Meeting Tim Rutherford-Johnson

We’re completely delighted to welcome Tim to our artistic board. As well as composing poetic and illuminating programme notes to our concerts, Tim brings an academic slant to our programming as well as a keen contextual eye on our activities within a wider contemporary scene.

Tim has just published (with University of California Press) ‘Music after the Fall’ – the first detailed survey of western art music in the post-Cold War era. He is also the editor for ‘Sounds Like Now’ – a brand new independent magazine devoted to contemporary classical music which launches its first issue in May. You can also follow his highly regarded blog here.

Alex Ross has called Tim ‘probably the most authoritative international chronicler of the composed music of our time’.

Pretty impressive stuff, we think you’ll agree. But how will he fare with the really big questions, such as ‘favourite 007’ or ‘mayonnaise or salad cream’? You can find out below …

In what ways have you Rioted so far?
I’m the group’s in-house writer; so far I’ve written notes to four Riot concerts, with more to come. As a new member of the artistic board I’ve also thrown in a few Riotous programming suggestions.
Teenage tearaway, or nerdy note-learner?
Oh, I was a proper nerd – books, science, music, the lot.
Favourite musician?
Toss-up between Olivier Messiaen and Kim Gordon.
Favourite performance venue?
Anything off the beaten track: small rooms in the back of pubs, that sort of thing. Hawksmoor’s churches in London are always special places to listen too.
People have said this about me …
“That T-shirt makes you look pregnant.” – my daughter.
Strictly or X Factor?
Bake Off.
The best 007 is …
Roger Moore is the most fun, but Daniel Craig has made the better films. I wish they’d had the courage to make Skyfall the last Bond; that was a perfect ending.
Salad cream or mayonnaise?
Mayo. With chips.
I would most like to Riot about …
Arts funding. Inequality. The environment.
Many thanks, Tim!

Written for Me (#1)

Date: Saturday 15th November; 7.30pm
Venue: Cecil Sharp House, Trefusis Room.
As part of our Sound and Music Portfolio programme this year, we are hosting international soloists Heather Roche (Bass Clarinet), Marco Fusi (Viola D’Amore) and Rafal Luc (Accordion) in London.  After a day of masterclasses and composers workshops, these three soloists will give a joint concert of repertoire that has been written specifically for them by composers from around the world, including:

Gavin Higgins Kathedrale
Ian Anderson Siren (World Premiere)
John Croft Intermedio iii
Martin Iddon Ptelea
Lorenzo Romano chi ha paura delle maree 
Federico Gardella cinque notturni da braccio
Felipe Lara Postcard
David Young Escurial

The soloists – and the three composers taking part in the Portfolio Scheme – will present the informal concert in conversation with our Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

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A few moments with Chris Mayo


Tomorrow evening at The Forge in Camden we’re opening up a new series of contemporary music concerts called Wednesdays at The Forge.  The concert is a rather extraordinary array of low instruments: 5 Bass Clarinets, 5 Bassoons (including 3 contrabassoons) and 4 Trombones, along with Tenor.  Opening up the concert, will be a brand new work for 5 Bassoons (with members of Reed Rage) by Chris Mayo.  I’m happy to have had a few moments to sit with Chris and ask him about the experience of writing this piece, and what the audience can expect tomorrow night!

AHN: Thanks for joining us Chris!  Can you tell us a little bit about what you first thought when we asked you to write for 5 bassoons, and how you went about writing for such a homogenous – and unusual – ensemble?

CM: My works list reads like a catalogue of unusual and impractical instrumentations. It’s gotten to the point that I just assume people are going to ask me to write for some crazy, odd combination of instruments. I would be surprised if someone asked me to write for a string quartet.

That’s just to say that it didn’t particularly occur to me that this was an unusual ensemble, or at least not any more unusual than other combinations I’ve had to contend with. In terms of it being such a homogenous ensemble, that’s something that I actually found really interesting about this instrumentation. The possibility of having this really pure and intense blend of timbre and sharing and overlapping material in a way where the individuality of voices kind of disappears became a central idea for the piece.

