Couch to Sequenza XII: An interview with Ruth Rosales

The great Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925–2003) wrote thirteen Sequenzas for solo instruments, from voice to accordion (fourteen if you count his arrangement of the clarinet’s Sequenza IX for alto saxophone). They are among the pinnacles of the repertory for solo musicians – contemporary equivalents to Bach’s cello suites, or Liszt’s piano études. They also happen to match pretty closely the make-up of our artistic board (although no Sequenza for solo writer, alas). What better project for Riot, then, to record new versions of as many of them as we can?

Well, of course, we’re going one further than that. Over a few days in August we will be working with Four/Ten Media to film nearly all fourteen Sequenzas, as well as a few other pieces for members of our artistic board for whom Berio didn’t plan.

One of the newest members of our board, bassoonist Ruth Rosales, is in at the deep end with the legendarily difficult Sequenza XII, twenty minutes of non-stop circular breathing, flutter-tonguing, ‘Berio trills’, glissandi and other distinctly unusual bassoon techniques. I spoke to her at the end of April 2019 about how her preparations – by this stage she had been working on the piece for around nine months …

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: This is supposed to be the hardest of the Sequenzas

Ruth Rosales: This is what people say, which fills me with absolute fear! It’s definitely the longest and you’re meant to circular breathe for twenty minutes. I think I’ve got to five minutes of the total so far but usually I go wrong at that point so … Circular breathing [a way of breathing out continuously, by blowing out from your cheeks while you breathe in through your nose] is something I’d never tried before, and I am finding it really tricky.

TR-J: Is it a stamina thing?

RR: Initially it was just keeping the airflow going. There would always be this break in the sound – at first there was a huge break, and then it was getting smaller as I was used to blowing the air out of my cheeks and then going back to blowing air out of my lungs. Then that got smaller and smaller – which I was delighted with because I wasn’t sure if that was ever going to happen – and now I’ve got a consistent sound, which I’m just relieved has happened. My current problem is that forcing the air out of your cheeks makes the pitch go up a little bit, I suppose because the airflow gets faster, and I feel like I don’t have as much control over that.

The thing I found really interesting when I was learning to circular breathe was that you have to breathe all the excess air out as well. You have to blow the air out of your cheeks and get rid of all the air that you have in your lungs so that you get fresh breaths, otherwise you start to hyperventilate and you just get the top of your lungs filling up.

Something I’m finding really tricky is the flutter-tonguing. I have to make sure I’ve cleared my lungs and taken a few fresh breaths so I’ve got enough power to get through five crotchets-worth of flutter-tonguing.

TR-J: When you were learning did you go straight onto the instrument? People do all these exercises with straws in drinks and so on…

RR: Yeah, I went round to Philip [Haworth]’s house and spent a couple of hours in hysterics trying to learn. We started with just a reed, and then a crook as well. It was a bit ridiculous because you’re having to maintain this sound that is hilariously awful, like a ship coming in, honking away!

After that I just did it against my hand, breathing out and feeling the air continuously on my hand. That was a useful way to feel how that was working. But putting a reed in your mouth – obviously then you’ve got an embouchure that you need to maintain, and the airflow is so different. It took me absolutely ages, and hopefully by August I’m going to be fabulous!

The Sequenza is incredibly far from finished, and it’s insane how much work has gone into it for it to sound as unfinished as it does. But what is cool is … something like circular breathing you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, you can’t do it, you can nearly do it, and then all of a sudden you can do it. And it’s an incredible sense of achievement, even if it’s not great – I can do something that I couldn’t do before. That’s been really amazing.

My sister ran the London Marathon yesterday, and it involved a lot of training and she got to the end and she’s a dream woman. This is my marathon! I’ve got so much more training to do, and I need a running coach and I need lessons, but then it’s going to be my marathon day on 26 August. That’s how I feel about it.

TR-J: Is this the hardest thing you’ve ever done, physically?

RR: With regards to bassoon playing, yes. Maintaining the embouchure through flutter-tonguing, circular breathing and everything like that – I didn’t realise that every breath you take gives you a little break on your embouchure, but in this piece you’re having to keep it, keep it, keep it whilst you’re changing air pressure and your tongue and all these things, and you’re having to maintain this strength. That’s definitely a challenge for my lips.

I also used to be asthmatic, and I have this thing where I panic and I stop breathing. Like if I’m doing a sporting event that I think I’m not going to be able to complete I start breathing at the top of my breath – and I started having that feeling with the circular breathing. Which again is why I needed to learn to breathe out as well. It’s going to be a bit of a mental game.

TR-J: As well as the breathing, the rest of the music is not exactly straightforward. How are you putting it together – the stamina, the circular breathing, the fingering?

RR: The really cool thing, which is something that a friend said to me, is that once you’ve got the first page down, the rest of it links on. You’ve learnt that first bit and it links to the other bits. So that’s a relief!

TR-J: In the face of all that, are you enjoying it?

