I had a conversation about opera with Leonid Desyatnikov.Desyatnikov is one of Russia’s most prominent composers and since 2009 the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre.His opera Rosental's Children, based on the libretto by the highly controversial fiction writer Vladimir Sorokin commissioned and staged at the Bolshoi Theatre made an enormous and scandalous success.One of the opera reviewers described: ’’Here, Mozart is a clone brought to life at Doctor Rosenthal's laboratory. With the government subsidies for cloning and stem cell exploration, as well as for other areas of basic research, cut off during Boris Yeltsin's presidency in the early 1990s, clones of Mozart and other great composers-such as Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky - find themselves loose on Moscow's streets, exposed to the murky post-Soviet reality, memories whereof are still fresh for many Muscovites.’’The Russian State Duma accused the opera of being ‘pornographic’ and promted an investigation after its premier.Nevertheless, the opera received a Golden Mask Award.
Elena Langer:Can we please talk about opera?
Leonid Desyatnikov: Why opera?
EL: Because of your Rosental's Children, because you are the artistic director of an Opera House and because I have ulterior motives as I have just finished writing my own full-length opera and am very keen to discuss various aspects of the genre.Do you think you could describe what opera is in one sentence?
LD:This is too difficult!I can only offer a banal answer – a pinnaclein the history of European culture.
EL: Is opera a story told through music, singing and movement?
LD: No, it doesn’t necessarily need a story.There are many wonderful operas in which nothing really happens. Take Saint Francis of Assisi by Messiaen, or any baroque opera…If a composer uses mythology then the story lacks suspense.The development of the plot becomes unimportant as everybody knows what is going to happen.
EL: At least we now have established what is NOT important and that is the plot!
LD:Of course – look at Tristan and Isolde orSzymanowski’s King Roger….In any fiction film many more events take place than in an opera.
EL: What is important then?
LD: Well, what isimportant is that it creates some fit of passion, some metaphysical, otherworldly psychological human state expressed through music.Opera shows us characters in such emotional states that are otherwise impossible to express but through music.
EL: It is the only genre where we can hear the thoughts of several characters simultaneously…
LD: Yes, true, but we can’t hear the text in 95% of cases!Instead, we see a special moment, where a few characters are shocked. At least I personally always remember those kinds of bewitched moments.‘I’m frightened’ (‘Mne strashno’), for instance, from the first tableau of The Queen of Spades or the finale of The Marriage of Figaro.So after all, it doesn’t matter what they are saying, it matters what they all are feeling during those moments.Music is able to tell us more than the text in this situation.The characters are still, like in a child’s play ‘statue’.The depth of their feeling is interesting – the ensembles are not about what you see, but what you don’t see, about the inner side of life.
Excerpt from Desyatnikov's opera 'Rosental's Children'
EL: Could you name your 5 favourite operas?
LD: Five favourite operas for a professional composer would not be enough. Your favourite opera is the one, where you revel with each note, which you know by heart from beginning to end.There are music-lovers, who could sing each character’s lines from their favourite operas.
EL: True! My grandma could sing huge bits from Traviata and Eugene Onegin although she wasn’t a musician.
LD: Probably, you could only be so faithful to opera if you are a music lover, not a professional composer.Opera for me and should be for you, a kind of back garden, which you can’t regard with reverence. We have to cultivate this back garden because we are its owners.
EL: But I still regard Wozzeck or Lady Macbeth of Mtsens with reverence…
LD: As a matter of fact, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk doesn’t touch me much.Actually, the same could be said about Wozzeck. Although, the culmination moment in the d-minor invention couldn’t leave anybody untouched.The problem is that I know this opera from inside out - for a few months I was living with it.(Wozzeck was recently staged at the Bolshoi Theatre – EL).So it is really hard to be emotionally shocked by something that you know so well.My perception of it is not fresh enough.
EL:I’m always amazed by the German counterpoint, the intensity and richness of it.I don’t think you could find that level of counterpoint in Russian music.
This topic came up earlier, in Jim's Tap The Knot post.I wanted to respond to it, but was very busy - luckily with a good thing - playing music.
T'any rate, I wanted to put in the good word for the so called "pre-composition".It is an integral part of my process in order to arrive at the final piece of music, so I must give it thumbs up.We have lost a commonality.To approach a new piece of music requires the jostling of many issues, at times conflicting.But I love the entire process of developing the sound of my new compositions and projects.It is there that we can play ideas of sound off ideas of philosophy - or choosing to make sonic relationships with other art objects, or natural subjects.It can intertwine with other performing, visual, or literary arts.
