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.

Photo du 60128790-08- à 16.42

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

Cover

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.

Meeting Tim Rutherford-Johnson

We’re completely delighted to welcome Tim to our artistic board. As well as composing poetic and illuminating programme notes to our concerts, Tim brings an academic slant to our programming as well as a keen contextual eye on our activities within a wider contemporary scene.

Tim has just published (with University of California Press) ‘Music after the Fall’ – the first detailed survey of western art music in the post-Cold War era. He is also the editor for ‘Sounds Like Now’ – a brand new independent magazine devoted to contemporary classical music which launches its first issue in May. You can also follow his highly regarded blog here.

Alex Ross has called Tim ‘probably the most authoritative international chronicler of the composed music of our time’.

Pretty impressive stuff, we think you’ll agree. But how will he fare with the really big questions, such as ‘favourite 007’ or ‘mayonnaise or salad cream’? You can find out below …

Riot_Tim2
In what ways have you Rioted so far?
I’m the group’s in-house writer; so far I’ve written notes to four Riot concerts, with more to come. As a new member of the artistic board I’ve also thrown in a few Riotous programming suggestions.
Teenage tearaway, or nerdy note-learner?
Oh, I was a proper nerd – books, science, music, the lot.
Favourite musician?
Toss-up between Olivier Messiaen and Kim Gordon.
Favourite performance venue?
Anything off the beaten track: small rooms in the back of pubs, that sort of thing. Hawksmoor’s churches in London are always special places to listen too.
People have said this about me …
“That T-shirt makes you look pregnant.” – my daughter.
Strictly or X Factor?
Bake Off.
The best 007 is …
Roger Moore is the most fun, but Daniel Craig has made the better films. I wish they’d had the courage to make Skyfall the last Bond; that was a perfect ending.
Salad cream or mayonnaise?
Mayo. With chips.
I would most like to Riot about …
Arts funding. Inequality. The environment.
Many thanks, Tim!

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

A few moments with Liza Lim

It’s my pleasure to be giving this Friday the UK Premiere of Liza Lim’s violin concerto, Speak, Be Silent.  Liza is a generous composer and collaborator, and I’ve been an admirer of her music for a long time, so it was a particular pleasure to spend a day working on the piece with her, and asking her a few questions in advance of our performance.

the opening of Lim's "Speak, Be Silent"

the opening of Lim’s “Speak, Be Silent”

Sarah Saviet: Hi Liza, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. We are incredibly excited to give the UK premiere of your piece Speak, Be Silent for solo violin and ensemble. Where does the title come from, and does it give any hint to our readers as to what they can expect from the piece?

Liza Lim: The title comes from a version of Rumi made by Coleman Barks:

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.
     – Jalaluddin Rumi, excerpt fr. Mathnawi V: 3195-3219
     version by Coleman Barks 

The piece is a ‘concerto’ – a rather classical formation! But my take on this was to make a piece that plays with ideas of union and separation – to find ways of exploring how rather different things can be in the same space to make a unison and to see how divergence and convergence are in dialogue and relate to each other. After speaking, comes listening … and then the ecstasy of an internal singing.

Speak, Be Silent was commissioned for and premiered by Ensemble Contrechamps in 2015. We will be the second ensemble to perform this piece. What is it like to hear your music played approached for the first time by musicians who didn’t give the premiere, and how is your participation in the rehearsal process different (or similar)?

I’m excited to hear you (Sarah) with Riot Ensemble and your take on the work. It is amazing how different a piece of music can be from one musician and performance to the next and actually, I love the non-static nature of that. Interpretation and style are important components of how all musics are communicated and I think the sonic-time arts are particularly seismographic to who, how, where, and when something is happening – that unrepeatable specialness of time-place-person in the  process of performing and as an intersection of the energies of the people involved, is so incredibly interesting. In terms of rehearsal, every situation can be different – I suppose with a premiere, there is a more open space for creating the language of the work but that quality of ‘creation’ could and should be there no matter how many times a piece has been played – it’s up to the imagination, vitality, and sensitivity of the performers. In rehearsals, I listen!

whatever this is

from Ensemble Modern’s recent premiere of Lim’s “Ronda – The Spinning World”

You frequently write for non-Western (ie non-European) instruments; for example, sheng, Hardanger fiddle, and most recently Walter Smetak’s ‘Sound Sculptures’ (for an upcoming premiere with Ensemble Modern).  In comparison, the instrumentation for Speak, Be Silent consists mainly of Western orchestral instruments. How does your compositional process differ when you are writing for familiar instruments, as opposed to instruments that you are exploring for the first time while writing the piece?

I try to find some unfamiliar aspect to all instruments that I write for – often some lateral perspective, some ‘secret view’ of the instrument in terms of how it’s played or sounds, provides an important point of inspiration to me. The more seemingly familiar an instrument is, the more potential I think it has of surprising me and prompting unexpected creative responses. The cello, for instance, is an instrument very much known to me in an internalized way and I’ve explored many different preparations: of wrapping hair around the bow, or by tying cotton threads to the strings, as techniques to de-familiarize the instrument (anyway, a very well-trodden modernist path!) and through that, found ways of opening up some new aesthetic priorities for my music, for example: an aesthetics of shimmer, or a way of phrasing which hesitates and breathes in a certain way. The element of ‘making strange’ or ‘making unknown’ that might be more obvious when composing for a non-Western or an invented instrument is pursued in all of my music as a way of arriving at some kind of perceptual shift (even if small) – rather than it being about writing for ‘weird’ instruments per se.

In Speak, be Silent, I retuned the bottom string of the instrument to increase the ‘throaty’ quality of the string and this is for me the access point to making a connection between the woodblock (a very basic ‘violin’) and the violin in the piece. I try to find links between the identities of these two instruments using the rasp stick on the woodblock as a bow and having moments in the solo violin where the sound catches and distorts – it’s not a complete match and I keep it quite subtle but in that gap between sameness and difference, I glimpse something which for me is the essence of the piece.

You were recently appointed Professor of Composition at the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. This is a unique post as you will be closely involved in SCM’s national women composer’s development programme. What advice could you offer towards ensembles and performers who would like to support the development of women composers? Is it significant to simply programme works by women composers, or are there other actions that might be important to consider?

The Sydney University/Conservatorium programme is an exciting one to be involved in because it takes a bold approach to addressing gender inequality.

I think basic inclusion is the first step (otherwise it’s all talk, no action …). I think we’re still (still!) working on a basic shift in perception in terms of gender (and other) equalities, hence the need for tools that change those frameworks – quotas where one commits to inclusion allow one to ‘make’ the result straight away so one can see what that looks like. Through that, you normalize a culture where women and men are given space and access to cultural resources. (When one puts it that way, it really does become very clear why this is essential.)

I think having role models is also important – visibility is a very powerful thing – especially in our age of images. I’m pleased to be working more to address gender equality issues; I’ve been doing quite a lot of mentoring of women composers recently at a grass roots level in Australia as well as a programme with Speak Percussion in Melbourne. I’ve been inspired by my colleagues at Huddersfield University – Liz Dobson and Lisa Colton; by the work and research led by Ashley Fure and others at 2016 Darmstadt, as well as by the work of colleagues like Cat Hope at Monash University and composers like Chaya Czernowin, Olga Neuwirth, like Rebecca Saunders and Anna Thorvaldsdottir who you’ve also programmed in this concert, and many, many others.

Liza garden, Feb2017

Liza Lim, in her garden

Occasionally you make a blog post that includes pictures of your incredibly gorgeous vegetable and flower garden. How do you pick which plants to grow?

