Stuart MacRae first rose to prominence when his Violin Concerto was performed at the 2001 Proms by Tasmin Little. His 2008 piece Gaudete - also featured at the Proms - set the poetry of Ted Hughes and marked a significant development in his musical language. Recently he has written a number of stage works, including The Assassin Tree (2006) with a libretto by Simon Armitage and Remembrance Day for Scottish Opera's Five:15 series
Tell us something about your background.
I was born and brought up in Inverness, though both my parents are from Skye so I spent a lot of time there too. Both my parents have 'normal' jobs, but they've been members of the Inverness Gaelic Choir for as long as I can remember - so music was always encouraged at home. I left school early and went to Durham University to study music, then Guildhall to do a Masters in composition, finishing when I was 20. I was in a big hurry in those days, for no particular reason. After that I stayed in London for a few years, spent a year in Paris and then moved to Glasgow, where I'm still based.
I went to Wilton’s Music Hall last night to hear a Kreutzer concert of Mozart and pieces by Rolf Martinsson and our very own Jim Aitchison. Great concert. One of the Mozart pieces was the ‘Nannerl’ septet, written to celebrate his sister’s birthday. If you have been to any of the Kreutzer concerts you will know that their violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved presents all the music in a most enlightening manner, making you want to rush home and google everything and everybody and download the music onto iTunes, which indeed I did. He talked about the Mozart septet as an undiluted expression of joy, Mozart’s joy at the thought of his home and family. When Peter was talking about joy, I was reminded of someone I met in Utah a few years ago, who said that she was interested in the concept of joy, which could only come after you had been truly penitential. I said at the time that I didn’t think I had ever felt joy, which I think of as an extreme emotion like ecstasy or murderous rage. It has a transcendental or spiritual quality that is very different from happiness or content. (And, what I didn’t say was that being truly penitential was a dubious concept in itself, not so much a grey area as a minefield.)
Mozart as a child
In the last blog I think I said that I believe every piece of music starts with the composer, his emotional life, something that people often forget when they temporarily take possession of a piece. Would anyone who has read about Mozart deny that he had an extremely complex character? – if you have ever met a prodigy as I have, they have a strange combination often of genius and arrested development. The value of their genius to the world can make people blind to everything else about them, especially once they are dead! But I believe that Mozart was constantly returning to his lack of childhood as a theme in his music – and more than anything, after a particularly dark or serious passage or movement he seems to erupt into a savagely hysterical burst of childishness. People talk so fondly of Mozart, as childlike or – joyous, whereas to me it always sounds like Mozart has gone into denial about whatever it was he touched upon. The sudden turn that the music sometimes takes into child-like happiness is like an arrow that points to the darkest sadness, even despair.
The piece that he wrote straightaway after his father’s death, the Musical Joke, parodies bad composing, an astonishing thing to do just after Leopold’s death. Yet you never read anything to this effect, that this piece is almost like post-traumatic stress syndrome in action, music by turns childish, vicious and angry, painfully unfunny like the unwanted guest at a wake. It is even played as a piece of easy listening!
Maybe you think I am over-analysing, and after all, this is just my personal reaction, which is tinged with my own psychology. But I do think that the colossal mythologizing of Mozart that has gone on over the last 100 years or so has made it difficult to hear (or play) the fine gradations of feeling in his music, in any case, those feelings that do not conform to the cute wunderkind of legend, and the Salzburg Tourist Office. I remember the first time I heard Mozart played on period instruments, when the gut strings seemed to underline the unhappiness that lies at the core of the music, how I felt that he was a Lost Boy, and not the silly-ass of Amadeus.
As for composers who can genuinely reach a transcendental level of joy, the obvious choice is J.S. Bach, who makes a deliberate attempt to spiritually work through his ‘issues’ in his music. I can honestly say that I have never written anything joyous, and wonder what I would do if I was asked to write a piece on the subject of joy, or that was undilutedly joyous in nature. It would be an incredibly challenging commission for me. Maybe I am not ‘truly penitential’ enough yet!
After posting my previous article, I was astonished to find myself so quickly on the receiving end of a few negative reactions to the text and to my work (not on the CT website it must be said). While I felt the speed of some of the responses was indicative of presumptions and criticism leveled without the foundation of any enquiry into the context or substance of my work, it also occurred to me that I had rather brought this upon myself by presenting such an abbreviated and unexplained overview of my activities with Antony Gormley and visual art in general. And so it seemed a timely moment to investigate some of the issues raised, with reference to the Memory Field project.
