Catch up with Young Composer of the Year

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We have been having SUCH a wonderful time with our second year work with Young Composers from the foreSOUND School of Music in our ‘Young Composer of the Year’ education project.  Quite uniquely to this project, we ask young students to undertake the serious task of composing and notating a complete new work for our ensemble (usually 2-3 minutes long) and we premiere all the pieces on a concert (the winning piece is performed again later in the year).

As with last year, we began the project with an ‘instrument shopping’ day, where our musicians go and play for the young composers – inviting them to ask questions and giving loads of examples from a handout prepared by our Artistic Director, Aaron.

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The students then develop their ideas and start working on the beginnings of their pieces.  In groups, they meet up with Aaron and get direct feedback/explore other ideas for their pieces, before finishing.  Their final pieces are professionally entered into Sibelius software and turned into a beautiful score that each composer gets to keep.

All of the new pieces will be premiered – alongside Tavener’s wonderful To a Child XXX – on 7th May and then again at Guy’s Hospital as part of our Breathe AHR performance there.

Keep an eye out for the final score before the performance, and an ear out for recordings after!

Call for Scores 2016

Our 2016 Call for Scores received 218 applications from composers all over the world.  It was an incredible and humbling experience to come into contact with so much great new music, being made by such an inspiring and eclectic array of composers.  We are extremely proud to announce the composers we’ll be collaborating with for our 29th October concert, this year.

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Yukiko Watanabe is a Japanese composer living in Cologne.  She will write us a new piece for flute, piano, toy piano, hand-held percussion, guitar, viola and harp.

Lee Westwood is a British composer and guitarist, part of the New Music Brighton collective, who lives and works in England.  Lee will also will write us a new piece for flute, piano, toy piano, hand-held percussion, guitar, viola and harp.

In addition to these pieces, we’ve asked a couple of composers who applied to work with us on various miniatures for an upcoming recording project we are doing in September, and we have set aside a large number of great new pieces we found through this call, which we sincerely hope to perform in the coming years.

We’ll be back with interviews with Yukiko and Lee, and updates of other new music throughout the year.  Our sincere gratitude to all who applied, and made this call for scores what it was.

A few moments with Nina C. Young

*NinaCYoung2015-04We are thrilled to announce that Nina C. Young will be our 2016 Composer in Residence!  During the course of 2016 we will give the UK premiere of a number of Nina’s works, alongside a co-comission (with Ensemble Échapeé) of a new viola concerto. Nina’s has a unique background in engineering, and she describes her music as being obsessed with sound itself.  Her careful sensitivity to timbre and the vibrant immediacy of her music have been widely commented on, but it is the way these details fuse with her wonderful sense of storytelling and form that really drew us to her music.

Nina is the current holder of the Rome Prize, and so we are hugely excited about bringing more of her music to the UK, and grateful that she took the time to sit down with our Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum to answer some questions!


Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Hi, Nina!  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us.  I believe you are currently in Rome, where you’re living for a year with the American Academy.  Can you tell us a bit about what life there is like?

Nina C. Young: Thank you so much for having me!  I am overwhelmed with gratitude and surprise (still) at being one of the two composers selected for the 2015-16 Rome Prize (Christopher Cerrone is the other composer, and you should totally check out his work).  The American Academy in Rome (AAR) is pretty much the best place ever.  The 28+ other fellows (in artistic and scholarly disciplines) and I have been granted the most precious thing – the gift of time.  Here we are given the opportunity to press pause on our busy lives (sort of, the internet makes this a little trickier) and focus on our own projects and growth in an supportive and welcoming environment that takes care of all of life’s time-consuming essentials.  However, this is not a typical artist-colony in the middle of nowhere.  Instead, we live in a magnificent complex that perches itself on a hill looking out upon The Eternal City – this offers endless sources of inspiration and distraction.  We are really well taken care of – living a cushy existence with two decadent meals served per day (by the Alice Waters initiated Rome Sustainable Food Project), ample private living and studio space, and weekly housekeeping.  Oh yeah, and there is a bar on premises, which obviously gets well used by all.  I suppose the biggest hurdle here is diving my time between my musical projects, vibrant conversations with my colleagues, the hefty list of activities and opportunities offered by the AAR, and the treasures (both obvious and hidden) of Rome.  With a little less than half the year-long residency under my belt, I can already tell that this is a life changing experience that will offer artistic fodder for decades to come.    

