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 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.

A few moments with Pierce Gradone

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 Pierce about his To Paint Their Madness, which will receive its UK premiere, and his work in general.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How did you start composing? Was there a particular moment, piece or person that inspired you to begin writing music?
Pierce Gradone: I started music as a bassist, mostly playing in church and in bluegrass and rock bands in the rural Appalachia region in the US. My composing, or at least some version of it, began when I was around nine years old. I heard Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets‘ on the radio, and since I had no money to buy a record, I tried to recreate it on my family’s upright piano. Having figured the song out, I began to realize that I could manipulate the chords and rhythms to my liking, thus beginning a brief tenure writing pop tunes at the piano. As I grew older, I began to listen to more and more classical music, but it was mostly limited to that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This changed when I was about 18. I spotted an album with an intriguing cover and a name I’d only vaguely heard before: Béla Bartók. It was Edith Farnadi and Hermann Scherchen’s recording of the Second Piano Concerto, and I’ll never forget the moment I heard that opening movement, as two things occurred to me: first, I was ecstatic to discover that music like this existed at all; second, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. That’s when I began to seriously explore contemporary music and composition.
TR-J: What most recently has made a big impact on you?
PG: At a recent festival, I was introduced to the music of Hanna Eimermacher, a composer living and working in Berlin. Her works are intensely theatrical and ritualistic, but somehow manage to marry a striking sense of mise-en-scène with an equally compelling sound world. For me, her music reaffirmed the importance of performance and performing bodies, especially in a musical economy so heavily weighted toward creating the perfect aural document. I would particularly recommend Luftpost and In Vivo.
TR-J: How did To Paint Their Madness come about? And what surprised you most when you were composing it?
PG: To Paint Their Madness was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University for Ensemble Dal Niente, a group I had worked with in the past, and whose members had become colleagues and friends. In short, I wanted the piece to be about the people playing it, so I decided to thematize the experience of performance in the piece itself. The title is taken from a passage of Denis Diderot’s Le Paradoxe sur la comedien, in which he argues that the greatest actors feel no true emotion on the stage, but instead create a reproducible copy. Thus, I thematize this sense of artifice through musical pantomime, in which players looks like they should be creating sound, but are in fact making none whatsoever, creating a kind of paradox within the performance, These moments recur throughout the piece, but culminate in the final measures, where the entire ensemble has taken to pantomiming musical gestures, but creating only a shadow of sound.
I think I was most surprised by how quickly I was able to write it – about one month!
TR-J: What is your composing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space and/or particular time of day to write, for example?
PG: My routine often varies, with the one constant being coffee and interruptions to walk my dog. I usually sketch on paper or by recording myself playing the piano or bass, and vocalizing figures and sounds that don’t translate well to traditional notation. I then do a kind of rough analysis of my material, trying to find new connections between seemingly disparate ideas. After that, I usually compose and engrave at the same time. Since my composing process involves a lot of revision, I find that I waste less paper and time by simply working directly into Finale and avoiding the playback button at all costs. I often have to get started in the morning, and ideally work for about 6-8 hours when I’m not teaching. I often work in my home office, with my beagle-basset hound, Marlon, sitting beside me and providing a nice accompaniment of howling at passing police sirens. What I like about the space is the sense of organization and purpose that comes with sitting at a desk to work, especially if it’s a nice day and the windows are open. Some composers may hate this, but I love being surrounded by the sounds of an urban environment (Chicago, where I live), so much so that I’ve actually created harmonies in my pieces based on a pitch I happened to hear outside.
TR-J: What’s coming up next for you?
PG: I’m currently writing a concerto for trombone and ensemble for my dear friend Steve Parker (based in Texas) and Ensemble Dal Niente. Farther on the horizon are pieces for saxophone/electronics, orchestra, and viola, flute and harp trio.
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?
PG: My dream project would be an operatic adaptation of China Mieville’s Embassytown, a fantastic novel that deals with linguistics, colonialism, and the nature of truth. A unique quality of several characters in Mieville’s novel would require that some parts be sung by two singers simultaneously, creating a really fascinating musical premise. I imagine it would be for chamber orchestra, with a much larger cast of singers and some electronic components as well. It’d be premiered at any opera house willing to spend a fortune on costumes!
TR-J: Sounds fantastic! Let’s hope we have a chance to see it happen one day … Thanks Pierce, and we look forward to playing To Paint Their Madness later this week.

