Have been listening to a lot of Prokofiev lately, especially the piano sonatas and realised that I knew very little about his life. So I’m enjoying the Life and Times book on him by Thomas Schipperges. He gives you a paragraph’s description of Social Realism, which at its initial launch in 1934 at the Soviet Writer’s Conference, laid down its crass ideas that pessimism was anti-social (goodbye Eastenders!) and that music should be hummable and in major keys.
The book adds that a similar dictum was laid down by Irving Thalberg (1899-1936), the Hollywood producer, who in the 1930s sent the following memo to resident composers: ‘from the above date forward, no music in an MGM film is to contain a minor chord.’ This memo was still bolted to the wall 25 years later, when composers such as André Previn were there.
Thalberg died very young, having suffered from heart disease all his life, and that sharp sense of his own mortality may have affected his ability to cope with sad music! (I’m being kind, because personally I always think that people who don’t write music should leave the decisions up to those who do). Now I want to see Thalberg’s movies to see how many minor chords the composers managed to get past him! I am reminded of writing a piece for a male voice choir: I knew they were very limited in their abilities, so I decided to write a piece with no discords in it. I tried to make it sound strange and keep some tension going without introducing any dissonances. I found this so challenging and engrossing that I put No Discord Series No. 1 on the front page, thinking I would do more. The score was sent off and after a long pause came back: the choir was unable to perform the piece as there were ‘too many discords!’ Obviously, no-one had looked too closely at the title page, but it was more that (I felt) the newness of the music had brought its own discord into their lives. I wonder how many minor chords MGM’s composers could get into their scores just by presenting them in a certain way. I’ve always found it moving that Mozart often writes his most painful music in major keys, as if the reminiscence of sweetness is unbearable. I wonder whether Irving would have heard that music as if in a minor key? Film music of that time sometimes does something similar – a particularly poignant scene is often accompanied by a saccharine tune like ‘Home Sweet Home’ which is somehow more tear-jerking than a sad melody.
Composers are often forced to reinvent their music to suit dictators and governments: they could leave as Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff did, and Prokofiev did leave for a while. But he came back to Russia, for subtle and complex reasons no-one has ever quite been able to fathom. Other composers manage to stay afloat and stay unique despite the politics – Thomas Tallis springs to mind. I wonder what I would do in such threatening circumstances?
Back in the 70’s, I was told that my music needed to be ‘forced into a modern idiom,’ even though I was writing far more difficult and dissonant music than I write now. I felt very threatened by the atmosphere of that music world, and totally outside it, but my life was not threatened and so I had an easy choice to keep doing my own thing, rather than toeing the party line. Now it is as if the coin as been flipped right over, for now we often read in what music commentary there is these days, that new music should try harder to be accessible, that composers have a duty to write music that people like. In other words, that is hummable and without any anti-social pessimism! This has been going on for some time, and back in the previous century I went to a debate – I remember Roger Scruton was speaking – about how new music should be nicer. He didn’t say that of course, but he wanted keys and melodies, and I presume that he is a much happier man now. It has been a peculiarly English revolution, bloodless in more ways than one. We love foreigners, so we have swopped Boulez for Eric Whitacre. Conformity is the name of the game, whether it is the enforced atonality of my student days, or the holy wallpaper or quasi pop of today, it is in its own way a kind of oppression – oppression that has to be resisted. My personal motto has always been that all anyone can ask of me is that I tell the truth as I see it.
As is well known, Stalin died one hour after Prokofiev, they even died of the same thing. Prokofiev’s death was barely mentioned in the newspapers and there were no flowers at his funeral, due to the total hysteria over Stalin’s death. However, ten years later, Prokofiev’s anniversary was front page news, while Stalin’s was only celebrated in Georgia.
