of necessity and decreased
As far as time and place are concerned, I have no sacred rituals. The only consistent habit is that I work mostly at night and reserve a few early mornings for when I get stuck on something (intuition seems less judgmental when half-awake). My instruments and desk are nicely setup in my apartment but it’s not a priority to stay there; for different reasons I always end up split between home and libraries (for composition), and coffee shops (for other work that needs attention).
Date: Sat 14th Mar, 2020 Venue: Leggate Theatre, University of Liverpool L69 3DR
Centered around Brian Ferneyhough’s feverishly virtuosic sextet Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) and Grisey’s spectral masterpiece Talea, this programme explores the extremes of contemporary ensemble writing.
Siemens Prize winning composer Clara Iannotta’s mesmerising string duo in which, “like skaters in a concrete bowl, the bows of violin and viola glide across their strings, creating hushed, airy harmonics”, sits alongside a new work by Israeli composer Hadas Pe’ery and Ben Hackbarth’s thrilling Lockstep Variations which features two speakers placed inside the percussionists snare drums creating “a pair of phantom musicians, two disembodied drummers who are spatially and gesturally enmeshed with the acoustic ensemble.”
Riot’s 2020 starts with a rush with two concerts featuring world premieres from last year’s Call for Scores commissionees. Come and hear them, and us, at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham on 31 January and 1 February. Alongside scenes from GOLD, the new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler, we will be playing brand new pieces by the Brazilian-American composer Igor Santos and the Australian Peggy Polias. Details of both concerts can be found here and here.
Peggy and Igor were kind enough to share some thoughts with us about their music. You can read our interview with Igor in another post, but here is what Peggy had to say.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Peggy, we’re so happy to be bringing your music to the UK. Perhaps we should begin with a little biography. Could you say a little about your background as a composer? How did you start, who have been your teachers, and what are your inspirations?
Peggy Polias: I started learning piano at the age of six, and by about ten I began improvising and sketching my own little musical ideas and pieces on manuscript. Later in high school, as a quite panicky performer, I threw myself into the creative side – visual arts as well as composing in a self-taught capacity. My first exposure to twentieth-century innovations in classical music, especially serialism, rocked my world and I became obsessed with figuring out, once a composer had a twelve-note row, what could they actually do with it? At the same time, I was listening to a lot of 1990s alternative rock – international acts like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and The Tea Party as well as Australian bands like Regurgitator, Spiderbait, and The Fauves – but I compartmentalized this as quite a separate world; it is only recently that I have started to play with this wider spectrum of influence in my own score-based music.
I made my way into composition studies at
university, mainly under the mentorship of Professor Anne Boyd here in Sydney
during Bachelors and Masters degrees in music. I’ve also learnt from Dr John
Peterson, and currently am completing a Doctorate at the Sydney Conservatorium
of Music, The University of Sydney under the supervision of Professor Liza Lim.
At university I first joined a student gamelan
and continued with Langen Suka Sydney Gamelan for many years afterwards,
learning aspects of Javanese Gamelan in the Yogyakarta style, which profoundly
changed my understanding of the ways music can work. Along the way, I’ve also
found inspiration for new works in themes like handicrafts, matryoshka dolls,
fractals, and feminism. As a music engraver I’ve been quite engaged with a lot
of brand new local, Australian score-based compositions across a variety of
personal styles, and this has also been an important ‘apprenticeship’.
You were the inaugural winner of the Peter Sculthorpe Music Fellowship in 2015.
What did Sculthorpe mean to you? And what were you able to do with this award?
PP: As a young composer who was learning from
Peter Sculthorpe’s own students, Peter was quite a monolithic figure to me. He’d
worked out what he wanted to say musically with great clarity and spent an
entire career doing so. By 2005 I was fortunate to be offered a job as his
Music Assistant, following in the footsteps of many much-respected colleagues. For
the next nine years I drove to Peter’s house every Thursday to spend the day
entering new music, preparing instrumental parts, maintaining the archive, or
occasionally going on unexpected errands such as clothes shopping!
Peter was a dear friend, like a musical
grandfather, and I miss him very much. As such, I worked lovingly and seriously
on my application for the Peter Sculthorpe Music Fellowship, and it was a huge
honour to be selected as the inaugural recipient of this award from Create NSW
and The Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
The generous award meant I was able to undertake a program of activities throughout 2016: the composition of a new work, Hive, especially for The Nano Symphony – Catherine Thompson (clarinet), Neil Thompson (viola) and Lee Akinsanya (piano), with some voice and electronics. The Fellowship gave us the resources to workshop and collaborate extensively, and eventually record the album-suite on the Kammerklang label. The collaboration with Kammerklang also included the recording of an older work, the Picnic at Hanging Rock Suite (2009) for piano, with a number of pianists taking one or several movements each. I was also able to complete a number of professional development activities – courses in writing, podcasting, and industry – and to support the growth of a listening/composer playlist project, Making Waves New Music that I co-curate with a Melbourne-based colleague Lisa Cheney. We were able to draw on an nationwide team in the production of a 29-episode podcast, Making Conversation, in which we interviewed Australian composers about their work, life, and outlook.
