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!


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!

A few moments with Lee Westwood

Lee Westwood is one of two winners of our 2016 Call for Scores competition. We are excited to perform his latest work at our Brighton concert at 5pm on Saturday October 29th. Lee needn’t make extensive travel plans to attend this concert as he has made Bohemia-by-Sea his home for well over a decade. He is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Sussex with Martin Butler and is a member of the composers’ collective New Music Brighton whose members are contributing twelve exciting and distinctive new miniatures to the concert.

In this interview Lee discusses his life and music with our co-principal pianist and fellow Brightonian Adam Swayne. What’s the betting they’ll be enjoying last orders in the pub after the concert while we are hauling all the equipment back to London …?

Join us for a splendid Saturday 29th at 5pm at St Nicholas Church!


What’s happening in your life?

For a couple of years now, I’ve been working on a stream of commissions without a break. I’m not complaining, because it’s been a fantastic way to learn a lot fast, and to work with loads of brilliant people. It is exhausting though, and the last few weeks of a write really take it out of me, so I’ve been trying to recover a little from the Riot Ensemble commission before I begin my second piece for the LSO Soundhub.

Outside of music, as a part-time house-dad for the second time round, I’m spending a lot of my day telling my son not to eat my CDs or ham the keys of my laptop with his gooey hands. Oh, and I just bought my first car in 15 years, which has been a brilliant excuse to trawl through my CD collection and get deep into all the albums I used to spend so much of my time listening to – currently my car has metamorphosed into a mobile Alice In Chains capsule.

What’s happening in your music?

Lots of wind instruments, that’s what’s happening. Instrumental timbre has been increasingly taking the foreground in my music, so I’ve been having lessons on a load of different instruments in an attempt to better my understanding of them. This has also involved spending days and days recording me making weird noises on each one. Basically, really fun.

Your piece is called Fluorescence. Are you hoping for glowing reviews?

My piece is called Florescence, and I am hoping it will allow your mind to blossom.

Oh dear, Lee! Well, if I can’t get the title right then how can I be expected to play your new piece?! Help me out – what’s the first note?

I’m not sure – it depends what comes out of the flute … an upper partial of G, hopefully …

Well, if you don’t even know the first note …

What’s the last note?

Again, I’m not really sure – it depends where the viola ends up … fingers crossed, it’ll be an upper partial of G …

Hmmph. So what happens in between?

Mostly G … the reckless abuse of an expensive piano … then some arpeggios.

No pianos will be harmed in the execution of this piece! All the effects are astonishingly gentle. Thank you very much Lee, we are all really excited to perform your new piece ‘Fluoridification’ on October 29th!

Live on In-Tune

We were thrilled to appear live on BBC Radio 3’s In-Tune from the Tate Modern as part of their #newyearnewmusic festival.  We performed Capricci (Augusta Read Thomas), dreams, shadows, and smoke… (Patrick Harrex), NocturNe (Benjamin Graves) and Edgard Varèse’s seminal Density 21.5 (alongside Calder’s wire sculpture of his friend).

Our players spoke live on-air to Suzy Klein about our work and the music, and you can listen back to the entire performance until 7th February.

Here are some pictures of our sound check before the event!

Rehearsing Harrex

Rehearsing Harrex

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Adam Swayne speaking to presenter Suzy Klein

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The audience starts to arrive!

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Alena performing Density 21.5

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Sound check of Augusta Read Thomas’ Capricci


BBC Radio 3: In Tune

Suzy Klein presents a special edition of ‘In Tune’ live from Tate Modern gallery in London, as part of Radio 3’s New Year New Music week. Our performances include Edgard Varèse’s seminal Density 21.5 (alongside Calder’s wire sculpture of his friend), Augusta Read Thomas’ Capricci, Benjamin Graves’ NocturNe, and Patrick Harrex’s …dreams, shadows, and smoke  Also performing on the programme are the Guildhall School percussionists and vocal trio Juice!

