On Wednesday 31 October at the Warehouse in London we will be playing Jonathan Harvey’s masterful Song Offerings alongside new pieces from two of our 2018 Call for Scores winners, Caterina di Cecca and Judit Varga. The concert takes its title from another world premiere, Four Facades by Benjamin Graves, written for Riot and our fantastic violist Stephen Upshaw. Ben spoke to us from Cambridge, where is currently studying for a PhD, about his new piece and what else he is up to.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Ben! We’re really looking forward to playing Four Facades later this month. Could you start by telling us something about the background to the piece?
Benjamin Graves: I was originally intrigued by the need for renovation of the Palace of Westminster (at a cost of billions to the tax-payer). Such a grand facade hiding rotting foundations supplied an apt metaphor for the front delivered to the public by politicians hiding a rotting core at the heart of their pledges. After research this developed into a wider scrutiny of Britishness. Barry and Pugin’s Gothic revival architecture speaks of a desire, even now, of the British to hide the new behind the old (indeed at an estimated £3bn would a progressive culture perhaps rebuild, rather than renovate), a desire for the good old days ever-present in British culture. So, I presented a hybrid of these two ideas: on the one hand Stephen represents an old-fashioned facade (disembodied Romantic gestures akin to Elgar, for example, hide a core of fragile sounds, such as harmonics in odd places and multiphonics) and on the other old styles are renovated by newer sounds. The nod to Walton in the title only enhances this narrative, especially given his descent into conservatism the older he got.
By the way, I don’t mean to sound critical of this vein of Romanticism (conservatism?) inherent in British culture; in fact I think it is what makes British music unique. I see it as an opportunity to hark back to the music I love most, namely late Romanticism, but as with everything this trend should be scrutinized, at least artistically.
TR-J: When did you first encounter Stephen’s playing, and what drew you to wanting to write a piece for him?
BG: Stephen and I met while studying at Guildhall. Stephen invited me to write a piece for him and percussion to be played alongside Berio’s Naturale and we’ve been friends and colleagues ever since.
I’ve always been drawn, not only to Stephen’s virtuosity, but also to his honesty. The best way to learn as a composer is not through workshops thrown together at the last minute with players you’ve never met, but through continuous exposure to highly talented performers with whom you aren’t afraid to get things wrong and from whom you can learn. Stephen and my working relationship is founded on mutual respect and as a result of experimenting with him my music has evolved beyond recognition.
Invaluable also is a player who not only plays notes and dynamics in the right place, but who brings a certain something to your music that you didn’t necessarily realize was there. Stephen invited me to write a short solo piece for him, NocturNE, as a response to artist Navid Nuur’s work (the piece was played by Stephen as part of a Riot concert at the Tate Modern) and what he made of it went far beyond anything I could have committed to paper. For this I am consistently grateful, and it makes me optimistic that all the while players like Stephen work with composers new music has a future.
TR-J: Several sections of your piece are played ‘senza misura’, with the players following their own independent tempos. Is it fair to describe this as an influence from Lutosławski? And is it a common feature of your music? What is the compositional appeal of writing in this way?
BG: Partly. I have been a big fan of Lutosławski for a long time, especially how he effortlessly superimposes a modernist style onto a neo-romantic, nationalist aesthetic (I love his concerto for orchestra and Paganini Variations). But the aleatory aspects of Four Facades, particularly in movement 2, came about partly as a result of a request from Stephen, who was playing in a choreographed performance of Lutosławski’s Chain 2 and who enjoyed the freedom these passages allowed the soloist. So, I studied this work and other such examples of Lutosławski to further learn how he so naturally incorporates such a static technique into a larger dramatic journey.
A page from Lutosławski’s Second Symphony showing some of his ‘controlled aleatory’ techniques. (Wikipedia/Fair use)
I have, however employed this technique elsewhere as accompaniment for recitative, as I don’t see it as a far cry from recitative accompaniment in older operas such as by Handel and Mozart, or more recently in Britten’s Peter Grimes, a favourite of mine. I therefore give Stephen kind-of instrumental recitatives-cum-cadenzas at times in the work and the independent instrumental lines allow him the freedom to dictate play.
TR-J: What are you working on at the moment?
BG: I’ve just finished a trio for clarinet, violin and cello for Ensemble Recherche, which aims to extend my colour palette, and I am about to embark on a piece for the Hermes Experiment: soprano, clarinet, harp, and contrabass. My plan is to add to the discourse surrounding Elizabeth Barton, a sixteenth-century Benedictine nun and prophetess who predicted the downfall of Henry VIII as a result of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. These prophecies didn’t end well for Barton, but what interests me is the notion that historically women were only allowed to influence political discourse – and Barton was influential – if they were channelling the message of God (consider Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Catherine of Siena, or Joan of Arc). This trend, of only allowing a women a public voice when she channels a masculine influence (and how else is God depicted if not wholly male) unfortunately continues to this day, as explained by Mary Beard in a wonderful lecture evoking her own internet trolls, and so the subject is as contemporary as ever.
TR-J: One final question: 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?
BG: My first love is opera, so a dramatic commission as a result of close collaboration with librettist, stage and costume designers, and dramaturg; for large ensemble, chorus, and group of vocal soloists; with an extended run in theatres would be a dream come true. But the ensemble would have to be a new music specialist: Recherche, Klangforum Wien or Riot(!) combined with close-harmony chorus, such as Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart or EXAUDI. Performers who are malleable enough to perform any function, be it dramatic, ensemble, or otherwise, and willing to go that extra mile to realize the project.