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.
Being a composer can be an interesting experience when it comes to performances. Quite often, once a piece is off our desk and in the hands of whoever is kind, brave or foolish enough to want to perform it, there is a sense that we are ever so slightly (or, indeed, completely) superfluous to proceedings. We may be invited to the performance - for that glorious smile and wave moment - and, when unavoidable, a final rehearsal. But I can't shake the nagging thought that our presence is too often really just for show - a rubber stamp for the performance, an added (if questionable) thrill for the rest of the audience, or perhaps even a public buck-passing for the performers (“if you didn't like it, talk to HIM/HER”...).
However, every now and then, an event comes along which turns this all on its head, an event where everything is arranged to let us composers know - or at least make us feel - that someone really does want to know what we think about our music.
So I'm very fortunate this year to have been asked to take part in Soundings, an annual event set up and run by Andrea Rauter of the Austrian Cultural Forum London. Started in 2004, Soundings brings together 6 composers - three each from the UK (or at least based here) and Austria - and some of the UK's top performers at the Austrian Cultural Forum in South Kensington for a week. During the week, the performers have open rehearsals with the composers; the composers get to talk about their work, both in formal presentations and over lunch; various eminent musical personalities are invited to discuss new music - again, both formally and informally; and two concerts of music by the resident composers are presented. In a situation like this, the composers have the opportunity to work intensively with the performers to develop performances that are truly collaborative, they get to know one anothers' work intimately and exchange ideas, and the audiences have an opportunity to hear carefully prepared performances in a friendly, serious but relaxed atmosphere.
This year, pianist Mary Dullea has curated two concerts in which the Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan, violin; Robin Michael, cello; Mary Dullea, piano), soprano Patricia Rozario, mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg, flautist Rowland Sutherland, clarinettist Tom Lessels and speaker Gerald Davidson perform music by myself (Robert Fokkens), Ian Vine, Emily Howard, Elisabeth Harnick, Stephan Maria Karl and Gerhard Krammer. The theme of the week is “Inspired by Mahler” - taking into account the great Austrian composer's 150th birthday. Other events during the week include presentations by the composers, and discussions with Gillian Moore (South Bank Centre), Clarke Rundell (RNCM, Ensemble 10/10), Matthias Lošek (Wien Modern), and broadcaster Annette Moreau.
The main events of Soundings VIII - the two concerts - are on Wednesday 12 and Thursday 13 May at the ACF London (28 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1PQ). So if you'd like to hear some interesting new music presented by excellent performers next week - and see some contented composers into the bargain - join us next week in South Kensington.
Ensemble Klang are a Dutch-based new music ensemble that have been making great waves in the Netherlands and further a field for the last few years. I have known some of the members of the group for nearly ten years now, and seen them grow as an ensemble into one of the premiere new music groups of our time. They have just released three new CDs, each disc dedicated to the music of a single composer one of which features my music. I thought it a good time to interview Pete Harden, composer, guitarist and artistic director of Ensemble Klang about the group, their background and what it’s like being a new music ensemble in the 21st century.
Can you tell us a little about your background, how you got started in music, how you ended up in contemporary music?
These days I am a walking cliché: a guitar-playing composer who used to play in bands! Well, with Ensemble Klang I kind of still do play in a band.
As a child in Hampshire (UK) I was a chorister in the local Abbey choir and learnt classical guitar, switching to electric as a teenager. So my early musical experiences mixed Gregorian Chant, Nirvana and ‘Switched on Bach’ (one of my parents’ favourite LPs!). While at university (Birmingham) I played in bands as well as new music groups before moving to the Netherlands for further studies in composition with Louis Andriessen. That was ten years ago now, and I've remained in The Hague ever since.
After finishing studies I found I had built close working relationships with performers here, I had some pieces to write, and Ensemble Klang was already busy. Looking back now, I see that I've been gradually drawing myself into a position where I can make the music that I love the most, performing it and composing it.
Tell us about how Ensemble Klang got started; how did you get involved?
All seven of us studied, more-or-less simultaneously, at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. We had played together within larger (up to 40-piece) new music ensembles and the group came out of a desire to form something slightly less unwieldy. Important criteria were that we would perform without a conductor, and that we would have a fixed set of performers: so we'd work more like a band or a string quartet, developing our sound and technique together so that we'd play with one musical mind.
The instrumentation of the group (2 reeds, trombone, percussion, piano/keys, guitar and a sound/electronics guy) gives us a flexibility which not only has a wide dynamic and coloristic range, but also a sound that can touch on diverse stylistic worlds: not only Dixieland, Rock, Big Band, even Jazz Fusion, but also Lachenmann, Lucier, Glass and of course Andriessen. But basically we were seven people with a serious hankering for contemporary music!
You seem to have a very hands-on approach to artistic direction. You approach composers rather than the other way around. Can you explain the reasons behind that choice and what they mean for the group?