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A Clockwork Operetta

I’m keen to write a few lines about our ‘Wednesdays at the Forge’ concert next week as we’re looking forward to it hugely and hope there’ll be a fine crowd to enjoy it with us.


We’ve decided to have programmes for this concert and, although the short notes will tell you everything you need to know once you’re there, the music really speaks for itself.

So maybe it’s sufficient just to impart that we are presenting the works of two American pioneers – computer music guru Charles Dodge and instrument bender-in-chief George Crumb – framed by London premières of works by Manchester’s American representative Kevin Malone, including a dramatic new setting of Anthony Burgess’ pop lyrics for the screenplay of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (discarded by Kubrick).

We also have two incredible American performers: Emily Howard Cobley (mezzo soprano) and Stephen Upshaw (viola). In fact, the only thing that isn’t American is yours truly (my years studying in Chicago didn’t change my obviously home counties gibber).

Just to make this little offering slightly longer, I’ll sign off with a handful of performance directions lifted from the various scores. I suppose it’s a window into what happens on the other side of the stage and, bearing in mind the example of Erik Satie, they ought not be taken too literally. If they whet your appetite then make sure you’re in Camden on July 1st……

‘lowest notes can be lasciviously grunted…’

‘throw it away in parody…’

‘eerily, with “white tone”…’


‘ever so bombastically confident…’

‘return to safety of keyboard when the mosquito swarm thickens…’

‘scramble hands onto keyboard…’

‘re-enter the safety-in-numbers of urbania…’

‘ad lib. (in the style of a Lisztian transcription)…’

‘release finger(s) from node(s) immediately after key is struck or string is plucked (for a more beautiful resonance)…’

‘cold, steely, distant…’

‘beseechingly, with intent, and a childish voice…’


‘with sinister pointing at audience…’

‘like a rock ballad power guitarist with effects pedals (wah-wah, flange etc.)…’

‘Amy Lee becoming Janis Joplin…’

Introducing: Adam Swayne

3 - AdamPianist Adam Swayne has been on the Artistic Board of The Riot Ensemble since our very first concerts at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2009.  In addition to his busy performing schedule, Adam teaches piano at the Junior Royal Academy of Music and is Senior Lecturer and Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester. Adam will be performing in a number of Riot Ensemble concerts in 2015, including our June Portfolio Concert, presented in conjunction with Sound and Music. Get to know Adam a bit better, in his answers to our questions below.

What is the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you at a piano?

Probably playing a wrong note at your (Aaron’s) wedding. It was only one note out of several hundred, but it seemed somehow to resonate louder than a thermonuclear explosion. And it found its way onto the official wedding video too. Other than that, probably having to impersonate two female goddesses in Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’.

What are you looking forward to in 2015?

Playing/ vocalising Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’ again on January 30th. I suppose it’s pretty kinky to be humiliated. After all, if I didn’t enjoy it then I wouldn’t have agreed to let Aaron release that ridiculous picture.

What is your favourite Riot Ensemble story, so far?

I enjoyed hearing the sharply divisive audience reaction when we performed Michael Daugherty’s Le Tombeau de Liberace in one of our first concerts at Guildhall. I also enjoyed playing Workers’ Union in the rain in Dalston and having the police turn up halfway through.

The Riot

Date: Friday 30th January; 7.30pm
Venue: MeWe360
The opening concert of our 2015 season! Built around Jonathan Harvey’s raucous trio for Flute, Clarinet and Piano (The Riot) this concert also includes the UK premiere of music by Marco Momi (Reloading Vanishing), our first 2015 performance of composer-in-residence Jose Manuel Serrano (Espantajo de Resaca), Arne Gieshoff’s Invocation to Ate, Capricci by Augusta Read Thomas, a special performance of Aaron Copland’s Piano VariationsFelipe Lara’s Livro dos Sonhos, and Speak to Me by our 2014 composer-in-residence Amy Beth Kirsten.

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The Pianist Will Never Be Defeated!

