A few moments with Bára Gísladóttir

We’re in Reykjavík today, and ready to make our Icelandic debut at Dark Music Days with music in our ‘Approaching Dutilleux’ project, built around his chamber masterwork Les Citations.  This concert features a new addition to the repertoire from Icelandic composer Bára Gísladóttir.  Bára is en route to Iceland to work with us today, but Aaron Holloway-Nahum caught up with her earlier to ask her about her new work Seven heavens (of different heights (and depths)), and her work in general.

 

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: You’ve written us a new pieced called Seven heavens (of different heights (and depths)). Could you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind it?

Bára Gísladóttir: The piece deals with seven layers of different dimensions, both time-wise and texture-wise – that is – both vertical and horizontal (and everything between those).

AHN: In addition to composing, you play the double bass. This new piece includes double bass. Do you ever perform in your own compositions?

BG: Yes, I do! I mainly perform my music solo, but have also performed some of my compositions with different ensembles.

AHN: We’ve been enjoying listening to your new album, Mass for Some in which you play double bass and sing.  Can you tell us a bit about your work as a performer, and how it influences your compositions?

BG: I think I am a much more diverse performer than composer, and enjoy performing various types of new and old music. Performing my own music vs. others’ is something I experience as two very different things, mostly because I feel more freedom and a stronger link towards my own stuff. It is simply more personal.

I think the most characteristic influence when it comes to my compositional approach as a performer is that I’m constantly occupied with the performer while composing – somehow automatically leading to effects of motion and breath. I guess one could say that I compose “through” the performer most of the time. However, the same applies to my compositions as performing, writing for others vs. myself is something quite different – primarily I try to be more clear when it comes to writing for others, I take more time to considerate every little detail. When I compose for myself, I don’t spend too much time on expressing details, i.e. via notation, since I already know what I want. Hence, I’m not sure if the music I write for myself is on a sufficient format for others to perform.

AHN: We first came into contact at Nordic Music Days in 2017, where we played Suzuki Baleno, a work with a strong autobiographical inspiration. Do many of your works take events and/or memories as starting points?

BG: Actually, I think Suzuki Baleno is my only piece that is built on a truly autobiographical experience. Mostly, I build my pieces on ideas about space, mass and layers. I always try to find every possible aspect of an idea/word/event and try to place all of those aspects into an overall unity, that becomes a musical piece.

AHN: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what’s next?

BG: I’m working on a piece for solo saxophone, string quintet and three percussionists, commissioned by my friend Anja Nedremo, a Norwegian superhuman and outstanding saxophonist. The piece is called Yung Leo, and is built on young love, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, young Leonardo DiCaprio, lions, the zodiac sign Leo, thugs, Yung Lean, milestones and more.

AHN: We certainly look forward to hearing that, and to seeing you in Iceland!

BG: Thanks so much for the questions, can’t wait to work with you very soon!

A few moments with Patricia Alessandrini

Next Tuesday, 8 May, we will give the first of two concerts at Goldsmiths College, London, this spring (the second is on 14 June). These have been arranged with Goldsmiths’ Lecturer in Sonic Arts, Patricia Alessandrini, whose music will feature in each concert. In June we will play her string quartet De profundis clamavi [hommage à Alban Berg]; next week sees us play her Hommage à Purcell for bass clarinet, piano, violin and cello.

Patricia took time out from her schedule of teaching and composing to talk to Tim Rutherford-Johnson about marionettes, abandoned oil tankers, and the complicated backstory to Hommage à Purcell.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: I wonder if you could say something about the role of Purcell’s music in your piece, and what Purcell means to you personally.

Patricia Alessandrini: I consider all of my works to be ‘readings’ of existing works: taking the idea that all music is informed by what came before it as a starting point, I focus directly on the past and ‘re-interpreting’ it. In this case, I chose the processional march from Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary to ‘interpret’ compositionally, through instruments with live electronics.

One aspect of the music of Purcell that interests me particularly is its phrasing. When one thinks about the means that are available to composers – like myself – who do not use melody or harmony in conventional, historical, or functional ways, phrasing is a musical parameter with great expressive potential; it is arguably not, however, the subject of a great deal of attention in contemporary music, or frequently used to describe it. My interest in phrasing relates to the question of the expressive qualities of music as compared to the semantic and expressive qualities of language.

TRJ: When it comes to those pre-existing scores, how do you choose one that you would like to engage with?

PA: Often there is a particular history of a piece which interests me, and this is the case for Hommage à Purcell. In performing research for another project, I came across a play entitled The Libertine by Thomas Shadwell, and found out that Purcell had composed music for it, including the processional later used in Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary that was more recently popularized through the arrangement by Wendy Carlos that accompanies the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.

