A few moments with Alastair Putt

alastairbanff photoshoot1


Of all the pieces in our concert this Friday, only two will be ‘non-first’ pieces.  One of these will be Harrison Birtwistle’s second wind-quintet Five Distances for Five Instruments, and the second will also be a wind quintet: the very beautiful Halazuni by Alastair Putt. (Here performed by Martha Long (flute), Graham Mackenzie (oboe), Danny Goldman (clarinet), Elyse Lauzon (horn) and Andrew Brady (bassoon) at Tanglewood Music Center on July 22nd, 2012)

I know the Atea Quintet have hugely enjoyed preparing Alastair’s work for our concert on Friday, and it was my pleasure to sit down with him and ask a few questions about this piece, and his wider work as a musician and composer.

AHN: Alastair, thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions – and for your great piece!  I think it would be fair to say that – as with this piece – the majority of your music primarily focuses on ‘musical’ parameters (harmony/rhythm/etc…) eschewing extra-music things such as noises (rustling paper, key clicks, breath sounds, etc…)  As composers, we are surrounded – both in everyday life and more and more in the repertoire – by extra-musical sounds.  Do they influence you and are they in any way significant for your compositional work?

pretty good composing advice!

pretty good composing advice!

AP: In short, no. More than anything, I’m interested in harmony, and I feel that there are already enough decisions to be made as a composer using only the 12 notes of the chromatic scale (occasionally more!), let alone bringing in the potentially endless spectrum of extra-musical noises into the equation. Which is not to say that I shun music that incorporates such sound, only that I don’t feel I have anything new to bring to the table, in that regard.

AHN: You’re active in contemporary music as both a composer and as a performer (a tenor, and occasionally as a guitarist), does your activity as a performer affect what you do as a composer?  

AP: Not hugely, I don’t think, but I do try to be as considerate as possible towards performers- even if I don’t know how to play an instrument, I will always try to imagine the basic actions that a line of music might require of them. On, say, a string instrument, those can be relatively easy to visualise, but it’s harder with wind instruments because of all the fiddly fingerings!

AHN: And do you think of the audience when you compose?

AP: Not explicitly, but I do care about how the music sounds in real space rather than in some abstract, formalised sphere, so in that sense, yes. Ultimately, I try to write music that I would like to hear, rather than analyse.

AHN: Could you tell us a little bit about how and when you wrote Halazuni?

AP: Halazuni was written for the Richmond Concert Society in 2011; it takes its inspiration from arabesque decoration in Islamic art, and the patterns and lines therein. I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful abstraction of such art, and its juxtaposition of rigid patterns and shapes with more florid, elaborate elements. In the piece, a rhythmically regular background texture is overlaid with slower, more flexible lines. Much of the pitch material is derived from the Fibonacci series, so often a building-block in geometric art: here, the numbers from the series determine the successive intervals heard in the opening motif, which rises by 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13 semitones. That ratio is also used rhythmically, at the very end of the piece, as the five parts play the same (but transposed) material in the tempo relationship 1:2:3:5:8, which creates a rather wild heterophony.

AHN: Many composers (and musicians) consider the wind quintet to be a rather difficult ensemble to write for.  How did you find the wind quintet and how did you go about solving some of the problems it presents? 

AP: I’ve always liked the somewhat bracing sound of the wind quintet, and I remember it as being quite a fun piece to write! I don’t think it’s a particularly problematic ensemble, really: all the instruments are naturally pretty agile (though the horn less so) and can handle a variety of articulations. That said, I have no experience of playing wind instruments, so I can’t vouch for how nicely it sits under the fingers; I suspect that the final, dance-like section contains some nasty little corners for everyone. As for the potential for balance problems resulting from a brass instrument masquerading as a wind instrument, I didn’t really attempt to tackle that in the score, figuring that a good wind quintet is perfectly aware of issues specific to their ensemble- it’s not the composer’s place to butt in and try to ‘solve’ anything!

A few (brief) moments with Thomas Adès

Photo by Brian Voce

Photo by Brian Voce


As you’ll know by now, we’re interviewing some of the composers featured in our first concert of 2014, which takes place this Friday at Club Inégales.  So far we’ve spoken with Richard Causton and Joanna Lee, and tomorrow we take a few moments with Alastair Putt.  We did also send some interview questions to Faber Music for Thomas Adès.  

Though Mr. Adès doesn’t normally answer questions, he did give us a few brief replies which we thought our readers would enjoy.  The interview is below!

