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.

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.

Speak, Be Silent: A Testament to Riot Ensemble’s Vision and Artistry

Jarret Goodchild reviewed our latest album Speak, Be Silent for the new music blog I Care If You Listen, declaring it “a testament to Riot Ensemble’s vision and artistry.” Read the review below or check out it out here.

Since 2012, the London-based Riot Ensemble has given over 200 world and UK premieres and has become a spearhead at the forefront of new music. Forward thinking and creative, their Artistic Board members are also some of the top musicians and soloists in Europe. They are in constant motion, acting as curators, composers, performers, and commissioners for Riot Ensemble. The group’s latest album, Speak, Be Silent (HCR), is a collection of pieces that shows off the outstanding capabilities of the ensemble as well as the powerful voices of the composers they help to promote.

The album borrows its name from Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent. The piece features violinist Sarah Saviet, one of Riot Ensemble’s principal artists and Artistic Directors. Throughout the work, there are multiple moments where the instruments of the ensemble cascade over each other like waves. The effect is like the aural version of colored lights gradually changing hues, while at other times, it is like fireworks outshining each other. Frenetic bursts give way to feelings of melancholy, and eventually, Lim takes the listener to a new, more sparse sonic landscape. During these exposed moments, the solo violin is predominantly featured with long swaths of color, emerging intermittently from the rest of the ensemble. Saviet’s performance is fantastic–Lim’s writing demands extreme agility and precision, and Saviet delivers.

Liza Lim--Photo by Jim Rolon
Liza Lim–Photo by Jim Rolon

Chaya Czernowin’s Ayre: Towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of opens the album. The poetic title is an excellent reflection of the music. The sounds Czernowin creates seem familiar and foreign at the same time. The repeated musical material seems to be dragged through the different hazards of the title. All movement is slow and compressed down to a miniscule range for much of the piece, with tones climbing over each other like rungs on a ladder.

In contrast, Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy is fun, playful, and often erratic. Mirela Ivičevićachieves this feeling with percussive notes and sliding gestures across the ensemble. As this piece progresses, the tension mounts with an explosive texture. The sounds Ivičević is able to pull out of the ensemble are marvelous!

 by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir takes the listener in the opposite direction with long, dark, undulating tones that support eerie motives. The music is slow, methodical, and phrased in one long, gentle arc. Everything feels very carefully placed and deliberately moves through its paces. The interwoven rhythmic intricacy in Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy coupled with the care to tone, nuance, and balance in  exemplifies the caliber of the performers and displays what makes Riot Ensemble so special.

Riot Ensemble
Riot Ensemble

The last track on the album is not an exclamation point, but rather more like a question mark. Rebecca Saunders’ Stirrings Still II slinks along in a similar way to , but is more sparse and extremely intimate. The dialogues Saunders has created sound either like whispers or guttural growls. The string effects give this sonic construction a silvery exterior, and the mood is a reflective one. Saunders does an amazing job of pulling the listener in and suspending all sense of time.

You can order the album here

Couch to Sequenza XII: An interview with Ruth Rosales

The great Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925–2003) wrote thirteen Sequenzas for solo instruments, from voice to accordion (fourteen if you count his arrangement of the clarinet’s Sequenza IX for alto saxophone). They are among the pinnacles of the repertory for solo musicians – contemporary equivalents to Bach’s cello suites, or Liszt’s piano études. They also happen to match pretty closely the make-up of our artistic board (although no Sequenza for solo writer, alas). What better project for Riot, then, to record new versions of as many of them as we can?

Well, of course, we’re going one further than that. Over a few days in August we will be working with Four/Ten Media to film nearly all fourteen Sequenzas, as well as a few other pieces for members of our artistic board for whom Berio didn’t plan.

One of the newest members of our board, bassoonist Ruth Rosales, is in at the deep end with the legendarily difficult Sequenza XII, twenty minutes of non-stop circular breathing, flutter-tonguing, ‘Berio trills’, glissandi and other distinctly unusual bassoon techniques. I spoke to her at the end of April 2019 about how her preparations – by this stage she had been working on the piece for around nine months …

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: This is supposed to be the hardest of the Sequenzas

Ruth Rosales: This is what people say, which fills me with absolute fear! It’s definitely the longest and you’re meant to circular breathe for twenty minutes. I think I’ve got to five minutes of the total so far but usually I go wrong at that point so … Circular breathing [a way of breathing out continuously, by blowing out from your cheeks while you breathe in through your nose] is something I’d never tried before, and I am finding it really tricky.

TR-J: Is it a stamina thing?

RR: Initially it was just keeping the airflow going. There would always be this break in the sound – at first there was a huge break, and then it was getting smaller as I was used to blowing the air out of my cheeks and then going back to blowing air out of my lungs. Then that got smaller and smaller – which I was delighted with because I wasn’t sure if that was ever going to happen – and now I’ve got a consistent sound, which I’m just relieved has happened. My current problem is that forcing the air out of your cheeks makes the pitch go up a little bit, I suppose because the airflow gets faster, and I feel like I don’t have as much control over that.

The thing I found really interesting when I was learning to circular breathe was that you have to breathe all the excess air out as well. You have to blow the air out of your cheeks and get rid of all the air that you have in your lungs so that you get fresh breaths, otherwise you start to hyperventilate and you just get the top of your lungs filling up.

Something I’m finding really tricky is the flutter-tonguing. I have to make sure I’ve cleared my lungs and taken a few fresh breaths so I’ve got enough power to get through five crotchets-worth of flutter-tonguing.

TR-J: When you were learning did you go straight onto the instrument? People do all these exercises with straws in drinks and so on…

RR: Yeah, I went round to Philip [Haworth]’s house and spent a couple of hours in hysterics trying to learn. We started with just a reed, and then a crook as well. It was a bit ridiculous because you’re having to maintain this sound that is hilariously awful, like a ship coming in, honking away!