AHN: Composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by sounds, and I suppose we are even more aware of this in new/unfamiliar places.  Do sounds influence you and are they in any way significant for your compositional work?

NCY: I adore sounds and am endlessly intrigued by them.  Every moment presents itself as some sort of sonic experience and my mind is constantly collecting and cataloging the sounds of my environment and how they resonate in different locations.  While this provides a great deal of mental entertainment, it has also encouraged quite a bit of insomnia!  Anyhow, I try to spend time focusing and taking mental sonic “photographs” (though sometimes, I just use a recorder) and save this memory data for use in my music.   I like this famous Stravinsky quote, “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.”  I don’t consciously steal/borrow from the repertoire, but I certainly harvest the sounds of my environment and then translate them into the seeds of my work.

AHN: Even though you are a young composer, your music struck me from the first time I heard it as having a very strong and distinctive voice. Do you think you have a ‘personal style’ of composing? Could you describe your own style to us?

NCY: Thanks, Aaron, I am humbled by your comments, as I am a great admirer of your work, too.  I would say that my “style” of composition is constantly evolving, though, as hinted above, it’s primary focus is sound itself.  I have a background in tech (my undergrad was in ocean engineering), and my artistic focus in composition straddles the worlds of acoustic and electroacoustic music.  Within my own practice, these worlds are seamlessly entwined and have resulted in a personal musical voice that draws equally from elements of the classical canon, modernism, spectralism, American experimentalism, minimalism, electronic music, and popular idioms.  I am always striving to create unique sonic environments that can be appreciated by a wide variety of audiences while challenging stylistic boundaries, auditory perception, and notions of temporality. 

I write instrumental, electronic, and mixed music, but my working methods in all three are very similar.  The process is always concerned with the sculpting of sound and the creation of an auditory experience that is constantly leading the listener into new sonic areas.  When I’m writing for purely acoustic combinations of instruments, I try to employ methods that are influenced by electronic studio production techniques.  I’ll often start pieces by improvising on my laptop with recordings which I’ll then process until I find that particular sonic “seed” that sprout to create a piece.  This will get integrated with sound experiments using my voice, the piano, my violin, and various other instruments.  Eventually I’ll start to write things down, always in full score.  Orchestration is an integral and often primary element of my compositional process.  I find it akin to working in an electronic production environment in which I am always aware of balancing the horizontal frequency spectrum.  Every instrument has its own natural resonance and filtering characteristics – when you begin to combine these different effects, an infinite world of sonic possibilities evolves!  Lately, I’ve also become very concerned with rhythm and its relationship to form.  I think that’s something you can hear evolving in my pieces over the last several years.

AHN: As our Composer-in-Residence next year you’ll write a co-commissioned Viola concerto for Riot Ensemble (with Stephen Upshaw) and Ensemble Échappé (with Jocelin Pan).  Can you tell us a bit about how you start a new piece?  What will it be like to write for two different soloists?

NCY: I’m really excited about this project, especially because I think the “concerto” is a challenging form.  I’ve taken a strong liking to the trompe l’oeil optical illusions of the Italian painters of the late Quattrocento.  A really powerful example of this is in the “dome” of the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio in Rome.  In this viola concerto, EarPlay, I will use the relationship between the soloist and the ensemble to explore sonic and spatial equivalents to this optical illusion.

I’m looking forward to writing this piece for two fantastic violists and ensembles.  The idea for the project came from the long-term collaboration that I have had with Jocelin Pan (who is also the co-Artistic director of Ensemble Échappé) – we met at Tanglewood back in 2013 and have been working together ever since.  In fact, the initial impetus for our ensemble was as a result of conversation that Jocelin and I had with Jeffrey Milarsky (EÉ’s conductor) about how to make this concerto come to life.   I have a really intimate knowledge of Jocelin’s approach to the viola and this will certainly have a big influence on the music.  The fact that this is a co-commission is even more exciting.  I’m really curious and enthusiastic to see how piece expresses itself through the interpretations by two different, stellar groups.  I’m hoping to get to know Stephen Upshaw before I begin really working on the piece, as I like to incorporate musician’s personalities into the music I write.  It’s always more fun to write for friends!

AHN: As you mention, you were involved in founding Ensemble Échappé.  What will your ongoing role with the ensemble be, and what are you hoping to accomplish with these players?

NCY: Jocelin Pan and I are the founding members and Co-Artistic Directors of Ensemble Échappé, a New York City based sinfonietta.  We basically gathered together a group of friends who are exceptional soloists and collaborative musicians that love working together to explore diverse sonic palettes.  We are really trying to showcase a wide swath of stylist approaches by not rooting ourselves in a set aesthetic camp.  Our goal is simply to share great music with our audience.

