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!
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 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.
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.
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.
Among the latter – if not for this piece, for his music in general – is the music of the past. For this second interview, Tim focused on this side of Haas’s music, and in particular Haas’s love of Schubert. (To read more about another of Haas’s inspirations, darkness, please see our first interview.)
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Several of your works make explicit references to the music of earlier composers. Could you please explain the importance of musical history to you and why you have been drawn to represent it or address in your own music?
Georg Friedrich Haas: The music of earlier composers is an integral part of the present. Today many more people can hear Mozart or Beethoven or Johann Sebastian Bach than was possible in their lifetimes. We enjoy the surface of this music, which is beautiful and we take pleasure in it. But looking deeper, listening deeper makes it clear: these are incredible masterpieces. And they are full of deep human experiences, longings, abysses, hope and desperation. I feel the burden of this heritage when I compose my music.
TR-J: Works like these seem to have occurred more often relatively early in your career. Are the references no longer there, or have they become more hidden?
GFH: The last piece, which is composed in a direct relationship to old music is Tombeau from 2013. This is not too far. I plan to write a piece in relation to Ivan Wyschnegradsky to be performed on his quartertone piano. And I have a great project coming within the next few years, about which I cannot speak at the moment.
TR-J: Are there particular composers you are drawn to in this way? And what has attracted you to work with their music?
GFH: Several important composers who have inspired me include Mozart (3 pieces: ‘sodass ich’s hernach…’, 7 Klangräume with the unfinished drafts of the Requiem, Tombeau), Josquin Desprez (Tria ex uno), Schubert (Torso), Mendelssohn (Traum in des Sommers Nacht), Scriabin (opus 68), Ives (4 songs); Ligeti, Hauer, and Reich (3 hommages for one performer on two pianos tuned a quartertone apart.) They are very different; each of them attracts me in different ways. For example: I understand Mendelssohn as an avant-garde composer – his technique of orchestration is highly innovative, he is the first composer (I know of) to have composed ‘Klangfarbenmelodien’, that is melodies of sound colours.
TR-J: I believe Schubert is particularly significant to you. What do you find special about his music, and what do you think it has to say to listeners in the twenty-first century? Is it a fascination with his biography, or are there specific musical features that appeal to you as well?
GFH: Schubert was an adult during the decade after the Congress of Vienna. The ideals of the French revolution – ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ – were replaced by control and submission under a feudal dictatorship. Sadly enough, Austria was ‘great’ again. The lack of utopia, the lack of hope created a general feeling of sadness. In Schubert’s music beauty always changes to pain and vice versa. His answer to the political suppression was: ‘My emotions matter’. Maybe this is very relevant now, in the shadow of new fascism everywhere.
TR-J: In Torso you draw on Schubert’s C-major Piano Sonata (D840), a work that he left unfinished. It seems to me that your music often touches on moments of beginning or ending. This is certainly the case in Morgen und Abend, for example, and perhaps Solstices too. In Torso were you seeking to provide an ‘ending’ to the Schubert sonata, or to offer it a new life, a new ‘beginning’?
GFH: I did not want to provide an ‘ending’ to this sonata. I tried to describe why this sonata must remain unfinished. Schubert made a lot of ‘experiments’ in this work. In the first movement he explained how music would work when the dominant seventh chord is handled like a consonance. And he tried to write a mono-thematic sonata based on two intervals (E–G and G–A). He succeeded. In the third movement he ‘experimented’ with the form. The traditional menuet takes the form of: A-B-A’ (with repetitions)–trio (C-D)–A-B-A’ (without repetitions). In part A he replaced the repeat signs with a variation – transposed a semitone higher (!!!). When it was time to come back to A’, he did not know which of these two tonalities he should chose. And he had to stop.
For today’s listener, a repetition a semitone higher is a cheesy technique found in bad popular music. We cannot perceive Schubert’s problem, because for us it is no problem at all. I tried in Torso to make these gaps audible for a contemporary audience, by composing sounds. Torso is a ‘Klangkomposition’ based on Schubert’s score.
