With a good friend of mine, the Mexican composer Mauricio Beltrán, I have just spent a fascinating few days in the Sacher Foundation Library in Basel, Switzerland.
Paul Sacher (1906-1999) was a Swiss conductor and musical patron. Though born into a poor family, in 1934 he came into vast riches through marriage to Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin, heiress to the Hoffmann-La Roche drug company. It was this fortune that enabled him to commission music from some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, including Bartok, Stravinsky, Martinù, Honneger, Henze, Strauss, Birtwistle, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, Carter and Boulez. Many of these composers, as a result of a commission, would give an autograph manuscript to Sacher as a gift. These became the basis of his collection of a host of twentieth-century composers’ scores, sketches, letters, recordings and other items, including, perhaps most significantly, the complete estate of Stravinsky, purchased in 1983. Sacher established his Foundation in 1973, his archive eventually being housed in Munsterplatz, Basel. It is one of the most important collections of its type in the world. A full list of composers with material at the archive may be found on the Foundation’s website, here.
It may seem a strange thing for a composer to want to dig around in a library for several days. Our research was, however, something I think that would be of interest to composers here: we wanted to cast some light on the composition process of Henri Dutilleux, who is notoriously reticent on the subject, viewing the moment of creation as in some sense sacred. Some of the Sacher Collection is so in demand (the works of Stravinsky especially) that one can only study microfilm of the original material. We were lucky to be able to handle the original sketches. What we found, I’m pleased to say, was a composer whose working methods would be perfectly familiar to the average pen and paper composer. Anguish, revision and self-doubt reflected in many layers of rubbings-out, scribbled margin indications and excised and sellotaped-over pages. There were, however, some exciting discoveries we made from the sketches. We’re still unpacking the implications of these and will write them up in a more scholarly manner in due course.
In the meantime, I write this simply to recommend this kind of activity as a composerly tonic. I must admit that I went to Basel with some reservations; the expense of Switzerland, the worry that we wouldn’t find anything new. The first of my concerns was undoubtedly true—we both managed, for example, to have ten minute taxi-rides from the airport that cost £35— but Basel amply rewarded us with its culture, fine food and friendly people. It is a wonderful city. Happily I needn’t have worried on the second point; our research revealed many interesting and hitherto unknown facts about the composer. But I’m not sure I would have cared if it hadn’t. A score, despite the fact that it is only musical potential energy, is a wonderful thing, the score of a great composer very wonderful indeed. And opening those pages, following the doubt and indecision, but also observing the final perfection was a great privilege. It was also inspiring. Let’s be honest: don’t we all dream that one day someone might sit in a library doing this with our own pieces?
Biography of Paul Sacher on the Foundation Website
Wikipedia article on Paul Sacher
Obituary of Paul Sacher in The Economist
Obituary of Paul Sacher in The Independent
Christian Morris talks to Irish-born violinist Gregory Harrington, an emerging soloist based in New York, who has just released A Different World, an album of music by James MacMillan.
Tell us something about your background.
Well, I started violin when I was 4, studying at the Royal Irish Academy of Music with Kevin Kiely until I was 18. I then went to University College Dublin and studied International Business with an arts degree in Spanish, working in Dublin doing finance in a multinational to pay for lessons once a month in London with the wonderful Russian violinist Marat Bisengaliev. Eventually I did the auditions for New York, and came over to study at the Mannes College of Music with Sally Thomas, from whom I learnt a tremendous amount, and finally finished studying with Erick Friedman for a period of three years, who was a really wonderful teacher.
How did you become interested in contemporary music?
Unexpectedly actually... I was looking for a piece to perform at my London debut in the South Bank Centre back in 2000. So I had just come over to study in New York and spent a few days going around music stores here in New York looking for a contemporary piece to perform. I came across Kiss on Wood by James MacMillan, and was just so drawn to the sonorities and the musical language that he uses. I remember after putting down his score saying to myself "Yep, this is it…" and it has really taken off since then.
Read the rest of the interview with Gregory Harrington here
(Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein)
I said in one of my earliest blog posts that I didn't envy the job of concert reviewers. Having to make a snap judgement about a piece of music strikes me as a thankless job, especially if, after a few years have passed, the work you said was a failure is acknowledged by everyone as a masterpiece (or vice versa). CD reviewing might be considered rather easier - one can listen to a piece many times to form a judgement - but even then you often form an opinion in a relatively short period of time. Sometimes it has taken me years to get to know, understand and finally love a piece of music, making me nervous when I come across something I don't like.
Which brings me to Deutsche Grammophon's new release of music by Wolgang Rihm, Krzysztof Penderecki and Sebastian Currier featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. I found myself, at best, perplexed by the two pieces by Wolfgang Rihm. The first, Lichtes Spiel for solo violin and orchestra (New York Philharmonic), has an attractively languorous Bergian romanticism but, seemingly, very little sense of direction or shape. And in one seventeen-minute movement it feels hopelessly spun-out. The double bass player Roman Patkoló joins Mutter in Rihm's Dyade, for unaccompanied double bass and violin. They both play with commendable commitment, but, though there is much more drama and variation in this work, it still feels insufficiently focused. As if to emphasize this point, it is prefaced by Penderecki's Duo Concertante, for the same two instruments. At less than half the length of the Rihm it is brilliantly purposeful and urgent, an object lesson in writing for limited resources. The final piece on the disc is Currier's Time Machines, a concerto for violin and orchestra in seven movements, each inspired by an element of time. I loved the work's colourful orchestration and minimalesque pulsating rhythms, but also its moments of extended lyricism, as in the last movement Harmonic Time, which seemed to evoke something of the vast and unknowable cosmos. Mutter and the New York Philharmonic play with both laser-like clarity and emotional commitment. I would be happy to own this disk, but, in the first instance at least, only for the Currier and Penderecki.
Naxos has released a new disk of piano music by Arvo Pärt, played by Ralph van Raat. It offers a fascinating overview of the composer's changing style. The first works - Piano Sonatine, No.1 and No. 2 and Partita - come from the end of the fifties and are in a tonally rich neoclassical style influenced by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The central work of the disk is the exquisitely poised Für Alina in the pared down manner made famous in such works as the Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem. If, like me, you found that work just a little too cold and ascetic, it is worth checking out the last work on the disk, the both violently impassioned and lyrically introspective Lamentate for piano and orchestra, written in 2002. Pärt describes the work as a lamente 'not for the dead, but the living.' It makes for powerful listening, especially in this excellent recording.
Also on Naxos is something that, for me, was a bit of a discovery: a disk of music by Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan. It contains his Linearity of Light, the triple concerto Equilateral and Symphony No. 1, Fugitive Colours. The first and last works are played by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, who are joined by the Gryphon Trio for the second. The inspiration for Linearity of Light, writes the composer, 'is visual-the qualities and properties of light', a premise that gives birth to a highly engaging work of often dazzling orchestral colour. Breathless, the first movement of Equilateral, begins rather like a speeded up version of the second of Knussen's Two Organa, developing into a movement as restless as its title suggests. This is followed by a beautifully contemplative second movement that makes reference to Anglican plainchant and the Hebrew words of the Mourner's Kaddish. The final movement is a 'vibrant affirmation of the dance of life' that is, nevertheless, so relentlessness that it might also suggest a hurtling towards the grave. Symphony no. 1: Fugitive Colours, continues the composer's interest in colour. The first movement builds an effective structure out of a knitting analogy in which 'one colour of thread, about to be dropped is woven in and wrapped around another colour about to begin'. The brooding and enigmatic second movement, Nocturne, essays rich reddish-purple, contrasting with the rapidly changing colour in the aptly named scherzo third movement Light: Fast. The last movement, Viridian, is based on a cool green. The music throughout this disk is marked by brilliant orchestration, pulsating (often ostinato) rhythms and a lucid tonal style. The performances are excellent .
