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 moments with Bára Gísladóttir

We’re in Reykjavík today, and ready to make our Icelandic debut at Dark Music Days with music in our ‘Approaching Dutilleux’ project, built around his chamber masterwork Les Citations.  This concert features a new addition to the repertoire from Icelandic composer Bára Gísladóttir.  Bára is en route to Iceland to work with us today, but Aaron Holloway-Nahum caught up with her earlier to ask her about her new work Seven heavens (of different heights (and depths)), and her work in general.

 

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: You’ve written us a new pieced called Seven heavens (of different heights (and depths)). Could you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind it?

Bára Gísladóttir: The piece deals with seven layers of different dimensions, both time-wise and texture-wise – that is – both vertical and horizontal (and everything between those).

AHN: In addition to composing, you play the double bass. This new piece includes double bass. Do you ever perform in your own compositions?

BG: Yes, I do! I mainly perform my music solo, but have also performed some of my compositions with different ensembles.

AHN: We’ve been enjoying listening to your new album, Mass for Some in which you play double bass and sing.  Can you tell us a bit about your work as a performer, and how it influences your compositions?

BG: I think I am a much more diverse performer than composer, and enjoy performing various types of new and old music. Performing my own music vs. others’ is something I experience as two very different things, mostly because I feel more freedom and a stronger link towards my own stuff. It is simply more personal.

I think the most characteristic influence when it comes to my compositional approach as a performer is that I’m constantly occupied with the performer while composing – somehow automatically leading to effects of motion and breath. I guess one could say that I compose “through” the performer most of the time. However, the same applies to my compositions as performing, writing for others vs. myself is something quite different – primarily I try to be more clear when it comes to writing for others, I take more time to considerate every little detail. When I compose for myself, I don’t spend too much time on expressing details, i.e. via notation, since I already know what I want. Hence, I’m not sure if the music I write for myself is on a sufficient format for others to perform.

AHN: We first came into contact at Nordic Music Days in 2017, where we played Suzuki Baleno, a work with a strong autobiographical inspiration. Do many of your works take events and/or memories as starting points?

BG: Actually, I think Suzuki Baleno is my only piece that is built on a truly autobiographical experience. Mostly, I build my pieces on ideas about space, mass and layers. I always try to find every possible aspect of an idea/word/event and try to place all of those aspects into an overall unity, that becomes a musical piece.

AHN: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what’s next?

BG: I’m working on a piece for solo saxophone, string quintet and three percussionists, commissioned by my friend Anja Nedremo, a Norwegian superhuman and outstanding saxophonist. The piece is called Yung Leo, and is built on young love, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, young Leonardo DiCaprio, lions, the zodiac sign Leo, thugs, Yung Lean, milestones and more.

AHN: We certainly look forward to hearing that, and to seeing you in Iceland!

BG: Thanks so much for the questions, can’t wait to work with you very soon!

A few moments with Patricia Alessandrini

Next Tuesday, 8 May, we will give the first of two concerts at Goldsmiths College, London, this spring (the second is on 14 June). These have been arranged with Goldsmiths’ Lecturer in Sonic Arts, Patricia Alessandrini, whose music will feature in each concert. In June we will play her string quartet De profundis clamavi [hommage à Alban Berg]; next week sees us play her Hommage à Purcell for bass clarinet, piano, violin and cello.

Patricia took time out from her schedule of teaching and composing to talk to Tim Rutherford-Johnson about marionettes, abandoned oil tankers, and the complicated backstory to Hommage à Purcell.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: I wonder if you could say something about the role of Purcell’s music in your piece, and what Purcell means to you personally.

Patricia Alessandrini: I consider all of my works to be ‘readings’ of existing works: taking the idea that all music is informed by what came before it as a starting point, I focus directly on the past and ‘re-interpreting’ it. In this case, I chose the processional march from Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary to ‘interpret’ compositionally, through instruments with live electronics.

One aspect of the music of Purcell that interests me particularly is its phrasing. When one thinks about the means that are available to composers – like myself – who do not use melody or harmony in conventional, historical, or functional ways, phrasing is a musical parameter with great expressive potential; it is arguably not, however, the subject of a great deal of attention in contemporary music, or frequently used to describe it. My interest in phrasing relates to the question of the expressive qualities of music as compared to the semantic and expressive qualities of language.

TRJ: When it comes to those pre-existing scores, how do you choose one that you would like to engage with?