A few moments with Mirela Ivičević

On Saturday, we will be at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, giving the world premiere of Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy by the Croatian composer Mirela Ivičević, one of our 2017 call for scores commissions. (Also on the programme: another call for scores commission by Sylvain Marty.) This week Mirela took some time out of her busy travelling schedule to answer a few questions from us about her work.

Mirela Ivečivić

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Mirela – thank you for speaking to us! Your piece Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy has a really intriguing title that raises a lot of questions. To start us off, can you tell us what it means?

Mirela Ivičević: Thank you! The piece follows the contours of the Magnum Opus, the alchemical process of working with starting material to create the so-called philosopher’s stone, which according to Carl Jung corresponds to the transformative process of the psyche.

Originally, the Magnum Opus had four main stages: nigredo or blackening, a phase of chaos, shadow, of ‘massa confusa’; albedo or whitening, washing away of impurities; citrinitas or yellowing, ‘transmutation of silver into gold’, or symbolically, accumulation of wisdom based on previous experience; and finally rubedo or reddening, the wholeness, the phase in which the material (or a person) achieves their maximum potential. I believe these stages will be pretty identifiable in the piece.

It’s a ‘baby’ because it’s only about eight minutes long and because it is my first ensemble piece exploiting this concept consciously.

And the Lilith archetype is always around my pieces as a hidden narrative. Her seemingly frightening and uncompromising character and undisputable power comes closest to the energy of those strong women creators I am happy to see more and more in field of composition nowadays. In this piece Lilith is a baby, playing somewhat carelessly yet curiously with raw material to make sonic magic.

TR-J: Previous pieces of yours have confronted big themes. Sometimes in quite an ironic fashion, as in your musical heritage in Phantom no. 3 and the problem of CVs and musical biographies in Orgy of References. In others, you address more serious issues of diversity, co-existence and violent oppression. Can we expect anything similar in Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy?

MI: Actually, Baby Magnify is one of a few pieces of mine whose direct background is of a non-political, ‘timeless’ nature. The way the composition is structured on a macro and even more on micro level I think still shows my ongoing fascination with trying to find a way for diversities to creatively coexist in a shared space. This is always a conscious, politically inspired choice, although it is probably rooted in my subconsciousness as well, being raised a multicultural family in a multicultural patchwork country. It also simply feels right.

TR-J: You were born in Croatia but now you live in Vienna. When did you move to Austria, and what encouraged you to move?

MI: I live kind of nomadically at the moment, mostly between my hometown of Split, Zagreb and Vienna, which I guess is not unusual for a musician nowadays. I moved to Vienna originally because I wanted to broaden my knowledge in electroacoustics as well as in composing for various media, as well as simply to move and experience the world from another point of view. It’s something which I’d recommend to any artist, there’s nothing more crucial and more rewarding then setting yourself into unknown, physically or metaphorically.

Vienna is an inspiring place and still one of the most artists-friendly cities in Europe. And it’s also reasonably close to the Mediterranean, without whom I wouldn’t want to live!

TR-J: In your biography you mention that your music makes use of the ‘side-products of media-dominated reality’. Can you explain what you mean by this? Will we hear any of these elements in your Riot commission?

MI: It means that rather then escaping the everyday sounds I get exposed to through various media, I use them as my starting material. I said ‘side-products’ as a polite alternative to trash. They are not always trash: some I find valuable as they are, but often I also use sounds I don’t value or whose original context or source affects me negatively. Sometimes I work deliberately with the sounds and their respective contexts, and such pieces are more theatrical. Sometimes though, as in case of Riot commission where I used, among other things, various human breathing gestures, I exploit them more hermetically: they are just a source of basic material from which to create something contextually independent.