After that I just did it against my hand, breathing out and feeling the air continuously on my hand. That was a useful way to feel how that was working. But putting a reed in your mouth – obviously then you’ve got an embouchure that you need to maintain, and the airflow is so different. It took me absolutely ages, and hopefully by August I’m going to be fabulous!

The Sequenza is incredibly far from finished, and it’s insane how much work has gone into it for it to sound as unfinished as it does. But what is cool is … something like circular breathing you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, and then all of a sudden you can do it. And it’s an incredible sense of achievement, even if it’s not great – I can do something that I couldn’t do before. That’s been really amazing.

My sister ran the London Marathon yesterday, and it involved a lot of training and she got to the end and she’s a dream woman. This is my marathon! I’ve got so much more training to do, and I need a running coach and I need lessons, but then it’s going to be my marathon day on 26 August. That’s how I feel about it.

TR-J: Is this the hardest thing you’ve ever done, physically?

RR: With regards to bassoon playing, yes. Maintaining the embouchure through flutter-tonguing, circular breathing and everything like that – I didn’t realise that every breath you take gives you a little break on your embouchure, but in this piece you’re having to keep it, keep it, keep it whilst you’re changing air pressure and your tongue and all these things, and you’re having to maintain this strength. That’s definitely a challenge for my lips.

I also used to be asthmatic, and I have this thing where I panic and I stop breathing. Like if I’m doing a sporting event that I think I’m not going to be able to complete I start breathing at the top of my breath – and I started having that feeling with the circular breathing. Which again is why I needed to learn to breathe out as well. It’s going to be a bit of a mental game.

TR-J: As well as the breathing, the rest of the music is not exactly straightforward. How are you putting it together – the stamina, the circular breathing, the fingering?

RR: The really cool thing, which is something that a friend said to me, is that once you’ve got the first page down, the rest of it links on. You’ve learnt that first bit and it links to the other bits. So that’s a relief!

TR-J: In the face of all that, are you enjoying it?

RR: If I’m honest, while I was learning to circular breathe, no. Because I was panicked. I was really aware that I could not even do the breathing, let alone play the notes. But about 10 days ago I started to really enjoy it, and I felt there was a strong possibility that I will be able to do this. I feel like I’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do, but I feel like this is something I can do. And it’s so cool to be learning something so different and so difficult. To be learning so many new techniques at the age of 33 – that’s amazing. I wonder how I’ll sound in August when it’s the month, whether I’ll sound as positive!

Also I’ve decided that in order to circular breathe you need to be fit, so I need to get on it with my running and my swimming and all of my exercise. And I’m not allowed to get ill because you need to have a clear nasal passage! This is going to be an ordeal if I’ve got a cold – I have to be well.

TR-J: Stock up on the Sudafed.

RR: Or have someone come in with a conductor’s baton with a tissue on the end to wipe my nose.

TR-J: At least your marathon is over in 20 minutes, there is that …

RR: Hopefully – unless I have to do it over and over to get it right! I’ve got a three-hour slot, so it could be a three-hour marathon!

A few moments with Play for Progress’s Alyson Frazier

On 8th April we invite you to the Crypt on the Green to celebrate the launch of our third CD, Speak, Be Silent, our first release on Huddersfield Contemporary Records. You can pre-order the CD here.

Riot Ensemble artists will play solo works by each of the composers represented on the CD: Rebecca SaundersLiza LimAnna ThorvaldsdottirMirela Ivičevič, and Chaya Czernowin. Doors at 7:00pm, music from 7:30pm. Please stay afterwards for drinks (there will be a cash bar) and conversation.

The concert will be free (but please RSVP here). In lieu of tickets we will be collecting donations to support Play for Progress, a charity that delivers therapeutic and educational music programmes for traumatized and socially isolated unaccompanied minor refugees. Flautist Alyson Frazier, a Play for Progress co-founder, took time out from her demanding work to talk to us about what the charity does and why its work is so important.

Frazier, working with children in Thailand, 2015

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Alyson, and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! To begin with, can you briefly outline what Play for Progress is all about?

Alyson Frazier: Play for Progress offers a programme of creative music and arts activities complemented by therapeutic, educational, and practical support. In partnership with the Refugee Council Children’s Section our work seeks to combat refugees’ isolation, develop their confidence, self-expression and sense of community, and deepen and extend the webs of support they have to rely upon so as to improve their social and emotional well-being.

We are tirelessly working to build a community of mutually trusting and resilient citizens of the world (kids, tutors and support staff, Allies in Art, donors, and volunteers alike) who learn from, celebrate, and support one another at every opportunity, especially through music, learning, creative play, and sharing.

Ours is a service delivery organization that incorporates well-being support and advocacy that is based on the strong trust and relationships that we build with individual young people during our weekly activities. Every week we run group instrumental jam sessions, 1-on-1 private lessons, recording/arranging/writing (RAW) classes, creative arts therapy, 1-on-1 therapy sessions, and voice expression classes. Several times a term we also host our #AlliesInArt series, external performances (catch us at the V&A on June 16th!), outings to cultural events in London, half-term projects, and holiday residentials.

TR-J: Why is a charity like this needed?

AF: All of these teens endured harrowing experiences as they journeyed to get here, and upon arriving discovered that this land of ‘safety’ is not yet open to them, and that the process of gaining asylum is itself lengthy, unpredictable, traumatic, and not even guaranteed. While their applications are evaluated many of these young people are placed in ill-equipped, over prescribed, and impermanent accommodation in and around Croydon/South London. Only some are given access to formal education and mental health provision.

We have discovered through our work with this exceedingly vulnerable community that the systems presently in place are insufficient to care for their varied and rightfully demanding needs. We want to be there for them, to help them connect with and build trusting relationships with peers and adults alike and offer ways for them to healthily and safely release tensions and process trauma so that they can begin to transition from surviving to thriving. We want to offer them a place of respite, safety, and care; a holding place while we work to inform care systems of gaps in their services, and help to develop solutions.