Nimbus's The Bad Tempered Flute features the flute music of Andy Scott with flautists Paul Edmund-Davies, Clare Southworth and Andy Findon, pianists Tim Carey and Peter Lawson and harpist Lauren Scott. Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 (see contrasting reviews here and here), featuring the Kronos Quartet, is now available on Nonesuch. Robert Daugherty, a composer known for the approachability of his style, has a new disk, Fire and Blood, out on Warner Classics. Naxos's clutch of new music recordings this month include: a double-disk set of chamber music by Robert Helps; James Whitbourn's Living Voices and Son of God Mass; Penderecki's Viola Concerto and Cello Concerto No. 2; a disk of Azerbaijani Piano Concertos; and Jenny McLeod's Emperor and the Nightingale.
Nimbus is currently taking pre-orders (up to 31st October) for a recording of Richard Blackford's Not in Our Time (see review here) at a reduced price of £9.99 (£14.99 thereafter). Also soon to be released will be a disk of music from the winners of the Abbey Road Studios 80th Anniversary Anthem Competition. The winners, who in the classical category were Daniel Brinsmead, Daniel Elder, Tina Andersson and Zhangyi Chen, were given the chance to record their works with professional singers and the London Symphony Orchestra. I hope to be able to review the disk when it is released.
The North Wales International Music Festival begins on 24th September. The programme focuses largely on older repertoire, though there is a composer portrait concert dedicated to the music of Paul Mealor, he of Ubi Caritas royal wedding anthem fame, on 29th September. Earlier in the day he will also give a talk with conductor Nicholas Cleobury entitled 'Is Modern Music For Me?' The Tetbury Music Festival opens its doors on 6th October. Only lasting a few days it does, however, include a concert in which Steven Isserlis will play Thomas Adès's Lieux Retrouvés and Geörgy Kurtág's Four pieces for solo cello.
Two European festivals caught my eye. In Madrid the Festival Internacional de Musica Contemporánea de Tres Cantos begins on 8th October. The seven concerts in the festival programme focus largely on the music of living Spanish composers such as Sergio Blardony, Raquel Rodríguez and Jesús Legido. Featured performers include pianist Jean-Pierre Dupuy, violinist Manuel Guillén and the group Sonido Extremo (Extreme Sound), conducted by Salvador Rojo. Three of the concerts, on 8th 15th and 29th October, are also preceded by round table discussions at 6 pm. Spanish required. Wien Modern runs from 28th October to 25th November 2011 in Vienna. Again dedicated to contemporary music, the festival will focus on the music of Austria and the United Kingdom. The festival opens on 28th with a concert given by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien featuring music by Bernhard Kerres, Lothar Knessl, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny and Friedrich Cerha. Subsequent October concerts include music by James Clarke, Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon, Hilda Paredes, Zahra Mani, Mia Zabelka, George Benjamin and Luke Bedford. More information on the festival's November concerts next month.
Aside from festivals there is a wealth of other concerts to choose from this coming month. On 26th October at Hoddinott Hall the BBC National Orchestra of Wales will give a portrait of the Dutch contemporary music scene, featuring music by Robin de Raafm, Willem Jeths and Klas Tortenson. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will give the Scottish première of James MacMillan's St. John Passion at City Hall, Glasgow on 29th September and a concert of Sceisi, Cage, Skempton and Cardew on 29th October at Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow.
At the Bridgewater Hall the Hallé will perform concerts that will include Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Primtemps on 13th October and Magnus Lindberg's Violin Concerto on 27th October. In Birmingham, Oliver Knussen conducts a programme of Birtwistle, Milstein, Dallapiccola and Schoenberg at the CBSO Centre on 25th September. The concert features the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who will also, on October 29th and 30th, be running Feel the Buzz, a composing and improvising project for 14-18 year olds. Talking of youth, the CBSO Youth Orchestra, conducted by Jac van Steen, will give the première of Leckey by Ben Foskett at Symphony Hall on 30th October. Also at Symphony Hall, on 21st October there will be a semi-staged performance of Bartók's chilling Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen.
In London ENO continues its run of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, based upon a semi-autobiographical novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, until 25th October 2011. On 1st October at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the London Sinfonietta will give a concert of music by Pierre Boulez, who will also appear onstage beforehand to talk about his life and work. The group will also present two concerts of electroacoustic music on 21st and 22nd entitled Sonic Explorations at Kings Place. The first features music from Europe, the second from South America and Britain. The London Symphony Orchestra, finally, will give two performances at the Barbican of Britten's War Requiem on 9th and 11th October and an all-Steve Reich concert, also at the Barbican, on 15th.
After a visit to some Basque friends in Northern Spain last week I found myself with a day to spare in Bilbao. The city used to be faceless and industrial until the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art, Frank O. Gehry's breathtaking postmodern masterpiece, was constructed on the river estuary next to the city's classical district or 'Ensanche'. Now civic confidence is everywhere, marked by the perfectly kept flowerbeds and armies of mechanised pavement sweepers. I've visited the Guggenheim before, so I went round several other museums first, also taking my time over tapas, cerveza and manzanilla in the Casco Viejo. By the time I got to the Guggenheim, swallowing my pride at the €13 entrance cost, I had four hours in the building before it was to close at 8pm. Ample, I thought.
At first I was disappointed, since the first things one comes across are items from the permanent exhibition in, and leading off, the central foyer, which I'd already seen. Though these are certainly worth a second view, I wondered if my money might have been better spent. But, after walking around Richard Serra's monumental The Matter of Time, I then came to a room that marked the beginning of a new collection. The first piece was Kutlug Atman's Küba, which contains 40 televisions of varying types and ages sat upon a variety of sideboards, tables and small chests of drawers with a single easy chair facing the television. On each television a person from Küba, a socially marginalized district of Istanbul tells a little bit about their lives. Apart from the light from the television screens, the room was dark. One could only hear the bubble of chatter from each of the forty people from the town. I sat in chair after chair, mesmerized by the atmosphere in the room and the sometimes moving, sometimes banal, stories being told.
And though, inevitably, some subsequent installations were hit, some miss, this was roughly my experience as I went round the rest of the collection. There was Thomas Hirchhorn's Cavemanman, a cave installation lined totally in packing tape with various detritus from every day life strewn around - a commentary on contemporary society; Paul McCarthy's Tomato Head, based around the old children's toy of Mr. Potato Head, except with the option to attach or insert sexual organs or, indeed, other items into the various available orifices - an allegory, perhaps, on how we adapt our personalities to suit the situation; and Rivane Neunschwander's Contingente, a film showing ants devouring a map of the world made of honey - obviously a statement upon man's similarly voracious consumption of the earth's natural resources.
I write about this here because of the musical trains of thought this exhibition provoked in me. As I went around I quickly realized that the four hours I had allocated to it were not nearly enough, and that other members of the public, of all ages, were being similarly gripped. And this likewise provoked feelings of artistic envy. I know I'm not the first person to say it, but it is striking how the most challenging of modern art is so easily enjoyed by the average person. The same people who will, at the same time, deride or ignore the best efforts of contemporary composers. As I thought of this I realized that I was, perhaps, guilty of the same fault. In a single day in Bilbao I had visited, including the Guggenheim, four visual arts museums. It had not even crossed my mind to try to find a concert hall.
One could easily say that visual art has an advantage over music in these days of quick fixes and short attention spans because, if one doesn't like a work of art, one shakes one's head sniffily and moves on to the next. Music has to be understood in time. But I don't think that this is the whole truth. Visual art has to be understood in time too. One has to engage with the work, think about the layers of meaning on offer, unravel its mysteries. The real difference is the way we present music: there is nothing worse than that sense of being trapped in one's chair in a concert hall listening to something that bores or offends our ears, with starched collars staring at you if you cough. The experience of the Guggenheim underlined to me the importance of the work of our most pioneering composers to get the work out there; in the street, café or nightclub, places where the public can listen in an environment that is more relaxed, or where one can listen for as little or as much time as one feels necessary. People should be allowed to walk away from music they don't like.
One other thing. Yes, it was a visual art exhibition at the Guggenheim, but many of the installations contained elements of sound. But they were unbelievably, almost laughably limited in scope. Do we collaborate enough with artists? Not only does this strike me as a potentially fertile and exciting area to work but, cynically put, might allow composers at last to participate in the modern art gold rush.