RR: If I’m honest, while I was learning to circular breathe, no. Because I was panicked. I was really aware that I could not even do the breathing, let alone play the notes. But about 10 days ago I started to really enjoy it, and I felt there was a strong possibility that I will be able to do this. I feel like I’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do, but I feel like this is something I can do. And it’s so cool to be learning something so different and so difficult. To be learning so many new techniques at the age of 33 – that’s amazing. I wonder how I’ll sound in August when it’s the month, whether I’ll sound as positive!

Also I’ve decided that in order to circular breathe you need to be fit, so I need to get on it with my running and my swimming and all of my exercise. And I’m not allowed to get ill because you need to have a clear nasal passage! This is going to be an ordeal if I’ve got a cold – I have to be well.

TR-J: Stock up on the Sudafed.

RR: Or have someone come in with a conductor’s baton with a tissue on the end to wipe my nose.

TR-J: At least your marathon is over in 20 minutes, there is that …

RR: Hopefully – unless I have to do it over and over to get it right! I’ve got a three-hour slot, so it could be a three-hour marathon!

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!

A few moments with Evan Johnson

EvanJohnson_1The music of American composer Evan Johnson has been described as “conjuring a Beckett-like eloquence from stammers and silences” (Ivan Hewitt, The Telegraph).  He’s a truly international composer, with works performed regularly by ensembles such as MusikFabrik, Elision, and EXAUDI at festivals ranging from Darmstadt to Spitalfields to Dark Music Days in Iceland.

Even with such an array of performances, I have to admit I didn’t know anything about Evan’s music until a number of our musicians started bringing it up and clamouring for us to perform it.  As I’ve learned and listened more, I can only say I’ve come to admire Evan, his music, and his approach to music making very much.  I’m proud and excited that we’re giving the UK premiere of L’Art de toucher le clavecin, 3 this Friday, and it was great to have some time to ask Evan a few questions in advance.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Thank you for taking this time with us, Evan! This Friday (April 29th) we perform L’art de toucher le clavecin, 3, one piece in a sequence of your works related to Francois Couperin’s instructional pamphlet of the same name.  Could you tell us a bit about these pieces and how they relate to Couperin’s guide?

Evan Johnson: Yes, there’s this piece — “L’art de toucher le clavecin, 3” for piccolo with violin and percussion — and a duo for piccolo with violin, “L’art de toucher le clavecin, 2.”  There is in theory a piccolo solo called “L’art de toucher le clavecin, 1”, but it exists only as an entry on the list of projects I need to get around to one of these days.

The duo was written first, in 2009; this trio is based on the same material, expanded, elaborated upon, spread out, sometimes just with relatively empty spaces interposed.

But why Couperin?  I’ve been interested for a long time in the keyboard music of the French Baroque, as well as of more or less contemporary keyboardist-composers in other countries like Johann Jakob Froberger and Matthias Weckmann.  The interesting thing about this repertoire for me is how what we normally think of as musical material — harmonies, rhythms, melodies, sectional forms… — is often just a pretext; it’s just scaffolding. The music is actually in the ornaments, the elaborations, the glimpses of other worlds that emerge semi-spontaneously out of the cracks in the edifice of the written music. 

So I chose the title “L’art de toucher le clavecin” for these pieces as a general homage to this way of treating material—this reliance on ornament is, of course, a foundation of “the art of playing the harpsichord,” since it acts as a compensatory mechanism for the instrument’s inability to sustain. One of the things that Couperin’s pamphlet does, among explanations of symbols and suggested fingerings for scales and so forth, is propose a small theory of ornament along these lines.

My work in general, and these pieces in particular, work the same way: the basic “material” in the pitches-and-rhythms sense is quite simple, but it never really appears as such; instead, it’s continually buried under overlapping layers of elaboration, ornament, commentary and marginalia. The piccolo is the carrier of the basic melody, which itself is based on a very simple descending diatonic pattern, but already within that part it is elaborated beyond all recognition, and the two other instruments serve as further concentric refracting layers. It is, I think, a fundamentally baroque, and maybe even fundamentally “clavecinistic,” conception of what musical material is.

L'art 3 HQ

AHN: Looking at the first page of this piece, it’s quickly clear that one of the challenges for the performers on the surface of the music is the notation, which includes my purposeful ambiguities inside of very precise and detailed instructions. Is this challenge a part of the music and theatre of the piece?  Or is it just a necessary step in creating a particular sound world?

EJ: It has nothing to do with a sound world, really; a lot of things I’m trying to do as a composer are related to sound only indirectly if at all. I often say that my medium isn’t sound. The performers’ medium is sound; my medium is notation. I try to use that medium to the limit of its capabilities—not necessarily just to represent sound or sounding actions, per se, at least not in a direct and unambiguous fashion, but as a semi-opaque code that generates situations for the performers to inhabit and navigate.

That means a lot of things for me, but one thing it means is that there are a lot of ambiguities in my notation, quite intentionally; a lot of little contradictions, impossible specificities and vague symbols. Everything works, though, more or less, within the domain of a recognizably standard symbology.  These aren’t graphic scores, and they aren’t stimuli to improvisation or a more broadly spontaneous response.