In addition to my role as Artistic Director, I am currently serving as Composer-in-Residence with Ensemble Échappé (2015-17) and am spearheading a commissioning initiative to promote a dialogue between the musicians and living composers.  The musicians are not only collaborators, but also rotate as solo artists.  This season (our 1st!) we have selected repertoire that highlights individual ensemble members (such as percussionist Sam Budish in Andy Akiho’s LIgNEouS, harpist Emily Levin in Carter’s Mosaic, Jocelin Pan in Derek Bermel’s Soul Garden).  Staring next season, we want to begin showcasing our solo talents with specially commissioned concerti.  EÉ’s is first commissioning Doug and Brad Balliett to write a bassoon – double bass duo concerto for themselves, The Brothers Balliett, to be premiered during our 2016 season opener.  Our next spotlight will be EarPlay (later to be premiered by you, the Riot Ensemble!) and a new concerto by Jonathan Dawe for pianist Conor Hanick.

AHN: It all sounds totally fantastic.  As we finish, could you tell us a bit more about the music you are writing in Rome?

NCY: I’m working on a wide variety of projects; I’m really trying to take advantage of the opportunity to replenish my well of artistic fodder while utilizing this undistributed time to write music that maybe falls outside of my typical comfort zone.  Upon arriving in Rome I finished a bassoon pocket concert for Brad Balliett and the Metropolis Ensemble’s Multiphonics show that was premiered at (Le) Poisson Rouge in NY in October.  I’m writing a short solo piece for a series commissioned by cellist Anssi Karttunen of Columbia-affiliated composers (Taylor Brook, Zosha Di Castri, Bryan Jacobs, Yoshiaki Onishi) that have been involved in his Creative Dialogues Symposium over the past several years.  He’ll premiere the piece in February in Paris at Columbia’s Reid Hall.  I’m involved in another group project spearheaded by Marilyn Nonken.  She has commissioned a series of solo piano pieces that use the same tuning as Grisey’s Vortex Temporum (one of my all-time favorite pieces).  The other composers are Richard Carrick, Marcos Balter, Edmund Campion, Christopher Trapani, Victoria Cheah, and Brian Erickson.

An exciting new work came to fruition upon arriving in Rome.   Miro Magloire, the artistic director and choreographer of the New Chamber Ballet, and I decided to collaborate on a Rome-based music-dance project.  Miro came to the Academy with dancers Elizabeth Hudec Brown and Daniela Giannuzzi in early December. Together we created a new location-specific piece (working title Temenos) for dancers, violin, and electronics that will be premiered at the Bramante Tempietto on March 3, 2016 as part of the AAR’s Cinque Mostre curated by Ilaria Gianni.

I came to Rome to write the music (commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation) for my multimedia cantata Making Tellus: A Mandala for the Anthropocene, a collaboration with The Nouveau Classical Project (NCP); impresario, pianist, and producer Sugar Vendil, and bass-vocalist/librettist Andrew R. Munn.  Imagine collecting an ice-core sample from a glacier. This cross-section contains thousands of years of information – data that depicts the history of Earth’s climate. With this information, scientists become chroniclers as they discover and tell the story of our planet.  In Making Tellus the artistic team creates a metaphorical sample of human time and tells of our species’ experience in sculpting the Earth, pointing to the many processes that have led to our new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene. Our goal is to deepen the public understanding of the Anthropocene and its implications through a marriage of arts, technology, and environmental activism.  Making Tellus is an evening-length interdisciplinary performance piece that invites audiences to meditate on their role in writing Earth’s story. The work presents moments, both historical and contemporary, that illuminate our complex and ever-shifting relationships within Earth’s ecological and geological systems.  The music is scored for solo bass voice, female vocal trio, chamber ensemble, and mixed electronics.  In performance, the work incorporates costumes by sustainable fashion designer Titania Inglis, generative video projection by new media artist R. Luke DuBois, staged choreography by Miro Magloire, and a set piece kinetic sound sculpture that I’ll design.  This is a fascinating project to work on in Rome, a city whose every corner is a cross-section of thousands of years of human history.

AHN: Thanks so much, Nina.  We can’t wait to hear all of it!

A few moments with Helga Arias Parra

This Monday, at the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, we give the first performance of Helga Arias Parra in the UK: the World Premiere of Incipit (Omaggio a G.B. Pergolesi).