Since writing my review of Biophilia last week, I've thought a lot about what makes a good CD release. Not everyone is able to release an app or rely on a huge marketing effort to get them noticed. But if one follows the 'three Ps' - programming, performance and production - one can't go wrong.
A new disk of music by James Macmillan featuring the brilliant young violinist Gregory Harrington and two equally gifted colleagues, pianist Simon Mulligan and cellist Caroline Stinson illustrates what I mean. The programme is organized in a way that subtly draws the listener in and then provides the changes of pace necessary to keep one interested. The opening trio of pieces for violin and piano, Kiss on Wood, After the Tryst and A Different World, whilst certainly not straightforward in their expressive intent, have an approachable harmonic idiom. This prepares the ground for what feels like the centre-piece of the disk: the challenging but superb Fourteen Little Pictures, featuring violin, cello and piano. A change of pace then takes us to a trio of pieces for piano solo. The first two, Walfrid, On His Arrival At the Gates of Paradise and 25th May 1967 (which derives from a set of two pieces by the same name), are both world première recordings and both inspired by football. I was particularly struck by the boyish gusto of the second, a celebration of the day Celtic won the European Cup. It also acts as the perfect palette cleanser for what follows: in anguistis... I, for solo piano and, the last piece on the disk, in angustis... II, for solo violin (also a world première recording). These last two pieces, written in response to the events of September 11th, form a dark and melancholic close to the programme. The performances from this young group of musicians are consistently first class. Harrington's playing is marked by its veiled richness in the lower register and incredible control into the sometimes stratospheric higher registers employed by Macmillan. Caroline Stinson only features in Fourteen Little Pieces, but proves very much to be Harrington's equal, whilst Simon Mulligan provides both sensitive accompaniment and soloistic virtuosity as required. Production too is excellent, with very immediate, warm and well-balanced recording. Talking of production, the disk is available on iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby as downloads. But if, like me, you are a lover of the physical product, it is worth purchasing this handsomely made CD in hard copy. Björk eat your heart out...
A slightly more curious piece of programming can be found on Joanna MacGregor's new disk of music by Harrison Birtwistle, Hugh Wood and Lou Harrison released on Warner Classics. The disk opens with Birtwistle's uncompromising Antiphonies for Piano and Orchestra, a work that, with its abrupt interactions between soloist and orchestra, seems to completely tear up the concerto rulebook. I found it intriguing, mysterious but impenetrable. Repeated listening required, I think. More immediately engaging were his virtuosic, and often urbane and witty, Harrison's Clocks. Though more obviously conceived as one entity (it has recurring material at the beginning of each movement, for example) it reminded me a little of Ligeti's Piano Etudes, probably because the evocation of clocks also fascinated the Hungarian composer. The third work, Hugh Wood's Piano Concerto, is jazzily appealing (especially in the third movement), but also quite hard-edged. Which makes the final work in the programme, Lou Harrison's luscious and tonal Piano Concerto, feel a bit out of place. Which is not to say I didn't like the piece; on the contrary I found its totally idiosyncratic East meets West style very infectious. Programming issues aside, however, MacGregor performs brilliantly, adapting herself to the wide range of styles on offer and she and Warner are to be congratulated for bringing us these new recordings.
Naxos continues its tradition of strong support of contemporary composers with six new recordings this month: a recital of contemporary American repertoire for violin and piano, featuring music by Puts, Glass, Kernis, Zhurbin, Danielpour, Bolcom and Higdon; violin and saxophone concertos by James Aikman; Linguae Ignis, Vesalii Icones, Fantasia on a Ground and Two Pavans by Maxwell Davies; the opera Guru, by French composer Laurent Petitgirard; a disk of flute chamber music by Ned Rorem; and Year in the Catskills, Gardens, Dream Dances and Diversions by Peter Schickele.
Also worth checking out are three recording that will be released at the end of the month: ASM 35 on Deutsche Grammophon, a selection of mostly older repertoire played by Anne-Sophie Mutter that will, however, also include Lutoslawski's Partita for Violin and Orchestra; also featuring Sophie Mutter on DG, a new disk with world première recordings of Wolfgang Rihm's Lichtes Spiel and Dyade, Sebastian Currier's Time Machines and Krzysztof Penderecki's Duo Concertante; and a new disk on EMI that includes Schoenberg's transitional work par excellence, Chamber Symphony No.1, conducted by Simon Rattle.
Despite her international musical profile, and the praise heaped upon her by such people as John Tavener and Alex Ross, I confess that Björk’s career has mostly passed me by – just another name in the vast and unknowable musical firmament. I was even unsure at first whether I should be including her in a blog about contemporary classical music. But the eclectic style of her music making, which admits influences from punk to Stockhausen, suggests a type of crossover composer very common these days.
Her latest project, Biophilia, is described as ‘an interdisciplinary exploration of the universe and its physical forces – particularly those where music, nature, and technology meet – inspired by these relationships between musical structures and natural phenomena, from the atomic to the cosmic.’ This sounds a little bit like either hubristic marketing or the abstract for a PhD thesis. In fact, it is, in the words of the BBC’s Mark Lawson, ‘one of the most complex multimedia projects in musical history.’
Biophilia explores the ‘love for nature in all her manifestations, from the tiniest organism to the greatest red giant floating in the farthest realm of the universe.’ But this is not just an album of songs about Mother Nature; just as Wagner wanted to unite the various aspects of music drama so that they were all consistent with his own artistic vision, Björk, in Biophilia, seems to be attempting to do the same, but in the digital age. The songs are explored through live shows, through digital record releases and lavish boxed sets, and in an iPhone and iPad app.
If you are an owner of either an iPhone or an iPad I suggest you stop reading now and download the app, especially as the mother app itself is free. It opens with an inspiring, if slightly tree hugging, voice-over from Sir David Attenborough, as we slowly zoom in on what appears to be a constellation of stars. A mysterious choir sings downward, clustered glissandi. Just by itself the constellation is a fascinating multimedia project of its own. As you zoom in on ‘constellation’ names, which turn out to be the names of embedded multimedia projects, you hear snippets of sounds associated with them. The effect is totally beguiling. Apart from Cosmology, which comes free with the app, the projects themselves are in-app purchases. As yet, just two, Virus and Crystalline, are available to buy, but the project will gradually expand.
Each project (song doesn’t seem the word) starts with a description that links the idea to music in a fairly convincing manner. But, despite Björk’s avowed wish to perform these pieces in science museums, this is art not science; I was prepared to take the metaphors on face value and enjoy the dazzling multimedia presentations. In Crystalline this takes the form of a crystal game, which perhaps reflects the idea of building blocks that make up the hypnotic song that accompanies it. Virus, which at first seems like a love song, is in fact a rather disturbing take on how a parasite feeds off its host. The interactive video shows a virus slowly devouring a cell. Cosmology features a rolling graphic score that recalls twentieth century electronic scores by composers such as Stockhausen, Ligeti and Cage. It would probably be a good learning tool in school music lessons, even more so because all the projects also come with a rolling score of the music in proper staff notation.
Biophilia is being brilliantly marketed. I mean that as a compliment. As well as the app and live concerts, one will be able to own special versions of the music in CD, vinyl or two custom-made editions. This aspect is something of a revelation to me. When I first started buying music as a teenager I hankered after the physical form almost as much as the music itself. Gradually, bit-by-bit, it feels as if no-one owns recorded music any more; people download or subscribe to cloud services like Spotify. But here, even the electronic form has so much added value it evokes the excitement of buying the actual physical product. But more importantly it makes me want, for the first time in a long time, to purchase the physical product too. It feels like something special, just like that moment when, as a teenager, I first received the complete CD boxed set of Beethoven symphonies through the post.
In a world crowded with music, I wonder whether composers have much to learn from Björk’s Biophilia.