In summary, the main objections focused upon my posting of my ‘sound-map’ of the Angel of the North, in response to which it was stated that to corral notation into the shape of a 2 dimensional angel was meaningless in terms of how that shape would relate to the resulting sound, and further to this, to use the notion of retrograde in sound as any kind of representation of a retrograde visual structure (as in symmetrical forms such as a body), was similarly meaningless when transferred over into the new domain. It was also stated that the experience of music resides solely in the orbit of what is heard (i.e. it is a hermetic auditory-only experience) and all reference to the visual is either coincidental and/or irrelevant.
My critics should have gone so much further; the ludicrous fallacy at the core of my approach and the glaring inconsistencies in execution are seen in the detail of the sound-map of the Angel which contains far more offences than those singled out. This includes a row of notes that (more or less) progressively expands through interval as an allusion to the expansion proposed by the sculptor in the Angel of the North. However, the ‘expansion’ as exposed by me in pitches is not in any way equal in increment or disposition and is therefore certainly inconsistent with the smoothly graded expansion of the sculpture. Worse than this though is the direction of expansion: in the sculpture this occurs from the centre outwards, but if you lay my pitches out on an image of the Angel, my expansion happens in the reverse direction to that of the sculpture, from the wing edges into the central core. Then there is the employment of retrograde in pitch in order to allude to the bi-lateral symmetry of the sculpture. The concern expressed was that a retrograde in music cannot be perceived as easily or vividly as a symmetrical visual retrograde, and that perhaps plain repetition would have been a more representative analogue. The rest of Memory Field contains a host of similar such transgressions, indeed it is riddled with, and built upon them, and I shall come to some more of them later.
Not only are all of the charges true, but I was more than aware of them beforehand. What is sad, though I suppose understandable, is that some such views miss the whole point, perhaps rushing past a world or two in their haste to these conclusions, conclusions often drawn by those in fear of preserving a perceived purity of particular subjective delineations of what music is and what music isn’t, where it is and where it isn’t, or at least, an attempt to pronounce upon how relationships (if there are any) between the visual and the sounded should be properly perceived. The huge irony in all this for me is that my way of working and my own beliefs about this ‘art in sound’ are probably so close to the beliefs behind those criticisms which were made on the basis of no familiarity whatsoever with me or my music.
In many ways, the project to respond to visual art in music is hopelessly flawed: the sheer volume of inconsistencies and incongruities between the spaces in which each discipline exists and the behavior and qualities of their respective material vehicles are so at odds that one can see why logic demands a separation. And yet history demonstrates a consistent compulsion on the part of so many composers to explore links between these worlds, be it indirectly through visual elements in opera, or imaginary visual and narrative realms in programmatic music, or actual responses to specific artworks, or even hybrids that borrow from a variety of disciplines.There just isn’t space here to list all the examples of where composers have allowed the walls between sight and sound to become porous, and that is without mention of those who possesses a neurological bridge in the form of synaesthesia (the completely individual nature of this condition notwithstanding).
In the case of my own practice, I think many people will be surprised by just how conventional my approach is: I write traditionally scored concert music using an array of the most basic and well known traditional musical devices that any graduate from a typical Western European-type music education might expect. The only slight difference is that I don’t mind showing an audience some of the strange ways material for a piece can begin and that as this has very often found its origins in visual arts of late and I have found it useful to let people know this.
I know perfectly well the nature of where the objections lie. The controversy described above has all emanated from just one manifestation of the many different kinds of starting points I play and experiment with when beginning a piece. The interesting thing was the nature of the assumptions made. One of my ways of working with an artwork has been to try to lay the form out on manuscript paper, to see what happens. As pointed out, this is very often a fruitless exercise with the sounding result certainly not as interesting as the visual effect and I routinely reject vast amounts of material generated like this. Sometimes it does produce something arresting, but yes it could be argued that no matter how good, there cannot be any substantial or aesthetically relevant link between the curve on a
Recent or soon to be graduates from the Yale school of music comprise a fine collection of young composers, including Timo Andres whose album length work for two pianos was recently released by Nonesuch, and Ted Hearne who won the Gaudeamus prize ( and whom we interviewed on CT here). Now five of this talented group have enterprisingly got together to put on a show of their music at New York's Le Poisson Rouge this April 12th. I interviewd Chris Cerrone about the project.
