A few moments with Peter S. Shin

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 itself.

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 fascinating process.

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.

Oi Kuu: Southampton

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. 

The bombastic duo’s for Bass Clarinet and Saxophone from American composers Lee Hyla and Marc Mellits are paired with European musing Oi Kuu (for a moon) from Kaija Saariaho and Thierry Pécou’s amorphous Manoa. 

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Oi Kuu: Manchester

Date: Thur 24th Oct, 2019
Time: 1.10pm
Venue: Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, University of Manchester, M13 9PL
Cost: Free | 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. 

The bombastic duo’s for Bass Clarinet and Saxophone from American composers Lee Hyla and Marc Mellits are paired with European musing Oi Kuu (for a moon) from Kaija Saariaho and Thierry Pécou’s amorphous Manoa. 

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HCMF: Evan Johnson

Date: Sat 16th November, 2019
Time: 7.00pm
Venue: St Paul’s Hall, University of Huddersfield, HD1 3DH
Cost: Tickets £15 – £18 available online

Evan Johnson‘s Linke Hand eines Apostels (Left hand of an apostle) is a reflection on a sketch by Albrecht Dürer, a drawing which attends feverishly to details of vein, bone, skin, draped folds of cloth, and an almost painful-looking torsion of joints and knuckles–details largely lost in the oil painting that resulted.

This is paired with a composition by Swedish composer, Lisa Streich whose piece ZUCKER (SHOCKER) for motorised ensemble and Israeli-Swiss composer Omri Abram‘s search for an equilibrium in his wind quintet, Zohar (Iridescence).

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HCMF: Ann Cleare Portrait

Date: Fri 15th November, 2019
Time: 9.30pm
Venue: Huddersfield Town Hall, Corporation St, Huddersfield, HD1 2TA
Cost: Tickets £15 – £18 available online

In the first of two concerts at hcmf// 2019, The Riot Ensemble paints a portrait of Ann Cleare, one of Ireland’s leading modern composers. The first Irish composer to win the Ernst von Siemens award, Cleare’s work is a dialogue: her music talks to its environment, as well as its listener, constantly being shaped by the course of nature itself. For this concert, the malleable setting of Huddersfield Town Hall will transform into an open-plan forum; audience members will be immersed in the space, discovering how it carries Cleare’s music. Consummate shape-shifters, The Riot Ensemble are the perfect group to play – and place – Ann Cleare’s music.

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Screaming Shapes

Date: Tues 22nd October, 2019
Time: 7pm
Venue: University Hall, Shakespeare Street, Nottingham, NG1 4FQ
Cost: Tickets £5-£15 available online from nonsuch studios

Groundbreaking brings the very best contemporary music from the world’s top composers to Nottingham. This programme features the ever-present “Pierrot plus percussion” lineup in music that has been commissioned and featured by Riot Ensemble on our Speak, Be Silent, release.

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Vantage Point

Date: Tues 17th March, 2020
Time: 7pm
Venue: Cardiff University Concert Hall, Cardiff (CF10 3EB)

Riot Ensemble makes our third appearance at Cardiff University, with an array of chamber songs spatialized throughout Cardiff University’s concert hall, punctuated by virtuosic solos from Berio (Sequenza XIV) and Donatoni (Soft).

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A few moments with Tom Coult

Our next concert will take place on 2 August, when Riot will be appearing at West Sussex’s Petworth Festival. On the programme will be works by Klaus Huber, Cassandra Miller, Gabriella Smith, Paul Burnell, and Siemens Music Prize-winner Ann Cleare, as well as a new work by Petworth composer Terence Allbright. Also featured will be a new set of piano miniatures, Inventions (For Heath Robinson), by rising star Tom Coult, which will be played by our very own Adam Swayne. Tim Rutherford-Johnson caught up with Tom to talk about his piece, his love of contraptions, and his forthcoming opera.

Tom Coult portait by Timothy Lutton

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Going right back to your piano trio The Chronophage of 2011, you seem to have been drawn to eccentric machineries – contraptions whose workings are perhaps more elegant and meaningful than their solutions. What is the attraction of objects like this for you?

Tom Coult: I find some kind of analogue between extravagantly over-designed machines with little to no function, and pieces of music – musical scores are incredibly complex things, containing vast amounts of information, meticulously crafted by the composer. Perhaps perversely, I enjoy the strange collision between the immense amount of work and technical craft that goes into a musical score and the generally short durations. And of course the fact that there is sometimes very little practical or commercial demand for this work to be done. I find it funny, in a way, but there’s also something beautiful and inspiring in a composer/inventor spending lots of time and effort and intellect on something that is simply designed to be wonderful as possible, or as enjoyable, or as strange. I enjoy beautiful answers to questions nobody asked.