Mark Lawson on Biophilia on BBC Radio Four’s Front Row
Biophilia on Nonesuch’s website
Wikipedia’s entry on Björk
Björk on Stockhausen
Music by living composers at the BBC Proms continues in August with performances of Robin Holloway’s Fifth Concerto for Orchestra (4th Aug), Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (6th Aug), Joby Talbot’s Chacony in G Minor (14th Aug), Georges Aperghis’s Champ-Contrechamp (20th August), Stevie Wishart’s Out of the World (27th Aug) and a series of concerts that include the music of Dutilleux (3rd, 13th, 22nd and 23rd August). If you are near the Bregenz Festival, you may also be able to pick up tickets for Judith Weir’s Blonde Eckbert (6th August). The Schleswig-Holstein Festival also continues until 28th August, with some concerts featuring contemporary music and jazz.
The Edinburgh Festival gets underway on 12th August. Contemporary music featured at the festival includes an all Jonathan Harvey concert (13th Aug), Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (15th Aug), Tan Dun’s Water Concerto (16th Aug), Unsuk Chin’s Fantaisie Mécanique (18th Aug) and Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra (24th Aug), the world première of Toshio Hosokawa’s Blossoming II (21st Aug) and (not a première) Blossoming (1st September), Anders Hillborg’s Cold Heat (29th Aug) and Dai Fujikura’s String Quartet No.2 (1st September). There is also the chance to hear Philip Glass and his ensemble perform music to the visionary films of Godfrey Reggio (13th, 14th and 15th Aug).
The innovative and exciting Tête à Tête Opera Festival gets going on 4th August and might just be this month’s best new music ticket. The festival, which focuses entirely on contemporary music, features 40 different productions that include the work of 52 different composers. Productions that caught my eye include: Fables – A Film Opera with music by Emily Hall, Paul Sartin and Andy Mellon (4th and 5th August); SensoryO by Rachel Drury (13th and 14th August), which is aimed at children between 18 and 36 months; Brunch by Max Charles Davies (7th August), a flash opera that will also be performed unannounced throughout the festival; and The North Wind was a Woman (18th August), a collection of songs by C:T founder David Bruce. The full programme may be found here.
In 2004 the Office of Fair Trading asked the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) to stop providing guidance about commission fees paid to composers, saying it was anti-competitive. To get around this (and, perhaps, illustrate the absurdity of the request) BASCA have instead published a table of the average amount paid to composers writing for various forces both inside and outside the UK between January 2005 and December 2009. Whilst BASCA have protected themselves by pointing out that the information is not to be taken as advice as to what to charge, the table is, nevertheless, both extremely helpful (if you are lucky enough to be receiving commissions) and interesting (if you are hoping to). The full breakdown can be found on the BASCA website.
The table is best read in conjunction with the Commissioning Survey Report, which provides useful further analysis. For example, it shows that the majority of commissions that those questioned reported were for more traditional categories such as chamber music, orchestral and choral works. The number of commissions drops off rapidly with categories such as symphonic wind ensemble, brass band, ‘electronica’, jazz band and jazz orchestra. This surprised me – I’ve always been led to believe that there was a great deal of commissioning activity for these sorts of groups – and so wonder whether the report is skewed towards composers working in traditional genres. I also notice that large scale electronic music, ‘Electronica (A)’, only had two respondents, so the relatively high commissions fees per minute (£742.05) paid in this category could easily be a statistical anomaly.
Perhaps most interesting of all is that BASCA find that the average non-UK commission is £10,431, the average UK commission only £4,579, whilst tantalisingly saying that the report ‘does not investigate why this may be the case.’ It may simply be that commissioners abroad pay more money to composers, though I suspect not. The proportion of commissions in the report that derive from outside the UK was only 17%. This reflects the bias of the report towards UK respondents (it’s hardly likely that 83% of worldwide commissions derive from the UK). Following this logic I wonder, therefore, whether the commissions received from outside the UK were actually for British composers. So it would make sense that these figures would be higher, since a composer with an international profile is likely to command higher fees.
Christian Morris talks to Adrian Hull, director of Arcomis, Arts Commissioning
What is Arcomis?
I set it up in 2007 when I'd finished my PhD in composition at Cardiff. The name is derived from Arts Commissioning. Whilst pursuing my doctorate I was lucky to have been commissioned to write eight pieces for a large firm of Chartered Accountants that were performed around the country and then culminated in a concert at Covent Garden. I didn't know much about corporate commissioning – it felt almost like a dirty word, as if you were selling your soul. But actually it wasn't like that at all; it was a very positive experience where I got to do artistically exactly what I wanted. Arcomis was essentially set up to replicate that process, whereby with a whole pool of composers we could then go to businesses and offer their services. Perhaps composers aren't business-like – we want to write music – so I thought Arcomis could go to companies and individuals offering the opportunity to commission works.
How did you go about setting it up?
Setting up a business is a relatively straightforward process: you do it with Companies House in the UK. We also had some initial assistance in the form of a grant from Cardiff Council and Cardiff University. Part of this gave the opportunity to attend business training courses and workshops. At first I thought these sessions would be dreadful, but actually the training was incredibly useful, since it included things like knowing how to write business and strategic marketing plans. A business-like approach is essential to what we do, since I felt really strongly that Arcomis shouldn't rely on any exterior funding
Read the full interview here
After looking round the big recording companies’ websites this morning I felt a sense of disappointment; music by living composers was very thin on the ground. Major record labels don’t really seem very interested in contemporary music any more (coming to think of it, were they ever?). I think it is safe to say that their ‘Classical’ releases have a habit of falling into one of the following categories:
Music by (especially well-known) dead composers. I need to be careful here. I’ve nothing against these recordings in themselves, in fact my own CD library and, I suspect, everyone else’s is choc-a-bloc with this kind of music. It’s the concentration upon this that is a worry.
Themed collections of classical music such as EMI’s new release of Romantic Ballets, or, worse, collections based upon some kind of new-age nonsense and still listed under classical, such as the new disc, also on EMI, entitled Zen Chants (I’m including hyperlinks not so you can go and buy the discs, but because I want to show that I’m not making this up).
Music that is made marketable by the presence of a superstar performer. Here things sometimes look brighter, since it can enable a record company or performing artist to get music of lesser-known composers into the public domain. Joanna Macgregor’s disc of Cage and Nancarrow, which I reviewed last month, falls into this category. But often the music tends to focus on the ‘safe’ composers. And, of course, it helps if the performer is attractive. Have a look here to see what I mean.
The music of a lucky few contemporary ‘superstar’ composers. Again I’ve nothing against this. I’m delighted to see Nonesuch trailing a soon-to-be released disc of music by Steve Reich. Totally deserved, good luck to you etc. But this creaming off the top of a few composers, especially those whose music is most easily marketable, ignores the depth and breadth of new music being written today.
It is easy to see what binds all of these categories together: the need to make money. Whilst this is understandable – a record company is a business not a charity – I wonder whether record sellers might be missing out on something in the longer term. They pour all their huge marketing resources into a few predictable pots, completely missing out on all of the other talent around. Why not continue their promotion of a few big names but at the same time allocate a proportion to deserving lesser-known composers? Lesser names are cheaper today but they may become the cash cows of tomorrow.
If a big record company does not believe that this is viable they need to look at the work of labels such as Hyperion and, in particular, Naxos. I confess that when I first started seeing Naxos discs around 20 years ago I tended to ignore them, believing that their prices reflected lower quality recordings. A stupid attitude. Not only do they have, by a substantial margin, more new recordings on offer this (and every) month than the major classical record labels, but a high proportion of these contain music by living composers. Some of these are well-known, some half-forgotten and some quite obscure. It makes the Naxos new release page an exciting place of discovery. What’s more (and here they differ from Hyperion), they release all of their discs on to Spotify – fast becoming my first port of call for all of my listening – and are even helpful enough to publish sleeve notes and excellent composer biographies on their site at no charge.
So here, at last, are my totally Naxos new music recordings picks this month.
Pride of place goes to their new disc of organ music by Judith Bingham. I’ve often wondered why so many contemporary composers do not write for this instrument. This magnificent disc shows what they are missing. It contains a good cross-section of her work for the instrument, from the superb, granite-hewn concerto for organ, Jacob’s Ladder, to two delightfully simple works originally intended for children, Gift and Hope. Bingham’s language is often dissonant and chromatic but always very expressive and, actually, extremely approachable. The performers and recording are first-rate. This is a recording I will return to again and again.