TR-J: Where does music fit in? What benefits can it offer to young people within the asylum system?

AF: In order to answer that question I have to lay out the context:

Children caught in war and violence are traumatized. Their education has been interrupted, was limited or non-existent, and their emotional and intellectual growth during crucial years of development have been impacted devastatingly by the traumas they have experienced. When they arrive they are wary, face extreme challenges with language, and feel extremely isolated and under threat.

Music has an exceptional ability to get to the core of a human. By engaging in group music making and movement you can bypass (and harness the benefits of) language barriers and social anxieties in a way that simply isn’t possible outside of the medium. You can rally a room into working together to express itself, create a united vision, give voice to individuals, and more, faster and more deeply than by using any other art form.

It’s also an exceedingly bonding experience, and in this world of difference, sharing and passing on our cultural traditions through oral traditions is a precious thing. It’s all about subtext: if someone offers to teach you their Kurdish dance, they are not just saying ‘want to dance?’; they are welcoming you into their cultural space, offering you a connection to their home (which will surely be filled with tension and deep, complex emotions), their self. Further, they have identified you as someone with whom they feel safe, and with whom they want to share this often hidden part of themselves. There is nothing more precious and deeply meaningful than the intimate sharing of the self through those elements that make you you.

Music provides an outlet for creative thinking, a means for emotional processing and release, and a method of encouraging positive challenges of the self (a rare experience for these vulnerable young people who tend encounter exclusively threatening challenges). Making music, developing your creative languages, and practising group art-making in its many forms unlocks the gates to self-appreciation, self-exploration, and self-expression, and enhances communal appreciation, expression, and development. PFP programmes are designed to encourage and enable these children to find enjoyment and respite from trauma in making music, exploring cultural traditions, collaborating with peers, and exploring their own creative and musical voices.

TR-J: What takes place in your classes? How do you see the musical and therapeutic sides interacting?

AF: Our students can choose to learn the flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, violin, cello, piano, drums, voice, and music production. They also engage with varied art forms through our creative arts therapy classes, which continue to work with rap, poetry, shadow puppetry, dance, beatboxing, and visual arts.

Everything we do incorporates musicianship games, improvisation, sharing, jamming, different methods of learning and reading music, and a lot of work by ear. Further, the practice of being an audience member is vitally important. These young people are very rarely (if ever) given the space to be heard, really listened to, by a group of sympathetic and caring humans. As such, a huge part of our classes is the ‘sharing’ portion, in which every young person has the opportunity to share what they’ve learned that day, whether that be performing a piece they’ve been working on for weeks, or showing they’ve learned how to hold a bow and allow an open string to ring. We all celebrate their achievement with whoops and hollers, and it has a magical effect on that young person – you can visibly see stress build and release, you can see a change in their confidence, and you can see them feeling something special and different about that experience. It deeply bonds the group and identifies the space as something beyond the norm.

It’s so important to have friends and allies appreciate and acknowledge your accomplishments, especially when your family can’t be there. For this reason we also put on end-of-term  showcases to celebrate out incredible students. July 24th is this year’s and all are welcome! Send an email to a.frazier@playforprogress.com with RSVP Showcase in the title and we will be glad to have you join us for the evening.

TR-J: Do you have any particular experiences you can share of sessions – any good stories?

AF: I think it’s best to let the kids speak for themselves. So here are some soundbites they’ve offered at various points of working with us.

Thank you so much. That is why I came to day. Today I do not forget the people who is love me. And I have to grow up my flower on top of stone some time. Anyway thank you so much for make me happy, you all such a wonderful doctors not musicians. I proud of you. To change people life from bad story from the past. The meaning of Play for Progress is start creative life with good consequences to live.

A violin student

I love everything [about PFP]. When I come to class I learning with the teacher so after that everyone do together. I love this because makes me happy. I’m very interested in everything.

A piano student about our weekly Friday sessions

Today was great!! And performance of music in front of people was excited and a moment I thought I’m Tom Cruise! And dreams something like that. So thank you for all that you’ve done for us. 

A clarinet student after performing at the V&A (June 2018)

Your class makes me feel safe and part of something good. I can forget my missing of my home, my mother. I can forget feeling alone and scared. I thank you, each of you, you make me happy, you make me forget, with you I feel safe, it is so good what you do for us, for me, I thank you. 

A violin and piano student (2017)

TR-J What sorts of music and artists do you engage with? Are there certain types of music that work better than others?

AF: We work with all sorts! From a Congolese fusion band, a Ghanaian afro jazz/funk band, and a 5-piece swing band complete with dancers, to a Flamenco pair, and a Caribbean carnival band. We encourage musicians and artists who want to engage with the community but don’t know how to participate in our #AlliesInArt series: our once-monthly set for external musicians to perform at the Refugee Council and engage with the young people as they would with any other audience. Whether it’s traditional Kurdish music that gets the kids up and dancing, or some smooth jazz that soothes them, it’s a great way to break the ice, groove, and get to know one another.

When it comes to our own performances, the kids bring tunes that they love (whether folk from home, or pop tunes from abroad), and we arrange it specifically for our ensemble make up. Sometimes kids will write their own works too, which we help them to devise. At a recent performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, we performed a work by a student who built a composition around a poem he’d written. It yielded some astoundingly beautiful moments of unity and trust when he encouraged younger participants to engage in the free-form improv section and add their voice to his own, which seamlessly transitioned into our raucous arrangement of a Hindi tune that it turned out a huge number of our kids knew already, despite being from incredibly disparate parts of the world (Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq). Go figure! But it tickled me completely that we all united with this Bollywood tune, presenting our own composite joy in music making and in each other.

TR-J: How open are the young people to what you are doing?

