Of all the pieces in our concert this Friday, only two will be ‘non-first’ pieces. One of these will be Harrison Birtwistle’s second wind-quintet Five Distances for Five Instruments, and the second will also be a wind quintet: the very beautiful Halazuni by Alastair Putt. (Here performed by Martha Long (flute), Graham Mackenzie (oboe), Danny Goldman (clarinet), Elyse Lauzon (horn) and Andrew Brady (bassoon) at Tanglewood Music Center on July 22nd, 2012)
I know the Atea Quintet have hugely enjoyed preparing Alastair’s work for our concert on Friday, and it was my pleasure to sit down with him and ask a few questions about this piece, and his wider work as a musician and composer.
AHN: Alastair, thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions – and for your great piece! I think it would be fair to say that – as with this piece – the majority of your music primarily focuses on ‘musical’ parameters (harmony/rhythm/etc…) eschewing extra-music things such as noises (rustling paper, key clicks, breath sounds, etc…) As composers, we are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by extra-musical sounds. Do they influence you and are they in any way significant for your compositional work?
AP: In short, no. More than anything, I’m interested in harmony, and I feel that there are already enough decisions to be made as a composer using only the 12 notes of the chromatic scale (occasionally more!), let alone bringing in the potentially endless spectrum of extra-musical noises into the equation. Which is not to say that I shun music that incorporates such sound, only that I don’t feel I have anything new to bring to the table, in that regard.
AHN: You’re active in contemporary music as both a composer and as a performer (a tenor, and occasionally as a guitarist), does your activity as a performer affect what you do as a composer?
AP: Not hugely, I don’t think, but I do try to be as considerate as possible towards performers- even if I don’t know how to play an instrument, I will always try to imagine the basic actions that a line of music might require of them. On, say, a string instrument, those can be relatively easy to visualise, but it’s harder with wind instruments because of all the fiddly fingerings!
AHN: And do you think of the audience when you compose?
AP: Not explicitly, but I do care about how the music sounds in real space rather than in some abstract, formalised sphere, so in that sense, yes. Ultimately, I try to write music that I would like to hear, rather than analyse.
AHN: Could you tell us a little bit about how and when you wrote Halazuni?
AP: Halazuni was written for the Richmond Concert Society in 2011; it takes its inspiration from arabesque decoration in Islamic art, and the patterns and lines therein. I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful abstraction of such art, and its juxtaposition of rigid patterns and shapes with more florid, elaborate elements. In the piece, a rhythmically regular background texture is overlaid with slower, more flexible lines. Much of the pitch material is derived from the Fibonacci series, so often a building-block in geometric art: here, the numbers from the series determine the successive intervals heard in the opening motif, which rises by 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13 semitones. That ratio is also used rhythmically, at the very end of the piece, as the five parts play the same (but transposed) material in the tempo relationship 1:2:3:5:8, which creates a rather wild heterophony.
AHN: Many composers (and musicians) consider the wind quintet to be a rather difficult ensemble to write for. How did you find the wind quintet and how did you go about solving some of the problems it presents?
AP: I’ve always liked the somewhat bracing sound of the wind quintet, and I remember it as being quite a fun piece to write! I don’t think it’s a particularly problematic ensemble, really: all the instruments are naturally pretty agile (though the horn less so) and can handle a variety of articulations. That said, I have no experience of playing wind instruments, so I can’t vouch for how nicely it sits under the fingers; I suspect that the final, dance-like section contains some nasty little corners for everyone. As for the potential for balance problems resulting from a brass instrument masquerading as a wind instrument, I didn’t really attempt to tackle that in the score, figuring that a good wind quintet is perfectly aware of issues specific to their ensemble- it’s not the composer’s place to butt in and try to ‘solve’ anything!