If I were to say ‘Howard Blake’ most people would probably think of The Snowman. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with his other work, why not try Naxos’s new disc of string chamber music featuring the Edinburgh Quartet? It includes Spieltrieb, a cogently argued and substantial single movement work for quartet; A Month in the Country, a suite formed from his film score that packs quite an emotional punch (listen for example, to the heart-rending third movement); and Leda and the Swan, the score for a television ballet that, due to its erotic nature, caused a bit of a stir when it was broadcast. This is probably not the disc for those looking for hard-edged contemporary music, but the quality of the writing is undeniable. The only thing I could have done without is the final piece on the disc, a string quartet version of The Snowman. Even Naxos can succumb to commercial pressures.
Finally, something a little bit ‘left-field’. A disc released as part of their ‘American Classics’ series containing music for saxophone quartet. The composers included are entirely unfamiliar to me though that could, of course, be simple ignorance on my part. The disc contains: Elias Tanenbaum’s Sax Quartet, David Sampson’s Breathing Lessons, Morrill Dexter’s 6 Bagatelles, Eddie Sauter’s Piece for Tuba and Saxophone Quartet and Eric Ewazen’s Rhapsody for Saxophone Quartet. The style of the works tends to be jazz/minimalist inspired but with moments of real expressive intensity. I was particularly taken, for example, by the sometimes pensive, sometimes bitingly sardonic Piece for Tuba and Saxophone Quartet. The New Hudson Quartet have made promoting and expanding this repertoire their mission. Their performances, with an impressive range of nuance and fine ensemble, are excellent.
Though I’ve already mentioned them in previous posts, I’ll start with two festivals, one already underway, another about to begin. The Cheltenham Music Festival continues until 10th of July (see my preview here for more details). There is still availability for concerts that include new music, including the revival of Anthony Turnage’s Greek on 7th July. Some concerts are selling out on the door, so forward planning is a must. The BBC Proms kick-off on 15th July (my complete preview is here). New Music from the festival this month includes Judith Weir’s Stars, Night, Music and Light (15th July), Judith Bingham’s The Everlasting Crown (17th July), Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas, Pascal Dusapin’s String Quartet No. 6 and Elliott Carter’s Flute Concerto (28th July). Also a final reminder of the rare chance to hear Havergal Brian’s gargantuan Symphony No. 1 ‘The Gothic’ (17th July).
The Rambert Dance Company, Opera Holland Park, the London Contemporary Orchestra and others have devised an ‘audio-kinetic adventure’ in the iconic Commonwealth Institute building (15th-17th July). Entitled ‘Common Sounds: touching the void’, the site-responsive theatre experience will be the only major artistic event to have been staged in the building since its closure in 2002. The performances culminate in a rare opportunity to hear Harrison Birtwistle’s Orpheus Elegies. More details can be found here.
ENO continues its run of Nico Muhly’s new opera Two Boys until 8th July. More recent reviews (including one in the now pay-walled Sunday Times) than those I linked to last week have been glowing (see here and here). Similarly Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and The Opera Group’s production of Luke Bedford’s first opera Seven Angels continues its tour this month: at the Oxford Playhouse (Friday 8th July), Lidbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House (12th, 14th and 15th July) and at the Latitude Festival in Southwold, Suffolk (16th July). Gabriel Prokofiev will also be at the Latitude Festival on 17th July with the London Contemporary Orchestra and cellist Peter Gregson, though exact details of what they are doing appear to be thin-on-the-ground.
Talking of opera, one of our finest composers in this genre, Judith Weir, will have her new work, Miss Fortune, premièred at the Bregenz Festival this month. The opera is a co-production with Royal Opera House and will receive its UK première in March 2003. There is also a chance to see her chamber opera Blond Eckbert at the festival on 6th August. I also can’t resist including this picture from the festival:
This is the floating stage for a production of Umberto Giordano’s 1896 opera André Chénier. Not exactly understated. You can follow its construction, and rehearsals and performances on a webcam at the festival.
The Aix en Provence Festival continues until 25th July. The complete calendar can be found here. Highlights include a ‘tête-à-tête’ with the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös on 5th July; a new opera, Austerlitz, by French composer Jérôme Combier (19th and 20th July); and The Twittering Machine by British composer Charlie Piper (25th July). There is also plenty of Shostakovich to enjoy, including four chances to hear his opera The Nose (8th, 10th, 12th and 14th July).
The Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival runs from 9th July to 28th August. Its theme this year is the music of Turkey and, as such, includes opportunities to hear both twentieth-century and living composers’ music from that country. The programme takes, however, quite some sifting to find this music. In July these concerts include Khayyam by Fazil Say (17th July); a selection of music by contemporary Turkish composers given by Avantgarge Oriente! (18th July); Köcekece, Sinfonietta für Streichorchester and Dususlar by Ulvi Cemal Erkin (17th, 22nd and 28th July respectively); and Hasretim-Eine Anatolische Reise, a very intriguing sounding ‘music and film collage’ by Marc Sinan (30th July).
August Festivals Heads-Up
For those who like to plan a bit further ahead, the Tête à Tête Opera Festival begins on 4th August in London whilst the Edinburgh Festival starts on 12th August. More information in due course.
On iPlayer now:
Here and Now presents another chance to hear the music of Irish composers Ian Wilson, David Morris, Frank Lyons and Brian Irvine played by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Jurjen Hempel.
Sat 2nd July. Part 2 of the Hear and Now broadcast of music by Irish composers, featuring the music of Ian Wilson.
Sunday 3rd July. Electronica III. Hosted by Jarvis Cocker and featuring the works of Graham Fitkin, Anne Dudley, Javier Álvarez, Nico Muhly, Patrick Nunn, Eduardo Miranda, Andrew Poppy and Edward Williams. Played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Charles Hazelwood.
If my review of Nico Muhly’s new CD out on Decca (15th June, below) seemed a bit provisional, that was because it was. I think it is difficult and often dangerous to make snap decisions about a composer’s music, especially one who is relatively new on the scene. For this reason I have never, not for one second, envied the job of music critics. The music critics have, however, delivered their verdict on Muhly’s new opera Two Boys. Sadly, they have been lukewarm. I won’t go into them in any detail, you can read them here (Telegraph), here (Guardian) and here (London Evening Standard). It is interesting to note, however, that the audience response seems rather better. Take a look at the review on What’s on Stage here, for example. I won’t be able to get to see the opera at ENO, which is a shame because the scenario strikes me as being very interesting; sort of Brittenesque corruption of innocence in the Internet age. Were any readers there? It would be good to hear some alternative opinions.
Despite missing out on the opera, I am, nevertheless, on a mini-quest to form more of a definitive opinion of the composer. One of the keys to understanding his music is the description of him in the biography on his website as ‘a former boy chorister’. This may sound like a curiously irrelevant phrase in the biography of a composer who has three discs out on Decca and an opera being performed at ENO. But Muhly grew up singing at Grace Episcopal in Providence, a church with a strong Anglican choral tradition. For those on the outside of this tradition, it is difficult, perhaps, fully to appreciate the length of shadow cast by this kind of musical training. Certainly Muhly’s oft-quoted enthusiasm for late renaissance English polyphony stems from this time and, as I noted in the CD review, exerts a definite influence on his musical textures. More prosaically, it exerts an influence over the types of music he writes. Of course, that means plenty of choral music, but also music specifically for the Anglican choral tradition including, so far, a mass setting, a set of evening canticles, various motets and more than the average amount of music that includes organ.
I have never been an Anglican music insider, but do have more than a passing acquaintance with the repertoire and its function within the liturgy. One of the chief challenges of a composer is to provide something liturgically appropriate and yet musically worthwhile. The music of a good many twentieth-century composers has remained inside churches for the very reason that they were too respectful of the former and thought too little about the latter (though I think it is also fair to say that some composers have been unfairly left in the pews and deserve wider exposure). Is it just me, but is Muhly’s liturgical music just a little bit too respectful, a bit too safe? Take, for example, his mass setting Bright Mass with Canons. The Kyrie and Gloria, he says, ‘reference the imitative writing of early English composers Byrd and Weelkes’. I can certainly admire the renaissance-like restraint in both movements, but I also wish Muhly would ‘let rip’ a bit more. Surely, for example, that organ figure in the Kyrie could have been made more of? And the builds that do occur don’t really seem adequately carried by the harmony and so fall a little flat, such as at the end of the Gloria. Renaissance polyphony, especially in the hands of a good conductor, is indeed often restrained, but it is also, by turns, fervent and impassioned. It cries out to God.
