A few moments with Arne Gieshoff

ArneThe 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.  One of the pieces coming from closer to home is from emerging composer Arne Gieshoff.  Arne’s currently a Sound and Music Embedded composer with BCMG, and a fellow-member of the New Voices Scheme.

I’ve known Arne’s music for a couple of years now.  It’s a pleasure to have been able to commission and programme his new solo oboe piece Wucherung, and to ask him a few questions about his work in general.  As with all the composers in this project, Arne 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!

Gieshoff, Arne - Wucherungen_2

Aaron HN: Thanks for being with us Arne, and for your new solo oboe piece.
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?

Arne Gieshoff: First of all, thank you very much for commissioning this piece! I’m very excited to be hearing Wucherung at the Forge next week. Rebecca is playing it brilliantly!

No, there is no direct relation between Dutilleux’s work – Les Citations in particular – and the oboe piece. However, his music has been a constant in my musical development and in that sense is influential on my compositional outlook. I sang the children’s voices part in a performance of The Shadow of Time something like thirteen years ago. This had a great impact on me and I guess the excitement for his music and contemporary music in general started around that time.

AHN: You worked closely with the oboist in writing this piece.  Is that a normal part of your composing process, and what do you do differently in writing a piece when you’re working with a specific musician?

AG: Wucherung explores the lower register of the oboe and its microtonal capacity. Those sounds require specific fingerings which vary in their success to produce a certain pitch on different instruments. On that level it was invaluable to work with Rebecca – especially because it is a solo piece. It can often help to know who will be on stage in order to get a better grasp on the material without necessarily tailoring it to preferences beyond my own.

Wucherung is part of a cycle of works which also comprises the string quartet Unwuchten (‘imbalances’), verdreht (‘contorted’, ‘distorted’, ‘perverted’, ‘pixilated’, ‘wry’…) for Trombone, Melodica and Scordatura Melodica and Umschreibung (‘periphrasing’ / ‘alteration’) for chamber orchestra. In German, the term ‘Wucherung’ describes the uncontrolled growth of structures such as tumours.

AHN: Do you have a specific, daily routine for composing?

I have a daily routine but try to avoid a composing routine.

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?

While I acknowledge a difference between sounds produced by instruments which were built for that purpose and sounds stemming from unconventional sources, the divide is not that clear cut for me, and is not an idealogical one. I think the issue of anecdotal qualities of sounds is technical: the creation of a meaningful context for them poses different demands compared to conventional instrumental colour. However, for me all sounds have ‘musical’ potential and in the same way that the Lupophon hasn’t featured prominently in my work, a hoover hasn’t either. But this could change tomorrow.

AHN: What other projects are you working on/do you have coming up in 2014?

AG:Throughout the year I am Apprentice Composer-in-Residence with the BCMG as part of Sound and Music’s Embedded scheme and am spending time in Birmingham gaining insights into the ensemble’s work in preparation for a 2015 commission.  I’ve also just finished Umschreibung for chamber orchestra (part of the same cycle as the oboe piece) which will be performed as part of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Debut Sounds Concert on 9 June at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and have received a fellowship for the Tanglewood Music Center.  I’ll spend the summer there studying as part of the composition programme and having a few works performed.  In the Autumn The Ligeti Quartet will premiere my string quartet Unwuchten (also part of the cycle; commissioned by Anthony Bolton through Third Ear) at the Little Missenden Festival.


In addition to that, fellow composer Nicholas Moroz and myself are busy organising performances for explorensemble, a contemporary music group we run. On 23 June there will be a concert at the RCM featuring works by Sciarrino, Furrer, Romitelli and young composer Edwin Hillier.  And in September we will be performing Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip (Lesson I, II & III).

I Shall Contemplate… by Djuro Zivkovic

Live recording from The Platnauer Concert Series at Brasenose College, Oxford of the UK premiere of Djuro Zivkovic’s I Shall Contemplate...  

The Riot Ensemble

Kate Walter, Flute; Celeste Cronje, Soprao
Claudia Maria Racovicean, PIano
Theo Kung, Violin; Reinoud Ford, Cello
with Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum conducting.