I’m not sure it’s “theatre” per se because relatively little of all this makes its way to the audience.  What one hears in my work is kind of like a shadow, or an afterimage, or a watercolor reproduction of a photograph that you can’t see. This happens in a less extreme fashion in this piece than in quite a few others of mine, maybe; I’m thinking in particular of a cello solo premiered by Séverine Ballon just last week, “dozens of canons: Anaïs Faivre Haumonté,” which is an extremely detailed and intricately worked-out piece which teeters almost exclusively, in both controlled and uncontrollable fashions, between the verge of inaudibility and actual silence. But the tendency is still there in “L’art 3” as well.  This is one of several ways that experiencing my work from the audience is less like hearing and more like overhearing.

AHN: Composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in our generation’s repertoire – by sounds and noise. You say that your medium is notation and not sound, but do ‘noises’ such as these influence you and/or get incorporated into your compositional work?

EJ: No. Not even slightly, and I don’t think even subconsciously!  For me, sound is an emergent property of notation, of instrumental technique, of certain physical states of the performer and her instrument, of pitch structures, and so forth.  

In particular, there are relatively few “extended techniques” in my work, in the sense of doing things with instruments that go against their normal usage in a gross, large-scale fashion meant to elicit new and interesting sounds out of an unwilling apparatus. Technique is stretched here, certain things are pushed to their limits, but that’s usually in the service of *effacing* sound, of making things unstable and withdrawn, and they are usually quite subtle, often not necessarily noticeable to the audience as such.

I really don’t think my music has much of anything to do with the world around us; certainly not on a sonic level. It’s music about instruments, about performance, about formal and constructive thinking, about musculature and its restraint, often about historical musics (like Couperin!), and in some sense about the concert ritual, but that’s about it.  I think that’s enough.

AHN: In terms of performances, this will be the UK premiere of this piece, but you’ve had many performances of other pieces in the UK and, indeed, all over the world. Do you find different approaches to your music (and music-making in general) in different places? 

EJ: This is actually the first performance of the piece since its premiere in 2012!  

The line when I was first starting out as a more or less full-time composer, a little over a decade ago in graduate school, was that performers in the US (and in the UK, for that matter) tended to be risk-averse, resistant to challenges and unusual playing techniques, and liable to dismiss music that trafficked in them, compared to their colleagues on the Continent.  That may have been true at one point; I did have an experienced American violinist tell me once in frustration that the major-third artificial harmonic didn’t exist. 

But, as it happens, I’ve had barely any contact with “established” ensembles in the US.  And while my experiences with that generation of musicians and ensembles in Europe and elsewhere (including ensemble mosaik, who premiered this piece) has been uniformly positive.  A lot of the performers of my work have been—like your ensemble—younger, less established, but no less fiercely talented. 

I can’t speak, naturally, to what the environment “on the ground” was like for a composer of “difficult” music (in whatever modality) twenty or thirty years ago, but it seems to me that there is an extraordinary flowering going on right now of performers my age and younger who are utterly fearless, enthusiastic about trying things that don’t make sense right away, full of a totally insane energy, willing to fail, and actively looking to push boundaries and discover new territories.  I’ve found this to be true everywhere: on the Continent, in the UK, and even (!) in the US, where it seems like young soloists and groups made up of players in their twenties are popping up every other day and presenting truly groundbreaking experimental repertoire. If there were national differences in temperament or inclination, time has erased them, at least on the level of the soloist and chamber ensemble. (Orchestras may well be a different story; I don’t have any insider experience with that.) And of course, one major difference these days is that in the age of social media it doesn’t take more than a small and devoted cadre of people to form an exciting and influential community.

AHN: Well it’s our pleasure to be counted among that growing community of performers and believers in your work, Evan.  I hope this will be the first of many collaborations between us! Just before we go, tell us a bit about what other projects you’re working on at the moment?

EJ: I’m working as we speak on a couple of rather unusual solos.  One is a set of spare, tiny miniatures for tuba, which will be premiered by the Berlin-based tubist Jack Adler-McKean at the Darmstadt Summer Courses. The other, which is actually quite relevant to the “L’art de toucher” series, is for Karin Hellqvist, the original violinist of “L’art 2”.  In a 2010 studio recording, Karin played her part of “L’art 2” on a baroque bow, completely on her own initiative, to extremely nice effect. I didn’t find out about that until years later, actually, when the other performer (the flutist Richard Craig) let it slip.  I was excited to learn about this, given my musical interests; and so, when a chance arose to do a solo for her we decided immediately that it would be for a violin with gut strings and baroque bow. She’ll premiere it at the Ultima Festival in Oslo in September.  After that, a biggish piece for clarinet and string trio for your outstanding colleagues to the north, the Distractfold Ensemble

There’s also a portrait concert of my work later this year in at the great little venue Spectrum in New York, and I’ll be making my first trip to the Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik in the Austrian Alps in November for a performance by ELISION of a twenty-plus-minute piece from 2008 for two bass clarinets called Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint).

A few moments with Amy Williams

Tonight we welcome Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams (the Bugallo-Williams Duo) to London to perform a concert of virtuosic and exciting music for four-hands piano at MeWe360.


