Tomorrow and Wednesday of this week, as part of our collaboration with the fantastic ECCE Ensemble, we will be performing Helen Grime’s Seven Pierrot Miniatures for (as you might expect) pierrot ensemble (Flute, Clarinet, Piano, Violin, Cello). I’ve been a big fan of Helen’s music from the first time I heard it, and so it’s a great pleasure to be performing this piece in our collaboration. I also had the great pleasure to take a few minutes of Helen’s time in an interview ranging from general questions about composers and the sounds in our world to specific choices made about Seven Pierrot Miniatures. Thanks so much to Helen, and I do hope you’ll enjoy our interview, below!
Hi Helen, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. We’re very excited to be performing Seven Pierrot Miniatures on our upcoming Transatlantic Collaborations concerts!
Not at all, I’m really excited that you’ve programmed the piece.
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?
I think everyday sounds are important to me but I tend to translate these into my own language rather than replicating them with extra-musical effects or sounds. For example, I might be struck by the combination and range of noise in a busy street and this may affect how I think about counterpoint, register, rhythmic and temporal layering.
Could you give us a little insight into how you compose? (Do you have a set schedule? Do you work at a piano? Etc…)
I try to fit in as much composing as possible, though this has to be juggled with my part-time lectureship in composition at Royal Holloway. I find that I can’t work so intensively at the beginning of a project and spend a lot of time thinking, sketching and trying to make connections as the material is very organic. You’re right in saying that my music focuses on parameters such as pitch, rhythm etc. One of my primary concerns is harmony and this is often where the material springs from. I spend a lot of time a the piano working on the harmonic structure of a piece and pretty much obsessing about getting exactly the notes I want. So it’s a combination of piano and desk then computer later on.
You mention a number of connections between Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and your own work, can you tell us a little bit about those connections and how Schoenberg’s work practically affected your piece (if at all)?
The commissioners for this piece, the Hebrides Ensemble, wanted a companion piece to Pierrot that was somehow based around the character Pierrot himself. I decided to use some of the Giraud poems that Schoenberg didn’t set, although there is no text, as the starting point for each of the seven miniatures and these give each movement its title. The differing combination of instruments in Pierrot definitely influenced how I approached the combinations in my piece, I wanted for this to be constantly shifting, sometimes focusing on solos or smaller combinations as in the 3rd movement which opens with a clarinet and viola duo or the 5th movement for Flute alone then the rest of the ensemble joining briefly at the end.
This large-scale form of Seven Pierrot Miniatures is particularly interesting. Where Schoenberg’s work is three sets of seven movements, your work – as the title suggests – is a single set of seven short movements. How did you handle linking the works together as a whole??
In Seven Pierrot Miniatures, there is a kind of motif in moments 1,3,5 and 7 which links and binds the form of the piece. Although it is never exactly the same, it retains a strong identity in the different context of each of those movements. There are also more subtle links between 2 and 6. Movement 4 is a kind of stand alone pillar in the piece. In a sense the form is circular, with the strongest connection being between the 1st and last movements.
I’m interested in asking you specifically about repetition. It seems to me a lot of your work hints at repetition within the material without actually literally repeating things.
I think it’s fair to say that a sense of returning and repetition is very important in my music. It’s pretty rare, for anything – even at a minute level – to repeat exactly. Since I began composing, I’ve always been concerned with very organic material that can constantly be manipulated and transformed but can also be recognisable and memorable to the listener.
Thanks so much for spending this time with us Helen! We’ll be looking forward to performing your piece in the coming days!