I recently spent three months as composer-in-residence to the stroke unit of a major Dublin hospital and can honestly say it was one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of my professional career. Part of the project involved the group of musicians for which I was writing an ‘outcome’ work (titled ‘Bewitched’) coming into the hospital every fortnight to give an open rehearsal of the latest movement as part of an hour-long performance of light and popular pieces to an audience of patients. After the first such session it really hit home that, for possibly the first time in my life, I was writing for a very specific audience, consisting of mostly quite elderly and infirm people who were not by any stretch of the imagination regular concert-goers. This necessitated a conceptual change of tack on my part as I realised I couldn’t just write any old abstract Modernist work(!) which had no connection whatsoever to the context, musical or otherwise, of the people who would be listening to the piece as it took shape over the weeks.
As luck would have it, I had very early on in the project sat in on a group physiotherapy session at which, playing throughout in the background, was a CD of music by singers the patients had grown up with, namely Doris Day and the Rat Pack. A light bulb went off in my head and I decided that segue-ing into a Doris Day song at the end of each one of my ‘songs’ (based on interviews I was making with patients, doctors and other healthcare workers) would not only provide a link with the musical experience of my audience but, if approached in the right way, could also illuminate my own music in a very interesting and, hopefully, moving way.
For instance, the very first movement is based on an interview with a young mother of thirty who suffered a stroke two weeks after giving birth to her first child and she related how she had initially been very scared as she had briefly lost her ability to speak. I also interviewed her husband who was doing a brave job of holding everything together and the bond between them was clear. When I interviewed her, a week after first meeting her, she had improved enormously and was going home that very day. However, in her interview she described beautifully her fear and confusion just after her stroke and I was able to move from my musical setting of that description into the song ‘Fly me to the moon’, with its intimations of fantasy, escape and romance, which seemed a very suitable and powerful contrast with what she had described.
Another movement is based on a speech therapy session I sat in on where the patient had been severely affected by stroke and had no speech and impaired cognition. The conversation was therefore one-sided but the therapist was so supportive and understanding that her words, which were spoken in short sentences (“What do you do with this?”, “Can you tell me?”, “Yes, that’s it!”), give a clear idea of the frustration the patient must have been experiencing. When I set these phrases to music I was able to set them exactly as they had been spoken, rhythmically and melodically, which was actually the only instance where I did this. I segued that text into the song ‘Secret Love’, and the effect is quite difficult to describe in words as there are a number of possible interpretations of why I chose this – for me, though, it is describing an aspiration for what the patient would presumably wish for herself and what those around her would wish for her: “Now I sing it from the highest hills” – the power to be heard and understood.
The final movement is a setting of a quite matter-of-fact conversation with a patient who had been mildly affected by stroke but who nevertheless was feeling – quite understandably – rather sad that his life had taken this turn: “I’m still trying to come to terms with it”, he told me; “I suppose I now have to get used to the idea that everything isn’t as good as it would have been”. These are the last words I set in the work and the movement then morphs into the song ‘Bewitched’, which begins with the line “I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again – bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I”. This is actually a striking description of what stroke can do to people, as if like a spell has been cast, and depending on the patient the effects can bewilder or, in more extreme cases, reduce the person to a child-like dependency on others.
While the use of existing songs was not my original plan, I feel that my decision to do so was directly influenced by the patients who heard the work unfold over the weeks, and I am glad it turned out this way because I believe the work makes a much stronger impact as a result of its juxtaposition of these elements. That it made such a positive impact on its (very specific) audience convinced me that, on certain occasions at least, the notion of writing only for oneself is not always the best option.
The Fidelio Trio has become one of the leading piano trios in the UK over the last few years. Robert Fokkens asks them about their commitment to contemporary music and how this informs their performances of older music.
Robert Fokkens: All three of you are very busy and experienced performers, with a particular reputation for contemporary music. What drew you to contemporary music initially, and what do you enjoy most about working on new pieces?
Fidelio Trio: The trio began life playing (like most ensembles) classical chamber music repertoire – however for our Purcell Room debut in 1996 we were introduced to Toru Takemitsu's Between Tides which we gave the UK premiere of. We quickly realised we had a particular affinity with the music of today and much enjoyed the collaborative process with living composers. We also realised that there is a huge variety of diverse new music that needed to be programmed.
RF: Working with composers is often a mixed blessing for a performer. Has working regularly with composers changed the way you approach music in general? What do you enjoy most and least about the relationship between composers and performers?