Shadwell’s play is a macabre, violent, absurdly over-the-top version of the Don Juan story, intended to ridicule the figure of the libertine. My interest in this music was peaked by the fact that Purcell had employed the same composition in two vastly different situations. But beyond that, there is the fact that Kubrick – most likely, unknowingly – re-situated the music in a function similar to its original context, from an extremely violent piece of theatre with macabre humour, to a similarly violent and macabre film. If Kubrick didn’t necessarily associate the music with the play (It is unlikely that he did, given its relative obscurity), then there is something in the music that led intuitively to that choice. What I am seeking in my ‘interpretation’ is where these expressive qualities lie.

TRJ: Once you’ve chosen a score, what do you do with it?

PA: I have a particular ‘analysis–transcription–re-synthesis’ process that I use in many of my works: I take multiple recordings of a given work, combine these in various ways to make a mix or ‘maquette’, and then use this material to create both the score and the electronics for the composition. Sometimes, as in Hommage à Purcell, instrumental parts derived from a transcription of the maquette are also analysed in real-time during the performance, and this spectral analysis is used to create resonant filters through which electroacoustic material derived from the maquette is filtered. Throughout the process, multiple interpretations of the same materials are situated in parallel to one another, to bring out the expressive properties that may lie in the differences and points of convergence between them.

TRJ: Your ongoing Orpheus Machines project does something similar with early musical instruments – using technology to dissect and then augment them. Can you give an example of how this works? I see that you have worked with our harpsichordist Goska Isphording, for example.

PA: The Orpheus Machines project started in 2014, when I was invited to the Waverly Studios of NYU, along with my Goldsmiths colleague Freida Abtan, to create ‘machines’ to transform their collection of period keyboard instruments, including a harpsichord, into electronic instruments. Then in 2015, Riot Ensemble sent us both to Holland to collaborate with Goska in adapting the work for harpsichord. Since then, I have been working on other forms of automata for instruments, including a ‘piano machine’ commissioned by Explore Ensemble for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. (You can read more about that here.)

TRJ: Despite all this, you have described your relationship to the concert-music repertoire as ‘tenuous’ … What does the past mean for you, and why do you seek to address it in your music?

PA: I think this may be fairly obvious, but as a woman, I don’t really ‘see’ myself in the concert music repertoire very often, and it took a long time for me to consider myself a composer, even once I was already composing. Of course, the commitments made over the past year to work towards achieving gender balance in programming are a positive step, but the field remains vastly male-dominated: almost all of the decision-making about my work – in terms of commissioning, programming, research funding, production aspects, even about teaching and lecturing – is made by men. This is an issue that came up in the panel discussion on Gender in New Music at HCMF 2017 (which should be available online soon, by the way), coupled with the lack of transparency of these processes. So while I am grateful for the opportunities I have and the recognition my work receives, I can’t say in all honesty that I feel assured of my place in this field.

I have a project coming up next year with Ensemble Argento, based on the music of Mahler, and we decided that the first instalment of it will be a song cycle ‘interpreting’ the music of Alma Mahler. But there is nothing uplifting about this: it will be as much an interpretation of what she didn’t write, as what she did, because that was the reality of her situation.

TRJ: Finally, 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?

PA: I have composed some multimedia music-theatre works in the past few years, and I am working on a mono-drama now, so I suppose the next step would be a full opera, which is something I have wanted to compose for some time. Another interesting project could be a piece for orchestra and automata. And I am absolutely crazy about marionettes: I suppose among these possibilities, that would be my dream project: a marionette opera. As for where, it is hard to say, there are so many places I like to work, I would hesitate to choose one over another, and I especially enjoy discovering new audiences. I make installation work as well, and I have always wanted to do something in a resonant space that is on the water – so I would love to make something in an old abandoned oil tanker, if anyone would let me…

A few moments with Molly Joyce

Our first concert of 2018 is already almost here! On Friday 12 January we perform Elliott Carter’s legendary Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano at LSO St Luke’s, with Riot members Goska Isphording and Adam Swayne in the challenging solo roles.
This will not be the only highlight of the evening, however: the concert is completed with  works by two younger American composers, Molly Joyce and Pierce Gradone. Over the Christmas holidays Tim Rutherford-Johnson spoke to Molly about her Push and Pull, a new commission from our 2017 Call for Scores, and her work in general.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How did you start composing? Was there a particular moment, piece or person that inspired you to begin?
Molly Joyce: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, to a non-artistic but very supportive family. Musically speaking, I initially started on the violin. However, at the age of seven I was involved in a serious car accident after which my left hand was nearly amputated. After the accident, with the incredible support of my elementary music teacher, physical therapist, and mother, I was able to figure out a way of playing the cello instead –  backwards, so fingering with the right hand and bowing with the left hand (with a splint on the bow). I was always involved with music from then, also playing trumpet (including the ever-fascinating marching band) and occasionally singing in choir. However, once I was in high school I had access to computer notation software. Looking back I think what attracted me to composing at first was that there was no immediate physical limitation, and thus I felt that I could let my imagination run free. It also helped that the notation software all seemed like a big video game to me!
TR-J: What most recently has made a big impact on you?