Updates (and confessions) from behind the 93-page score of
Rzewski’s ‘The People United’.

Having plenty of nervous energy can often be a good thing. It’s what propels me to bounce around the many faces I wear in the week (tutor, lecturer, conductor, teacher, supervisor, Rioter and – oh yes – pianist!)  Colleagues – mostly those that do a wonderful job cleaning our offices and studios – will have seen me cramming in a few hours of practice in the hours before my students turn up for the day. Fellow teachers will have received emails from me at bizarre hours in the night (the only time I have to send them). I’m not complaining. After all, I’m responsible for the challenges I set myself, which include the Grieg Concerto next week, a recital at Sussex University at the end of the month and the then ‘The People United’ in the second week of November in Chichester, London and Brighton.

That feels good!

That feels good at the moment!

Mostly, I’m not complaining because – at the moment – the practice is going very well. Even Rzewski’s metronome marks are beginning to look realistic. But however much progress I make, playing a piece that includes instructions such as ‘struggling’, ‘as fast as possible’ and ‘violently’ is bound to take its toll on the nerve endings.

So things came to something of a head last week. After a particularly busy week in (it seemed) every professional guise except pianist, I sat down at 5pm on Friday evening feeling rather tired to do two hours of piano practice on ‘The People United’.  Then, at 7pm, I ran over to the Chapel to play in the tutor’s opening concert of the year, performing a piece I have played countless times.

Sitting and listening to colleagues, I knew that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t focus and felt my stomach churning.  I just put it down to eating the wrong stuff.  Then it was my turn to play.

On the very first page I felt myself heave and the notes in my head and on the piano (and, in fact, the entire room) seemed to spin. I contemplated the possibility that this could be the most memorable performance of my life – the one where I vomit into the £100,000 Steinway. Fortunately for everyone present, the ‘technicolour yawn’ didn’t materialise. Instead I performed a huge edit and struggled towards a final cadence. I took my bow, left the room and texted my colleagues to apologise. They very kindly said that they hadn’t noticed.

Needless to say, I felt rather embarrassed. So why am I writing this down for you to read? Well, there are several important things I have learnt from this incident that I’d like to share (so I can try to remember them myself in the future):

  1. No matter what the occasion, the most important preparation is to eat and sleep properly. No amount of practice will defend against this.
  2. Breathing is surprisingly important before concerts. Closing your eyes and going through the scenario in detail – including arriving at the concert hall, talking to people, walking on stage, speaking to the audience and performing the piece – is crucial, and…..
  3. ….. all of these things take time. So no matter how things may pile of top of you, it’s vital to create a ‘window’ to allow your mind and body to cope with the pressures of performance.

I expect that many of these things sound pretty obvious, and perhaps I should find most of them second nature at the grand old age of 34. But I’ve taken a lot of positives by reminding myself about these simple rules, and perhaps others will too.

And, to those that see me in the coming weeks, please do not be offended if I need to clear a little ‘window’. It really is the only way that the Pianist’s, (brain, eyes, ears and fingers) United, Will Never Be Defeated!

The People United: Countdown!

There are just a few days to go until the first of my three ‘People Uniteds’. The Chilean wine is on ice, the programme is ready and my pre-concert talk has been composed. The cadenza, by contrast, has not been composed because I am thoroughly enjoying the release of improvising it differently each time. I have a few strategies, but spontaneity is going to be the essence of my performances at this point. If you don’t believe me then check with my friend the wonderful composer Patrick Harrex who tells me that he is coming to two of the three concerts. It is sure to be different each night!

I have my colleague from Chichester University, Dr Rod Paton, to thank for opening my eyes to the world of improvisation. His ‘LifeMusic’ method is fantastic, and well worth checking out.

Glue on my fingers is the last thing I need, but I’ve been fairly covered in the stuff after the painstaking task of sticking each stave onto A3 sheets of card so that I can turn the pages myself at appropriate moments (of which there are very few). This is an unusual experience for me because I like playing from memory, even though it has its obvious risks. And, as this video that Barry Mills produced shows, I look at my hands too much when I play, which makes following the score even more tricky.