Amy Williams (left) and Helena Bugallo

In addition to being a fantastic pianist, Amy is a composer, and was one of my first composition teachers at Northwestern University.  It’s a pleasure to welcome her and Helena tonight, and Amy was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of their performance:

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Hi Amy!  We’re so excited to have you with us in London. You work internationally as a pianist and as a composer, how does your performance influence your own composition?

Amy Williams: Thanks for having me!  We’re excited to be playing in London on the Riot Ensemble series.  My performance influences my composition very directly—I think very much about the role of the performer, sometimes specifically (what would she or he want to play, what is his or her sound at the instrument), but also performative issues such as physicality and coordination. And I analyze pieces that I play very much from a composer/theorist’s perspective.  So it works both ways.


A passage from one of the Nancarrow transcriptions

AHN: Amazingly, you and Helena will be performing four transcriptions of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies. Could you tell us a little bit about how you transcribed these really complex studies?  Have they gotten any easier to perform?

AW: We first discovered one arrangement that our teacher, pianist/composer Yvar Mikhashoff, had made in the late 80s for piano four-hands (which we will play on this concert).  And so we wondered if there might be more that was humanly possible.  We worked with composer Erik Ona, who looked through the scores (yes, there are scores!) of all 50 or so Studies for Player Piano.  He determined that there were about 10 that could be arranged for piano duet, without sacrificing notes, rhythmic relationships or tempo.  He arranged 3 of these for us and then we started arranging them ourselves.  

We currently have 13 arrangements, including one for two pianos and one for two-pianos/eight-hands.  Other musicians in the future might determine there to be more—but we are pretty ecstatic to have this much of Nancarrow’s incredible music to play live for audiences.  They are always difficult to play, since they were written for a machine, but they have certainly become easier over time and many, many repetitions.   

AHN: What advice do you have for composers looking to write for piano duo?

AW: Work with the pianists as closely as you can!  Especially with four-hands, think very hard about the physicality of the medium.  A chord in the middle of the piano feels very different to play when you are sitting way up at the top of the piano.  

AHN: What’s coming up for you next?

AW: We are recording our second volume of Stravinsky’s arrangements for piano duo—this will include Petrushka and Concertino (which we will play on the concert), as well as Agon and Scherzo a la Russe.  And our CD of the complete original works for piano duo of Gyorgy Kurtag (and some transcriptions) will come out in the next few months, also on Wergo.  

AHN: We can’t wait to hear it Amy!

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).


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.


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!

A few moments with Chris Roe

Today – 20th May – is the (first) culmination of our Les Citations project.  Programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, tonight’s concert is at The Forge, and we repeat the concert tomorrow in Cambridge.  Among an array of World and UK premieres, we are very pleased to be presenting Wired, by emerging English composer Chris Roe.  


We first played Chris’ music on our Transatlantic Collaborations concert last year, with his fantastic saxophone solo Schism, and it was my pleasure to ask Chris  a few questions about Wired – and his work in general – ahead of these performances.

Aaron HN: Hello again Chris!  It’s wonderful to have you with us for the Les Citations project and thank you for your new piece, Wired.  We commissioned this work for a project including Dutilleux’ Les Citations.  Did his music effect/influence you at all as you composed your new piece?

Chris Roe: Thanks! It’s fantastic to work with the Riot Ensemble, and wonderful to get a chance to engage with Dutilleux’s music, which I was first introduced to while studying with Ken Hesketh (also featured in this programme). I think two of the most persistent influences on my composition have been from jazz and early 20th-Century French music, so I was immediately drawn to Dutilleux and I’m sure that he’s in there somewhere in this piece!  But I think the most conscious link between Wired and Les Citations is in its ritualistic, almost obsessive quality.

AHN: This isn’t the first Riot Ensemble performance of your work, as we performed Schism last year in our Transatlantic Collaborations project.  Wired is another concise title for a piece – how do you go about naming your pieces?

CR: Yes, thanks for asking me back! I usually decide on a title about half way through the writing process, and I find it always propels me forward to finish the piece. I think the title has a crystallising effect for me a this stage, and makes what can be vague ideas more concrete and ‘meaningful’ in some way.  I think the directness of a short title is therefore as useful for me in writing the piece as for the audience.  I don’t want the title to spell out everything, so I’m always drawn to words with more than one meaning; in this case Wired reflects the relentless, ‘caffeinated’ energy of the music, as well as the constant, unbroken thread which I tried to join through the whole piece.

AHN: The Harpsichord is a rather unusual instrument in contemporary music.  Certainly not unheard of, but still generally unfamiliar.  How did you go about writing for the instrument?  Do you normally have a set routine around your composing? 

CR: It was certainly unfamiliar to me, and one of the most challenging things at first was to work how it would sit with the rest of the instruments.  I think my breakthrough came when working on the piece in a practice room at one of the schools I teach at (fortunately a student hadn’t turned up so I had a half-hour window!), and there happened to be a harpsichord sitting in the corner.  It was incredibly out of tune with one key playing several strings at once, but it made me see the instrument in a different light, as more of a percussion instrument.  I also find it fascinating how there is a definite attack at the start and end of the note, and the effect this can create when writing rhythmically for the instrument.

