Seven Heavens: Dark Music Days, Iceland

Date: Friday 26th January, 8.00pm
Venue: Iðnó (Reykyavik) 

Riot Ensemble makes our Icelandic Debut at Myrkir Músíkdagar (Dark Music Days) with a new work by Icelandic composer (and performer) Bára Gísladottír for the same forces as Henri Dutilleux’s chamber masterpiece Les Citations.  Riot will also give Icelandic premieres to works for the same forces from Arlene Sierra, Jose Manuel Serrano and Chris Roe, along with the European Premiere of Aaron Holloway-Nahum’s Like a Memory of Birds.

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A few moments with Laurence Osborn

We come to new music in a lot of ways here.  You’ve already been introduced to Yukiko and Lee, the two winners of our 2016 Call for Scores competition.  This Saturday’s concert will also feature more than a dozen World Premieres from New Music Brighton composers – whom we collaborate with in Brighton annually.  Laurence Osborn is a composer we got to know, in large part, because we saw him at a lot of concerts – ours and lots of other people’s, too.  As soon as we heard his music we knew he was somebody we’d like to work with and so we’re thrilled to have commissioned a new piece from him and poet Joseph MindenMicrographia.  

In this interview Laurence discusses his life and music with our artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum. Both Laurence and Aaron will be at the concert this Saturday at 5pm – and the afterparty – so do come say hello if you make it down!

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1. What’s happening in your life?

This evening I got back from Sainsbury’s just in time to see a mouse emerge from a box of cornflakes on the kitchen counter, so at the moment, mouse problems.

2. What’s happening in your music?

I’m writing a 90-minute opera for Mahogany Opera Group. The opera is called The Mother and it’s based on the work of a Polish playwright, painter, and prolific substance abuser called Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Witkiewicz’s work has had a huge influence on my music – particularly his theory of dramatic form, which he calls pure form. I’m interested in creating music-dramatic forms from apparently disparate or unconnected elements that hang together in the same space, so that the story of a piece or a scene is revealed in its overall composition rather than observed through linear narrative. The third act of the opera is made in this way: it comprises twenty-four very short sections intermingled with a standalone choral piece that has been cut up arbitrarily and superimposed on top of it all.

I’ve been listening to and watching a lot of things that work with this principle – Kurtag’s chamber music, and some of Peter Greenaway’s films from the ’80s. And I’m reading Infinite Jest, which does similar things. I’m also obsessed with the new Danny Brown album, Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown is amazing at juxtaposing different voices and sound-worlds in order to create an overarching narrative, I think. He’s a total genius.

3. Your piece is inspired by magnified images of tiny particles in substances including blue mould and urine. Are you at heart a true romantic?

Yes, I’m very soppy. But to be honest, it’s possible to get sentimental about virtually anything when it’s viewed through a microscope. The piece is based on Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, which was written in 1665, and details the author’s observations of various things through the microscope. The book contains lots of beautiful observational drawings. 

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Drawing of frozen wee!

Joe’s text really gets to the heart of Hooke’s love for the tiny worlds contained within everyday things, I think. The poetry is so colourful and evocative in itself that the composition of this piece came very naturally to me. Micrographia is much gentler and hazier than the stuff I usually write.

4. So what’s the first note?

It’s a chord! A cheeky little four-note chord on piano and vibes!

5. And what’s the last note?

An F natural. Not very interesting. But the last word of Joe’s poem is ‘hunger’.

6. What happens in between?

The piece is in six small movements, and each movement focusses on a different phenomenon viewed through the microscope – the point of a needle, salt crystals, urine, and so on. For me, the composition of each movement was a little game of magnification and/or reflection. So material is often magnified during a movement either through rhythmic augmentation, or the proportional widening of the intervals in particular chords, or sometimes both.

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Micrographia by Joseph Minden

But (depending on the movement) you also find material reflected in various ways, in retrograde, inversion, and so on. There is no discernible system for this in movements 2–5. Movement 6, however, is a direct inversion of the magnification process used for movement 1. These two would probably make more sense sat next to one another, rather than at opposite sides of the piece. But also, each movement has its own specific sound-world that relates to the physical qualities of the phenomenon represented – I think the audience will be able to hear this when it’s performed.

We can’t wait to perform it!  Thank you very much Laurence!