PA: Often there is a particular history of a piece which interests me, and this is the case for Hommage à Purcell. In performing research for another project, I came across a play entitled The Libertine by Thomas Shadwell, and found out that Purcell had composed music for it, including the processional later used in Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary that was more recently popularized through the arrangement by Wendy Carlos that accompanies the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.

Shadwell’s play is a macabre, violent, absurdly over-the-top version of the Don Juan story, intended to ridicule the figure of the libertine. My interest in this music was piqued by the fact that Purcell had employed the same composition in two vastly different situations. But beyond that, there is the fact that Kubrick – most likely, unknowingly – re-situated the music in a function similar to its original context, from an extremely violent piece of theatre with macabre humour, to a similarly violent and macabre film. If Kubrick didn’t necessarily associate the music with the play (It is unlikely that he did, given its relative obscurity), then there is something in the music that led intuitively to that choice. What I am seeking in my ‘interpretation’ is where these expressive qualities lie.

TRJ: Once you’ve chosen a score, what do you do with it?

PA: I have a particular ‘analysis–transcription–re-synthesis’ process that I use in many of my works: I take multiple recordings of a given work, combine these in various ways to make a mix or ‘maquette’, and then use this material to create both the score and the electronics for the composition. Sometimes, as in Hommage à Purcell, instrumental parts derived from a transcription of the maquette are also analysed in real-time during the performance, and this spectral analysis is used to create resonant filters through which electroacoustic material derived from the maquette is filtered. Throughout the process, multiple interpretations of the same materials are situated in parallel to one another, to bring out the expressive properties that may lie in the differences and points of convergence between them.

TRJ: Your ongoing Orpheus Machines project does something similar with early musical instruments – using technology to dissect and then augment them. Can you give an example of how this works? I see that you have worked with our harpsichordist Goska Isphording, for example.

PA: The Orpheus Machines project started in 2014, when I was invited to the Waverly Studios of NYU, along with my Goldsmiths colleague Freida Abtan, to create ‘machines’ to transform their collection of period keyboard instruments, including a harpsichord, into electronic instruments. Then in 2015, Riot Ensemble sent us both to Holland to collaborate with Goska in adapting the work for harpsichord. Since then, I have been working on other forms of automata for instruments, including a ‘piano machine’ commissioned by Explore Ensemble for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. (You can read more about that here.)

TRJ: Despite all this, you have described your relationship to the concert-music repertory as ‘tenuous’ … What does the past mean for you, and why do you seek to address it in your music?

PA: I think this may be fairly obvious, but as a woman, I don’t really ‘see’ myself in the concert music repertoire very often, and it took a long time for me to consider myself a composer, even once I was already composing. Of course, the commitments made over the past year to work towards achieving gender balance in programming are a positive step, but the field remains vastly male-dominated: almost all of the decision-making about my work – in terms of commissioning, programming, research funding, production aspects, even about teaching and lecturing – is made by men. This is an issue that came up in the panel discussion on Gender in New Music at HCMF 2017 (which should be available online soon, by the way), coupled with the lack of transparency of these processes. So while I am grateful for the opportunities I have and the recognition my work receives, I can’t say in all honesty that I feel assured of my place in this field.

I have a project coming up next year with Ensemble Argento, based on the music of Mahler, and we decided that the first instalment of it will be a song cycle ‘interpreting’ the music of Alma Mahler. But there is nothing uplifting about this: it will be as much an interpretation of what she didn’t write, as what she did, because that was the reality of her situation.

TRJ: Finally, if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

PA: I have composed some multimedia music-theatre works in the past few years, and I am working on a mono-drama now, so I suppose the next step would be a full opera, which is something I have wanted to compose for some time. Another interesting project could be a piece for orchestra and automata. And I am absolutely crazy about marionettes: I suppose among these possibilities, that would be my dream project: a marionette opera. As for where, it is hard to say, there are so many places I like to work, I would hesitate to choose one over another, and I especially enjoy discovering new audiences. I make installation work as well, and I have always wanted to do something in a resonant space that is on the water – so I would love to make something in an old abandoned oil tanker, if anyone would let me…

A few moments with Caterina di Cecca

On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings, the world premiere of Benjamin Graves’s Four Facades, and new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. Caterina, who is based in Rome, spoke to us about saxophone potential, the poetry of Rilke and Pavese, and her research on personal branding for musicians.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Caterina! The piece you have written for us has an unusual title, Die Brücken hinter uns – ‘the bridges behind us’. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece? Where does the title come from, for example? And what are the inspirations behind the work?