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This piece – a co-commission between Riot Ensemble and Spitalfields Music – is fourth and final piece commissioned from our 2015 Call for Scores (NB composers, we’ll be opening our 2016 call in January!).

It’s one of our great pleasures to discover and work with new emerging composers from all over the world and it was an additional pleasure to ask Helga a few questions about her music in advance of the concert:

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Thanks so much for this new piece Helga, and for taking the time to speak to us!  You’ve said that you think of composing as “experimentation, risk and control in that exact order”.  Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean, and what your actual process of composing is like?

Helga Arias Parra: Thank you for the commission!  And for these questions…For me to composing is closely related to the experimentation with sound, concepts, ideas or with instruments and techniques, especially in the early stages of the process, as it gives me a wider range of materials to work with.

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In the early stage, I like to take risks and try new things that I’ve never used in a piece before. This applies to almost everything, from the instrumentation to the sound material.  Eventually (when I say “control”) I mean how I rationalise all this material, which is new for me. I try to understand it deeply in order to be very aware of how I want to use it. For instance, in this stage, I work a lot with sound analysis and resynthesis, and how to translate specific acoustic properties to the instruments.

AHN: Your new work for us is entitled Incipit.  Where does the title come from, and how does it relate to the music?

HAP: Actually the title is a paradox of what happens in the piece. The latin word Incipit means “it begins” and it refers to the first words of a text, which are also used as its title. In music, an “incipit” is an initial sequence of notes, employed as an identifying clause.  In my composition, though, the process is inverted as the musical “incipit” is only heard clearly at the end of the piece.

On the other hand the piece is inspired on some fragments of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which works as an incipit itself, as the beginning of each of the twelve sequences are named by the initial words of every verse.

On the contrary, in this work the text remains mostly unintelligible until almost the very end, where it appears in the from of a quotation.

AHN: 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?

HAP: Absolutely. I like to think of acoustic phenomena rather than of music, I believe is more accurate to my ideas.  In this sense I am extremely influenced by sounds that I hear in my everyday life, specially if I can focus on something very subtle and hear its details.  Then I feel it is alive, and I like to somehow transmit it through my music. I find it fascinating.

I try not to be extremely influenced by the sounds of the contemporary repertoire, because depending on how you use them they can become a “cliché”, but sometimes is inevitable.

AHN: Do you think of your music as theatrical?  

HAP: Not really. At least not for the moment.  As I said before I am very focused on the sound phenomena in itself so right now I find it difficult to work on more layers or to add visual or theatrical elements.

I think this is why it is so hard for me to work with text and voices, as they can easily imply something external to the music…but I’ve just written a work for soprano and ensemble for you so we will see…!

AHN: What else are you working on at the moment?

HAP: I am starting to work more and more with electronics. I believe those are tools we cannot neglect nowadays because they really can extend the possibilities of the acoustic instruments, among much other things. At the moment I am about to begin a piece for piano and live electronics, finishing a piece for three singers, ensemble and electronics, and waiting to hear about a possible new piece for a very beautiful and unusual trio: accordion, double bass and saxophone.  So it’s very busy!

AHN: That’s wonderful Helga.  We’re really looking forward to the premiere, and we’ll see you there!

More Hands: Guy Richardson

We’ve got a concert coming up this month at the Friend’s Meetinghouse (in Brighton) where we’ll be recapping some of our favourite pieces of the 2013 season and also playing some pieces by composers from the New Music Brighton collective.  We’re gearing up for the concert by asking the NMB Composers the same series of questions, so you can get a feel for who they are and what they do. The fourth interview in our series: Guy Richardson.

guyThanks for being with us Guy.  First up, are you a Brighton composer or a composer that lives in Brighton?
I live in Brighton. I was born in Zimbabwe, moved to England aged five and lived in Eastbourne, Brighton while at uni. I moved to London to do some teaching, then returned to Brighton in 1979.

Could you give us a little insight into how you compose?  (Do you have a set time you work at?  Do you write at the piano?  Etc…)
I try and keep to a regular time slot which is ideally from 7.30am to 2.30pm Monday to Friday and most Sunday mornings, and Saturday mornings in the holidays when I’m not teaching piano and have a deadline to meet! I work out my melodic ideas and try and develop a feel for the harmony away from the piano then work out the details on the piano.