TR-J: Your music is full of exciting and original sounds. How do you discover them? Do you experiment with the instruments, talk to players, or collect them from other pieces you’ve heard?

MI: I enjoy getting my hands ‘dirty’, so I have a bunch of different instruments I bought cheap on the flea-market. It is also a huge advantage that I’m a part of Black Page Orchestra, with absolutely amazing, adventurous musician friends with whom to discuss any idea I might have.

Ideally, I love writing not for mere instruments, but for musicians’ personalities. Working closely with a fellow musician, getting to know their character, preferences and even hidden talents opens so many additional possibilities, makes me more adventurous in terms of trying out new things and usually produces my best works.

But then again, sometimes it happens that you compose for people you haven’t yet met, and they sweep you off your feet with the magic they do with your score. Like a soulmate you first meet on Facebook.

TR-J: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what is next on your agenda?

MI: I’m currently working on an electronic solo set for a November festival of experimental music Sine Linea in Greta Gallery in Zagreb, a new piece for piano, electronics and video for pianist Alfredo Ovalles, and a theatre piece for children commissioned by the Jeunesse Austria to be premiered at the Mozarthaus in Vienna in April. The last one I am especially looking forward to because it approaches the youngest audience while dealing with a very sensitive, very personal and – unfortunately for a lot of kids – very current theme of exile and trying to find a place for oneself in a new, foreign land.

Another project coming up that I’m very excited about is new piece for percussion and solar panels. Friends of mine, the Croatian artists’ duo Lightune.G discovered a way to translate light into sound using solar panels – what they call luminoacoustics. I’ve already tried it out in a piece I made for them and percussionist Kaja Farszky last year, and it was an amazing experience that I can’t wait to continue. After that a new piece for Black Page Orchestra and music for Peter Tscherkassky’s experimental movie Dreamwork with Ensemble Nikel.

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

MI: I love diversity, I love depths, I love noise, and I love bringing together extremes, so I guess it would be an ensemble of lots of different bass and soprano instruments, electronics, solar panels, probably also a skilful soprano/actress for some word play. And the dream venue for the premiere: definitely the abandoned submarine port from the Yugoslav era in Rogačić bay on the island Vis, one of the places I like to call home. At night, with the audience listening from boats on the sea. But of course, this is just a dreamy frame: what’s always more important is what a composer would fill this frame with.

TR-J: Sounds like a beautiful concept! Maybe one day … Until then, we look forward to playing Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy in Brighton. Thank you, Mirela.

A few moments with Sylvain Marty

On Saturday, we will be at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, giving the world premiere of Block Mouvementa by the French composer Sylvain Marty, one of our 2017 call for scores commissions. (Also on the programme: another call for scores commission by Mirela Ivičević.) Sylvain is currently very busy with pressing compositional deadlines, but he managed to find time to answer a few questions from us.

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Sylvain! Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. The piece you have written for us is called Block Mouvement. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind it?

Sylvain Marty: The title reveals a precise place (and moment) in the compositional architecture. This is a moment when the ‘musical flow’ is circumscribed in blocks or fragments, and when I am able to consider complex textures differently.

TR-J: Many of your pieces, including Block Mouvement, I think, use loops as a way of extending and developing your material. But your music is not in any way ‘minimalist’. Can you say a little about what you like about loops, and about how you use them?

SM: Even if it is present in several pieces, loops are not fundamental to my work (in fact they disappear quite quickly). I use them to create a sensation of the persistence of the cell, generating materials and vectors of movement. However, I love working with the ideas of groove and echo, which allow me to use repeating cells.

TR-J: Your work often uses quite ‘dry’ sounds. You have described these as having a ‘tragic’ quality. Can you explain what you mean by this description?

SM: It was a director friend who spoke of tragic sounds in some passages of my pieces. That may be true. In any case, even when I study a sound analytically – when I study its spectrum, its typology – I don’t exhaust its expressive content. Sounds, when they appear in an effective composition, are presented as irreducible entities. What we experience is their unveiling.