Caterina di Cecca: ‘Die Brücken hinter uns’ is a phrase in R. M. Rilke’s book entitled Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge – ‘Notes on the Melody of Things.

I share Rilke’s view that we all live on different islands, but that the islands are not far enough apart for us to stay solitary. The only way to interact is to make dangerous leaps from one island to another, each time risking falling back to where we were before. This is not strange in fact because the only way to really connect with others is to consider the background that links us together.

Our fulfillments take place deep in the radiant backgrounds. There, in the background, is motion, and will. There play out the histories; we are only the dark headlines. There is our reconciliation and our leave-taking, our consolation and sorrow. There, we are, while here in the foreground we only come and go. (Rilke, Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge, XVIII)

All conflict, all error, comes from the fact that people look for what they have in common in themselves, not in the things behind them, in the light, in the landscape, in the beginning, and in death. They lose themselves and gain nothing in return. They mingle with each other because they cannot truly unite themselves. (Rilke, Notizen zur Melodie der Dinge, XXXVII)

I found the type of relationship described above between solo/tutti, foreground/background very suitable for transposition into music, and this piece will be the first in a series whose formal structure derives from these assumptions.

In my work strong and incisive gestures emerge from an indistinct and magmatic situation and are given to the saxophone. The various potentials of this multifaceted instrument (percussive, melodic, articulative and timbral) are exploited, and it plays a pre-eminent role. In the beginning, in fact, its interventions motivate changes in the rest of the ensemble. Later, however, the soloist adapts and conforms more and more to what appeared at first as simply its background, recognizing its value and becoming part of it in an organic way.

TR-J: Looking at the score lots of the saxophone part is written using just keyslaps and other noise effects. How important is noise in your music, and what approach do you use to compose with it? Are you led by your ear, for example, or the capabilities of the instrument, or do you have some other system?

CdC: In my opinion noise is just a continuation and expansion of sound itself. For this reason, I do not consider it as a stand-alone element, but rather as a further possibility in the palette available to me when I am composing.

Talking to performers, combined with listening to and analysis of recent scores, has allowed me to reflect on noises in the same way as on sounds and therefore to be guided by my ear and my imagination. In addition, I always take into account the mechanics of the instrument and its physical, acoustic, and technical limits.

In the specific case of Die Brücken hinter uns, I gave many noise effects to the saxophone for two reasons: The first is to obtain specific and characteristic timbre and articulations that cannot be realized in any other way. The second is to emphasize its idiomatic possibilities to ensure that its interventions differ markedly from those of the other instruments of the ensemble, which have a homogeneous quality, since they are intended to be perceived as a unity.

TR-J: In 2012 and 2013 you studied with Alessandro Solbiati, who taught another of our favourite composers, Clara Iannotta. Solbiati’s music is almost completely unknown in the UK; What drew you to him as a teacher, and what did you learn from him?

CdC: Alessandro Solbiati was suggested to me by a colleague after I had already completed my academic studies.

Our meeting was a significant moment in defining my personal identity as a composer, since it allowed me to get in touch with and learn the techniques of Francesco Donatoni, who was his professor.

I really appreciate the Socratic quality of his teaching method: he succeeds in getting the real potential out of his students without imposing his own conception of music. In fact, all his students who have had international success compose in their own language, rather than a univocal school of thought.

TR-J: I understand you have also written a thesis on ‘Personal Branding for Musicians’. What three bits of branding advice would you give to a young composer?

CdC:

  1. Seek and find your own personal identity and derive your own aesthetics/poetics from it, in such a way to become a recognizable brand (Personal Branding).

This is easier said than done in today’s world, since we are all buried beneath the suggestions and ideas of others. We must try not to be influenced by trends and fashions or affiliated with academies and schools, but to choose paths off the beaten tracks and develop a critical and creative way of thinking that comes approaches our deeper being and our conception of music.

Once we have identified and created our brand, it is important to remain faithful to who we really are, always ready to grow through the stimuli around us. This is the only strategy that works: it makes no sense to play a non-existent character who does not represent us.

  1. Identify your target audience, choose on the internet the social networks and platforms on which you want to be active and make your online profiles meaningful and unique, offering something that is always valid and ascribable to what you want to say/give (Net Branding).

If you follow these guidelines, the public will feel involved and become active and responsive, helping you spontaneously to share your content.