TR-J: You also make reference to Schubert in your song cycle ATTHIS, which you have described as a sort of Winterreise ‘with a happy ending’. Are there any other Schubert works that particularly inspire you to write a response of your own, perhaps one that you haven’t yet composed?
GFH: Oh yes: I would be happy if I could write music as brutally naked as Der Leiermann, music as inhumanly cruel as the beginning of the ‘Sanctus’ in the E-flat major mass, music as empty and vulnerable as the beginning of the second movement of the C-major string quintet, music as passionately sexual as ‘Gretchen am Spinnrad’ …
Excitement is building at Riot headquarters as in less than two weeks we will be giving the first performance of a major new work by Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the world’s leading composers. Titled Solstices the work will receive its world premiere appropriately at the Dark Music Days festival in Reykjavik on 26th January. But don’t worry if you can’t make it to Iceland: the UK premiere is just a few days later at the Royal Academy of Music’s Susie Sainsbury Theatre, on the 29th. Lasting 70 minutes and written for 10 musicians playing in complete darkness this is an event not to be missed.
As part of the build-up to this unique occasion, Tim Rutherford-Johnson has conducted several exclusive interviews with Haas about his music and inspirations. In this third and final conversation, Haas reveals some of the inspirations behind his new piece. If you would like to read more, the first and second interviews are here and here.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: For our final set of questions I would like to turn to the piece you have written for us, Solstices.What significance do the solstices have for you?
Georg Friedrich Haas: It is a personal and beautiful coincidence. I met my beloved spouse Mollena [Haas-Williams; pictured above] on 21 December 2013. And we decided to perform a ceremony to sanctify our relationship on 21 June 2014. The rehearsals and first performances of Solstices are/were also close to the solstices.
TR-J: The winter and summer solstices are also important moments in many cultures around the world. Have you drawn on the resonances of these moments in your work at all?
TR-J: Are you especially attuned to the passage of the seasons in your own life, the lengthening and shortening of days? Do you work differently in summer and winter, for example? Do you consider an awareness of such things to be important?
GFH: I am always sad when the days get shorter, and I am happy when they are longer. When I lived amongst nature (1991–2000, Fischbach, Austria) I was very conscious of this. The turning of the stars, the moon, the cycle of the seasons – this was a mystical experience. Now, living in New York, I still feel the changes: stars are not visible, but the different lights in the different seasons, the different colours of the sky, are inspiring and beautiful.
I assume my music is not influenced by seasonal changes. I am an addict: I need my drug (that is, composition) every day.
TR-J: Have you sought to translate any of these meanings into your piece? And if so, how?
GFH: Maybe you can feel my love for my spouse Mollena shimmering through the music.
TR-J: Solstices will be played in complete darkness. Reading the score, I am struck by the amount of approximation that is built in, relative to many other contemporary scores – with timings, rhythms, entries, and so on. This is obviously essential when playing from memory and in the dark. I’m interested in what compositional models have you drawn upon in writing this way; I detect hints of Lutosławski as well as James Tenney, but perhaps you have your own ideas.
GFH: Composing means: having an idea of music in one’s head, and trying to communicate with musicians to make these ideas reality. When I write for darkness I must find special techniques for this. Yes, Lutosławski and Tenney inspired me, but also Cage, Stockhausen, and Grisey.
TR-J: The harmonic language of the piece is obviously important, with lots of long overtone chords, for example (some last several minutes). Yet you have also composed a number of interventions or ‘elements’ that can appear freely amongst these. How did you go about balancing a precise harmonic language with these much freer components? Is there an element of conflict in the piece, or of union; or perhaps something else?
GFH: There are plenty of musical elements which I love. There are musicians who give these materials the time they need. And there are listeners who dare to share this journey. Enjoy!
TR-J: Finally, in our first interview you said that that darkness has no meaning, it is just a musical medium. Can you say a little more about the musical qualities that darkness brings to Solstices in particular?
GFH: I have never composed such a long time in darkness for so many instruments. I hope between ten instrumentalists and many listeners we will gain a spiritual experience – all focused on ourselves, isolated, yet strongly connected by the energy of the sounds.
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.