There are many things new in our time compared to "theirs". The full inclusion of all sounds, electronic processing, and highly developed tonal, rhythmic, and formal methods provide powerful new forces and sonic possibilities to the composer.But "pre-composition" is also deemed new.Well, it is true that composers of old had a more restricted palette shall we say. And because of this, we need to spend more time developing a musical syntax for our pieces - something that was already established, to a degree, for the composers of old.But, the system was very flexible, and large scale forms were realized that are hard to believe simply sprung off the pen.Even within the highly structured vocabularyfunctional tonality and traditional form, that Wagner did not "pre-compose" with the Ring, Bach with the Art of Fugue, Beethoven with the Pathetique Sonata, or Schubert with the Gmin Quartet.
Does the sculptor just sit down and start chipping at rocks?I suppose it is possible...but I would gather that paper sketches are the norm.Does the novelist just start writing?Or perhaps, do they develop characters and plot lines first?Don't you think it best that they develop the character, so the very first words about them come from a deep understanding of who they are, where they have been, and where they are going?Yes, the reader discovers the character, but should the author as well, at least to a degree.Can we not see the relation to this in music composition?
I would never say that pre-composition is a must do list.But under a certain kind of perspective, it is always there. The notes...the sounds come from their history.
Most often for myself, some kind of structural plan has been thought out - notated to a degree, but rarely complete - graphic at times, and others in words. Likely, some kind of pitch structure is established to form a basis - at times rigorous, others very loose.Orchestration is often mapped out, but, all relating to form.Form is key - it is the reason.Reason is key - it is the form.
There is also subjectivity and music.It can challenge parameters. Certain subjects need appropriate sounds and structures, and one bends or discovers new technique to realize it.The subjective impulse bears down on the objective realization, experimentation, trial and error.It takes study - comparative and contrasting.
This is a process I like to embrace, not be scared of.I find the western classical tradition is a powerful beacon through the murky waters.The richness and depth of it holds much to contemplate, and the ability to coordinate musicians by the score is if nothing else, fascinating.There are many exceptional figures in the cannon.The rigor it demands as a performer help increase facility and ear training.And yes, the functional tonal system is indeed, an incredibly potent development of the human conscious.There is much to learn from this system and how it was used, and how it has changed and evolved.I believe it's fundamental logic can reach to many people - it has a kind of universality in its expressiveness.Markets may not bear all this witness, but they show habits, not importance.And I also believe that the classical music traditions over the world provide great structures for musical learning and development - many rich traditions.There is so much to learn - again, not scary, but rather exhilarating.
Pre-composition is all of those stages that lead you to that note on the paper (dot on the screen).In the end, a choice must be made - but how was it made?To be a composer one is a composer.Ok, Jedi geek stuff, but, well, true.Embrace the journey to the composition.Love the work.Learn and explore in life and in music."pre" Compose till your heart's content.Work out harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, formal structures etc - but always with a reason in mind, guiding the process.Lots of playing, singing, pacing, scribbling, walking, typing, doing.Work on ideas - develop or scrap them.Keep it flowing.The more you do, the better you get - it is essentially inevitable.
I have heard, in various incarnations, statements like "I think the problem with modern classical composers is they think too much".
Patrick Gazard has got in touch with us about an article he is writing for UK-based Classical Music magazine with regard to age limits on composition competitions and would love to hear people's thoughts about this topic, both composers and organisations who run competitions. Many competitions have an age-limit of 35 or 40. With composers like Elliot Carter still writing for 60+ years beyond that, is it really fair to limit competitions in this way?
Are you an organisation that runs a competition like this - if so what is the logic behind limiting the entries to a particular age? Are you a composer with experiences to tell, please give us your views. Please only post if you are happy for Patrick to quote you in the article. I will kick off with my own experiences in the comments section.
(comments for possible inclusion in Patrick's article need to be in by 21st June)
Earlier this month I spoke with British composer Ken Hesketh who has just finished a stint as Composer in the House with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchesra.
Tell us something about your background.
I was born in Liverpool to a non-musical, but incredibly supportive, family. I joined Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral choir at eight. After my voice broke, I joined the Merseyside youth orchestra and then the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I was fortunate to have all my early orchestral music performed by these orchestras (a fond memory was working with the late Vernon Handley around this time, a thoroughly enjoyable if daunting experience). I continued my musical studies at St. Mary's music school in Edinburgh and a little later at the Royal College of music. After my first post-grad I attended the Tanglewood summer course in 1995 where Henri Dutilleux was in residence. The summer of '95 was certainly one of the most special years of my life for reasons both musical and personal. I stayed in the USA to pursue a Masters degree in Composition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and during this time I was awarded the Shakespeare Prize scholarship from the Toepfer Foundation in Hamburg which, on the completion of the degree, allowed me a stay of almost 2 years in Berlin. I returned to London in 1999 where I took up the Constant and Kit Lambert Fellowship at the RCM. After two years I began to teach at the RCM.