AHN: I think it would be fair to say that your music focuses on ‘musical’ parameters (pitch/rhythm/melody/form/etc…) eschewing extra-musical things such as noises (rustling paper, key-clicks, breath sounds, etc….)  But 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?

CR: I don’t think I deliberately avoid extra-musical noise, but yes I think that’s fair to say that I often focus more on the conventional parameters of music.  However, whilst the written music on the page it may look like completely ‘notes-based’ music, without extended techniques etc., the main impetus for this piece was the harsh, rattling sound of the low harpsichord at the start (borrowed from that faulty practice room harpsichord!).  Whilst the pitches in this section are still important to me, the harmony is obscured by the low cluster chords, and we do focus more on the sound, rather than how each note leads to the next I think.

AHN: Well we’re certainly looking forward to recording and performing it over the next two days.  Just before we go, tell us, what other projects are you working on/do you have coming up in 2014?

CR: I’m currently finishing work on a large chamber piece for the London Graduate Orchestra Chamber series, premiering at the Forge next month. Then my next projects are a piece for baritone, organ and cello, and a large orchestral piece for the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra as part of the Adopt a Composer Scheme.  It’s one of my longest pieces, and I’m also incorporating electronics into the piece for the first time, so I think it’s going to be a busy summer!

A few moments with Jenna Lyle

The Riot Ensemble is gearing up for our upcoming Les Citations project, programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, with an array of premieres from around the world.  We’re hugely excited to be hosting Jenna Lyle for the premiere of her new piece, Falterer.  

Jenna is a composer, vocalist and performing artist from Carrollton, Georgia.  She’s currently pursuing a DMA at Northwestern University (my alma matter). She composes, performs, builds installations and plans concerts around Chicago.  On top of all that, she’s co-founder and co-administrator of one of the most exciting new labels around: Parlour Tapes+.


Photograph by Caleb Chancey

We first ran into Jenna’s music during a listening session with the Artistic Board.  Specifically, we heard her piece Spoonbill on soundcloud, and knew immediately that we wanted to commission her for an upcoming project.

It’s been an absolute pleasure for me to prepare this new piece by Jenna.  In particular, she worked so hard to make sure we all knew exactly what she was after by collaborating with numerous musicians in the Chicago area to produce ‘how-to’ videos for the numerous extended techniques that come up in Falterer.  You’ll find these embedded below, though I have to prefix our interview with this, an extended vocal technique – performed by Jenna herself.  I’ve been completely unable to replicate this sound, and it strikes me as some sort of dark magic.

Aaron HN: Jenna, thanks so much for traveling so far to be with us for the world premiere of your new piece Falterer.  We commissioned this work in relation to Dutilleux’ Les Citations (‘Quotations’).  Did Dutilleux’s music effect or influence you as you wrote your own work?

Jenna Lyle: Although it would be SO META to use a quotation of Les Citations, I chose instead to be loosely influenced by the piece’s sectional structure and constantly shifting timbral language.  Les Citations feels kind of Concerto Grosso-esque, alternating between moments of extremely exposed and vulnerable solo writing and dense colorful ensemble blasts.  I let that inspire me as I drew focus toward a different performer in each section, weaving in and out of highly exposed soloistic blocks and blocks with varying tutti colors and textures.

AHN: You had considered some different titles for the piece as you were composing it, could you tell us a bit about the process of ‘naming’ a piece, and what ideas eventually led you to Falterer?

JL: Haha yes, I was considering the title THUNDERTURTLES for quite some time.  I worked a lot last year with vocalist and artist Lara Oppenheimer.  Her daughter Ursula’s favorite curse word is “thunderturtles,” I’m guessing because of the rich, cathartic phonemes.  I loved the idea of writing a piece that felt as warm, yet heavy and trudging and as capable of massive release as Ursula’s preferred expletive.  The more I lived with the piece, though, the more it became about the state of being just before an expletive escapes one’s mouth (presumably in a situation where dropping F-bombs would be considered taboo) – the often ridiculous effort that goes into maintaining composure under what feels like extreme duress – and the complex sensation of blissful release/possibly guilt-ridden suspension that coincides with faltering.  Hence, Falterer was the final title.  Whether or how the faltering and/or release actually happens in the piece though…I guess you’ll just have to come to the performances and find out (See what I did there? No spoilers from this composer. I’ve seen the movie trailers. I know how these things work.).

That, plus, multiple friends assured me that THUNDERTURTLES was better employed as a child’s curse word (wonderful child and wonderful curse word though they both are) than as the title for a serious piece of conceptual art.

AHN: Falterer is a very beautiful, graphic score with many extended techniques for all the players.  Composers are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by sounds and noise.  How do these sounds influence you and get incorporated into your compositional work?

In my compositional work, sound is usually the result of a prescribed movement or type of body awareness.  In Falterer, I chose performance techniques that required a particular kind of body focus first and then refined the sound world after that.  I wanted to use inherently unstable materials that require extreme focus and slightly more work than feels intuitive to sustain (to embody the energy of composure under duress mentioned earlier).