My Muhly quest will continue. I shall certainly be getting hold of Two Boys at the first opportunity that presents itself. But in the meantime I will look elsewhere for my liturgical musical pleasures.
For more information on Nico Muhly visit:
For a good disc of his church music:
Following their well-received CD of music by Tansy Davies, Troubairitz, in March, Nonclassical (www.nonclassical.co.uk) has just issued Songspin, the debut recording of the vocal trio Juice. Known for their innovative programming and sometimes quirky vocal arrangements, they very much fit into the contemporary-classical-cum-pop approach of the company. I heard Juice live a couple of years ago and, have to admit, felt that their style of concerting wasn’t for me. The intimacy and range of this recording has, however, made me think again. Spanning simple folk songs (though often enlivened by the Juice trademark sighs and heavy breathing!) to post-postmodern DJ-style remixes, it is hard not to get caught up in the eclectic smorgasbord on offer. The performers themselves carry it all with consummate musicianship. Recommended.
Nonesuch (www.nonesuch.com) has just released a new disc of music by John Adams containing première recordings of Son of Chamber Symphony (2007) and String Quartet (2008). The former is played by the International Contemporary Ensemble with the composer conducting, the latter by the St. Lawrence Quartet, for whom the work was written. The ‘Son of’ aspect of the work refers to his earlier Chamber Symphony, a piece that confronted the ghost of Schoenberg via cartoon music. Whilst the piece clearly owes much to the earlier work the result here is, perhaps, more immediately engaging. For example, whilst the central movements of both pieces share the same formula of long held melody over more active bass, in the later work the melody is much more lyrical, more ‘giving’. The result feels a little less cerebral, as if Schoenberg has been politely shown the door. The recording is crisp and immediate, Adams’ control of the ensemble in this tricky music admirable. Sadly I cannot properly comment upon String Quartet, since, presumably to make people buy the CD, the substantial opening movement has not been released on Spotify, even to subscribers. The second movement is, however, a closely worked tour-de-force, so the CD is still a fairly safe recommendation, especially for Adams fans.
With an opera being premièred this month at ENO the young American composer Nico Muhly is clearly hot property. Decca (www.deccaclassics.com) has just released a third disc of the composer’s music, Seeing is Believing (named after the concerto with which it opens), featuring violinist Thomas Gould with the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon. If, like me, you are coming to his music for the first time it provides a good introduction to this composer’s sound world. Four original works are interspersed with arrangements by the composer of old English choral music, a period of music that fascinates him. His approach in these arrangements is respectful – he largely sticks with the notes given (or at least implied) by Byrd and Gibbons – and the results are inevitably attractive. The original works are the aforementioned violin concerto, Motion, By all Means and Step Team. The works exhibit a range of influences – the poise and restraint of Tudor polyphony, the expansiveness of Copland, the driving rhythms of Adams – but they are bound together to form a sound that is recognisably new.
Hyperion (www.hyperion-records.co.uk) has released a new disc of choral music by James Macmillan, performed by Wells Cathedral Choir conducted by Matthew Owens. I haven’t heard the disc, though I have tried the ‘buy before you buy’ tasters on their website. I have to say, however, that they slightly confirm something I have found on other recordings I have from Wells on this label: the choir is excellent but the recording itself lacks immediacy; there’s just a bit too much acoustic. Deutsche Grammophon (www.deutschegrammophon.com) have released a new disc with percussionist Martin Grubinger playing music by Keiko Abe, Matthais Schmitt, Michel Camilo, Xenakis, Rod Lincoln and Josef Burchartz. Naxos (www.naxos.com) have released several discs as part of their ‘classics by country’ series that feature the music of living composers Xavier Benguerel, Chester Biscardi, Louis Karchin. Also worth checking out is Joanna MacGregor’s superb new recordings of Cage, Nancarrow and others released by Warner Classics (www.warnerclassicsandjazz.com). It’s been a while since I heard the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano and I find it hard to imagine performances more persuasive than these. And hearing three of Nancarrow’s Player Piano Studies played so brilliantly by a human being is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
As the summer festival season gets going, here are my new music concert picks for June.
The St. Magnus Music Festival (www.stmagnusfestival.com) runs from 17th–22nd June. Though, as of today, 10 events have sold out, there is still much left to choose from. The London Sinfonietta will give three concerts. The first, on 17th, will feature Maxwell Davies’s Veni Creator Spiritus and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time; in the second, on 20th, they will give a concert that features a broad range of British living composers’ music; whilst the third, on 22nd, will feature the music from the composers attending the St Magnus Composers’ Course. Pure Brass will give the world première of a new work by Alasdair Nicolson together with other contemporary works on 20th June and you can hear Maxwell Davies’s Into the Labyrinth given by The Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 18th.
The Aldeburgh Music Festival runs from 10th–26th June (www.aldeburgh.co.uk). As well as the usual emphasis on the music of Britten, there is a large amount of more recently written and brand-new music on offer. Premières include new works by Marco Stroppa on 14th, 18th and 25th June; Harrison Birtwistle’s Oboe Quartet on 23rd; Peter Eötvös’s SCHILLER: energische Schönheit on 25th; and Elliott Carter’s Conversations on 26th. On June 12th there are three concerts examining the legacy of Ligeti, with works such as his Etudes pour piano and Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, as well as those, such as Nancarrow’s Six studies for player piano, that influenced him. The piano pieces will be performed by the festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Other performances of living composers’ music include Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance and Cantata for oboe and string trio on 18th and 23rd June respectively; Pierre Boulez’s …explosante fixe… and Helen Grime’s Everyone Sang and Charlotte Bray’s Caught in Treetops on 26th June.
There are two exciting new operas to look forward to this month. The Birmingham Contemporary Group with The Opera Group present the world première of Luke Bedford’s Seven Angels on 17th June at the CBSO centre (www.bcmg.org.uk). It will be followed by a UK tour that includes Cardiff, Suffolk, Glasgow, Brighton, Oxford and London. And in London ENO give the world première of Nico Muhly’s new opera Two Boys on Friday 24th June (www.eno.org). Also in London, the Spitalfields Music Festival runs from 10th to 25th June (www.spitalfieldsfestival.org.uk). Premières include: The Freedom of the Earth by James Weeks with the New London Chamber Choir and London Sinfonietta on 13th June; Michel van der Aa’s Spaces of Blank with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 18th; Rolf Hind’s Sit, Stand, Walk on 20th; and Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak for woodwind trio on 21st June. Also of interest is Noncassical’s informal Lunchtime in the Market concerts which run throughout the festival. They will include Consortium5, Mercury Quartet, the Azalea Ensemble, Juice and DJ sets from Gabriel Prokofiev and Richard Lannoy.
In Paris the IRCAM Agora festival runs from 8th–18th at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (http://agora.ircam.fr/). This year the theme is the connection between mathematic and artistic intuition, appropriately with a special focus on the music of Karheinz Stockhausen. As well as a number of concerts by this and other groundbreaking figures of the twentienth-century, there are also a number of new pieces. These include George Aperghis’s unclassifiable ‘spectacular’ Luna Park on July 9th; Ivan Fedele’s La Pierre et l’étang (…les temps…) on 10th; Bruno Maria Staud’s Par ici! on 17th. There is also a fascinating-sounding installation at the festival, Tripwire, by Ashley Fure and Jean-Michel Albert, in which ‘Eighteen ropes, each one attached to a motor that turns it, are turned into a movie screen. This mechanical system represents a sound wave [that] corresponds to an electronic sound-space inspired by the noise of the rotating ropes and their sound-space.’
