Speak, Be Silent – Programme Note

‘Find the thing and it disappears’, warns the composer Rebecca Saunders. ‘Name the thing and it loses shape.’ In Saunders’ piece a visible trace we hear a piano keyboard squashed hard, before its sound backs away, as though embarrassed; a double bass glissandos downwards, as if being swallowed up; violin and flute essay a note, an idea, but seem to think better of it. Sub-groups of instruments step forward and draw back. We hear sounds brought tentatively into being, attempting to stand on stick-like legs, bearing weight for the first time. A lyrical line, already stretched thin, is coaxed a little further, slowly building in strength.

At the start of her score, , Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir writes to her players:

When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling.

Her words recall a line at the start of Saunders’ score by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium:

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.

Saunders’ sounds, like Calvino’s bridge, are fragile, thrown almost in desperation to reach something before it fades. Yet Thorvaldsdóttir’s thin rope, sustained by bass flute, bass clarinet and strings, spun out into tight melodic tendrils, and pierced by thunderous interruptions from the piano, conveys an inner assurance. Her title draws on the Icelandic word for serenity, as well as its Chinese equivalent, , which may also be rendered as Ann: the composer herself. Traces – in this case of self – can create a sense of tranquility, a safe harbour.

But what of the abyss itself? What empty space do these bridges cross?

We might see an answer in buildings by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. Almost invisible boxes of glass, they are held up by forests of thin white supports that give these otherwise empty spaces mass and drama. ‘Transparency is some kind of feeling of freedom, it’s not a physical thing’, Ishigami says of his buildings.

Ishigami

Inspired by them, Edmund Finnis in his Frame/Refrain surrounds a bustling, percussive piano, prepared with strips of blu-tack across its strings, with softly chugging string chords, a trumpet and clarinet duo of short, sliding glissandi, and a slowly warping background of brass and metallic percussion. As the individual parts repeat they circle around each other and the space between them, creating illusions of density and form out of components that seem hardly to be there.

Amidst these worlds of sonic fragility and uncertainty, the blast of brass and gongs at the start of Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent seem to sound with a potency from an entirely different place. Yet this is another illusion. Her work also describes a sort of bridge, between one thing and another, one person and the next: what Walt Whitman called ‘a vast similitude [that] interlocks all’. This is a concerto, but Lim’s solo violin frequently melts into or is smelted out of the ensemble surrounding it; the scale of Lim’s commitment to her vision is reflected in how un-violin-like the rest of that ensemble is, dominated by brass, piano and abrasive percussion.

All four pieces in tonight’s concert consider the delicate trick of connecting ourselves to things without them disappearing. Lim prefaces hers with one more trace, one more piece of advice; lines by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

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.

Programme

A few moments with Anna Thorvaldsdottir

We hugely enjoyed performing Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s piece ‘Shades of Silence’ during our last concert in Brixton, so we’re immensely looking forward to presenting her ‘Ró’ on March 3rd at The Warehouse, Waterloo. Anna is commissioned and performed all over the world, so we’re really grateful to her for taking time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions. Read her interview below, and check out her website here.

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You’re an Icelandic composer but you’ve studied in the U.S. and now you live in London. Where do you think your artistic heart lies?

Well, I can’t say I feel that my artistic heart belongs to a geographical place per se – for me it is much more of an inner search for a soundworld. It is very precious to be inspired by different places but I don’t feel that the places I stay in, or live in, bound me or define me artistically. But I will of course always be Icelandic because that is where my roots lie.

We have been working on two of your pieces: ‘Shades of Silence’ and ‘Ró’. These are scored for wildly different ensembles. Can you give us a flavour of the soundworld you’re creating in each piece?

It is always important to me to listen to what the music wants and needs each time, and this often depends on the instrumentation of course and sometimes the occasion for which the piece is written. But my soundworlds are always born from the same inwards place in a sense although they are of course different for each piece. The characteristics of Shades of Silence are for example inspired by the airy and light notion of baroque string instruments because the piece was initially commissioned by an ensemble that performs on baroque instruments, so the lightly pulsating characteristics of the piece are inspired by that. And was inspired by a search for calm through various musical means which are carried by a stream of harmony and sound materials that are born from various attacks on the larger and smaller scale within the piece.

You’re very well known for your huge orchestral landscapes. Do you feel more at home in a symphonic medium than writing for smaller forces?

I very much enjoy writing for larger forces and orchestras and playing with the colors of many instruments has always been a very big and a natural passion for me. My musical voice tends to be geared towards instrumentations that have the capabilities to create sound structures and sustained harmonies, and there are of course many variations of smaller instrumentations that can very well do that which I very much enjoy writing for as well and feel at home within. But writing for the orchestra is always a special treat and a big passion of mine.

I see you’ve got performances in Vancouver and Paris in the same month as our concerts. Are you at home with travelling as much as your music is?

I travel very much for my music but the music is being performed very often and quite widely so I am not able to attend all performances, but I try to attend the largest performances and premieres the best I can.

Do you think Iceland will beat England at football next time they meet?

Probably not :)

We’ll see … Many thanks, Anna!

Speak, Be Silent

Date: Friday 3rd March, 7.30pm
Venue: The Warehouse, Theed Street (SE1 8ST)

We are thrilled to be bringing Liza Lim’s Violin Concerto Speak, Be Silent to the Warehouse for its UK Premiere with soloist Sarah Saviet.  Alongside Lim’s concerto, this concert includes an array of atmospheric, colourful and virtuosic music including the UK Premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Ró, Edmund Finnis’ Frame/Refrain, and Rebecca Saunders’ A Visible Trace for 11 conducted soloists. A cash bar will be available at the concert.

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A Chest of Toys: Real World Sessions

Dates: Friday 17th – Sunday 19th February
Venue: Real World Studios

Back in 2014, on Radio 4, comedian Mark Steel quoted an anonymous description of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: ‘Much of it sounds like a chest of children’s toys coming down the stairs.’

We think this is accidentally a wonderful description of the joyful, cacophonous and unpredictable musics that make up contemporary new music today, and we’re thrilled to be working with Coviello Music Productions to make our second CD recording – A Chest of Toys – for release on Coviello Contemporary in late 2017.

We’ll be recording Michael Cryne’s Celia’s Toyshop, and our 2016 Call for Scores commissions: In My Room (Yukiko Watanabe) and Florescence (Lee Westwood) alongside an array of other chamber music including Thomas Kotcheff’s death, hocket and roll for two toy pianos, Monica Pearce’s Kandinsky for soprano and toy piano, Television Continuity Poses by Jack Sheen, and Hayirli Olsun for Trombone, Harpischord, Percussion and Piano by Utku Asuroglu.

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Celia’s Toyshop

Date: Thursday 16th February, 7.30pm
Venue: Brixton East 1871 (SW9 7JF)

The Riot Ensemble celebrates the beginning of 2017 with a return to Brixton East 1871 in an evening filled with chamber music from around the world.  Come hear some of Europe’s top performers in an array of World and UK Premieres, along with the customary £5 bottles of wine!
The concert includes Hayirli Olsun for Trombone, Harpischord, Percussion and Piano by Utku Asuroglu (UK Premiere); Shades of Silence for String Trio and Harpsichord by Anna Thorvaldsdottir (UK Premiere), Hammock by Kerry AndrewCelia’s Toyshop by Michael Cryne (World Premiere), Wolke über Bäumen for solo violin with gut strings and baroque bow by Evan Johnson (UK Premiere), and our second performance of Television Continuity Poses, which we co-commissioned with BBC Radio 3 from Jack Sheen.

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