Processed with VSCOcam with x1 preset

To isolate a few, the oboist depresses the keys for a multiphonic and underblows so that only one of the pitches sounds, the bassist performs a passage revolving around the intentional sounding of the instrument’s wolf tone, and the harpsichordist measures the pace at which she (Goska) lifts her fingers after depressing keys.  Techniques like these possess their own inherent sonic qualities, and I worked with timbral and energetic imitation as I orchestrated around them.

It also bears mentioning that the piece is intentionally relational – not that all ensemble music isn’t – in that I tried to build interpersonal dynamic layers into the piece as a form of development.  Those layers are manifested via improvisation, performer-to-performer proximity, instrument-sharing, and contrapuntal textures entirely dependent on the speed of a particular instrument’s vibrato or tone-beating.

AHN: In addition to being the world premiere of this piece, I think I’m correct in saying this will be the first UK performance of any of your work.  We live in such a globalized society, yet contemporary music is often a very local phenomenon. Could you tell us a little bit about the contemporary music scene where you live (Chicago) and what you’re looking forward to in working in England?

I feel really lucky to be a part of the new music community in Chicago.  It’s so stimulating.  Chicago as a city is such a big place that there seems to be room for everything, even though the new music scene is kind of small.  Regardless of what weird niche art form you dabble in, it’s highly likely you’ll find an audience.  I’ve felt extremely encouraged by the diverse art community in Chicago, and I’ve found myself emboldened to take risks with my work that I might not feel so safe taking were I part of a less varied scene.  New music in Chicago is also a pretty tight-knit community, and generally very supportive.  I feel like I’ve had the support of my peers and the space to ask really important questions of myself and my output, knowing that I’ll always receive some well-intentioned criticism.

Music-making is intimate.  I’ve experienced richness in my own creative process when my collaborators and I have had time to develop a trusting artistic relationship with each other.  It’s an important thing when you’re building something from the ground up, and it takes time.  Of course it’s not so difficult when you find yourself surrounded by amazing artists you see practically every weekend.  If I collaborate with someone in Chicago, I pretty much know what I’m getting into, as do they, and we’re probably friends.  I think that’s what you mean when you reference contemporary music as a “local phenomenon,” and you’re totally right, Aaron.  Local collaborations are really great in the way I’ve described, and they provide a chance to move beyond a score and into complex dynamics of experience.  But non-local collaborations where I have the opportunity to build new relationships and dive into vulnerable music-making situations are thrilling!  Scary, but thrilling.  I’ve been so honored by the trust you and Riot have afforded me with this project, and I’m excited to see how we work together.  I honestly know very little about how the scene in England FEELS, but I’ve been really inspired by a lot of the music I’ve heard by composers from London and Manchester and Huddersfield and Jonathan Harvey once patted me on the shoulder and said “that was lovely.”  Sooooo, I’m thinking it’s gonna be great.

AHN: We think so too!  We’re so pleased with your piece and excited to perform it.  I’m always interested in composers that also spend a lot of time performing.  You’re obviously an active performer as a Soprano.  How does your own performance influence your work as a composer, and visa-versa?

JL: Naturally, my ideas about performer experience are heavily influenced by my life as a performing artist.  I love the feeling when I realize that a piece I’ve been preparing (to perform) is something I’ve internalized, when I can layer my physical and emotional experience of the material into my performance (it’s just the tiniest bit indulgent).  As an improviser that happens more often, since experience and embodiment are what drive my sonic decisions.  And it isn’t simply that it’s a nice feeling – I find the concept of “response” in a performance much more compelling than “execution.”  The energy of response has the potential to build communal experience and eliminate the pretense of correctness or attractiveness as a barrier. It calls for immediacy and translates quickly to others.

So I often craft situations where performers are asked to respond, either to the experience of what they’re playing or to what they hear from other players (with more emphasis on their own perception than, say, the notated hocket section of a Madrigal).  My hope is that it brings about a very human and even “accessible” result.  By “accessible,” (that most controversial of terms), I don’t necessarily mean “pleasing to listen to,” but something along the lines of “possible to physically identify with.”  That kind of shared or recognizable physical sensation, I find, can also be the result of corporeally-focused materials–those reminiscent of sounds the body makes or sensations one experiences.  In the case of the voice, identifiable material is a given.  Everyone has a voice.  Everyone breathes.  Everyone drifts into vocal fry from time to time, intentionally or not (just listen to Noam Chomsky talk for a while).  When writing for instruments, I’ll aim to detach the instrumental sound from anything transcendent or otherworldly or pristine and find materials that either elicit or occur as the result of recognizable physical sensations (the shuddering of the breath into a wind instrument, the brittle quivering of a stick cry on a metal percussion instrument, grunting overpressure on strings, etc.).

The goal is to create a collective consciousness of body between the performers, audience, headphone-listeners, whoever – all those experiencing the piece.  And the challenge in using materials of this nature, in writing for both voice and instruments, is to employ materials that are corporeal in nature without resorting to mimesis. To generate an actual experience of something – with other people – beyond the parroting of the familiar.

AHN: Thanks for that Jenna. It’s very interesting – and will be very helpful to us as we prepare your piece!  Just as we go, tell us what other projects are you working on at the moment/in 2014?