AHN: Your piece is called Youngblood II, is there a Youngblood I?

CM: Yes, Youngblood is a piece for recorder quartet that I wrote in 2012. Youngblood is also the title of Carl Wilson’s second solo album.


As a bit of background, here’s an introduction I wrote to the recorder piece:

“I am completely obsessed with the solo albums of the various members of The Beach Boys. Some of them (Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue) are genuinely marvellous while others (Mike Love’s Looking Back With Love) are unforgivably atrocious. Whatever their musical merits, these albums all illuminate part of the fascinating story of a profoundly screwed-up bunch of people.

I’ve always seen Carl Wilson as a slightly tragic character, constantly overshadowed by his two older brothers: one a super-talented musical genius, the other an hedonistic, womanising partier. I think his two solo albums were his attempt to really establish his own, individual personality separate from them. They don’t really succeed, and I feel like there’s an enormous amount of pathos in that. My recorder quartet Youngblood uses a tiny bit of material taken from computer audio analysis of What More Can I Say [the first track on Wilson’s album] as a seed for a sort of quasi-baroque canonic study. Hopefully, in its five minutes it encapsulates some of the ideas and emotions which I attach to Carl Wilson and his solo albums.”

Youngblood II returns to this same starting material and is also (in a completely different way) a sort of quasi-baroque canonic study. Maybe this will become my thing any time somebody asks me to write a piece for a large grouping of the same instruments.

AHN: That is an incredible back story.  I like the idea of this material you return to each time you write for a particular group of instruments.  Another thing I’ve always admired about your music is the long, audible and – really physically feelable – nature of your transitions.  How do you think about transitions within your music?

CM: Spreadsheets! I do think a lot about change and transition in my music and get super-nerdily obsessed with working them out (which I guess is a little bit “crafty” but then everybody needs to be a hypocrite, sometimes, right?). This usually means having loads of spreadsheets working out various different overlapping arcs of change in lots of different musical parameters all working independently but gradually moving towards the same goal. I don’t really think of them as transitions though, because often they’re the entirety of the music! It’s not so much that there are various ‘states’ which are transitioned between, often it’s just all gradual change.

I mean, it’s not an especially new or exciting thing to say “I’m going to write a piece where there’s a long gradual process that takes place over 12 minutes” it’s kind of been done to death. (Music as Gradual Process and all that.)  So if, like me, you feel like you’re going to do it anyway, you have to find other ways to invigorate – to vitalise(?) the music. My music never ends up being just the bare process, there’s always something sculptural going on that tries to make it into something more explicitly….narrative perhaps?

AHN: I wonder if some of that has to do with your sound world?  While your music is largely focused on traditionally ‘musical’ sounds, you do have pieces that include effects such as rustling paper and breath noises.  As composers, we’re surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by extra-musical sounds.  How do these sounds influence you and how significant are they to your work?

CM: Well, in terms of my incorporation of these kind of effects in my music, there are sort of two sides to that. On the one hand, they are related to those transitions, as they usually come as the solution to some kind of process which is burbling along under the surface of the music. I often plan pieces in a very abstract way without really thinking of the limitations of the particular ensemble I’m writing for. It means that for me the composition process is often about finding solutions to the awkward situations I put myself in. How do you write a 12-note chord for flute, or things like that. It’s often in searching for solutions to these kinds of process-instigated problems that I arrive at these extramusical sounds.

But on the other hand, my use of these effects in music has a lot to do with how much I dislike the use of these sounds in contemporary music. I had a lesson once with the French composer Philippe Leroux and he made the assertion that he thought a lot of my music was about how much I disliked contemporary music. I think he meant that as a criticism, but I think he’s possibly right. I do have what ranges from a mild to an intense dislike of the focus which we as composers and teachers place on the craft of being a composer (finely wrought, exquisitely orchestrated, beautifully heard, all that…) and sometimes I like to present these kind of sounds (paper, air, etc.) in a kind of very un-crafty inelegant way. It’s not exactly a revolutionary manifesto that’s going to rock the establishment, but for me these are often awkward, kind of dumb sounds and presenting them in an awkward, kind of dumb way makes sense to me.