When you compose, who do you think of most: the performers, the audience or other composers?
The performers in terms of whether a passage lies well on an instrument or how singable it is if for voices. The audience in terms of how clear the structure of a piece is, or whether a passage needs to be extended to make more impact, or whether a passage goes on for too long!

What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
A very difficult question; often it feels like the piece I’m working on at the moment, if it’s going well!

Do you consider blogs (such as this one) a useful way of interacting with your audience?
Yes. Any communication which helps break down the barriers is good.

Have you ever had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s Second Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period (the first result of which was his Jeux Vénitiens)?
Hearing Charles Ives’ music for the first time many years ago, was a revelation.

Describe Riot Ensemble’s Artistic Board Member (and NMB composer and performer) Adam Swayne in three words.
Lively, Passionate, Humorous.

Have you ever participated in a Riot?
No, but I have been involved in anti nuclear weapons demos and arms manufacturers where things got quite hairy.

Thanks very much Guy!  We’re looking forward to your music on the 31st!

More Hands: Phil Baker

We’ve got a concert coming up this month at the Friend’s Meetinghouse (in Brighton) where we’ll be recapping some of our favourite pieces of the 2013 season and also playing some pieces by composers from the New Music Brighton collective.  We’re gearing up for the concert by asking the NMB Composers the same series of questions, so you can get a feel for who they are and what they do. The third in this series of interviews: Phil Baker.

Thanks for being with us Phil.  First up, are you a Brighton composer or a composer that lives in Brighton?
I’m not sure what ‘Brighton composer’ might suggest: composers are composers wherever they’re from and I have never thought there was any suggestion of there being a ‘Brighton School’. I am, technically, Brightonian but haven’t lived in the city for some years. I used to dislike being called a ‘local composer’ which seemed already to consign one to parochial anonymity. I suppose that if being a Brighton composer the chances of increased financial support were forthcoming, the title could be worth it.

Could you give us a little insight into how you compose?  (Do you have a set time you work at?  Do you write at the piano?  Etc…)
Having begun a new work, I make a point of writing every weekday and, if needed, weekends too. There is always a point when the work becomes slightly obsessive and preoccupying together with the sense of wanting it to be finished and out the way (Out the Way being, incidentally, the title of my Jazz Suite). Inspiration comes largely by being asked to write a work (a rarity), being asked to write a work for a particular performance (more common) or to be paid to write a piece (very rare); on the whole, I like to think I can pick up the thread of a piece each day partly as a matter of having a technique which can be brought into play to generate ideas if nothing presents itself. I often work on two pieces at once but I’m not sure why that happens so often.

When I first started to compose, it was at the piano with a pencil and rubber and I find that now at least some of the tentative steps at the start of a piece often happen that way; writing songs are most comfortably written at the piano but I’m not sure why that should be. With the advent of notation software, I also use that either to transcribe from penciled manuscript or directly into the system.  Needless to say, much of the work is about listening to silence in your own mind in order to find the sounds. Orchestral music is usually written direct to score but with much sketching and scribbling besides on paper. (One of the pieces I am currently writing is, however, in piano reduction for later orchestration but there is a particular reason for that). My opera The Bayeux Tapestry was also produced in that way.

Sometimes the work will progress against the odds ignoring that nagging feeling that it’s going in the wrong direction: several pages can be discarded by not listening well enough to the musical conscience. Creativity generally, I think, is a complexity of processes which involves spontaneity, rigid control, aesthetic judgements and luck. When the ideas flow, it’s usually a sign to stop and wait for a new day.

Echo’s Antiphons was worked on over a period of about three years in part because there were other pieces to be written but in part because I wasn’t sure which prison I was in at the time. My hope is that it will sound free.

When you compose, who do you think of most: the performers, the audience or other composers?
In a nutshell, my attention is on the unfolding of the piece itself. It’s a question of putting an idea down and then combing through it in order to remove the knots; or to shape it more satisfactorily; or to change an interval here or there or to tweak a rhythm or two. The trouble is that, by making a single change, many others have to follow and I quite often make changes to works written some time ago simply because there is a different perspective over time. On the whole, Brahms’ advice to finish a work and put it in a drawer for a month or two is very sound if only to forestall the pitfalls of vanity.

I have written some Gebrauchmusick and, as such, those works certainly take into account the prospective performers. That is an enriching factor since it provides limitations. Also, some performers have particular characteristics which can be enriching to tap into and especially where singers are concerned. It is equally difficult to write difficult music for gifted executants as straightforward music for the competent but it is an aspiration to be able to write for anyone and anything. I don’t think it follows that one should write technically demanding music just because the performers can manage it; and, to some degree, it’s important not to write patronisingly simple music for the less experienced. I also will change parts (if permitted) as a result of performance because sometimes, composing is about making leaps into the darkness where aural imagination perceives one thing but receives another.

