Thursday, 15 March 2018

Composer of the Month: Angela Slater

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?

Angela Slater: I grew up in a large village called Cotgrave in Nottinghamshire. Thinking back to my childhood I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t know about music. Even before I was at an age where I could have piano lessons I was always drawn to play on the piano and mess around, and probably disturb my brother’s practise. Later I would write little pastiche type pieces, which then transformed into pop-songs in my teenage years and then melded back to classical music, though now of a very different kind of course. I was always distracted through my childhood with the sounds of music and would more often than not end up not practising because I was found a strange chord by accident.

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

AS: In my works I like to take inspiration from extra-musical materials and most often from the natural world. My piece Sun Catcher draws on both the imagery of a metal Sun Catcher and folklore around the sun. A Sun Catcher is a metal object that spins in the wind capturing the sunlight and creating colourful patterns. There are also many myths and folklore tales about how the sun was once captured, and either fixed in its proper sphere or else made to stand still in the sky. Other tales explore the idea of capturing the sun and bringing it down so darkness could prevail. So in my piece Sun Catcher I explore both themes, therefore essentially having two competing musical ideas occurring simultaneously in parts of the piece. The first is serene and expressive exploring shimmering light and colour. The second is a fast, undulating and increasingly agitated music as though the music itself is trying to capture the sun and drag it from the sky. This agitated music gradually infiltrates each instrument's line and captures the serene music from before, holding it hostage on a manic rampage and race to the end of the piece.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

AS: It is really a combination of the two and very dependent on the piece. When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. I often first sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often then not there are shapes and sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates.
            So with my piece Sun Catcher the musical material was created through a combination of me playing my flute, dabbling on clarinet and the rest at the piano.

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

AS: It’s certainly extremely useful to know the performers when writing. I certainly believe it can change the way you approach a piece when you know their style of playing and their personality as this of course alters the music you write as you compose with this in your mind’s ear. I hadn’t previously met the Atéa quintet before writing Sun Catcher for them, but before I began writing I did the next best thing and listened to the recordings of them playing on their website. This gave me some idea of their playing styles and personalities and will certainly have fed itself subconsciously into my composition process.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

AS: My soundworld I feel can really shift from piece to piece, but I generally strive to be highly expressionistic and sometimes lyrical in my music.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

AS: Composing is something I have always felt a need to do. It is my internal desire to communicate and express something of myself and my impression of the world.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

AS: Helen Grime, her music really speaks to me. I find her fluid gestural language and skill of orchestration to create changing timbral colours in her music fascinating.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

AS: Messiaen, because I find the way he uses colour in his works and talks about colour and his music fascinating, so I would want to find out more!

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

AS: This is such a tricky one as I feel this could easily change from week to week! At the moment I would pick  
Helen Grime Into a Cold Spring
Stravinsky The Firebird
Kaija Saariaho – Orion for large orchestra
Thomas Adés – Concentric Paths – violin concerto
Judith Weir – Piano Trio Two
Elliot Carter – Triple duo
Amy Beach – Romance for violin and piano
Messiaen – Quartet for the end of time for string quartet
…and out of those I think I would have to pick the Firebird for its pure drama!

SC: …and a book?:

AS: Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy

SC: …a film?

AS: I’m going to pick a TV series instead – Black Mirror

SC: … and a luxury item?


AS: My own piano to compose on

Friday, 2 February 2018

Bowie Berlin and Beyond


 I first heard of David Bowie almost as soon as I first got into rock music in the early 70’s. In those days I only knew his singles such as Drive-in Saturday, The Laughing Gnome, Sorrow, Diamond Dogs and Knock on Wood. On the basis of these, he seemed all over the place!

A few years later, I got to know a small group of Bowie nuts who were centered around a charismatic character who called himself Ziggy Heroe. Ziggy was quite something. He walked, talked, dressed and acted like Bowie. It was remarkable. He did good gigs too in which he performed Bowie’s songs and, in due course, started to introduce his own material which was impressive enough.

Anyhow, it was through Ziggy and his friends that I first heard Bowie’s albums and these totally changed my view of him. In particular the extended electronic instrumental tone poems he wrote – partly with Eno – during his Berlin period made a very strong impression on me. As a 15 year old I had never heard anything like these before. I wanted more.