FT: One of the most rewarding aspects of playing new music is the collaborative process between composer and performer. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a new work for the first time that has been conceived for the given performers and then taking it on the next step of the journey ie. into the concert hall. The shared creative experience forms an indelible bond between performer and composer which has a lasting effect on the interpretation. It can also be just as exciting to work with a composer and a piece that wasn't written for you but through the rehearsal process both parties start to hear new angles and possibilities in the work.
Of course the performers do need space sometimes, it's never wise to have the composer at a first rehearsal- they will have been living with that piece for months where as the performers are barely on first name terms with it and need time to feel their way in to the language!
RF: Despite the trio's reputation for performances of contemporary music, I know that you are all very comfortable with a broad range of repertoire. How do you feel about programming new or twentieth-century work alongside pre-twentieth century repertoire?
FT: We often play more traditional repertoire (which for us can be Ravel or Schoenberg) alongside newer music which can compliment the contemporary angle to the programmes well. The old idea of 'sandwiching' a piece of new music between classical or romantic repertoire certainly doesn't always work as the new piece (if performed well enough with total conviction by the performers) should stand alone beside older repertoire. We recently performed a series of concerts in Dublin that featured each of Schumann's impeccable piano trios alongside new pieces for us by Irish composers. This process seemed to work well and the feedback from the audiences was extremely positive in how they listened to both the new pieces and the Schumann. This has lead us to seriously think about what classical repertoire we should play alongside new music. However, it is also important to introduce audiences to solely new music concerts and never feel the need to be apolgetic about this. We programme new works from very different aesthetic view points as the new music world is already a tiny place and alienating audiences should never be the case with performers of this repertoire!
RF: You are performing for the ACF's Soundings 2010 this Wednesday at the Forge in Camden, London. How long have you been involved with this series, and how did you first come to work with the ACF?
FT: We first worked with the Austrian Cultural Forum in 2005 when Soundings was still a relatively young series and Joe Cutler and Johannes Maria Staud were particularly involved in the choosing of repertoire and inviting the other composers to participate. We have been involved increasingly over the years and since 2008 Mary has been curator, working closely with Andrea Rauter in seeking out and balancing the composers for the UK and Austria and the works to be performed. As a trio, we are very much now associated with the ACF and are Soundings Ensemble in Residence. This has resulted in a number of new works being written for us and our Wigmore Hall debut in December 2009 (in a programme of Ed Bennett, Luke Bedford, Thomas Larcher, Johannes Maria Staud and the fantastic arrangement of Verklarte Nacht by Eduard Steuermann). Every year Mary and Andrea work to refresh and bring new ideas and formats to the week of workshops and concerts and it now is a firmly established series in the London music calendar.
RF: Soundings brings composers from Austria and the UK together for workshops and concerts each year. Have you noticed any particular national differences between the composers, their music and their approach to composition, or is it very much down to the individual composer?
FT: What is clear to us is that yes indeed, composers are all individual. However, one point that seems to recur every year in discussions and conversations is that, in Austria in general, composers are afforded more time with the musicians they are working with – and in relation to this, composers in the UK are accustomed to working with musicians who are excellent sight-readers and fast learners and so become very time efficient in their rehearsals. There also seems to be more of what you might call an 'extremely quiet school' present in Austrian music circles, more than in the UK. But the workshops and concerts every year result in a great variety of new and exciting works.
RF: What other big projects are you currently working on?
FT: We are really excited to be making our USA debut next February (2011) with two concerts at Symphony Space New York City working closely with two very different American composers – Charles Wuorinen and Evan Ziporyn. Later next year we will tour Southern Africa. On the CD front our next release in February 2011 will be Michael Nyman's Complete Piano Trios for MN Records and also we begin recording our first album for Naxos of music by Schoenberg, Korngold & Zemlinsky. Forthcoming commissions include new pieces from Stephen Gardener, Alasdair Nicholson and Gavin Higgins.
The Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan, violin; Robin Michael, cello; Mary Dullea, piano) perform with Lore Lixenberg (mezzo soprano), Patricia Rozario (soprano), Rowland Sutherland (flute) and Gerald Davidson (speaker) for Soundings IX.