There is a sense in which music has to be perceived in order to exist and the fact that that will be by an audience of one kind or another makes consideration of an audience important. It is always important to be true to the music one wants to make so that it is not necessary to allow consideration of any hypothetical audience into that particular creative equation if only because judgements about an audience are impossible to make prior to a performance and perilously condescending to make during or afterwards. However, I do believe that there is little point in presenting a piece if there are no – absolutely no – points of contact whether emotionally or aesthetically. Tradition is a primal factor for generating points contact and I like to think I link to traditions without becoming a slave to them.

If there is no connection with an audience, we might as well not bother and all go home.

What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
What would it mean if a composer didn’t like anything he had written?

There are a few pieces I am concerned about but mainly because they fail in one way or another – usually at a technical level.

I feel positive about the series of works written from fragments of ancient Greek music such as Chronophagos for Two Pianos (premiered by Adam Swayne and Terence Allbright) and the Epinikia on Pindar for reciters and ensemble. My Cabaret Songs of Misery and Hope I enjoyed writing and because they show a difference of style and voice and the Sinfonietta which I think still sounds funky and entertaining in a ‘serious sort of a way’. The Murals at Albi also still sounds interesting although I have yet to re-write the alternative ending. My Piano Quintet (Epiphanies of Silence ii) I think has some effective passages.

Do you consider blogs (such as this one) a useful way of interacting with your audience?
Well – you can interact all day with strangers but it won’t make them your ‘friends’ although it might encourage them to trot along to your concerts. Then the real interaction can begin at the performances as long as there are connections to be made.

Have you ever had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s Second Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period (the first result of which was his Jeux Vénitiens)?
Yes, I think that happened some years ago. I’m not sure how it came about but I was at a rehearsal of Shostakovitch’s Quartet No8 in a very small room at the University of Sussex. In part it was the sheer proximity of the sounds (it was a very small room) but, of course, the intensity of the work itself which shocked me into wanting to produce a string quartet. But the work also revealed (after later consideration) a tight web of relationships within the composition creating a coherent formal unity and that too had its attraction.

A close encounter with Stravinski’s Les Noces was another epiphany but, this time, about the cumulative power of music which sustains its energy over a long time span. Messiaen’s harmonic practice continues to fascinate but it’s one which won’t allow imitation. Keith Jarrett’s Köln Konzert is still something I like to hear once in a while: Sibelius improvised.

Apart from music, certain writing has also made a difference such as Webern’s Pathways to the New Music, 1922.

But this is beginning to sound like Desert Island Discs so best stop…

Describe Riot Ensemble’s Artistic Board Member (and NMB composer and performer) Adam Swayne in three words.
Talented – Enthusiastic – Short

Have you ever participated in a Riot?
I have been present at a riot but I did not think I was participating in it.

The riot in question was at Grosvenor Square outside the American Embassy and proved to be quite alarming. Finding oneself confronting a thin blue line and being goaded by horses a mile high is not comfortable. Now, was it an American war or was it Thatcher?

I once had a work performed which had reached the final of a competition and, in the interval, I was quizzed about the work’s apparent links to the current civil unrest and rioting and discontent in society at large. I couldn’t make sense of the questions and, what’s more, didn’t win either.

‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’.

Phil

Thanks very much Phil!  We’re looking forward to your music on the 31st!

More Hands: Jonathan Clark

We’ve got a concert coming up this month at the Friend’s Meetinghouse (in Brighton) where we’ll be recapping some of our favourite pieces of the 2013 season and also playing some pieces by composers from the New Music Brighton collective.  We’re gearing up for the concert by asking the NMB Composers the same series of questions, so you can get a feel for who they are and what they do. The second in our series: Jonathan Clark.

Thanks for being with us Jonathan.  First up, are you a Brighton composer or a composer that lives in Brighton?
I am Sussex born and bred. I neither live in Brighton nor was born there.

Could you give us a little insight into how you compose?  (Do you have a set time you work at?  Do you write at the piano?  Etc…)
I do not have a set time for composing. When working on a piece it tends to become an all consuming passion and I have little time for anything else. I have different stratagem for different aspects of a piece. The overall architecture of a piece is often worked out while walking, driving or doing the house work, sometimes if I’m concentrating on key relationships I improvise at the piano. For some passages I devise mathematical algorithms. For more detailed work I use the piano or sometimes just compose at the computer. I most often get ideas away from the piano but use the piano to decide if they are any good or to hone them.