I have a very small garden in the front yard – it’s basically 2×2 metres and I like to plant in a very dense way using horizontal and vertical space (that way there are no weeds and the theory is that biodiversity helps keep pests in check – they eat each other!). It’s fun to grow things you can eat and I choose heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, chillies, beans, greens, and herbs; the flowers bring the bees in; and because it’s the front garden, it’s quite a public space so lots of people passing by stop to chat – it becomes a rather social zone.

That sounds lovely to us – especially to those of us in London!  We’re excited to see you and work with you this week, Liza.  Thanks so much for your time!

A few moments with Anna Thorvaldsdottir

We hugely enjoyed performing Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s piece ‘Shades of Silence’ during our last concert in Brixton, so we’re immensely looking forward to presenting her ‘Ró’ on March 3rd at The Warehouse, Waterloo. Anna is commissioned and performed all over the world, so we’re really grateful to her for taking time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions. Read her interview below, and check out her website here.

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You’re an Icelandic composer but you’ve studied in the U.S. and now you live in London. Where do you think your artistic heart lies?

Well, I can’t say I feel that my artistic heart belongs to a geographical place per se – for me it is much more of an inner search for a soundworld. It is very precious to be inspired by different places but I don’t feel that the places I stay in, or live in, bound me or define me artistically. But I will of course always be Icelandic because that is where my roots lie.

We have been working on two of your pieces: ‘Shades of Silence’ and ‘Ró’. These are scored for wildly different ensembles. Can you give us a flavour of the soundworld you’re creating in each piece?

It is always important to me to listen to what the music wants and needs each time, and this often depends on the instrumentation of course and sometimes the occasion for which the piece is written. But my soundworlds are always born from the same inwards place in a sense although they are of course different for each piece. The characteristics of Shades of Silence are for example inspired by the airy and light notion of baroque string instruments because the piece was initially commissioned by an ensemble that performs on baroque instruments, so the lightly pulsating characteristics of the piece are inspired by that. And was inspired by a search for calm through various musical means which are carried by a stream of harmony and sound materials that are born from various attacks on the larger and smaller scale within the piece.

You’re very well known for your huge orchestral landscapes. Do you feel more at home in a symphonic medium than writing for smaller forces?

I very much enjoy writing for larger forces and orchestras and playing with the colors of many instruments has always been a very big and a natural passion for me. My musical voice tends to be geared towards instrumentations that have the capabilities to create sound structures and sustained harmonies, and there are of course many variations of smaller instrumentations that can very well do that which I very much enjoy writing for as well and feel at home within. But writing for the orchestra is always a special treat and a big passion of mine.

I see you’ve got performances in Vancouver and Paris in the same month as our concerts. Are you at home with travelling as much as your music is?

I travel very much for my music but the music is being performed very often and quite widely so I am not able to attend all performances, but I try to attend the largest performances and premieres the best I can.

Do you think Iceland will beat England at football next time they meet?

Probably not 🙂

We’ll see … Many thanks, Anna!

A few moments with Oliver Brignall

A couple weeks ago, we spent two days at Brunel University workshopping a scene Oliver Brignall’s new opera Palace of Junk.  

Palace of Junk

The multi-media opera retells the terrifying tale of the Collyer Brothers (do not follow that link lightly!)  Oliver’s music is as beautiful and haunting as the story, and we’re really excited to premiere this scene at Mahogany Opera Groups Various Stages Festival on 24th February.  We got to ask Oliver a few questions about the music in advance…

Hello Oliver, and thanks for answering these questions. The ensemble’s really enjoyed working with you on your new opera ‘Palace of Junk’. How’s the collaboration been from your perspective?

Hi! It’s been an enormous pleasure to collaborate with Riot again; I’ve been working on the opera for over a year, so as I’m sure you can imagine I was pretty nervous (but excited) to finally get the full ensemble together in a room!

Scene 4 - Homer & Langley

Page 1 of Oliver’s Score

I was blown away with everyone’s commitment to the piece. The entire opera is to be performed without a conductor, with all direction coming from within the ensemble so on the surface the score could potentially be quite daunting, especially as it is written in a sort of hybrid of traditional notation and a more free time/space notation. It was great having Aaron on hand to direct the rehearsals, helping with the initial navigation of the piece and offering some rehearsal pointers. It was also fantastic to be able to workshop different ideas with all involved, resulting in some important yet necessary changes being made to the scene.

You combine your composing work with performance work as a professional tenor. Does this practical experience inform or change the way you write music?

I feel that they have both influenced each other in different ways. I guess most importantly, despite my continuing compositional interest in ‘music on the edge’, the borderline between sound and silence for example, my experiences as a performer have ensured that the notes on the page are presented as clearly and idiomatically as possible, even if asking for something on the border of the realms of possibility.

My taste in performers and performance style, informed by my own experiences as a professional singer, has also been influenced by and continues to influence my music. I am increasingly less interested in this idea of perfect ‘studio quality’ live performances, much preferring the excitement of a voice or instrumentalist on the edge. Many of my favourite singers, golden age superstars such as Mario Del Monaco sang in a way that was so utterly thrilling yet so far removed from modern ideas of a ‘safe’ performance. Consequently, in performance sometimes it worked sometimes it was less successful. I take huge amounts of inspiration from this kind of sound, using it as a base level for most of my work in an attempt to create a resulting style that is consistently inconsistent and celebrates the act of performing over a clinical precision led style.

You’ve chosen to set the true and rather sad tale of the Collyer brothers who famously filled their Manhattan abode with all manner of (un)collectables. However, your score is quite the opposite of cluttered. Can you give us a window into your compositional processes?

One of the first things to strike me about the story of the Collyer brothers was just how much music they must have had in their lives. Amongst the belongings removed from the house were literally tonnes of musical detritus including 14 grand pianos (represented in the opera electronically – a live, constantly reacting series of piano related resonances and cascades), countless instruments and piles and plies of sheet music and records, there was also an apocryphal story that their mother was a society singer.

The harmonic language of the whole opera is based on the musical items found in the house (Bessie Smith records, Sheet music for Chopin’s Etudes etc) creating a kind of collection of musical items from which the piece is built. Rather than cluttered with a patchwork of gestural musical ideas, the sound leans more towards a spectral style, with timbral and homophonic elements as a musical centre. I imagine that the end result of the electronics together with the spectral nature of the harmony might suggest an idea of claustrophobia but it’s not an intentionally explicit part of the work.

In terms of the score, as mentioned briefly above, I try and keep the presentation on the page as clear as possible. The score leans slightly in the direction of tablature, with the (often noisy and unpredictable) resultant sound rarely reflected in the written notes. I hope that the writing on the page however, suggests both a musical direction and a physical intention for the performer.

Mahogony Opera Group’s ‘Various Stages’ Festival on February 24th showcases work by a range of composers at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 1-8pm. Can you give us a flavour of what to expect?

 This is an unbelievably exciting festival. There are six showcased pieces in total (four, like this selected from an open call) hugely varied in scope and style. Whilst I feel unbelievable privileged to be involved – I’m also super excited to see and hear everything else that will be put on!

So, do you share any personality traits with the Collyers? For example, are you an obsessive hoarder?

Haha! Yes, good question! I’m sure artists of all kinds will agree that they are somewhere on the spectrum of obsessiveness. I’d be the first to admit that I have an extremely obsessive nature and it was definitely something that I wanted to look at with this piece.

I’m no hoarder per se but I have a weakness for records and CD’s, making any record shop my first port of call whenever I travel! As a result, they take up a pretty huge portion of my house. Arranged alphabetically, chronologically and by genre of course…

Do you live in semi-seclusion?

A city boy through and through!

Have you booby-trapped your house?

 Come for tea and find out?!

Many thanks, Ollie (we think … )!