TR-J: Do other types of sound have emotional qualities like this for you? Can you give some examples?

SM: I don’t think there is an a priori emotional quality to a sound. It is the composer who contextualizes the sound in an organizing network and gives it expressive power.

TR-J: Both new commissions in this concert were commissioned to be performed alongside Ayre by Chaya Czernowin. Was this work in your mind at all when you were composing?

SM: Chaya Czernowin is a very great composer, and when I learnt this I was first afraid that my piece would appear weak next to Ayre. But soon I forgot this fact, I just composed as I often do: Continue my musical path. I try to do a good job while taking risks.

TR-J: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what is next on your agenda?

SM: It’s not yet official – I don’t know if I can say …

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

SM: I would like to write for a ensemble in which all the families of instruments are present – 14 instruments seems good to me! Where? In a place where the sound of the hall is good, the audience is curious and where the academic spirit is not too heavy. There are lots of possibilities!

TR-J: Thank you very much for your time, Sylvain – we look forward to performing your piece!

A few moments with Oliver Brignall

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

Palace of Junk

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

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

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

Scene 4 - Homer & Langley

Page 1 of Oliver’s Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you live in semi-seclusion?

A city boy through and through!

Have you booby-trapped your house?

 Come for tea and find out?!

Many thanks, Ollie (we think … )!

 

A few moments with Heather Stebbins

The ensemble is currently hard at work at Real World Studios, and tonight we will be recording Heather Stebbins’ miniature written especially for our two pianists Claudia Racovicean and Adam Swayne. ‘Ursa Minor’ is a beautiful and semi-improvisatory piece featuring some extraordinary sounds that we can’t wait to get ‘in the can’! Find out more about Heather on her website and have a read of an interview about her piece below.

View More: http://ginabrocker.pass.us/heathermikeandelliottoctober2016

‘Ursa Minor’ for piano … are you a stargazer?
Not in any formal sense. Like most children, I was very curious about space and astronomy as a kid. I grew up in a rural area and the lack of light pollution allowed for great views of the stars, planets, and constellations with both the naked eye and my uncle’s telescope. Since moving to the ‘big city’ I haven’t had much opportunity to star gaze, but I still like to look upwards. In this piece, I was inspired by the idea of connecting elements to make new shapes, such as in a constellation.

Your piece involves a crystal ball, metal knitting needles, hairpins, and aluminium foil. Can you describe how you use these things, and can you put into words what they will sound like?
Normally when I compose and want to use some non-traditional element, such as hairpins, I try to limit myself to just a few uses so that things don’t get too unwieldy. For some reason, I did the exact opposite for this miniature! I use these elements to exploit the piano’s delicate and metallic persona. The crystal ball creates a very special sound. A dear friend, Spanish pianist and improvisor Hara Alonso (who is doing some really amazing projects), showed me this technique and I fell in love with the sound world. The hairpins and knitting needles come from my own experimentations with the piano and objects I had lying around. The aluminium foil provides a quiet, unpredictable texture. I am attracted to tiny and delicate sounds – I love the sound of slowly crumpling aluminium foil and you really can’t replicate that with any instrumental sound!

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Can you tell us what else you are working on at the moment?
I recently finished a piece for ensemble and electronics for Colorado-based Nebula Ensemble (so many space references!). I’m starting a new project for trombone (and most likely electronic devices) for NYC-based trombonist Will Lang. Will plays with the ensemble loadbang and is a great champion of new works. I’m really excited to be working with him again.

Thanks so much, Heather!

Talking Toy Pianos

IMG_3697At our session at Real World Studios this week we are recording super works for toy piano(s) by composers Monica Pearce and Thomas Kotcheff. Here they answer Adam’s questions about their intimacies with these dinky noise-makers, embracing sonics, tonics and politics …

You are both seasoned ambassadors for the toy piano. Please can you describe your activities to date?