  1. Promote your works and ongoing projects through your own channels in such a way as to keep your followers constantly interested in the route you are following.

Once online attention has been gained, it must be maintained with timely updates that allow the public to feel involved in our artistic and human journey.

TR-J: You have a strong international profile, with lots of commissions and awards from around the world. What is next on your agenda?

CdC: I have a series of commissions, some of which I care very much about. The next one coming up is thanks to an artistic residency I will be undertaking for the 2018/2019 season at the Tenuta dello Scompiglio, a wonderful country estate located in Lucca.

My project, a response to the international open call Della morte e del morire – ‘Of death and dying’, will be made in collaboration with Blow Up Percussion, a percussion quartet based in Rome. It will be performed outdoors, taking advantage of the characteristics and peculiarities of the landscape and the setting.

It is a stage/musical work called Mono no Aware – L’intensità agrodolce delle cose (‘The ahhness of things – The bitter-sweet intensity of things’) and will feature an active and close interaction between theatre, performance, and music. It will be divided into four parts, each lasting about 10/12 minutes. Between one movement and the next one the public will be asked to move from one to another setting within the estate (secret garden, stairway, chapel and back to the secret garden), thus following the dramaturgical path physically as well as metaphorically. In each location the four performers will have a different set of percussion instruments that have been placed there already. Each performer will be not only a musician, but also the protagonist of a journey that always implicitly contains its end, that is, death.

TR-J: One final question: if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

CdC: I have been lucky enough to write music for very varied occasions: movies, documentaries, artistic installations, performative acts, musical theatre. Even the locations have been very disparate, sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors. So in this sense I have already realized a good part of my desires for compositional expression.

My dream would be to have available a large instrumentation that would allow me to write a piece for female voice, mixed chorus and orchestra on the text of a poem from the collection La terra e la morte – ‘Earth and Death’ by the Italian poet and writer Cesare Pavese, which is very close to me. If I could also choose the place and date of the performance I would opt for the Langhe – Pavese’s birthplace – in 2020, the 70th anniversary of his passing away.

A few moments with Judit Varga

On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings, the world premiere of Benjamin Graves’ Four Facades, and new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. Judit, a Hungarian-born resident of Vienna, spoke to us between house moves about beauty, sound colour, and her recent opera for the Hungarian State Opera.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Judit! The piece you have written for us is called Broken Beauty. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece – what were its inspirations?

Judit Varga: For quite some time now I have been interested in certain movements – audible energies that are triggered by movements of all kinds – in my music. Kinetic sculptures inspire me a lot, a kind of dark and bright variation within a certain sound. They are actually a quite visual source of inspiration, yet nevertheless very well reproducible within an audible language. Broken Beauty includes a second question, which has also been bothering me for a long time: what is beautiful and what is not beautiful? Is the common musical language of contemporary modernism able to describe beauty? This is a very trivial questions but in my opinion an enormously important one.

TR-J: We play a lot of music that concentrates on timbre, and perhaps considers pitch as a background musical element. But in your music pitch, even harmony, seems to be very important. Would you say this is correct? And what role do pitch, melody, and harmony play in Broken Beauty?

JV: Timbre as the most important parameter of music is a common phenomenon nowadays because it is a newly discovered parameter of music, which has been researched very little in the previous centuries. It is almost like a blank page, which of course is better suited to saying something new. I am also interested in timbre, and I like to compose for large ensembles and orchestras where I can enjoy the rich possibilities on the level of sound colour.

However, I have increasingly noticed that my own music loses its richness when I do not pay enough attention to the other essential parameters of music, such as pitch, harmony and rhythm (such as a groove). It is not easy to dive into these traditionally explored parameters: there is a great danger that you cannot say anything new. You probably have to put in more work, plus know the whole history of music in order to develop this a little bit further. There is no easy way around it.

TR-J: You have written a lot of music for film and theatre. How does this relate to your concert music? Do your works have a particularly dramatic or theatrical character, for example?

JV: I am certainly often told that my music is talkative, ‘like a movie’, or that it describes very strong characters, dramaturgy, or moods. In my opinion it’s the other way around: this is less the influence of film and theatre on my work, but rather that I am happy and successful in the applied music genre because my music has always been that way. I want to tell stories and share my thoughts, and I have deliberately selected music because of all of of the arts it is the most subtle. I do not want to work with definite words or pictures, I like this unspokenness in music. But behind my music there is usually a very specific story. Which you might feel.