The first time I went to Italy I was staying out in the Tuscany countryside, and being interested in bird watching, was surprised by how quiet the Italian countryside is. In Britain we’re used to a constant background sound of birds, in town gardens as well as in the woods or by the sea. In Tuscany it was common to hear the sound of guns in the distance and the fruits of their labours turned up on the restaurant menus, though I never saw larks’ tongues or blackbird pie! But every year thousands of small brown birds are shot in Italy and Greece, many of them en route for northern Europe. To me, it seems barbaric and ignorant, and here, the shooting of eagles or birds of prey will find its way into the newspapers, as well as the theft of eggs. The RSPB has over a million members, and it seems obvious now to protect bird life and cherish it. Yes, there are still plenty of people who like to shoot birds here, but we have civilised laws that stop them from wiping out whole species as has happened before.
I was watching the TV the other night and hating that stupid Dove moisturiser ad ‘I’m a man!’ using the William Tell overture as music. Really, there is no way anyone can listen to the William Tell overture now and access what it was originally intended to say. I am old enough to still think of the Lone Ranger when I hear it, but it has officially become a joke piece. If you hear the whole overture you can still dimly perceive some unique meaning, but unless you care you’re unlikely to know that Rossini did a cutting edge thing – made a political statement even -by introducing Italian folk music into classical opera. There are quite a few pieces of classical music now that have more or less lost their depth of meaning – whole chunks of Carmen and Tchaikovsky, the Hallelujah chorus and Zadok the Priest, and most sadly, the tenor voice, which is drip drip drip being turned into a joke voice by the media and pop music. Viz the Go Compare ad. On telly at the moment you have The Queen of the Night aria advertising Haribo sweets, the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly for Asda (why??) and the Barber Adagio over or under a burnt Warburton’s loaf. More and more classical music is being seen as a virtually free resource in a costly industry. Want to have a poignant moment in a historical drama? Stick in Nimrod. Want a noble patriotic tune? Why not have the big tune from Holst’s Jupiter. Stick in a bit of classical music just to give something the aura of sophistication. Or, frighteningly, to make a joke of culture. The trouble is, this music may come free in financial terms, but the cost is enormous. A piece of classical music is not owned by anyone (however much they may try), but is a work of art for the individual to experience in their own way. By attaching it to an image, especially the trashy images of advertising, you devalue, even debase the vocabulary of the music, and make it virtually impossible for anyone to have an individual experience of it without the image of a loaf of bread or a chocolate bar popping up. The piece of music with all its unique meaning, is lost to that person, even to a generation. Like the bird world, there are always plenty of people happy to savage and despoil without thought, either from idiotic and meaningless self indulgence, or from simple greed. Like the birds, once you protect them, it seems an obvious thing to do, and impossible to live without.
I think it is time to list classical music in the same way that buildings are listed. I really believe that it should not be possible to use classical music for commercial purposes. I would make it (if I ruled the world) illegal to use listed music for ads, for films, for any kind of background or commercial music. I think it needs time to recover, and I think people need to see its value and that the classical music world values it. Of course, you can knock a building down and it is gone, and I remember the shock of seeing that happen in a way that it could not now happen. A piece of music cannot be knocked down in that way, but its possibilities, deep and unfathomable, can be taken away from you for your lifetime, for no more reason than that somebody wants to make more money from their product. As a child, I used to laugh with the rest of my family at the Hamlet cigar ads, which used, famously, the Air on a G string, by Bach. Even the title of the piece made us laugh. Now it makes me almost want to cry that I cannot listen to this music, this spiritual music, without thinking of those ads. Nobody can give me back the clear head space I need to hear this music in a fresh way. In some terrible way, the music has been murdered.
Something for everyone... With the warm weather, parts of the London scene seems to be crossing over: A 'borderless' concert by the LS Collective, short operas by 'non-operatic' artists with ROH2, and the London debut of New York's 'genre-bending' Alarm Will Sound. But there are offerings for fans of modernists in traditional genres as well, with new and recent works by Lachenmann, Barry and Goehr.
Shadoworks / LS Collective
3 June 2010 / 1930 / Queen Elizabeth Hall
New multimedia work with music by Fujikura, Clementi, Goves, Ligeti, and Abrahamsen
C:T talks to renowned composer Simon Holt, who, amongst many other things is the current Composer in Association with BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Tell us something about your background.
Born in Bolton in '58. Scrap metal merchant for a father, who was (he died in '75) interested in jazz. He visited the Hot Club in Paris with his mother in the 50s and had played trumpet in his late teens in a group called the Jive Five, but I gather, according to my aunt, that they only ever rehearsed (in a church!) and never actually played a gig! He stopped playing soon after. I certainly never saw, let alone heard, him play the trumpet. He had records of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Stephan Grapelli, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, which he would very occasionally play. There were a couple of ancient 78s, one of which was an arrangement for organ of a Beethoven minuet. How that came to be in the house, I will never know. I bought singles like 'Jeepster' by T.Rex and some things by The Small Faces. Long gone. The first classical records I bought were the Decca Karajan recording of Holst's 'The Planets' and 2 Mozart piano concertos; 11 and 15 with Peter Frankl playing. I think I still have them, but no record player. But, the music that excited me as a kid was pop music as I didn't really know then that there was any other kind. A good friend of mine at school had classical records including Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto, which I can remember finding very compelling, but it was things like Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and 'Purple Haze' by Jimi Hendrix, that had the most impact on me at that stage. Even now I have about 19 Bowie albums on iTunes.