In Germany the Zeit für Neue Musik festival (www.zeit-fuer-neue-musik.de) takes place at Bayreuth from 18th–27th June with a special emphasis on the music of Franz Liszt, whose bicentenary falls in 2011. The opening concert, for example, is themed round idea of rhapsody in music, with pieces from Liszt to Helmut Bieler, Daniel Pitra and Wolfram Graf. Other living composers represented during the festival include Bernd Kremling, Helmut W. Erdmann, Bronislaw Kazimierz Przybylski, Stefan Hakenberg and Claus Kühnl. Of particular interest is the final ‘Surprising Sounds’ concert on 27th, in which the Nuremburg Accordion Orchestra directed by Marco Röttig will play a selection of contemporary works.
Here is a caricature that some readers may recognize:
He looks at the piece with a sense of unease; it is very technically demanding. The composer is looking at him expectantly. The workshop is open to the public. At his feet lie ten more pieces. When he received them he also had a mountain of music for pressing professional engagements to learn. He has a genuine interest in new music but he’d been given so much to play at this workshop that he couldn’t possibly practise it all.
He has expended a great deal of creative energy on the piece. In his imagination he can hear the best performers playing after rehearsing it in great detail. He knows it is difficult, but isn’t a lot of repertoire difficult? Anyway, he has heard of the workshop players, knows of their reputation as performers and so has high hopes. Perhaps he dreams that they will like his piece so much that they offer to perform it properly. When he is in the workshop the piece does not sound as well as he had expected, but he feels tongue-tied, too polite or nervous to say anything that might sound too critical.
I’ve attended quite a number of workshops over the course of the last twenty-odd years. They have ranged from encounters with single instrumentalists, to chamber groups, choirs and full symphony orchestras. Some have been question-and-answer sessions about instrumental technique. More often, and perhaps most familiar to composers here, is the scratch rehearsal of a newly written piece, a process I have tried to capture from both sides in the caricature above.
I should say here and now that I have always been grateful for the opportunities offered to me by workshop days, even if I have become increasingly used to the sense of disappointment that they can engender. I think much of this can be put down to their almost adversarial ‘them and us’ nature. The performers, of course, take the event very seriously. Their professional reputation is on the line; they are being asked to perform very difficult music in public with little or no rehearsal time. It is nearly impossible to imagine them doing this in any other situation. It is, therefore, easy to see how they might begrudge a composer writing music that, frankly, might expose or embarrass them. And, of course, sometimes the fault will lie with the composer. For example, I once saw an orchestral musician refusing to play any more col legnos on a composers’ day, saying that their bow had cost a fortune and that he was sick of its excessive use in brassy textures where it couldn’t be heard anyway.
And the pressure on the composer, especially the young student composer, is not exactly easy to bear either. For some it will be their first time working with these gods called ‘professional players’, people who earn a living entirely from music (and how many composers can claim to do this?). They worry about their mistakes, about asking stupid questions, that their piece will not work. And it is this last thing that worries me most. In a small number of unfortunate situations I have found the experience of hearing my music played badly less helpful than not hearing it being played at all. Happily, I had a eureka moment very early on that allowed me to put this sort of thing into context. I had written quite a difficult piece for a friend, who practised it thoroughly and performed it brilliantly. It won a prize. I then put it in for another competition, which was preceded by a workshop. The player read it through in public and, as he did, I could feel myself turning hot with embarrassment. It in no way resembled the piece I had written. If I hadn’t had the earlier experience I probably would have ripped it up. What I am saying may sound unappreciative or just downright ungrateful. I don’t mean it to. Players are not always in control of workshop timings, have other commitments and are, possibly, just as frustrated at not being able to be as helpful as they’d like. But even given this, surely there must be something we can do to make workshops more consistently useful for composers?
I don’t think there are easy answers in a world where composers are so numerous and arts budgets so small. However, here are a few thoughts.
As much as humanly possible should be done to put performers and composers at ease before workshops. Music is a social, collaborative art form that works least well when artists are most anxious. Get-to-know-you sessions should be more than a quick verbal introduction (‘Hi, my name is and I am studying’ etc.). Much better to use a proportion of the workshop time for the composers and players to mingle and to chat informally over a coffee. Break down barriers.
Following on from this, an even better model is one where the composer meets the performer before even a note is written. The workshop becomes the final element of a true collaboration. A good model for this is Sound and Music’s ‘Embedded’ projects. We could do with much more of this sort of thing.
A greater number of workshops with the competitive element. We need, as composers, to accept that the world is competitive and so workshops should be too. Rather than players dividing their time equally amongst all composers, a decision should be made that at least one piece deserves more time and, ideally, a proper performance.
Given that the situation is never likely to be perfect, perhaps, as composers, we need to be realistic about our expectations. If we want a complete reading of a piece on a workshop day we have to accept that a high level of difficulty will probably rule that out. So we either temper our expectations, the difficulty of the writing, the length of the piece, or all three. Sometimes I would rather spend time rehearsing a few bars to hear them done well than hear the whole thing done badly.
We must be confident enough to say what we want during a workshop. I’ve too often seen composers (and done the same myself) watch a rehearsal of a piece, been too afraid to take the reins and give guidance and then afterwards moan that ‘they just didn’t do what I wanted’. So who’s to blame for that?
The best workshops will always cost more money. That is an inevitable fact of life. But if I were forced to select one guiding principle that should lie at the bottom of even the most ordinary workshop it would be that of collaboration:
The composer met and chatted with the performers before the workshop. They’d leafed through the music, the composer saying what he was keen to hear. The players pointed out some difficulties and made suggestions. An informal agreement was reached on the direction of the workshop. The workshop itself was relaxed. The composer’s expectations had been tempered by the realistic comments of the players beforehand. But he found it easy to make suggestions and to ask to hear things again; no one felt threatened.
Even given financial limitations, would this really be that difficult to achieve?
14th May saw the latest in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Total Immersion’ days, this time dedicated to the music of Hungarian composer and conductor, Peter Eötvös. As usual on these days, there was an embarrassment of riches on offer. This included The Seventh Door, a film portrait of the composer by Judit Kele; a concert given by the Guildhall New Music Ensemble, with UK premiéres of Paris-Dakar and Sonata per sei; a film of Eötvös’s 2001 opera Three Sisters, based upon the Chekov play; and a chance to hear the composer talk about his music and introduce the final part of the day – an evening concert given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This was broadcast on Radio 3, which I listened to on iPlayer over the weekend.
Like that other great Hungarian composer, Ligeti, Eötvös’s early years were lived under communism, with its corresponding limitations on artistic freedom. Whilst his relative youth meant he was less affected by the worst excesses of Stalinism, also like Ligeti he had to leave the country to connect with the Western European avant-garde. And whilst he sees himself as next in line after Liszt, Kodaly and Bartok, it was clear that his contacts with Stockhausen and Boulez were of critical importance to his development as both a composer and conductor. He is still perhaps best known as the latter in this country, and so it was appropriate that he himself took charge of the final concert of the day, his expert control on the podium making him the obvious advocate of his own music.
The concert opened with zeroPoints, for full orchestra, written for Pierre Boulez. Eötvös, we learnt in the preamble, was much influenced by Stockhausen’s interest in electronic music, though he had his own take on this: ‘I think that…the traditional orchestra’s sound could be elements that we took from the electronic. I tried to create a new sound in the orchestra but without using the electronic instruments.’ He now thinks that the imperfections of the older electronic instruments make them rather more interesting than the more perfect technology of today, and so it is these older instruments that provide the inspiration for his orchestration. Its first clarinet gesture, a reference to the 1khz countdown signals used in film music recordings and the effective ‘zero point’ of the piece, introduces a substantial 15-minute work of beguiling and dizzying orchestral colour. Like the music of his Darmstadt companions it is not music to be taken in or fully appreciated at one sitting – and here at least I was grateful not to be limited to the single hearing a live concert provides – though its obvious shape, with the material near the beginning reappearing in the same pitch centre at the end (followed by a wonderfully droll final gesture on the xylophone), made it immediately satisfying.