AHN: That’s a very accurate description of what I know of your music.  I’m hugely looking forward to hearing this new piece tomorrow.  Before we go, tell us what’s in store for you in 2014?

CM: I’m currently writing a piece for four female voices and orchestra for Esprit Orchestra in Toronto. It’s based on an excerpt from Toby Litt’s novel deadkidsongs. The novel is titled after (and full of quotes from) Mahler’s Kindertotenlider.

The thought of writing a piece that referenced Kindertotenlieder in the music just seemed to me like such a terrible idea for a piece that I decided that’s what I would do. Sometimes the most inspiring thing for me is something that’s really obviously a bad idea. Some people like to impose various systematic/harmonic/rhythmic/aesthetic constraints on themselves when they’re composing. My favourite constraint is just having a really bad idea to start with—finding a way to turn a bad idea into a good piece is a great way of pushing yourself to do new and interesting things. Like even Youngblood II actually. Writing a piece for five bassoons based on a track off of Carl Wilson’s second album is a bad idea. But that’s what I like about it.

After that, I’m making a collaborative opera for five voices and tape with Opera Erratica. This is part of triptych of pieces loosely inspired by Il trittico with the other two parts written by Christian Mason and Thomas Smertyns. And I’m also in the middle of writing a piece for Crash Ensemble in Dublin which has a very drawn-out gestation period—that piece is about a box of records that belonged to my grandfather. Or that was the idea to begin with. I’m not really sure what it’s about anymore…

Contemporary Music: Pleasures and Pitfalls, with Brian O’Kane

One of the things I most enjoy about The Riot Ensemble is that all of our concerts and projects are planned and produced by the same artists who perform the music.  This means that the same artist who performs a contemporary work to a new audience has had a real hand in curating both that work and the context that it’s presented in.

Brian O’Kane (cello) and the rest of the quartet rehearse for The Shapes of a Square

I was pleased to have a few moments this week to speak with Riot Ensemble Brian O’Kane, a member of our artistic board, whom you might have seen perform in our recent Shapes of a Square concert at LSO St. Luke’s.  Brian is a highly sought after emerging musician with a wide range of experiences in the classical and contemporary classical profession.  His answers here shed light on what it’s like for musicians to present contemporary music, including some of the most common pleasures and pitfalls.

Brian, thank you very much for being with us. Can you tell us a little about how you came to play contemporary music?

it’s my pleasure to be here, and thanks for having me.  My first performance of contemporary music was as a teenager at the Cork School of Music. It was a piece by Nicola LeFanu and I suppose that’s what garnered my initial interest in contemporary music.  From there and then, interaction with student composers whilst studying at the RAM & GSMD in London made it quite natural to continue playing new music. Other factors were the influence of my colleagues and particularly my professor at the RAM, Philip Shepard, who had a wonderful energy and enthusiasm for contemporary music. It was he who introduced me to more obscure contemporary cello repertoire such as Augusta Read Thomas‘ Fantasy on 2 Klee Studies which if I’m not mistaken, was actually written for Philip!

You play music from the entire spectrum of music history, of course, and I’m interested in asking a bit about the similarities and differences you find in communicating such different styles of music to audiences and listeners. Could you tell us a bit about that?

In theory, the communication in playing contemporary music should not be any different to mainstream classical repertoire. A convincing performance of any work from any period, should ultimately convey a strong sense of structure, style, imagination, sound-world and contrast. In this regard they’re the same. In practice however, they’re not quite on a par due to the fact that contemporary music constantly breaks new ground in sound and its possibilities. As performers, we play catch up. We already have an intrinsic knowledge of how to approach and communicate a Beethoven sonata. Therefore, what has to exist is an initial belief in whatever the genre or work so that our approach remains the same and does not effect our communication.

You’re an experienced chamber musician and currently play in the Navarra Quartet, could you tell us about some of the particular challenges that a String Quartet faces when performing contemporary music?