When you compose, who do you think of most: the performers, the audience or other composers?
For the most part I think in abstract terms about the music. If I give anyone a thought it is the performers. I have recently reworked part of my 4th String Quartet purely in order to make it easier for the performers. What is interesting is that, although to begin with, I have great reluctance to part from the original, I often grow to prefer the new, easier version.

What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
Immediately after finishing a piece I often think it the best thing that I’ve ever written. Shortly after this my belief in the piece plummets. It is only after a year or two that I am able to make a more objective judgement. At present I consider my Flute Concerto one of my best pieces. Why is hard to say. It is a surprisingly traditional piece for me. Perhaps for that reason it is easier for me to judge it. I am particularly proud of the long unbroken flute line above a simple string pizzicato in the slow movement.

Do you consider blogs (such as this one) a useful way of interacting with your audience?
I don’t know. Ask my audience.

Have you ever had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s Second Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period (the first result of which was his Jeux Vénitiens)?
Not to that extent. Two pieces that did have quite a deep effect on me at the time of them coming out were John Taverner’s The Protecting Veil and Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances. However, you will have to look quite hard at some of my pieces to find any influences from these works.

Describe Riot Ensemble’s Artistic Board Member (and NMB composer and performer) Adam Swayne in three words.
Generous, Affable, Enthusiastic.

Have you ever participated in a Riot?
No

Thanks very much Jonathan!  We’re looking forward to your music on the 31st!

More Hands: Barry Mills

We’ve got a concert coming up this month at the Friend’s Meetinghouse (in Brighton) where we’ll be recapping some of our favourite pieces of the 2013 season and also playing some pieces by composers from the New Music Brighton collective.  We’re gearing up for the concert by asking the NMB Composers the same series of questions, so you can get a feel for who they are and what they do. Up first, Barry Mills!

Thanks for being with us Barry.  First up, are you a Brighton composer or a composer that lives in Brighton?
I am a composer who lives in Brighton.  I was born in Devon.

Could you give us a little insight into how you compose?  (Do you have a set time you work at?  Do you write at the piano?  Etc…)
I always sketch out the shape of the whole piece first and when this feels well balanced I start to work on the details.

When you compose, who do you think of most: the performers, the audience or other composers?
I am just purely trying to write the best music I can when I compose, but I am concerned about communicating with performers and audience.

What is your favourite piece of your own work and why?
I don’t have a favourite piece of my own music as I am always 100% concerned with the piece I am working on at the time.

Do you consider blogs (such as this one) a useful way of interacting with your audience?
I don’t know anything about blogs!

Have you ever had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s Second Piano Concerto on the radio, the encounter changed his musical thinking and ushered in a new creative period (the first result of which was his Jeux Vénitiens)?
Many other composers have been powerful influences on me. Debussy, Ravel, Ligeti, Bartok, Messiaen, and Webern.  English and Irish folk music has also been an important recent influence.

Describe Riot Ensemble’s Artistic Board Member (and NMB composer and performer) Adam Swayne in three words.
Hard working, Passionate and Generous.

Have you ever participated in a Riot?
I was at the Riot Ensemble’s Transatlantic Collaborations concert in Brighton earlier this year.  Does that count?

Barry Mills

 

It sure does Barry!  We’re looking forward to your music on the 31st!

A few moments with Christopher Theofanidis

Christopher Theofanidis

Christopher Theofanidis is certainly one of the most prolific and decorated American composers.  He is currently working on two (different!) operas for the San Francisco and Huston Grand opera companies, and has received (among other awards) the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright, SIX (!) ASCAP Morton Gould Prizes, and the American Academy of Arts Charles Ives’ Fellowship.  He is on the faculty of the Yale School of Music, and it was my pleasure to meet him during the highSCORE festival in Pavia, Italy (in 2012).  His work Rainbow Body has been played by more than 100 orchestras internationally, yet it was still the pleasure of The Riot Ensemble to programme the English premiere of his first string quartet, Ariel Ascending.

You can watch the performance the first movement of Ariel Ascending above.  While reflecting on the performance, it was my pleasure to have the opportunity to ask Christopher a few questions reflecting this piece, his work, and music composition in general:

Christopher, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me.  We really enjoyed hearing Ariel Ascending at our Shapes of a Square concert and I’m keen to ask you a few questions about this piece in the context of your work since then.