Well, I should first say that we haveworked with composers who have approached us, so I don't want to in any way discourage composers from contacting us! But you're right, we tend to make the first move.
Because of the unique instrumentation of the group we only ever play works specifically written for us. And being a chamber group we all get pretty personally involved in each project – we give everything we have to each new piece, we believe there's no point doing it otherwise. There’s no one in the group who simply turns up for rehearsals: we're all in contact with the composer; involved with workshops on material at various stages of composition (depending on what's needed); and everyone mucks in with a multitude of behind-the-scenes tasks. So everyone is quite heavily invested in each piece, which means that the decisions about which composers we work with are made quite carefully.
We're also not tied to performing a certain number of programmes or concerts per year so we have the freedom to play only when we find a composer with whom we want to work, and then only presenting it when we're ready to. It sounds simple, but it's a luxurious position to be in – one that keeps all of us passionate and enthusiastic about every next concert.
We're known for working with a circle of composers of our own generation, composers with whom we're building hopefully long-lasting relationships – Peter Adriaansz, Kate Moore, Andrew Hamilton, Matt Wright, Roi Nachshon to name but a few. But we also work with composers who are already more established and whose music we adore – people like Heiner Goebbels, Tom Johnson, Phill Niblock and Louis Andriessen.
A few days ago the PRS Foundation announced the short-list for this year's New Music Award. The award offers £50,000 to a creative team towards the creation and performance of a ground-breaking new work. The award seems to be attempting to do for contemporary classical music what the Turner Prize has done for contemporary art - in particular, to attempt to stir up controversy or interest by selecting projects that have a wacky or unusual approach to making music.
I spoke with one of this year's short-listed candidates, composer Marc Yeats about his life and work, and about his 'SatSymph' proposal.
Tell us something about your background.
I didn’t write this, but it’s as good a précis of my background as any.
Born in 1962, an only child, brought up in London, attended a Roman Catholic school, had traumatic treatment at the hands of his father, losing his mother to cancer in 1977, when he was just 15, by which time he’d already commenced serious painting sold through private galleries, moved to Devon with his volatile father, ran a confectionary shop, experienced bankruptcy, yet all the while yearning to creatively express himself.
A director friend told me the other day about a well-known annual Irish arts festival where some events are held in the local cathedral and, although the church hierarchy is very supportive in general of the programmes, the two rules for concerts and plays there are that there must be no swearing and no blues. Because blues, of course, is the devil’s music. This reminded me of Cliff Richard’s song from a few decades ago, Why should the devil have all the good music? and the notion that did and still does exist in certain circles that there are such things as good and bad music purely because of genres rather than content. I remember, being closely affiliated in my youth with my university’s Christian Union, how there was then even a notion that Stravinsky’s Le Sacre was aberrant in some way – those naughty rhythms, perhaps.
Are these ideas simply the result of a misplaced Puritanism, the same kind which has led one bishop in Tipperary to ban concerts of any music from the local churches? Was Plato perhaps on the right track when he warned against the dangers of music because it could adversely affect the temperaments of listeners? Would he, in fact, be less worried if he could hear much of the music being written today? Because, to my ears, the notion of music as an emotional medium, a notion I cherish, seems to be out of favour with a number of today’s composers. To be sure, we are, on the face of it, far removed from the heady days of number matrices and the myriad other devices for keeping the composer and his or her music as far from each other as possible, but on closer inspection it still seems to be deeply uncool to express oneself through one’s music. Instead we are offered an endless parade (no pun intended there!) of irony and repetition, dumbed-down and numbed-up tinkling and electronica, a blurring of job descriptions between composer and sound artist warmly embraced by night-time DJs everywhere so that the last thing one can hope for, in concert or on the radio, is the opportunity to feel something.
Yes, I’m over-dramatizing the situation, but I can’t help feeling that the desire to express something – anything - is seen too often as Bad Taste, and I’m not sure how we came to be in this position, or how to get out of it. Other than to keep doing what we – we expressionists – are doing.
May starts bright and early at 7am for Vexations with London Sinfonietta players and 10am for an Alexander Goehr Study Day with musicians from the RNCM at Wigmore Hall. We then move on to major 20th c. orchestral statements, a multimedia opera, string quartet improv. with silent film, and other goodies.
Vexations London Sinfonietta
1 May 2010 / from 7:00 / Kings Place
London Sinfonietta's performance of this Satie 'happening' can be visited any time during the day - the music will be set against a moving image installation.
Alexander Goehr Study Day
Musicians From the Royal Northern College Of Music, Clark Rundell conductor
1 May 2010 / from 10:00 / Wigmore Hall
The day’s three concerts will feature works of instrumental, vocal and chamber music that span a period of nearly fifty years and closes with a performance of Sing, Ariel, a cantata from the 1990s which pays homage to, among others, his teacher Olivier Messiaen.
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.