Interviews are coming in thick and fast at the moment, and the latest is with pianist Mark Knoop, who plays an adventurous recital at Kings Place next week featuring new works by Richard Beaudoin and the late Feldman piano solo piece For Bunita Marcus.
Tell us something about your background.
I grew up in Hobart, in the Australian state of Tasmania, and started playing piano at the age of six. I was lucky to have a fantastic first teacher, Eric Mitchell, who instilled in me an excitement and curiosity about a huge range of music. I moved to Melbourne in 1992 and studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, a performing arts school encompassing dance and drama as well as music, both classical and jazz/improvisation. There I joined the recently formed Libra Ensemble, later becoming one of its artistic directors, and we presented a wide range of new music, both Australian and international. Since 2000 I have been living in London, and now perform in many different situations, including with the Plus-Minus ensemble, directed by composers Matthew Shlomowitz and Joanna
Bailie, and Ensemble Exposé, directed by Roger Redgate.
"composers are generally lovely. (If that sounds like a suck up, it is, send us your music!)" say trumpet quartet Bella Tromba.
Tell us about the quartet, how it was formed, it's raison d'etre.
It was Vickie’s idea to get together and play. Originally it was just for fun, to help our playing develop and have a laugh together. For a few years we concentrated on building a repertoire, doing as many performances as possible focusing on giving an audience something really good. Now our focus is on building an international reputation, working with fine chamber musicians and playing great music. We are ambitious for the ensemble.
My apologies for the laziness of posting someone else's words (!), but I want far more people to be aware of Steve Soderberg's extremely acute insights into where we’ve come from, where we are, and the perils of where I fear we may be heading on the path of so-called serious music, art music, contemporary classical music, or however it is characterized these days.
Steve is Senior Specialist for Contemporary Music in the Music Division of the Library of Congress where he plans and coordinates internet, concert and collections-related projects focused on American contemporary classical music. He is also an authority on compositional and mathematical music theory as well as a prodigious thinker and commentator on new music in general and is a very significant figure in the contemporary American music landscape.
By way of introduction I want to paste his post ‘Prelude’ from Tap the Knot: a beautifully concise meditation on the perversities (or if you are of the brother/sisterhood, the glories) of being a C20th/C21st century composer.
It was thirteen or fourteen years ago that I wrote a short essay, "Riemannian Variations on a Theme by Milton Babbitt." The "theme" running through this essay was something I called a "Babbittian question" which I defined as a problem whose solution is likely to result in further questions. Nowadays I think of it even more cryptically as a question whose only correct answer is another question. Much more on this idea in later posts. But for now just try to hold this odd thought when reading the following re-edited paragraphs from the same essay:
Around 1900, give or take a quarter century, Western music's Common Practice died. But the hole it left was almost immediately filled with a different kind of commonality that survives with a vengeanceto this day.
Here's the situation.
On the one hand it is nearly impossible to imagine Mozart sitting down before a blank sheet of manuscript paper and asking himself, "How shall I arrange the twelve notes this time?" On the other hand it is equally difficult to imagine any composer of our present age sitting down in front of a blank sheet of virtual manuscript paper and not asking some version of that very question. Even the "neo-tonalist," simply trying (intuitively?) to write some of that good music left to be written in C major, at least feels its ominous presence.
Our current language points to the problem. If we were to utter words like "precompositional design" or "compositional algorithm" to Mozart, he would no doubt stare blankly at us. And if we were to mention "compositional theory" he might respond, "What other kind is there?" Borrowing a phrase from Michael Colgrass, "Instead he just wrote music. Poor soul."
So here it is. Laid bare.The truly radical core of the twentieth-century revolution in music.The single thing binding together the mostantagonistically disparate minds.
We have become self-conscious.
Now, after the Great Demise, we must think about it -- theorize if you will -- before we compose.Whether this is a one-time event beginning our career or a re-evaluation mid-career or, literally, every time we sit down to make a new piece of music.
Whether we want to be serialists, atonalists, diatonicists, minimalists, maximalists, spectralists, microtonalists, fractalists, quasi-anarchists (even John Cage chose to use the I Ching), or proud naifs ...
before we get down to work -- before we can create --before we can compose, perform, listen, judge and bloviate -- there are decisions to be made and questions to be answered.