Machines, traditionally, find a solution to a problem, or execute that solution more efficiently than other means.  If a piece of music is a ‘solution’, what tangible problem is it attempting to solve, and to what extent, realistically, does it constitute a meaningful solution? I find musical works, however ‘precise’ their composition and notation, a very imprecise tool for addressing problems – sometimes beautifully or productively imprecise of course. 

The Chronophage (‘time eater’) is the insect escapement on the Corpus Clock in Cambridge (I wrote the piece in 2011, having never spent any time in Cambridge and only having seen it on YouTube). Not all of the clock’s seconds are equal, so it’s a (deliberately) very poor attempt at telling time. But it is stunningly beautiful and compelling, and the craft and intricacy of it is amazing.

TR-J: I’m fascinated also by Frank L. Warrin’s French translation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which provides the title of your 2012 ensemble piece Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux. Translating nonsense from one language into another strikes me as a similarly quotidian endeavour. Is there something about that sense of ‘uselessness’ (in the best, Wildean sense) that appeals to you?

TC: Uselessness is a glorious thing once you embrace it … it’s provocative, and exciting – a translation of an English nonsense poem into nonsense French is pure play of language … there’s an ecstatic quality to using translation (which traditionally makes something useful) for sheer pleasure and creativity. 

I find it incredibly exciting when the brief for a commission is ‘fill these fifteen minutes of time with some music’. How do you make those minutes as wonderful as possible? The Wildean uselessness of art is effectively an assertion that pleasure and beauty are intrinsically worthwhile, maybe more worthwhile than anything else in the world. (Parenthetically – pleasure and beauty needn’t mean ‘prettiness’, though there’s nothing wrong with prettiness …)

There’s also a post-Adornian argument for uselessness – ‘insofar as a social function can be predicted for artworks, it is their functionlessness’ … he found there to be a subversive quality to art that exists outside capitalism’s desire for labour to result in profit (because ours is sure as hell not a profitable industry …). I’d probably align my work more with the flamboyant, Wildean form of aestheticism, and would never claim that my stuff is a meaningful critique of capitalism or anything (imprecise solutions to tangible problems and all that …), but I definitely feel that Adorno kind of aestheticism. A (probably doomed) attempt to create for its own sake in a crassly utilitarian world. I think that’s a worthwhile aim.

Incidentally, you’re very precise and correct to say it provided a title for that piece. A lot of the time these kind of inspirations provide me with titles for a piece, rather than the piece being quantifiably about this or that artist/work/machine. Using the title signals (performs?) an allegiance or alignment with something, or it’s drawing a link to shape how a listener might think of the piece and my motivations.

TR-J: In this context, Heath Robinson’s drawings would seem to be a perfect fit with your aesthetic. Where did you first encounter them, and what drew you to them in relation to your Inventions?

TC: I’ve always been interested in the word ‘Inventions’ as a generic title … it signals compositional craft, but also flights of fancy … the rigour of Bach’s Inventions as well as the imaginative conjuring of worlds that don’t exist yet. I sort of had the idea that these pieces would be ‘inventions’, then it made me think of the third suggestion of what ‘inventions’ can mean – mad inventors working on eccentric contraptions: Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Jacques de Vaucanson. The stereotype of mad hair and mad ideas and no sleep … the goggles and the apron.

Heath Robinson is all the detail and ingeniousness of a ‘productive’ inventor, with the productiveness surgically removed. A revered inventor – Edison, say – is revered for finding brilliant and carefully-considered answers to retrospectively important questions we didn’t know we were asking. But Heath Robinson’s inventions are brilliant and carefully considered answers to questions we would have been silly to ask in the first place. I love that.

TR-J: Robinson’s drawings – full of machinery and movement – always seem to me full of sound as well: the clackety-clack of wheels, the hiss of steam, the firing of pistols and so on. Does any of that sound world influence your Inventions? To what extent is there a musical relationship?

TC: There is a mechanical quality to parts of it – cogs in a machine move at different rates … you crank a wheel, the little cogs spin round at a certain rate, the medium ones they’re connected to move slower, the larger ones slower still … all going round doing their own little jobs at their own pace, like the planets in an orrery. That definitely happens in a few movements (‘Skeleton’, ‘Swing’). Then there are sewing machine-like, fast pieces, like ‘Stomp’ and ‘Staircase’, where the notes come thick and fast as if spurted out by a machine.

The other thing is that the piano itself is a machine – there are movements that play on specific characteristics of this huge, mad, music-making machine – how the pedals work, how the hands can and can’t behave and what that means for how the machine responds. 

TR-J: I’m conscious also that although we’ve been talking in terms of machinery the titles of many of your Inventions are actually quite human and/or bodily, rather than mechanical – stomp, shadow, sinews, skeleton, sing, etc. Could you say a little about where those titles come from and how they relate to one another?