MP: It’s an anniversary year for me and my toy piano – I met this Schoenhut 3-octave number ten years ago in July off an ad on Craigslist. It’s been a wild adventure ever since – I’ve written almost a dozen pieces with toy piano since then. One piece in particular – clangor for toy piano and bicycle bells, written for Queen of the Toy Piano Margaret Leng Tan – has at this point travelled internationally more than I have, making stops in Singapore, Australia, U.S., and Canada! My interest in toy pianos has led me to some very unique projects – last year I wrote a duet for toy piano and tabla (with the remarkable duo of Xenia Pestova and Shawn Mativetsky), and this year I’ll be writing a quartet for two toy pianos and two percussionists for the Atlanta-based ensemble Chamber Cartel. When I’m not tickling the plastics, you can find me writing chamber operas, chamber music or educational music.

unnamedTK: I am a founding member of the Los Angeles based piano duo HOCKET and we love to perform music for toy pianos. Our repertoire ranges from toy piano classics by John Cage to newly commissioned works written for our ensemble (including a terrific piece by Riot Ensemble’s artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum). As a piano duo, we love the mobility that performing on toy pianos offers us (performing in art galleries, bars, outdoors, etc.) and both myself and my partner in HOCKET continue to compose, arrange, and commission new works for these instruments.

What initially attracted you to the distinctive sound of the toy piano?

TK: I’ve always seen the toy piano as the quirky combination of a harpsichord and a glockenspiel with the distinct feature that every toy piano has their own unique tuning. The fact that no two toy pianos can be in tune with one another is exploited in death, hocket, and roll by having the two toy pianos trading identically voiced major chords back and forth. Major chords on the toy piano also always reminded me of what an old-fashioned slot machine sounds like when you win and the machine is paying out — I tried to capture this slot-machine sound world throughout death, hocket, and roll and especially so in the coda of the piece.

IMG_0861MP: I loved the sound – the bell-like timbre with its bizarre overtones. I love that its sound exists in some other dimension that mixes an out-of-tune pitch with a very percussive clack. I think it’s an instrument that can be incredibly fruitful for composers to get outside of their comfort zones and really stretch their imaginations, especially if they can get over the mindset of it being a mini-piano or only suitable for writing creepy children’s music.

Riot Ensemble is recording a piece by each of you. To my ears both your pieces seem to mix a transparent sense of tonality with more chromatic flights of fancy. Is this a response to the instrument or a more general theme in your musical language?  

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MP: I would say this piece certainly fits within my musical language but it’s most directly inspired by Kandinsky. I took a marvellous quote from Wassily Kandinsky which deals with colour as a musical metaphor: “Each colour lives by its mysterious life. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. Everything starts with a dot.” Kandinsky’s artworks are so vibrant and dynamic, and I wanted to try and create a musical environment which was both calculated and completely excitable. The soprano also plays a wine glass drone throughout which gives a somewhat false sense of stability and creates unusual harmonic interactions with the toy piano. I am certainly prone to doing certain gestures on the toy piano, such as fast pointillistic patterns and repeated notes – I adore the resonance created by those types of gestures.

TK: In the music I’ve written in the last few years, juxtaposing vanilla major and minor chords against chromaticism, noise, and harsh dissonance has been a focus of my music. I’ve always been interested in the idea of “bad taste” in music and looking for ways to exploit that as an aesthetic. The idea of blatantly putting major and minor chords up against dissonant material seems like it would be in poor taste, but if a piece becomes oversaturated with poor taste, for me it slowly begins to emerge out the other side to become something new and worth exploring.

Perhaps a little piano is best played with little hands? Would you be happy, for example, for President Trump to give a recital on your toy piano?

TK: It would be fitting for a toy president to perform on a toy piano and he would certainly do less damage that way. However, I fear that President Trump wouldn’t be able to figure out how to play the instrument despite it being originally designed for children.

MP: Well all I can say is – music unifies, and requires that people listen and consider multiple perspectives. So, perhaps President Trump could use more of a music education to add to his personal growth. Meanwhile I’m just going to build this tiny wall around my toy piano.
What does President Trump think of that?
Trump Tweet
Many thanks Monica and Thomas! Together you sure make the toy piano great again!