Thanks for having me Aaron, and thank you to the Riot Ensemble and the Navarra Quartet for programming and playing the work.  I’m particularly delighted you chose this piece as its only been played a handful of times since I wrote it.

Ariel Ascending is actually a relatively ‘old’ work of yours – your first string quartet and so on.  Could you firstly tell us a little bit about why you wrote the work and what you were thinking about at the time?

I wrote Ariel Ascending in 1995 as a commission for Tanglewood.  I had been a fellow there in 1994, and they gave me the Fromm Commission to write for the Henschel String Quartet.  The Henschel Quartet have all gone on to become good friends of mine and they still play the piece today.

I had just finished my Doctorate studies at Yale at that time, and on my mind were things that didn’t seem to normally go together in a single piece – the impressionism and orchestrational approach of Jacob Druckman, the kind of angular melodic harmonisations of Balkan Music (non-western music, as a whole, was very much in my field of vision at the time), the idea of silence in music and – above all – the idea of heterophony[1], where many lines become a single organism.

The Sylvia Plath poem was the spark and catalyst for the piece. I was so taken with that work and how she created a kind of wind in the words.

It’s fascinating to hear what you were thinking about when you created this piece.  Your colleague at Yale, Martin Bresnick, once told me that he never changes a piece once it’s finished because a finished work is an artistic statement about what Music (with a capital ‘M’) is (or was) to that particular composer at that particular time.   I’m interested in asking about what it is like to listen back to a work you wrote so long ago?  Do you ever want to change things about the piece in a situation like this?  Do you find new things in the work?

Martin is very principled!  I have changed pieces from my past, but it is true that it is very difficult to change things structurally.  The things that make music organic in the end have to do with structure and large-scale time, and that is the thing I find most tied to the period in which a piece is originally composed.

I suppose it is the Stravinsky 1947 version of change[2] that I can live with – the details, sonice brilliance, those kinds of things are fine for me to change

Looking back from where you are now, do you recognise early elements of a ‘personal style’ in Ariel Ascending?

Yes, very much.  The Henschel Quartet just played a full concert of my quartets and quintets in New York and here at Yale, and the newest work, At The Still Point[3], for me grows out of the same world, though it is more stark than Ariel Ascending.

I’m beginning to think of my early attempts at writing as having all of the elements of my musical values latent in them in one form or another, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

That’s particularly fascinating to me as a younger composer. You teach and have taught a lot of young composers.  Do you think it is important for composers to develop a personal style?  Do you have advice on how a young composer can achieve or go about this?  And when does the idea of ‘personal style’ simply give way to self-repetition?[4]

I think that personal style is a byproduct of the things that you love.  As art historian Michael Fried once eloquently wrote: ‘The essence of something is in its conviction.’[5]

I see my role as a teacher as empowering and pointing out the things that a student loves, and helping the student take that rare concoction of qualities to as deep a level as they are capable of.  The issue of repetition between one’s own pieces is a difficult balancing act.  For me personally, depth comes from continuity, and only the artist can understand when they need to push forward in their work and when to leave things behind.  This, though, is as much an issue of taste as it is personal growth and maturation.  I think in the end the artist must liv with themselves in a state of balance with respect to how they evolve – we are restless beings after all!


[1] Heterophony is a type of musical texture where variations of a single melodic line happen at the same time as each other, overlapping and interweaving.  This technique is particularly audible in the first movement of Ariel Ascending.

[2] Christopher is referring, here to Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of Petrushka.   Stravinsky made  a number of changes of the kind Christopher mentions: reorchestrations, removing some metric modulations, and so on.  Meanwhile the large-scale structure of the work remained (almost) entirely intact.  Both versions are now widely available on recordings.

[3] A piano quintet written in 2012.  I didn’t have the chance to ask Christopher about this, but interestingly I think this title is also a reference to poetry (T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartetscf. the 2nd quartet “At the still point of the turning world….”).

[4] This question mirrors the third of Bálint András Varga’s three questions asked to 65 composers in Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers.  Each of our interviews with composers includes one of these questions as they often draw out unusual and insightful thoughts from the composers in the book.

[5] I was unable to track down this exact quote.  This is not to say Fried has not penned these exact words and it is, at the very least, an accurate paraphrasing of the thoughts expressed by Fried in his seminal essay Art and Objecthood (which gives the quote at the top of this interview).