When we were listening to all our Call for Scores commissions, I really enjoyed
your Hive album. That piece absorbed
all sorts of ideas connected with bees, from honey to social structures to
colony collapse. What was your initial inspiration for the theme, and how did
the project evolve out of that?
PP: Thanks. I think it was actually the increasing media reports around that time on colony collapse disorder that was quite worrying and haunting and got me learning a bit about bees. Every little fact I started to learn about honeybees and their social interactions was quite fascinating and evocative, thematically and musically.
When I started having conversations with Catherine, Neil, and Lee in 2016 we got talking about the dark, ‘Guinness-like’ honey from the Greek island of Ikaria, which is said to be a hotspot for human longevity. Catherine happens to be my first cousin, and since we have both ended up in music I had always wanted to write something for her and Neil. This led to some reflections on family and lineage, Greek heritage and memories from childhood of our Yiayia [Grandma], who had passed away many years ago, and the lineage of the clarinet, viola, and piano trio, going back to Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, K498.
We were sharing links about bees and honey in a Facebook Messenger thread and also a collaborative Pinterest board. These were incredible collaborative tools that I highly recommend, as they meant we were all in the same conceptual headspace from very early on in the life of the music, which grew out of many of these acts of sharing and conversations. These very much informed the workshop sessions we had and the final composition.
Given the many bushfires currently decimating the east coast of Australia, I need to stress that despite scientists discovering the parasite that causes colony collapse disorder, the conversation around bees right now is completely, tragically different (warning: this article contains distressing accounts of animal deaths and suffering).
TR-J: The piece you have written for us is called Mati, and it also seems to draw together several thematically related ideas – this time around the idea of the ‘Evil Eye’. Could you say a little bit more about those ideas, and how you have drawn them together in your piece?
PP: In relation to the ‘Mati’ there is this
unsettling feeling that I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say . . .! I guess
that secretive or taboo aspect is what has made it so compelling for me as a
musical inspiration. From my Greek heritage I’m familiar with some of the
customs from that part of the world (the blue decorative pendants worn or hung
in cars/houses), but across many different locations and whatever the format of
the amulet there are usually two aspects: the ‘insincere gaze’ that can cause
great harm, and the protective element.
Actually this theme grew out of an idea from my opera Commute (2019) that I had to cut. The opera explores the theme of street harassment via some creatures and motifs from Ancient Greek myth. I had originally wanted to use a Mati as a protective amulet against a Cyclops, symbolic of the ‘Male Gaze’, but it ended up being an additional layer that complicated the narrative.
So the standalone piece Mati came to be a reflection on different types of gaze as two-way acts, not just a one-way flow of power as might have been constructed culturally. While I was composing it I was always thinking of both sides of this construct and making each section quite ambiguous in this respect. For example, when I ask the instrumentalists to speak, they only have two words to choose from: ‘I’ or ‘Eye.’ While these might be indistinguishable audibly, their meaning is polarized in the context of this piece and only the speaker knows which choice they’ve made. When I was contemplating the visual/architectural inspiration for the piece, I started musing on Venn and Euler diagrams, and stumbled upon this seven-set beauty, which proved very fruitful in the ‘colouring-in’ phase of my composing process!
I imagined it as a kind of iris/pupil eye motif, and
conceived of the music in seven sections, moving inwards from the outer layers,
close to the white sclera of the eye, in to a black, central, contracting and
Among your influences, you mention handicrafts. I find this really interesting.
How does this feed into your music? And are there elements of this in Mati, perhaps, with its references to
folk concepts? Or is this better represented in other pieces of yours?
At earlier points in my life when time itself has
been a luxury, I have been known to dabble in crochet, tapestry, and sewing. Contrary
to their dismissal perhaps by high-brow art as traditionally feminine,
domestic, non-serious pursuits, there is a numeracy and rhythm required for the
fibre arts that is inherently meditative and musical. I have explored this in
works such as Stitch (2007) for
piano, translating various tapestry stitches into growing minimalist piano
passages, or Braids (2017) for viola,
cello, and double bass, exploring the personal aspects of hairstyle and the
intimacy and physicality of sitting together to ‘do’ someone’s hair.
Yes, I’d agree that there’s something similar in Mati, in sincerely approaching a
superstitious, folk tradition that may have been dismissed by higher-brow
artforms as non-serious. The sound world of this composition occasionally hints
at something like math-rock, even approaching aspects of glam rock. Early on in
the work I drew connections with textile amulets such as the dream-catcher or
the God’s eye, but I haven’t explored these further in this particular work.