AF: Brilliantly, our kids are exceedingly vocal about what they want, and we find that once they feel comfortable in our sessions, the requests and recommendations flow, and we just have to keep up with them!

How and when we expand what activities deliver is dependent upon what the kids say they want. We noticed that many organisations have been set up, and this vulnerable group is expected to slot into it. But the reality is that that structure leaves many young people out on a limb and without sufficient support. Thanks to our smaller size and relative newness, we are able to adapt swiftly and directly to their needs and wants, and achieve high consistency of attendance.

TRJ: Finally, do you follow what happens to the young people after they leave the asylum system? How do you think music benefits them in their future lives?

AF: Our oldest participants are only just now turning 18 and facing the trials and traumas that come with the unacceptably young leaving care age of 18. We are learning with them the numerous and varied challenges and triggers that arise at this time, and we are swiftly working to develop and formalise the advocacy sides of our work so that we can 1) provide support to young people as they ‘age-out’ of the traditional care system 2) influence policy change (including changing the leaving care age) and improve the status quo through compiled documentation of the experiences of our community and guidance on best practices. This community is very much underserved and under researched, having been entered into the normal care system without additional provisions for their ‘asylum-seeker specific’ needs.

In terms of following what happens to our young people, once we develop a relationship with them, we will sustain it. Thus far, young people who have gone on to prepare to sit uni entrance exams will still attend external performances and cheer our younger kids on. They will come to sessions occasionally and bring friends who are new to the country so that they can also begin to build a community, and they grow into leadership positions within our organisation. Learning from and discussing with them about the roles they might want to take on, and how we could support that by developing roles within our organisation for them is something we are working on now.

Click to learn more about Play for Progress. If you can’t make it on 8th April you can donate to the charity directly.

A few moments with Nicole Lizée

We are delighted to be bringing an all-Canadian portrait concert to the Spitalfields Winter Festival, featuring music by Christopher Mayo, Richard Reed Parry, and Nicole Lizée. Canada is the home of some of the world’s most exciting new music right now, so it is a real thrill for us to be able to perform these three composers.

Lizée’s Black MIDI was written for the Kronos Quartet and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but we will be presenting it here in a new version for ensemble, alongside Mayo’s Beast (for Hugo Ball) and Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Let’s begin with the piece of yours we are going to play, Black MIDI. Where did you first encounter black MIDI music? What drew you to it particularly, and what compositional potential did you sense it had for you?

Nicole Lizée: I came across it maybe three or four years ago – probably in a software forum (nerd alert). I was drawn to its beauty, audacity, and mysticism – and because it is so esoteric. It is limited as a genre as it’s really just one thing: the process of entering thousands of notes with the sole goal of crashing one’s system. Its limitations made it perfect to create a new work from. There are so many unknowns about it – and my mind started looking to the darkness and spirituality of it, even if it doesn’t actually exist. It’s also rooted in malfunction, which is always exciting to me.

TR-J: Did that sense of its potential change in the course of your composing?

As I was writing the piece I began to completely immerse myself in interpreting the genre in my own way and sort of transforming it beyond any sonic or visual preconceptions. It quickly evolved into an idea of designing a TV series or a documentary fictionalizing Black MIDI. Creating scenarios and writing scripts – completely fabricating the social, cultural, and possibly spiritual, implications.

TR-J: One of the most interesting aspects of your piece, I think, is that it goes beyond a, let’s say, ethnographic study of the black MIDI phenomenon (analogous to Bartók and his folk tunes, for example), and extrapolates a whole narrative scenario in which a mysterious ‘black MIDI’ plays a central role. What process led you in this direction? When did you decide to include film alongside the music, for example?

I knew right away it was going to be a multimedia piece – I wanted to tap into the visual iconography inherent in the genre. The appearance of black MIDI is distinctive and immediate and I wanted to play with the semantics of it, in tandem with the sonics.

The integrating of visuals with a music score – where the two completely coexist – is something I’ve been developing for a while. I’m looking to bring film/video/animation into concert music, where it doesn’t exist passively or as eye candy, but is integral to the work and is treated like an instrument itself. I look at this piece as Season 1 of Black MIDI – and imagine subsequent seasons, with the characters continuing their experiences with black MIDI.

TR-J: Much of your work engages with audio technology pushed to or beyond its breaking point – creating glitches and other similar phenomena. Could you start by describing what is the fascination for you of such sounds, on both a sonic and a semantic level?

This fascination began when I was young. My father is an electronics repairman, salesman, collector – he’s been a kind of beta tester for electronic devices since the 1960s – so I was born into a house of machines, most of which were malfunctioning. He never throws anything away, even if it doesn’t work properly. But, as opposed to digital, which generally just dies, analogue machines continue to work; just not in the way in which they were intended to. So these machines – and their damaged sounds and visuals – became my instruments, alongside the acoustic ones. It feels natural for me to include these sounds within an ensemble and notate for them, treating them as instruments; and also allowing them to affect the acoustic writing.

I refer to this state as the purgatory for technology. When machines or media stop functioning the way they’re supposed to for the consumer, they’re no longer useful. So they begin their new life. It’s a type of freedom. Sometimes they do die in a way – they end up in junkyards and landfills or tossed aside and forgotten, in favour of the digital device.

There’s also a darkness to pushing technology beyond its limits – the unknown. This in turn affects the way I write for live musicians, in terms of emulating glitch and malfunction and the extreme precision and minutiae that goes with it. I often treat the score like a schematic, looking for ways to rewire or circuit bend it. There’s also the process of transcription of the glitches – which I’ve spent a whole lot of time doing. Scrubbing, zooming in, and transcribing my findings – without ever quantizing – is a way to delve into sound and illuminate hidden gestures, rhythms, artefacts, and so on.

TR-J: Are you a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist?

Both I think. It’s an exciting time for tech. But it’s also a frightening one. Certainly in terms of privacy, big data, and the notion that data and information don’t actually exist and could disappear at any time. If I think about this from an artistic perspective – in terms of music and books/print, for example – I become an optimist. This may mean we go back to analogue. I recognize the environmental advantage and convenience to books and music as downloads only – but I think people are losing sight of the impermanence of digital archiving and how fleeting it is on larger timescales. When the grid goes down we lose everything. But we can still read sheet music at a piano or hand crank a Victrola to listen to a record.

But the problem with analogue is that people don’t know how to fix these devices anymore – and the people who do aren’t going to be around for that much longer. The art of technology repair is dead and it is more cost effective to just ‘throw it away and buy a new one’ rather than fix it. This is where I become pessimistic.

I recently read about the first work of AI-generated art sold at Christie’s for a large sum of money. This is also where I become pessimistic.

I see massive potential in technologies like VR. This is a way for people to experience art in new ways and to experience different types of art when it is not immediately at their disposal. This is something to think about now that we are in the age of post-recording. I think people still want to buy recordings – I know I do – but I think maybe they want to buy experiences.

I become a bit of a pessimist when I think about the problem of not knowing what is actual fact. While the internet and its vast wealth of information is nothing short of incredible – the source of the information could be from anywhere – it’s a bit out of control, and there are factual errors everywhere.

TR-J: Many composers I have spoken to have a somewhat relaxed attitude to the obligations and expectations of European or US musical tradition. Linda Catlin Smith, for example, says that one of nice things about being Canadian is that ‘you don’t feel examined’. Is this something you recognise? And, like Linda, do you find this liberating?

I think that expectations do exist but I can say that I’ve never tried to adhere to any. I’ve always found this resistance to ‘obligations’ and ‘procedure’ extremely important and integral to being an artist, even from a young age. As soon as something became trendy or derivative I would abandon it and look for something creative and inspired.

I’ve read analyses of my music that mention my escaping McGill University without ever having written spectral music. There were certainly expectations in the 1990s during my time at McGill. It was very rooted in the European tradition. I, of course, respected it from a historical perspective but in no way was I interested in devoting my time and energy to something that had already been done. I kept completely true to what I had set out to do, even though it came with a certain amount of obstacles. My thesis was a work for turntables and orchestra – with every aspect of the turntable part notated, as well as every vinyl excerpt determined and notated. This was not immediately embraced in the university at the time – in fact it divided the faculty. But I believed in it and that was everything. It still is.

Portrait of Nicole Lizée (c) 2014 Steve Raegele; broken cassette image by Redfishingboat on Flickr.

A few (more) moments with Christopher Mayo

We are looking forward very much to playing at the Spitalfields Winter Festival next month, and happier still to be returning to the music of Christopher Mayo, which we will be performing in an all-Canadian programme alongside Nicole Lizée’s Black MIDI and Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath. Mayo’s extraordinary Youngblood II for five bassoons (yes!) was featured in one of the group’s earliest concerts, back in 2014. For our Spitalfields concert we will be playing his Beast (for Hugo Ball), a wonderfully eccentric ‘setting’ of a poem by the Canadian sound poet bpNichol.

We have chatted with Christopher before, in 2014, but he kindly let us check in him again, to see what has changed.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: When we last interviewed you, you said that you had ‘a mild to an intense dislike of the focus which we as composers and teachers place on the craft of being a composer’ and that this was central to your way of thinking. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that? And is this still the case?

Christopher Mayo: I think, even then, this wasn’t exactly what I meant. I think composers and teachers rightly have to focus on craft, whether of the more mundane variety such as typesetting and notation or the slightly more artistic side such as orchestration, structure, and so on. What I meant really was that I dislike the focus which audiences have on the craft of being a composer, the underlying point being, I suppose, that audiences are so often made up primarily of other composers.

‘Great piece: well orchestrated, idiomatically written for the instruments, logically structured, well-paced, immaculate harmony’ – I’m not sure that any of these things really make a great piece. Actually, I’m sure that they don’t! A well-crafted piece can be successful, but I don’t know that it’s the craft that makes it successful – it can facilitate success, but I think a lack of craft can sometimes be an equal facilitator of interesting music. What I want to get away from is locating our value judgements of music solely in the realm of how – and how well – it is written.

TR-J: Back then you were still based in London; now you are back home in Canada – and Toronto specifically. What do you see as the main differences between the Canadian and UK new music scenes? How do you think the two different settings have influenced your own music?

CM: I’m not sure that in general the differences are so vast, but I think that in London, I was part of – maybe only adjacently and reluctantly – a music scene that doesn’t exist in Canada, and I think possibly exists less end less in the UK. I’m talking about the conservatoire to publisher trajectory that, at least in 2003 when I came to the UK, still seemed to be the prevalent mode of viewing one’s ideal career path among my colleagues at the Royal College of Music. And I think that arc, with all the expected stops along the way, has structural limitations that dictate the way one’s music progresses even more than might seem apparent from the outside. Though I might not have admitted to it at the time, I totally bought into this idea of how a composer’s career should look, and I think trying to fit into this world had an influence on my music that I wasn’t fully aware of.

With the Camberwell Composers’ Collective (with Mark Bowden, Emily Hall, Anna Meredith, and Charlie Piper) I think we felt we were trying to operate outside of this world. But when Tom Service cited the collective in a lecture in Aberdeen in 2010 as a group that was forging a new way to work outside of this conventional career arc of conservatoire to publisher (that wasn’t exactly how he put it), he was rebuked for omitting to say that we were all conservatoire graduates, and variously RPS prize winners, attendees of the Britten-Pears programme, LSO Panufnik participants, and so on. We were never quite as far outside this world as we pretended, though certainly we are now, to varying degrees.

This is a very circuitous way of saying, we don’t have this scene because we don’t have these institutions in Canada. There are a few conservatoires, but they are not where the majority of composers study, some of them don’t even offer composition. There are no publishers championing the careers of composers. And so we also don’t feel the restrictions which following this arc can sometimes place on people.