The instrumentation of the next piece in the programme, Psychokosmos, provided evidence of Eötvös’s Eastern European roots. The work is a kind of concerto for cimbalom, though not with the classical dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Instead the music seems to flow out of the soloist into the rest of the ensemble. The music was also very personal in nature; the title reflects his desire to explore the cosmos within, ‘to find my inside, what I am and who I am musically.’ In turn quietly introspective and violently self-questioning, the piece asks searching questions that are left enigmatically hanging at the close.
The next piece, Levitation, for two clarinets, accordion and strings, provided a look even further east, to the music of Russian-period Stravinsky. The clarinets are centre stage throughout, with the accordion largely in the background adding piquancy to the texture – again one thought of electronic music by other means. The music has an imagined programme: ‘My vision starts in a street during a hurricane with flying telephone boxes and traffic signs; next a dream sequence which is often repeated during my sleep: I am lifting my legs and I float about two feet high above the ground, not flying but gliding in vertical position through the scenery; then gondolas floating above the water and finally the slowly rising body of a puppet, the “resurrection” of the fairy tale character Petroushka...’ Each part of the programme is handled with incredible wit and imagination; unsurprising perhaps for a composer so adept in the dramatic form of opera. The hurricane of the opening, for example, swirls quite brilliantly and funnily upwards and downward on glissandi tremolo strings, the clarinets punctuating with rising and falling scales and arpeggios. The clarinets also come together at the end in a wonderfully warm homage to Stravinsky; the puppet emerging magically before our eyes.
The final piece, IMA (‘prayer’), for choir, soloists and orchestra, is a portrayal of the biblical act of creation and, as such, was more serious in tone. Again, Eötvös’s love of electronics was very much in evidence, except that this time the retro feel was real, with the presence of an old DX7 synthesiser. The text for the work derives from sound poems by Gerhard Rühn and Sándor Weöres, and whilst the fragmented nature of the text might have been inherent, Eötvös’s interest in the sound rather than the meaning of the words was reminiscent of Berio. At times broodingly intense, at others hypnotically incantatory, the piece brought the concert to a mystical-sounding close with the basses at the very bottom of their vocal register, perhaps suggesting a return to the basic substance from which all of creation derives.
The next Total Immersion day features the music of Jonathan Harvey on 28th January 2012
Seventy-four concerts, thirteen world premières, six UK premières and eleven BBC commissions. It could only be the Proms. So what has ‘The World’s Greatest Classical Musical Festival’ in store for us this year?
To be fair to the BBC, they have provided a good all-in-one guide to the concerts that feature the music of living composers. In some ways you might just as well stop reading now and view it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2011/categories/living-composers. I did, however, notice a few absent pieces from the guide that it would be a shame to miss. Three of these are world premières: Judith Bingham’s substantial new piece for organ, The Everlasting Crown (17th July); Joby Talbot’s Chacony in G Minor (14th August) and Stevie Wishart’s Out of this World (27th August). The others are Gabriel Prokofiev’s radical, though not entirely (to borrow his own term) ‘nonclassical’, Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, which will be given by the National Youth Orchestra and DJ Switch (6th August), and Harrison Birtwistle’s A Description of the Passing of a Year (also 27th August).
One of the themes running through the season is that of French music. Living composers are well represented too in this category. It is excellent, for example, to see the music of Dutilleux in no fewer than four concerts: on 3rd, 13th, 22nd and 23rd August. I was lucky enough to meet the composer in Cardiff a few years ago when he came to the University Music Department. Hearing his Ainsi la Nuit live completely knocked me for six. He is surely still an underrated composer, even given the much greater respect he enjoys these days. Though I believe Dutilleux continues to compose, sadly none of the concerts will feature premières of his music. That is left to younger French composers. Pascal Duspin will receive two UK premières – Morning in Long Island (18th July) and Hinterland (27th July); Marc-André Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto (28th July) will receive its London première, whilst Greek-born but Paris-based composer Georges Aperghis’s Champ-Contrechamp (20th August) will receive its world première. Given the French theme I was mildly surprised not to see any Boulez at the proms. Perhaps he and Dutilleux don’t mix...
Living British composers, of course, feature strongly in the programme too. Like bookends, two big names appear in the first and last nights: Judith Weir’s Stars, Night, Music and Light (BBC commission) will receive its world première on 15th July, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Musica Benevolens (Musicians’ Benevolent Fund Commission) on 10th September. I won’t list all the other British composers on offer, but world premières include: Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas (25th July); Robin Holloway’s Fifth Concerto for Orchestra (4th August); No Man’s Land (21st August), a contribution by Colin Matthews to a concert commemorating the much-missed conductor Richard Hickox, and Graham Fitkin’s new Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma (31st August).
Two other concerts also caught my eye, simply because they boggle my mind. The first is the UK première of Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Flute, to be played with the Marc-André Dalbavie mentioned above. It was written in his 100th year! The other doesn’t fall into this analysis at all, since it features the music of a composer who died in 1972: Havergal Brian. But what composer could resist the rare chance to hear his Symphony No.1 ‘The Gothic’ on 17th July, a sonic-spectacular that really does require 1,000 performers? Mahler, take note...
The BBC Proms run from Friday 15th July to Saturday 10th September. For more information visit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/.
I was lucky enough to get hold of the Unsuk Chin Total Immersion day before it disappeared from BBC iPlayer this weekend. Four of her pieces from the event were broadcast: her breakthrough work Acrostic-Wordplay (1991), for soprano and ensemble; Double Concerto (2002), for piano, percussion and ensemble; Gougalon (2009), for ensemble and Rocaná (2008), for orchestra.
The first piece was written after a three-year compositional silence following a traumatic year of study with Ligeti. It was enormously fascinating to hear of Ligeti’s scathing criticism of himself and others and his brusque dismissal of Chin’s already well-received early works. Despite the difficulties of her time with the Hungarian master it was clear that she retains some warmth towards him, a feeling that was clearly reflected in the music, though, as Jonathan Cross pointed out in his illuminating conversations with Sara Mohr-Pietsch, we shouldn’t, perhaps, take these observations too far.
Despite this I couldn’t help falling into this temptation as I listened. The seven-movement Acrostic Wordplay takes texts from Michael Ende’s Endless Story and, a favourite of Ligeti too, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The piece uses the texts very freely and with great humour, evoking not necessarily the sound world, but the playfulness of Ligeti’s Aventures. Ligeti was also fond, even in works of apparently enormous surface complexity, of underpinning his music with easily comprehensible pitch structures. This too was everywhere evident throughout the programme. In each movement of Acrostic Wordplay, for example, there is a very obvious controlling pitch. But Chin’s writing is so dazzling, so colourful, so perfectly judged, that the listener is hardly aware of it, except in the positive sense that it binds the whole together. In a similar vein the Double Concerto felt like an enormous elaboration of a tonic that never entirely disappears and instead provides a welcome foundation for the virtuosic writing throughout the ensemble. Gougalon (Scenes from a Street Theatre) is a reflection of Chin’s Korean roots in that it evokes the street entertainers she remembers when growing up in Seoul. Playfulness is everywhere in evidence in this music too. Take the second movement, Lament of a Bald Singer, for example. Again constructed over one controlling pitch, this is not mushy romantic lamentation; in its crazy downward glissandi, circling woodwind and brass ‘wah-wahs’ this is a wittily sardonic parody of self-pity. The effect is hilarious and wonderful.
The last work, Rocaná (Room of Light) was inspired by ‘beams of light – their distortion, refraction, reflections, and undulations’. A magnificent twenty-minute orchestral tour-de-force, the point of inspiration becomes dazzling rays of sound that distort, reflect and refract around the orchestra. To me, its sudden shifts of state, from ethereal, hypnotic and other-worldly to brash, violent and terrifying, also evoked another acknowledged influence on Chin’s music: the world dreams. To a greater or lesser extent this was also in evidence in the other works I’ve described; as Chin herself says: "My music is a reflection of my dreams. I try to render into music the visions of immense light and of an incredible magnificence of colours that I see in all my dreams, a play of light and colours floating through the room and at the same time forming a fluid sound sculpture.’
The next Total Immersion day will feature the music of Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös at the Barbican on Saturday 14 May.
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Concert Listings Today & Tomorrow: