The (Fingers/ Eyes/ Brain) United Will Never Be Defeated!

It might seem like all’s gone quiet on the Riot front, but we are actually furiously at work behind the scenes gathering a shortlist for our Sound and Music Portfolio Scheme and preparing music that we’ll be performing this Autumn.

Here are some little musings from a pianist holed up in his garret practising Rzewski’s sprawling opus.  As I write this, I have the words of one of my own tutors, David Fanning, ringing in my ears: ‘I would love to play that piece. The thing is I would need a sabbatical just to put the fingering in.’


So if you’re in the vicinities of Chichester (November 7th), London (November 11th) or Brighton (November 14th) you may be interested to know the back-story, the hours of preparation, my tales of woe.  Because I don’t have a sabbatical, and I only have just over three months left to go before the concert.

But I should not complain. I am lucky to live in a nice place. Whenever I wish I can walk out on to the balcony and smell the sea air, barbeques and (err…) burning human flesh from the sun-soaked beaches of Hove Lawns. I myself have been swimming in the sea every day since June, alongside jogging, press-ups and sit-ups. (As a result I am now very good at all of these. But I haven’t lost any weight…).

Happily, work’s been relatively quiet too. Even Aaron (our glorious and venerable Riot Ensemble Artistic Director) has lain off sending me a gazillion emails while he is taking the Aspen Music Festival by storm.

And, even more happily, today marks a milestone because it now looks as if I will actually be able to play this piece! Sorry if that sounds a bit churlish. Why, after all, would I have agreed to play it if I wasn’t sure of this before?

Because it’s all about targets, goals, objectives.

The piece itself is a mission. The composer himself says: ‘The extended length of the composition may be an allusion to the idea that the unification of people is a long story and that nothing worth winning is acquired without effort’.

Effort… and rigorous organisation.

So I have a battle-plan. I have separated the 38 strands (36 variations and the theme book-ending at either side) into five columns with different practice methods for each:

  1. ‘Can already play at tempo’. Hmm…. only six of these so far… (and they exclude the whistling bits – I have tried and failed to teach myself to whistle).
  2. ‘Will be able to play eventually’ (i.e. without too much fuss). Seven bits.
  3. ‘Practice X3’. This is a slightly brainless technique of practising I perfected as a student that just involves going through the motions three times every day without worrying too much – it will get there in the end! There are seven such variations that I’ll give this treatment to.
  4. ‘Bits need help’ which means I need to focus on small, tricky passages in eight parts of the work
  5. ‘HELP!’. Intensive focus required. 10 strands.

In two months I want all 38 bits in column number one.

And then I’ll have another month to make sure I give the most committed performance I can of this amazing work. I’ll keep you updated…


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!