In the UK, of course, this career path that I’m describing is only a fractional part of the new music scene, and its pre-eminence seems to be diminishing. Maybe it was never quite as prominent as it seemed to me as an inexperienced Canadian composer arriving at the Royal College.

TR-J: What would you say are the defining qualities of the new music community in Canada? What particular roles (if any) do you consider are played by factors such as landscape, climate, culture, the sheer size of the country, and so on?

CM: Openness. I’m not going to be so naive as to suggest that this stems from any kind of cultural, political openness, because Canada is not immune from the swing to right which seems to be sweeping the world. But aesthetically, I really feel like Canada is a place where anything is welcome.

TR-J: Beast (for Hugo Ball) is a setting of a poem by bpNichol dedicated to the founder of Dada and the original sound poet. Could you tell us what significance both Ball’s and Nichol’s work has for you?

CM: This was the second piece I wrote based on the work of bpNichol (I’ve since written a third that will probably be my last, at least for the time being). He’s a fairly legendary figure in Toronto – there’s a ‘bpNichol Lane’ in Toronto which has one of his poems set into the concrete of the pavement. Hugo Ball, I’m not too embarrassed to admit, I’d never heard of before working on this piece. I’d seen the photos of him in his Karawane costume and I knew about the Cabaret Voltaire, but his name wasn’t familiar to me. I spent a lot of time researching him for this piece and read his memoir Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary and his novel Flametti, or The Dandyism of the Poor. He was a very compelling, deeply serious character. There were several quotations from his memoir that had a direct influence on my piece; the one that comes to mind is his discussion of industrialization:

The modern necrophilia. Belief in matter is a belief in death. The triumph of this kind of religion is a terrible aberration. The machine gives a kind of sham life to dead matter. It moves matter. It is a specter. It joins matter together, and in so doing reveals some kind of rationalism. Thus it is death, working systematically, counterfeiting life. It tells more flagrant lies than any newspaper it prints. And what is more, in its continuous subconscious influence it destroys human rhythm. Anyone who lasts a lifetime near such a machine must be a hero, or must be crushed. We cannot expect any spontaneous feelings from such a creature. A walk through a prison cannot be so horrifying as a walk through the noisy workshop of a modern printing shop. The animal sounds, the stinking liquids. All the senses focused on what is bestial, monstrous and yet unreal.

On a surface level, this quotation led me to include a transcription of the sounds of a printing press in the percussion at the beginning of the piece, but on a deeper level, this idea of giving ‘sham life to dead matter’, ‘counterfeiting life’, those ideas became central to my own conception of what I was trying to achieve in the piece in incorporating a recording of bpNichol performing the poem.

 

TR-J: Rather unusually, your ‘setting’ uses a recording of Nichol performing his text, rather than a live speaker or singer. I’m interested in what particular qualities of Nichol’s performance attracted you, and what impact did it have on your subsequent compositional approach?

CM: The thinking I mention above of ‘counterfeiting life’ came later in the process, my initial interest in using a recording of bpNichol rather than setting the text more traditionally came from a desire to engage with all the peculiarities of tempo and pitch in bpNichol’s original recording. His performance is extremely free in all parameters and trying to match and counterpoint these wild shifts was the compositional problem to which I had to find engaging solutions.

TR-J: Finally, my favourite description of Canadian music is Martin Arnold’s, who describes an aesthetic of ‘slack’ – a sort of looseness towards tradition, precision and those European qualities of craft to which you refer. Is this something you recognize in your own music – in your approach to setting Nichol’s recording, for example – and if so, what does it mean to you? And, conversely, what are the areas of precision or formality in your work?

CM: I love this description of Martin’s, I think it’s so apt. It’s funny, in this piece, the music ends up needing to be exceedingly precise in order to match the ‘slack’ that already exists in the bpNichol recording. So there is a lot of ‘slack’ there, but I can’t really own it. It’s like stolen valour; this is stolen ‘slack’! In all my works, there is a level of precision in notation and structure and harmony that’s far from ‘slack’, but I still feel this looseness. My work has a precision that nevertheless achieves a certain amount of awkwardness, grit – aims for awkwardness even. I’m never looking for elegant solutions. I prize a bad idea far over a good one. I love it when someone tells me an idea they’ve had for a piece and it just seems like an astonishingly terrible, completely unworkable idea. That’s the piece I want to hear, the one that makes something good and compelling out of something that seems unassailably atrocious.

A few moments with Georg Friedrich Haas

We are very excited to announce that in January 2019 we will be giving the first performances of Solstices – a new work for ensemble by one of the world’s leading composers, Georg Friedrich Haas. The world premiere will be at Dark Music Days on 26th January, and we’ll follow up with the UK premiere at the Royal Academy of Music’s Susie Sainsbury Theatre on the 29th. As part of the build up Tim Rutherford-Johnson will be conducting several exclusive interviews with Haas about his music and inspirations.

The world premiere of the new piece will take place in Iceland in the middle of winter. So naturally, in his first conversation, Tim asked Haas about an element that has been important to his work for many years: darkness.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: When did you start to think about using darkness in your work? What was the inspiration?

Georg Friedrich Haas: The first time I composed darkness was in my short opera Adolf Wölfli, which I wrote in 1981. Wölfli was an amazing painter, who lived in the first third of the twentieth century. He was mentally ill, and in addition to his paintings he wrote terrible, dark texts. These texts are mostly about the impossibility of grace and forgiveness. At the opera’s end it should be completely dark – only flashes of light direct the orchestra. The singer quotes the Holy Bible: ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy’ – repeated several times again and again to make it clear that this ‘great joy’ will never happen. Never.