HCMF: Szmytka, Fernando & Hyla

Date: Friday 20th November
Venue: Blending Shed at Bates Mill, Huddersfield

We are absolutely thrilled to make our HCMF debut with the wild and bizarre worlds of Jagoda Szmytka, Samantha Fernando & Lee Hyla.  The concert includes UK premieres of Szmytka’s Game Boy and Empty Music, along with Hyla’s 30-minute retrospective My Life on the Plains. Samantha has created a new version of her piece Positive/Negative Space especially for this concert.  All of the music is deeply personal & characterful, and the concert will be ‘guided’ by an audio tour created by Szmytka especially for the night.

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Spitalfields: I Shall Contemplate

As part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival 2015
Date: Monday 7th December, 7.00pm
Venue: St. Leonard’s Shoreditch

We’re so excited to be making our London festival debut with Spitalfields Music.  In this evening concert we intersperse solo movements of Bach among music by Djuro Zivkovic (2014 Grawemeyer Winner), Spanish composer Helga Arias Parra (a fourth composer chosen from our 2015 Call for Scores) and ten-year-old Marie-Louise Ptohos (our foreSOUND Young Composer of the Year).  

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Breathe AHR: Remembrance Day

Date: Wednesday 11th November, 1pm
Venue: Guy’s Chapel, Guy’s Hospital, London Bridge
In our 9th concert with Breathe AHR – a charity dedicated to improving health and outcomes for patients, staff and communities – three Riot musicians perform a concert of music reflecting on war & peace.

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New Music from New Voices

Date: Tuesday 17th November, 7.30pm
Venue: Brixton East 1871

A concert jam-packed with new music from new composers. More than 150 composers from 14 countries applied to the Riot Ensemble’s 2015 Call for Scores.  Three composers  Thanasis Deligiannis, Jessica Rudman & Patricia Alessandrini were chosen by Riot’s musicians to write new works for this concert. We also perform a brand-new work by Jose Manuel Serrano (our 2015 composer-in-residence), give the UK premiere of Amy Beth  Kirsten’s beguiling L’ange Pâle and premiere a virtuosic harpsichord solo from Drew Schnurr.

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The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

Date: Monday 15th June, 7pm
Venue: The Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone
A chance to see a new chamber opera in the making.  As part of Rough for Opera, a scratch night for new opera hosted and curated by Second Movement, four scenes from this new opera will be presented as a work-in-progress followed by a Q&A with audience feedback.

Created by Riot Ensemble’s Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum and librettist Peter Jones, the opera will star baritone Benedict Nelson and countertenor Rupert Enticknap in the single, tragic character of Donald Crowhurst.

See a full press release here.

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Arrangements of Five

Date: Tuesday 14th October; 7.30pm
Venue: The Friend’s Meetinghouse in Brighton

The Riot Ensemble returns to Brighton to present an exciting array of contemporary music for various combinations of flute, clarinet and string quartet.  The concert includes the world premiere of Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum’s Arrangements of Five – commissioned by Timothy Orpen with funds from the RVW Trust and Britten Pears Foundation.  Other music includes the UK premiere of Augusta Read ThomasMansueto Tribute, ‘double helix’, Helen Grime’s To See the Summer Sky and an array of pieces from composers in the New Music Brighton Collective.

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A few moments with Chris Roe

Today – 20th May – is the (first) culmination of our Les Citations project.  Programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, tonight’s concert is at The Forge, and we repeat the concert tomorrow in Cambridge.  Among an array of World and UK premieres, we are very pleased to be presenting Wired, by emerging English composer Chris Roe.  

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We first played Chris’ music on our Transatlantic Collaborations concert last year, with his fantastic saxophone solo Schism, and it was my pleasure to ask Chris  a few questions about Wired – and his work in general – ahead of these performances.

Aaron HN: Hello again Chris!  It’s wonderful to have you with us for the Les Citations project and thank you for your new piece, Wired.  We commissioned this work for a project including Dutilleux’ Les Citations.  Did his music effect/influence you at all as you composed your new piece?

Chris Roe: Thanks! It’s fantastic to work with the Riot Ensemble, and wonderful to get a chance to engage with Dutilleux’s music, which I was first introduced to while studying with Ken Hesketh (also featured in this programme). I think two of the most persistent influences on my composition have been from jazz and early 20th-Century French music, so I was immediately drawn to Dutilleux and I’m sure that he’s in there somewhere in this piece!  But I think the most conscious link between Wired and Les Citations is in its ritualistic, almost obsessive quality.