A few moments with Drew Schnurr

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The Riot Ensemble has had a busy month of May – from an outdoor performance of Workers Union (to which the police were called!) to Vox Balaenae and the UK premiere of Djuro Zivkovic’s I Shall Contemplate… on the Platnauer Concert Series at Brasenose College, Oxford.

Next week, though, is where we really get going.  Our Les Citations project, programmed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, will feature an array of premieres from around the world.

One of the furthest afield comes from Los Angeles-based composer Drew Schnurr whose new piece Linda’s Wake sets a libretto by Richard Sparks. It was my pleasure to ask Drew a few questions about Linda’s Wake, and his work in general.  Drew 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!


Composer Drew Schnurr

Aaron HN: Thanks so much for being with us Drew.  We can’t wait to give the world premiere of your work Linda’s Wake, which you wrote with librettist Richard Sparks. Can you tell us a bit about your work with Richard, and how you collaborated on this piece, specifically?

Drew Schnurr: First, I want to say how excited I am for the opportunity to work with the Riot Ensemble on this project. I had a great experience working with Richard last year, so when the commission came in I knew right away I wanted to ask him to be involved. I was happy he said yes. He took a few weeks and wrote the text specifically for this piece. I had no idea what he would be coming back to me with, and was blown away when I read the text for the first time. He had built a mountain for me to climb.

AHN: Setting text is always a particular challenge for composers, and Richard’s libretto sets some specific challenges for you as it moves in and out of rhymed verse.  Was this a decision you guys made together, and how did you approach the different formal styles within the text?

DS: You’re right. For me, Richard’s treatment of text and narrative is almost cubist—constructed periods of formally rhymed verse adjacent to more freely flowing structures. These correspond with abrupt intersections of time, place, and emotion within the narrative. All his conception. It did make the text a challenge to set. It would have been easy to do in musical abstraction, but my intention with this piece has been to support the heart of the protagonist’s (the soprano’s) story while also keeping the work interesting musically. One way I did this was to try to think of the text itself—inflections, rhythms, and formal structures—as musical material that can compositionally developed “as music.” This gave me some of the flexibility I needed to make the whole thing work.

The opening of Linda's Wake's Libretto by Richard Sparks

The opening of Linda’s Wake’s Libretto by Richard Sparks

AHN: You were a professional contrabass player yourself for many years – and indeed there’s a contrabass in Linda’s Wake.  How do the experiences you had as a performer effect your composing today?

DS: It’s another layer. I spent many years cultivating my skills as a performer and then working professionally. I personally feel one danger of the performer turned composer is that the “performer” can take over in the creative process which can narrow the range of compositional expression. When I turned my focus to composition some years ago, I worked consciously to try to bring my compositional technique to the same level I had achieved as a performer. It took some time, but I finally feel these two aspects of my musical DNA as being integrated and working well together. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When composing, I’m always conscious of how it would “feel” to perform the music within the ensemble, which I feel is of tremendous benefit to my process.

AHN: In addition to being the world premiere of Linda’s Wake, this will be the first UK performance of your work. We live in such a globalised 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 (Los Angeles) and what you’re looking forward to in working in England?

DS: One of the distinctive traits of the new music scene in Los Angeles is it’s diversity. I’ve always been very attracted to that—both for how it stimulates creativity in my own work and for the freedom it allows. It’s rare. And we are experiencing a kind of surge here. New music series are sprouting up all over. Many of my L.A. composer colleagues have re-located recently from other parts of the U.S. traditionally considered more “happening” in terms of contemporary music. People recognise something significant is happening here. I’m very excited to be having my UK premiere. London continues to be so important to what is happening in new music today, and my musical encounters in London are always inspiring. I’m really looking forward to working with the Riot Ensemble for this project!

AHN: Well we’re very much looking forward to working with you, too, Drew.  As we sign off, tell us what other projects do you have coming up in the year ahead?

DS: It’s going to be busy. Work wise: I have a documentary film that I scored coming out this summer, along with a couple of other films in the pipeline. UCLA also hired me this year to develop a new curriculum in “sonic arts” at the Herb Alpert School of Music so I’ll be busy with that this fall. On more personal artistic fronts: Richard Sparks and I are planning another project, and I’m also working on a series of piano etudes. Any day composing music is a good day. I plan to have many more of those this year!

