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 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.

Photo du 60128790-08- à 16.42

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 Liza Lim

It’s my pleasure to be giving this Friday the UK Premiere of Liza Lim’s violin concerto, Speak, Be Silent.  Liza is a generous composer and collaborator, and I’ve been an admirer of her music for a long time, so it was a particular pleasure to spend a day working on the piece with her, and asking her a few questions in advance of our performance.

the opening of Lim's "Speak, Be Silent"

the opening of Lim’s “Speak, Be Silent”

Sarah Saviet: Hi Liza, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. We are incredibly excited to give the UK premiere of your piece Speak, Be Silent for solo violin and ensemble. Where does the title come from, and does it give any hint to our readers as to what they can expect from the piece?

Liza Lim: The title comes from a version of Rumi made by Coleman Barks:

Just remember, when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.
The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.
     – Jalaluddin Rumi, excerpt fr. Mathnawi V: 3195-3219
     version by Coleman Barks 

The piece is a ‘concerto’ – a rather classical formation! But my take on this was to make a piece that plays with ideas of union and separation – to find ways of exploring how rather different things can be in the same space to make a unison and to see how divergence and convergence are in dialogue and relate to each other. After speaking, comes listening … and then the ecstasy of an internal singing.

Speak, Be Silent was commissioned for and premiered by Ensemble Contrechamps in 2015. We will be the second ensemble to perform this piece. What is it like to hear your music played approached for the first time by musicians who didn’t give the premiere, and how is your participation in the rehearsal process different (or similar)?

I’m excited to hear you (Sarah) with Riot Ensemble and your take on the work. It is amazing how different a piece of music can be from one musician and performance to the next and actually, I love the non-static nature of that. Interpretation and style are important components of how all musics are communicated and I think the sonic-time arts are particularly seismographic to who, how, where, and when something is happening – that unrepeatable specialness of time-place-person in the  process of performing and as an intersection of the energies of the people involved, is so incredibly interesting. In terms of rehearsal, every situation can be different – I suppose with a premiere, there is a more open space for creating the language of the work but that quality of ‘creation’ could and should be there no matter how many times a piece has been played – it’s up to the imagination, vitality, and sensitivity of the performers. In rehearsals, I listen!

whatever this is

from Ensemble Modern’s recent premiere of Lim’s “Ronda – The Spinning World”

You frequently write for non-Western (ie non-European) instruments; for example, sheng, Hardanger fiddle, and most recently Walter Smetak’s ‘Sound Sculptures’ (for an upcoming premiere with Ensemble Modern).  In comparison, the instrumentation for Speak, Be Silent consists mainly of Western orchestral instruments. How does your compositional process differ when you are writing for familiar instruments, as opposed to instruments that you are exploring for the first time while writing the piece?

I try to find some unfamiliar aspect to all instruments that I write for – often some lateral perspective, some ‘secret view’ of the instrument in terms of how it’s played or sounds, provides an important point of inspiration to me. The more seemingly familiar an instrument is, the more potential I think it has of surprising me and prompting unexpected creative responses. The cello, for instance, is an instrument very much known to me in an internalized way and I’ve explored many different preparations: of wrapping hair around the bow, or by tying cotton threads to the strings, as techniques to de-familiarize the instrument (anyway, a very well-trodden modernist path!) and through that, found ways of opening up some new aesthetic priorities for my music, for example: an aesthetics of shimmer, or a way of phrasing which hesitates and breathes in a certain way. The element of ‘making strange’ or ‘making unknown’ that might be more obvious when composing for a non-Western or an invented instrument is pursued in all of my music as a way of arriving at some kind of perceptual shift (even if small) – rather than it being about writing for ‘weird’ instruments per se.

In Speak, be Silent, I retuned the bottom string of the instrument to increase the ‘throaty’ quality of the string and this is for me the access point to making a connection between the woodblock (a very basic ‘violin’) and the violin in the piece. I try to find links between the identities of these two instruments using the rasp stick on the woodblock as a bow and having moments in the solo violin where the sound catches and distorts – it’s not a complete match and I keep it quite subtle but in that gap between sameness and difference, I glimpse something which for me is the essence of the piece.

You were recently appointed Professor of Composition at the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. This is a unique post as you will be closely involved in SCM’s national women composer’s development programme. What advice could you offer towards ensembles and performers who would like to support the development of women composers? Is it significant to simply programme works by women composers, or are there other actions that might be important to consider?

The Sydney University/Conservatorium programme is an exciting one to be involved in because it takes a bold approach to addressing gender inequality.

I think basic inclusion is the first step (otherwise it’s all talk, no action …). I think we’re still (still!) working on a basic shift in perception in terms of gender (and other) equalities, hence the need for tools that change those frameworks – quotas where one commits to inclusion allow one to ‘make’ the result straight away so one can see what that looks like. Through that, you normalize a culture where women and men are given space and access to cultural resources. (When one puts it that way, it really does become very clear why this is essential.)

I think having role models is also important – visibility is a very powerful thing – especially in our age of images. I’m pleased to be working more to address gender equality issues; I’ve been doing quite a lot of mentoring of women composers recently at a grass roots level in Australia as well as a programme with Speak Percussion in Melbourne. I’ve been inspired by my colleagues at Huddersfield University – Liz Dobson and Lisa Colton; by the work and research led by Ashley Fure and others at 2016 Darmstadt, as well as by the work of colleagues like Cat Hope at Monash University and composers like Chaya Czernowin, Olga Neuwirth, like Rebecca Saunders and Anna Thorvaldsdottir who you’ve also programmed in this concert, and many, many others.