AHN: This isn’t the first Riot Ensemble performance of your work, as we performed Schism last year in our Transatlantic Collaborations project.  Wired is another concise title for a piece – how do you go about naming your pieces?

CR: Yes, thanks for asking me back! I usually decide on a title about half way through the writing process, and I find it always propels me forward to finish the piece. I think the title has a crystallising effect for me a this stage, and makes what can be vague ideas more concrete and ‘meaningful’ in some way.  I think the directness of a short title is therefore as useful for me in writing the piece as for the audience.  I don’t want the title to spell out everything, so I’m always drawn to words with more than one meaning; in this case Wired reflects the relentless, ‘caffeinated’ energy of the music, as well as the constant, unbroken thread which I tried to join through the whole piece.

AHN: The Harpsichord is a rather unusual instrument in contemporary music.  Certainly not unheard of, but still generally unfamiliar.  How did you go about writing for the instrument?  Do you normally have a set routine around your composing? 

CR: It was certainly unfamiliar to me, and one of the most challenging things at first was to work how it would sit with the rest of the instruments.  I think my breakthrough came when working on the piece in a practice room at one of the schools I teach at (fortunately a student hadn’t turned up so I had a half-hour window!), and there happened to be a harpsichord sitting in the corner.  It was incredibly out of tune with one key playing several strings at once, but it made me see the instrument in a different light, as more of a percussion instrument.  I also find it fascinating how there is a definite attack at the start and end of the note, and the effect this can create when writing rhythmically for the instrument.

AHN: I think it would be fair to say that your music focuses on ‘musical’ parameters (pitch/rhythm/melody/form/etc…) eschewing extra-musical things such as noises (rustling paper, key-clicks, breath sounds, etc….)  But composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by sounds.  Do they influence you and are they in any way significant for your compositional work?

CR: I don’t think I deliberately avoid extra-musical noise, but yes I think that’s fair to say that I often focus more on the conventional parameters of music.  However, whilst the written music on the page it may look like completely ‘notes-based’ music, without extended techniques etc., the main impetus for this piece was the harsh, rattling sound of the low harpsichord at the start (borrowed from that faulty practice room harpsichord!).  Whilst the pitches in this section are still important to me, the harmony is obscured by the low cluster chords, and we do focus more on the sound, rather than how each note leads to the next I think.

AHN: Well we’re certainly looking forward to recording and performing it over the next two days.  Just before we go, tell us, what other projects are you working on/do you have coming up in 2014?

CR: I’m currently finishing work on a large chamber piece for the London Graduate Orchestra Chamber series, premiering at the Forge next month. Then my next projects are a piece for baritone, organ and cello, and a large orchestral piece for the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra as part of the Adopt a Composer Scheme.  It’s one of my longest pieces, and I’m also incorporating electronics into the piece for the first time, so I think it’s going to be a busy summer!

A few moments with Jenna Lyle

The Riot Ensemble is gearing up for our upcoming Les Citations project, programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, with an array of premieres from around the world.  We’re hugely excited to be hosting Jenna Lyle for the premiere of her new piece, Falterer.  

Jenna is a composer, vocalist and performing artist from Carrollton, Georgia.  She’s currently pursuing a DMA at Northwestern University (my alma matter). She composes, performs, builds installations and plans concerts around Chicago.  On top of all that, she’s co-founder and co-administrator of one of the most exciting new labels around: Parlour Tapes+.

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Photograph by Caleb Chancey

We first ran into Jenna’s music during a listening session with the Artistic Board.  Specifically, we heard her piece Spoonbill on soundcloud, and knew immediately that we wanted to commission her for an upcoming project.

It’s been an absolute pleasure for me to prepare this new piece by Jenna.  In particular, she worked so hard to make sure we all knew exactly what she was after by collaborating with numerous musicians in the Chicago area to produce ‘how-to’ videos for the numerous extended techniques that come up in Falterer.  You’ll find these embedded below, though I have to prefix our interview with this, an extended vocal technique – performed by Jenna herself.  I’ve been completely unable to replicate this sound, and it strikes me as some sort of dark magic.

Aaron HN: Jenna, thanks so much for traveling so far to be with us for the world premiere of your new piece Falterer.  We commissioned this work in relation to Dutilleux’ Les Citations (‘Quotations’).  Did Dutilleux’s music effect or influence you as you wrote your own work?