MJ: While I feel like my answer to this changes every day, I think what has had the greatest impact on me in the past year or so has been meeting the singer, advocate, and entrepreneur Carla Canales. I have been very fortunate to get to know her as a close friend, mentor, and collaborator, and learning from and working with her has truly helped me reimagine my practice and career as one that not only strives for artistic truth and authenticity, but also social impact and awareness. Among her many activities, she is the founder and CEO of The Canales Project, a non-profit founded to create connections through culture, which I feel provides a very conscious and organic platform for artists to address social issues.

Additionally, she has really been the first collaborator to encourage me to sing in my work, which at first was a very scary step but now has truly been life-changing for my practice and output.

TR-J: How did Push and Pull come about? And what surprised you most when you were composing it?

MJ: Lately in many of my instrumental pieces I have been trying to confront my musical ‘guilty pleasures’ head on. These pleasures range from lots of reverb and constant rhythmic pulse, to wanting to quote every Florence + The Machine song …. With my work for Riot Ensemble, I wanted to wrestle with my love of downbeats, and to try to explore what would happen if the downbeat shifts from super obvious to super subtle, and then perhaps even inaudible at the end, allowing for a ‘pushing and pulling’ of it overall.

I think what surprised me most when composing it was how nervous I was and still am about the orchestration of it. I always feel incredibly insecure about orchestration, specifically because it’s so hard for me to tell how exactly it will sound; and once I do hear the music live it can sometimes be too late to make any major changes.

 TR-J: What is your composing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space and/or particular time of day to write, for example?

MJ: My composing routine generally follows the motto ‘anywhere and everywhere … with a coffee – light Starbucks frappuccino if possible.’I almost always compose directly onto my computer, and if possible with my toy organ by my side. When I’m not travelling I generally try to compose in the morning, as I feel that’s when I’m most focused and it’s overall a great way to start my day. When I am travelling I will compose anywhere – on the plane, in the train, and so on. My favourite practice is to find a Starbucks to camp out at (preferable seat near an outlet with nice window view) and binge on light frappuccinos.

TR-J: I’m detecting a frappuccino-based theme! So what’s next on your agenda?
MJ: My next major project is my debut solo album, which will feature my own voice with what is perhaps my favourite instrument, my electric vintage toy organ. Bought on eBay about five years ago, this instrument has quickly become a primary focus in my work, not only because of the unique sound and tuning that it produces, but because it physically fits my body as a performer well due to my physically-impaired left hand.
Thus with the organ and the music I compose for it, I aim to engage and challenge my impairment, an act which I hope will allow for a true ‘breaking and entering’ of my body to a realm beyond ability in and of itself. The album is not concerned with the functional or dysfunctional, but rather all the in-betweens and multitudes of possibilities that emerge from such a source.
TR-J: Finally, 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?

MJ: Along the lines of the previous question: right now my fantasy piece would at least involve myself singing and performing on the organ, most likely in a very resonant church or similar venue as I very much love reverb. I would also envision this as perhaps a collaboration with a lighting and/or projection designer, to add to the theatrics of the work and performance space.

And for the encore a huge dance party would immediately follow.
TR-J: Good times! I’m fascinated too to hear what comes out of your explorations of physical impairment. Thank you for your time, Molly, and we look forward to giving the first performance of Push and Pull.