Riot Ensemble: The Lover in Winter is – as with many pieces in this concert – your first published work.  I’m sure, though, that you wrote many pieces before this ‘first’ one.  How does a composer decide when to start keeping works in their catalogue?  Have you kept every pieces written since The Lover in Winter in your repertoire?

TA: Not my Aubade, but almost everything else.

RE: You are active in contemporary music as a composer, conductor and pianist.  Does your work as a performer affect the work you do as a composer?

TA: I’ve not really ever noticed.

RE: Do you change/revise your pieces after they are performed?

TA: Sometimes.

RE: Looking back from where you are now, do you recognise elements of a ‘personal style’ in The Lover in Winter?

TA: Yes.

RE: Do you think it is important for a composer to be searching for a personal style?  How have you guided the students you’ve taught to seek this out?  

TA: I have never really taught.

RE: Do you have advice on how a young composer can achieve or go about this?

TA: No, I don’t really know. 

RE: When does the idea of a ‘personal style’ simply give way to self-repetition?

TA: It can do. 

A few moments with Richard Causton

We have a great season of concerts coming up in 2014 – the first of which, Number Ones, features ‘first pieces’.  We love the idea of taking a look back at where some of today’s composers began their journey, and to listen for the ideas that have either grown more important to them or faded away over time.

Richard Causton HeadershotRichard Causton is well known as a technically precise and inventive composer.  Now University Lecturer in Musical Composition at Cambridge, his recent work Twenty-Seven Heavens was commissioned by the European Youth Orchestra and premiered at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.  Richard’s early career was marked by an incredible pace of impressive awards, such as a Fast Forward composition award (1994), the ‘Nuove Sincronie’ (1996), an SPNM George Butterworth Award (1995) and a Mendelssohn Scholarship (1997).

Before all of that, though, came Richard’s Threnody – written in 1991 – for soprano, 2 clarinets and piano.  This piece will actually be my performing premiere (as a pianist) with The Riot Ensemble, and it was my pleasure to take a few moments to discuss Threnody with Richard this past weekend.

AHN: Richard, thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us.  Threnody is – as with many pieces in this concert – your first published work.  I’m sure, though, that you’ll have written many pieces before this ‘first’ one.  How does a composer decide when to start keeping works in their catalogue?  Have you kept every piece written after Threnody in your ‘repertoire’?

RC: At a certain point there comes an unmistakable feeling of rightness that makes you realise you’ve written your first real piece of music. This piece is the first thing you willingly make public and put your name to; and it remains with you for the rest of your life. It has to do with reaching – or getting close enough to – what it is you were aiming for previously but weren’t able to achieve. In this particular case it is also bound up with the text I set to music, which is beautifully succinct and could be a sort of credo.

Since Threnody I’ve kept most of what I’ve written, barring some occasional, very short pieces.

AHN: What is it like to look back on a work you wrote so long ago?  Do you change your pieces after they are performed?  Do you find new things in a piece after returning to it after so long?

RC: It’s always interesting looking back at pieces written some time back. You have moved on, your preoccupations are now different, and yet the earlier piece was the best possible embodiment or realisation of those particular ideas at the time it was written. And as such, it has an authenticity which could be destroyed if you attempted to ‘correct’, or revise the piece much later.

AHN: Looking back from where you are now, do you recognise elements of a ‘personal style’ in Threnody?

RC: Yes – the essentials have not changed, which is why the feeling at the time of having written a real, authentic piece of music was so strong.

AHN: You currently teach at Cambridge, and have taught a number of young composers.  Do you think it is important for composers to develop a personal style?  Do you have advice on how a young composer can achieve or go about this? And when does the idea of a ‘personal style’ simply give way to self-repetition?

Of course writing music now is completely different from a few hundred years ago – music of whatever kind is now so available, so easy to get hold of, that composers are required to be original, which was not necessarily the case previously. So if there is still any demand for music at all, it is demand for a genuine voice which has integrity and tells us something we did not already know. Luckily, we are all different and a personal style can found through listening – deeply, inwardly as well as outwardly. And self-repetition can be avoided too if composers have the courage to let new ideas into their imagination.

AHN: What’s in store for you in 2014?

RC: I am currently working on a new piece for the Bath Festival for Pipers Three oboe trio, after which I will be writing a piano quintet for the Nash Ensemble. And my wife is expecting our second child any day now, so there should be plenty to do!

AHN: Well that’s extremely exciting news!  Thanks so much for your time Richard, and best wishes for a successful 2014!

RC: Thank you!

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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