Jenna Lyle: Although it would be SO META to use a quotation of Les Citations, I chose instead to be loosely influenced by the piece’s sectional structure and constantly shifting timbral language.  Les Citations feels kind of Concerto Grosso-esque, alternating between moments of extremely exposed and vulnerable solo writing and dense colorful ensemble blasts.  I let that inspire me as I drew focus toward a different performer in each section, weaving in and out of highly exposed soloistic blocks and blocks with varying tutti colors and textures.

AHN: You had considered some different titles for the piece as you were composing it, could you tell us a bit about the process of ‘naming’ a piece, and what ideas eventually led you to Falterer?

JL: Haha yes, I was considering the title THUNDERTURTLES for quite some time.  I worked a lot last year with vocalist and artist Lara Oppenheimer.  Her daughter Ursula’s favorite curse word is “thunderturtles,” I’m guessing because of the rich, cathartic phonemes.  I loved the idea of writing a piece that felt as warm, yet heavy and trudging and as capable of massive release as Ursula’s preferred expletive.  The more I lived with the piece, though, the more it became about the state of being just before an expletive escapes one’s mouth (presumably in a situation where dropping F-bombs would be considered taboo) – the often ridiculous effort that goes into maintaining composure under what feels like extreme duress – and the complex sensation of blissful release/possibly guilt-ridden suspension that coincides with faltering.  Hence, Falterer was the final title.  Whether or how the faltering and/or release actually happens in the piece though…I guess you’ll just have to come to the performances and find out (See what I did there? No spoilers from this composer. I’ve seen the movie trailers. I know how these things work.).

That, plus, multiple friends assured me that THUNDERTURTLES was better employed as a child’s curse word (wonderful child and wonderful curse word though they both are) than as the title for a serious piece of conceptual art.

AHN: Falterer is a very beautiful, graphic score with many extended techniques for all the players.  Composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by sounds and noise.  How do these sounds influence you and get incorporated into your compositional work?

In my compositional work, sound is usually the result of a prescribed movement or type of body awareness.  In Falterer, I chose performance techniques that required a particular kind of body focus first and then refined the sound world after that.  I wanted to use inherently unstable materials that require extreme focus and slightly more work than feels intuitive to sustain (to embody the energy of composure under duress mentioned earlier).

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To isolate a few, the oboist depresses the keys for a multiphonic and underblows so that only one of the pitches sounds, the bassist performs a passage revolving around the intentional sounding of the instrument’s wolf tone, and the harpsichordist measures the pace at which she (Goska) lifts her fingers after depressing keys.  Techniques like these possess their own inherent sonic qualities, and I worked with timbral and energetic imitation as I orchestrated around them.

It also bears mentioning that the piece is intentionally relational – not that all ensemble music isn’t – in that I tried to build interpersonal dynamic layers into the piece as a form of development.  Those layers are manifested via improvisation, performer-to-performer proximity, instrument-sharing, and contrapuntal textures entirely dependent on the speed of a particular instrument’s vibrato or tone-beating.

AHN: In addition to being the world premiere of this piece, I think I’m correct in saying this will be the first UK performance of any of your work.  We live in such a globalized society, yet contemporary music is often a very local phenomenon. Could you tell us a little bit about the contemporary music scene where you live (Chicago) and what you’re looking forward to in working in England?

I feel really lucky to be a part of the new music community in Chicago.  It’s so stimulating.  Chicago as a city is such a big place that there seems to be room for everything, even though the new music scene is kind of small.  Regardless of what weird niche art form you dabble in, it’s highly likely you’ll find an audience.  I’ve felt extremely encouraged by the diverse art community in Chicago, and I’ve found myself emboldened to take risks with my work that I might not feel so safe taking were I part of a less varied scene.  New music in Chicago is also a pretty tight-knit community, and generally very supportive.  I feel like I’ve had the support of my peers and the space to ask really important questions of myself and my output, knowing that I’ll always receive some well-intentioned criticism.