A few moments with Pierce Gradone

Our first concert of 2018 is already almost here! On Friday 12 January we perform Elliott Carter’s legendary Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano at LSO St Luke’s, with Riot members Goska Isphording and Adam Swayne in the challenging solo roles.
This will not be the only highlight of the evening, however: the concert is completed with  works by two younger American composers, Molly Joyce and Pierce Gradone. Over the Christmas holidays Tim Rutherford-Johnson spoke to Pierce about his To Paint Their Madness, which will receive its UK premiere, and his work in general.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How did you start composing? Was there a particular moment, piece or person that inspired you to begin writing music?
Pierce Gradone: I started music as a bassist, mostly playing in church and in bluegrass and rock bands in the rural Appalachia region in the US. My composing, or at least some version of it, began when I was around nine years old. I heard Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets‘ on the radio, and since I had no money to buy a record, I tried to recreate it on my family’s upright piano. Having figured the song out, I began to realize that I could manipulate the chords and rhythms to my liking, thus beginning a brief tenure writing pop tunes at the piano. As I grew older, I began to listen to more and more classical music, but it was mostly limited to that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This changed when I was about 18. I spotted an album with an intriguing cover and a name I’d only vaguely heard before: Béla Bartók. It was Edith Farnadi and Hermann Scherchen’s recording of the Second Piano Concerto, and I’ll never forget the moment I heard that opening movement, as two things occurred to me: first, I was ecstatic to discover that music like this existed at all; second, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. That’s when I began to seriously explore contemporary music and composition.
TR-J: What most recently has made a big impact on you?
PG: At a recent festival, I was introduced to the music of Hanna Eimermacher, a composer living and working in Berlin. Her works are intensely theatrical and ritualistic, but somehow manage to marry a striking sense of mise-en-scène with an equally compelling sound world. For me, her music reaffirmed the importance of performance and performing bodies, especially in a musical economy so heavily weighted toward creating the perfect aural document. I would particularly recommend Luftpost and In Vivo.
TR-J: How did To Paint Their Madness come about? And what surprised you most when you were composing it?
PG: To Paint Their Madness was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University for Ensemble Dal Niente, a group I had worked with in the past, and whose members had become colleagues and friends. In short, I wanted the piece to be about the people playing it, so I decided to thematize the experience of performance in the piece itself. The title is taken from a passage of Denis Diderot’s Le Paradoxe sur la comedien, in which he argues that the greatest actors feel no true emotion on the stage, but instead create a reproducible copy. Thus, I thematize this sense of artifice through musical pantomime, in which players looks like they should be creating sound, but are in fact making none whatsoever, creating a kind of paradox within the performance, These moments recur throughout the piece, but culminate in the final measures, where the entire ensemble has taken to pantomiming musical gestures, but creating only a shadow of sound.
I think I was most surprised by how quickly I was able to write it – about one month!
TR-J: What is your composing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space and/or particular time of day to write, for example?
PG: My routine often varies, with the one constant being coffee and interruptions to walk my dog. I usually sketch on paper or by recording myself playing the piano or bass, and vocalizing figures and sounds that don’t translate well to traditional notation. I then do a kind of rough analysis of my material, trying to find new connections between seemingly disparate ideas. After that, I usually compose and engrave at the same time. Since my composing process involves a lot of revision, I find that I waste less paper and time by simply working directly into Finale and avoiding the playback button at all costs. I often have to get started in the morning, and ideally work for about 6-8 hours when I’m not teaching. I often work in my home office, with my beagle-basset hound, Marlon, sitting beside me and providing a nice accompaniment of howling at passing police sirens. What I like about the space is the sense of organization and purpose that comes with sitting at a desk to work, especially if it’s a nice day and the windows are open. Some composers may hate this, but I love being surrounded by the sounds of an urban environment (Chicago, where I live), so much so that I’ve actually created harmonies in my pieces based on a pitch I happened to hear outside.
TR-J: What’s coming up next for you?
PG: I’m currently writing a concerto for trombone and ensemble for my dear friend Steve Parker (based in Texas) and Ensemble Dal Niente. Farther on the horizon are pieces for saxophone/electronics, orchestra, and viola, flute and harp trio.
TR-J: Finally, 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?
PG: My dream project would be an operatic adaptation of China Mieville’s Embassytown, a fantastic novel that deals with linguistics, colonialism, and the nature of truth. A unique quality of several characters in Mieville’s novel would require that some parts be sung by two singers simultaneously, creating a really fascinating musical premise. I imagine it would be for chamber orchestra, with a much larger cast of singers and some electronic components as well. It’d be premiered at any opera house willing to spend a fortune on costumes!
TR-J: Sounds fantastic! Let’s hope we have a chance to see it happen one day … Thanks Pierce, and we look forward to playing To Paint Their Madness later this week.

A few moments with Mirela Ivičević

On Saturday, we will be at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, giving the world premiere of Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy by the Croatian composer Mirela Ivičević, one of our 2017 call for scores commissions. (Also on the programme: another call for scores commission by Sylvain Marty.) This week Mirela took some time out of her busy travelling schedule to answer a few questions from us about her work.

Mirela Ivečivić

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Mirela – thank you for speaking to us! Your piece Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy has a really intriguing title that raises a lot of questions. To start us off, can you tell us what it means?

Mirela Ivičević: Thank you! The piece follows the contours of the Magnum Opus, the alchemical process of working with starting material to create the so-called philosopher’s stone, which according to Carl Jung corresponds to the transformative process of the psyche.

Originally, the Magnum Opus had four main stages: nigredo or blackening, a phase of chaos, shadow, of ‘massa confusa’; albedo or whitening, washing away of impurities; citrinitas or yellowing, ‘transmutation of silver into gold’, or symbolically, accumulation of wisdom based on previous experience; and finally rubedo or reddening, the wholeness, the phase in which the material (or a person) achieves their maximum potential. I believe these stages will be pretty identifiable in the piece.

It’s a ‘baby’ because it’s only about eight minutes long and because it is my first ensemble piece exploiting this concept consciously.