Where to start! Obviously, there are some string quartets such as the Arditti and Kronos quartets who focus primarily on contemporary music. These quartets have a unique skill set, honed through decades of immersion in sound-worlds of the foremost composers of today with constantly evolving extended techniques. What challenges a quartet which doesn’t specialise, like Navarra, is to get to grips with these sound-worlds and techniques in a manner that doesn’t dictate interpretive choices or restrict musical ideas.

The merits of Beethoven, the grand-master of the string quartet idiom, are rarely questioned or divide opinion among a quartet’s members. Beethoven’s quartets have obviously passed the test of time! For contemporary music on the other hand, there are four opinions on the merits of whichever contemporary piece the quartet is working. Judgements cannot be avoided on whether a work is a success or failure, whether it will remain in the repertory for centuries or whether the composer’s language lacks a unique voice. It’s a big challenge to let go of that baggage and approach it strictly for what it is and what the most effective way is of expressing the music.

On the other hand, we also have the luxury of being able to question and understand the intentions and writing of today’s composers. This presents a challenge in itself as some contemporary music specialists prefer to be told exactly how to play or interpret a phrase or note which doesn’t leave much room for any kind of interpretation. This is the complete opposite to the approach of classical repertoire where one has to trust the score and interpret as best they can. As for performance practice, the concentration required when performing contemporary music is different. It’s neither less or more, it’s the simple difference in musical language which creates the challenge.

Thanks so much Brian.  Maybe you could finish up by telling us what’s coming up for you in the next few months?

Coming up next is predominantly chamber music concerts encompassing travels to Ireland, France, Austria, Canada and South Korea. Highlights will be a recital at Ireland’s National Concert Hall, a cycle of the Britten Quartets at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and at the Lockenhaus Festival for the Austrian premiere of “Sparge La Mort” by Australian composer Brett Dean for cello, five voices and tape.

Our First Call for Scores!

We’re really pleased to announce that we’re running our first call for scores!

The call is in collaboration with the fantastic East Coast Contemporary Ensemble.  Two scores will be selected for performance at both The Forge (Camden, 16th July) and The Meetinghouse (Brighton, 17th July) as part of our Transatlantic Collaborations projects.

You can apply through the ECCE website.

A few moments with Amy Beth Kirsten

I’m very excited about our upcoming season which reflects The Riot Ensemble’s dedication to introducing British audiences to contemporary music by composers from around the world.  In our first concert of 2013, ‘The Magic Bass Flute,’ we have programmed a piece entitled Two Monologues by American composer Amy Beth Kirsten.

Amy was previously a singer-songwriter based in Chicago and, as with all of her music, Two Monologues reflects her deep connection with ideas such as memory, voice, theatre and breath. Each movement is a monologue for a solo instrument (Pirouette on a Moon Silver for solo flute and (speak to me) for solo piano).  Both are highly virtuosic, with the soloist vocalising alongside colourful, detailed and intricate music performed on their instrument.  I’ve been inspired by Amy’s music from the moment I first heard it. I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to ask her a few further questions about her music:

Hi Amy, and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for us! Your music is very unique in its drama and use of the human voice.  I wanted to begin by asking if you have had an experience similar to Witold Lutoslawski’s: When he heard John Cage’s 2nd 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 (1960-61)?[1]

Thanks for having me.  And yes, something like that did happen to me. I came to composing somewhat late, having had my first composition lesson at the age of thirty. Prior to this, I was trained as a pianist and vocalist with a specialty in vocal jazz improvisation, but spent much of my time writing and performing songs that had nothing to do with my training. When I returned to school to study composition, it was with the goal of learning to orchestrate those pop songs. As fate would have it, I had the opportunity, within the first weeks of school, to hear the International Contemporary Ensemble play a concert that included Vox Balaenae by George Crumb[2] 
 and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. I had never heard music like this before![3]

The performances were arresting and the sound worlds these two composers created…well, let’s just say it was a real awakening for me. I’ve always loved music that feels free and inevitable, that makes use of theatrical elements, and that have had a long-time fascination with timbre. All of these things were represented that night. It was music that I really identified with. So I guess you could say that this concert was the beginning for me, not to learn how to emulate those sounds, but to discover a musical path for myself that had the ring of truth.