The stage director, a third class loyal citizen of the communistic German Democratic Republic, ignored and destroyed these ideas. He called me a ‘dilettante’ – and unfortunately I believed him to be right. Eighteen years later I met the German stage director Bettina Wackernagel. We never had the chance to work together, but she explained to me that these ideas of mine were very dramatic and intense. I had just been working on in vain. I decided to compose darkness within this piece. It worked.

TRJ: What does darkness symbolize for you? What is its role in your music?

GFH: What does the sound of a violin’s string symbolize in my music? What does a C sharp symbolize? They symbolize nothing. They are musical means, musical media, which can be used for any expression. It depends on the surroundings, on the musical grammar and musical logic before and after this musical element.

TRJ: Has that role changed, or its symbolism developed? I’m thinking of, for example, the different meanings of darkness in your third string quartet (the Holy Week Tenebrae service) and in vain (the return of fascism to European politics). In what ways does darkness continue to excite you as an idea? What other themes might be explored through it?

GFH: The darkness of in vain does not symbolize fascism. I am not able and not willing to write a music that could symbolize this. The dark moments in in vain may symbolize my fear and my desperation regarding the upcoming of a new fascism. But in these dark elements I also compose the utopia of a music that can only be performed by musicians who possess a high level of responsibility. Who completely trust their individual musical imaginations. And who do not need any director or conductor to create their sounds. The darkness in my opera die schöne Wunde and in my piece wohin bist du gegangen? symbolizes erotic despair. The darkness in my opera KOMA symbolizes the world of a patient in a hospital, being in a coma.

In my Ninth and Tenth String Quartets – and in the new piece for the Riot Ensemble – the darkness does not have any meaning. It is just a musical medium. I hope it is a beautiful one.

TRJ: Writing for performers to play in the dark, and from memory, is obviously very challenging. What techniques have you developed to help you achieve this?

GFH: There are no ‘techniques’. I just have to describe the musical units as plainly as possible.

TRJ: This has been an interest in your work for several years now, so presumably it has unlocked something valuable for you compositionally. I wonder if you could describe this: are there particular ideas, ways of working, musical forms and so on that you couldn’t have discovered without setting up these challenges? 

GFH: In my Third String Quartet I composed social procedures: I asked the musicians to perform ‘invitations’. If these invitations are accepted by at least one other musician, a (verbally notated) musical development is to be performed. There are also some additional formal instructions.

Within my Ninth and Tenth String Quartets the musicians also play ‘games’ – a system of clearly defined rules about how to ‘fight’ against one the other. This is fun for the musicians and the result is a music that reflects this verve.

In the Ninth String Quartet I also ask the musicians to find very precise microtonal tunings. The process of searching for and finding these harmonies creates the music.

TRJ: What role does memory play too? In what ways are you able to exploit your players’ ability to remember things (and forget them …)?

Performing music always involves memory. The musicians have to remember what they developed within the rehearsals (or what they practised alone). The only difference when performing in darkness is that you do not have any visual help to support your memory. No score to look at. No conductor to follow.

TRJ: Finally, are you able to reveal any details about the piece you are writing for us?

To compose music requires me to think within the music, within the sounds, within the time. I must not use words for it during the process of composing. Words disturb the musical imagination. Therefore I generally refuse to write or say anything about a piece before my work is finished.

 

A few more moments with Georg Friedrich Haas

In January 2019 we will be giving the first performances of Solstices – a new work for ensemble by one of the world’s leading composers, Georg Friedrich Haas. The world premiere will be at Dark Music Days on 26th January, and we’ll follow up with the UK premiere at the Royal Academy of Music’s Susie Sainsbury Theatre on the 29th. As part of the build up Tim Rutherford-Johnson has been conducting several exclusive interviews with Haas about his music and inspirations.

Among the latter – if not for this piece, for his music in general – is the music of the past. For this second interview, Tim focused on this side of Haas’s music, and in particular Haas’s love of Schubert. (To read more about another of Haas’s inspirations, darkness, please see our first interview.)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Several of your works make explicit references to the music of earlier composers. Could you please explain the importance of musical history to you and why you have been drawn to represent it or address in your own music?

Georg Friedrich Haas: The music of earlier composers is an integral part of the present. Today many more people can hear Mozart or Beethoven or Johann Sebastian Bach than was possible in their lifetimes. We enjoy the surface of this music, which is beautiful and we take pleasure in it. But looking deeper, listening deeper makes it clear: these are incredible masterpieces. And they are full of deep human experiences, longings, abysses, hope and desperation. I feel the burden of this heritage when I compose my music.

TR-J: Works like these seem to have occurred more often relatively early in your career. Are the references no longer there, or have they become more hidden?

GFH: The last piece, which is composed in a direct relationship to old music is Tombeau from 2013. This is not too far. I plan to write a piece in relation to Ivan Wyschnegradsky to be performed on his quartertone piano. And I have a great project coming within the next few years, about which I cannot speak at the moment.

TR-J: Are there particular composers you are drawn to in this way? And what has attracted you to work with their music?

GFH: Several important composers who have inspired me include Mozart (3 pieces: ‘sodass ich’s hernach…’, 7 Klangräume with the unfinished drafts of the Requiem, Tombeau), Josquin Desprez (Tria ex uno), Schubert (Torso), Mendelssohn (Traum in des Sommers Nacht), Scriabin (opus 68), Ives (4 songs); Ligeti, Hauer, and Reich (3 hommages for one performer on two pianos tuned a quartertone apart.) They are very different; each of them attracts me in different ways. For example: I understand Mendelssohn as an avant-garde composer – his technique of orchestration is highly innovative, he is the first composer (I know of) to have composed ‘Klangfarbenmelodien’, that is melodies of sound colours.

TR-J: I believe Schubert is particularly significant to you. What do you find special about his music, and what do you think it has to say to listeners in the twenty-first century? Is it a fascination with his biography, or are there specific musical features that appeal to you as well?