And the Lilith archetype is always around my pieces as a hidden narrative. Her seemingly frightening and uncompromising character and undisputable power comes closest to the energy of those strong women creators I am happy to see more and more in field of composition nowadays. In this piece Lilith is a baby, playing somewhat carelessly yet curiously with raw material to make sonic magic.

TR-J: Previous pieces of yours have confronted big themes. Sometimes in quite an ironic fashion, as in your musical heritage in Phantom no. 3 and the problem of CVs and musical biographies in Orgy of References. In others, you address more serious issues of diversity, co-existence and violent oppression. Can we expect anything similar in Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy?

MI: Actually, Baby Magnify is one of a few pieces of mine whose direct background is of a non-political, ‘timeless’ nature. The way the composition is structured on a macro and even more on micro level I think still shows my ongoing fascination with trying to find a way for diversities to creatively coexist in a shared space. This is always a conscious, politically inspired choice, although it is probably rooted in my subconsciousness as well, being raised a multicultural family in a multicultural patchwork country. It also simply feels right.

TR-J: You were born in Croatia but now you live in Vienna. When did you move to Austria, and what encouraged you to move?

MI: I live kind of nomadically at the moment, mostly between my hometown of Split, Zagreb and Vienna, which I guess is not unusual for a musician nowadays. I moved to Vienna originally because I wanted to broaden my knowledge in electroacoustics as well as in composing for various media, as well as simply to move and experience the world from another point of view. It’s something which I’d recommend to any artist, there’s nothing more crucial and more rewarding then setting yourself into unknown, physically or metaphorically.

Vienna is an inspiring place and still one of the most artists-friendly cities in Europe. And it’s also reasonably close to the Mediterranean, without whom I wouldn’t want to live!

TR-J: In your biography you mention that your music makes use of the ‘side-products of media-dominated reality’. Can you explain what you mean by this? Will we hear any of these elements in your Riot commission?

MI: It means that rather then escaping the everyday sounds I get exposed to through various media, I use them as my starting material. I said ‘side-products’ as a polite alternative to trash. They are not always trash: some I find valuable as they are, but often I also use sounds I don’t value or whose original context or source affects me negatively. Sometimes I work deliberately with the sounds and their respective contexts, and such pieces are more theatrical. Sometimes though, as in case of Riot commission where I used, among other things, various human breathing gestures, I exploit them more hermetically: they are just a source of basic material from which to create something contextually independent.

TR-J: Your music is full of exciting and original sounds. How do you discover them? Do you experiment with the instruments, talk to players, or collect them from other pieces you’ve heard?

MI: I enjoy getting my hands ‘dirty’, so I have a bunch of different instruments I bought cheap on the flea-market. It is also a huge advantage that I’m a part of Black Page Orchestra, with absolutely amazing, adventurous musician friends with whom to discuss any idea I might have.

Ideally, I love writing not for mere instruments, but for musicians’ personalities. Working closely with a fellow musician, getting to know their character, preferences and even hidden talents opens so many additional possibilities, makes me more adventurous in terms of trying out new things and usually produces my best works.

But then again, sometimes it happens that you compose for people you haven’t yet met, and they sweep you off your feet with the magic they do with your score. Like a soulmate you first meet on Facebook.

TR-J: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what is next on your agenda?

MI: I’m currently working on an electronic solo set for a November festival of experimental music Sine Linea in Greta Gallery in Zagreb, a new piece for piano, electronics and video for pianist Alfredo Ovalles, and a theatre piece for children commissioned by the Jeunesse Austria to be premiered at the Mozarthaus in Vienna in April. The last one I am especially looking forward to because it approaches the youngest audience while dealing with a very sensitive, very personal and – unfortunately for a lot of kids – very current theme of exile and trying to find a place for oneself in a new, foreign land.

Another project coming up that I’m very excited about is new piece for percussion and solar panels. Friends of mine, the Croatian artists’ duo Lightune.G discovered a way to translate light into sound using solar panels – what they call luminoacoustics. I’ve already tried it out in a piece I made for them and percussionist Kaja Farszky last year, and it was an amazing experience that I can’t wait to continue. After that a new piece for Black Page Orchestra and music for Peter Tscherkassky’s experimental movie Dreamwork with Ensemble Nikel.

TR-J: Finally, 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?

MI: I love diversity, I love depths, I love noise, and I love bringing together extremes, so I guess it would be an ensemble of lots of different bass and soprano instruments, electronics, solar panels, probably also a skilful soprano/actress for some word play. And the dream venue for the premiere: definitely the abandoned submarine port from the Yugoslav era in Rogačić bay on the island Vis, one of the places I like to call home. At night, with the audience listening from boats on the sea. But of course, this is just a dreamy frame: what’s always more important is what a composer would fill this frame with.

TR-J: Sounds like a beautiful concept! Maybe one day … Until then, we look forward to playing Baby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy in Brighton. Thank you, Mirela.