TR-J: One of the most substantial works in your catalogue is an opera, Szerelem (Love). Could you tell us something about that, please? I understand it was commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, is that right?

JV: Yes, that is right. The Hungarian State Opera commissioned the opera and the performance took place in a very festive environment. The story was predefined; the novel which the opera is based on fits very well with the theme – the revolution in 1956. I found the basic idea and the text great, and have written libretto and opera within 5 months. The opera is for a large orchestra, choir, nine soloists … These were the hardest months of my life so far, it was like a continuous fever dream. The opera was a great success, splendidly staged by Vilppu Kiljunen and broadcast on TV. I’m working on an English version right now.

TR-J: And what else have you been doing? I saw that you were recently featured in a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra …

JV: Oh yes, that was excellent, the recording will be aired on the BBC at the end of October. The orchestra played really well and the silence of the audience during and after the piece was tangible.

I have been very lucky to receive commissions that perfectly fit my musical interests. I have recently composed a lot for choir and string orchestra, and scored two films, which will travel to festivals in 2019. After that they will run in the cinema. Another very important project for me is STUDIO5, an association of five composers, including me. We are trying to attract a new and broader audience for contemporary music. We love to develop daring concepts and play our works in unusual situations. We seek new ways to arouse interest. Our third season has just started. It is growing.

TR-J: One final question: if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

JV: If a smaller line-up, then I prefer homogenous orchestration, like a choir or string orchestra. But most of all, I would like to compose for a large symphonic orchestra, possibly with video projection. The Last Night of the Proms would be a really nice event for the world premiere. 🙂

A few moments with Benjamin Graves

On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings alongside new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. The concert takes its title from another world premiere, Four Facades by Benjamin Graves, written for Riot and our fantastic violist Stephen Upshaw. Ben spoke to us from Cambridge, where is currently studying for a PhD, about his new piece and what else he is up to.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Ben! We’re really looking forward to playing Four Facades later this month. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece?

Benjamin Graves: I was originally intrigued by the need for renovation of the Palace of Westminster (at a cost of billions to the tax-payer). Such a grand facade hiding rotting foundations supplied an apt metaphor for the front delivered to the public by politicians hiding a rotting core at the heart of their pledges. After research this developed into a wider scrutiny of Britishness. Barry and Pugin’s Gothic revival architecture speaks of a desire, even now, of the British to hide the new behind the old (indeed at an estimated £3bn would a progressive culture perhaps rebuild, rather than renovate), a desire for the good old days ever-present in British culture. So, I presented a hybrid of these two ideas: on the one hand Stephen represents an old-fashioned facade (disembodied Romantic gestures akin to Elgar, for example, hide a core of fragile sounds, such as harmonics in odd places and multiphonics) and on the other old styles are renovated by newer sounds. The nod to Walton in the title only enhances this narrative, especially given his descent into conservatism the older he got.

By the way, I don’t mean to sound critical of this vein of Romanticism (conservatism?) inherent in British culture; in fact I think it is what makes British music unique. I see it as an opportunity to hark back to the music I love most, namely late Romanticism, but as with everything this trend should be scrutinized, at least artistically.

TR-J: When did you first encounter Stephen’s playing, and what drew you to wanting to write a piece for him?

BG: Stephen and I met while studying at Guildhall. Stephen invited me to write a piece for him and percussion to be played alongside Berio’s Naturale and we’ve been friends and colleagues ever since.

I’ve always been drawn, not only to Stephen’s virtuosity, but also to his honesty. The best way to learn as a composer is not through workshops thrown together at the last minute with players you’ve never met, but through continuous exposure to highly talented performers with whom you aren’t afraid to get things wrong and from whom you can learn. Stephen and my working relationship is founded on mutual respect and as a result of experimenting with him my music has evolved beyond recognition.

Invaluable also is a player who not only plays notes and dynamics in the right place, but who brings a certain something to your music that you didn’t necessarily realize was there. Stephen invited me to write a short solo piece for him, NocturNE, as a response to artist Navid Nuur’s work (the piece was played by Stephen as part of a Riot concert at the Tate Modern) and what he made of it went far beyond anything I could have committed to paper. For this I am consistently grateful, and it makes me optimistic that all the while players like Stephen work with composers new music has a future.