Liza garden, Feb2017

Liza Lim, in her garden

Occasionally you make a blog post that includes pictures of your incredibly gorgeous vegetable and flower garden. How do you pick which plants to grow?

I have a very small garden in the front yard – it’s basically 2×2 metres and I like to plant in a very dense way using horizontal and vertical space (that way there are no weeds and the theory is that biodiversity helps keep pests in check – they eat each other!). It’s fun to grow things you can eat and I choose heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, chillies, beans, greens, and herbs; the flowers bring the bees in; and because it’s the front garden, it’s quite a public space so lots of people passing by stop to chat – it becomes a rather social zone.

That sounds lovely to us – especially to those of us in London!  We’re excited to see you and work with you this week, Liza.  Thanks so much for your time!

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!

RealWorld-43

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?  

composition-iv-1911.jpg!Large

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!

 

A few moments with Rebecca Saunders

We’re actually quite amazed that we’re going to be giving the London premiere of Rebecca Saunder’s A Visible Trace on 3 March at The Warehouse.  We know we’re not alone in being deep admirers of Rebecca’s music, and we’re excited to be hatching plans to bring a lot more of her music to her homeland’s concert halls over the coming years.  We’re also grateful Rebecca took the time to answer a few of our questions about her and her music.  Read on, below!

Rebecca_Saunders_grande

 

Hello Rebecca and thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. Your piece A Visible Trace seems to be part of a clutch of “trace” works. Can you explain what you mean by traces in music?

It´s hard to explain, but that´s why I wrote the piece, to try to explore this idea. Composing is like another form of thinking.  Here are 4 partial answers:

1. This quotation from Calvino was intended as the program text. It´s a beautiful visual image:

The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss. 
– Exactitude, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino.

Sound/silence – presence/absence. Tracing the sound, the timbre. Hunting down a trace of colour and pursuing it. Find the thing and it disappears; name the thing and it loses shape and meaning. That is the ‘trace’ – unattainable, elusive, slips through your fingers, the moment you touch it, it is gone.

2. This piece had no prepared formal structure or pre-conceived goal. In the moment of composing investigating the chosen palette of sounds, exploring their potential, and then gradually as the piece progresses sketching a formal design.

3. The unveiling of the ‘thing’, the drawing out of silence of a sound and giving it context and shape – moulding, caressing, projecting, catapaulting sound or timbres into audible space.

4. The work is rather like a single long lyrical line, albeit elongated and stretched to breaking point. This line pursues the fragments of timbre, the ‘traces’.

This piece is scored for ‘eleven conducted soloists’. Can you give us an idea of how the musicians will interact with one another?

The individual parts can be quite virtuosic and demanding. Also there are a number of small chamber groups which explore a shared timbral palette of sounds. These were separately composed and then juxtaposed within the large-scale work, forcing separate threads of music to co-exist. The last section has for example a trio of e-guitar, violin and piccolo which is fused into the overall texture, but which also lends line and form to this part of the piece. I liked at this time to explore the potential formal tensions inherent in juxtaposing different musics in this way. It can create an unusual tension and disjointed formal cohesion.

00 - Score - A Visible Trace-10

On the other hand I also explored creating a single shared palette of sounds which fused the whole ensemble together to try to create one single instrument where the sound is in a constant state of transformation from one timbre to the next.

Your music seems to frequently (although not always) draw upon slow tempi and silence. Are you giving your audience freedom within their listening experience? Or are you simply using silence as an important musical tool within different performance environments?

I don´t think I can deem to give or take away freedom … Certainly a slow tempo can allow a listener to contemplate a sound and a colour in a different way. But even in a highly tense fast dense music the play of timbre can lead the ear to follow the line, gesture and contour of the music. Silence is particularly important in this respect. It can frame and give context and depth to a musical gesture. It highlights the contours and characteristics of a sound. It enables us to focus intensely on a moment of sound that follows or indeed precedes the silence. Silence can be active, inactive, full of expectation, dead or incredibly exciting – that moment of waiting, even the moment of dread – it has many functions. It can be seen as the antithesis of sound, but also it is a full vibrating explosive potential of anything sonic. Drawing sound out from under the surface of silence, which is like a knot of infinite frequencies and cacophony waiting to be revealed, or allowing it for a moment to explode into the listening space. A composition can frame a sound which we may never have noticed or bothered to give our attention to before. One possible act of composition is to create a listening space, an acoustic landscape into which the listener may enter. I wouldn’t define silence as a tool, as it is as important as sound itself, is part of the fabric of sound.

We see you are hard at work on a large-scale music theatre piece. Can you tell us more?

It is a large-scale spatial project for dancers, voices and large ensemble based on a late Beckett text entitled Still. But it one of those projects that keeps starting and stopping and right now I am not sure when the premier is, somewhere between 2019 and 2021.

Finally, warm greetings from London to Berlin. How is life as an English person in the heart of European culture?

Berlin is a very diverse and international vibrant city, which I love and does remind me of London at times. It has a rich and exciting cultural life. It is a tricky question right now, post-Brexit. Brexit hangs heavily over us. Disappointed and angry like all Brits living in Europe – one feels rejected by one’s own country.

I feel part of a rich European culture. I have lived here for many years now but of course, since I came here as an adult, I retain my essential ‘Englishness’. I still eat Marmite and watch Sherlock. But Brexit and its unimaginable aftermath have shocked me profoundly. It was awful not to be able to vote – not a clever move, and rather undemocratic, to not let so-called ex-pats have their say – that could well have made all the difference. It’s going to be incredibly important for cultural institutions, ensembles and artists to work even harder to maintain and promote exchanges and collaborations between the UK and Europe.

Many thanks, Rebecca!