That’s wonderful. I don’t doubt your music will have a similar effect on young musicians who hear it.  With your vocal background in mind, could you tell us a bit about how you compose? 

I sing, improvise, record myself, videotape myself playing improvisations at the piano and transcribe small pieces of those improvisations to discover the characteristics and possibilities of the material. Then I take what I’ve transcribed and improvise with that material and record myself. Then I transcribe some more. This process goes on for a while. Once I have an arsenal of material and its possibilities, I begin to put the pieces together into a larger framework that makes sense to me.

One thing I come back to again and again when listening to your work is how theatrical it is. Do you conceive your pieces this way?  And do you think about specific dramatic (large scale structures) when writing?

I’ve had the experience recently of being asked to compose a piece that is music first and theatre second. It really seemed like a strange request because, to me, there is no difference. I can’t listen to a live performance without thinking about how the musicians bodies are moving, or without taking in their facial expressions or unintended vocalizations like breaths and grunts. As soon as you put music, movement, and attainment together, you have a kind of dance – a kind of drama.

Each piece I write has its own starting point, sometimes it’s a word or an image, sometimes it’s a musical sound that requires a very specific physical gesture (or vice versa), and sometimes it’s simply a musical motive. I have never intended to write a “theatrical” piece – I just let come out whatever wants to come out and try not to get in the way.

To answer the second part of your question, I’m not sure you can have drama without structure – and so I am very conscious of pacing and tension while I’m composing.

That’s really interesting to me because, as both a composer and conductor, I’m someone who demands a lot of control of the music.  I love this idea, then, of trying ‘not to get in the way’ of the composition.  You obviously, though, work very closely with specific performers when composing your work. What is it like to have pieces scheduled by performers you’ve never met?

It’s about the coolest thing ever. I feel incredibly fortunate when someone I don’t know programs a piece. Often I’ll get to hear a recording of the performance and its endlessly fascinating to hear how different performers interpret music. One of the things I most love about music is that it can be felt so incredibly differently from person to person. Two Monologues, being performed on The Magic Bass Flute concert, is a piece that has a freer quality about it, even though the entire work is carefully notated. It’s made up of two movements that are driven most especially by the individual’s connection to the theatricality of the characters the musicians are playing.  The flute player is a diabolical Harlequin flutist and the pianist plays two different characters at once – Echo and Juno of the Narcissus myth. I’m really excited to hear how these extraordinary players bring these characters to life.

Thank you so much for your time and for your music, Amy.  We’re pleased we’ve been able to programme this work, and really delighted to share it with a London audience!  


Two Monologues will be performed by Kate Walter (Flute) and Adam Swayne (Piano) on our first concert of the 2013 season. Saturday 26th January, 6:30pm at The Red Hedgehog in North London (100 yards from Highgate tube).  Details about the concert can be found here.

[1] This question mirrors the first of Bálint András Varga’s three questions asked to 65 composers in Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers.  I’m planning to centre each of our interviews this year around these questions which often draw out unusual and insightful thoughts from the composers throughout the book.

[2] Those interested/nearby can hear the ICE Ensemble perform this work again this season on 19 February (2013) in Denver Colorado.

[3] This is a programme we’re thinking of mirroring in 2014.  It looks like the ICE Ensemble performed this same concert again in 2008 alongside John Cage’s Credo in US.


More Hands!

At The Meetinghouse (Brighton) at 7:30pm on Thursday 31st October 2013
An array of music for piano four hands, and other chamber ensembles by Amy Beth Kirsten, Martin Suckling, Lutoslawski and New Music Brighton collective composers Jonathan Clark, Phil Baker, Barry Mills, Guy Richardson and Patrick Harrex.

The Shapes of a Square

At LSO St. Luke’s at 7:30pm on Friday 8th March, 2013.
Music for string quartet by Henri Dutilleux, Christopher Theofanidis, Giovanni Albini, Gustavo Penha and Aaron Holloway-Nahum.
Featuring the Navarra Quartet

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