TR-J: Several sections of your piece are played ‘senza misura’, with the players following their own independent tempos. Is it fair to describe this as an influence from Lutosławski? And is it a common feature of your music? What is the compositional appeal of writing in this way?

BG: Partly. I have been a big fan of Lutosławski for a long time, especially how he effortlessly superimposes a modernist style onto a neo-romantic, nationalist aesthetic (I love his concerto for orchestra and Paganini Variations). But the aleatory aspects of Four Facades, particularly in movement 2, came about partly as a result of a request from Stephen, who was playing in a choreographed performance of Lutosławski’s Chain 2 and who enjoyed the freedom these passages allowed the soloist. So, I studied this work and other such examples of Lutosławski to further learn how he so naturally incorporates such a static technique into a larger dramatic journey.

A page from Lutosławski’s Second Symphony showing some of his ‘controlled aleatory’ techniques. (Wikipedia/Fair use)

I have, however employed this technique elsewhere as accompaniment for recitative, as I don’t see it as a far cry from recitative accompaniment in older operas such as by Handel and Mozart, or more recently in Britten’s Peter Grimes, a favourite of mine. I therefore give Stephen kind-of instrumental recitatives-cum-cadenzas at times in the work and the independent instrumental lines allow him the freedom to dictate play.

TR-J: What are you working on at the moment?

BG: I’ve just finished a trio for clarinet, violin and cello for Ensemble Recherche, which aims to extend my colour palette, and I am about to embark on a piece for the Hermes Experiment: soprano, clarinet, harp, and contrabass. My plan is to add to the discourse surrounding Elizabeth Barton, a sixteenth-century Benedictine nun and prophetess who predicted the downfall of Henry VIII as a result of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. These prophecies didn’t end well for Barton, but what interests me is the notion that historically women were only allowed to influence political discourse – and Barton was influential – if they were channelling the message of God (consider Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Catherine of Siena, or Joan of Arc). This trend, of only allowing a women a public voice when she channels a masculine influence (and how else is God depicted if not wholly male) unfortunately continues to this day, as explained by Mary Beard in a wonderful lecture evoking her own internet trolls, and so the subject is as contemporary as ever.

TR-J: One final question: if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

BG: My first love is opera, so a dramatic commission as a result of close collaboration with librettist, stage and costume designers, and dramaturg; for large ensemble, chorus, and group of vocal soloists; with an extended run in theatres would be a dream come true. But the ensemble would have to be a new music specialist: Recherche, Klangforum Wien or Riot(!) combined with close-harmony chorus, such as Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart or EXAUDI. Performers who are malleable enough to perform any function, be it dramatic, ensemble, or otherwise, and willing to go that extra mile to realize the project.

A few moments with Ann Cleare

Next Thursday, 14 May, we will present the second of our two spring concerts at Goldsmiths College, London. As well as pieces by Pauline Oliveros (her almost forgotten string quartet The Wheel of Time, of which we gave the UK premiere at hcmf// last year), Clara Iannotta (Limun for violin, viola, and two page turners), and Patricia Alessandrini (her string quartet De profundis clamavi [hommage à Alban Berg]), we are very excited to be playing the world premiere of on magnetic fields by Ann Cleare in a stripped-back version for two violins and electronics.

Ann teaches at the University of York and Trinity College Dublin, but managed to find time to talk to Tim Rutherford-Johnson about magnetism, sonic sculptures, and the scarcity of arts spaces in rural Ireland.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: I’m afraid I can’t resist starting with the pun: what attracted you to magnets?

Ann Cleare: Hah! I guess it had to do with dividing the large ensemble, which the piece was originally written for, into three smaller chamber ensembles, and then imagining ways that these ‘sonic places’ would connect. The groupings begin the piece as three, spatially separate, sonic entities, and as the piece unfolds some of their sonic language begins to ‘magnetically’ connect and bring them into dialogue. Technically, I see this ‘magnetism’ happening through harmonic and timbral structures that I have embedded in the piece.

TRJ: on magnetic fields was originally written for three chamber groups, but we will be giving the world premiere of a version of the piece for two violins and electronics. That’s quite a different setup – can you describe the relationship between the two versions? Are you compressing things, removing layers, or something else?