TR-J: Finally, you recently co-authored a ‘call to action’ – with our friend Liza Lim, as well as the director and producer Sally Blackwood, and composer and percussionist Bree van Reyk – calling for cultural leadership to combat ‘the structural nature of sexism and other exclusionary forces’ in opera. Could you say a little more about that, please? In particular, what prompted you all to act on this occasion, and what do you think needs to be done specifically in the field of new music? And in what ways are the action points you raise reflected in your own practice?
PP: This grew out of our experiences at the New Opera Workshop (NOW) held in Brisbane, April 2019. At this event many of the biases within the historic operatic artform overlapped with industry ones to create an overwhelming sense of frustration from many in attendance, especially women, that the conversation taking place was reinforcing structural barriers rather than innovating the discipline. This criticism is not directed at any one party but more broadly at the artform and industry. Personal observations by myself and other colleagues in attendance were corroborated in quiet conversations: biases based on gender/identity in how particular individuals were introduced to the wider audience, offered microphone time in open conversations, or even invited to present. There were distressing discrepancies in how the topic of rape was handled in different presentations, from providing warnings to the audience and opportunity to leave in advance of sensitive content, to a surprise showing of a scene completely lacking agency and voice on the part of a female victim.
The discussions following the conference noted that many of our criticisms were inevitably intersectional and, as such, in new music (and I would add, more broadly in any industry or social industry) artistic directors, organizations, and others in positions of influence should be asking themselves: ‘Who gets to speak and why?’ (after Chris Kraus) or ‘Who is absent, who is missing from this group or meeting?’ I would also invite people in positions of influence committed to structural change to reflect: ‘Am I doing my fair share of the labour of change?’ It has been incredibly encouraging to see this conversation taken up by organizations such as the Australia Council for the Arts, performing rights body APRA/AMCOS, and the Australian Music Centre.
In terms of how I enact the call to action in my
own practice, I am continually resistant to the notion of the ‘hero’s journey’
or universal story: to narrative/operatic/filmic/musical tropes as familiar and
inevitable. These unquestioned structures encompass a great majority of what
the call-to-action seeks to dismantle. I try to locate my practice outside of
this vocabulary and construct new pathways for protagonists (or indeed for
musical motifs), and I guess I’ve hinted at some of this in answering some of
the earlier questions here.
Commute (2019), which will be staged in early April 2020, reflects on personal and cultural accounts of street harassment not by re-enacting any such scenario but by using characters from Ancient Greek myth (the Hekatoncheiris/Hundred-Handed Giant; the Cyclops; a main feminine protagonist called Odyssea) to traverse an interior journey to a possible goal of the #metoo movement. For me this goal is to be able to move through public spaces in a state of relief and belonging, with the knot in the solar plexus finally untied, with protective behaviours no longer a reflex, with perpetrators of street harassment no longer ready or comfortable to risk these behaviours. The libretto is fragmentary and moves between English, Modern Greek, and Ancient Greek, and the staging is flexible and un-prescriptive, giving space to collaborative, team interpretations. When performers, especially singers, request changes, it’s important to me to hear and accommodate these as part of a respectful collaboration. Finally, the call to action is not a one-time gesture, but an ongoing set of guiding principles, a work-in-progress.
Later this month we will be playing at Nottingham Trent University as part of the university’s ‘Groundbreaking’ series of contemporary music. On the programme will be works by Georg Friedrich Haas (Tria ex uno) and Chaya Czernowin Ayre, towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of), as well as works commissioned in our 2017 Call for Scores, Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy by Mirela Ivičević and Block Mouvement by Sylvain Marty. Details and tickets for the concert may be found via nonsuch studios.
We are also excited to be playing Screaming Shapes by the young American composer Peter S. Shin. We came across Peter’s music in another Call for Scores, and although we didn’t commission him on that occasion, we were really keen to play his music as soon as possible. To help introduce to his richly layered music, Peter answered some questions for us …
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Peter, thank you for talking to us. Perhaps you could begin by telling us a little bit about you and your music: what is your musical background, and how did you become a composer?
Peter S. Shin: My parents
introduced me to cello lessons when I was four at the local conservatory. My
first cello was made of styrofoam and the neck was a wooden ruler with strings
drawn in with marker. I begged for piano lessons when I turned 10 because I
enjoyed playing video game music by Nobuo Uematsu, though I never got into gaming
I composed my first composition for
string orchestra during my spring break of my junior year of high school
because I was tired of the director’s questionable programming, which often
included terrible and unidiomatically written arrangements of Pirates of the Caribbean, musical medleys,
and the like; I knew I could write something equally terrible. The director
allowed me to conduct my composition in class and I found it all to be a
TR-J: Your website mentions that your work ‘navigates issues of national belonging … and the liminality between the two halves of [your] second-generation Korean-American identity’. Could you expand on this, please? And in what ways do the questions of identity/belonging differ as a second-generation (rather than first-generation) composer?