A few moments with Sylvain Marty

On Saturday, we will be at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, giving the world premiere of Block Mouvementa by the French composer Sylvain Marty, one of our 2017 call for scores commissions. (Also on the programme: another call for scores commission by Mirela Ivičević.) Sylvain is currently very busy with pressing compositional deadlines, but he managed to find time to answer a few questions from us.

Photo du 60128790-08- à 16.42

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Hi Sylvain! Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. The piece you have written for us is called Block Mouvement. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind it?

Sylvain Marty: The title reveals a precise place (and moment) in the compositional architecture. This is a moment when the ‘musical flow’ is circumscribed in blocks or fragments, and when I am able to consider complex textures differently.

TR-J: Many of your pieces, including Block Mouvement, I think, use loops as a way of extending and developing your material. But your music is not in any way ‘minimalist’. Can you say a little about what you like about loops, and about how you use them?

SM: Even if it is present in several pieces, loops are not fundamental to my work (in fact they disappear quite quickly). I use them to create a sensation of the persistence of the cell, generating materials and vectors of movement. However, I love working with the ideas of groove and echo, which allow me to use repeating cells.

TR-J: Your work often uses quite ‘dry’ sounds. You have described these as having a ‘tragic’ quality. Can you explain what you mean by this description?

SM: It was a director friend who spoke of tragic sounds in some passages of my pieces. That may be true. In any case, even when I study a sound analytically – when I study its spectrum, its typology – I don’t exhaust its expressive content. Sounds, when they appear in an effective composition, are presented as irreducible entities. What we experience is their unveiling.

TR-J: Do other types of sound have emotional qualities like this for you? Can you give some examples?

SM: I don’t think there is an a priori emotional quality to a sound. It is the composer who contextualizes the sound in an organizing network and gives it expressive power.

TR-J: Both new commissions in this concert were commissioned to be performed alongside Ayre by Chaya Czernowin. Was this work in your mind at all when you were composing?

SM: Chaya Czernowin is a very great composer, and when I learnt this I was first afraid that my piece would appear weak next to Ayre. But soon I forgot this fact, I just composed as I often do: Continue my musical path. I try to do a good job while taking risks.

TR-J: Now that you’ve finished this piece for us, what is next on your agenda?

SM: It’s not yet official – I don’t know if I can say …

TR-J: Finally, 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?

SM: I would like to write for a ensemble in which all the families of instruments are present – 14 instruments seems good to me! Where? In a place where the sound of the hall is good, the audience is curious and where the academic spirit is not too heavy. There are lots of possibilities!

TR-J: Thank you very much for your time, Sylvain – we look forward to performing your piece!

Sarah Dacey’s Calliope: Song, Sexual Politics and Steam Organs

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Song recital discs are not uncommon. The nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century lieder repertoire is rich and rewarding, and there’s no lack of charismatic singers looking to make a mark. Those devoted entirely to new music are somewhat more unusual, however. And those that add humour, fantasy, and mordant characterizations to the mix are rare indeed.

Calliope, the debut solo album by Riot soprano and artistic board member Sarah Dacey is one. Bringing together 15 songs by Kerry Andrew, Bushra El-Turk, Rob Fokkens, Geoffrey Hannan, Cecilia McDowall, Duncan MacLeod, and Roger Marsh it offers not only a great primer on art song in Britain today, but also an introduction to Sarah’s playful, cabaret-inspired approach to contemporary music.

The songs themselves range in theme from Fokkens’ ‘short meditation on concern’, ‘Worry/Don’t Worry’, a light-hearted tussle between two competing pieces of advice; to El-Turk’s ‘You’d Better Learn Your Alphabet, Dear’, a stern but surreal warning from mother to child of the animal transformation she risks if she doesn’t learn her letters. Throughout the set, the music calls for a wide range of vocal colours and characterisations, as well as speech, vocal percussion, the occasional donkey bray and one domestic argument. All the songs are accompanied by pianist Belinda Jones, whose playing enhances their every strange turn. The two performers met while studying at the RAM and have worked together ever since. ‘She’s very laid back and fun to work with but also incredibly committed and meticulous’, praises Sarah.

Many of the songs were written for Sarah. ‘The first songs on the CD that I ever performed were Kerry’s Fruit Songs, which she wrote for me for my Masters performance at York’, Sarah tells me by email (she has been in France for much of the summer, singing in The Rake’s Progress at Aix-en-Provence Opera Festival). These are settings of four poems on the theme of fruit, including William Carlos Williams’ imagist text ‘This Is Just To Say’ –the one about the plums in the icebox. ‘We’d not yet started Juice with Anna [Snow] but clearly our love of fruit was already in existence!’

The rest of the disc offers a series of serendipitous encounters. Marsh was Dacey’s lecturer at York. Fokkens she met through an SPNM project. He later wrote his song for her to perform at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival and it was he who introduced her to Hannan and El-Turk. MacLeod she met whilst working at Junior Trinity. McDowall she had been an admirer of for many years.