Tell us about the upcoming concert.
Sleeping Giant is the premiere concert presented by a group of emerging composers that have come out of the Yale School of Music over the last few years. We'll be presenting new works by Timo Andres, Ted Hearne, Jacob Cooper, Robert Honstein and myself. I cooked up the idea for the concert when the five of us spent a weekend up in Westport, NY at the Honstein family summer cabin. There was so much joy in the group of us spending time together that for me it made sense for us to put on a concert. We're all close friends with a shared history and a strong desire to make music. As for the name, we wanted to name the concert after something New Haven-y, so we finally settled on Sleeping Giant, a park in Hamden, CT, an homage to our professor Ingram Marshall, who is famous (at least around Yale) for taking hikes and collecting mushrooms in that park.
I first met the sculptor Antony Gormley in 2007 in the spacious drawing studio of his magnificent studio complex in Kings Cross. I seem to remember our meeting was cut short by his having to rush off to an emergency dental appointment with toothache (at least I hope that’s what it was). Nonetheless, Antony was fascinated by the idea of his work being used to generate music and generously encouraged what were continuing to be, my faltering and mostly frustrated efforts. It took 2 years to travel from the first ideas to the finished piece. Initially I found the severity and concentration in the material execution of Antony’s work left me with no purchase with which to begin anything.
In this first, dentally compromised, meeting with Antony, I was fascinated to discover that, in common with the other artists I have worked with, he was acutely aware of what he felt to be the enormous affective power of music. This was reinforced during our second meeting at his groundbreaking 2007 Hayward Gallery show. Many of us will remember the extraordinary Blind Light installation: a 25 sq m cloud chamber into which the visitor could venture and ‘disappear’. In the chamber, the feeling of being in contemporary central London rapidly receded and viewers found themselves in what felt, psychologically and perceptually, like a completely limitless space where the only visual experience was whiteness, apart from a few of the most fleeting shadowy fragments of disembodied companions.
The drama of the Blind Light experience was irresistible and overwhelming. In discussion with Antony afterwards I was astonished to hear him confess that Blind Light was his ‘pathetic attempt to mimic the effect of music.’Disarmingly modest this may have been, but the link to the effect and affect of music was fascinating and here was a concrete musical analogue: from the proposition in Antony’s sculpture of the body as a ‘lever on space’ to the idea of music as a field. However, this raised as many conundrums as it solved: it yielded only a rather nebulous idea with no concrete starting points with the obvious problem that music already is a field.
The first turning points came through two linked encounters. Firstly, I discovered that Antony was strongly affected by the writings of the great medieval thinker, St Augustine, in particular his reflections upon memory as recorded in book X, chapters VIII and XVI of the Confessions. Augustine’s miraculous words describing memory as “a spreading, limitless room within…” resonated at once with Antony’s preoccupation with the body as a field, and by extension, the pervasive effect of music. The second encounter took the form of media reports I heard by chance concerning public reaction to the installation of Antony’s work, Another Place, on Crosby Beach. Aside from controversy over the 100 cast iron figures looking out to sea somehow causing either offence or a safety hazard, I was astonished to hear ordinary people relating how they came to ‘be’ with the sculptures, as if they possessed strength to bring comfort and to withstand and hold the spectrum of human vulnerabilities brought to them. This was a pivotal moment.
I now had a formula I could exploit: real memories, in the form of text (which therefore suggested the use of a singer) dispersed over constellations of (abstract) structure derived directly from Antony’s sculpture. This would give a level of operation at the fore to mid-ground, but I also needed an overarching form. This came from 2 sources: one was a response to the structure of Augustine’s text in chapter VIII of the Confessions and the other came from Antony’s words to me regarding his most famous work, the Angel of the North. As it happened, both corresponded to a process of augmentation: Antony described the Angel in terms of his expansion series of work (you can see the radial ribs on the sculpture concentrate at the centre and increasingly disperse towards the wing-tips). Augustine’s text dealing with memory, by and large, begins with descriptions of local senses and expands outwards through to reflections upon the vastness of what the mind can comprehend - in stark contrast to its apparently diminutive physical dimensions. The next tasks were to assemble the various ingredients and, over time, learn the ‘language’ of what I had in front of me.
