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