‘Her chipmunk song I think is my favourite on the whole album’, she enthuses. ‘It’s just so funny. This furious ball of fluff ranting and spitting his anger at having lost all his beloved nuts.’ Discovering McDowall’s songs was an exciting moment. ‘I love the fact that she’s so well known for setting sacred texts and that these songs are such an incredible contrast to her more “traditional” compositional output.’

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A playful overturning of expectations runs throughout the album. Even the title is double-edged. Calliope – the ‘beautiful-voiced’ – was one of the Greek muses, whose song defeated the daughters of Pierus, King of Thessaly. But a ‘calliope’ is also a nineteenth-century steam organ, found at circuses and other outdoor entertainments. ‘I love that a perfect and beautiful muse of song shares a name with such a ramshackle, discordant (and probably filthy and dirt-filled) instrument’, says Sarah. The juxtaposition sums up the album: lyricism and fun sit alongside grime and grit. Hannan’s setting of a schizophrenic’s explanation of why people believe in God could be harrowing, if not for the patient’s comic image of hanging from a balloon, ‘little legs sticking out through the clouds’. On the other side of the coin, McDowall’s chipmunk comes from words by the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, imprisoned in 1983 aged 29 for expressing ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’; the bear who has stolen his nuts and so enraged him is a metaphor for the Soviet regime.

Calliope-organ

Calliope the muse had her dark side too. Having beaten Pierus’s daughters in their sing-off she goes a bit Simon Cowell: to punish them for their arrogance she turns them all into magpies. A dark femininity runs through the album, exemplified in the two songs that frame the disc: Marsh’s haunting ‘Black Hair’, in which an long-absent husband returns to his apparently loving and patient wife (but she has been made to wait too long …); and MacLeod’s ‘Definition’, a raunchy yet hysterical story of a fiery relationship as it runs out of heat. They may have very different sources – in nineteenth-century Japanese ghost stories and contemporary British poetry – but both frankly engage with the consequences of intense love. And the untold part of any love story is that those consequences will land on the woman.

‘Politically and socially I’ve always been very outspoken in my beliefs’, says Sarah when I ask her about this side of her selections. ‘I don’t consider myself a socialist but I’m very left leaning. I’m also a feminist. I especially enjoy singing songs that subvert the normal expectations of what classical singers should be singing about. So many songs gloss over issues of sexism and female subserviance, or kowtow to them because of when they were written.’

riot_sdBecause it is so direct, flexible, and unembellished, song – like stand-up comedy – is an ideal medium for challenging received wisdoms. Popular music has known this for decades, from Woodie Guthrie to Beyoncé. Contemporary art song composers recognize it too; beyond Sarah’s recording, my mind turns to the American singer-composer Corey Dargel, or the songs of David Del Tredici. But contemporary song itself isn’t an easy fit within the new music eco-system. It’s not that the form is overlooked by composers, Sarah says. It’s that the opportunities for performers have greatly diminished. Venues in London, for example, are just too expensive. And with only two performers – a singer and a pianist – the chances of drawing a large enough audience to cover costs are small. ‘In the past, composers used to have other places in which to premiere their songs – music clubs, music parties, soirées’, Sarah tells me. She dreams of running a regular song night on the model of Pauline Viardot’s Parisian salons. ‘But I’ve yet to find a venue. I think my flat is probably too small’, she jokes.

The initial impetus for the album came after a lecturer friend complained that their students were never guided towards contemporary vocal repertoire. Although required to perform something written since 1945 in their final recital, when those students asked one teacher what repertoire there was, the reply was simply, ‘There isn’t anything.’ Fired up, Sarah immediately wrote a list of counter-examples to hand out to students, and then kept going. ‘Adding to the list became rather an obsession’, she admits. Mindful that university libraries would rarely invest in contemporary vocal scores in spite of her efforts, she realized that the only way to spread the word about these works would be to record them.

Still, Calliope is much more than a repertoire sampler. It’s also a bold statement on behalf of British contemporary art song; and a wonderfully fun, sexy, provocative record to boot. ‘I want to defy people’s expectations of contemporary music’, Sarah concludes. ‘I’m not in this business to bore people – where’s the fun in that!?’

Exploring Norway’s fringe music scene at Only Connect

Hello, Tim here, Riot’s resident writer. Last month I travelled to Oslo for the annual Only Connect Festival of Sound and I’d like to tell you about it!

Only Connect is organised by Norway’s principal organisation for new music, nyMusikk and curated by the indefatigable Anne Hilde Neset. In fact, nyMusikk supports two such festivals – the other is Ultima, held in September. I’ve been fortunate to have been a guest of both in the last year, and so had plenty of opportunity to sample Norway’s generous hospitality, and marvel at the level of funding and support even the fringiest of new music activities can receive there.