After literally months of searching, I found memory fragments in the form of texts which I then I broke down into an order that I hoped roughly fitted with the trajectory of expansion described above. I decided to begin by using fragments of sensory recollections of taste, colour, smell, weather etc. Next, in what could be described as being in ascending order of increasing physical distance from the mind, I chose a subject that described consciousness engaging with the human world: a world of others and of conflict. I decided upon a recent event within the European continent: the Srebrenica massacre which occurred during the 1995 Bosnian war and the words of a father calling for his missing son and those of his mother subsequently at his unmarked grave. The use of the text was made possible by the kind permission and invaluable advice of one of the UK’s le
Taking a bow is one of those curious aspects of being a composer. I've sometimes caught myself wondering what is going on in a composer's mind as they jump on stage- does this moment in the spotlight make it all worthwhile; is it a terrible duty which would be avoided if only it could; or is it something somewhere in between?
I still find it a quiet source of pride how few composers are ready for that moment in the spotlight, we emerge tramp-like and awkward - the epitomy of uncool, uncommercial - we come on stage in our un-ironed jackets, or with a sock still stuck in one trouser leg. Then we scurry across the stage as quick as we can, not knowing where to put ourselves, and take an awkward bow. There's an interesting paradox in the way so many composers are so unnatural on the stage: we spend our entire lives trying to create something that is after all intended for performance 'on the stage'. We are aware of the finest, subtlest details of how certain effects in our music will come across - we can subdue an entire crowd, get them laughing or crying with our notes; and yet when we have to present ourselves in person on the stage we are likely as not to stumble on the steps before we even get there!
I for one would love ocassionally to attend performances where I wasn't called up to the stage - for starters one is forced to sit in a poor seat at the edge of the row, probably near the back, so as to effect a quick and easy emergence. Then, rather than listening to the music, you spend the entire concert wondering how you will get past that lady with the large hat sitting right in the way of the stage access; do I just shake the conductor's hand, or do I make my way through the entire ensemble kissing and hugging all ten of them, forcing the audience to keep clapping while I do (and risking that they might stop!).
At the end of the day, we composers probably secretly quite like a bit of adulation from time to time, but there's no doubt on the whole we're much happier and more comfortable when we get back to our desks and have only the concerns of the manuscript page to occupy us.
The Aurora Orchestra seems to be going from strength to strength. Now in their fifth year, they recenly debuted at Kings Place where they have a new home, and have just announced a major three year residency with LSO St Lukes which will feature a series of cross-arts collaborations, the first of which I'm attending this Friday (full disclosure: I was offered a freebie) featuring Berio's Laborintus II and John Adams's Son of Chamber Symphony.
Since I first heard about them a few years ago, I sensed a freshness in their approach and programming; and the quality of their playing was confirmed when I saw their production (together with Mahogany Opera who also feature on Friday) of the wonderful but rarely performed (let alone staged) Renard by Stravinsky.
New ensembles come and go, but these guys have an air of permanence to them.
It seems to have fallen to Radio 4 (rather than 3) to have informative and engaging programmes about classical music. The last one I heard was about the enduring power of ‘When I am laid in earth,’ by Purcell. Various bods were wheeled out to deliver their epiphanies and insights, and I have to say that I really enjoyed Alison Moyet’s gorgeous rendition, a fifth down – how much easier to do that tricky word ‘remember’ -normally on a top G! Everyone had their point of view, including the muso who declared it ‘the best melody of the 17th century!’ Does it irritate you as much as me when people create league tables and play off one unique work of genius against another? I shouted ‘shut up!’ at the radio.
What was absent from a composer’s point of view was just that – the composer’s point of view. To me, whatever a piece of music becomes, whatever peg the composer hangs it on, it always starts with the composer. Amongst all their sense of personal ownership, nobody seemed to wonder about Henry Purcell, the human being, and what his personal input had been into those 40 bars of exquisite pain. Could anyone doubt that he identified with Dido rather than the colourless Aeneas? This is not an idle point, for Aeneas is on a mission to create a new country, surely something a creative person might identify with, and yet it is Dido’s fragility and easy decline into early death that is drawn with such pain. I wondered why nobody mentioned the surely pertinent fact that Purcell was a child of 6 or so when the Great Plague hit London, and then the following Fire. And/or wondered whether Purcell, still a young man, had just experienced something similar by way of a rejection.