JL: Over the past year, I have become absolutely addicted to writing music for Jesse Langen.  I know a lot of people who have the same problem.  We’re thinking of starting a group where we all talk about it together.  Before I kick the habit though, I’m writing a trio for Jesse, pianist Mabel Kwan, and soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw.  They are three of the most inspiring performers I know, and I’ve been really lucky to work with them as duos (recording Jesse and Mabel performing Alexander Hunter’s music for a Parlour Tapes+ Release and making an installation piece for Jesse and Carrie last Winter), and writing a piece for the three of them is going to be quite literally a dream-come true.  I literally had a dream about it one time.  The piece will be on a concert whose curatorial direction they have very trustingly put in my hands, and my best idea right now involves pillows on the floor and video projections on the ceiling.

I’m also currently involved in a large-scale devised work, 3 Singers, whose creative team and cast are amazing to work with (read more about them here).  3 Singers is a piece of dance, opera, theater, performance art…a little bit of ornithology here and there…  I’m one of, as the title suggests, three singers who are also dancers who are also actors who also operate sewing machines as triggers for live processing.  We’ve been generating material since July of 2013, and we’ll premiere the work in Cleveland this Fall.

Other than that, I’m writing a dissertation and a large scale voice/movement/video piece for myself, so it should be a great year!

A few moments with Jose Manuel Serrano

José Manuel Serrano - Foto colorThe Riot Ensemble is gearing up for our upcoming Les Citations project, programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, with an array of premieres from around the world.  We’re hugely excited to be hosting Argentinian composer Jose Manuel Serrano for the premiere of his new work Cenizas de un Madrigal Triste (read on for the translation).

I first met Jose in France last summer, and his music immediately struck me as incredibly powerful, concise and passionate.  It’s a pleasure to have been able to commission himand to ask him a few questions about his work in general.  As with all the composers in this project, Jose will be with us at both Les Citations concerts so look for him if you’ve got any further questions on what he says here!

Aaron HN: Jose, thanks so much for travelling so far from Argentina to be with us! We’re hugely excited to give the World Premiere of Cenizas de un madrigal triste (“Ashes of a sad madrigal”). The word Cenizas (“ashes”) appears in a number of your titles, does it have a special meaning to you?

Jose Manuel Serrano: Is a great pleasure for me to be here, for first time in UK also, to attend the concerts and to work with The Riot Ensemble. Thanks a lot for this commission and opportunity.

The word ashes, is a very evocative word for me. First of all, because of the immediate association with something that “remains” but which is “incomplete” or almost dead. In some way, the idea of ‘ashes’ is linked with the concepts of memory and past, because we automatically think back to the original object, which now is only ashes.

Another connection to this word word is through the poet Omar Khayyám.  He worked in Rubaiyat, where he believed that all the things of this world – even all the sand of the deserts or a wine’s glass- were created with the ashes of the dead, and are still a part of life.

Concretely, I’ve used this word in some titles when I wanted to make some reference to other music (like Ars Nova and Ars subtilior). This is the case with this piece, where “Madrigal Triste” (Sad Madrigal) is a small reference to Baudelaire’ Les Fleurs du mal.

AHN: We specifically commissioned this piece to go with Henri Dutilleux’s Les Citations. Did Dutilleux’s music effect you as you were composing this piece?

JMS: Before I began to write this piece I was thinking about the occasion of the concert (an homage, for Dutilleux). I thought about lots of different approaches, such as:

  • “Should I use some materials or ideas from Les Citations by Dutilleux as a reference or evocation?”
  • “Or maybe from other pieces by Dutilleux?”
  • “Maybe I can use some of the same quotations, or from the same composers, that Dutilleux used in this piece (Jehan Alain-Clémet Janequin and Britten)”

Cenizas de un madrigal triste - Ref

The opening page of Cenizas de un Madrigal Triste

I finally landed on two things: one, that the best I could do – to connect Dutilleux’s ideas with my own ideas – would be to write a piece based on quotations from music I like and which are part of me.  A bit like making my own selection of “citations”, sort of repeating something that Dutilleux made at the beginning of the compositional process.  Second, I decided I will use some instrumental ideas from “Les Citations” which I also has used in some of my pieces: Working on instrumental ideas like modal melodies in artificial harmonics in the contrabass, chords in tremolos and ppp (with soft mallets) in the marimba, resonances in tam-tam, dense chords in the harpsichord, and so on.

And with this I should create a continuity between new materials and seven quotations I took from Mozart (Piano Concerto No.23, Mov. II), Josquin des Prez (Mille Regretz), Berlioz (Requiem), Nicola Vicentino (Laura, che ‘l verde lauro), Schubert (Ihr bild) and others.

This piece could be titled as “Les Citations” too, but it’s my personal version, with some references to instrumental ideas that can make us remember the piece of Dutilleux.

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

JMS: That is always a hard question for me, and I think for many people too. It’s hard to view our own work from inside, though even from outside there are also some things which can’t be seen completely. I want to be critic with my own work and ideas all the time (I always fear I am doing less of this as I get older) and I find problems all the time during the composition process.  This is one reason I write slowly and review the same bars eternally. I can recognise musical influences in my pieces in different points or concepts many times. That is a normal feeling for me.