AC: At the centre of two of the spatially divided chamber groups lies a solo violin. I think of both solo violins as ‘electric currents’, wiry voices that magnetically charge the electricity of the ensemble that surrounds them, wrapping layers of various sonic materials around the violins, providing what I think of as an electric cloud for the evolving violin electricities to speak from. This type of expansion leads to a very densely orchestrated texture, and after hearing the large ensemble version I felt like the piece could also exist with only the solo violin lines, as they are the material from which everything else develops – that perhaps the ensembles around them comprised a type of protective layering that could be removed to reveal more.

The electronics take on the role of the third chamber group from the large ensemble piece. I refer to this in the score as ‘a box of light’, a mysterious force that has the power to intervene in the unstoppable temporal processes of the violin groups, and lead these parallel universes to moments of communication and realisation. In this new duo version, the box of light is represented by one loudspeaker placed in between the two violins.

TRJ: You often use sculpture as an analogy to how you work with sound. Can you say a little more about this – what aspects of sound are you sculpting, and how? And is a sculpture in three chamber groups different from one in two violins and electronics?

AC: Yes, I do use this analogy quite a bit! And I think it’s because composing to me feels like a shaping of sound, like a very tactile activity. Once I choose a pitch or a chord or a rhythm (perhaps, say, a raw material), I then apply dynamic, articulation, timbral, phrasing, registral details to it, in an attempt to imbue it with a strong sense of character and purpose. When I’m doing this, I feel like I have some type of physical material in my hands and I’m sculpting it until it resembles the shapes and colours that I’m thinking of.

In this vein of thinking, on magnetic fields presents three different sonic sculptures – I shaped each of these differently to create the sense of three different characters/places, though their differences allow them to build connections across these.

TRJ: Presumably the spatial arrangement of the instruments is also important? Your biography refers to an interest in ‘spatially choreographed chamber pieces’.

AC: Yes, the spatial element is important in communicating the idea of unity within groupings and the separation/distance between chamber groupings. To my thinking, my music has always been a place of invisible theatre. To many listeners it may seem completely abstract, but for me, it is a space that is alive with sonic characters and drama, and the visual spacing/choreography is an attempt to visually set this scene for an audience.

TRJ: Like a lot of composers these days you have roots in more than one country through your work and education – in your case, the US (via your PhD at Harvard University), the UK (as an associate lecturer at the University of York) and Ireland (your home country, and where you now teach at Trinity College, Dublin). How did you come to study at Harvard? Has this international perspective influenced your music, or do you even see things in those terms?

AC: The years that I spent at Harvard were a gift, and a gift that I am immensely grateful for. It was such an engaging, critical, supportive, and fun environment. Thanks to my incredibly insightful composition teachers and colleagues, my music developed in ways that I could never have predicted. The resources in the Music Department are things that most composers could only ever dream of having access to. It’s a very positive environment, from administration to professors, full of extremely bright people who want to learn and teach and share.

How this has shaped my work? I would say that the music I write now is a lot more detailed than previously. Also, the forms within my pieces have expanded in scope. I have a much more critical relationship with my work now. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have that, but I think it will be of much benefit to me in the long run. I would say that travel of any kind is so beneficial to an artist: rather than living in an environment that you know, spending time in a country that’s not your own and even where you don’t speak the language, helps you to understand who you really are, and that can only contribute towards forming the most focused and honest artistic voice that you can.

TRJ: Finally, if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

AC: Oh … just like my dreams, the answer to this question always somehow eludes me! As soon as I think I understand it, it has become something else that I can’t fully grasp … I wrote a chamber opera a few years ago and would love to turn this into a short film – I’m currently training myself in the skills of filming, editing, and directing, so that I can build towards this, and it will hopefully happen in the next few years. And then I have dreams of creating an outdoor performance space in the rural boglands, near to where I’m from in central Ireland. As you can imagine, it’s a bit of an artistic wasteland, and few artists emerge from there. As in many countries, access to the arts badly needs to be decentralized from urban areas, and I would love to build a new type of arena to do this – one that significantly relates to place and history, so that it’s not just another concert hall, but the location itself asks for new ways of thinking about art and new ways of including community and audience within that art.