PS: There doesn’t seem to be a consensus with how children of immigrants identify their generational status. Many would consider me first generation since I was the first to be born in another nation. Others, like me, feel that this denies the generation that came before me and their efforts of assimilation, not to mention the fact that my parents are now technically American and had renounced their Korean citizenships many years ago.
So, all-in-all, first or
second generation can essentially mean the same thing and it’s not necessarily
this distinction that’s important, but rather the implications of being reared
in culturally conflicting environment and being made aware of your difference through
self-realization, other people, and a variety of experiences. I am and feel
comfortably American but I am constantly looked upon as a perpetual foreigner
because of my Asian features. For example, I had a suitcase with me when I was
visiting my home state of Missouri this summer and a man welcomed me to America
even though I’ve been living here for 27 years. The other day, when I ran into the
dean of the music school, he asked me if I was headed to the English language
class for secondary learners, and after I expressed my confusion in perfect
English, he realized that I might not be. These seemingly benign experiences,
among many others which range in aggression, have shown me how others perceive
my belonging here, and my music certainly mirrors my life thematically.
TR-J: Are there ‘Korean’ or ‘American’ aspects to your music, or is this all taking place on a higher, more metaphorical level?
PS: My recent piece, Bits torn from words, written for Roomful of Teeth is a meditation on the 14 single consonants of the Korean alphabet. Musically, I was inspired in part by the oscillating quasi-wide vibrato of the ancient Korean p’ansori vocal tradition, which nearly requires the vocalist to damage their voice to achieve the distinct sound. The oscillation is also inspired, in part, by a recurring motif in Rihanna’s song ‘Love on the Brain’. I didn’t go into this with the intention to contrast my Korean and American influences, though. That just happens inherently, I guess. Also, these are just two of many other influences that don’t fit into a Korean/American binary that made its way into the piece.
TR-J: Presumably these issues of identity feel more important today than they did before 2016? Is that an urgency that you try to convey in your music?
PS: A sudden identity crisis in 2012 is what really confronted me with the two halves of my Korean American identity.
TR-J: Speaking of 2016, Screaming Shapes is apparently inspired by a poem by the cellist Nick Volpert that responds to the results of the presidential election. How did you come to that poem, and how does your music respond to it, and to its themes?
PS: I brought together a group of musician friends while I was studying at the University of Southern California because of the lack of interdisciplinary and interdepartmental collaborations in the school. Our first meeting happened to fall on the day after Trump was elected and one of the sopranos, Liya Khaimova, suggested we write out our thoughts to share in the following meeting. Nick, the cellist of the group, wrote a poem that sparked each of our musical interests. I broke up the poem into phrases and individually recorded each musician improvising a gesture based on each evocative phrase. I started messing around with the recordings and it existed as a purely electronic composition until I added a live quartet to perform on top of it.
TR-J: How do the live quartet and recorded/electronic quartet interact?
PS: I was intrigued by the idea of failure, both human and robotic. The failure of multiple sources in determining the outcome of this particular election, and, on another level, I wanted to challenge the idea of performance perfection that musicians aim for and magnify that anxiety. A theatrical version of Screaming Shapes ends with the cellist attempting to sound as perfectly as the electronic cello that it competes with, and a secondary audience screams out ‘not quite!’ at every attempt. In this concert version, the electronic quartet duels and commingles with the human quartet.
TR-J: Finally, I sense the influence of electronic dance music in your work – particularly in what I’m calling the ‘Steve Reich-dubstep’ section towards the end of Screaming Shapes. Is that correct? And if so, what are the challenges in drawing influences from EDM into instrumental concert music, and how do you deal with them?
PS: The biggest challenge to me is that it feels sterile listening to this particular section in a proper sit-down concert setting. The sort of epileptic tremolo filters and pulsations that happen throughout the piece were informed by an experience I had in a Chicago club where the lights were flickering so erratically that I lost depth perception. This also happens when I walk through a hallway with similarly flickering lights. It’s a neat sensation and I wanted to try and achieve that electronically which is most evident while listening to the purely electronic version with headphones due to the binaural panning. I would love there to be a choreographed light show to happen simultaneously and the bass to be amped up to really feel it in our bodies … Can we organize that?
TR-J: That sounds great – maybe next time! Peter, thanks so much for talking to us. We’re really looking forward to bringing your music to Nottingham.
Date: Mon 21st Oct, 2019 Time: 1.00pm Venue: Turner Sims, Highfield Campus, University of Southampton, SO17 1BJ Find out more here
Revolving around the Bass Clarinet and its massive expressive and dynamic range, this chamber concert features four members of Riot Ensemble’s Artistic Board in music that is every bit as wild as it is intimate.