I started by following up on Eno himself– as well as his own ambient albums, he had also persuaded his record company to let him set up his own label – Obscure Records – and this he devoted largely to the English experimental school. It released recordings of works by Bryars, Nyman, John White, John Cage and John Adams amongst others. Bowie and Eno had also drawn on the German Krautrock scene and I followed that up too. A name that kept on coming up was Stockhausen .  .  .

I won’t go on. Suffice to say, for me this was the gateway into contemporary classical music. Cut to many years later and I am running a small contemporary music festival in Lincolnshire – the Grimsby St Hughs Festival. It occurred to me that if Bowie and Eno’s Berlin work could act as a gateway for me, maybe it could do so for others too. I got in touch with the Deltas and asked them to do a concert of some arrangements I had done of some of Bowie’s instrumentals from his album Low alongside music by Glass, Nyman and Bryars. It was a great concert – the large audience loved the Bowie inspired mix of music which the Deltas embraced brilliantly. We seemed to be onto something. The Deltas themselves then picked up the baton, doing further work and commissioning further arrangements from others. The end result is the March 2018 Late Music Concert by the Deltas. This concert will also be the launch of their CD – Bowie, Berlin and Beyond on Trevor Taylor’s eclectic FMR label – a label which very much mirrors the ethos of Eno’s Obscure Records. We seem to have come full circle.

As for Ziggy, he was never to have a hit of his own but he did get his own deserved slice of immortality in the late 1990’s when Harland Miller made him the central character of his novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty. It is an evocative book that accurately captures Ziggy in particular and the York late 1970’s rock scene in general. Well worth checking out.


David Power.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Composer of the month: Errollyn Wallen

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?

Errollyn Wallen: I was born in Belize a came to England when I was two. I grew up in London and was educated in Tottenham, London, before going to a boarding school in Sussex.  I studied dance seriously and spent some time at the Dance Theater of Harlem before going to Goldsmiths’ to read music. I did a Masters in Composition at King’s College, London and an M. Phil at King’s College, Cambridge. Before becoming a full-time composer I worked as a keyboard player with various bands, ran my own recording studio and was tap dancing musical hostess/composer on a tv game show including Anthony H Wilson and Caroline Aherne.

SC: Can you describe your new work to us?

EW: The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a setting of Langston Hughes’ poem of that name. I remember that starting The Negro Speaks of Rivers came easily, as the vivid imagery of the poem is so inspiring. I have drawn on a variety of techniques and textures, all imbued with the language of the blues. I was guided by the knowledge that Langston Hughes’ own work was imbued with folk and jazz rhythms.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

EW: I work in a variety of ways. Some works start at the piano and some start away from it. I am always thinking about music so pre-planning and problem solving are going on all the time in my subconscious. I always use the piano to check every note; for me, every note in a work has to earn its place.

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

EW: It is very important to know who I am composing for so that I have their sound in my mind. Atmosphere in music can be created in many ways and the sound of voices are uniquely expressive. It was most important for me to hear The Ebor Singers before I composed The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

EW: I am not very good at describing my music but the attitude behind it is that I want the listener to feel what I feel and to hear what I hear and to come along on a marvellous adventure with me.

SC: What motivates you to compose?

EW: Composing is and has always been part of my physiology. As a little girl I composed before I knew what composing was. Composing is my default mode.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

EW: This is a very rich time in composing with composers working in a multitude of ways. There is a greater sense of freedom than when I was studying — which is healthy and to be encouraged.
I am great friends and admirers of Joe Cutler, Andrew Poppy, Jonathan Cole and  Charles Amirkhanian. Through Charles I met Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros who have utterly original ways of looking at the world. I miss Pauline — she died last year.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

EW: I would love to have a whiskey with Stravinsky! Evidently he said, “My God, so much I like to drink Scotch that sometimes I think my name is Igor Stra-whiskey.” I would like to talk with Stravinsky about life. He was such a hustler.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

EW: Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, 48 Preludes and Fugues (which I play at the piano most days), Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ella Fitzgerald singing anything, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Ravel’s String Quartet, Puccini’s Tosca, Earth Wind and Fire’s rendition of Gotta Get You Into my Life. I will never ever get bored of the 48, so that has to be my ultimate selection.

SC: …and a book?

EW: That is almost too tough. However, I would like to take the time to re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Latin and English.

SC: …a film?