It is the vagueness of music and it being a non-verbal language that makes people take ownership of it, and elbow the person that was the composer out of the picture. This doesn’t seem to happen so powerfully in the visual arts and it certainly doesn’t happen with books or poetry. It is a wonderful thing to become totally engrossed in a piece of music. I like to binge on a particular piece, playing nothing else for days, - the music becomes subsumed into your existence like the first days of being in love. The downside of this is the ludicrous and depressing mythologizing of dead composers that goes on. If you believe that some God-given gift is at work then that rules out any influence from dreadful upbringings, or hot-housing parents. Let’s face it, living composers are nothing like the Jill and John picture of dead ones. You can have a pizza and a laugh with them, get irritated by them, owe them money, talk about mobile phone tariffs with them. They can sleep with your wife or have to go to AA.
Recently I read a brilliant book about Schumann by Peter Ostwald called Music and Madness, - a psychological study based on letters and diaries. I nearly laughed out loud to read that Schumann, as a young man, may have had a sexual relationship with William Sterndale Bennett. Immediately, the two young men seemed totally recognisable as people I know now, and I felt a tremendous rush of sympathy for them. It made me want to listen to some Sterndale Bennett as well.
How different to the repulsion I feel (and I seem to be alone in feeling)towards the latest biogs of composers on BBC4, by Christopher Nupen, in which a profoundly reverential tone is taken and the things which influence other people – ‘normal’ people – are ignored – stuff like alcoholism, or child abuse. Psychologically, they are 100 years out of date. Near the end of the Schubert episode, which seemed to be made up of one long close up of the pianist’s right hand (modern piano of course – nothing too real!), Nupen mentioned in a hushed voice that Schubert had contracted syphilis. Now I am shouting at the TV! – When, where, why?? But already he has moved on.
It is this ghastly attitude to dead composers that bedevils the lives of living ones. The lack of compassion towards their everyday existence, the lack of interest from the press as compared to the truly extraordinary interest there is in books and writers, the impoverishment that accompanies the lives of 90% of composers, is only enhanced by this romanticising of the dead. Living composers can only ever be a disappointment.
Last year I spent a couple of days at the Leeds Conductor’s Competition: Britain’s leading competition of this type, which happens every 2-3 years. I was there because an orchestral work of mine was being used as the modern test piece at a stage in the event in which there were only six contestants left. Each competitor had a slot to rehearse some Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, and my own piece. It was a fascinating experience on so many levels, not least in that it gave me the opportunity to hear my own music interpreted by six different conductors!
Since then I’ve spent some time musing over the nature of competitions, and come to the conclusion that there are basically three main types;
1) The Dead Certain. This is the sort of competition you get in sport; clear winners, and losers. Whoever runs faster than everyone else/jumps higher/scores more points or goals.
2) The Somewhat Hazy. Here the framework of winning and losing is more complex. I’d put arts based competitions in this category; the Turner Prize, Booker Prize, the Leeds Piano Competition (as well as the conducting one), and so on. Within this context a panel of judges may well take differing views on the quality of the artistic creations they have to appraise, and how to rank them, but they still have access to what they asses; they can read books, see works of art, and listen to performances.
3) The Downright Dubious. There’s only one candidate for this category; composition competitions. Here’s a typical scenario - one hundred and fifty composers submit orchestral works which are up to 20 minutes long, they are scrutinised by a panel, and the winning composition gets a cash prize and performance. At no point in this process do the judges get to hear the pieces in question! Given this situation one wonders how on earth it is possible to make a critical assessment of as much as fifty hours of dense and difficult music without even hearing a note performed (and forget midi playbacks, they’re a waste of time for orchestral works, and everything else really).
Instead of these random lucky-dip composition competitions wouldn’t it be wonderful for composers (especially younger ones) if every orchestra was to set aside a couple of sessions a year in which they’d read through and record previously unperformed orchestral works. Not an ‘open to the public’ workshop (these often seem to waste time with meaningless discussions that involve the audience), but simply a chance for a composer to hear his or her piece, get feedback from the orchestra, and take home a good quality recording.
No prizes, winners or losers: just a chance for composers to listen and learn in a sympathetic environment. I know that this is a crazy idea, given the scarcity of rehearsal time for most orchestras, but it’s a nice thought.