Music-making is intimate.  I’ve experienced richness in my own creative process when my collaborators and I have had time to develop a trusting artistic relationship with each other.  It’s an important thing when you’re building something from the ground up, and it takes time.  Of course it’s not so difficult when you find yourself surrounded by amazing artists you see practically every weekend.  If I collaborate with someone in Chicago, I pretty much know what I’m getting into, as do they, and we’re probably friends.  I think that’s what you mean when you reference contemporary music as a “local phenomenon,” and you’re totally right, Aaron.  Local collaborations are really great in the way I’ve described, and they provide a chance to move beyond a score and into complex dynamics of experience.  But non-local collaborations where I have the opportunity to build new relationships and dive into vulnerable music-making situations are thrilling!  Scary, but thrilling.  I’ve been so honored by the trust you and Riot have afforded me with this project, and I’m excited to see how we work together.  I honestly know very little about how the scene in England FEELS, but I’ve been really inspired by a lot of the music I’ve heard by composers from London and Manchester and Huddersfield and Jonathan Harvey once patted me on the shoulder and said “that was lovely.”  Sooooo, I’m thinking it’s gonna be great.

AHN: We think so too!  We’re so pleased with your piece and excited to perform it.  I’m always interested in composers that also spend a lot of time performing.  You’re obviously an active performer as a Soprano.  How does your own performance influence your work as a composer, and visa-versa?

JL: Naturally, my ideas about performer experience are heavily influenced by my life as a performing artist.  I love the feeling when I realize that a piece I’ve been preparing (to perform) is something I’ve internalized, when I can layer my physical and emotional experience of the material into my performance (it’s just the tiniest bit indulgent).  As an improviser that happens more often, since experience and embodiment are what drive my sonic decisions.  And it isn’t simply that it’s a nice feeling – I find the concept of “response” in a performance much more compelling than “execution.”  The energy of response has the potential to build communal experience and eliminate the pretense of correctness or attractiveness as a barrier. It calls for immediacy and translates quickly to others.

So I often craft situations where performers are asked to respond, either to the experience of what they’re playing or to what they hear from other players (with more emphasis on their own perception than, say, the notated hocket section of a Madrigal).  My hope is that it brings about a very human and even “accessible” result.  By “accessible,” (that most controversial of terms), I don’t necessarily mean “pleasing to listen to,” but something along the lines of “possible to physically identify with.”  That kind of shared or recognizable physical sensation, I find, can also be the result of corporeally-focused materials–those reminiscent of sounds the body makes or sensations one experiences.  In the case of the voice, identifiable material is a given.  Everyone has a voice.  Everyone breathes.  Everyone drifts into vocal fry from time to time, intentionally or not (just listen to Noam Chomsky talk for a while).  When writing for instruments, I’ll aim to detach the instrumental sound from anything transcendent or otherworldly or pristine and find materials that either elicit or occur as the result of recognizable physical sensations (the shuddering of the breath into a wind instrument, the brittle quivering of a stick cry on a metal percussion instrument, grunting overpressure on strings, etc.).

The goal is to create a collective consciousness of body between the performers, audience, headphone-listeners, whoever – all those experiencing the piece.  And the challenge in using materials of this nature, in writing for both voice and instruments, is to employ materials that are corporeal in nature without resorting to mimesis. To generate an actual experience of something – with other people – beyond the parroting of the familiar.

AHN: Thanks for that Jenna. It’s very interesting – and will be very helpful to us as we prepare your piece!  Just as we go, tell us what other projects are you working on at the moment/in 2014?

JL: Over the past year, I have become absolutely addicted to writing music for Jesse Langen.  I know a lot of people who have the same problem.  We’re thinking of starting a group where we all talk about it together.  Before I kick the habit though, I’m writing a trio for Jesse, pianist Mabel Kwan, and soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw.  They are three of the most inspiring performers I know, and I’ve been really lucky to work with them as duos (recording Jesse and Mabel performing Alexander Hunter’s music for a Parlour Tapes+ Release and making an installation piece for Jesse and Carrie last Winter), and writing a piece for the three of them is going to be quite literally a dream-come true.  I literally had a dream about it one time.  The piece will be on a concert whose curatorial direction they have very trustingly put in my hands, and my best idea right now involves pillows on the floor and video projections on the ceiling.

I’m also currently involved in a large-scale devised work, 3 Singers, whose creative team and cast are amazing to work with (read more about them here).  3 Singers is a piece of dance, opera, theater, performance art…a little bit of ornithology here and there…  I’m one of, as the title suggests, three singers who are also dancers who are also actors who also operate sewing machines as triggers for live processing.  We’ve been generating material since July of 2013, and we’ll premiere the work in Cleveland this Fall.

Other than that, I’m writing a dissertation and a large scale voice/movement/video piece for myself, so it should be a great year!