TC: Most of them came after the movement took shape, or part-way through, as an evocative descriptor. Some are simple – ‘Sing’ is for one hand only, almost all in single notes, like it was written for an oboe or something … ‘Shadow’ has some loud notes that are constantly casting shadows, the same notes sounding a little later but very quietly. The shadows get longer as the movement/day goes on. Others are more oblique.

There’s a banal but satisfying thing (at least for me) about these titles – I recently noticed that of my acknowledged pieces, 40 per cent of them had titles beginning with the letter ‘S’. It started to irk me, so I’m trying not to do it anymore. But I thought this piece, though its title doesn’t, could be a sort of purge of lots of juicy words that begin with ’S’. So they all do … all single words as well. I decided that early on as well, so in some of them I even thought of the word first – ‘Spool is an interesting word, what would a movement with that title sound like?’. 

TR-J: I first spoke to you about your work a couple of years ago, for a composer profile for the BBC. Even then your career was moving fast; and since then you’ve had a First Night of the Proms premiere (St John’s Dance, 2017), and you have been working on an opera with Alice Birch for the Aldeburgh Festival and Music Theatre Wales. Where are things now, and how are you handling the demands of full-time composer-dom?

After this and alongside the opera you mention, I’m writing some music for the BBC Philharmonic in the coming years, starting with a violin concerto for Daniel Pioro. It has to be to do with gardens in some way – gardens, certainly the more decorative ones, are also arguably things that are subversively functionless … they exist for their own sake, to be wonderful on their own terms. 

I have indeed had the luxury of writing music largely full-time recently, which is a great privilege … I’m trying to not squander it and be productive, but I also sometimes wonder whether I could be equally or more productive if I was dodging my composition time around more other commitments. I don’t know the answer to that. 

Of course ‘full-time composer-dom’, at least in concert music, should always invite the important question, ‘Who Funds You?’ – the luxury of time is always built on something: institutional or academic support, prizes, private wealth and so on. In my case in the last two years I have been being paid as a ‘Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts’ by Trinity College Cambridge, which has allowed me to work mostly full time on composition. Between 2013 and 2015 I had an AHRC scholarship to do a PhD so was similarly supported. Above this the largest sum of money is commission fees, topped by bits and pieces of teaching, some money from royalties and hire fees, the odd bit of talking here and there. My Cambridge post ends soon and while I have a bit of a buffer because of some decent commission fees of late, ‘full-time composer-dom’ is not a condition which I expect to be continuous.

TR-J: The opera features another eccentric machine of a sort – a village that begins losing an hour from its day, every day, until after 24 days time stops completely. Are you able to say any more about how that story develops? And how have you found the process of moving up from mechanisms on the scale of your Inventions or even your ensemble pieces, up to the demands of a full-blown opera?

As you mention, it has a built-in structural process: the story is 24 days long, but those days get shorter and shorter, so Day 1 is 23 hours long, Day 2 is 22 hours long etc. There is no Day 24. 

I can say that the process can’t end … the character’s aren’t in a ‘race against time’ to try and solve this problem (in any case, in some otherwise brilliant ‘time going wrong’ stories – Russian Doll, Groundhog Day, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on – the rules of the game have such compelling weight that no resolution can hold its own … the solution is less interesting than the problem). I guess ours is closer to something like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in that way. 

It’s basically about Violet, our main character – she’s bored, in an unfulfilling life and domestic situation, in a parochial town where nobody leaves or arrives. Unlike everyone else, she’s elated … she’s the only one that finds this thrilling, that something is finally happening to her. The story follows her really – what does she do over twenty-four increasingly short days that seem to be the last of her and her town’s existence? 

I think, left to my own devices (even, god forbid, writing the text myself), the clocks/time thing would have attracted me anyway, but what is so rewarding about working with Alice is she’s found such complexity in the characters and how they react to this … that’s ultimately what it’s about, and she’s also found very evocative imagery in ideas of boats, leaving the village etc that make the whole thing richer. She’s also sprung an almighty formal challenge to me and the director towards the end which I won’t talk about, but this kind of provocation is the joy of collaborating …

Having words, especially such potent ones, helps a lot with the scaling-up process – I’m never starting with blank pages: scenes have shapes, there are in-built forms and structures in Alice’s writing that I can respond to, and characters and scenes have motivations. I’ve worked quicker with this than in other pieces, although it has still been a long process simply because of the length of time to fill for a slow composer!

TR-J: Thank you Tom – we’re really looking forward to giving the world premiere of these new piano pieces; they look a lot of fun!

For more details about this concert, and the Petworth Festival in general (there’s loads on, from 17 July to 3 August), please visit the festival website.