GFH: Schubert was an adult during the decade after the Congress of Vienna. The ideals of the French revolution – ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ – were replaced by control and submission under a feudal dictatorship. Sadly enough, Austria was ‘great’ again. The lack of utopia, the lack of hope created a general feeling of sadness. In Schubert’s music beauty always changes to pain and vice versa. His answer to the political suppression was: ‘My emotions matter’. Maybe this is very relevant now, in the shadow of new fascism everywhere.

TR-J: In Torso you draw on Schubert’s C-major Piano Sonata (D840), a work that he left unfinished. It seems to me that your music often touches on moments of beginning or ending. This is certainly the case in Morgen und Abend, for example, and perhaps Solstices too. In Torso were you seeking to provide an ‘ending’ to the Schubert sonata, or to offer it a new life, a new ‘beginning’?

GFH: I did not want to provide an ‘ending’ to this sonata. I tried to describe why this sonata must remain unfinished. Schubert made a lot of ‘experiments’ in this work. In the first movement he explained how music would work when the dominant seventh chord is handled like a consonance. And he tried to write a mono-thematic sonata based on two intervals (E–G and G–A). He succeeded. In the third movement he ‘experimented’ with the form. The traditional menuet takes the form of: A-B-A’ (with repetitions)–trio (C-D)–A-B-A’ (without repetitions). In part A he replaced the repeat signs with a variation – transposed a semitone higher (!!!). When it was time to come back to A’, he did not know which of these two tonalities he should chose. And he had to stop.

For today’s listener, a repetition a semitone higher is a cheesy technique found in bad popular music. We cannot perceive Schubert’s problem, because for us it is no problem at all. I tried in Torso to make these gaps audible for a contemporary audience, by composing sounds. Torso is a ‘Klangkomposition’ based on Schubert’s score.

TR-J: You also make reference to Schubert in your song cycle ATTHIS, which you have described as a sort of Winterreise ‘with a happy ending’. Are there any other Schubert works that particularly inspire you to write a response of your own, perhaps one that you haven’t yet composed?

GFH: Oh yes: I would be happy if I could write music as brutally naked as Der Leiermann, music as inhumanly cruel as the beginning of the ‘Sanctus’ in the E-flat major mass, music as empty and vulnerable as the beginning of the second movement of the C-major string quintet, music as passionately sexual as ‘Gretchen am Spinnrad’ …

Even more moments with Georg Friedrich Haas

Excitement is building at Riot headquarters as in less than two weeks we will be giving the first performance of a major new work by Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the world’s leading composers. Titled Solstices the work will receive its world premiere appropriately at the Dark Music Days festival in Reykjavik on 26th January. But don’t worry if you can’t make it to Iceland: the UK premiere is just a few days later at the Royal Academy of Music’s Susie Sainsbury Theatre, on the 29th. Lasting 70 minutes and written for 10 musicians playing in complete darkness this is an event not to be missed.

As part of the build-up to this unique occasion, Tim Rutherford-Johnson has conducted several exclusive interviews with Haas about his music and inspirations. In this third and final conversation, Haas reveals some of the inspirations behind his new piece. If you would like to read more, the first and second interviews are here and here.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: For our final set of questions I would like to turn to the piece you have written for us, Solstices.What significance do the solstices have for you?

Georg Friedrich Haas: It is a personal and beautiful coincidence. I met my beloved spouse Mollena [Haas-Williams; pictured above] on 21 December 2013. And we decided to perform a ceremony to sanctify our relationship on 21 June 2014. The rehearsals and first performances of Solstices are/were also close to the solstices.

TR-J: The winter and summer solstices are also important moments in many cultures around the world. Have you drawn on the resonances of these moments in your work at all?

GFH: No.

TR-J: Are you especially attuned to the passage of the seasons in your own life, the lengthening and shortening of days? Do you work differently in summer and winter, for example? Do you consider an awareness of such things to be important?

GFH: I am always sad when the days get shorter, and I am happy when they are longer. When I lived amongst nature (1991–2000, Fischbach, Austria) I was very conscious of this. The turning of the stars, the moon, the cycle of the seasons – this was a mystical experience. Now, living in New York, I still feel the changes: stars are not visible, but the different lights in the different seasons, the different colours of the sky, are inspiring and beautiful.

I assume my music is not influenced by seasonal changes. I am an addict: I need my drug (that is, composition) every day.

TR-J: Have you sought to translate any of these meanings into your piece? And if so, how?

GFH: Maybe you can feel my love for my spouse Mollena shimmering through the music.

TR-J: Solstices will be played in complete darkness. Reading the score, I am struck by the amount of approximation that is built in, relative to many other contemporary scores – with timings, rhythms, entries, and so on. This is obviously essential when playing from memory and in the dark. I’m interested in what compositional models have you drawn upon in writing this way; I detect hints of Lutosławski as well as James Tenney, but perhaps you have your own ideas.

GFH: Composing means: having an idea of music in one’s head, and trying to communicate with musicians to make these ideas reality. When I write for darkness I must find special techniques for this. Yes, Lutosławski and Tenney inspired me, but also Cage, Stockhausen, and Grisey.

TR-J: The harmonic language of the piece is obviously important, with lots of long overtone chords, for example (some last several minutes). Yet you have also composed a number of interventions or ‘elements’ that can appear freely amongst these. How did you go about balancing a precise harmonic language with these much freer components? Is there an element of conflict in the piece, or of union; or perhaps something else?

GFH: There are plenty of musical elements which I love. There are musicians who give these materials the time they need. And there are listeners who dare to share this journey. Enjoy!

TR-J: Finally, in our first interview you said that that darkness has no meaning, it is just a musical medium. Can you say a little more about the musical qualities that darkness brings to Solstices in particular?

GFH: I have never composed such a long time in darkness for so many instruments. I hope between ten instrumentalists and many listeners we will gain a spiritual experience – all focused on ourselves, isolated, yet strongly connected by the energy of the sounds.