At The Forge (3-7 Delancey Street, London, NW1 7NL on Wednesday 24 November. Presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum.
C:T talks to clarinetist/bass clarinetist Heather Roche
Tell us something about your background.
I'm Canadian, born and bred and did my first degree at the University of Victoria. Following this, I moved to London to study, where I stayed two years (at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama) before beginning my PhD at the University of Huddersfield. I now live in Cologne, Germany, where I'm freelancing and finishing up writing my doctoral thesis.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, one of the most celebrated contemporary composers, died this morning in a Katowice hospital after a protracted illness.
He would be aged 77 in three weeks’ time. The announcement was made at 11.30 by Polish Radio 2, which interrupted its regular programming and continued with the Third Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the work which made Gorecki world famous in the early 1990s.
Last month, Górecki received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest state distinction.
Ok, we all need to wake up and take note of what may be coming our way. No one, surely, can have failed to notice that the UK University sector is about to take the biggest hit imaginable from the forthcoming cuts instigated by the current coalition government. According to Universities UK head, Professor Steve Smith, the Browne Review sets out figures that "confirm our worst fears” signaling a £3.2bn or 79% cut from teaching and £1bn from research in the immanent Spending Review, and according to Professor Smith, there “remains is a terrible danger of the valley of death becoming a reality for all institutions.”
What is less obvious is that arts and humanities are to endure the worst of this slaughter. If I am correct, it is evident that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and mathematics) can tangibly demonstrate at least an 8-fold return on investment and so the terminally unimaginative amongst the ranks of our elders and betters will seize upon this as confirmation of their need to stem the tide of messy and pointless pursuits such as humanities and arts. The fallout from this could see an implosion of arts and humanities studies and research in HE, mass redundancies of academic staff, closures of arts departments and even of some whole universities.
The impact on us as composers could be catastrophic as we take hits from both sides: massive cuts in arts funding in general which will dry up commissions and projects, and then our possibilities for earning from teaching taken away by the Government's wholesale butchery of the university sector.
If anyone has any insights on how to offer a solid and convincing case for supporting and funding arts and humanities to the same extent as science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, please do add your comments. It may be obvious to us that the destruction of these irreplaceable, precious resources is going to have horrendous consequences for the UK in decades to come, but it needs to be pointed out to those making the decisions now.
Odaline de la Martinez has been a force in the London contemporary music scene for many years, as composer, conductor and founder of the ensemble Lontano and the recording label Lorelt.
Busily preparing for the September 30th start of Lontano's Third Festival of American Music, a series of five concerts focusing on contemporary composers, Odaline stopped to talk a bit about her musical background, experience and inspiration.
Tell us something about your background.
I was born in Cuba. My sister and I were sent to the States when we were eleven and were brought up by my aunt and uncle in Tucson, Arizona. Then my mother and brother arrived and I left for New Orleans. I studied at Tulane University and upon graduation received several awards and scholarships that brought me to the UK. I studied at the Royal Academy of Music where I founded Lontano and at University of Surrey where I did a composition MMus with Reginald Smith Brindle.
My early childhood is full of memories of Afro-Cuban drumming and dancing. They have always remained.
How did you start composing and conducting?
I've been composing since I was a young girl. I had pieces performed in high school in Tucson. I wanted to be a conductor since I can remember, but was told (not by my family) that women didn't conduct. It wasn't until I had been with Lontano for 5 or 6 years that I started conducting. Then I studied privately with Jan Harrington, who was conducting professor at Indiana University.
How did you come to settle in the UK?
I was brought here by a Marshall Scholarship from the British Government. Even before I left the Academy Lontano was already recording for the BBC, something quite unusual at the time. So as it happens I stayed.
Tell us something about Lontano and Lorelt.
You read already a little a about how Lontano started while we were students at the RAM, etc. At the time (1976) a lot of good composers like George Crumb, Rochberg and others were completely unknown over here. I also felt that there were many other British composers that were ignored as well. So we decided to concentrate on composers that I felt were original and good. We also began to incorporate the work of many women composers and Latin Americans as well. After all I thought, "I'm a woman, Latin American and a composer. I should be paying lots of attention to them."