EW: Am I allowed the boxed set of The Sopranos..? A TV series that is truly Shakespearian in its scope.

SC: … and a luxury item?


EW: A Steinway grand piano, Model D.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Composer of the month: Nicola LeFanu

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?

Nicola LeFanu:  I was born in Essex, but I am not a typical ‘Essex girl’ because my parents were both Irish. My father was a librarian (there are a lot of literary LeFanus) and my mother was the composer Elizabeth Maconchy.

SC: Can you describe String Quartet no4. to us? 

NL:  String Quartet no4 is pretty short – about nine minutes – but its economy makes it quite intense. I wrote it in June in the high Pyrenees and I really enjoyed composing it! It was inspired by a poem by the Russian Andrei Voznesensky – ‘with the open eyes of their dead fathers/towards other worlds they gaze ahead/children who..’

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

NL: I write at the piano and/or my desk; then I go to the computer and there is a revising and editing stage as I put the piece into Finale. Yes, I do pre-plan, though with luck the music takes over and shapes the plan anew.

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

NL: I always prefer to know who will be performing and write for them – character and sound; and also where – the audience and the acoustic for the premiere concert make a difference; though it is always the hope (and usually the case!) that the new work will be performed many times and in many places.
I have known the Bingham string quartet since the nineteen eighties, when they recorded four of the Maconchy quartets for CD.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

NL: I usually say ‘lyrical and dramatic’, but I don’t know if that is helpful…

SC: What motivates you to compose?

NL: I always want to… it is what I like doing best, even though it can be maddening, elusive..and always hard work. But always worth it.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

NL: I probably have most in common with the New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead; not least, we share an addiction to composing opera. But as to British living composers, I still admire Birtwistle very much and there are a number of younger composers whose music I like, and try and keep up with.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

NL: Holst, because my father said talking to Holst made you feel more alive.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

NL: Living composers is too difficult to choose, though that’s what I listen to most..
For composers from the past, the list might change a bit day to day, but right now, it is:
Bach – Goldberg Variations; Mozart – The Marriage of Figaro; Beethoven - Csharp minor string quartet op131; Schubert – Quintet in C for strings; Schumann  - Dichterliebe (or Liederkreis!); Janacek – Katya Kabanova; Stravinsky – Petrushka; Maconchy – The Land , suite for orchestra.
Stravinsky – Petrushka is the one.

SC: …and a book?

NL: Thackeray, Vanity Fair

SC: …a film?

NL: a Buster Keaton  - could be ‘The General’ but I do love ‘Neighbours’.

SC: … and a luxury item?


NL: Black chocolates

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Composer of the Month: Christopher Fox



Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background?
Christopher Fox: I was born in York, just off Holgate Hill, but the time I wrote these songs I was living in Berlin.

SC: Can you describe A-N-N-A Blossom Time to us?
CF: It’s a set of nine songs to poems by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. I translated the poems into English, sometimes quite freely.

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
CF: With these songs I remember choosing the poems I liked the most, favouring the ones which seemed to tell stories or were love songs. I had worked out some years earlier, from a long study of Schubert’s songs, that the best way to write songs was to start with the accompaniment – that’s what gives each song its character.

SC:
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
CF: Always, and especially with singers. I wrote A-N-N-A Blossom Time for Amanda Crawley whose voice I had first heard in 1974. By the time I wrote these songs we had been married for nearly ten years, so I knew her voice very well. The piano part was written around my own rather less developed technique.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
CF: I don’t think I can because I’ve never tried to cultivate one.

SC: What motivates you to compose?
CF: I want to change the world, just a bit.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
CF: Many – but of younger composers I really admire Cassandra Miller, Egidija Medeksaite, Linda Buckley, Georgia Rodgers, Juliana Hodkinson.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
CF: Stravinsky. My musical hero.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
CF: Cage, String Quartet in Four Parts; The Slits, ‘In the beginning was rhythm’; Joni Mitchell, ‘A case of you’; Handel, Semele; Tallis, Lamentations; Stravinsky, Apollo; Mozart, Serenade in B flat for thirteen instruments; Scelsi, Kya. I’d pick the Handel because it’s the one I can remember least well.

SC: …and a book?
CF: Emma.

SC: …a film?
CF: Himmel über Berlin

SC: … and a luxury item?
CF: A cricket ball.