A few moments with Djuro Zivkovic

This Saturday we make our Oxford Debut, with a programme stretching from J.S. Bach’s Second Cello Suite, through to the UK premiere of Djuro Zivkovic’s I Shall Contemplate….  (The programme also includes the magical Vox Balaenae and two preludes of Claude Debussy).

We were incredibly lucky to have Djuro with us for rehearsals of I Shall Contemplate… this week, and it was my pleasure to sit down with him and ask some questions about this piece and his other work.

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Djuro Zivkovic works with The Riot Ensemble on ‘I Shall Contemplate…’

AHN: Djuro, In your introductory note to I Shall Contemplate…, you talk about ‘composing this piece through improvisation’, could you tell us more about how you work when you’re writing?

Djuro Zivkovic: Each piece has its own working path, but there is a routine in my working environment that I feel very comfortable.

I think of two approaches in composing: analytic and synthetic.  In my improvisational composing, I confront the synthetic aspects of composing against the analytic ones.  When working analytically, I’m determining processes/techniques.  It’s all about a knowledge of HOW to compose. On the contrary, the synthetic approach is focused on an understanding of the wholeness and the question of WHAT you compose. I’m normally more focused on “What” I compose, because the knowing of “What” is the very thing that ultimately determines how I write it.

For me, the improvisation is a way of getting to know WHAT to compose.  I spend a long time – many hours – improvising, and eventually the final idea crystallises in my mind. The improvisation gives me total and unlimited freedom in expression. Then, later in the process, I use the more analytical techniques to help me shape the score in the desired way.

AHN: There’s a vocal part in I Shall Contemplate…, how does it relate to the instrumental ones?

DZ: I have attempted to create a vocal part that is as simple as possible. It is not an opera, but a very solitary voice that descends deep in its heart. It is like being naked and alone in a desert asking God for forgiveness and help. It’s drama comes from how simple it is.

AHN: Where does the text of I Shall Contemplate… come from?

DZ: The texts are partly from the Divine Liturgy and also from Dionysius the Areopagite – a very mystical figure of the early church. I am always looking for unusual texts, because they inspire me and make me want to compose music for them.

These texts are very, very far away of daily worries and activities in our lives, that’s why I love them. Although they’re Christian texts, in these sentences there is no name of the God, and so they can serve as a cantata for any human believer, or at least musically – for anyone.

AHN: It’s lovely how you refer to it as a ‘cantata for anyone’.  You do mention Bach in your note about the piece (and, in fact) we’ve programming your piece alongside movements from Bach’s Second Cello Suite).  Could you tell us a bit about how Bach’s music relates to I Shall Contemplate…?

DZ: Bach played a huge roll in my youth. When I was little I decided to be a baroque violinist and composer after listening to Bach’s organ prelude E-flat major!

In the German cultural centre Göte-Institut in Belgrade I had chance to borrow famous Archive editions of recordings of Bach’s cantatas, with small scores that follow along the LPs. It was a great experience in my childhood, and I always wished I could compose cantatas. This piece is far away from that period, but I hope still very close in the spirit of Bach’s works.

AHN: There are a number of beautiful extended techniques in your piece.  Microtonality, multiphonics, and singing by the flute and piano player.  Composers today are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by extra-musical sounds.  Do these sounds influence you or play any role in your work as a composer?

DZ: They do play role, but I always try to filter these sounds. Some sounds can be dangerous for my composing and some are fruitful.

AHN: Thanks so much for being with us Djuro.  We’re really looking forward to giving the UK premiere of I Shall Contemplate… this Sunday!

DZ: Thanks for having me, and good luck! 




Number Ones: An Evening of Beginnings

At Club Inégales on Friday 24th January. Bar open from 7pm, music in two sets from 8pm.  We take a look back at where a number of today’s most exciting composers began, with first pieces from Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès, Amy Beth Kirsten, Luciano Berio, Richard Causton and Joanna Lee.  We’ll also have additional wind quintets by Harrison Birtwistle and Alastair Putt.

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More Hands: Phil Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’.


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

Seven Pierrot Miniatures by Helen Grime

Live recording from The Friend’s Meetinghouse of Helen Grime’s Seven Pierrot Miniatures.  This was part of our Transatlantic Collaborations Project.

The Riot Ensemble, with Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum conducting.