Lorelt (Lontano Records Ltd) began in 1992 for similar reasons as Lontano. I saw really good pieces being recorded and deleted. This happened much too often. By then CDs had begun and it was no longer necessary to print thousands of LPs. You could start out with 1000 CDs and then reprint.
But the point of Lorelt was never to delete a CD and to concentrate on the three categories: contemporary and living composers, women composers and Latin American classical repertoire.
In 2006 when Lontano were 30 years old, we began to offer Digital Downloads on the Lorelt web site. We were also taken on worldwide by an excellent Digital Download Distributor. So we march on.
Which trends and ideas interest you as a composer, and as a conductor?
As a conductor I am open to all trends. I just like good pieces regardless of style. As a composer, I follow my own thing. I came to Europe and the UK looking for the Avant garde and discovered I was not an avant garde composer. Somehow a lot of my works have been written in search for Cuba. The memories of Afro-Cuban music and dancing are always there. And so they find their way into my music.
What is your musical philosophy, or your musical mission?
I don't have a philosophy as such. My mission: to try and do my bit to change the world by promoting music and composers that are in my opinion good and great but that have been neglected for whatever reasons.
Composing happens on its own - it's not attached to any philosophy or mission.
Tell us about the Festival of American Music: What are some of the Festival's themes and composer connections?
Some of the themes are Latin American composers living in the States, Connections with Pierrot Lunaire - a piece that has influenced many generations of composers, and American Voices - slightly opening the door to a myriad of choral music from the States. The festival begins with an "Open Recording" on 30th September with Lontano and the BBC Singers at St. Giles Cripplegate.
You can read more about the Festival and see the schedule and featured composers here:
Earlier this month I spoke with Marco Blaauw, trumpet-player with Cologne-based new music ensemble musikFabrik
Tell us something about your background.
My name is Marco Blaauw, I am a Dutch trumpeter. I started my professional career in 1991, originally as an all-around trumpeter, playing musical gigs, orchestra gigs, a lot of baroque music on the natural trumpet. In the fall of 1991, I met Peter Eötvös in a project with the Asko Ensemble. From that moment on, playing his music, playing Stockhausen's music, conducted by him, I knew that I wanted to specialize on contemporary music. From that moment on, I stopped all the other activities and concentrated just on contemporary music studying with Pierre Thibaud in Paris and with Markus Stockhausen in Cologne. I worked on a lot of solo repertoire, and I started working with composers of our time and that way generated a lot of solo pieces, chamber music pieces.
In 1993, I was firstly invited by musikFabrik to play with them. I played music by Birtwistle and there was a very good feeling with the group. I have been a member of the group since 1994. In 1998 we had a revolution in the musikFabrik. We as musicians had the opportunity to take the artistic leadership of the ensemble, which we started doing with a lot of passion. This democratic way of running the ensemble was a very slow learning process, but inspired most of us so much, that we started identifying with the ensemble more and more.
Low-flute specialist Carla Rees has been running rarescale since 2003, championing new chamber music for alto and bass flutes. With their Premiere Series 2010 starting on Saturday 18 September at Shoreditch Church in London, I asked her to tell us more about what rarescale do, and how composers can get involved with their work.
RF: rarescale has been around for a number of years, energetically championing new music by a very broad range of composers. For those readers who haven't come into contact with you, who are rarescale, and what is your mission?
CR: We are a chamber music ensemble with flexible instrumentation, which specialises in music using alto and bass flute. I began working to develop repertoire for low flutes and received pieces for a wide range of chamber music combinations, so I wanted a group with flexible instrumentation which could build programmes around the works rather than developing a narrow repertoire with limited instrumentation. I am passionate about the alto and bass flute and they have a lot of potential within a solo and chamber music context, so my aim is to work with composers to develop as wide a repertoire as possible. rarescale is a registered charity, and one of our aims is to educate composers in terms of how to write successfully for these instruments, as well as doing what we can to promote their works.