But in this piece there is just too much to remember, and I was glad to hear this from the mouth of Ursula Oppens herself when she was in the UK a few weeks ago. During my studies with her she encouraged me play the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto from memory, which I eventually managed. In my view she is the greatest die-hard risk taker of all pianists, which is probably what motivated Rzewski to write the piece for her in the first place. And she uses the music when she plays it (which she does magnificently) so I know I am on safe ground.

I’ve been immensely grateful and inspired by all the support I’ve been getting during these hot and sweaty past few months of toil. My students have been amazing, and friends and colleagues have been both patient and endlessly encouraging. Now I’m just looking forward to getting down to it and delivering something worthy of the piece’s political motivation, which is my primary reason for playing it.

It’s been something of a Rzewski saturation recently as I played the ‘North American Ballads’ at Sussex University last week, and I’ve been working with CoMA and my Chichester students on ‘Coming Together’, which is based on letters from Sam Melville, an inmate of Attica Prison. I can hardly claim to truly relate to these words, but nonetheless they’ve been keeping me going recently, so this is how I’ll sign off. I hope to see you at one of the concerts!

I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready.

As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate – sometimes even calculating – seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

The (Fingers/ Eyes/ Brain) United Will Never Be Defeated!

It might seem like all’s gone quiet on the Riot front, but we are actually furiously at work behind the scenes gathering a shortlist for our Sound and Music Portfolio Scheme and preparing music that we’ll be performing this Autumn.

Here are some little musings from a pianist holed up in his garret practising Rzewski’s sprawling opus.  As I write this, I have the words of one of my own tutors, David Fanning, ringing in my ears: ‘I would love to play that piece. The thing is I would need a sabbatical just to put the fingering in.’


So if you’re in the vicinities of Chichester (November 7th), London (November 11th) or Brighton (November 14th) you may be interested to know the back-story, the hours of preparation, my tales of woe.  Because I don’t have a sabbatical, and I only have just over three months left to go before the concert.

But I should not complain. I am lucky to live in a nice place. Whenever I wish I can walk out on to the balcony and smell the sea air, barbeques and (err…) burning human flesh from the sun-soaked beaches of Hove Lawns. I myself have been swimming in the sea every day since June, alongside jogging, press-ups and sit-ups. (As a result I am now very good at all of these. But I haven’t lost any weight…).

Happily, work’s been relatively quiet too. Even Aaron (our glorious and venerable Riot Ensemble Artistic Director) has lain off sending me a gazillion emails while he is taking the Aspen Music Festival by storm.

And, even more happily, today marks a milestone because it now looks as if I will actually be able to play this piece! Sorry if that sounds a bit churlish. Why, after all, would I have agreed to play it if I wasn’t sure of this before?

Because it’s all about targets, goals, objectives.

The piece itself is a mission. The composer himself says: ‘The extended length of the composition may be an allusion to the idea that the unification of people is a long story and that nothing worth winning is acquired without effort’.

Effort… and rigorous organisation.

So I have a battle-plan. I have separated the 38 strands (36 variations and the theme book-ending at either side) into five columns with different practice methods for each:

  1. ‘Can already play at tempo’. Hmm…. only six of these so far… (and they exclude the whistling bits – I have tried and failed to teach myself to whistle).
  2. ‘Will be able to play eventually’ (i.e. without too much fuss). Seven bits.
  3. ‘Practice X3’. This is a slightly brainless technique of practising I perfected as a student that just involves going through the motions three times every day without worrying too much – it will get there in the end! There are seven such variations that I’ll give this treatment to.
  4. ‘Bits need help’ which means I need to focus on small, tricky passages in eight parts of the work
  5. ‘HELP!’. Intensive focus required. 10 strands.

In two months I want all 38 bits in column number one.

And then I’ll have another month to make sure I give the most committed performance I can of this amazing work. I’ll keep you updated…