Recently, very strangely to me, many people have started saying to me that my music sounds very personal; that it has some individual voice. Maybe! I hope so!  The influences I find are many and when I put them all together their origins vanish, or they work differently enough that they are creating a new thing. I don’t know. But as I said before, it’s still hard, very hard, for me, to find myself in my music. I still find that many sounds that comes from here or there. And if there is something which I recognise as “my”, the fear of “repetition” makes me feel that I work on the same ideas in many of my pieces. I mean, any time that I find something “recognisable” of myself, I don’t feel well using it many times (but it’s also not so easy to find new things).

About if I can describe my music…I can say that in the last years I was very interested in worlds which can be found between textures like chorals, paraphonies, monodies and heterophony, working with the ambiguity, duality and clear meanings in between of them. Let’s say: all the possibilities of meaning between the vertical and horizontal dimensions. With some slow and far melodical/textural/timbrical ideas which can have some references to music from the past. I like to expose the materials with some fragility, almost naked, to produce some tension, but that don’t means that the materials don’t have different natures and that they will be very restricted, or that there will be not big changes and strong contrast during the piece. I want to work with something synthetic, but not simple, which includes all the character I want or need without a forced and stylised elaboration, or a superficial refinement. A material that is exactly the one I need. (But that is really hard to find any time and needs lot of time), And if the material is apparently complex or apparently simple, I will just let it be.

AHN: Well we’re hugely excited to be giving this premiere of your work, Jose.  It’s wonderful to bring in composers from around the world, and to hear what you are doing.  We live in such a globalized society, yet contemporary music is often a very local phenomenon. Could you tell us a little bit about the contemporary music scene where you live (Argentina) and what you’re looking forward to in working in England?

Until this year, none of my pieces was performed in UK. And fortunately last year I had this great news of this commission and concerts in May, and last month I knew that an Italian Dúo, for cello and piano, also performed a piece in London last February. I am very happy for these performances.

The musical world in Argentina is very diverse and has changed a lot in the last years. Around 10 years ago there was almost no stable ensembles of contemporary music, a few concerts per year, and only one annual big International Festival in Buenos Aires each November.  Now, speaking only about Buenos Aires, there are maybe 10 stable ensembles, with around 7 annual concert series of contemporary music, when sometimes in strange days in November you can have like 5 concerts in a day of contemporary music.  Things have changed a lot. The most strange thing: there is a good public, many times full, in any concert, especially young people, who are very enthusiastic.

I can say that there is a big phenomenon of contemporary music now in Argentina. Many young players create new ensembles each year or play as freelance for these annual concert series. And there are many young composers too. But the other face of this is the instrumental level. There are many great players from Argentina, many of them who are playing in Europe in famous ensembles and orchestras, and many of them living in Argentina too, but I still feel the absence of a real high level or professional instrumental ensemble or orchestra for contemporary music. Normally, making a generalisation of course, the instrumental level in the concerts of contemporary music is medium or not good. If you want, one can attend good concerts for solo instruments, duos or trios of marvellous musicians but I still hope that in the next years some good large ensembles will be created calling the best players.

I feel like it’s mandatory for me to travel to Europe and outside of Argentina, for infinite reasons. To see and experiment different cultures, sound, flavourings, food, etc, and to feel that the time and history are “real” in any corner, and that the same things can happen again and again in abstract with different forms crossing the centuries. I can say millions of things why I love to travel, like all the people, but of course one of the main reason is that for me, as a musician, Europe represents a great level of performance for my music.  There is more possibility to attend good concerts from early to contemporary music, and the possibility of meeting new good friends and future colleagues which have the same musical needs. And more important, that even when I love Argentina, it’s nice to take some good air from the quotidian life from time to time!

These are the things I am looking forward to do and find in UK too, and I am sure I will! I am very excited to work with the Riot Ensemble in the rehearsals, and to meet all your players and to attend the concerts. And of course to know more about UK’s culture during this days in, as you said, my first trip here, where many things are new for me.

AHN: Fantastic Jose.  Just before we finish, what other projects dos you have coming up in 2014?

JMS: From the beginning of 2014 until now I had some performances in Italy with a cello piece, in Germany with a string trio which was performed two times by the Ensemble Aventure (Freiburg), and the same string trio – which was selected at the ECCE Ensemble Call for Scores 2014 – was performed twice in USA. After the concerts in London and Cambridge of the next week, I will have a performance in Lulea (Sweeden) at the “New Directions Festival”, where I am very happy to can go too during this trip. After this I will return to Buenos Aires, to come back at my job in the University of La Plata, and am preparing a Festival of contemporary, classical and early music in the town where I grew up: Choele Choel. I need to finish a new piece for soprano, piano, contrabass, percussion and prerecorded instruments too, which will be premiere in Buenos Aires around August, and I also need to finish two pieces before end of the year. I have a lot of work to do, fortunately.

AHN: We can’t wait to hear all the music Jose! 

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!