RF: Can you tell us more about the quarter-tone flutes you play? Who makes them, and how common are they? What draws you to them?
CR: My instruments are made by Eva Kingma in the Netherlands. They have full quarter tone system key work and are capable of achieving a full range of quarter tones without compromising tone colour. They are still relatively rare instruments – the alto was made in 2000 and is the first of its kind, although there are a few others around now, and the bass was made in 2007 and is the first with an upright design, which means the weight of the instrument is taken up by the floor rather than my arms! C flutes are now being made with the quarter tone system by two different makers and are becoming a little more common. It’s a fantastic design, because the extra keys don’t get in the way of standard playing – I’d use my quarter tone instruments for Bach or Mozart, just as much as I would for contemporary music. They offer a wide range of possibilities for alternative fingerings, timbral trills and contemporary techniques (especially multiphonics) and are incredibly versatile with microtonal tunings too. On top of that, they are very well made and have a beautiful tone and response.
RF: In the past, you had a remarkable open call for new works, through which you undertook to try to premiere any works with suitable scoring which were sent to you. Is the call still open, and are there any restrictions or guidelines about sending in scores?
CR: The call for scores is still open. I’ve received around 600 pieces since rarescale was founded in 2003, and on average I receive one new piece a week. As a result of that, I have to be selective about what we can perform, but I learn every piece I am sent, and it goes into the database so that it can be considered for a particular performance opportunity. I tend to build programmes around instrumentation, so it can sometimes take a while before we have enough pieces to justify including a certain instrument in one of the concerts, but I programme as many of the pieces that are up to standard as I can. Generally speaking, we rarely use more than 4 (or at a push) 5 players in a concert, for financial reasons, more than anything, and it is always easiest to programme works for alto or bass flute solo or with electronics or guitar. Other core instruments are soprano, bass clarinet, cor anglais and piano, but I am willing to accept music for any combination. I prefer to receive scores as PDFs or Sibelius files by email, and I am more than happy to receive a very wide range of compositional styles – I am trying to build a repertoire for the instruments, so variety is essential. This means the works need not include the full capabilities of the quarter tone system instruments, and I will also consider works which are suitable for educational use; I run masterclass courses for alto and bass flute players so I am also always on the look out for works my students can play.
RF: Saturday 18 September sees the first concert in rarescale's Premiere Series 2010. Can you tell us more about the series, and in particular Saturday's concert? What other performances and projects do you have coming up?
CR: We hold the Premiere Series every year, in Shoreditch Church. We usually do two or three concerts every autumn (this year there are two) which we use as a platform for some of the new works received during the year. The first concert (on 18th) is for alto/bass flute, soprano, bass clarinet and electronics, and we’re playing a range of new pieces and second performances, including by Michael Oliva, Rob Fokkens, Scott Wilson, Thomas Simaku, Jay Batzner and Kaja Bjorntvedt. We also usually include something by a well-known composer, and this concert, Rosie Coad will be performing La Fabbrica Illuminata by Nono, which is a fantastic piece for soprano and electronics. The second concert, on 6th November, is for alto flute, guitar and electronics, and includes pieces by Claes Biehl, Elizabeth Winters and David Bennett Thomas. In place of a third concert in this year’s series, we’ll be performing the premiere of Michael Oliva’s Requiem at St Albans Abbey on 20th November, with the fantastic chamber choir, Mosaic, under Nicholas Robinson. The piece is scored for choir, organ, alto flute and electronics. Also coming up is our 2011 masterclass course on the Isle of Skye, which has both an electroacoustic composition masterclass course, led by Michael Oliva, and a composers retreat, to enable composers to come and work in an inspirational environment and to meet other composers and some of the rarescale players.
Good to see some proms exposure for Israeli composer Betty Olivero, whose Neharót Neharót is being performed by the Britten Sinfonia at Cadogan hall this Saturday in a delicious sounding program including vocal group I Fagiolini. Olivero studied with Luciano Berio and I think the mixture of folk idioms and avant-garde sounds in Neharót Neharót clearly shows his influence. But she's a unique voice who deserves to be heard more.