(Photo credits: Magnetic fields, Windell Oskay, CC licence; County Offaly, Douglas Pfeiffer Cardoso, CC licence)

A few moments with Molly Joyce

Our first concert of 2018 is already almost here! On Friday 12 January we perform Elliott Carter’s legendary Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano at LSO St Luke’s, with Riot members Goska Isphording and Adam Swayne in the challenging solo roles.
This will not be the only highlight of the evening, however: the concert is completed with  works by two younger American composers, Molly Joyce and Pierce Gradone. Over the Christmas holidays Tim Rutherford-Johnson spoke to Molly about her Push and Pull, a new commission from our 2017 Call for Scores, and her work in general.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How did you start composing? Was there a particular moment, piece or person that inspired you to begin?
Molly Joyce: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, to a non-artistic but very supportive family. Musically speaking, I initially started on the violin. However, at the age of seven I was involved in a serious car accident after which my left hand was nearly amputated. After the accident, with the incredible support of my elementary music teacher, physical therapist, and mother, I was able to figure out a way of playing the cello instead –  backwards, so fingering with the right hand and bowing with the left hand (with a splint on the bow). I was always involved with music from then, also playing trumpet (including the ever-fascinating marching band) and occasionally singing in choir. However, once I was in high school I had access to computer notation software. Looking back I think what attracted me to composing at first was that there was no immediate physical limitation, and thus I felt that I could let my imagination run free. It also helped that the notation software all seemed like a big video game to me!
TR-J: What most recently has made a big impact on you?

MJ: While I feel like my answer to this changes every day, I think what has had the greatest impact on me in the past year or so has been meeting the singer, advocate, and entrepreneur Carla Canales. I have been very fortunate to get to know her as a close friend, mentor, and collaborator, and learning from and working with her has truly helped me reimagine my practice and career as one that not only strives for artistic truth and authenticity, but also social impact and awareness. Among her many activities, she is the founder and CEO of The Canales Project, a non-profit founded to create connections through culture, which I feel provides a very conscious and organic platform for artists to address social issues.

Additionally, she has really been the first collaborator to encourage me to sing in my work, which at first was a very scary step but now has truly been life-changing for my practice and output.

TR-J: How did Push and Pull come about? And what surprised you most when you were composing it?

MJ: Lately in many of my instrumental pieces I have been trying to confront my musical ‘guilty pleasures’ head on. These pleasures range from lots of reverb and constant rhythmic pulse, to wanting to quote every Florence + The Machine song …. With my work for Riot Ensemble, I wanted to wrestle with my love of downbeats, and to try to explore what would happen if the downbeat shifts from super obvious to super subtle, and then perhaps even inaudible at the end, allowing for a ‘pushing and pulling’ of it overall.

I think what surprised me most when composing it was how nervous I was and still am about the orchestration of it. I always feel incredibly insecure about orchestration, specifically because it’s so hard for me to tell how exactly it will sound; and once I do hear the music live it can sometimes be too late to make any major changes.

 TR-J: What is your composing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space and/or particular time of day to write, for example?

MJ: My composing routine generally follows the motto ‘anywhere and everywhere … with a coffee – light Starbucks frappuccino if possible.’I almost always compose directly onto my computer, and if possible with my toy organ by my side. When I’m not travelling I generally try to compose in the morning, as I feel that’s when I’m most focused and it’s overall a great way to start my day. When I am travelling I will compose anywhere – on the plane, in the train, and so on. My favourite practice is to find a Starbucks to camp out at (preferable seat near an outlet with nice window view) and binge on light frappuccinos.

TR-J: I’m detecting a frappuccino-based theme! So what’s next on your agenda?
MJ: My next major project is my debut solo album, which will feature my own voice with what is perhaps my favourite instrument, my electric vintage toy organ. Bought on eBay about five years ago, this instrument has quickly become a primary focus in my work, not only because of the unique sound and tuning that it produces, but because it physically fits my body as a performer well due to my physically-impaired left hand.
Thus with the organ and the music I compose for it, I aim to engage and challenge my impairment, an act which I hope will allow for a true ‘breaking and entering’ of my body to a realm beyond ability in and of itself. The album is not concerned with the functional or dysfunctional, but rather all the in-betweens and multitudes of possibilities that emerge from such a source.
TR-J: Finally, if you could choose anything, what would be your dream line-up of instruments and/or voices to write for? And where would you like the premiere of this fantasy piece to take place?

MJ: Along the lines of the previous question: right now my fantasy piece would at least involve myself singing and performing on the organ, most likely in a very resonant church or similar venue as I very much love reverb. I would also envision this as perhaps a collaboration with a lighting and/or projection designer, to add to the theatrics of the work and performance space.

And for the encore a huge dance party would immediately follow.
TR-J: Good times! I’m fascinated too to hear what comes out of your explorations of physical impairment. Thank you for your time, Molly, and we look forward to giving the first performance of Push and Pull.