One doesn’t want to get too misty-eyed – after all, a large percentage of Norway’s prosperity and social democratic largesse is based on the exploitation of offshore gas and oil fields. Yet it’s telling that at least two banks in Oslo have been converted into arts venues. (Try to imagine the same happening in London. No, me neither.) The National Museum of Contemporary Art is in one, although that’s moving to new premises soon and the exhibitions currently on show are among the last in its present location. Sentralen, which is a couple of blocks away from the Contemporary Art Museum and which opened last year, is another. It is now a multi-purpose performance arts space, meeting place, restaurant and bar, and chief venue for both Only Connect and Ultima.

In fact an enjambment of two buildings, joined by a narrow, four-storey atrium and a network of Hogwarts-esque staircases, Sentralen’s best feature is its grand marble hall (Marmorsalen), in which larger concerts are presented. Hearing in this most refined and establishment of spaces Julius Eastman’s ferociously counter-cultural Evil Nigger – in a barnstorming three-piano rendition by Heloisa Amaral, Elisa Medinilla and Frederik Croene – was a heart-stopping experience I won’t forget in a long time.

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Harry Potter stairs. Photo by the author.

Indeed, the relationship between money and music was an unintended thread through my experience of Only Connect. One can argue, for example, whether a well-funded contemporary arts community promotes risk or complacency. And cases can be made on either side of that argument, even by Norwegians themselves. Yet I detect within Norwegian new music, and particularly among its younger proponents, a real sense of mischief. Not born of the profound political dissatisfaction that Eastman was forced to bear, but nevertheless coming from a discomfort with the way things are. Ultima’s artistic director, the composer Lars Petter Hagen, is a chief agitator – among his most notorious works is To Zeitblom, a folkloristic concerto for Norway’s national instrument, the Hardanger fiddle, that undermines itself through the insertion of a comically mistranslated recitation of passages from Theodor Adorno’s 1954 article ‘The Aging of the New Music’. Trond Reinholdtsen also enjoys a good prank, and is probably Norway’s chief exponent of musical conceptualism. At Ultima last year I saw his sort-of piano concerto more-like reality TV gone wrong Theory of the Subject, which featured the soloist still rehearsing backstage while the orchestra ploughed on, being usurped by a Nancarrow-esque player piano and finally retreating to a sanctuary beneath the piano itself, with subplots of messianic cults and demonic renditions of the 20th century’s piano repertory along the way.

The cheekiest offering at Only Connect was undoubtedly Øyvind Torvund’s The Exotica Album, performed by Bergen’s BIT20 Ensemble, saxophonist Kjetil Møster and analogue synth player Jørgen Trœen. (BIT20, by the way, are now directed by an expat Brit, the composer and artist Alwynne Pritchard, who was herself director of Bergen’s Borealis Festival for several years.) Two stages were set out – one for BIT20’s fifteen or so players, the other for Møster and Trœen. For the most part, the latter duo improvised (in a more or less organised fashion) noisy bleeps and skronks. BIT20, meanwhile, recreated the cheesy listening lounge atmosphere of a Les Baxter or Martin Denny record – bongos, maracas, vibes, sleazy flute lines and all. Billed as ‘two concerts at the same time’ it didn’t quite fulfill that promise – the phrases between the two groups were too interwoven for that – but the collision of two dramatically distinct soundworlds, neither of them familiar territory for a contemporary classical setting, revealed Torvund’s exciting disregard for genre conventions and wry skill at bringing alien elements into a traditional context.

BIT20, Kjetil Møster and Jørgen Trœen. Photo by Anne Valeur.

The other Norwegian works on show – the festival’s middle day celebrated the 100th Norwegian Society of Composers – were more conventional, perhaps with the exception of Mistérios de Corpo by composer and asamisimasa clarinettist Kristine Tjøgersen, a live soundtrack for string quartet synchronised with and overwriting the video of the same name by 70-something Brazilian jazz musician Hermeto Pascoal in which he plays his naked torso as a percussion set. Nevertheless, Håkon Thelin managed to incorporate a traditional willow flute player and a cabaret atmosphere into his double bass concerto The Ark, and even Jon Øivind Ness’s Meditasjonar over Georges de la Tour nr. XVII, a relatively modest piece for mezzo-soprano and piano, folded an enigmatically dogged piano part (the two hands played in rhythmic unison almost throughout) beneath an exuberant vocal line, sung on this occasion by Elisabeth Holmertz.

This was Neset’s sixth and final Only Connect festival as nyMusikk’s Artistic Director. Her personal warmth and artistic curiosity have undoubtedly done much to bring out Norway’s weirder side. Who can say what may come next – the Nordic Music Days in London this September, which will feature the Riot Ensemble, may offer some more clues – but Norwegian audiences certainly seem to have acquired a taste for the strange. I would bet on something unexpected.

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 …

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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!